The Occidental Theory of the Four Elements and of the Constitution
“Thus, there are four elements in the body, which make four kinds of diseases. Therefore, man is based on four elements, just as on four mothers. From these, health and diseases have derived”. (Paracelsus).
The ancient doctrine of the elements goes back to the Greek philosopher and physician, Empedocles of Agrigentum (5th century BC). He referred to the fourfold roots (rhizomata) of creation, which he called fire, air, water, and earth. According to his conceptions, everything existing emerges and vanishes due to love and conflict between these elemental forces.
Shortly after Empedocles had formulated the fourfold roots of creation, they were referred to as elements. They formed the first fundament of a scientific / rational medicine of the Occident.
Thus, the ancient Theory of the Four Elements has been influencing our cultural history and medical science for 2,500 years now. Consequently, it should be one of the oldest models of thought of man about nature, which still attracts interest today, albeit not any more to the same extent as a few generations ago.
The Theory of the Four Elements and of the Art of Healing
An important step for a practical application of the theory of the four humours in medicine was the allocation of primary and secondary qualities to the elements /see graph):
- Fire: warm, but also dry
- Air: damp, but also warm
- Water: cold, but also damp
- Earth: dry, but also cold
This way, similarities and polarities of the elements, which – as we shall see – form the base of the therapy according to the elements. Beside the qualities, the “humours”, the main organs, temperaments, and essential principles are assigned to the elements until today.
- Fire: yellow bile / choleric person / self-awareness
- Air: blood / kidneys / sanguine type / feeling
- Water: mucus / liver / phlegmatic person /vital force
- Earth: black bile / lungs /melancholic / structural force
The harmonic interaction of the humours (eucrasia) on the one hand means health; disharmony (dyscrasia) on the other hand means disease. In ancient times dyscrasia was understood to be a guilty matter, which was created by an excess of an element. Accordingly, healing took place by draining of the surplus humour, for example by sweating, bloodletting, vomiting, or purging.
At the latest since Galen (129-199), the qualities of the elements have also been assigned to pharmaceutical substances. These are mainly plants, which are in compliance with the elements in their signature (colour, taste, etc.) and in their effect. Thus, there are warming and fiery, cooling ad watery, dampening and airy as well as drying and earthy plants which are employed for the treatment of a surplus quality of an element.
Therapy According to the Theory of the Four Elements
In order to develop a therapy concept with pharmaceutical substances according to the conceps of the Theory of the Four Humours it is necessary to understand the elements as polarities. Opposites are formed by:
- Water (cold)
- Fire (warm)
- Air (damp)
- Earth (dry)
Normally, the qualities of the elements are normally in a compensatory balance inside man. Depending on the requirements, the opposite element can balance out an excess of the opposite element. Illness only occurs in case of a permanent overemphasis of the quality of an element.
If an element exists in a state of pathological excess, it can no more be compensated by an opposite element. One can then speak of a state of deficiency of the opposite pole, “If an element errs, it weakens the other one, because all should be complete and take their destined course” (Paracelsus).
The normal therapy with pharmaceutical substances now consists in strengthening the weak element. This way, one administers plants with a cold and damp quality (water= in order to balance out an overemphasis of fire. This approach is called Antipathic Healing.
An example would be the administration of cooling and anti-inflammatory remedies of the water element like birch tree, mallow, cowslip, or ash tree in case of fever. If, on the other hand, fiery and stimulating remedies like Echinacea are administered in case of high temperature, the danger exists that the condition gets worse.
(Echinacea is a proven remedy for infection prophylaxis; it stimulates heat processes and the immune defence = lack of fire). The antipathic method is particularly suited for emergency measures and for the relief of symptoms. One cannot speak of a real healing as the reason, for this does not lie in the weakness of an element but rather in an excess.
Thus, there must still be other ways of balancing out the elements. Already Paracelsus (1493-1541) knew such a way, “Never has a hot disease been healed with something cold, or a cold one with something hot. But has happened that like has been healed with like” (Paracelsus) – this method is called sympathetic healing.
If one takes it literally, it means that one has to treat an overemphasis of fire with means that they themselves are in accordance with the fire element. How can this be, as we have just determined that with a method like this a worsening must take place?
The secret lies in the dosage and in the kind of the administered medicine. If the remedies that are in keeping with the overemphasized element are administered drop by drop and not often, worsening only rarely takes place. Paracelsus also used spagyric healing agents, thus spiritualized, which in their qualities must not be confused with substantial ones. Spagyrics change the properties of the substance in such a way that regulating and / or opposite effects occur. Something similar happens in a potentialization of a substance according to the conceptions of Samuel Hahnemann, who also aimed for a spiritualization of the remedy. In homeopathy, one speaks of a reverse effect during the action of potentialization, which as a rule occurs at the latest from the 6th potency level onwards. Incidentally, it has proved effective in practice to combine the antipathic with the sympathetic method. In case of fever, this would for example be a combination of the above mentioned anti-inflammatory remedies with Echinacea D6.
The Four Temperaments
The formation of the temperaments is also traced back to an excess of the respective elements.
The Choleric Person (= Fire)
If the fire element is dominating in a person it comes to the formation of a choleric personality. Even mere trifles cause the choleric person to react with outbursts of anger. Their action pattern is impulsive and incalculable. Their anger can increase all the way to rage and frenzy, especially when they encounter resistance. They cannot bear criticism, but are keen on criticizing others. Choleric types bear the spirit of initiative in them. Their pronounced willpower helps them to put through their personal aims; however, they are often ruthless and dogmatic. They have exaggerated ideas of the significance of their own person. Due to their daredevilry and impatience they often get themselves and others into distress. Their lifestyle is excessive and animalistic all the way to total exhaustion.
In order to keep the choleric person more at peace, there are now two possibilities that one can also combine: either extinguish his fire with water, or let him look into a mirror by administering fire remedies in a potentialized form.
According to the rules of antipathy, the following cooling remedies would now come into practice, all of them used in a substantial form, like tea or tincture:
- Boldo = Peumus boldus: The plant, cooling and tasting of mint is one of the best remedies for inflammatory liver and gall complaints. It helps the choleric type to drain off his fiery humours in a natural way.
- Passion Flower = Passiflora incarnata: Possibly the best antipathic remedy for making a fire type more socially compatible.
- Rose Blossoms = Rosa damascena: It is not only a symbol for love but it also strengthens the ability to surrender and cools the fiery temper.
- Gypsywort = Lycopus europaeus: Due to its effect on the thyroid gland, the cooling plant dampens the vegetative excitability of the choleric person.
According to the rules of sympathy, these remedies are supplemented with potentialized fire remedies (D12 to D30); here are some examples:
- Jatropha = Strychnos nux vomica: If the nerves are on edge, and when already the ticking of an alarm-clock is agitating, Nux vomica soothes and calms. Jatropha contains copper, therefore combined with Cuprum metallicum (D12) for an uncramping of the soul.
- Delphinium = Delphinium staphisagria: Reacts very sensitively when others talk about him. Outbursts of fury, quarrelsomeness, mainly due to crises in relationships and sexual frustration. Situation after an excess.
- Tarantula = Tarantula hispanica: Extreme restlessness with sudden changes of mood. Diabolic powers seem to dominate the character. Destructive rage.
- Bryony = Bryonia alba: Extremely irritable type who is put into a rage even by the smallest detail.
- Very good liver remedy. Gouty-rheumatic diathesis.
- Gout (also some air) is the disease of the mighty and the tyrants.
The Sanguine Person (= Air)
In principle, the sanguine temperament is pleasant as far as it does not express itself too powerfully. In that case the lightness of being turns into hysteria. One can also regard the air type as an embodiment of the neurotic character structure. His feelings are subject to permanent change, up until mania. He is highly charged, hectic and overhasty. His restlessness often keeps him awake the whole night. He cannot sit still and often suffers from nervous tics. He can bring his environment to the point of despair with his bustle and with his prattle. He reacts boundlessly sensitively to everything. He behaves like a nervous racing horse. Mentally, he is very alert, curious and enthusiastic, however, his interest also wanes very quickly and something new has to turn up. His physical symptoms are also subject to permanent change.
According to the rules of antipathy, the patient is lacking the power which is in rest with itself and the reliability of the earth element. In the following, some examples of remedies that can help to bring this person, who is up in the clouds, back to earth (mother tincture or tea).
- Valerian = Valeriana officinalis: This plant with a balmy scent is suited as a mild sedative in cases of unrest and insomnia. Valerian conveys inner rest and the feeling of being embraced.
- Oats = Avena sativa: The high content of silicic acid creates nerves of steel and calms down at the same time.
- Cleaver = Galium verum: Particularly suited for hysteric personalities. The common name of “our lady’s bedstraw” points out its use as an herbal cushion and for female complaints. Frequently, men are hysterical, too.
- Patchouli = Pogostemon patchouly: This plant with a musty / woody smell cools overexcited nerves.
According to the rules of sympathy, one supplements these remedies with potentialized air remedies (D12 to D30); here are some examples:
- Honey Bee = Apis mellifica: exaggerated activity and sudden change of mood are typical for Apis.
- Coffee = Coffea cruda: The Coffea type is jolly to agitated, permanently excited and full of ideas, which he must put into practice straightaway.
- Black Cohosh = Cimicifuga racemosa: Chattiness, attacks of hysteria, but also spontaneous depression, mainly during the menopause, point to Cimicifuga.
- Zinc = Zincum metallicum: Status after overwork and stress. Events have overexcited the nerves, and the patient feels exhausted, but also completely absentminded.
The Phlegmatic Person (= Water)
If the water element dominates in a person, it comes to a formation of a phlegmatic temperament. The phlegmatic types reacts slowly, carefully and lazily to demands. He tries to keep everything unpleasant away from him. He tends towards standstill, boredom, and idleness. His urge to move is only minimal. His habitus and his mental perception are cumbersome and sluggish. He often reacts fearfully on conflicts and with emotional withdrawal. His effect on others is that of being nice, adapted, and jovial. Amongst the temperaments, he is the dreamer, the romantic with heavy emotions. He is a caring person who, however, often feels lonely and who is yearning for security. In interaction with others he has difficulties in distancing himself from them. He is often indecisive, shy, sexually reluctant, and timid. Self-doubt, excessive self-pity and sentimental weeping are typical for him.
What he is lacking is the glowing enthusiasm, the courage and the zest for action of the fire. Some examples of plants, which make tired wimps active again (mother tincture or tea):
- Basil = Ocimum basilicum: gently stimulates the digestive glands and the pancreas function. Mild aphrodisiac. The holy basil (Ocimum sanctum) from India would be even better suited, but is unfortunately not on the market.
- Savoury = Satureja hortensis: Stimulates the adrenal gland function, stimulates blood pressure and the sexual functions, but also the digestive glands.
- Damiana = Turnera aphrodisiaca: Proven aphrodisiac from Red Indian medicine in Mexico. Generally stimulating without overheating.
- Thyme = Thymus vulgaris: Stimulation of circulation and immune defence. Dynamizes the will processes in man.
According to the rules of sympathy, these remedies are supplemented with potentialized water remedies (D12 to D30); here are some examples:
- Oyster Shell = Calcium carbonicum: Timid type of person with an aversion against mental and physical work. “Calcium patients are fat, blond, sweat easily, are cold, damp and sour” (Boericke).
- Barium carbonate = Barium carbonicum: In cases of lacking self-confidence, indecisiveness, shyness, and mental weakness all the way to dementia.
- Graphite = Graphites: In cases of a tendency towards adiposis with permanent chills. Lack of desire to work. Anxious, whiny and indecisive with inner unrest.
- Pasqueflower = Pulsatilla pratensis: Shy person who responds to trifles (also some air). At the same time timid, and easily discouraged. “The power of tears” prompts fellow men to caresses; apart from that the Pulsatilla type is comparatively passive.
The Melancholic Person (Earth)
Melancholy is created by an excess of black bile, resp., by an overemphasis of the earth element in man. Melancholic persons are cumbersome, stubborn, and full of worries. They are permanently brooding; they are quiet, introvert, and serious. Their spirit revolves around subjects like death, old age, sickness, and loneliness; their favourite colour is grey or black.
They are discontented, depressive, and they have lost hope. They are enduring in their suffering. Their mood is catching; therapists feel as if drained by vampires after a therapy session.
In their misery, melancholic persons wish to be alone; at the same time, however, they are frightened of being alone. If the melancholic type cries, he will not do this in a hysterical way like the air type would, but rather quietly and inconsolably. They these persons tend towards a lack of humour (humour = fluid!), towards an insisting on their principles, and an eagerness to criticize.
Frequently, melancholy is created by an excessive way of life (change from fire to earth) or due to undiffused blows of fate (change from fire to earth). Such persons look grey, wrinkled, dry and worn-out. It is not easy for them to recover after diseases. They have dark rings under their eyes and sunken cheeks. Therapy of earth diseases is always very lengthy. What is missing in the earth type is the lightness of being. In the following, some remedies are listed, which help to aerate the spirit and the body of the melancholic type a little (mother tincture or tea).
- Watercress = Nasturtium officinale: The gentle water sulphur in the plant tones the metabolism. At the French court, fresh watercress was served every day. In general the mustard oil glycosides are important for melancholia.
- Ginger = Zingiber officinalis: One of the best geriatrics. In general, plants with pungent flavours should be used for driving out the “black bile”
- Lavender = Lavandula officinalis: Vitalizing and mood-lifting.
- Lime tree = Tilia cordata: The holy tree of the Germanic goddess of love, Freya, acts in a diaphoretic and mood-lifting way. In general, think of diaphoretics in cases of melancholia. According to the rules of sympathy, these remedies are supplemented with potentialized earth remedies (D12 to D30); here are some examples:
- Honey and Lead Liquid = Plumbum metallicum / Plumbum mellitum (of Weleda): Lead as well as melancholia are astrologically subject to Saturn. Accordingly, the Saturn metal is used for the treatment of depressions, especially for the therapy of older people. Appearances of senescence are best treated with honey and lead liquid, an alchemical preparation of the Weleda Company.
- Hahnemann’s Etching Substance = Causticum: Remedy for emaciated, inconsolable, sad persons with no hope, with complaints after long-endured grief.
- Sodium chloride = Natrium muriaticum: A person, withdrawn in himself, with complaints due to emotions that were not acted out. Reacts with anger on trifles or disturbances. Fatigue syndrome. Does not wish any consolation.
- Rock Oil = Petroleum: Depression after excitement. Makes his last will because he believes he has to die soon. Feels as heavy as lead and exhausted.
… to be continued