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THE 5 ELEMENTS THEORY

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Empedocles, Greek physician from Sicily (at the same time engineer, miracle worker and poet – 5th century BC) was also a philosopher, who all his whole life tried to understand the foundation of the cosmos. He relied on principles linked to friendship ("a force of unification and cohesion which makes things tend towards unity") and hatred ("a force of division and destruction which makes things tend things towards the multiple”).

These principles generate the four elements water, earth, fire and air and their combination determines health, characters and temperaments.

 

“For Empedocles, it is the blood that determines the thought, because it is above all in the blood that the various elements reciprocally temper each other. His religious teaching places great emphasis on the need for purification. He believes in the transmigration of souls and conceives the cycle of existences as an expiation” (Wikipedia sources).

In the West, Aristotle added a fifth element to the four elements of Empedocles: quintessence or ether. But depending on the religion, culture or philosophy of a people, the theory of the elements differs. Thus we find the elements earth, water, fire, wind - space in Hinduism, the elements earth, water, fire, wind, space, spirit in Buddhism (i.e. 6 elements), which we find elsewhere in traditional Japanese culture (the five elements from Buddhism which constitute the Godai minus the spirit), while the Chinese and Korean cultures propose the five elements (the Wu Xing or 5 phases) which constitute an important concept of the traditional cosmology of the countries of the middle empire: Metal (sometimes translated as gold), wood, water, fire, earth. These 5 phases therefore represent 5 movements which govern all cosmic and human phenomena. These elements are the foundations of a vast system of classification and correspondences. Unified with the notion of chi (energy) and the Yin Yang system and the notion of Qi, “this system has had a considerable impact on the entire history of Chinese thought”. In the small treatise Hong fan (considered the oldest essay in Chinese philosophy), it is written “that it is in the nature of water to moisten and flow down; in that of fire to burn and rise into the air; in that of wood to be bent and straightened; in that of the metal to be ductile and to accept the shape given to it; in that of the earth to lend itself to cultivation and harvesting. Water that humidifies and flows down becomes salty; the fire that burns and rises becomes bitter; bent and straightened wood becomes acid; the metal which changes form in its ductility, becomes acrid; the land, being cultivated, takes on a sweet flavor” (sources Anne Cheng “History of Chinese Thought” Seuil, 1997).

This notion of the 5 elements would have been used to classify into modules of five entities, a multitude of different phenomena, with the aim of putting order in the creation of the chains of correspondences between nature and man, the macrocosm and the microcosm, all in all to get in tune with the natural mechanisms of the universe. Thus, the molten metal has become liquid (water) which waters and makes trees grow (Wood), which can be lit and produces fire, which in turn can burn plants which become ashes (earth) which contains minerals, source of the metal.

Through multiple correspondences, TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) is able to "detect" imbalances affecting an individual's health. The Huangdi Nei Jing or Inner Classic of the Yellow Emperor, which is the oldest work of traditional Chinese medicine, developed the idea that different parts of the body are in correspondence with various elements of the universe. Thus, we can read in chapter 11 of this book that “man is in union with the heavenly way; inside the body there are five viscera corresponding to the five sounds, the five colors, the five epochs, the five flavors, the five positions”.

Based on the principle that everything in the universe is the result of a cycle of creation and destruction, the mode of classification of the 5 elements includes all natural and human phenomena. By studying the movements of the 5 elements for centuries, man has understood that harmony can only exist through a state of universal balance, which he must constantly readjust and this, in all areas (health , sport, religious, political, medical, food, military, colors, construction, music, sounds…). For example, since the Qin dynasty, rulers have relied on the theory of these 5 elements to legitimize their rule and power. More surprisingly, taking into consideration these 5 phases, the Chinese were able to successfully overcome the floods!

Today, we use a table of correspondences which makes it possible to know the connections and the harmonious relations between the elements, whatever the field concerned. From Aristodes to the technological age, the notion of the art of the happy medium has been a constant in many cultures. With us, Blaise Pascal in his famous thoughts (Brunschvicg editions) defined it with accuracy by emphasizing that “Nature has put us so well in the middle that if we change one side of the balance, we also change the other. There are springs in our head which are so arranged that whoever touches one also touches the opposite… What is man in nature? A nothingness with regard to infinity, a whole with regard to nothingness, a medium between nothing and everything”.

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