The concept of the four elements, together with the day qualities plays a big part in the Biodynamic calendar. So here is some information about the man who started it all. He was called Empedocles, a philosopher, physician and poet, who lived roughly between 495–435 B.C. in Agrigentum, then a Greek colony in Sicily. Most of his original works and scientific theories have now been lost, but his ideas still exist through references by Plato. They also feature prominently in Aristotle’s writings on physics and biology.
Empedocles wrote most of his observations and theories in verse and poetic language. A few of these fragments are still with us today, including parts of his two most famous works entitled On Nature and Purifications. Only very recently some more of his verses were discovered on a papyrus roll from Egypt which had been stored in the Strasbourg University library.
During his lifetime Empedocles dedicated much of his time observing nature, the stars, the sun and the moon. He was one of the first scientists to state the theory that light travels at a finite speed, a concept that was only much later fully understood. His forward-thinking observations earned him the posthumous title of ‘father of the cosmogenic theory’, which deals with the origin of the cosmos and the universe.
The four elements:
In On Nature, one of his most ambitious works, Empedocles introduces the hypothesis of the four elements – fire, earth, air and water. He describes them as the roots of all physical manifestations. In his opinion these four unchangeable and indestructible forces occur naturally in equal amounts and shape our whole existence.
This concept was not entirely new. The Babylonians had already gods personified as the cosmic elements: the sea (water), the earth (earth), the sky/sun (fire) and the wind (air). But Empedocles was the first person to treat these elements not as gods, but as components of the universe.
In fact Empedocles only described the forces, but never actually used the term ‘elements’, which is a phrase invented by Plato. But the name ‘the four elements’ stayed and is still in use today — more than 2000 years later.
Empedocles and Plato may have put the ‘four elements’ on the map, but others since have taken this concept and have added additional qualities. For example Aristotle related the four elements to physical conditions:
Fire – is primarily hot and secondarily dry
Air – is primarily cold and secondarily wet
Water – is primarily wet and secondarily cold
Earth – is primarily dry and secondarily hot
Later Hippocrates used the four elements to describe the unexplained functions occuring in the human body and called them the four humours. He called the four humours:
Yellow bile (fire), black bile (earth), blood (air) and phlegm (water)
Since the discovery of hormones the humours have become obsolete, but they played a vital parts in any medical intervention until the 19th century.
Love and Strife- the law of attraction and separation
The four elements were static forces, but life as we know it is very changeable. So Empedocles introduced the principle of love (attraction) and strife (separation), a sort of Ancient Greek yin and yang.
Love and Strife are attractive and repulsive forces. They wax and wane their influence, but neither of them can wholly disappear from the influence of the other. Like there is no day without night and no heat without cold, everything works in proportion to each other.
During his life-time Empedocles was a charismatic and eccentric figure. Like the mathematician Pythagoras, Empedocles believed that the human soul can be reincarnated into animals and even plants. He believed that we all are part of nature and the cosmic movements and not a separate entity. Life is a spiral of wisdom and those who learnt the secrets of life, will reach the highest cycle of reincarnation and will be able to rest in a state of eternal happiness.
According to Diogenes Laertius, Empedocles died by throwing himself into the active volcano of the Mount Etna in Sicily. Legend has it that he tried to be more than a man and wanted to return as a god.
His dramatic death has inspired many works of fiction, particularly among the Romantic writers of the 18th and 19th century, a time when people were fascinated with the traditions of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. The German author Friedrich Hoelderlin wrote ‘Tod des Empedokles’ (Death of Empedocles) and probably my favourite piece on this subject is Matthew Arnold’s poem called ‘Empedocles on Etna’, first published in 1852.
To the elements it came from
Everything will return.
Our bodies to earth,
Our blood to water,
Heat to fire,
Breath to air.