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The Elements as an Archetype of Transformation:
An Exploration of Earth, Water, Air, and Fire

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Chapter 4 - The Theory of the Elements, cont.

The Elements in Isolation


In trying to understand the Earth element, we can turn to the physical elements of our surroundings that are directly sense-perceptible but which include as little of the other elements as possible.  In other words, when we try to isolate from our experience everything that partakes of the elements of water, air, and fire, what is left?  We can imagine the following: bare mountains, rocky crags, cliff-sides, crystals, caves, canyons, mesas, and the like 6.  In short, we can imagine all that presents itself to us as being of a purely mineral nature as representing the earth.  Physicists identify the mineral nature as a particular phase in which matter can exist, i.e. as a solid.  Approached in this way, we can then seek the qualities that become apparent to us through our sensible contact with these elements which outwardly manifest as part of the Earth itself.

Earth: Rocks

To begin with, we can notice that these aspects of the earth all have the quality of being able to be clearly and definitively located in space.  There exist definite boundaries to the substances; the mountain top is precisely here, the rock occupies just this specific space.  We could therefore describe earth elements as definite, shaped,and located.  Earth elements also have the tendency to be rigid and resistant to change – that is, to maintain their shape and position.  When a change does occur, it usually occurs quickly and definitively: for example in a rockslide, or in the breaking of a clay pot.  Changes in purely earth elements are therefore usually manifestly obvious, because the element has changed its shape or its location.  Physicists refer to this tendency of the mineral world by the term inertia, which we can simply understand as the tendency for all that partakes of a mineral nature to resist change of any type: some kind of outside force is generally needed 7 if any change is to be produced in them.

This leads us to a sense of the way in which the earth elements are structured; their tendency for precise positioning extends to their inside as well as their outer, visible borders.  Within a crystal, which is perhaps the very best example of a pure earth element 8, every piece of the substance is precisely related to its neighbors through a definite arrangement, which can be made manifest if the crystal is broken.  In this case, it will be apparent that the crystal will have a tendency to break along very specific fracturing planes, betraying its inner structure.  We can therefore also speak of earth elements as ordered.   In this sense, the earth elements do not really hide anything from us: their outside is essentially just like their inside, and vice versa.  There is no necessary difference between what lies within a rock and what it presents on its outer surface.  Therefore we could also consider earth elements to consist of all surfaces, even on the inside.

At the same time, each earth element is manifestly different from every other.  This difference can be of type: a canyon is not a cave, and quartz is not gold.  Yet even within a particular type, we can still find an obvious difference that results precisely from what is at first qualitatively apparent as aspects of the various earth elements described above: their locatedness.  In the realm of physics this tendency takes the form of a law known as the Pauli Exclusion Principle, which in oversimplified terms can be expressed as the principle that no two objects of the same type (in this case fermions, which make up the bulk of ‘normal’ matter) can occupy the same space.  This particular amethyst crystal is unique among the totality of amethyst crystals because it occupies a definite and particular space.  This hill is unique because it is just here, and no other hill can occupy this same spot.  In this sense, one quality of earth is its capacity for difference.

If we continue to think further about this aspect of the earth element, something else reveals itself.  The very aspect that makes each earth element different from every other at the same time introduces a certain arbitrariness to it.  It doesn’t matter which brick is placed next in the wall, as long as its shape and structure meet the requirements for the task.  There is nothing about an individual brick apart from its Earth-like aspects already discussed which make one brick better or worse than another; within these limits they are perfectly interchangeable and equivalent.  In this sense then, the facts that make a particular earth element what it is – in other words, the very difference between this bit of earth and any other – is just what leads to its indifference with respect to every other earth element that shares the same qualities. 

What produces a change in an earth element can only do so by virtue of contacting the earth element directly and only through the very qualities that describe the earth element, such as its position, its structure, and so forth.  In other words, if a cliff-face beings to crumble, it does so because of some external contact with another mineral element.  One surface makes contact with another surface and forces are exchanged according to Newton’s Third Law.  All movement, changes in shape, and so forth, can be adequately described in like manner.  We do not need to consider, for example, any motivation on the part of the cliff-face for its crumbling; such a consideration would be fantastic.

Furthermore, with respect to an earth element undergoing a change, the effect produced occurs only by virtue of the position, structure, shape, and force of the contacting agent – in other words its earth-like qualities.  In this respect, we can find that in addition to the indifference discussed above, earth elements are also indifferent with respect to everything that is not already earth-like.  The full nature of what is responsible for a change in an earth element is irrelevant; what is relevant is only the immediate cause inasmuch as the cause itself is of an earth-like nature.  Thus the earth element is very restrictive in its ability to respond to change, and has the tendency for activity that is best characterized as binary in fashion, for example as in motion towards or away from another object, or in the exchange of exactly opposing forces, etc.  At the same time, such changes can be characterized as fundamentalist, in that earth elements are all on an equal footing which is at its most basic and primitive form (i.e. characterized only and purely by physical law).  The tendency of earth is to seek just this ‘bottom-line’, which is characterized physically by the state of lowest stable energy.

Lastly, we can see that changes occurring in earth elements are always strongly subject to the force of gravity.  Their movements can be said to be centric, or tending always towards what physicists identify as the center of gravity of the system of bodies under consideration.  In the case of our own planet this basically coincides with its positional center.  It was Newton who realized that the centric character of the movement of mineral bodies (the force between them) depends only upon the quantities of each mass and their distance from each other.  This principle extends across all of the vastness of space, so that, for example, the Moon and the Earth are attracted to each other in the same way that an apple and the Earth are attracted together.  What is important for their motion is not the makeup of the Earth or the apple, but only their masses and relative positions. 

Although much more could be said at this time about the various qualities of earth elements, particularly in regards to their various manifestations in various ‘impure’ ways, this preliminary series of qualities will suffice for the moment.  Already it may be more or less obvious that all that has been described above with respect to these elements can likewise be applied to a whole variety of forms, situations, behaviors, and ideas when considered as descriptions of phenomenologically experienceable qualities.  Rather than delve immediately into the realm of metaphor in this way, we will first consider at some length the remaining elements in a similar fashion, to see how their manifestation by way of their most natural and ‘pure’ external forms fills out the picture of fundamental elemental qualities that will form the basis for the rest of the study.


6: Back It must be pointed out that the complete separation of the elements here referred to is only meant hypothetically.  We are not speaking of the elements in their chemical sense (see footnote 7 below), but rather of their qualities, in which case the elements are always found together.  This is a point that will be discussed later in more depth.

7: Back Readers with a background in physics may point out, for example, that in the case of radioactivity a drastic change in the element occurs that involve inner forces.  Here we see the consequences to what is pointed out in the previous footnote; the radioactively decaying element can be seen as involving all the stages of the elements (see number 41 of the Broad List of Applications in Chapter 5).

8: Back It should be clear that the usage of the word “element” does not here correspond directly to the scientific conception of elements in the sense of the periodic table, although this usage is also meant, but rather is being used more colloquially to avoid the need for abstract distinctions not directly available to simple sense perception, such as between a pure element like silicon and silicon that has been doped with another element.  The general sense of the term element will be enough for our purposes at the moment.

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