[1.3.12] Aristotle’s Four (Plus One) Elements

Aristotle’s (384-322 BC) natural philosophy elaborated in different works (On the Heavens, Physics, Metaphysics) sustains, that:

  • Every object, organism is compound of matter and form (see hylomorphism [1.3.5]).
  • Matter can be analyzed on more levels, e.g: “matter can itself be divided into matter and form: for instance, bricks are made of clay, shaped into cuboid blocks. Again, clay has its own matter—mud, say—and so on”.
  • At the lowest level of the analysis of the sublunary bodies we reach the four elements: “Aristotle believes that one will reach the four elements, earth, air, fire and water. He agrees with Empedocles that everything in the sub-lunar world is ultimately made up of different ratios of these four elements.” It is worth to mention, that he thinks that celestial bodies are made of a fifth element: aether.

The following OntoUML diagram shows the main classes in this model:

Aristotle’s 4 + 1 elements
Element“Aristotle believes that everything is made of earth, air, fire, and water. These elements are defined by their possession of one of each of the two fundamental pairs of opposites, hot/cold and wet/dry. Aristotle also thinks that these elements can change into one another”
Water; Earth; Fire; AirWater; Earth; Fire; Air are the elements of sublunary bodies. subkinds of Element
AetherAether is the matter/element for celestial bodies
Cold; Hot; Dry; WetCold; Hot; Dry; Wet are qualities of the elements.are qualities; each quality characterizes two Elements
PrimeMatterAccording to the traditional interpretation of Aristotle prime matter is: “the matter of the elements… This prime matter is usually described as pure potentiality, just as, on the form side, the unmoved movers are said by Aristotle to be pure actuality, form without any matter. What it means to call prime matter “pure potentiality” is that it is capable of taking on any form whatsoever, and thus is completely without any essential properties of its own. It exists eternally, since, if it were capable of being created or destroyed, there would have to be some even lower matter to underlie those changes. Because it is the matter of the elements, which are themselves present in all more complex bodies, it is omnipresent, and underlies not only elemental generation and destruction, but all physical changes.”is sub-quantity of all the Elements: Water; Earth; Fire; Air
SublunaryMatterSublunary matter, at the bottom level, is composed of a mix of the four elements, is generated and corruptible. Elements are sub-quantity of SublunaryMatter

A medieval diagram of the four elements:

Four elements (earth, water, air, fire), seasons, solstices, equinoxes, signs of the zodiac and ages of man. Miniature from English medieval manuscript MS Oxford St John’s College 17, folium 7 verso. There is an Ogham inscription in the centre of Byrhtferth’s diagram: http://babelstone.blogspot.com/2008/12/byrhtferths-ogham-enigma.html


  • The source of all citations: Ainsworth, Thomas, “Form vs. Matter“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

First published: 19/9/2019
Updated: 7/12/2021 added medieval folio

4 thoughts on “[1.3.12] Aristotle’s Four (Plus One) Elements

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