VISIONARY REVUE

THE FOUR ELEMENTS
THE PHILOSOPHERS' WHEEL

      An important goal in Alchemy was to recognize the fundamental unity of the elements. It was Aristotle who gave this idea its clearest expression, though its roots go back to the earlier philosophy of Empedocles. In book II of On Generation and Corruption, Aristotle describes how all substances are composed of the four elements in different proportions. One substance can be transformed into another by altering the proportion of its elements through heating or cooling, washing or drying.
      This is because four distinct qualities underlie the four elements: the qualities of the hot and cold, moist and dry. As Aristotle explained in book II, “Fire is hot and dry, whereas Air is hot and moist... and Water is cold and moist, while Earth is cold and dry.” (bk II, pt 3)



 
 
 


PARIS - SPRING 2003

      Later, the alchemists were able to visualize this arrangement in a diagram called ‘The Philosopher’s Wheel’ (left). It allowed them to clearly see the element of Fire and its qualities of hot and dry, since they lay beneath it in the circle. Water, which is cold and moist, was opposite. And so on around the wheel.
      The importance of this image is that it revealed the funadamental unity of the elements. That primal unity can be imagined in the point at the very centre. The mystery which unified the elements, Aristotle called ‘matter’, and so it has remained even unto our day. Meanwhile, earlier philosophers had named that mystery ‘the One’, but Aristotle thought they were confused. After claiming that the fundamental unity should be called matter, Aristotle cited Empedocles, saying, “There is another obscurity in the theory of Empedocles. Are we to regard the One as his original..? Or is it the Many?” (bk II, pt 1)
      Unfortunately, all that remains of Empedocles’ philosophy, and that of the other ‘Pre-Socratic Philosophers’, is a series of isolated fragments. But, for all the Pre-Socratic philosophers, the question of ‘the One’ or ‘the Many’ was, without doubt, the fundamental mystery that lay at the heart of Creation.
      Most of them thought that all things came from ‘the One’, and for Thales, the One manifest itself first as water while, for Heraclitus, it was fire. Empedocles was the first to say it was four-in-one - earth, air, fire, and water all intermixed - but stressed that these were originally One which had become Many, and that the Many would become One again:
      “I shall tell thee a two-fold tale. At one time it grew together to be One only out of Many; at another time it parted asunder so as to be Many instead of One: Fire and Water and Earth and the mighty height of Air.” (fragment 17).



 
 
 


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