Alchemy/Chemistry - Elements, substances, compounds etc.

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Stephen Hughes
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Joined: February 26th, 2013, 7:12 am

Alchemy/Chemistry - Elements, substances, compounds etc.

Post by Stephen Hughes » December 5th, 2013, 4:44 am

This is not directly a "Greek" question, but rather a recurrent "background to reading" question that I've been thinking about, but can't find a satisfactory answer for...

Preamble: It seems that at the time the New Testament was written, the basis for a scientific understanding the world was that there were 4 original elements - heat and cold, dryness and moisture. Those pairs were combined in four ways and gave rise to the four elements (στοιχεῖα):
  • fire πῦρ (hot + dry),
    air ἀήρ (wet + hot),
    water ὕδωρ (cold + wet) and
    earth γῆ (dry + cold).
The combination of those four elements in different proportions in turn gave rise to all other substances.

Observation: There seems to be some interaction between that understanding of the world and what we find in the New Testament. The most outstanding one is how fire is seen as a change element, and also water.

Disconcertion: I "feel" that I am reading into the text a modern chemistry / materials physics understanding of the world, rather than understanding things in the terms that it was written. For a long time the scientific ideas of the ancient world had not changed or developed much, so people reading the text would have had fairly much the same (pseudo-)scientific presuppositions. We however, have a different set of presuppositions, so I guess we need to actively learn what was previously known, to be able to engage the text in the same way.

Question: Does anyone know of a ready discussion on how those proto-scientific ideas are expressed in the text? Or a brief rundown of the early scientific theories as they have bearing on the way that we understand the text?
Γελᾷ δ' ὁ μωρός, κἄν τι μὴ γέλοιον ᾖ
(Menander, Γνῶμαι μονόστιχοι 108)

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Joined: May 5th, 2011, 5:52 pm
Location: Burnsville, NC 28714

Re: Alchemy/Chemistry - Elements, substances, compounds etc.

Post by cwconrad » December 5th, 2013, 10:44 am

An "oldie but goodie" is a thin little book published in 1970 that is still in print: F. E. Peters, Greek Philosophical Terms: A Historical Lexicon. See: ... 0814765521 This gives the major references to texts citing these terms. I'd expect the key figures here are Aristotle and his successors and the medical writers. I would assume that there are also histories of ancient Greek science, i.e. "Natural Philosophy."
οὔτοι ἀπ’ ἀρχῆς πάντα θεοὶ θνητοῖς ὑπέδειξαν,
ἀλλὰ χρόνῳ ζητέοντες ἐφευρίσκουσιν ἄμεινον. (Xenophanes, Fragment 16)

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University (Retired)

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