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- Man or Matter - 30/74 -

things', the other two that of the 'uncreated things'. A brief study of the old doctrine of the Four Elements is necessary at this point in order to understand the meaning of these concepts.


The first systematic teaching about the four elementary constituents of nature, as they were experienced by man of old, was given by Empedocles in the fifth century B.C. It was elaborated by Aristotle. In this form it was handed down and served to guide natural observation through more than a thousand years up to the time of van Helmont. From our earlier descriptions of the changes in man's consciousness it is clear that the four terms, 'earth', 'water', 'air', 'fire', must have meant something different in former times. So 'water' did not signify merely the physical substance which modern chemistry defines by the formula H2O; nor was 'air' the mixture of gases characteristic of the earth's atmosphere. Man in those days, on account of his particular relationship with nature, was impressed in the first place by the various dynamic conditions, four in number, which he found prevailing both in his natural surroundings and in his own organism. With his elementary concepts he tried to express, therefore, the four basic conditions which he thus experienced. He saw physical substances as being carried up and down between these conditions.

At first sight some relationship seems to exist between the concept 'element' in this older sense and the modern view of the different states of material aggregation, solid, liquid, aeriform. There is, however, nothing in this modern view that would correspond to the element Fire. For heat in the sense of physical science is an immaterial energy which creates certain conditions in the three material states, but from these three to heat there is no transition corresponding to the transitions between themselves. Heat, therefore, does not rank as a fourth condition by the side of the solid, liquid and aeriform states, in the way that Fire ranks in the older conception by the side of Earth, Water and Air.

If we were to use the old terms for designating the three states of aggregation plus heat, as we know them to-day, we should say that there is a border-line dividing Fire from the three lower elements. Such a border-line existed in the older conception of the elements as well. Only its position was seen to be elsewhere - between Earth and Water on the one hand, Air and Fire on the other. This was expressed by saying that the elements below this line constituted the realm of the 'created things', those above it that of the 'uncreated things'. Another way of expressing this was by characterizing Earth and Water with the quality Cold; Air and Fire with the quality Warm. The two pairs of elements were thus seen as polar opposites of one another.

The terms 'cold' and 'warm' must also be understood to have expressed certain qualitative experiences in which there was no distinction as yet between what is purely physical and what is purely spiritual. Expressions such as 'a cold heart', 'a warm heart', to 'show someone the cold shoulder', etc., still witness to this way of experiencing the two polar qualities, cold and warm. Quite generally we can say that, wherever man experienced some process of contraction, whether physical or non-physical, he designated it by the term 'cold', and where he experienced expansion, he called it 'warm'. In this sense he felt contractedness to be the predominant characteristic of Earth and Water, expansiveness that of Air and Fire.

With the help of these qualitative concepts we are now in a position to determine more clearly still the difference between the older and the modern conceptions: in particular the difference between the aeriform condition of matter, as we conceive of it to-day, and the element Air. Contractedness manifests as material density, or the specific weight of a particular substance. We know that this characteristic of matter diminishes gradually with its transition from the solid to the liquid and aeriform states. We know also that this last state is characterized by a high degree of expansiveness, which is also the outstanding property of heat. Thus there is reason to describe also from the modern point of view the solid and liquid states as essentially 'cold', and the aeriform state as 'warm'. But aeriform matter still has density and weight, and this means that matter in this state combines the two opposing qualities. Contrary to this, Air, as the second highest element in the old sense, is characterized by the pure quality, warm. Thus, when man of old spoke of 'air', he had in mind something entirely free from material density and weight.3

By comparing in this way the older and newer conceptions of 'air', we come to realize that ancient man must have had a conception of gravity essentially different from ours. If we take gravity in the modern scientist's sense, as a 'descriptive law of behaviour', then this behaviour is designated in the older doctrine by the quality 'cold'. If, however, we look within the system of modern science for a law of behaviour that would correspond to the quality 'warm', we do so in vain. Polarity concepts are certainly not foreign to the scientific mind, as the physics of electricity and magnetism show. Yet there is no opposite pole to gravity, as there is negative opposite to positive electricity, etc.4

In the older conception, however, the gravitational behaviour 'cold' was seen to be counteracted by an autonomous anti-gravitational behaviour 'warm'. Experience still supported the conviction that as a polar opposite to the world subject to gravity, there was another world subject to levity.

We refrain at this point from discussing how far a science which aspires to a spiritual understanding of nature, including material processes, needs a revival - in modern form - of the old conception of levity. In our present context it suffices to realize that we understand man's earlier view of nature, and with it the one still held by van Helmont, only by admitting levity equally with gravity into his world-picture. For the four elements, in particular, this meant that the two upper ones were regarded as representing Levity, the two lower ones Gravity.

In close connexion with this polar conception of the two pairs of elements, there stands their differentiation into one realm of created, another of uncreated, things. To understand what these terms imply, we must turn to the ancient concept, Chaos, borrowed by van Helmont.

To-day we take the word Chaos to mean a condition of mere absence of order, mostly resulting from a destruction of existing forms, whether by nature or by the action of man. In its original sense the word meant the exact opposite. When in ancient times people spoke of Chaos, they meant the womb of all being, the exalted realm of uncreated things, where indeed forms such as are evident to the eye in the created world are not to be found, but in place of them are the archetypes of all visible forms, as though nurtured in a spiritual seed-condition. It is the state which in the biblical narration of the creation of the world is described as 'without form and void'.

From this Chaos all the four elements are born, one by one, with the two upper ones retaining Chaos's essential characteristic in that they are 'without form' and tend to be omnipresent, whilst the two lower ones constitute a realm in which things appear in more or less clearly outlined space-bound forms. This is what the terms 'uncreated' and 'created' imply.

How strictly these two realms were distinguished can be seen by the occurrence of the concept 'vapour'. When with the increasing interest in the realm of created things - characteristic of the spectator-consciousness which, in view of our earlier description of it, we recognize as being itself a 'created thing' - the need arose for progressive differentiation within this realm, the simple division of it into 'earth' and 'water' was no longer felt to be satisfactory. After all, above the liquid state of matter there was another state, less dense than water and yet presenting itself through more or less clearly distinguishable space-bound objects, such as the mists arising from and spreading over ponds and meadows, and the clouds hovering in the sky. For this state of matter the term 'vapour' had become customary, and it was used by van Helmont in this sense. By its very properties, Vapour belonged to the realm of the created things, whereas Air did not. It was the intermediary position of the newly discovered state of matter between Vapour and Air, that is, between the created and the uncreated world, which caused van Helmont to call it a paradox; and it was its strange resemblance, despite its ponderable nature, to Chaos, which prompted him to name it - Gas.


Since it could not have been the gaseous state of matter in the form discovered by van Helmont, what particular condition of nature was it to which the ancients pointed when using the term Air? Let us see how the scriptures of past human cultures speak of air.

In all older languages, the words used to designate the element bound up with breathing, or the act of breathing, served at the same time to express the relationship of man to the Divine, or even the Divine itself. One need think only of the words Brahma and Atma of the ancient Indians, the Pneuma of the Greeks, the Spiritus of the Romans. The Hebrews expressed the same idea when they said that Jehovah had breathed the breath of life into man and that man in this way became a living soul.

What lies behind all these words is the feeling familiar to man in those times, that breathing was not only a means of keeping the body alive, but that a spiritual essence streamed in with the breath. So long as this condition prevailed, people could expect that by changing their manner of breathing they had a means of bringing the soul into stronger relationship with spiritual Powers, as is attempted in Eastern Yoga.

Remembering the picture of man's spiritual-physical evolution which we have gained from earlier chapters, we are not astonished to find how different this early experience of the breathing process was from our own. Yet, together with the recognition of this difference there arises another question. Even if we admit that man of old was so organized that the experience of his own breathing process was an overwhelmingly spiritual one, it was, after all, the gaseous substance of the earth's atmosphere which he inhaled, and exhaled again in a transformed condition. What then was it that prevented men - apparently right up to the time of van Helmont - from gaining the slightest inkling of the materiality of this substance? To find an answer to this question, let us resort once more to our method of observing things genetically, combined with the principle of not considering parts without considering the whole to which they organically belong.

In modern science the earth is regarded as a mineral body whereon the manifold forms of nature appear as mere additions, arising more or less by chance; one can very well imagine them absent without this having any essential influence on the earth's status in the universe. The truth is quite different. For the earth, with everything that exists on it, forms a single whole, just as each separate organism is in its own way a whole.

This shows that we have no right to imagine the earth without men, and to suppose that its cosmic conditions of being would then remain unaltered - any more than we can imagine a human being deprived of some essential-organ and remaining human. Mankind, and all the other

Man or Matter - 30/74

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