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6 The Economy and Ecology of the Aristotelian Elements Without Contraries is no progression. —William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell How does a part of the world leave the world? How can wetness leave water? —Rumi, “Enough Words?” Hot, cold, wet and dry, four champions fierce, Strive here for Mast’ry, and to Battle bring. —Milton, Paradise Lost Hot, Cold, Wet, and Dry We have seen how place is integral—indeed essential and indispensable—to understanding the natural household, the human home, and the nonhuman environment, and how it figures in and configures prominently the Aristotelian perspective of the physical world. In order to deepen our analysis and more completely reconstruct and examine Aristotle’s theory of the elements, we now explore the roles and status of the contraries—hot, cold, wet, and dry—as well as elemental conversion, the compound bodies that arise from the elements, the curious matter of “prime matter,” and the whereabouts and meaning of a fifth element (aether or ether) introduced into the philosophical picture. In the process, we underscore the vital significance of elemental contact and bodily touch in linking us to our ambient surroundings and tethering Aristotle’s disparate views together. Finally, we look at the relation of the psyche (soul) to the external world and the additional ways in which the four elements are relevant to ecological thought. First, however, we turn to On Generation and Corruption, where Aristotle fashions an account of contrariety, advances an argument concerning elemental 209 210 | Elemental Philosophy transformation and investigates the “so-called ‘elements’ of bodies.” In this treatise, the true elements seem suddenly and prima facie not to be earth, air, fire, and water as concrete entities, but rather Milton’s “four champions fierce”: the pair of physical opposites—hot (thermon) and cold (psychron), wet (hygron) and dry (xeron)—which Presocratic cosmologies characterized frequently in the metaphorical terms of angry warriors at battle. Hot and wet form air; hot and dry constitute fire; dry and cold create earth; and cold and wet give birth to water. Each element thereby has two defining characteristics. Aristotle most commonly refers to the hot, cold, wet, and dry as “contraries” (ta enantia), but he uses the term differentiae (diaphorai), too. The contraries themselves are referred to as principles (archai)1 and forms (eide), whereas the Meteorology describes cold as like a material factor and dry and wet as passive matter (hyle).2 In speaking of the characteristics that relate to one another in a pair of elements, Aristotle also employs the expressions corresponding factors, tallies, or counterparts (symbola). In the Aristotelian worldview, touch is primary and primordial. The main contraries must be tangible because touch is the only quality common to all perceptible things. In fact, perceptible bodies are equivalent with tangible bodies, a point we argue proves to be an important tie between his ostensibly unconnected accounts of the elements. Aristotle thus asserts in De Anima that the sense of touch is able to exist apart from other senses but that these senses cannot exist apart from it. Touch is the distinguishing quality of bodies qua bodies that are tangible, a position that in effect transfers “touch” to “tangibility.” Moreover, touch is the only sense that all animals possess. And from the claim that touch can exist separately from other senses (but not vice-versa), Aristotle concludes that the qualities sensed by touch are the distinguishing characteristics of a body as body. We can see, then, that it is by way of a tangible contrary that Aristotle is able to differentiate the four primary bodies. For this reason, he does not choose contraries such as sweetness and bitterness or whiteness and blackness as his elements or, more precisely, so-called elements. They are nontangible contrarieties, even if they are still perceptible ones. To this point, however, Aristotle has not established why the contraries of hot and cold and wet and dry are the true qualities of elements. There are other candidates that must first be eliminated. We have found only that the contraries must be tangible. In addition to hot–cold and wet–dry, the contraries that are correlative to touch include the hard and soft, the heavy and light, the rough and smooth, the viscous and brittle, and the coarse and fine. In order to proceed, Aristotle needs to develop and deploy some further criteria. The first such criterion and approach involves whether a tangible quality is capable of acting on or being acted on...


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