by Julian Tepfers

“I will tell a two-fold story. At one time they grew to be one alone from being many, and at another they grew apart again to be many from being one.”

—Empedocles (166)

Our world is fractured into many. Nation states have been torn apart from greater unified entities and have lost sight of any shared political consciousness. Existential threats like global warming and nuclear war, however, force the world’s nation states to overcome these challenges united. The times call for another attempt at a shared political consciousness transcending the borders of the nation state.

Whether or not the world’s many pieces can become one is not a new question. It is a pre-Socratic question. For those wondering why “we are still occupied with the same philosophical problems as were the Greeks,” Wittgenstein wrote in 1931 that, “It is because our language has remained the same and keeps seducing us into asking the same questions” (15e). Since our language has remained the same, and the question is the same, I will examine this most contemporary problem through the pre-Socratic theory that first allowed for an interplay between the one and the many. The theory is that of Empedocles’s Love and Strife. These two cosmic forces see the “coming together by Love all into one” and “all being carried apart by the hatred of Strife” (166). These forces “are all equal and of the same age [. . .] and in turn they come to power as time revolves” (166). Now, Strife accounts for our reality, and Love for our ideal. But that can change.

Love is possible. Strife, however, will always loom in the background. Since it is language that causes the continuous recurrence of this philosophical problem, I propose that language is also where we can find the solution. Nevertheless, having achieved Love through language, we must abandon it entirely so as not to be seduced into asking the same question once more and fall victim to Strife.

We can achieve a unified political consciousness, but the possibility of it fracturing into a myriad of disunited polities again is ever-present. I will therefore examine two attempts at such a shared political consciousness: Christianity and Communism. Language is key to both. I am interested in seeing where these previous attempts went right, but more importantly, where they went wrong.

The first attempt that I will examine is Christianity. It is a religion of Love and therefore perfectly suited for scrutiny within the Empedoclean theory. Language is at its core because scripture is Christianity’s essence. Moreover, it is in the language of the Christian Church that we find its ambition of a unified consciousness – it “termed itself ‘catholic:’ ‘universal’” (xxiii). Christianity was such a successful force of Love that even “as the tide of Western dominance palpably retreats, assumptions bred of Europe’s ancestral faith continue to structure the way that the world organizes itself” (xxiv, my emphasis). The shared language of Christianity has permeated the world’s political consciousness. Nevertheless, it is here that Strife also shows its face. Strife looms large in the interpretation of the Christian scripture. Even in the foundational period of St Augustine, “the principal resistance to the Church came not from the older pagan cults,” it came “from such Christian heresies as Arianism” (4, my emphasis). The source of Christianity’s Strife that tore it apart into different doctrines, sects, and cults came from the exact same source as its universal Love.

If a religion founded on Love cannot sustain unity, I will turn to an ideology set on abolishing class Strife. Communism, of course, had equally universal aims. Marx claims that the basis of political revolution is when “a section of civil society emancipates itself and achieves universal dominance” (66-67). Again, the ambition of a universal political consciousness is to be found in language. What I will pay special attention to, however, is the effort to put these words into practice by example of the Soviet Union. In this case, although the ideology was universal, not everyone shared in this language. The unified political consciousness was maintained by “first and foremost, a minority dictatorship” (20). When that dictatorship lost its sway, “The end of the Soviet empire and of the Cold War promoted the proliferation and rejuvenation of languages which had been suppressed or forgotten” (64). People wanted to articulate different ideas differently. No amount of linguistic universalism could have changed that.

Christianity succeeded in permeating the Western mind and beyond yet failed to consolidate its many inner voices. Communism could claim almost half of the Cold War world yet failed to eradicate the outer voices it subdued. In Marxist terms, both had their “spiritual weapons” (69). in a philosophy of Love. Yet when that philosophy attempted to find itsmaterial weapons” (69) in the masses, the language of Love inevitably gave way to Strife.

The explanation is that there are no masses. “[T]here’s no such thing as society” said Margaret Thatcher, “There are individual men and women and there are families.” Where Christianity and Communism failed was in aligning the multitude of individual ideals with their overarching ideology. The very presence of unaligned voices means that Love can never be secure. Strife lurks in the unsilenced. Interestingly, Hobbes touched upon the same. “The only way to erect such a common power [. . .] is, to confer all their power and strength upon one man, or upon one assembly of men, that may reduce all their wills, by plurality of voices, unto one will” (Chapter 17, my emphasis). Any plurality of voices unaligned with the unified political consciousness must be reduced to one. Or silenced to none.

Language is therefore integral to both of Empedocles’s cosmic forces, capable of both uniting and fracturing. Such dualism of meaning and purpose can be found throughout language, across civilizations. For example, “In Chinese the same word means both ‘wall’ and ‘city’” (33). This illustrates how language can have both a unifying inner meaning of Love, as in “city,” and an exclusionary outer meaning of Strife, as in “wall.” The same is true with the Germanic word Borg, meaning both “fortified place” and “town” (33). The most interesting example of such dualism, however, is in the Greek word stasis. Originally it means “station” and should “have an equally neutral sense when used in a political context,” nevertheless, it “immediately takes on the nastiest overtones” (6). This initially neutral word came in ancient Greece to mean “civil war” (6). The language used to achieve a shared political consciousness within a “city,” “Borg,” or “station,” immediately faces the risk of undermining the Love it initially stood for with a new meaning of Strife.

The role of language in fracturing such a whole is perfectly illustrated in the Aitareya Upanisad. Here “Purusa,” the first man, “seems to be an amorphous mass” (31), resembling Empedocles’s state of absolute Love – “a divine and homogenous Sphere” (165). Interestingly, when Purusa comes under strain due to heat and fractures, the first thing to separate itself is the mouth (31). As the story goes, “From the mouth, there was speech; from speech, fire” (31-32). Given their close similarities, if we combine this story with that of Empedocles, we get an image of speech being the first sign of Strife. Speech spreads fire, and heat tears this absolute state of Love apart. But this is not all. If we reverse the story of Purusa’s dissolution from one mass to many individual features, as is our objective, we find that the mouth is the last piece to be reabsorbed into the whole. Speech is the final step to Love.

A shared political consciousness has been possible to create in the past. Holding fast to it is where all attempts have failed. Machiavelli writes that “The nature of the people is variable, and whilst it is easy to persuade them, it is difficult to fix them in that persuasion.” Fixing the people in what one has made them believe is key to holding that shared political consciousness together. The question is how.

Language has been the tool to achieve Love, but also Strife. Therefore, it must be removed altoghether for the unity it brought to be preserved. An ideal state brought about by words must be protected by something other than words. Wittgenstein captures this brilliantly when he writes that “you must recognize my sentences­ – once you have climbed out through them, on them, over them – as senseless. (You must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after you have climbed up on it)” (49). Throwing away the ladder of language is what prevents the voices of Strife from making the same ascent as the shared consciousness of Love.

Since it is a shared political consciousness that we are trying to achieve, it is worth reflecting on how “the equation of politics with linguistic agency is pervasive” (44, my emphasis). A lack of linguistic agency has been key to excluding animals from politics, but that “has often gone hand-in-hand with the exclusion of humans perceived as deficient in linguistic agency” (44). The removal of linguistic agency is what excludes unwanted voices from a political consciousness. It can be achieved by the way of Laughter.

It is by laughing together that the ideal unity can be maintained. Nevertheless, Laughter is not an innocent force. Henri Bergson states that “Laughter is, above all, a corrective.” Correcting the voices that fall out of line with the shared political consciousness is precisely what is needed, and “By laughter, society avenges itself for the liberties taken with it.” It seems innocent. It functions as a unifier. However, in reality, Laughter is “a social gesture that singles out and represses a special kind of absentmindedness in men and events.”

Therefore, Laughter is the non-rational, non-linguistic response that ensures a unified political consciousness. Furthermore, we also “laugh every time a person gives us the impression of being a thing.” Laughter removes linguistic agency, reduces the human to the non-human, which provokes more laughter. The result is a laughing circle, consolidating Love into that Empedoclean perfect Sphere. The shared political consciousness is then finally safe from Strife.

Laughter can be employed as the innocent tool of unity while simultaneously being the weapon that corrects any fracturing of the whole. It is the “unjust person who is believed to be just” (1567). As such, Laughter can reduce the polyphony of unwanted voices to one. By laughing away all linguistic agency we reach the silent state of absolute Love. Qui tacet consentire videtur – “he who is silent seems to consent” (Oxford Reference 2023).

Thus, Empedocles’ two-fold story is concluded. It was language that prompted the question of the one and the many once more, this time in the form of a shared political consciousness. Language is also the key to the unified one and to the fractured many. It can produce absolute Love, but also total Strife. Language must therefore be abandoned to escape the Empedoclean cycle of one overtaking the other. We can all agree that the cycle must end on Love. It is such a unified political consciousness that allows us to face our existential threats and emerge victorious as a singular entity. Language can unite us once more. But only Laughter can keep us together.

Julian Tepfers is a MLitt student in Global Social and Political Thought at the University of St Andrews. His background is in Creative Writing from Kristiania University College, Norway, and in Creativity Theory from the University of Cambridge. He is interested in interdisciplinarity and seeks to bring theories from different fields together in his work, often through a philosophical lens, and always with a creative angle.

Edited by Artur Banaszewski

Featured Image: Arnaldo Pomodoro, “Sphere Within Sphere,” at Trinity College Dublin, via Wikimedia Commons (2018).