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The Gk. stoicheia gradually became standard for ‘elements’. Etymologically stoicheion means ‘one of a series’. The term has important connotations in logic, mathematics, and discussions of scientific method as well as natural philosophy. Aristotle defined an element as the primary constituent in something—be it object, speech, or a geometrical proof—which is indivisible into any other kind of thing. The elements of an object might be the four Empedoclean roots (see below), those of speech the letters which make up a word, or those of a geometrical proof the axioms and indemonstrables upon which the proof depends. The concept of elements is fundamental to the widely held Greek—not just Aristotelian—conceptions of science as axiomatic‐deductive in character. Basic mathematical works are often called Elements; best‐known examples include the Elements of Euclid, and the Elements of Harmonics by Aristoxenus.

Most of the first philosophers, Aristotle says, supposed that the only origins of all things were material. ‘That out of which everything is made, that from which things first came, that into which they finally resolve, and that which persists even though modified by actions performed upon it—this they called an element, an origin of things which exist’. Aristotle reports that Thales gave water this status, Anaximenes air, Anaximander ‘the boundless’, while Empedocles named earth, air, fire, and water. It is far from clear that these early thinkers were really seeking to answer precisely the questions which Aristotle attributes to them. In fact, it is likely that Empedocles' four ‘roots’ were the first clearly stated elemental substances into which everything in the world could be resolved. Empedocles' theory, in various forms, remained the dominant element theory for the rest of antiquity.

The early atomists Leucippus and Democritus are credited with a different kind of theory, which sought to explain the qualitative variety in the physical world by appeals to the interaction of indivisible, impassive particles moving in a void (see atomism). Plato, on the other hand, took on the four Empedoclean elements, but traced them further back to their origins in two types of elementary triangle. Throughout antiquity, there was a keen debate over the relative importance of the Empedoclean elements, and fire's status was esp. problematic.

Among the Stoics (see stoicism), Zeno 2 and Chrysippus defined the elements of the material world—earth, air, fire, and water—as substances out of which everything else is initially composed through alteration, and into which everything is dissolved, without suffering either of these fates themselves during the lifetime of a particular world.

Subjects: Classical Studies.

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