Aristotelian elements and qualities

Empedoclean elements

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Segment of the macrocosm showing the elemental spheres of terra (earth), aqua (water), aer (air), and ignis (fire), Robert Fludd, 1617

Classical elements typically refer to the pre-scientific concepts in Ancient Greece, of earth, water, air, fire, and aether, which were proposed to explain the nature and complexity of all matter in terms of simpler substances. [1][2]

Ancient cultures in Egypt, Babylonia, Japan, Tibet, and India had similar lists, sometimes referring in local languages to “air” as “wind” and the fifth element as “void”. The Chinese Wu Xing system lists Wood (木 mù), Fire (火 huǒ), Earth (土 tǔ), Metal (金 jīn), and Water (水 shuǐ), though these are described more as energies or transitions than as types of material.

These different cultures and even individual philosophers had widely varying explanations concerning their attributes and how they related to observable phenomena as well as cosmology. Sometimes these theories overlapped with mythology and were personified in deities. Some of these interpretations included atomism (the idea of very small, indivisible portions of matter) but other interpretations considered the elements to be divisible into infinitely small pieces without changing their nature.

While the classification of the material world by the ancient Indians and Greeks into Air, Earth, Fire and Water was more philosophical, during the Islamic Golden Age medieval middle eastern scientists used practical, experimental observation to classify materials. [3] In Europe, the Ancient Greek system of Aristotle evolved slightly into the medieval system, which for the first time in Europe became subject to experimental verification in the 1600s, during the Scientific Revolution.

Centuries of empirical investigation have proven that all the ancient systems were incorrect explanations of the physical world. It is now known that atomic theory is a correct explanation, and that atoms can be classified into more than a hundred chemical elements such as oxygen, iron, and mercury. These elements form chemical compounds and mixtures, and under different temperatures and pressures, these substances can adopt different states of matter. The most commonly observed states of solid, liquid, gas, and plasma share many attributes with the classical elements of earth, water, air, and fire, respectively, but it is now known that these states are due to similar behavior of different types of atoms at similar energy levels, and not due to containing a certain type of atom or a certain type of infinitely divisible substance or energy.

In classical thought, the four elements earth, water, air, and fire as proposed by Empedocles frequently occur; Aristotle added a fifth element or quintessence (after “quint” meaning “fifth”) called aether in Ancient Greece, and akasha in India. The concept of the five elements formed a basis of analysis in both Hinduism and Buddhism. In Hinduism, particularly in an esoteric context, the four states-of-matter describe matter, and a fifth element describes that which was beyond the material world. Similar lists existed in ancient China and Japan. In Buddhism the four great elements, to which two others are sometimes added, are not viewed as substances, but as categories of sensory experience.

A Greek text called the Kore Kosmou (“Virgin of the World”) ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus (the name given by the Greeks to the Egyptian god Thoth), names the four elements fire, water, air, and earth. As described in this book:

According to Galen, these elements were used by Hippocrates in describing the human body with an association with the four humours: yellow bile (fire), black bile (earth), blood (air), and phlegm (water). [citation needed]

In Babylonian mythology, the cosmogony called Enûma Eliš, a text written between the 18th and 16th centuries BC, involves four gods that we might see as personified cosmic elements: sea, earth, sky, wind. In other Babylonian texts these phenomena are considered independent of their association with deities, [4] though they are not treated as the component elements of the universe, as later in Empedocles.

The ancient Greek belief in five basic elements, these being earth (γ ge), water ( δωρ hudor), air ( ήρ aer), fire (π ρ pur) and aether (α θήρ aither), dates from pre-Socratic times and persisted throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, deeply influencing European thought and culture. These five elements are sometimes associated with the five platonic solids.

Sicilian philosopher Empedocles (ca. 450 BC) proved (at least to his satisfaction) that air was a separate substance by observing that a bucket inverted in water did not become filled with water, a pocket of air remaining trapped inside. [15] Prior to Empodocles, Greek philosophers had debated which substance was the primordial element from which everything else was made; Heraclitus championed fire, Thales supported water, and Anaximenes plumped for air. [16] Anaximander argued that the primordial substance was not any of the known substances, but could be transformed into them, and they into each other. [17] Empedocles was the first to propose four elements, fire, earth, air, and water. [18] He called them the four “roots” ( ιζ ματα, rhizōmata).

Plato seems to have been the first to use the term “element (στοιχε ον, stoicheion)” in reference to air, fire, earth, and water. [19] The ancient Greek word for element, stoicheion (from stoicheo, “to line up”) meant “smallest division (of a sun-dial), a syllable”, as the composing unit of an alphabet it could denote a letter and the smallest unit from which a word is formed. A similar alphabetic metaphor may be the origin of the equivalent Latin word elementum (from which the English word comes), possibly based on the names of the letters ‘l’, ‘m’, and ‘n’, though the validity of this idea is debated. [20]

In his On Generation and Corruption, [21][22] Aristotle related each of the four elements to two of the four sensible qualities:

Fire is both hot and dry.

Air is both hot and wet (for air is like vapor, τμ ς).

Water is both cold and wet.

Earth is both cold and dry.

One classic diagram (above) has one square inscribed in the other, with the corners of one being the classical elements, and the corners of the other being the properties. The opposite corner is the opposite of these properties, “hot – cold” and “dry – wet”.

Aristotle added a fifth element, aether, as the quintessence, reasoning that whereas fire, earth, air, and water were earthly and corruptible, since no changes had been perceived in the heavenly regions, the stars cannot be made out of any of the four elements but must be made of a different, unchangeable, heavenly substance. [23]

The Neoplatonic philosopher, Proclus, rejected Aristotle’s theory relating the elements to the sensible qualities hot, cold, wet, and dry. He maintained that each of the elements has three properties. Fire is sharp, subtle, and mobile while its opposite, earth, is blunt, dense, and immobile; they are joined by the intermediate elements, air and water, in the following fashion: [24]

Fire Sharp Subtle Mobile

Air Blunt Subtle Mobile

Water Blunt Dense Mobile

Earth Blunt Dense Immobile

Seventeenth century alchemical emblem showing the four Classical elements in the corners of the image, alongside the tria prima on the central triangle

The elemental system used in Medieval alchemy was developed primarily by the Persian alchemist Jābir ibn Hayyān. [25]

His system consisted of the four classical elements of air, earth, fire, and water, in addition to two philosophical elements: sulphur, characterizing the principle of combustibility, “the stone which burns”; and mercury, characterizing the principle of metallic properties. They were seen by early alchemists as idealized expressions of irreducibile components of the universe [26] and are of larger consideration within philosophical alchemy.

The three metallic principles—sulphur to flammability or combustion, mercury to volatility and stability, and salt to solidity—became the tria prima of the Swiss alchemist Paracelsus. He reasoned that Aristotle’s four element theory appeared in bodies as three principles. Paracelsus saw these principles as fundamental and justified them by recourse to the description of how wood burns in fire. Mercury included the cohesive principle, so that when it left in smoke the wood fell apart. Smoke described the volatility (the mercurial principle), the heat-giving flames described flammability (sulphur), and the remnant ash described solidity (salt). [27]

Main articles: Astrology and the classical elements and Divinatory tarot

Western astrology uses the four classical elements in connection with astrological charts and horoscopes. The twelve signs of the zodiac are divided into the four elements: Fire signs are Aries, Leo and Sagittarius, Earth signs are Taurus, Virgo and Capricorn, Air signs are Gemini, Libra and Aquarius, and Water signs are Cancer, Scorpio, and Pisces.

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