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The Elements

(with apologies to the periodic table, we're doing philosophy, not chemistry here)

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Elemental Theory

Theories of basic elements that lie at the essence of all things may be traced back to ancient writings, both East and West. The Western tradition inherited from the ancient Greeks holds that there are four elements: earth, air, water, and fire. In Eastern Tradition, on the other hand, there are five: water, wood, fire, earth, and metal.

Although science has shown that these elements are no longer viable as a mode of material explanation, the theories still hold value philosophically and poetically. (Note: references and further reading may be found at the bottom of the page.)

Elements, West

In the West, the 5th century Greek philosopher Empedocles is credited with proposing four elements--earth, air, water, and fire--of which all things are composed in various proportions. The theory was developed further by Aristotle, and it held sway in empirical investigation until the dawn of the Scientific Revolution in the 17th century CE. Qualities attributed to the elements included hot/cold, wet/dry, and heavy/light, while there are many more qualities that are considered to correspond to each element. Here are some of the correspondences of each element:

  • Earth: cold, dry, heavy, passive, autumn
  • Air: hot, wet, light, active, winter
  • Water: cold, wet, heavy, passive, spring
  • Fire: hot, dry, light, active, summer

Elements, East

In the ancient Taoist philosophy of Chinese, the five elements--wood, fire, earth, metal, and water--are different movements or patterns of the universal energy, or "cosmic breath," called Chi. Chi is expressed most fundamentally in the cosmic duality, Yin and Yang, and further in the movement of the five elements. The theory of the elements is an essential part of Feng Shui, the Chinese Art of Placement. The elements are have a dynamic and cyclical relationship, most easily recognized in the cycle of the season. Here are a few of the qualities of these Eastern elements:

   Season  Color Shape   Direction
 Wood  Spring Green, Blue   Column  East, Southeast
 Fire  Summer  Red, Purple  Triangle  South
 Earth  Late Summer Yellow , Brown  Square, Rectangle  Southwest, Center
 Metal  Autumn  White, Silver  Circle  West, Northwest
 Water  Winter  Black, Navy  Undulating  North

© 2000 Scott P. Smiley

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