Classical element

simple:Classical element

Several ancient Classical Element ideas exist. The Greek version of these ideas persisted throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, deeply influencing European thought and culture.

Table of contents
1 Classical Elements in Greece
2 Classical Elements during the Middle Ages
3 Chinese Classical Elements
4 Influence of the Classic Elements
5 See also

Classical Elements in Greece

The Greek classical elements are fire, air, water, and earth. They represent in Greek philosophy, science, and medicine the possible constituents of the cosmos.

Plato mentions them as of Pre-Socratic origin, a list created by the philosopher Empedocles.

Fire is both hot and dry.
Air is both hot and wet.
Water is both cold and wet.
Earth is both cold and dry.

One classic diagram (right) has two squares on top of each other, with the corners of one being the classical elements, and the corners of the other being the properties.

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

Some cosmologies include a fifth element, the "quintessence." These five elements are sometimes associated with the five platonic solids.

The Pythagoreans added idea as the fifth element, and also used the initial letters of these five elements to name the outer angles of their pentagram.

Aristotle added aether as the quintessence, rationalizing that whereas fire, water, earth, and air were earthly and corruptable, the stars were eternal ("aether" is based on Greek for eternity) and were thus not made out of any of the four elements but rather a heavenly substance. The word aether was revived by early 20th century physicists as a term for the invisible medium which permeated the universe. The non-existence of aether was to lead to the downfall of Newtonian physics and pave the way for Einstein's theories of relativity.

Classical Elements during the Middle Ages

The idea of the classical elements was known during medieval times, and, like much Aristotelian dogma, composed a large part of the medieval world view. The Catholic Church supported the Aristotelian concept of aether because it supported the Christian view of earthly life as impermanant and heaven as eternal. References to the classical elements in medieval literature can be seen in the work of many writers, including Shakespeare:

Thou hast as chiding a nativity
As fire, air, water, earth, and heaven can make,
To herald thee from the womb
-PERICLES, from Pericles Prince of Tyre

The cock, that is the trumpet to the morn,
Doth with his lofty and shrill-sounding throat
Awake the god of day; and, at his warning,
Whether in sea or fire, in earth or air,
The extravagant and erring spirit hies
To his confine
-HORATIO, from Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

Chinese Classical Elements

In Chinese Taoism there is a similar system, which includes metal and wood but excludes air. Different things in nature are associated with the five types. For example, the five major planets were named after the elements: Venus is metal, Jupiter is wood, Mercury is water, Mars is fire and Saturn is earth. Also the Moon represents Yin, the Sun represents Yang. Yin and Yang and the five elements are recurring themes in the I Ching, which is strongly related to Chinese cosmology and astrology. See Chinese five elements.

Some South Asian traditions also include the air, earth, fire, water distinctions.

Influence of the Classic Elements

The modern scientific periodic table of the elements and the understanding of combustion (fire) can be considered successors to such early models.

If one associates the modern term 'Plasma' with fire, the other three elements correspond with the modern concept of 'states of matter', this is to say 'Solid' maps to Earth, 'Liquid' to Water and 'Gas' to Air.

See also


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