Classical element  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Many ancient philosophies used a set of archetypal classical elements to explain patterns in nature. In this context, the word element refers to a substance that is either a chemical compound or a mixture of chemical compounds (as in the Chinese Five Phases), rather than a chemical element of modern physical science.

The Greek Classical Elements (Earth, Water, Air, Fire, and Aether) date from pre-Socratic times and persisted throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, deeply influencing European thought and culture. The concept of essentially the same five elements were similarly found in ancient India, where they 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 to describe that which was beyond the material world (non-matter). 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.

The modern, scientific states of matter, and also (to a lesser extent) the periodic table of elements and the concept of combustion (fire), can be considered successors of such early models.

By contrast the Chinese had a somewhat different series of elements, namely Fire, Earth, Water, Metal and Wood, which were understood as different types of energy in a state of constant interaction and flux with one another, rather than the Western notion of different kinds of material.


The ancient Greek belief in five basic elements, these being earth (γῆ ge), water (ὕδωρ hudor), air (ἀήρ aer), fire (πῦρ pur) and aether (αἰθήρ 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. 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. Anaximander argued that the primordial substance was not any of the known substances, but could be transformed into them, and they into each other. Empedocles was the first to propose four elements, fire, earth, air, and water. He called them the four "roots" (ῥιζὤματα, rhizōmata).

Plato seems to have been the first to use the term "element (στοιχεῖον, stoicheion)" in reference to air, fire, earth, and water. 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.

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

  • Fire is primarily hot and secondarily dry.
  • Air is primarily wet and secondarily hot.
  • Water is primarily cold and secondarily wet.
  • Earth is primarily dry and secondarily cold.

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.

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:

Fire Sharp Subtle Mobile
Air Blunt Subtle Mobile
Water Blunt Dense Mobile
Earth Blunt Dense Immobile

Medieval alchemy

The elemental system used in Medieval alchemy was developed primarily by the Persian alchemist Jābir ibn Hayyān and rooted in the classical elements of Greek tradition. His system consisted of the four Aristotelian 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 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).

See also

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