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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


Of course, the most obvious and directly available manifestation of the natural and pure form of water is the substance known by the same name, or via its chemical formula H2O.  Oceans, lakes, ponds, and puddles are all manifestations of the water element, but so also are all liquids, such as mercury, oils, alcohols, and the like.  Additional natural phenomena include waterfalls, springs, rivers, aquifers, and various forms of precipitation.  When considered in relative isolation, what can we discover about the nature and properties of these watery manifestations?

WaterHere an important caveat must be discussed.  Whereas the qualities of the earthy element can be considered in isolation with relative ease (this is a picture of the element itself!), the qualities of the further elements are brought out to some extent only by virtue of their relationship with the lower elements.  Each successive element takes the previous as its basis and adds something new to the mix.  To the extent that our concept of Water corresponds only with the modern physical idea of the liquid phase of matter, it may be felt that strictly speaking, all that applied to the earth elements must also apply to the water elements, as these too, are manifestations of the mineral realm when considered in this way, i.e. materialistically.  This is true, so as far as it goes.  However, what is here being asked is that the reader considers the various qualities of the watery elements in their own right, independently of their nature qua minerality, in order to get a sense for precisely those qualities that are present for our experience of the watery elements which do not yet manifest in the purely mineral realm.  In other words, we are trying to examine what newly enters into our experience when the water element is taken as its own phenomenon.

Immediately we see a vast difference from what manifested as the earthly elements.  Water has no intrinsic form – its form is given entirely by its context.  Left to itself, and taken out of other contexts, water (and this is true of liquids in general) will tend to form itself into a sphere.  This minimizes the surface area, which is another way of saying that it tends towards the greatest self-connection and self-continuity.  Water is still greatly under the influence of gravity, and will seek the lowest local position, where it will gather and form itself into an exact complementary shape to its surroundings; it is conforming (it forms-together).  It also completely covers and conforms around any body that is submerged within it.  Water also penetrates its surroundings, moving into objects as much as possible (permeation), while actively coating the surfaces of what it contacts even when not submerged.  When water forms a standing body such as a puddle or lake, while its sides and bottom conform to its container, its top surface tends towards planarity.  This behavior occurs when, under the influence of gravity, the intrinsically formless water meets the air above, also intrinsically formless; the result is a planar membrane.  Similarly, liquids of different density will form planar boundaries with each other when in a gravitational field.

Interestingly, even a drop of water in a vacuum (which, rather than simply formless is formlessness, or potential), can be said to form planar boundaries with the vacuum.  Every point on the sphere of a drop of water is a point on a unique plane which is tangent to the sphere only at that point.  In other words, it is as if each point acted as a plane.  This is not so absurd when one imagines the sphere increasing in size – as its diameter increases to infinity its curvature becomes planar all the way “around"!

The inside of a liquid acts very differently than its ‘outside’ – that part of the liquid that is in contact with something other than itself.  This leads to whole host of unique properties.  The surface tension of water is one such phenomenon, where the individual water molecules strive to have as many neighbors as they possibly can (a property called cohesion, yielding the planarity discussed above).   This maximizes relation and continuity within the volume of water.  Water spreads out and covers surfaces that it contacts.  This gives rise to water’s ability to act as a solvent; indeed water is known as the universal solvent.  It readily takes other substances and mixes them into itself internally, dissolving or at least suspending foreign substances in its own body (a property called adhesion); for example acid rain is a consequence of water dissolving gases in the atmosphere (N, S, CO2) as it falls.  This capacity for water to dissolve points to the way in which the forces of gravity begin to lose hold once we consider the elements Waterbeyond the strictly mineral.  Alchemists would call this decrease in the effectiveness of the force of gravity a force of levity, the polar counterpart to gravity.  The earthly elements are most subject to gravity – they do not spontaneously move against it.  With water, we in fact find that, as a consequence of its relation to earthly elements, it can actually rise up against the force of gravity in a phenomenon known as capillary action – for example when a sponge pulls water into itself.  Whereas two earthly elements in contact obey the force of gravity just as each would individually, when water is placed in contact with an earthly substance it can exhibit the tendency to overcome gravity to a limited extent.  Capillary action occurs only when water is in contact with another element, but water exhibits an even more anti-gravitational effect (a levity effect) when considered on its own, as in the case of the transpirational pull that brings water from the ground up to the tops of trees.  This occurs because as water evaporates in the leaves of the tree, it forms a slightly concave meniscus on the surface of cells in the interior of the leaves.  The surface tension of the water (tending towards planarity) exerts a negative pressure on the water below, drawing it upwards to replace the lost water in the leaves.  This surprisingly strong transpirational pull combines with capillary action (preferential binding of water to the cell walls), which serves to further stabilize the water columns in the trees xylem (and which would otherwise collapse in a process known as cavitation).  These two simultaneous effects allow the very tallest trees to pull water up to heights of over one hundred meters (328 feet) from the Earth!

The most striking difference from the Earth element appears in the fluid capacity of water.  It is the most changeable element; always in motion.  Even a supposedly ‘still’ glass of water, will, upon closer examination, show itself to be internally in constant motion: a drop of dye will, without any stirring, disperse itself throughout the whole volume.  Even the atomistic model of liquids indicates that, unlike the ‘jiggling in place’ of atoms in a solid, the atoms of a liquid are continually sliding over one another in a Brownian motion dance of interconnectedness.  The pH of water is neutral, and as a substance it can act either as an acid or a base, depending upon its context – further demonstrating its fluidity.  Even water’s capacity for fluidity is itself fluid, depending entirely upon its physical surroundings and, particularly, the temperature.  Similarly, its surface tension and dissolving capacities are largely dependent upon factors other than the water itself – these properties of water change drastically in different circumstances.  Water is, in this sense, selfless and accommodating, a substance that directly reflects all processes and activity around and within it. 


This reflection of its environment takes place in rhythmical patterns.  Any disturbance of the properties or motions of water is transmitted throughout the entire substance in the form of rhythmic impulses, either chemical or mechanical.  Wave formation – that is to say, rhythm – is thus a primary property of water.  Indeed, Theodore Schwenk, perhaps the most detailed modern observer of water (also a Goethean researcher inspired by Steiner), identifies its “close connection with all rhythmical processes in time and space” (Schwenk, 1965 p. 80) as one of water’s three major characteristics (surface waves are only the most obvious manifestation of this).  Indeed, he notes that any body of water will have its own unique resonating rhythm in which it naturally oscillates, in particular and most strongly in connection with the Moon’s orbital rhythms (Schwenk, 1965 p. 30) (most obviously manifested in tides).  The other two major characteristics he identifies are first water’s connection with “all metabolic processes in the great organism of the Earth and in each separate living creature”,  (Schwenk, 1965 p. 80) and its “sensitivity of boundary surfaces, indicating that water is a cosmic sense organ of the Earth.” (Schwenk, 1965 p. 80)

When an obstacle blocks the flow of water, such as a rock in a stream, a static wave form is dynamically created behind and around the rock to balance the forces involved.  The wave form itself remains static while new water continually flows through the wave form.  The wave form, although static in form, is involved in a continual forming of itself out of the new water.  We could say that formative forces are particularly able to find expression in water, or that water is the element in which forming, rather than form takes precedence.  This aspect of water is an indication of how it stands on the border between the static form of the earth element and the chaotic dynamism of the air element.  Indeed, water, as mediator between the elements of earth and air will readily dissolve and mix with both.

Water has the highest specific heat of all common substances – it takes quite a lot of energy to heat water, and when heated, water therefore has a lot of energy to release.  This property is directly and deeply involved in all metabolic processes such as digestion and internal regulation of temperature and chemical balance, as well as their counterparts on the Earth: climate and weather.  All life as we know it requires water; all our speculations about what is possible for alien life also involve, if not water, then some type of fluid substance.

All of these considerations point to the relational nature of water.  It is impossible even to speak of water without addressing its motion, and thus its role as a mediator. Water is less a “thing” than an “activity”; indeed, it is typified most clearly by its rhythmic processes.  It is the “sensitive chaos” of Novalis, in constant flux, totally dependent upon its environment, yet actively sculpting (ala Hoffmann) that environment at the same time.  Any reader desirous of a deeper understanding of water is referred to Theodore Schwenk’s amazing work, Sensitive Chaos for a subtle and thorough treatment of all its aspects, from the physical to the spiritual.

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