Four Basic Elements

Instead of there being one single substance for creation, what if there were four substances, earth water, air and fire.

In one way, Parmenides and Heraclitus were the direct opposite of each other. Parmenides‘ reason made it clear that nothing could change. Heraclitus‘ sensory perceptions made it equally clear that nature was in a constant state of change.

Should we let reason dictate or should we rely on our senses to determine the Root of All Change?

Parmenides and Heraclitus both say two things, Parmenides says:

a) that nothing can change, and
b) that our sensory perceptions must therefore be unreliable.

Heraclitus, on the other hand, says:

a) that everything changes (‘all things flow’), and
b) that our sensory perceptions are reliable.

Which of them was right?


It fell to Empedocles (c. 490 – 430 BC) from Sicily to lead the way out of the tangle the Natural Philosophers had gotten themselves into. He thought they were both right in one of their assertions but wrong in the other.

Empedocles found that the cause of their basic disagreement was that both philosophers had assumed the presence of only one element. If this were true he thought, the gap between what reason dictates and what you can see with your own eyes would be unbridgeable.

Water obviously cannot turn into a fish or a butterfly. In fact, water cannot change. Pure water will continue to be pure water. So Parmenides was right in holding that ‘nothing changes’. But at the same time Empedocles agreed with Heraclitus that we must believe what we see, and what we see is precisely that nature changes.

Empedocles concluded that it was the idea of a single basic substance that had to be rejected. Neither water nor air alone can change into a rosebush or a butterfly. The source of nature cannot possibly be one single ‘element’.

Empedocles believed that all in all, nature consisted of four elements, or Roots as he termed them.


These four Roots were earth, air, fire, and water. All natural processes were due to the coming together and separating of these four elements. For all things were made from a mixture of earth, air, fire, and water – but in varying proportions. When a flower or an animal dies, Empedocles reasoned, the four elements separate again. We can register these changes with the naked eye.

But earth and air, fire and water remain everlasting, ‘untouched’ by all the compounds of which they are part of. So it is not correct to say that ‘everything’ changes. Basically, nothing changes. What happens is that the four elements are combined and separated – only to be combined again.

“No mortal thing has a beginning, nor does it end in death and obliteration; there is only a mixing and then separating of what was mixed, but by mortal men these processes are named beginnings.”


We can make a comparison to painting. If a painter only has one color – red, for instance the painter cannot paint green trees. But if the painter has yellow, red, blue, and black, then they can paint in hundreds of different colors because the painter can mix them in varying proportions.

It was not purely by chance that Empedocles chose earth, air, fire, and water as nature’s ‘roots’. Other philosophers before him had tried to show that the primordial substance had to be either water, air, or fire.

Thales and Anaximenes had pointed out that both water and air were essential elements in the physical world. What made Empedocles’ philosophy different was how he believed the elements combined, separated and then reformed once again.

The Greeks believed that fire was also essential. They observed, for example, the importance of the sun to all living things, and they also knew that both animals and humans have body heat.

Empedocles might have watched a piece of wood burning. – that is ‘fire’. As the wood disintegrates, you hear it crackle and splutter – that is ‘water’. When the burning wood gives off smoke – that is ‘air’. Something also remains when the fire is extinguished. That is the ashes – or ‘earth.’

After Empedocles’ clarification of nature’s transformations as the combination and dissolution of the four ‘roots,’ something still remained to be explained, the Problem of Change.

What makes these elements combine so that new life can occur? And what makes the ‘mixture’ of, say, a flower dissolve again.

Empedocles believed that there were two different forces at work in nature causing change. He called them Love and Strife.

Love and strife

Love binds things together, and Strife separates them. Empedocles distinguishes between ‘substance’ and ‘force.’ This is worth noting. Even today, scientists distinguish between the Elements and the Natural Forces.

Modern science holds that all natural processes can be explained as the interaction between different elements and various natural forces. Empedocles also raised the question of what happens when we perceive something.

Empedocles believed that the eyes consist of earth, air, fire, and water, just like everything else in nature. So the ‘earth’ in your eye perceives what is of the earth in your surroundings, the ‘air’ perceives what is of the air, the ‘fire’ perceives what is of fire, and the ‘water’ what is of water.

“The force that unites the elements to become all things is Love, also called Aphrodite; Love brings together dissimilar elements into a unity, to become a composite thing.”

“Love is the same force that human beings find at work in themselves whenever they feel joy, love and peace. Strife, on the other hand, is the force responsible for the dissolution of the one back into its many, the four elements of which it was composed.”


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