The Four Elements or Pillars
Why does Ibn Sina discuss fire, water, and air?
And why do we find these elements repeated in ancient science?
Avicenna’s medicine represents the human body with a mixture of the four elements (fire, air, water, and earth) and Galen preceded him to that. This does not refer to the elements themselves as they are found in nature, but rather refers to how the properties of those elements are represented in the human body,
Fire is characterized by heat and dryness, as it is hot and turns what it burns into ash (which is characterized by dryness). Therefore, materials that are hot and dry are described as fire, and in this manner, the body parts that are hot and dry are characterized as fire as well.
Accordingly, the substance or organ that is characterized by heat and moisture is described as “air”, and the substance or organ that is characterized by cold and humidity is described as “water”, and which is characterized by cold and dryness as “earth.”
Avicenna also states that the four elements are elementary and indivisible (according to the human body), but their combination with some (or the combination of their properties) creates a new situation.
Some Characteristics of the Four Elements
Earth (Dust) is the heaviest of the elements, and it is placed under the other elements. It is useful in fixing any element it is mixed with, and is useful in firmness and preservation of form. Its temperament is cold and dry – its primary characteristic is dryness, and the secondary characteristic is coldness.
Water: It is less heavy than the earth, and it surrounds it. Water is useful in adding flexibility to bodies as it easily takes a new shape and loses it easily as well. Its temperament is cold and damp – the primary property of water is moisture, and the secondary property is coldness.
Air: Lighter than water and heavier than fire, so it falls between them. The air is useful in softening materials and keeping particles away from each other.
It is more flexible than water, Its temperament is hot and humid – its primary characteristic is humidity and the secondary characteristic is heat.
Fire: The lightest of all the elements, and the maturation of the materials adjacent to it. Its temperament is hot and dry – the primary characteristic of it is heat and the secondary is dryness -.
How do the elementary elements affect each other?
The organs’ temperaments differ from each other (there are 4 main temperaments) and their sum determines the body temperament.
For example, the heart is hot and humid and partly equivalent to the brain which is with a cold and wet temperament, and the liver is hot and humid temperament and equates to bones temperament which is cold and dry, and so on.
When all organs are in the right temperament, we say the body is in a moderate temperament, which is the best condition for health. This does not mean that the body temperature is exactly in the middle, but rather that the body is in the temperature that it should be.
The word temperament comes from the word temperare which means to ‘mingle’., that is, the mixing of elements.
When the four humours in the body are equal to each other, but one of them exceeds the rest, the person’s body is described with thepredominant humour.
For example, if the black bile increases in a body, then it tends to be cold and dry, and the person is described as being melancholic. And if the blood is more than the rest of the humours, the body tends to heat and humidity, and the person is described as sanguine. And accordingly, someone can be chloeric or phlegmatic too.
It is worth noting that most people have cold temperaments, and the minority are hot temperaments. A few and very rarely people are of moderate temperaments.
All patients with Multiple Sclerosis have cold temperaments (to the limit of excessive), and the basis of Avicenna’s diet is to bring the body to a level of equilibrium by imparting heat to the body.
The four elements decompose (return to nature) in the event of death, and it happens as follows,
The first stage heat leaves the body and cools down (fire).
The second stage is the departure of the wind from the body after its swelling (air).
The third stage fluid leaves the body and dries up (water).
The fourth stage the body decomposes and returns to earth (earth).