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?
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Γελᾷ δ' ὁ μωρός, κἄν τι μὴ γέλοιον ᾖ
(Menander, Γνῶμαι μονόστιχοι 108)

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Joined: May 5th, 2011, 5:52 pm
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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."
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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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