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—— 4 —— Plato’s Chora-graphy of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water We must . . . consider in itself the nature of fire and water, air and earth. . . . For to this day no one has explained their generation, but we speak as if men knew what fire and each of the others is. —Plato, Timaeus Life must be lived as play, playing certain games, making sacrifices, singing and dancing. . . . [Thus] men will live according to Nature since in most respects they are puppets, yet having a small part in Truth. —Plato, Laws But how can one state the elements of an element? —Plato, Theaetetus The ABC of Everything In Plato’s cosmological dialogue, the Timaeus, we encounter a powerful new account of earth, air, fire, and water, one that continues to partake of the complexities of both myth (mythos) and reason (logos) but in a decidedly different way than had Presocratic philosophy.1 The elements, in short, become geometrical and proportional. “Matter” is mathematized within a feminine matrix, the place of its becoming. Plato cordons and connects the elements in a definite relationship with one another and gives them a novel transformational capacity. He transplants Empedocles’ four roots (rhizomata) into his own philosophical framework but endows them with a change in status—above the disorder that exists at the lowest level yet beneath the realm of a benevolent Demiurge and the Forms that provide this master-craftsman with true models. And it is likely Plato who first confers on us the term, stoicheia (elements). As he remarks, the elements can be construed as “the ABC of everything” (stoicheia tou pontos) (48b).2 143 144 | Elemental Philosophy Plato’s work has been drawn of late into environmental debate about the status of nature (physis) and, to a lesser degree, the subjects of natural science, ecological history, vegetarianism, and technology (techne).3 Absent from this discussion, however, has been a critical consideration of the role of the elements (stoicheia) and their relation to the more encompassing outlook afforded by the influential theory in the Timaeus. In this chapter and the two that follow, we examine the accounts of the elements that Plato and Aristotle advance, showing their original responses to the difficulties they perceive in their predecessors and the depth of the debt still due to these forebears. Along the way, we demonstrate that in their willful adoptions of a Presocratic perspective that gave primacy to the elements, they also skillfully adapt earth, air, fire, and water to the demands of their own philosophical systems. They seek and secure a definite place for the elements, a stay against the confusion in the fray of cosmological creation. In finding locations for the elements of the tetrad singularly and collectively and treating the universe itself in rational terms, Plato and Aristotle ensure that the natural world is still “minded.” Although there is a marked departure from the views of the Presocratics , their thought retains broad ecological dimensions and strands, connections with the capacious environment beyond the human polis (civic community) as well as insights that prove valuable to twentieth-century physics. In the process, we develop ties to more recent philosophy, including that of Edmund Husserl, Alfred North Whitehead, and Jacques Derrida, each of whom provides tools to interrogate, critique, or extend ideas within elemental thought. At the same time, Plato’s “stoicheology” (study of the elements)—especially the emplacement of the four to the extent that it is a procrustean—helps to fit the elements for their eventual philosophical displacement and later disappearance. In the end, the elements qua earth, air, fire, and water do not prove to be entirely elemental, first, or fundamental. Something else precedes and is more primary. In the instances of both Aristotle and Plato, new philosophies of nature also come into being, views that gain a great measure of sophistication in their explanatory force but lose something vital as conceptions of the natural household with the accompanying abandonment of forms of animism—the notion that matter is alive. In order to more fully comprehend the state and status in which we presently find earth, air, fire, and water in our own changing natural environment and emerging postnatural lifeworld, it is necessary to reconstruct and reconsider the accounts advanced by Plato and Aristotle and to examine some of the related dimensions of their work that concern nature, place, physical contact, domestication, and geocentricity, along with more traditional philosophical matters such as genesis and motion. A Probable Physics Turning to the Timaeus, we...


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