The History of Life: Before Aristotle 3 – The Four Elements

The Four Elements (Empedocles)

Empedocles (ca. 495–435 BCE), who lived in Sicily, was influenced both by the Pythagoreans and Parmenides (in his poem “On Nature”) and proposed what came to be called the “four elements” theory to explain why there was change if the universe was monistic. It was just recombination of eternal and unchanging elements (he called them “roots” [rhizomata]; later Plato named them stoicheae, from which we get stoichiometric chemistry). This was not unique to Greece. Similar schemes existed in Babylonian mythology, in Hindu thought, in Chinese thought (they had five elements which were not eternal, but transitional phases of matter) and in Japan. It is not clear if Empedocles came to this view directly (through observing that air prevented water from entering a pipette-like clepsydra, or water clock) or was influenced by eastern ideas.

The four elements or roots of being were the familiar list – earth, air, fire and water. Each element had properties that when mixed in anything (including living things) gave the whole its properties. But what caused the change itself? Empedocles thought that the universe had two opposing forces which he called Love and Hate, and which a modern might call less directly analogically, attraction and repulsion (which terms mean literally, love and hate). He has been criticised a lot for his anthropomorphism for this; and some does occur, but he’s no more guilty of it than a Newtonian physicist.

The doctrine of the four elements became, following Aristotle and Galen, the standard foundation for physics, medicine and biology for the next 22 centuries or so.

The Hippocratic School

Hippocrates of Kos (460–ca. 377 BCE) founded a school of medicine in Thessaly, and was regarded (according to Plato) as the leading physician of his time. His school focused on observation rather than theory, but he adopted the Emepdoclean view that illness was caused by an imbalance of these elements, which in the body were humors: black bile, or melancholy (element: earth), yellow bile, or chole (element: fire), blood (sanguis, element: air), and phlegm (element: water). From these came the four temperaments, melancholic, choleric, sanguine, and phlegmatic, each caused by a dominance of one of these humours. This view was later taken up by the Roman 2nd century CE physician Galen.

The observational aspect of Hippocratic epistemology was, surprisingly, approved of by Plato. However, Hippocrates is reputed to have argued that thoughts originated in the brain, a view that neither Plato nor Aristotle followed:

Men ought to know that from the brain, and from the brain only, arise our pleasures, joys, laughter and jests, as well as our sorrows, pains, griefs and tears. Through it, in particular, we think, see, hear, and distinguish the ugly from the beautiful, the bad from the good, the pleasant from the unpleasant, in some cases using custom as a test, in others perceiving them from their utility. It is the same thing which makes us mad or delirious, inspires us with dread and fear, whether by night or by day, brings sleeplessness, inopportune mistakes, aimless anxieties, absent-mindedness, and acts that are contrary to habit. These things that we suffer all come from the brain, when it is not healthy, but becomes abnormally hot, cold, moist, or dry, or suffers any other unnatural affection to which it was not accustomed. Madness comes from its moistness. When the brain is abnormally moist, of necessity it moves, and when it moves neither sight nor hearing are still, but we see or hear now one thing and now another, and the tongue speaks in accordance with the things seen and heard on any occasion. But all the time the brain is still a man is intelligent. … Wherefore I assert that the brain is the interpreter of consciousness.*  [On the Sacred Disease, Loeb edition, pp177-179]

He also famously held that epilepsy, and by implication all disease, was caused by failures of the body and not the actions of gods or prophetic power:

It is not, in my opinion, any more divine or more sacred than other diseases, but has a natural cause, and its supposed divine origin is due to men’s inexperience, and to their wonder at its peculiar character. Now while men continue to believe in its divine origin because they are at a loss to understand it, they really disprove its divinity by the facile method of healing which they adopt, consisting as it does of purifications and incantations. But if it is to be considered divine just because it is wonderful, there will be not one sacred disease but many, for I will show that other diseases are no less wonderful and portentous, and yet nobody considers them sacred. For instance, quotidian fevers, tertians and quartans seem to me to be no less sacred and god-sent than this disease, but nobody wonders at them.  [On the Sacred Disease, Loeb edition, pp 139-141]

This demythologising of disease had a massive influence on subsequent medicine, and biology.

The four elements/humors scheme as it developed can be (and was often) diagrammed:

Four elements humors

The ratio of these humors determines the health of the organism, and when each organ has the right proportion – is not too hot, cold, wet or dry – then it is as it ought to be. This view was accepted and promoted by Aristotle and Galen.

Although this scheme was intended to be an account of both the properties of the body and of changes to it, another way in which it functioned (and continued to for most of two millennia) was as an ars memoria – art of memory technique. Like the Pythagorean ratios, the scheme allowed the learner to slot different things in the diagram so they could be easily remembered. In the later middle ages, this became the Kabbalah as well as esoteric knowledge of scholarly and mystical arts.

* Or “interprets the understanding” (hermeneuonta ton sunesin).

Plato will be covered in the next post, and thence to Aristotle…

2 thoughts on “The History of Life: Before Aristotle 3 – The Four Elements

  1. Alcmaeon of Croton (520-450 BCE) is supposed to be the father of anatomy and the originator of the idea that the brain is the seat of intelligence and the correlator of the senses – it is the first part of the fetus to form most completely, and is connected by pores to the sense organs: “when the brain is agitated and displaced, maiming (of limbs or senses [pace Popper]) follows…” [Codellas 1932]. I love that if you get hit in the eye, you see sparks, implying fire must be present inside the watery bits; and that Aristotle is sure Alcmaeon is wrong when he asserts goats breathe through their ears.

  2. “I love that if you get hit in the eye, you see sparks”

    You would also experience the sensation of numbness and coldness which is associated with pain.

    World bred of opposite qualities.

    Getting poked in the eye with a sharp stick would appear to support the notion that “most human affairs go in pairs”, great and small, good and bad, bitter and sweet.

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