Classical elements typically refer to the concepts of earth, water, air, fire, and aether, which were proposed to explain the nature and complexity of all matter in terms of simpler substances. Ancient cultures in Greece, Persia, Babylonia, Japan, Tibet, and India had all similar lists, sometimes referring in local languages to "air" as "wind" and the fifth element as "void". The Chinese Wu Xing system lists Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water, though these are described more as energies or transitions rather 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, but other interpretations considered the elements to be divisible into infinitely small pieces without changing their nature.
While the classification of the material world in ancient Indian, Hellenistic Egypt, and ancient Greece 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. 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.
Modern science does not support the classical elements as the material basis of the physical world. Atomic theory classifies atoms 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 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 substance.
Ancient GreeceIn Western thought, the four elements earth, water, air, and fire as proposed by Empedocles frequently occur. In ancient Greece, discussion of the elements in the context of searching for an arche predated Empedocles by several centuries. For instance, Thales suggested in the 7th century BCE that water was the ultimate underlying substance from which everything is derived; Anaximenes subsequently made a similar claim about air. However, none before Empedocles proposed that matter could ultimately be composed of all four elements in different combinations of one another. Later on, Aristotle added a fifth element to the system, which he called aether.
PersiaThe Persian philosopher Zarathustra, also known as Zoroaster, described the four elements of earth, water, air and fire as “sacred,” i.e., “essential for the survival of all living beings and therefore should be venerated and kept free from any contamination”.
Cosmic elements in BabyloniaIn 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, though they are not treated as the component elements of the universe, as later in Empedocles.
IndiaThe 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. This fifth element has been called akasha in India and quintessence in Europe. Similar lists existed in ancient China, Korea 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.
HinduismThe system of five elements are found in Vedas, especially Ayurveda, the pancha mahabhuta, or “five great elements”, of Hinduism are bhūmi, ap or jala, tejas or agni, marut, vayu or pavan and vyom or shunya or akash. They further suggest that all of creation, including the human body, is made up of these five essential elements and that upon death, the human body dissolves into these five elements of nature, thereby balancing the cycle of nature.
The five elements are associated with the five senses, and act as the gross medium for the experience of sensations. The basest element, earth, created using all the other elements, can be perceived by all five senses — hearing, touch, sight, taste, and smell. The next higher element, water, has no odor but can be heard, felt, seen and tasted. Next comes fire, which can be heard, felt and seen. Air can be heard and felt. “Akasha” is beyond the senses of smell, taste, sight, and touch; it being accessible to the sense of hearing alone.
BuddhismIn the Pali literature, the mahabhuta or catudhatu are earth, water, fire and air. In early Buddhism, the four elements are a basis for understanding suffering and for liberating oneself from suffering. The earliest Buddhist texts explain that the four primary material elements are the sensory qualities solidity, fluidity, temperature, and mobility; their characterization as earth, water, fire, and air, respectively, is declared an abstraction — instead of concentrating on the fact of material existence, one observes how a physical thing is sensed, felt, perceived.
The Buddha’s teaching regarding the four elements is to be understood as the base of all observation of real sensations rather than as a philosophy. The four properties are cohesion, solidity or inertia, expansion or vibration and heat or energy content. He promulgated a categorization of mind and matter as composed of eight types of “kalapas” of which the four elements are primary and a secondary group of four are color, smell, taste, and nutriment which are derivative from the four primaries.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu renders an extract of Shakyamuni Buddha’s from Pali into English thus:
Tibetan Buddhist medical literature speaks of the Panch Mahābhūta.
ChinaThe Chinese had a somewhat different series of elements, namely Fire, Earth, Metal, Water 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.
Although it is usually translated as “element”, the Chinese word xing literally means something like “changing states of being”, “permutations” or “metamorphoses of being”. In fact Sinologists cannot agree on any single translation. The Chinese elements were seen as ever changing and movingone translation of wu xing is simply “the five changes”.
The Wu Xing are chiefly an ancient mnemonic device for systems with five stages; hence the preferred translation of “movements”, “phases” or “steps” over “elements.”
In the bagua, metal is associated with the divination figure 兌 Duì and with 乾 Qián. Wood is associated with 巽 Xùn and with 震 Zhèn. In view of the durability of meteoric iron, metal came to be associated with the aether, which is sometimes conflated with Stoic pneuma, as both terms originally referred to air. In Taoism, qi functions similarly to pneuma in a prime matter that accounts for both biological and inanimate phenomena.
In Chinese philosophy the universe consists of heaven and earth. The five major planets are associated with and even named after the elements: Jupiter 木星 is Wood, Mars 火星 is Fire, Saturn 土星 is Earth, Venus 金星 is Metal, and Mercury 水星 is Water. Also, the Moon represents Yin, and the Sun 太陽 represents Yang. Yin, Yang, and the five elements are associated with themes in the I Ching, the oldest of Chinese classical texts which describes an ancient system of cosmology and philosophy. The five elements also play an important part in Chinese astrology and the Chinese form of geomancy known as Feng shui.
The doctrine of five phases describes two cycles of balance, a generating or creation cycle and an overcoming or destruction cycle of interactions between the phases.
- Wood feeds fire;
- Fire creates earth ;
- Earth bears metal;
- Metal collects water;
- Water nourishes wood.
- Wood parts earth;
- Earth absorbs water;
- Water quenches fire;
- Fire melts metal;
- Metal chops wood.
|Aristotelian elements and qualities|
The ancient Greek concept of four basic elements, these being earth, water, air, and fire, dates from pre-Socratic times and persisted throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, deeply influencing European thought and culture.
and Aristotle illustrated with a burning log. The log releases all four elements as it is destroyed.
Sicilian philosopher Empedocles proved 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 Empedocles, 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”.
Plato seems to have been the first to use the term “element ” in reference to air, fire, earth, and water. The ancient Greek word for element, stoicheion meant “smallest division, 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 On the Heavens, Aristotle defines "element" in general:
In his On Generation and Corruption, 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.
- Water is both cold and wet.
- Earth is both cold and dry.
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. It had previously been believed by pre-Socratics such as Empedocles and Anaxagoras that aether, the name applied to the material of heavenly bodies, was a form of fire. Aristotle himself did not use the term aether for the fifth element, and strongly criticised the pre-Socratics for associating the term with fire. He preferred a number of other terms that indicated eternal movement, thus emphasising the evidence for his discovery of a new element. These five elements have been associated since Plato's Timaeus with the five platonic solids.
A text written in Egypt in Hellenistic or Roman times called the Kore Kosmou ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus, names the four elements fire, water, air, and earth. As described in this book:
And Isis answer made: Of living things, my son, some are made friends with fire, and some with water, some with air, and some with earth, and some with two or three of these, and some with all. And, on the contrary, again some are made enemies of fire, and some of water, some of earth, and some of air, and some of two of them, and some of three, and some of all. For instance, son, the locust and all flies flee fire; the eagle and the hawk and all high-flying birds flee water; fish, air and earth; the snake avoids the open air. Whereas snakes and all creeping things love earth; all swimming things love water; winged things, air, of which they are the citizens; while those that fly still higher love the fire and have the habitat near it. Not that some of the animals as well do not love fire; for instance salamanders, for they even have their homes in it. It is because one or another of the elements doth form their bodies’ outer envelope. Each soul, accordingly, while it is in its body is weighted and constricted by these four.
According to Galen, these elements were used by Hippocrates in describing the human body with an association with the four humours: yellow bile, black bile, blood, and phlegm. Medical care was primarily about helping the patient stay in or return to his/her own personal natural balanced state.
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:
TibetIn Bön or ancient Tibetan philosophy, the five elemental processes of earth, water, fire, air and space are the essential materials of all existent phenomena or aggregates. The elemental processes form the basis of the calendar, astrology, medicine, psychology and are the foundation of the spiritual traditions of shamanism, tantra and Dzogchen.
Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche states that
The names of the elements are analogous to categorised experiential sensations of the natural world. The names are symbolic and key to their inherent qualities and/or modes of action by analogy. In Bön the elemental processes are fundamental metaphors for working with external, internal and secret energetic forces. All five elemental processes in their essential purity are inherent in the mindstream and link the trikaya and are aspects of primordial energy. As Herbert V. Günther states:
In the above block quote the trikaya is encoded as: dharmakaya “god”; sambhogakaya “temple” and nirmanakaya “house”.
AlchemyThe elemental system used in Medieval alchemy was developed primarily by the Arab alchemist Jābir ibn Hayyān. 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 irreducible 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 heat-giving flames described flammability, and the remnant ash described solidity.
IslamicThe Islamic philosophers al-Kindi, Avicenna and Fakhr al-Din al-Razi connected the four elements with the four natures heat and cold, and dryness and moisture.
Japanese traditions use a set of elements called the 五大. These five are earth, water, fire, wind/air, and void. These came from Indian Vastu shastra philosophy and Buddhist beliefs; in addition, the classical Chinese elements are also prominent in Japanese culture, especially to the influential Neo-Confucianists during the medieval Edo period.
- Earth represented things that were solid.
- Water represented things that were liquid.
- Fire represented things that destroy.
- Air represented things that moved.
- Void or Sky/Heaven represented things not of our everyday life.
Chemical elementThe Aristotelian tradition and medieval alchemy eventually gave rise to modern chemistry, scientific theories and new taxonomies. By the time of Antoine Lavoisier, for example, a list of elements would no longer refer to classical elements. Some modern scientists see a parallel between the classical elements and the four states of matter: solid, liquid, gas and weakly ionized plasma.
Modern science recognizes classes of elementary particles which have no substructure and composite particles having substructure.