Our experience of Nature can be described as a dynamic interplay of opposite forces, or qualities: hot and cold; dry and wet; light and heavy; hard and soft; smooth and rough, and so on. Among these pairs of opposites the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle—one of the fathers of Western culture—concluded that two of them were more important than all the others: Hot and Cold; Dry and Wet. The elemental model is based on these fundamental qualities.
According to the astrological tradition (which is part of western esoteric schools) an element is actually formed by the encounter of two of them, like so:
As you can see each element is connected to the adjacent ones by a quality. For example, Fire and Air has Hot in common; Air and Water, Wet. This allows us to understand that elements can dynamically transform to one another by altering one of their qualities. If you raise the “temperature”, Earth becomes Fire; raising the “moisture”, it becomes Water.
We need to understand that by saying Earth, Water, Air and Fire we are not merely speaking of flames, wind, rain, etc. They are symbols, and as such their meaning is far more rich and complex. Even the fundamental qualities follow the same logic. From a psychological perspective—which is the most interesting to modern astrologers—Hot and Cold refer to introversion and extroversion. Hot elements tend to make a person extroverted; the cold ones, introverted. Wet and Dry instead concern adaptability and rigidity: wet elements make us accommodating and sympathetic; the dry ones stubborn and tough.
We can think of elements as the founding components of reality. As such, they can be used as a model to describe the world through a holistic approach. Being symbols, they can be recognized everywhere, and used to understand the material, psychic and spiritual aspects of reality. Basically, they are four different perspectives that are able to split our undifferentiated experience of the world into four comprehensible patterns. Let’s give some examples to clarify these concepts.
From a physical perspective elements represent the four states of aggregation of matter: Earth is solid; Water is liquid; Air is gas; Fire is energy (or plasma). Raising or decreasing heat—namely, the energetic level—matter transforms from an element into another. Being Fire the purest form of energy, it is considered the element of transformation.
From a medical perspective they represent the four humors of classical medicine: Earth is black bile; Water is phlegm; Air is blood; Fire is yellow bile. When humors are in balance the person is healthy; when they lack or are in surplus, health is at risk.
Humors are also correlated to the theory of temperaments which brings us from the outer world of manifestation to the inner world of the soul. Temperaments correspond in fact to four fundamental personality types: Earth is melancholic (gloomy, pessimist, realist, analytical, serious); Water is phlegmatic (calm, thoughtful, patient, peaceful, lazy); Air is sanguine (talkative, curious, playful, carefree); Fire is choleric (ambitious, determined, feisty, restless, easily angered).
There are many fields we can study through the elemental model: the four seasons, the cardinal directions, the four stages of life (childhood, youth, maturity, old age), the four kingdoms of Nature (mineral, vegetable, animal, human), and so on. In Astrology we use them to classify the major traits of signs and determine a person’s temperament as well.