Water, Air, Fire and Earth: First Principles on a Sunday Morning


Thales, fr. 20
“Water is the beginning and the end of everything.”

[οὕτος ἔφη] ἀρχὴν τοῦ παντὸς εἶναι καὶ τέλος τὸ ὕδωρ



Diogenes of Apollonia (D. L. 9.57)

“Diogenes believed these things: that the first principle is air, there are endless universes and empty space.”

᾿Εδόκει δὲ αὐτῷ τάδε· στοιχεῖον εἶναι τὸν ἀέρα, κόσμους ἀπείρους καὶ κενὸν ἄπειρον·


Anaximenes, Diog. 2.3

“He said that the first principle was the air and the boundless. And that the stars did not move under the earth, but around it.”

οὗτος ἀρχὴν ἀέρα εἶπεν καὶ τὸ ἄπειρον. κινεῖσθαι δὲ τὰ ἄστρα οὐχ ὑπὸ γῆν, ἀλλὰ περὶ γῆν.


Anaximander, Test. 10.3

“the boundless contains the origin of all creation and destruction.”

… τὸ ἄπειρον φάναι τὴν πᾶσαν αἰτίαν ἔχειν τῆς τοῦ παντὸς γενέσεώς τε καὶ φθορᾶς




Heraclitus, fr. 30

“This world, which no god or man ever made, the same world to all, it always was, is and will be an ever-living fire with some measures kindled and others going out.”

κόσμον τόνδε, τὸν αὐτὸν ἁπάντων, οὔτε τις θεῶν οὐτε ἀνθρώπων ἐποίησεν, ἀλλ’ ἦν ἀεὶ καὶ ἔστιν καὶ ἔσται πῦρ ἀείζωον, ἁπτόμενον μέτρα καὶ ἀποσβεννύμενον μέτρα

Heraclitus, fr. 76

“Fire creates the death of earth; air creates the death of fire; water creates the death of air; earth the death of water.”

ζῆι πῦρ τὸν γῆς θάνατον καὶ ἀὴρ ζῆι τὸν πυρὸς θάνατον, ὕδωρ ζῆι τὸν ἀέρος
θάνατον, γῆ τὸν ὕδατος.



Parmenides (Diogenes 9.21-23)

“He declared first that the world was spherical and in the center [of everything]. And he said there were two principle elements, fire and earth, and that the first acted like a craftsman and the second like material.”

πρῶτος δὲ οὗτος τὴν γῆν ἀπέφαινε σφαιροειδῆ καὶ ἐν μέσωι κεῖσθαι. δύο τε εἶναι στοιχεῖα, πῦρ καὶ γῆν, καὶ τὸ μὲν δημιουργοῦ τάξιν ἔχειν, τὴν δὲ ὕλης. (22)



Empedocles, fr. 17.25-27

I will speak a two-fold tale. Once, first, the one alone grew
Out of many and then in turn it grew apart into many from one.
Fire, and Water, and Earth and the invincible peak of Air,

δίπλ’ ἐρέω· τοτὲ μὲν γὰρ ἓν ηὐξήθη μόνον εἶναι
ἐκ πλεόνων, τοτὲ δ’ αὖ διέφυ πλέον’ ἐξ ἑνὸς εἶναι,
πῦρ καὶ ὕδωρ καὶ γαῖα καὶ ἠέρος ἄπλετον ὕψος,


Bonus Round

Heraclitus, fr. 53
“War is father and king of everything”

Πόλεμος πάντων μὲν πατήρ ἐστι, πάντων δὲ βασιλεύς


Sing it, Mr.Byrne

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 1.192-198: From Rain to Letters to Elements

“One must consider too that without a fixed annual amount of rain
the land cannot produce its gladdening fruit
nor is it the nature of animals bereft of their customary food
to be able to increase their race and safeguard life;
In this way you ought to understand more readily that many bodies
are shared among many things, just as we see letters shared among words,
than that anything could ever exist without elemental beginnings.”

Huc accedit uti sine certis imbribus anni
laetificos nequeat fetus submittere tellus
nec porro secreta cibo natura animantum
propagare genus possit vitamque tueri; 195
ut potius multis communia corpora rebus
multa putes esse, ut verbis elementa videmus,
quam sine principiis ullam rem existere posse.