The person credited with first theorizing that everything comes from air, water, earth and fire is Empedocles of Acragas. In the 5th century BCE, Empedocles wrote two works in verse: “On Nature” and “Purifications”. The complete poems did not survive intact. Scholars work with fragments of these poems and also references to the theory from other sources.
“Elements” is a term that wasn’t in use yet at the time of Empedocles. It was introduced later by Plato.
The verses of “On Nature” reference gods instead of the elements themselves and there is some debate about which god is which element, but it is agreed that the poem referred to air, water, earth and fire as the roots to everything. These roots are moved by two opposing forces, Love and Strife.
Twofold is what I shall say: for at one time they grew to be only one
Out of many, at another time again they separate to be many out of one.
And double is the birth of mortal things, double their death.
For the one is both born and destroyed by the coming together of all things,
While the other inversely, when they are separated, is nourished and flies apart.
And these incessantly exchange their places continually,
Sometimes by Love all coming together into one,
Sometimes again each one carried off by the hatred of Strife.
And inversely, the one separating again, they end up being many,
To that extent they become, and they do not have a steadfast lifetime;
But insofar as they incessantly exchange their places continually,
To that extent they always are, immobile in a circle.
The roots are everything. The poem goes on to say that they are equal, but each has their own character. It also says they dominate by turns as time goes on. So things do change as these roots come together and separate in different ways, but each time is “continually similar” because the roots are the same and unchanging.
Love pulls everything into one. Love causes the separate elements to attract to each other despite their different qualities. At an extreme domination of Love, the roots are completely intermingled and indistinguishable. This is also called the Sphere. It’s immobile and pulled together, like Cold.
Strife causes the roots to repel one another. They separate to be many out of one. When Strife dominates, the roots are separated and identifiable as air, water, earth and fire. So, they are not separated due to their incompatible qualities, they are separated due to the force of Strife. At an extreme domination of Strife, the world is destroyed in a Whirl. It is complete separation and activity, like Hot.
The forces of Love and Strife wax and wane, always in contention. In the article about Stoicism, it says this about the elements:
The first things to develop from the conflagration are the elements. Of the four elements, the Stoics identify two as active (fire and air) and two as passive (water and earth). The active elements, or at least the principles of hot and cold, combine to form breath or pneuma. Pneuma, in turn, is the ‘sustaining cause’ of all existing bodies and guides the growth and development of animate bodies.
In this description, the Fire is Hot and the Air is Cold. They are the active elements. Aristotle describes this theory of their action in the following way ‘it is the nature of the hot to dissociate, of the cold to bring together, and of each remaining contrary either to act or to suffer action’,
The description of Stoicism also introduces the idea of Pneuma or breath. Like Love and Strife, the Pneuma has simultaneous movement inward and outward.
Pneuma passes through all bodies; in its outward motion it gives them the qualities that they have, and in its inward motion makes them unified objects
Elements attract and repel one another in different parts of the cycle. When the roots are separated into distinguishable elements and parts of our world, they arrange themselves in the following way:
the mass of earth is at the center; water more or less surrounds the earth. Air forms the next layer. From fire at the periphery, the sun comes to be as a distinct entity. This geocentric formation is what the ancients usually recognized to be our cosmos.
I can’t find more to link roots or elements to qualities, but Chris Brennan writes about in “Hellenistic Astrology: The Study of Fate and Fortune. The book summarizes the writings of 2nd century astrologer Valens as:
fire and air intermingle with each other since they rise upwards, and in the process of doing so, fire which is hot, is supported by the more mild temperature of the air, which is cold, while at the same time, air is warmed up by the heat of the fire, so it doesn’t become overly cold or frigid.
Similarly, Valens says, that the earth, which is dry, is nourished by the moisture of water, which allows the earth to make things grow, while water itself is born from and contained by the earth.
The idea is that the blending of the elements makes each more temperate, less extreme. The opposites complement each other and also move in the same direction.
It is interesting that these opposites in qualities are also the elements that are opposite signs on the zodiac wheel.
Fire is Hot
Air is Cold
Water is Wet
Earth is Dry
When we study the polarity of the opposite signs, there is a common theme but with two extremes. We can identify with one sign or the other, but when we see the need to work on this area, we generally look to the other side of the chart to try to figure out how to find balance. This matches with the ideas of temperance in ancient philosophy.
It is hard to find more sources for this theory of the qualities of the elements today.
Plato describes the Creation of the elements in “Timaeus”.
Now that which is created is of necessity corporeal, and also visible and tangible. And nothing is visible where there is no fire, or tangible which has no solidity, and nothing is solid without earth. Wherefore also God in the beginning of creation made the body of the universe to consist of fire and earth. But two things cannot be rightly put together without a third; there must be some bond of union between them. And the fairest bond is that which makes the most complete fusion of itself and the things which it combines; and proportion is best adapted to effect such a union. For whenever in any three numbers, whether cube or square, there is a mean, which is to the last term what the first term is to it; and again, when the mean is to the first term as the last term is to the mean-then the mean becoming first and last, and the first and last both becoming means, they will all of them of necessity come to be the same, and having become the same with one another will be all one. If the universal frame had been created a surface only and having no depth, a single mean would have sufficed to bind together itself and the other terms; but now, as the world must be solid, and solid bodies are always compacted not by one mean but by two, God placed water and air in the mean between fire and earth, and made them to have the same proportion so far as was possible (as fire is to air so is air to water, and as air is to water so is water to earth); and thus he bound and put together a visible and tangible heaven. And for these reasons, and out of such elements which are in number four, the body of the world was created, and it was harmonised by proportion, and therefore has the spirit of friendship; and having been reconciled to itself, it was indissoluble by the hand of any other than the framer.
In this conception, Fire and light are the opposite of the solid Earth. Air and water are the intermediaries. We are also introduced to the relationships that connect them. The order is the same as the order in the Stoic theory description. (Fire => Air => Water => Earth)
After describing more of creation, Plato discusses the ways that the elements transform into one another.
In the first place, we see that what we just now called water, by condensation, I suppose, becomes stone and earth; and this same element, when melted and dispersed, passes into vapour and air. Air, again, when inflamed, becomes fire; and again fire, when condensed and extinguished, passes once more into the form of air; and once more, air, when collected and condensed, produces cloud and mist; and from these, when still more compressed, comes flowing water, and from water comes earth and stones once more; and thus generation appears to be transmitted from one to the other in a circle. Thus, then, as the several elements never present themselves in the same form, how can any one have the assurance to assert positively that any of them, whatever it may be, is one thing rather than another? No one can.
He goes on to theorize about the universal nature and eternal beings. He also questions whether these elements are self-existent or if they need us to perceive them. Plato decides that the elements are bodies, which means that they are solid and must exist in planes. He then describes the shapes of the elements, some of which can change into the others. He states that the elements themselves don’t generate the other elements. Instead, the shapes separate and combine in different ways to produce the different forms of the elements that we see in the world.
The theory that seems most popular today comes from Aristotle. In “On Generation and Corruption”, Aristotle is focusing on the changes that we see in the world, different states of matter. If the elements are unchanging, how do things grow? How do they come to be? How do they pass away? At this time, there was debate on the number of elements, what the elements were and the mechanics of altering them (if they could be altered).
According to Aristotle, the issue is this:
Those, then, who construct all things out of a single element, must maintain that coming-to-be and passing-away are ‘alteration’. For they must affirm that the underlying something always remains identical and one; and change of such a substratum is what we call ‘altering’ Those, on the other hand, who make the ultimate kinds of things more than one, must maintain that ‘alteration’ is distinct from coming-to-be: for coming-to-be and passing-away result from the consilience and the dissolution of the many kinds. That is why Empedocles too uses language to this effect, when he says ‘There is no coming-to-be of anything, but only a mingling and a divorce of what has been mingled’. Thus it is clear (i) that to describe coming-to-be and passing-away in these terms is in accordance with their fundamental assumption, and (ii) that they do in fact so describe them: nevertheless, they too must recognize ‘alteration’ as a fact distinct from coming to-be, though it is impossible for them to do so consistently with what they say.
I think Empedocles would say there is no coming-to-be or passing-away because the elements are always there in some form, individual ones are just identifiable (or separated) in higher or lower concentrations. However, he does assign characteristics. Aristotle notes that Empedocles calls the sun ‘white and hot’, and the earth ‘heavy and hard’.
Quoting Aristotle again:
The actual words of Empedocles may be quoted in illustration-
The sun everywhere bright to see, and hot,
The rain everywhere dark and cold; and he distinctively characterizes his remaining elements in a similar manner. Since, therefore, it is not possible for Fire to become Water, or Water to become Earth, neither will it be possible for anything white to become black, or anything soft to become hard; and the same argument applies to all the other qualities. Yet this is what ‘alteration’ essentially is.
It follows, as an obvious corollary, that a single matter must always be assumed as underlying the contrary ‘poles’ of any change whether change of place, or growth and diminution, or ‘alteration’; further, that the being of this matter and the being of ‘alteration’ stand and fall together. For if the change is ‘alteration’, then the substratum is a single element; i.e. all things which admit of change into one another have a single matter. And, conversely, if the substratum of the changing things is one, there is ‘alteration’.
To Aristotle, there is one something behind everything, even the elements (the substratum). The elements are not eternal, unchanging and indivisible. In the world, elements change their characteristics and qualities. They change into one another, alter their qualities and transform. For example, when water turns to steam (air), Aristotle is saying that the water passes-away and the air comes-to-be. He is not satisfied with the explanation that qualities attach to the elements at some times and separate from them at other times (association and dissociation). He wants to define what happens when things change.
One theory of change was that they combined through action and passion. He states that the elements do not actually change into each other but they act on each other through the substratum. Aristotle goes on to say that the things that make contact with one another will have an extreme quality in common. This is necessary so they will be in the same place and “able to move, and be moved by, one another”. Some things act by not moving. He also notes that the reciprocal touch can alter qualities (Hot can warm the Cold and vice versa). But what is this intermediary? From previous theories, it has to be one of the elements or nothing. However, when he follows the logic of elements transforming into other elements, he ends up with contrary qualities.
As he works on this issue of contrary qualities to try to make more complex substances like flesh and bone, he writes the following:
All the compound bodies-all of which exist in the region belonging to the central body-are composed of all the ‘simple’ bodies. For they all contain Earth because every ‘simple’ body is to be found specially and most abundantly in its own place. And they all contain Water because (a) the compound must possess a definite outline and Water, alone of the ‘simple’ bodies, is readily adaptable in shape: moreover (b) Earth has no power of cohesion without the moist. On the contrary, the moist is what holds it together; for it would fall to pieces if the moist were eliminated from it completely.
They contain Earth and Water, then, for the reasons we have given: and they contain Air and Fire, because these are contrary to Earth and Water (Earth being contrary to Air and Water to Fire, in so far as one Substance can be ‘contrary’ to another). Now all compounds presuppose in their coming-to-be constituents which are contrary to one another: and in all compounds there is contained one set of the contrasted extremes. Hence the other set must be contained in them also, so that every compound will include all the ‘simple’ bodies.
Here, the opposites have changed. They no longer match the sign polarities in the zodiac wheel.
Earth is opposite Air
Water is opposite Fire
Aristotle says that the transformations are not caused by the primary motion. There is also motion along the inclined circle that is dualistic and continuous. There is an approaching and retreating movement between the elements. Sometimes the timing of the opposite movements are equal. Sometimes they are not, which causes irregular movements. This is how things are generated and destroyed. He also theorizes that it must be a circular movement because it is continuous.
For when Water is transformed into Air, Air into Fire, and the Fire back into Water, we say the coming-to-be ‘has completed the circle’, because it reverts again to the beginning. Hence it is by imitating circular motion that rectilinear motion too is continuous.
Aristotle evaluates several qualities to determine which are primary. In doing this, he also defines more about the qualities of the primary four elements.
‘Hot’ is that which ‘associates’ things of the same kind (for ‘dissociating’, which people attribute to Fire as its function, is ‘associating’ things of the same class, since its effect is to eliminate what is foreign), while ‘cold’ is that which brings together, i.e. ‘associates’, homogeneous and heterogeneous things alike. And moist is that which, being readily adaptable in shape, is not determinable by any limit of its own: while ‘dry’ is that which is readily determinable by its own limit, but not readily adaptable in shape.
Many of the adjectives he evaluates reduce to moist or dry because they either yield and adapt their shape or they are solid and dry. He continues with more terms until reaching this conclusion:
It is clear, then, that all the other differences reduce to the first four, but that these admit of no further reduction. For the hot is not essentially moist or dry, nor the moist essentially hot or cold: nor are the cold and the dry derivative forms, either of one another or of the hot and the moist. Hence these must be four.
Aristotle theories that these four elemental qualities can be combined with each other, forming 6 couples because none can be combined with its opposite. He then attaches the qualities to the elements, which he says are not simple bodies, but blended ones.
For Fire is hot and dry, whereas Air is hot and moist (Air being a sort of aqueous vapour); and Water is cold and moist, while Earth is cold and dry.
Later in the text, he assigns their primary quality.
for Fire and Air are forms of the body moving towards the ‘limit’, while Earth and Water are forms of the body which moves towards the ‘centre’. Fire and Earth, moreover, are extremes and purest: Water and Air, on the contrary are intermediates and more like blends. And, further, the members of either pair are contrary to those of the other, Water being contrary to Fire and Earth to Air; for the qualities constituting Water and Earth are contrary to those that constitute Fire and Air. Nevertheless, since they are four, each of them is characterized par excellence a single quality: Earth by dry rather than by cold, Water by cold rather than by moist, Air by moist rather than by hot, and Fire by hot rather than by dry.
So, here we have the following elemental qualities:
Fire is Hot and Dry, primarily Hot
Air is Hot and Wet, primarily Wet
Water is Cold and Wet, primarily Cold
Earth is Dry and Cold, primarily Dry
Aristotle is focused on their alteration and transformation. He says that it is evident that they change into one another.
Thus (i) the process of conversion will be quick between those which have interchangeable ‘complementary factors’, but slow between those which have none. The reason is that it is easier for a single thing to change than for many. Air, e.g. will result from Fire if a single quality changes: for Fire, as we saw, is hot and dry while Air is hot and moist, so that there will be Air if the dry be overcome by the moist. Again, Water will result from Air if the hot be overcome by the cold: for Air, as we saw, is hot and moist while Water is cold and moist, so that, if the hot changes, there will be Water. So too, in the same manner, Earth will result from Water and Fire from Earth, since the two ‘elements’ in both these couples have interchangeable ‘complementary factors’. For Water is moist and cold while Earth is cold and dry-so that, if the moist be overcome, there will be Earth: and again, since Fire is dry and hot while Earth is cold and dry, Fire will result from Earth if the cold pass-away.
It is evident, therefore, that the coming-to-be of the ‘simple’ bodies will be cyclical; and that this cyclical method of transformation is the easiest, because the consecutive ‘clements’ contain interchangeable ‘complementary factors’. On the other hand (ii) the transformation of Fire into Water and of Air into Earth, and again of Water and Earth into Fire and Air respectively, though possible, is more difficult because it involves the change of more qualities. For if Fire is to result from Water, both the cold and the moist must pass-away: and again, both the cold and the dry must pass-away if Air is to result from Earth. So’ too, if Water and Earth are to result from Fire and Air respectively-both qualities must change.
Aristotle’s elemental qualities are often shown by this diamond shape.
Elements and Qualities
The Earth is at the Center, most dense. Water also moves downward and surrounds the Earth
Fire is the lightest and highest. Air also moves upward and supports the Fire.
It seems like originally, there were two motions. It was like a breath, inward and mingled together (Cold and Wet) or outward and separated (Hot and Dry). Fire (Hot) and Earth (Dry) were most separated and extreme. Air (Cold) and Water (Wet) moderated the extremes.
As philosophers pondered the elements, the definitions were modified. Hot is still separated and active and Cold still brings things together. Wet becomes formless and adaptable. Dry holds a shape (as long as there is enough moisture there to adhere).
In all of these, Fire is Hot. It separates out what is foreign and eliminates it. The secondary quality of Fire is Dry. This seem to go back to the earlier definition of separating things, rather than the new one of holding a shape.
Air was Cold in the earlier theory, but it became Hot and Wet, primarily Wet. It seems they wanted Air to be Hot because it is amorphous and separated. Wet is formless and adaptable and unlimited, which fits the qualities of Air.
Water was Wet in the earlier theory, but it became Cold and Wet, primarily Cold. Cold brings things together and combines them. Wet is formless and adaptable. Both fit with Water.
In all of these, Earth is Dry. Seeing it as separation, I think an Earth with no moisture can be seen with desert sands or ashes or dust storms. Water moderates the Earth and makes it fertile. In the later theory, Earth holds its shape. It can be molded and is the solid ground the we walk on. The secondary quality of Earth is Cold. Cold brings things together. This can apply to the solid form of Earth.
Elemental theories have changed over time, especially as they were were subjected to more analysis when they were considered part of science. Science has moved on from these ideas, but the earlier poetic verses still evoke something in me. Instead of focusing so intensely on changes, they invite us to contemplate the fundamentals of what is, to ponder the most basic nature of things.
Whichever appeals to you, these theories were a part of the conception of the meanings of the zodiac signs and the planets. Reflecting on these elements and qualities can deepen your understanding and enrich your interpretations.
“Hellenistic Astrology: The Study of Fate and Fortune” by Chris Brennan, 2017 Amor Fate Publications
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Empedocles
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Empedocles
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Stoicism
MIT Classics – Timaeus by Plato
MIT Classics – Aristotle – Book 1: On Generation and Corruption
MIT Classics – Aristotle – Book 2 of On Generation and Corruption
The Astrology Podcast – The Four Elements in Astrology