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The four elements


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#1 Guest_Isaac David

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Posted 28 March 2005 - 03:21 PM

In his book Orthodoxy and Philosophy, Constantine Cavarnos writes that the Church Fathers adapted various concepts from Greek philosophy which were consonant with Christian truth. Among these was the teaching of Empedocles that the world was created from four elements: earth, water, air and fire. The last writer quoted as including this idea is St. Nicodemos the Hagiorite.

Some people, acquainted with modern science, may very well object that this theory is no longer tenable: water is a compound of the chemical elements hydrogen and oxygen; air is a mixture of the elements nitrogen and oxygen along with smaller amounts of other elements and compounds; earth may be either soil, another mixture of elements and compounds, or everything which is included in the study of geology; fire does not exist as a seperate substance, but depends for its existence on the material being combusted.

Being by nature a cautious person, I do not want to dismiss this idea out of hand as some pre-scientific throwback without a second look. My own, tentative interpretation is that, although these four things are not chemical elements, each with a place in the periodic table, they are, nevertheless, fundamental to life. Most animals and plants depend on water for their continued existence, indeed consist largely of water and most of them, again, could not live without air. If earth is soil, then most plant life grows in it, or if it is the surface of the planet, then it is necessary for survival that such a stable environment continue to exist. Fire per se may not be basic to living things, but heat and light are, in most cases; most living things, even those which live in cold climates or at the dark bottom of the oceans require some form of internal 'combustion' to live.

That, as I have said, is my own, tentative rationalisation for the continued acceptance of the theory of the four elements. Now my questions: 1) how do the Church Fathers deal with the theory? 2) is my attempted account compatible with theirs? 3) is either explanation tenable in the light of modern science?


#2 Fr Raphael Vereshack

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Posted 28 March 2005 - 05:15 PM

In his Philosophical Chapters, St. John of Damascus writes:

"In general, an element is that first thing from which something is made and to which it is ultimately reducible. In particular, however, an element is that of which a body is made and to which it is reducible- and such are fire, water, air, and earth. Fire is a body which is very rare, hot, and dry. Earth is a body which is very dry and heavy. Water is a body which is wet and very cold. Air is a body which is very wet and soft."


In the Orthodox Faith of St. John he also writes:

"Fire is one of the four elements. It is light and more buoyant than the others, and it both burns and gives light. It was made by the Creator on the first day, for Sacred Scripture says: 'And God said: Be light made. And light was made.' According to what some say, fire is the same thing as light."


There is also a footnote at the bottom of this page that refers to the Six Days of Creation of St. Basil the Great so this may also be of help.

I am not at all expert in things scientific but I would say tentatively that your account of the four elements is compatible with that of the Holy Fathers. After all if we read carefully how St. John of Damascus puts the matter it is not in an absolute scientific modern sense. Rather it seems that he speaks generally about the four elements of which physical creation is composed and perhaps this does not contradict the modern table of elements. After all scientists themselves are now discovering more & more minute sub-elements which are actually common elements of the universe. So in some interesting way it seems that from ultimate differentiation scientists are now going full circle to discovering the commonality of the material universe.

I certainly don't speak as an expert in the name of science but perhaps just as other more ancient & 'traditional' forms of medicine are now seen as complementing modern medicine so the idea of the four elements could complement the discoveries of modern science. Just a thought.

In Christ- Fr Raphael

#3 Fr. George Morelli

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Posted 28 March 2005 - 07:36 PM

> Isaac ... Glory to Jesus Christ! .... As the few posts I have made on > Monachos indicate I have been blessed by God to be both a priest and > psychologist. My training in psychology has had a biological slant > and surely scientifically based, so on this may I humbly submit a few > reflections. The most common understanding of mankind being made in > God's image by the Church Fathers is that this is in our "free will > and intelligence". This being true it behooves us to use our > intelligence in the best way we can. Surely it would be "missing the > mark" so to speak to not use a gift God gave us. The Fathers were > not writing as scientists. They were writing to discover divine > truths under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. If they used the > understanding of "how the world works"(by the philosophers or > scientists of their day) the understanding of those pondering the > issues of discovering how the world works this would say nothing about > what they were inspired by the Holy Spirit to pass on to us: "Truths > about God." The 'scientific laws of nature' were created by God > ...[e.g. gravity, thermodynamics, the periodic table of elements > etc.]... these "laws" were discovered by individuals using their gift > of intelligence God gave them. Divine spiritual truths were given to > us by God, in tradition and scripture, and expressed in liturgy, > practice and the prayers of the Church. God gave us intelligence to > discover ---His other truths about creation, over whom He placed Adam > in charge. .... The Western Church got it self in much trouble when it > tried to override science as in the Galilean controversy. This never > should have been an issue. Some historians would say this damaged not > only the Western Church but the Eastern Church and religion as well. > If God is True we should want to proclaim "truth" where ever it is > found .....[May I digress for a moment to state what science is. > Science is simply an agreed upon, public set of rules that are used to > discover how the physical world, physically works. ... it is not > static .. it is based on probability and is propositions must be > stated in way that can be "disconfirmed" ...The propositions > discovered by the method should also be able to predict outcomes > ....e.g. sending a rocket to the moon and actually reaching > it.....predicting the gravitational curvature of light in > space]....The four elements cited by you was one of many early > (relative to the current date) attempts of those who were "natural > philosophers" to understand how the world works. ... Spiritually this > tells us "the heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament > proclaim His handiwork". Our richer understanding today of the > "physical laws of the universe" proclaim even louder the "Glory of > God". .... We should become better scientists and better theologians. > Tomorrows discoveries will "Glorify God more". In his last post Fr. > Raphael said I believe let us "theologize with our hearts" ---- these > are beautiful words ...... may I humbly add and 'scientize' with our > God given intellects. ... in Christ ...Fr George


#4 Guest_George K.

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Posted 28 March 2005 - 09:47 PM

Symbolically it is correct; matter is found in 4 states:

earth = solid
water = liquid
air = gas
fire = plasma

gk


#5 Guest_DR. R. E. POUND

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Posted 28 March 2005 - 09:55 PM

[Dear Brothers and Sisters, I am very ignorant of your expressions and = theology, and want to learn more, so please pardon me if I ask you all = this question about Free-Will and man being in the Image of God, does = God have a Free Will or is His will bound by His nature? Can God choose = to sin or lie or cease to exist? Any help would be appreciated, =


#6 Fr Raphael Vereshack

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Posted 28 March 2005 - 10:56 PM

Dear Dr. Pound,

This topic was dealt with awhile back at monachos. I think if you do a search for this(at top right of this page) you should be able to find the thread.

I am quite sure it was Matthew Steenberg (the moderator of monachos) who finally set us all straight with a resounding affirmation that God can only choose the good. I hope I remember the point- but I believe this is not because God is bound by His nature in the sense of necessity but rather more in the sense that God IS His nature- ie He IS Good, He IS Truth, etc. At least this is how I understood the point that was made at the time. I hope this helps.

In Christ- Fr Raphael

#7 Guest_DR. R. E. POUND

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Posted 28 March 2005 - 11:36 PM

[Dear Brother, Fr Raphael Vereshack thank you for your kind and loving = reply. I will do my best to study out what you have suggested, thank = you again for your love and help, may the Lord bless you dear brother, =


#8 Fr Raphael Vereshack

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Posted 29 March 2005 - 01:07 AM

Dear Brothers & Sisters in Christ,

Could I make a small technical suggestion about the posts? When some of these come to the monachos they they are accompanied by all sorts of = = = and > > > between every few words. Reading this is like listening to a beautiful song with a hiccup every few words!Posted Image I'm not sure what causes this technical problem. Is it from replying from one's email inbox rather than from the monachos site?- ie. the blank box at the bottom of the page. There must be others more knowledgable about these things than I am.

In Christ- Fr Raphael

#9 Fr. George Morelli

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Posted 29 March 2005 - 02:16 AM

> Fr Raphael and others.... Glory to Jesus Christ! ... I am guilty: > quite involuntarily .... I do not have the slightest idea how the ">" > mark gets inserted in my e mails .... I am following the directions > ::reply delete the line and start typing and somehow they it gets > inserted ... to my knowledge the Monachos site is the only e mail I > respond to that this happens .... if someone can tell be how to > correct it ....I will do all I can to do so. ... in the meantime I am > so sorry it is distracting etc .... in Christ ...Fr George


#10 Ken McRae

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Posted 29 March 2005 - 02:53 AM

" ... if someone can tell be how to correct it ... "

Dear Fr George ~

As implied by Fr Raphael, the e-mail you receive from Monachos should include a live link that says "Jump to this page" - and will take you directly to this thread at the Monachos website, when you click onto it. At the bottom of the thread webpage is the box for new replies.

What I often do when I wish to reply to a post, I first open Microsoft WordPad on my computer, copy the post from my e-mail and paste it into WordPad. Then I prepare my reply in WordPad and when it's done, I copy it, go back to my e-mail, click on the live link that says "Jump to this page", scroll down to the bottom of the page, paste my reply into the reply box and post it. I often post it without previewing for grammatical and syntactical errors, and then clean it up after with a few edits. But it's probably better to do all your editing before posting the reply, for obvious reasons.

While this is not exactly the instruction you were looking for, it is a good alternative. Hope it's some help.

In Christ's humility ~
Theophilus


#11 Guest_Isaac David

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Posted 29 March 2005 - 11:02 AM

Thank you for the replies given so far. The point made by George K about the four states of matter also occurred to me a few hours after I wrote the OP and may be an even better explanation than the one I originally offered.

The point about science and the Fathers is one that interests me. There is rarely conflict between the two, because science and sacred philosophy generally deal with different realms, but this is not always so: they both deal with human nature, for example. When they appear to conflict, there is no 'higher' source of knowledge to which one can appeal to resolve the matter. While I have great respect for the achievements of modern science, I am wary of scientism, the ideological partner of science.


#12 Fr. George Morelli

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Posted 29 March 2005 - 04:55 PM

> > Isaac ...Glory to Jesus Christ! Scientism defined as "/.../ the > acceptance of scientific theory and scientific methods as applicable > in all fields of inquiry about the world, including morality, ethics, > art, and religion. Here, /science/ is held to be the ultimate recourse > in questions of public policy and even religion. However, contemporary > usage is usually in a pejorative sense, implying that this acceptance > of the universality of the scientific method is a dogmatic and > uncritical assumption analogous to the dogmatic and uncritical > attitudes of religious" (Wikipedia) has both favorable and unfavorable > aspects to it. Basically as Orthodox our hearts and minds, behavior, > ethos, values have to be entirely in Christ ...... all who use the > scientific method etc have to "put on Christ" the method of science > has to "put on Christ" as it discovers what proclaims God's glory as > the psalmist tells us. ----- scientism is fallacious: ---- > unchristian and unorthodox ...Not to perform excellent, high level > science in "scientific endeavors" is missing the mark, wasting a gift > of God to us (our intelligence), if in fact we have received such a > gift from Him and is thus sinful and un-Orthodox .... In Christ Fr > George ....(p.s. As suggested I am doing this as a copy paste from > Word ....pray it works without the ">". > >


#13 Fr. George Morelli

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Posted 29 March 2005 - 05:36 PM

> To all: Glory to Jesus Christ ... I followed the suggestions from > Theophilis: I first wrote the last post in Word then copy pasted to > the reply after deleting the line in section 3 ... if anyone has any > other suggestions for ridding the ">" please e mail me personally if > you wish ... FYI I use the Mozilla web browser and mail ...once again > I am sorry for the distractions ..... in Christ ..FrGeorge


#14 M.C. Steenberg

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Posted 30 March 2005 - 12:02 PM

Dear Mr Isaac David,

You wrote, above:

That, as I have said, is my own, tentative rationalisation for the continued acceptance of the theory of the four elements. Now my questions: 1) how do the Church Fathers deal with the theory? 2) is my attempted account compatible with theirs? 3) is either explanation tenable in the light of modern science?


Having just returned from a little over a week away from computer contact, I was interested to read your message and the responses that have followed.

Much of what has been said in those posts has been excellent reading -- on symbolism, over-arching 'themes' or groupings of what we now know as the periodic elements under the ancient umbrella-like titles of the 'big four', etc. I look forward to continuing to read the thoughts of others on such things.

A thought does occur to me as to the general approach of your thoughts and inquiry. To what end do we see the fathers of the Church employing this language of the elements (however many), and how does it in fact relate to our present-day conceptions of scientific analysis? Or, to phrase it another way, to what purpose is such language and conceptuality employed by the fathers?

When Mark the Solitary speaks of the four elements of the created order, he does so not to analyze the constitutive design of the cosmos, but to relate the cosmological notion of elemental construction to the inner life of the nous. Just as 'everything in the created realm is composed of the four elements, earth, water, air and fire', so the many and divers passions that arise in the human heart are composed of only a very few 'elemental' roots -- namely, self-love, avarice and the gratification of the flesh. These combine and interact in such ways as to give rise to all manner of passionate sins; but if one possesses nipsis, or a watchfulness driven by genuine discrimination, one identifies the root and thus fells the tree.

Similar readings are to be found in Evagrios, Hesychios, Neilus and many others.

My purpose in mentioning this is to remind us that we ought to see the why of the fathers' usage of scientific language and concepts, as much as the how (in some ways moreso).

INXC, Matthew

#15 Guest_Isaac David

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Posted 31 March 2005 - 12:34 PM

Dear Matthew

You make an interesting point, which quite clearly has to be part of the answer to my inquiry, but it does beg the further question of why St. John Damascene uses the language of the four elements in his Exact Exposition, especially in Book II which treats of the creation. I may only be able to find the answer to that by reading the whole work for myself, but it doesn't seem right to read the Fathers in a spirit of curiosity.

Regards

Isaac


#16 Fr Raphael Vereshack

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Posted 31 March 2005 - 03:27 PM

St. John of Damascus deal with the four elements in Book II Chaps 7-10. This is set within the larger context of creation itself.

As to why St. John uses the language of the four elements- quite clearly he does accept that these are basic & irreducable constituents of the material cosmos. But this in itself is also set within a cosmological context that Matthew S. I think refers to above (although he is referring mainly to the inner noetic world).

We can see this for example when St. John speaks about the signs of the zodiac which he does accept. He then however goes on to say:

Now, the Greeks say that all our affairs are governed by the rising, setting, and conjunction of these stars and of the sun & moon. With such things is astrology concerned. But we say that, while they do give indications of rain and drought, cold & heat, wetness and dryness, winds, and the like, they give absolutely no indication of our actions. For we have been made free by the Creator and we control our own actions. But, if everything we do is governed by the movement of the stars, then whatever we do we do by necessity. Now, what is done by necessity is neither virtue nor vice, and, if we have neither virtue nor vice, we deserve neither reward nor punishment. Hence, God will prove to be unjust when He gives good things to some and tribulations to others. What is more, if all things are driven and moved by necessity, then God will not be exercising either control over His creatures or providence for them. Reason also will be useless to us, for, if we have no control over any of our actions, then it is useless for us to make our own resolves. But reason has been given to us so that we may deliberate, which is why every being that is rational is also free."


Just this one example shows how firmly St. John, following Patristic tradition, grounds an acceptance of material scientific fact in an Orthodox cosmology & anthropology. Indeed for him, as with the other Holy Fathers, it is the Orthodox context which explains the significance of the scientifically perceivable. And here I think we do come to a fundamental divide between the 'scientism' viewpoint of modern culture & an Orthodox perception of creation. While the former believes that reality can be perceived objectively through autonomous human perception, the Orthodox view is that this so-called objective view is quite likely distorted & subject to prelest. On the contrary the Orthodox teaching is that our view even of material creation and its reality is governed by our inner noetic state. Simply put then, the saint sees created reality more clearly because he sees uncreated reality more clearly. And the scientists' findings can be deeply flawed or lacking to the extent that he is trying to live a life outside of God and is thus subject to the passions.

In Christ- Fr Raphael

#17 M.C. Steenberg

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Posted 31 March 2005 - 05:36 PM

Dear Mr Isaac David, you wrote:

You make an interesting point, which quite clearly has to be part of the answer to my inquiry, but it does beg the further question of why St. John Damascene uses the language of the four elements in his Exact Exposition, especially in Book II which treats of the creation.


As Fr Raphael noted in his previous post (just above this), St John does evidently believe that these four 'elements' are the scientific constituents of the material realm. They are, in a sense, his 'periodic table' -- as they were for so many in the ancient world (perhaps, as Mr George K. indicated in a post above, because they represent symbolically the basic properties of created reality: 'earth' = solid, 'water'= liquid, 'air' = gas, 'fire' = plasma). In book II of his Exact Exposition, John is commentating on the cosmogony as accurately as he feels himself able given the scientific concepts of his age; though, as Fr Raphael pointed out, he is not uncritical when doing so.

What must be borne in mind is his purpose in making this commentary and exposition. His desire is to disclose the truth of the faith, namely Jesus Christ as one of the Trinity, and that truth's salvific character and purpose for humankind. His exploration of the created realm falls under this purview: to know through it the truth that is Christ its fashioner and creator. And this is driven by the firm conviction that Christ has implanted this purpose and ability in creation itself. So he writes:

God, however, did not leave us in absolute ignorance. For the knowledge of God's existence has been implanted by Him in all by nature. This creation, too, and its maintenance and its government, proclaim the majesty of the Divine nature. Moreover, by the Law and the Prophets in former times and afterwards by His Only-begotten Son, our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ, He disclosed to us the knowledge of Himself as that was possible for us. All things, therefore, that have been delivered to us by Law and Prophets and Apostles and Evangelists we receive and know and honour, seeking for nothing beyond these. For God, being good, is the cause of all good, subject neither to envy nor to any passion. For envy is far removed from the Divine nature, which is both passionless and only good. As knowing all things, therefore, and providing for what is profitable for each, He revealed that which it was to our profit to know; but what we were unable to bear, He kept secret. With these things let us be satisfied, and let us abide by them, not removing everlasting boundaries, nor over passing the divine tradition. (Exact exposition, I.1)

So the exploration of the cosmogony and the truths of cosmology are, for St John, explorations of the truth that is God's personal being. The arts of the material sciences (and he clearly believes them to be of immense value) are embraced as pointing toward and revealing this message which comes from the experience of the Trinity in creation -- an experience that is always intellectually mediated, when we come to explain it, by the scientific concepts with which one is current. This is not to say that the truth encountered (which, again, is the eternal personal reality of God) is 'changed' or is different from one scientific framework to another; rather, to recognise that the reality which is directly experienced must, when shared with others in words and writings, be mediated through the 'linguistic vision' of the day.

John's discussion of comets (book II.7) is case-in-point. Few today would describe the scientific reality of a comet in his terms! Yet he addresses the cosmic reality from the scientific framework of his day, to reveal the truth of which it stands as a witness.

The scientific conceptions may change (we do not any longer consider the periodic table to consist only of four elements; nor do we consider fire elemental), but the point of these theological treatises was never the objective explanation of cosmic science. Their objective was always the disclosure and exploration of divine truth. In this they remain rather timeless, beyond the science they employ -- and this again is readily apparent in the Exact Exposition book II.

INXC, Matthew

#18 M.C. Steenberg

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Posted 31 March 2005 - 06:07 PM

A side note to Fr George and others: for information on solving the problem which results in '>' and '=' characters being inserted to posts made via e-mail replies, please see the relevant section of the Forum Tutorial.


#19 Guest_nurse-aid

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Posted 31 March 2005 - 05:02 PM

O Cross of Yours! O lift of mine! O stretching flesh! O Love of Thine!
Stretch up my hands and lift me up! Beyond all doubts I’m in Your shrine!
But old my flesh, which keeps me here, pain of that flesh that needs to clear….
Nail hands of thoughts and feet of fears…Let blood to flow…feels You near!
O Cross of Thine! O wings to fly! O flame of Love! O way of Cry!
O painful Joy! O endless Life! O Heaven mine! I’m only Thine!


#20 Guest_Isaac David

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Posted 02 April 2005 - 12:56 PM

Dear Matthew and Fr. Raphael

Thank you for your own exact (and helpful) expositions of the matter at hand. I am minded to pose a further question for the sake of clarity: would I be right in thinking that in saying, as Fr. Raphael does

the saint sees created reality more clearly because he sees uncreated reality more clearly


it is the meaning of creation that the saint sees more clearly, i.e. he doesn't have privileged access to scientific information about the creation, but knows something which can impact on the interpretation of such information?

Regards

Isaac




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