Elemental Theory



As we saw in the last chapter, the Enlightenment fundamentally altered attitudes to the natural world.

Prior to the advent of ‘science’ and the nature-culture separation that it brought, the theoretical model which underpinned the classical and medieval scheme of nature was beautiful in its simplicity: the material world was universally understood to be composed of just four elements—earth, water, air, and fire.

Above image developed by Dr Richard Jones, University of Leicester. Reproduced with permission

These essential building blocks came to dominate not only everything that was thought and written about nature but also how:

people lived and worked in their environments

people made decisions about their crops, diet and medical conditions

time, space and life-courses were structured and understood.

Everything was based on the elements

Elemental theory can be traced to pre-Socratic philosophy but is probably of much earlier Asian origin.

In his poem Physis (roughly translated as On Nature), Empedocles (c. 495-435BC) developed the notion of four unchanging and indivisible ‘roots’ from which all things were made. Plato—the first to use the term ‘element'—laid out his vision of the creation and working of the universe.

Plato accorded primacy to the element fire which made all tangible things visible and earth which gave everything their substance. These were bound together by two intermediary elements air and water.

Aristotle attached greater significance to their associated qualities—hot, cold, dry, and moist. These properties acted on the terrestrial elements through the influence of the celestial bodies (the sun in particular), leading to a constant process of generation and decay resulting in the changeable and corruptible state of flux that characterized the material world and visible nature.

The important point is that, as we learnt in the last chapter, everything was perceived to be interconnected, with no nature-culture divide, and depended upon balance.

Currently, we have lost the balance between the elements – the over-exploitation of some, leading the pollution of others.

Let us now consider some of the evidence for present day issues of the elements, namely the production of energy (fire and air), water security and pollution, and the fragile condition of soils (earth)