Skip links

The Four Elements and Modern Psychology

The Four Elements and Modern Psychology

by James Lynn Page

How does the modern world of psychology relate to the ancient one of astrology? You would think that, if astrology really does depict the human psyche in all its complexity, there would be parallels in psychological testing, and the theory of types. It so happens that there is. For starters, Wikipedia comments that:

‘The trait of extraversion–introversion is a central dimension of human personality theories. The terms introversion and extraversion were popularized by Carl Jung, although both the popular understanding and psychological usage differ from his original intent … Virtually all comprehensive models of personality include these concepts in various forms. Examples include the Big Five model, Jung’s analytical psychology, Hans Eysenck’s three-factor model, Raymond Cattell’s 16 personality factors, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, and the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator.’

Here – in the essential duality of the human psyche – is where modern psychologists allude to the archetypal fact of polar opposites: night and day; black and white; cold and hot; bad and good; down and up; indeed, extrovert and introvert. Opposites are something we take for granted about the world, they just are – opposites are everywhere. Unsurprisingly, this archetypal, two-halved reality is part of our actual biological make-up, as neuroscientists have discovered. The left hemisphere of the brain is believed to deal with the logical, linear processes of cognition, whilst the right half is associated with its opposite: more lateral and intuitive thinking. One is our inner mathematician, the other side, the poet.

For the astrologer, extroversion and introversion are related to the polar opposites of Masculine and Feminine which, I hasten to add, are not references to males and females, but are archetypal principles in nature. They describe the direction something is taking, or our essential approach to the world. Like an arrow flying though the air, the masculine principle is outward-oriented, initiatory, active, socially gregarious, innovative and related to the forces of will and our powers of volition. Thus, it gets things moving and rushes to meet the world head-on, as it tries to change it. Psychologically, it is concerned with differentiation (what makes ‘this’ different from ‘that’) and related to the logical, rational principle, the conscious mind and the exterior surface.

Contrariwise, the Feminine principle, like a vessel into which something is poured, is inward-oriented: receptive, passive, shy, containing, consolidating and concerned with relationship. That is, with wholeness (what makes ‘this’ connect meaningfully to ‘that’ in a holistic way). Unlike Masculinity, Femininity adapts to what is already there, builds upon it, nurtures it. Its impressions of the world are feeling-toned, intuitive and more attuned to the interior, the unconscious, the emotional.

As the ancients would have had it, the two Great binary Powers in Nature, Masculine and Feminine, begat the Four Elements, considered by the early Greeks to be the essential components of life. The genius Greek philosopher Plato also had much to say about the Four Elements: ‘Before the heavens there existed fire, air, water, earth, which we suppose men to know … wherefore we are compelled to speak of water or fire, not as substances, but as qualities.’ This last part is crucial – the Four Elements stand for the essential descriptions of how things behave. Aspects of the human psyche could also thus be considered in terms of elemental qualities – just as we describe someone as ‘fiery’, ‘earthy’ or ‘breezy’ (obviously alluding the element of air). As one commentator put it:

‘It is better to think of them as spiritual essences (modes of spiritual being), which can manifest themselves in many ways in the material and spiritual worlds (they are form rather than content, structure rather than image).’1

The Four Elements are more or less indistinguishable from psychologist Carl Jung’s Four Cognitive or Psychological types. This is a fourfold typology essentially categorising modes of perception and judgment: Sensation, Thinking, Feeling and Intuition. At the risk of oversimplification, the Four Jungian types are as follows:

Sensation is about our concrete perception of the world (what we sense).

Thinking is our neutral, impartial and (essentially) objective judgement of things.

Feeling (contrariwise) is a valuing process pertaining to our personal judgements.

Intuition is one’s abstract perception of things, Jung says it, ‘transmits perceptions in an unconscious way’ and would tell the individual where the object is going, whence it came and what its significance might be.

To summarise, imagine the four types all observing an object placed before them. The Sensation type would be concerned solely with gathering facts, to ascertain that something actually existed – this function simply tells us that something is. The Thinking function tell us what it is. Thinking adds an extra dimension – of defining it, naming it, categorising it. Feeling governs our relationship to the object, how it affects us, whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant – simply put, how the thing feels. Intuition is a more mysterious process, for this type (who gathers information in the opposite way to Sensation) perceptions are unconscious. It’s a process whereby psychic information is delivered wholesale to consciousness and one just ‘knows’, without quite knowing why.

If there is a bridge between Jung’s Psychological Types and the original Four Greek Elements it is in the “four humors” theory of Greco-Roman medicine, where the four main bodily fluids (blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm) govern human behaviour. In turn they generate four basic personality types, sanguine, or Air (optimistic and social); choleric, or Fire (short-tempered or irritable); melancholic or Earth (analytical and quiet); and phlegmatic or Water (relaxed and peaceful). Their twentieth century adoption, based on the Jungian scheme, is the Myers-Briggs system, a result of the research of Katharine Cook Briggs (and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers):

‘The underlying assumption of the MBTI [Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test] is that we all have specific preferences in the way we construe our experiences, and these preferences underlie our interests, needs, values, and motivation.’2

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (along with Jung’s Four Psychological Types) hasn’t met with universal acclaim among all psychologists, however. On the Psychology Today website, John A. Johnson Ph.D. defends it from the ‘harsh criticism’ by the ‘community of professional personality psychologists’, two of whom describe it as “totally meaningless.” Johnson begins by commenting that, ‘the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and its spin-offs are among the most popular personality inventories in the world. The MBTI is widely used in organizational workshops to demonstrate how people with similar or different personalities interact with each other.’ 3

Interestingly, he notes that ‘the psychological tendencies measured by the MBTI are not very different from four of the traits in the widely-accepted Five-Factor Model (FFM)’. These are the five broad categories of personality traits whose research began in the 1930s and has continued to gain a measure of respectability to this day. The usually sceptical Wikipedia (when not resorting to outright propaganda on ‘inexact’ social sciences) notes that: ‘Measures of the Big Five constructs appear to show some consistency in interviews, self-descriptions and observations, and this static five-factor structure seems to be found across a wide range of participants of different ages and cultures.’

However, Johnson’s observation about it resembling the MBTI (and therefore Jung) is significant, for this is where astrology returns to our argument: the ‘Big Five’ indicator has correlations with the Four Elemental types. It is significant that these Big Five are not born from an underlying theory, but actual observation. Let us, first of all, note what they are:

Here is a person who shows appreciation for art and literature, expressiveness, adventure, novel ideas and who enjoys a variety of experience. Characterised by their creativity, they are highly imaginative, moreover, are self reliant and prefer many different interests as opposed to a set routine. On the negative side, they can be unpredictable, unreliable in their impressions and end up taking too many risks. Whilst they may seek intense experiences in search of themselves, they may be self indulgent and too easily resort to brain altering chemicals in pursuit of a high.

2. Conscientiousness
Here, a person tends to be highly organised, efficient and structured in their daily routines . They have good levels of self control and self-discipline, and usually pay attention to necessary detail as they plan ahead with goals and aims for the future. They behave responsibly towards others who see how dependable is the Conscientious type. When these traits are carried too far, the person is fixed in their views, stubborn and obsessive about minor details. All in all this suggests someone realistic and practical.

3. Extraversion
According to Wikipedia, these people are characterised by their, ‛positive emotions, assertiveness, sociability and the tendency to seek stimulation in the company of others’. They are also ‘more dominant in social settings’, added to which they would have a wide circle of friends and acquaintances, indeed, making new friends is one of their talents

4. Agreeableness
This trait is defined mainly by qualities of empathy, caring, compassion and cooperation. It also signifies someone usually trusting of others, who puts their faith in humanity, and who is essentially charitable. Others may see this a weakness – a person who is eager to please or prepared to believe anything they are told.

5. Neuroticism
Here is the person characterised by their high sensitivity – people who are susceptible to psychological stress and who, basically, feel. They are moody, swinging from high to low, but feel the negative emotions more easily: depression and sadness, pain, irritability, anxiety, stress and vulnerability. They are the born worriers of life! Much of this internalising of experience suggests the introvert.

This scheme came as quite a revelation to me as an astrologer: we still have powerful echoes here of the original Four Greek Elements, and how they relate to the zodiac. All one need do is merge 4 and 5 in the list, and one has qualities associated with the Water signs. As we all know, water signs operate mainly through their feelings, they are highly sensitive, moody, susceptible to hurts (5) but also possess lots of empathy, charity and compassion for others who are suffering (indeed, com-passion means ‘to suffer with’) All three Water signs possess these traits in abundance.

Other correspondences are yet more obvious: the Openness trait (1) is quite obviously mirrored in the Fire signs, whose love for adventure, new ideas and variety is well known to astrologers. Also, we may add that creativity, imagination, independence, unpredictability, and thrill-seeking likewise come under the domain of Fire. (Aries and Sagittarius, out of the Fire signs, come immediately to mind!) Conscientiousness (2) equates roughly with Earth, hence being organised, effective and integrated in their everyday routines, not to mention the sense of responsibility, the planning ahead, self-discipline, and attention to detail. (Have we not more or less described Virgo or Capricorn?)

One can even see aspects of the so-called Extraversion trait in the element of Air: the outgoing nature that produces positive emotions and sociability, feeling happiest in the company of others and tendency towards making new friends and acquaintances in an easy going way – Air is the great communicator, remember. (One can see these qualities best in Libra and Aquarius.)

There is simply no getting away from the Four Elements!

Comment in the section below.

Join the Discussion