Alright, my understanding of both modern physics and classical cosmology is a little shaky, so I hope this question is neither unclear nor foolish.

Here goes: In Aristotelian cosmology all matter is made up of the same four elements, and more complex substances are some mixture of them. Each of the four elements has certain properties, which place them in natural opposition to another element. Fire, for example, is hot and dry, contra water, which is cool and wet.

But there's a problem there: Heat doesn't behave like it's a property of a certain kind of matter. It transfers, increases and decreases, changes the properties of objects, etc.

Presumably there is some kind of ancient rationale for this ... or failing that one might be invented. So my question is, how can a greek-inspired four elements cosmology justify the way that heat behaves?

  • $\begingroup$ Heat is a quality not an element. And Aristotelian physics was never intended to provide actual computable descriptions of natural phenomena; it was just a very high-level qualitative model, and everybody understood that. Actual engineers (and sculptors, and tradesmen) did not bother to link their practical knowledge with the theoretical model. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Apr 28, 2017 at 16:25

2 Answers 2


As to my understanding of Aristotelian elements, heat isn't an aspect of any one element (air is considered hot and moist, while fire is hot and dry), and fire is primarily characterized as an excess of heat. For more information on that specifically, I direct you to http://web.lemoyne.edu/giunta/EA/ARISTOTLEann.html book II chapter 3.

In modern physics matter is generally divided into four "states" (there are exceptions and special cases, but that's complicated and not on subject) solid, liquid, gas and plasma (in order from low energy to high). The deciding difference between each of these is the amount of energy (heat) in the object. Fire, lightning, stars, etc. are all plasma, which is gas with so much energy forced into it that the electrons come flying off.

So it's less that heat is a property of a certain element, and more a factor in which is which.

Alternatively, associating heat with fire alone, you could say that hot water had a little bit of fire within it.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks, I think I've just muddled myself trying to research this stuff piecemeal online. The solution is probably just to sit down with a short stack of library books, and the provided link. $\endgroup$
    – Random
    Apr 28, 2017 at 4:24
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Era Full marks for realizing library research is the way to go. Online research can be useful, but it also has its downsides. Have fun with books! $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Apr 28, 2017 at 5:13

I don't think there's much of an answer, at least within the constraints of the science-based tag. Aristotelian philosophy (re the physical sciences) just isn't science as we know it today -- it has (a) little/no predictive ability and (b) tries to convince the reader of false things.

Since our universe isn't really based on four primal elements, but actually 118 as of this writing, any explanation would be, ahem, alternative-science -- or, if you like, magic. Are you looking for real science or some sort of Magical theory/structure that would make it work in a story or game?


For example, if I were to mix Oxygen (O2/'air'), Carbon (C/'earth'), Water (H2O) and heat them to some high temperature (heat input/'fire') and let the reaction run to effective equilibrium, classical-element-based chemistry could make wild guesses of what would result, but only wild guesses, based on the apriori knowledge. After the experiment, an Aristotelian could/would probably come up with some halfway-plausible explanation of why the results were what they were -- but only if he didn't die from Carbon Monoxide poisoning first. A real chemist would know to expect CO, unless the mix was very, very rich in Oxygen relative to the H and C.

Similarly, classical-element chemistry (AKA alchemy) taught that gold could be made from things other than gold, by purely alchemical reactions (rather than fusion in a supernova.) But they never found their Philospher's Stone.

That said, I'm interested in magic(s) based on the classical four elements, to the point of world-building something like that myself. Maybe start a chat if others are interested?

  • $\begingroup$ The Aristotelian "elements" and our "elements" are not of the same nature. The meanings of words change, and moreover modern-ish science has rudely appropriated the vocabulary of philosophy assigning new meanings to ancient words. Same goes for "substance", "cause", "category" etc. etc. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Apr 28, 2017 at 16:28

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