What is the universe made of?
What is the arche?
Is it one singular primordial thing or is it many things?
Is it water or is it fire? Earth or air?
For most of the ancient pre-Socratic philosophers the fundamental reality was made out of one single substance, though they often disagreed on what exactly “it” was, they agreed at least that it was “One”.
The four elements is a set of ideas that is most often attributed to the pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles, though we may find variants of the same idea (where some traditions named 5 elements instead of 4) in ancient cultures and civilisations to the east, as for example the Wu Xing system of thought in China, or in the Buddhist Pali literature and also in the ancient Vedic scriptures of India …
That being said, for our own purposes in this article we’ll focus on the Greek Empedocles.
The crux of Empedocles’ worldview is that in nature and in the heart of the universe, there are four fundamental elements that are underlying and governing all things:
They were fire, air, water and earth.
Literally everything is made out of this “twofold truth”, the elements and the forces that govern them.
Just to reiterate that again…
What Empedocles is saying and implying is that not only is the entire material universe made out of these elements and forces, but also all your thoughts, feelings, sensations, pleasures, pains, hopes, dreams is in some unfathomable way brought about the mixing of these elements.
Something the four elements and the two primordial forces, in his words, “become subject to”.
Which I sense could very well be leading us back to square one!
What is the arche?
For water is increased by water, primeval fire by fire, and earth causes its own substance to increase, and air, air.
Hear first the four roots of all things: bright Zeus (fire), life-giving Hera (air), and Aidoneus (earth), and Nestis (water) who moistens the springs of men with her tears.
For it is by earth that we see earth, and by water water, and by air glorious air; so, too, by fire we see destroying fire, and love by love, and strife by baneful strife. For out of these (elements) all things are fitted together and their form is fixed, and by these men think and feel both pleasure and pain.
These [elements] never cease changing place continually, now being all united by Love into one, now each borne apart by the hatred engendered of Strife, until they are brought together in the unity of the all, and become subject to it.
But come, hear my words, for truly learning causes the mind to grow. For as I said before in declaring the ends of my words: Twofold is the truth I shall speak; for at one time there grew to be the one alone out of many, and at another time it separated so that there were many out of the one; fire and water and earth and boundless height of air, and baneful Strife apart from these, balancing each of them, and Love among them, their equal in length and breadth.
And if your faith be at all lacking in regard to these (elements), how from water and earth and air and sun (fire) when they are mixed, arose such colours and forms of mortal things, as many as now have arisen under the uniting power of Aphrodite. . . .
How both tall trees and fishes of the sea (arose).
And thus then Kypris, when she had moistened the earth with water, breathed air on it and gave it to swift fire to be hardened.
And all these things which were within were made dense, while those without were made rare, meeting with such moisture in the hands of Kypris.
And thus tall trees bear fruit (lit. eggs), first of all olives.
Wherefore late-born pomegranates and luxuriant apples . . .
Wine is water that has fermented in the wood beneath the bark.
Empedokles says that fire and earth and associated elements are the elements of bodies, and that all things are composed of these.
Aristotle (On the Heavens)
My Contemplations on the Elements
When one contemplates the nature of the physical universe and the manifest world, one is bound to be left, at least to some degree, in awe by its complexity, variety and its layers upon layers of subtlety.
The physical universe is simply infinite for our probing minds to explore, discover, and dissect. We can never really come to the end of it. There always seems to be some deeper underlying complexity that we haven’t yet touched upon.
Moreover the idea of the four elements mixed by attraction and repulsion is a very comprehensive and profound idea. Though we may in hindsight find it a bit too simplistic or even primitive by our “modern standards”, the actual system of thought that contemplated the universe in this way is quite powerful.
If we really would spice things, the elements could be seen to be the equivalent to the four fundamental forces (strong, electromagnetic, weak, gravity) which quantum theory propagates nowadays, while love could be seen to be either the strong fundamental force or simply gravity which binds and unites, while acceleration/dark energy/weak force (all depending on your speculative imagination) could be seen to be equivalent of hate or strife, that governing principle which drives the elements from away each other.
Don’t take me too seriously, as this is just me having some quantum and philosophical fun !