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The Flowering of Environmental Roots and the Four Elements in Presocratic Philosophy: From Empedocles to Deleuze and Guattari

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image of Worldviews: Global Religions, Culture, and Ecology

I examine the Presocratic thinker Empedocles' philosophical, poetic and religious works—Peri Phuseous (On Nature) and Katharmoi (Purifications)—in terms of their orientations, attitudes and sensibilities toward the natural environment. Through the development of an ethical and material framework centered upon the four rhizomata (roots or elements) of earth, fire, air and water, Empedocles provides an early but important understanding of ideas and issues that remain ecologically relevant today, including conceptions of pollution, the treatment of nonhuman animals, descriptions of organic processes, and the speculative underpinnings of evolutionary theory. I suggest that we can reasonably view Empedocles as kind of shaman-naturalist who is keenly aware of and empathetic with the workings of the physical world even if he is not strictly an "ancient environmentalist". Finally, I point to the post-structuralist work of Deleuze and Guattari, where we can find a critical exploration of the kind of "roots" Empedocles identifies and a defense of the notion of "rhizomes" that enables us both to observe continuities with the Presocratic philosopher and to make creative or constructive links with our modern environment.


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