A case has been made for the theoretical validity and practical utility of the four elements, but anyone with a basic familiarity with alchemy will note that the four elements taken alone are not capable of forming a complete system, and this is indeed quite true: a fifth element must be accounted for. This element, the quintessence, was already explicitly recognized by Plato, who connected it with the divine nature of the dodecahedron, and by Aristotle as well, who also connected it to the realm of the Heavens. No real mention has been made of it in the present work until now in order to keep the focus squarely on the particular qualities of the four elements and their transformations into each other. Yet we could ask: what is it that is moving from element to element?
The elements are, in part, metaphors; coherent patterns that serve as a template for transformation. But the four elements themselves will not affect transformation in isolation simply by their mere presence. As a template, something more is required to activate and experience the qualities inherent in the elements. What fills this role is consciousness – the fifth element. All of the transformations that occur through work with the elemental cycle occur only through the attention, intention, and will of a conscious agent. This is why, as mentioned in Chapter 3, the Greeks called the fifth element not only “aether” but also “idea”. In Hinduism and Buddhism it is the “Akasha”, the basis and essence of all things, the source of their being, while in Japan it is “Kū”, meaning both ‘void’, ‘sky’ and ‘Heaven’, representing also our spirit, our ability to think, and our creativity. The alchemical tradition speaks of the fifth element as the spirit as well.
Work with the four elements transforms consciousness, which contains aspects of the Above as well as the Below. Our individual consciousness is a manifestation of our spiritual nature, and has great potential for ennoblement if taken through the alchemical processes of separation, refinement, and ‘marriage’. It is our consciousness which is present within and between the four elements, igniting the initial fire that gives birth to the process of transformation, distilling the waters of the soul, expanding itself to vast potentialities, and serving as both the substrate and operant for new impulses. It both affects the change and is the change. Our consciousness must unveil itself through its working within and through our unique physical body and personal soul in order to discover its capacity for transformation. The four elements provide archetypal patterns through which consciousness can thus reflect upon itself, providing a useful mirror for the process of transformation.
Some part of us, then, is the fifth element. Or rather, within each of us exists a being-in-potential, a being-always-coming-into-actuality, which we become aware of and strengthen as we do the spiritual work of transformation. It is understood that the transformative work is simultaneously and inseparably work which occurs both on our own individuality as well as towards and within the world through our willed actions. We cannot transform ourselves without changing the world, and we cannot change the world without transforming ourselves.
The fifth element, in an inner sense, is a higher part of our being which is aware of all the transformations that occur in our normal daily life and consciousness. For this reason it can be called the Witness, as it is capable of raising our normal, self-involved consciousness toward an impersonal state of awareness that is empty of all the usual drama of life without being in any way apathetic. Rather, it is like the stage upon which all the different dramas get played out, and therefore is itself capable of accepting an infinite diversity of possible states. When we experience this part of ourselves, we almost feel as if we were meeting someone else, while at the same time we recognize that it is precisely this part of ourselves that is most truly me.
However, the fifth element is not only ‘mine’. As the work proceeds, and as our Witness is strengthened (as it strengthens us), we begin to experience something remarkable: we increasingly have the sense that everything out there is also participating to some degree in the very same experience that I have when I connect with my own Witness. In other words, we come more and more into a position of experiencing directly both our own higher self as well as the higher self of all the beings around us. We recognize that we are spiritual beings among other spiritual beings. Rather than being a throwback to animistic traditions of old (which explicitly recognized the participatory aspect of the universe in their own ways), this realization can be developed in full consciousness – with the elemental mandala as a useful tool along the way. Particularly when we work with the transformation of our senses, upon the basis of Goethe’s insightful methodology, we can experience – not just as a thought about the world, but as thinking with the world – what the Emerald Tablet is referring to when it declares: “That which is Below corresponds to that which is Above, and that which is Above corresponds to that which is Below, to accomplish the miracles of the One Thing.” (Hauck, 1999 p. 45) We feel as if we are a participant in the continual cosmic unfolding, seeing that the light which illuminates our own spiritual vision is present also in all the things of the world. To paraphrase John, everything that was made, was made.
When we work with the elemental cycle, we are working in our own way with the same processes by which all the things of the cosmos are made. We can experience for ourselves how even the seemingly mundane details of our daily inner experience are, to use a different language, fractal recapitulations on a microcosmic scale of macrocosmic processes. We thus find ourselves in the middle of what Jean Gebser has called the Ever-Present Origin (Gebser, 1985). What is more, when we turn our attention to the details of our outer world, there too we find, extending into both to the largest scales of the Heavens and the smallest scales of the Earth, the same processes at work.
Even though these outer processes are continually occurring all the time without our conscious understanding and participation, familiarity with the weavings of the elements begins to reveal a tapestry whose threads can be traced back to our own being, and we begin to wake up to the waking up of the whole cosmos. The turning of the wheel of the elements is never automatic, but rather is experienced much more like a living evolutionary process, a process with consciousness as its substance and base. The elemental cycle, then, has no end, provides no singular destination, no arrival point, no final product. Rather it focuses consciousness on its own expansion, calling for its refinement through its precise reflection in – and through – the world and the unknown parts of ourselves.
Rudolf Steiner expressed this process as an evolutionary potential within humankind on the basis of the development of the capacities of Imagination, Inspiration, and Intuition. Alchemically, this is the Philosopher’s Stone, which is the actual manifestation of the meeting of the Heavens and the Earth, of the spiritual and physical worlds. It is like the template for a potential evolution of the human being, a picture of the refinement of our souls, which allows our Earthly body to receive the developing influence of our Spiritual body. The ennoblement of the prima materia into the Philosopher’s Stone according to the elemental principles, which takes place in the alchemist’s laboratory, is not different from the refinement of our own inner being, the purification and rectification of our own consciousnesses into a higher state. Through this process we actively experience the connection between Heaven and Earth, both in our own being, and in the being of the world.