Since the Greeks’ first inspired groping toward a fundamental theory of matter, our concept of the elements has undergone radical change. One by one the original four were proven to be something else altogether: water, a compound; air, a mixture; earth, a conglomeration; and fire, a chemical reaction. Fundamental substances exist, but they are far more numerous and stunningly more complex then even the wisest of the natural philosophers ever imagined. Our view of elements today is clinically precise: modern technology allows us to peer at the structure of the atom and to take the chemical fingerprints of stars. The elements, in the twenty-first-century world, are the province of empirical science. In the face of their streamlined replacements, the primal four, like old soldiers, should long ago have faded away. Still the Greek elements stubbornly remain, throwbacks to an earlier age, a pentimento behind the logic of the Periodic Table, the intuition that still lurks behind the atoms. The weight of memory is behind them.
The Greek four are the elements of tradition and time. Water, air, earth, and fire dominated human thought for over two millennia. The four have been around long enough to insinuate themselves in our lives, language, art, and literature. Albrecht Drer, Brugehel the Elder, and M.C. Escher immortalised the four in art; manifestations of the Greek four appear in everything from twelfth-century Persian poetry to the plays of Shakespeare to T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. When beset by wind, rain and weather, we still speak of battling, braving, or being ignominiously defeated by the elements. King Lear, mad, furiously contended with them.
The four elements abound in proverb and metaphor. We speak resignedly of water under the bridge; we point out that it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good; complain that you can’t get blood from a stone; and advise fighting fire with fire. Christopher Marlowe writes of “Nature that frames us of four elements/Warring within our breasts for regiment,” explaining that our characters are forged by whichever of the four dominates the rest. This strikes an enduring chord. Earth, air, fire and water are still said to shape our psyches. The airy are the frivolous protagonists, of P.G. Wodehouse novels. The earthy lack polish, but they’re dependable and solid: Kipling’s Saxon, say, stubborn as an ox in his field. We have fiery tempers, stony faces, or light hearts; we burn with passion, but drown in sorrow.
Most of all, however, the four elements continue to exert their power because it’s through them that we first and best experience the world. In a way, as each of us strives to make sense of the complex reality that surrounds us, we retrace the path that the Greek took. All of us begin at the beginning, and build upon what we discover there. Helen Keller – rendered deaf and blind by a bout of scarlet fever as a toddler – described in her autobiography by the miraculous realisation she experienced as her teacher, Annie Sullivan, pumped water over her hands from the dooryard pump and then used her fingers to spell the word “water” in Helen’s wet palm. “I knew then that the “w-a-t-e-r” meant that the wonderful cool something flowing over my hand,” Keller wrote in 1902. “That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!” We all have such moments. Just as Keller’s revelatory link between word and water opened before her a rich world of language, so our initial experience of the elements opens before us the rich diversity of the physical world.
Rebecca Rupp. Four Elements – Water, Air, Fire, Earth (Profile Books; 2005) 47-49.