[St. Pachomius Library]



According to most ancient philosophical schools, the material world is composed of a small number of fundamental substances or "elements". The Greeks generally counted four -- fire, earth, water, and air -- although some thinkers tried to reduce the number, and others added a "quintessence" or fifth element found only in the heavens. The idea of four elements should not be considered naive; it was very close to the modern concept of four states of matter ("air" meaning "gas", "water" meaning "liquid", "earth" meaning "solid", and "fire" meaning something very close to "plasma", a state of matter which physicists ignored for several centuries after rejecting the traditional scheme). The new scientific chemistry of the XVIII and XIX Centuries took a far more static and materialistic view of what an "element" might be, but in fact the multitude of chemical "elements" (like the "atoms" composing them) proved not to be quite as advertised, and the trend in physics has been toward a small number of fundamental particles and forces, much as in ancient thought.

The Greek elements were vaguely associated with the regular polyhedra, rather as modern fundamental particles are associated with symmetry groups. The notion that there were four rather than just one offended many thinkers' sense of the unity of Nature, and there were various projects to "unify" them, much as there are searches for "unified field theories" today. Manipulating the elements was the goal of alchemy, in principle a legitimate secular science with applications to gold-making no more sordid than the application of modern physics to weaponry. However, the term "element" also had an occult connotation: the Neoplatonists in particular considered the elements to be in some sense alive, and a mythology about "elemental spirits" grew up in the borderland between science and magic.

--- Norman Hugh Redington

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