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—— 5 —— The Place of the Elements and the Elements of Place Aristotle’s Natural Household Give me a place to stand and I will move the world. —Archimedes The potency of place [is] marvelous . . . and takes[s] precedence of all other things. —Aristotle, Physics I find the elemental to be deeply binding. Each phenomenal element, whether it be air or water or rock, is intimately linked to every other and in this capacity helps to tie together the landscape I witness. —Edward Casey, Representing Place Four Accounts of Five Elements The secret to understanding Aristotle, Santayana once observed, is to see him as a thoroughgoing naturalist given that “everything ideal has a natural basis, and everything natural an ideal development.”1 Indeed, for Aristotle, elemental entities possess natural places and movements; objects of knowledge are apprehended through bodily and earth-bound senses; there is frequent reference to biological models or analogies; and even the concept of the soul (psyche) is naturalized. Such approaches tend to make his work amenable to ecological thought and deliberation —even if it might sometimes be problematic in its application—and as a whole more germane in its orientation to emerging issues than many other philosophical frameworks. Aristotle’s vision of the natural world and human community, in fact, 179 180 | Elemental Philosophy continues to affect environmental discourse in constructive ways as evidenced by social ecology, a contemporary school of thought that has embraced some of his main ideas.2 Aristotle introduces his own original understanding of earth, air, fire, and water after launching a sustained critique of the elemental philosophy of the Presocratics and Plato. In the process, we encounter a strikingly new account of nature (physis) and its relation to place, motion, change, contrariety, and causality, one that transforms thinking about the environment and exercises an influence even past the objections of Descartes, Spinoza, and Newton. Aristotle attends to the whereabouts of the elements (stoicheia). He provides in effect a household for earth, air, fire, and water—a place for their homecoming and an abode for their return and “domestication”—just as Plato provided a locale for their genesis, their arrival into the world through a Receptacle (hypodoche). In brief, Aristotle takes up Plato’s offer to “put the matter to the test” and find a better method for the construction of the elemental bodies such that “his will be the victory, not of an enemy, but of a friend.”3 The challenge for him is to defend the primacy of the elements understood by Empedocles as unchanging building blocks while showing that they are nevertheless generated, although not as Plato envisioned.4 Given that Aristotle’s writings on the elements appear in a variety of texts, the question can be raised whether he proffers distinct and differing accounts of earth, air, fire, and water. There is, it seems, a psychological theory (On the Soul), a cosmological view (On the Heavens), a more restricted physical outlook (On Generation and Corruption), and a meteorological version (Meteorology) of the elements.5 In many key respects, these four frameworks dovetail just like the four elements themselves to form a relatively coherent picture of the Aristotelian universe and the physical world of the ancient Greeks. Ultimately, however, Aristotle provides a kind of jigsaw puzzle theory of the elements, one with a few stray or missing pieces, a couple of questionable fits, and several leftover items but also one that can be cobbled together creatively to present a powerful perspective of the environment. Whereas Aristotle’s Physics examines place and change in general, On the Heavens (hereafter De Caelo) takes as its topic the more narrow range of local movement and treats earth, air, fire, and water in terms of their lightness or heaviness. It also introduces aether (ether) as a fifth element that splays open the frame of the four, exposing it to the sidereal realm beyond “the above,” and ostensibly, but not actually, altering the economy and ecology of earth, air, fire, and water. On Generation and Corruption considers the elements as contraries and simple bodies, exploring the types of transformation between them. Aristotle thereby analyzes change of substance (generation), change of quality (alteration), and change of magnitude (growth). On the Soul (hereafter De Anima), in turn, tackles the subject of the psyche (soul) and whether it is composed of elements as some earlier philosophers had presumed. Finally, the Meteorology studies combinations and mutual influences of earth, fire, air, and water in the environment.6 The Place...


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