element: Greek Concept of the Elements

Greek Concept of the Elements

The Greek philosophers proposed that there are basic substances from which all things are made. Empedocles proposed four basic “roots,” earth, air, fire, and water, and two forces, harmony and discord, joining and separating them. Plato called the roots stoicheia (elements). He thought that they assume geometric forms and are made up of some more basic but undefined matter. A different theory, that of Leucippus and his followers, held that all matter is made up of tiny indivisible particles (atomos).

This theory was rejected by Aristotle, who expanded on Plato's theory. Aristotle believed that different forms (eidos) were assumed by a basic material, which he called hulé. The hulé had four basic properties, hotness, coldness, dryness, and moistness. The four elements differ in their embodiment of these properties; fire is hot and dry, earth cold and dry, water cold and moist, and air hot and moist. Although Aristotle proposed that an element is “one of those simple bodies into which other bodies can be decomposed and which itself is not capable of being divided into others,” he thought the metals to be made of water, and called mercury “silver water” (chutos arguros). His idea that matter was a single basic substance that assumed different forms led to attempts by the alchemists to transmute other metals into gold.

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