elemental cycles

How Aristotle's cycle of the elements might grow naturally from the ideas presented previously, at least as one of just very few simple possibilities.

The four elements can in principle interface in six ways: emo-ero, emi-eri, emo-emi, ero-eri, emo-eri, emi-ero.

Transitions at the first two interfaces, emo-ero and emi-eri, are clearly possible in both directions, since things start to move and come to rest both inside and outside.

The situation at the remaining four interfaces is more difficult to estimate, because they all cross the boundary between in and out. Since the outside world has an effect on the inner world, and vice-versa, in and out are obviously connected, but a priori not all 8 possible transitions at these 4 interfaces in-out would be necessary.

Let me take a step back and reconsider the interfaces emo-ero and emi-eri. Take emo-ero. The interface between these two elements must be unobservable, because otherwise it would be something that is observed in the outside world, hence it would be one of these two elements. The analog argument can be made for the interface emi-eri.

For the same reason, the boundary in-out must be unobservable, too, so that one might imagine it to be a thin membrane. Imagine, say, a blob of ero at the boundary to inside and move the boundary just a little bit into ero. A slice of ero will end up inside and, if it remains passive, will start to flow, becoming emi.

Similarly, emi->ero, emo->eri, eri->emo, but no transitions emo-emi or ero-eri. Under these assumptions, one would thus arrive at Aristotle's circle of transformations emo-eri-emi-ero-emo or fire-air-water-earth-fire.

But are these assumptions really more plausible than others ? Very difficult to say, see also leads below...


  • Why not assume that ero once inside would continue to stay at rest, thus becoming eri ? This is possible, but would apparently require that at the interface some energy is provided, in order to transform a passive element into an active one.
  • The transitions emo-ero and emi-eri do not conserve the property active/passive. Here it is apparently the outer and inner worlds, respectively, that provide a source or a sink of energy for these transformations.
  • Maybe the elements cannot permeate the boundary in-out, but energy can: Where emo touches emi, activity could move inside, simultaneously turning emo to ero and emi to eri, and also vice-versa, i.e. two linked circles emo-ero and emi-eri.
  • Maybe the transitions between in and out resemble more a Möbius strip than a border, so that you could get from one side to the other without ever crossing a line ?
  • Since all six interfaces cannot be observed, a priori all kinds of complex things might happen there. Also, these six interfaces could arguably form e5, and would thus be related to such complex themes as destiny vs. free will or causality, etc.
  • I often imagine the Greek elements fire, air, water and earth instead of thinking entirely abstractly about these issues. For the interface ero-emi, one might imagine, say, the bed of a river, where some material is washed away and at other places sediment is deposited. In contrast, a rock in calm desert air (ero-eri) is much less susceptible to erosion or deposition.
  • I also consider the cultural counterparts of the four elements in psychology, like imagination and ideas for fire, realism for earth, feelings for water, and logical thinking and communication for air. Physics, for example, observes the way things change, from which it then derives laws of nature in the formal language of math, reminding of emo->eri.
  • In Greek mythology, many abstract concepts were represented by gods and heroes and their stories.
    Fate, for example, was typically represented by three women: Clotho who spins the thread of life, Lachesis who measures its length and Atropos who cuts it. They remind of the inner world that mostly creates motion (life), the outer world that mostly destroys motion (death), and in-between an instance that defines or decides what is in or out.
  • Of course, it is not possible to derive anything with certainty from such images and analogies, but they can provide a few interesting new impulses for more formal approaches.
  • Elements in other cultures, and the eight trigrams of the I Ching, are also commonly arranged in various circles.
  • What about other interfaces, like between asleep and awake, or between past and future (the present) ?
© 2002-now Alain Stalder