Nine diagrams by J. L. Benson that derive a picture of the four elements theory, from his 2004 The Inner Nature of Color.

“For the purpose of this study, it is essential to invent a ‘picture’ that can also suggest in spatial terms the concept of the miscibility (krasis) of the [four] elements, since these were understood by the ancients to be processes whereby a constant metamorphosis of the visual configuration of the world at any moment is actually taking place. The descriptive determination of such momentary states lies with two pairs of opposing conditions: hot-cold and wet-dry. These qualities in effect give the parameters of two of the elements, fire and water, whereby it can concluded that fire and water have a particular axial quality, a central governing position in the total concept of four.

“The most obvious and striking aspect of this relationship is, as already suggested, the uncontested polarity of fire and water. The archenemy of fire is water; equally, fire opposes water but with much less immediate impact and finality. Fire is quenched by water; water is evaporated (goes into air) by fire. This stronger quality of water allows it to determine how to pictorialize the relationship. Since the inalienable tendency of water is to seek the horizontal, we may use a horizontal line, whereby the placement of fire and water to left or right is still to be discussed: liquefaction opposes combustion” (p36-7).

“With this given, a second less dramatic but equally inescapable polarity remains: earth and air. Their normal relationship is to be contiguous, with the earth below and the air above… This relationship is logically to be illustrated by a vertical line: condensation opposes rarefaction” (p37).

“Given the interaction of the four elements observable by the senses, we can now cross the two lines” (p38).

“Whereas the position of A and E is given by physical characteristics, the placement of fire and water involves the relationship of left and right. Therefore the science and the laws of picture-making, if there be such, must meet and interact. There is no left and right bias in fire and water as such, but there is a fundamental difference between left and right visually… It was the merit of Vassily Kandinsky, acting on a suggestion of Goethe, to have conceptualized the picture plane as an area — blank or not — that is alive with tensions of weight. Indeed, that plane is an excerpt of each observer’s bodily relationship to the horizontal-vertical conditions of earthly existence. Thus the horizontal and vertical represent, respectively, earth’s plan from L to R and space from up to down. This visual resistance experienced in a defined rectangular pictorial space is naturally strongest below and weakest above. The next strongest resistance (tension) is offered by the right side; this is reduced on the left side but not so much as up and down. Thus, there are four degrees of density (sc. visual density) as represented by the following scheme” (p38):

“The applicability of Kandinsky’s reasoning to the problem at hand, if any, must be axiomatic, as indeed all geometrical reasoning lies inextricably rooted in the human body/mind condition. We may therefore criticize the suggested scheme with fire and water inserted” (p39).

“No conflict exists in the vertical plan. The potential conflict is in the horizontal. Although W is correctly placed on the right in relation to A and E, fire cannot easily be related to density in the sense of the other three. That is because, in contrast to ancient (and some current esoteric) thought that warm is a (primeval) substance, present scientific thought sees fire (warmth) as a condition of other substances. In terms of our picture, a resolution of this dilemma may be sought in regarding the elements not as substances but as processes, where there can be no conflict. In this sense we then have the completed diagram as follows” (p39-40):

“Taking into account again Kandinsky’s criteria and visualizing the results of the four processes in terms of changes of density in weighable and measurable materials of earth existence, combustion is clearly in the right position. Combustion can lighten matter, leaving ashes which are lighter than water or earth but still ultimately heavier than air; and on the other hand it may intensify the process of rarefaction and thus contribute to lightness.

“The next problem is to show the opposing pairs of elements in descriptive sense-analytical terms of early thought. These are described by Empedokles as hot/cold and wet/dry. The existence of four quadrants allows us to arrange these terms in the sense of equally balancing contrasts” (p40):

“N.B. the data about the elements contained in [the above diagram] can also be rendered, and more conveniently, by attaching the information about hot/cold and wet/dry to the vectors, as in the diagram below” (p43), a unified picture of the four elements theory:

“The persistent implication in the method of constructing the picture of the Four Elements theory… namely, that this is an irreducible explanation of earthly realities valid for all of humanity, requires a further comment. The elements qua substance require to be thought of as occupying real space: they are in a sense the planet we live on, they are our own body/mind entity. As such they are Being. But they are also synonymous with processes, so that one could just as well speak of the four processes theory — and as such they belong to the realm of time: they are Becoming. There is evidence that the Greeks themselves conceived of this latter idea without, however, living so much in consciousness of the technical potentialities of the processes which dominate our minds, but rather in the blessedness of feeling the processes as earthly projections of realities inherent in higher worlds. Nowhere is this so explicitly put as in a dialogue of Plutarch (De Defectu Oraculorum, 10):

Others (other authors) say, there is a transmutation of bodies as well as of souls; and that, just as we see of the earth is engendered water, of the water air, and of the air fire, the nature of substance still ascending higher, so good spirits always change for the best, being transformed from men into heroes, and from heroes into Daemons; and from Daemons, by degrees and in a long space of time, a few souls being refined and purified come to partake of the nature of the Divinity.

“If we consider this passage in microscopic terms, the reference to men, whose highest earthly member is nous (fire) [see following post], translates into an overlapping of the circle of the four elements by a higher circle of which nous is the lowest member with three stages above it, each of a finer and more (spiritually) rarefied nature: heroes, Daemons, and the Divine itself. The result of this merger of Heaven as the fifth element and fourfold man is therefore a sevenfold picture in all” (p43-4).

One Response to “A Picture of the Four Elements”

  1. The Colors of the Four Elements « Unurthed Says:

    […] the derivation of the previous post, three more figures from Benson’s The Inner Nature of Color, these illustrating the […]

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