In general, the attempt to give a shape to each of the simple bodies is unsound, for the reason, first, that they will not succeed in filling the whole. It is agreed that there are only three plane figures which can fill a space, the triangle, the square, and the hexagon, and only two solids, the pyramid and the cube. But the theory needs more than these because the elements which it recognizes are more in number. Secondly, it is manifest that the simple bodies are often given a shape by the place in which they are included, particularly water and air. In such a case the shape of the element cannot persist; for, if it did, the contained mass would not be in continuous contact with the containing body; while, if its shape is changed, it will cease to be water, since the distinctive quality is shape. Clearly, then, their shapes are not fixed. Indeed, nature itself seems to offer corroboration of this theoretical conclusion. Just as in other cases the substratum must be formless and unshapen-for thus the 'all-receptive', as we read in the Timaeus, will be best for modelling-so the elements should be conceived as a material for composite things; and that is why they can put off their qualitative distinctions and pass into one another. Further, how can they account for the generation of flesh and bone or any other continuous body? The elements alone cannot produce them because their collocation cannot produce a continuum. Nor can the composition of planes; for this produces the elements themselves, not bodies made up of them. Any one then who insists upon an exact statement of this kind of theory, instead of assenting after a passing glance at it, will see that it removes generation from the world.
Further, the very properties, powers, and motions, to which they paid particular attention in allotting shapes, show the shapes not to be in accord with the bodies. Because fire is mobile and productive of heat and combustion, some made it a sphere, others a pyramid. These shapes, they thought, were the most mobile because they offer the fewest points of contact and are the least stable of any; they were also the most apt to produce warmth and combustion, because the one is angular throughout while the other has the most acute angles, and the angles, they say, produce warmth and combustion. Now, in the first place, with regard to movement both are in error. These may be the figures best adapted to movement; they are not, however, well adapted to the movement of fire, which is an upward and rectilinear movement, but rather to that form of circular movement which we call rolling. Earth, again, they call a cube because it is stable and at rest. But it rests only in its own place, not anywhere; from any other it moves if nothing hinders, and fire and the other bodies do the same. The obvious inference, therefore, is that fire and each several element is in a foreign place a sphere or a pyramid, but in its own a cube. Again, if the possession of angles makes a body produce heat and combustion, every element produces heat, though one may do so more than another. For they all possess angles, the octahedron and dodecahedron as well as the pyramid; and Democritus makes even the sphere a kind of angle, which cuts things because of its mobility. The difference, then, will be one of degree: and this is plainly false. They must also accept the inference that the mathematical produce heat and combustion, since they too possess angles and contain atomic spheres and pyramids, especially if there are, as they allege, atomic figures. Anyhow if these functions belong to some of these things and not to others, they should explain the difference, instead of speaking in quite general terms as they do. Again, combustion of a body produces fire, and fire is a sphere or a pyramid. The body, then, is turned into spheres or pyramids. Let us grant that these figures may reasonably be supposed to cut and break up bodies as fire does; still it remains quite inexplicable that a pyramid must needs produce pyramids or a sphere spheres. One might as well postulate that a knife or a saw divides things into knives or saws. It is also ridiculous to think only of division when allotting fire its shape. Fire is generally thought of as combining and connecting rather than as separating. For though it separates bodies different in kind, it combines those which are the same; and the combining is essential to it, the functions of connecting and uniting being a mark of fire, while the separating is incidental. For the expulsion of the foreign body is an incident in the compacting of the homogeneous. In choosing the shape, then, they should have thought either of both functions or preferably of the combining function. In addition, since hot and cold are contrary powers, it is impossible to allot any shape to the cold. For the shape given must be the contrary of that given to the hot, but there is no contrariety between figures. That is why they have all left the cold out, though properly either all or none should have their distinguishing figures. Some of them, however, do attempt to explain this power, and they contradict themselves. A body of large particles, they say, is cold because instead of penetrating through the passages it crushes. Clearly, then, that which is hot is that which penetrates these passages, or in other words that which has fine particles. It results that hot and cold are distinguished not by the figure but by the size of the particles. Again, if the pyramids are unequal in size, the large ones will not be fire, and that figure will produce not combustion but its contrary.
From what has been said it is clear that the difference of the elements does not depend upon their shape. Now their most important differences are those of property, function, and power; for every natural body has, we maintain, its own functions, properties, and powers. Our first business, then, will be to speak of these, and that inquiry will enable us to explain the differences of each from each.