The fifth century bce philosopher Empedoclese posited the idea that all matter was made up of four immutable elements: Earth, Air, Fire & Water. The substances we see all around us, he posited, were composed of specific mixtures of these four – an idea which held sway for over two millennia. Despite the fact that the notion fell out of favor in the nineteenth century, popular culture is still familiar with the concept. I propose that the Four Elements represents an excellent metaphor to help conceptualize anarchist praxis.
Consider each of these four elements as composing the disposition of a given anarchist or fellow traveler. Each element represents a different predisposition in their praxis.
- Earth means physicality. It represents the urge to grow and to construct – to foster and to cultivate – to physically prefigure the world in the image of a collective future. It represents horticulture, husbandry, construction, and land use as well as others.
- Air is movement – felt yet unseen. It represents the urge to communicate and to spread the knowledge the new world will need in terms of baseline concepts or special skills, the stewardship of the craft of communication, and the skill to dissect, critique, and expose the Now.
- Fire heralds change. It is the clean white heat that scours away the imperfect and diseased. It represents application of the physical to the Now. When a fascist is punched, when a cop car is trashed, when a banner gets dropped or a zone becomes autonomous fire is at work.
- Water purifies. It is the wholesome essence of life and the washing away of iniquity. It represents cleansing. When a vacant lot becomes green-space, when an industrial polluter is harassed, when we use public transit or learn to make safe cleansers for our homes, we are invoking the purity of Water.
You’ll notice that no single person is uniquely one of these four things. The ancient Greeks wisely understood that any one of the four elements could not exist in it’s pure form in the world. This is equally true of these propensities in a given anarchist. You will also notice the four elements are balanced and no single one has primacy nor is there a hierarchy among them.
Every substance or individual, comprised of these four to differing unique degrees, is VALID. The presence of more Fire in a person does not result in more genuine substance than another composed chiefly of Earth and Air. Each is an equally true and potentially useful – though different – composition.
No one element or combination specifically indicates a more reclusive or gregarious individual. An anarchist mostly embracing Air might be more comfortable staying inside and editing their collective’s blog or zine – while another might happily shout their Air spirit through a megaphone in a crowded shopping mall! This is a crucial aspect of this conceptualization, no element is more suited to the risk taker or the introvert. None is more “genuine” or more “anarchist” - whatever that means.
I hope you took something positive away from this conceptualization. It’s nothing more than a way to qualify your personal praxis and to perceive the universal value in a fellow traveler’s approach – no matter if it is dissimilar to your own.