I recently wrote an article discussing the view of ancient people that everything that exists is composed of four (equally important) elements — earth, air, fire, and water. In modern times this point of view is dismissed as nonsensical. I argued, however, that when correctly understood it has something to be said for it.
Since then I have been reading a book by the American esotericist Manly Hall called The Secret Teachings of All Ages1. Early on he summarises and compares the views of several ancient Greek philosophers. He says that:
- “Water was conceived by Thales to be the primal principle or element, upon which the earth floated like a ship…”
- “Anaximander, differing from his master Thales, declared measureless and indefinable infinity to be the principle from which all things were generated”.
- “Anaximenes asserted air to be the first element of the universe; that souls and even the Deity itself were composed of it”.
- “Archelaus declared the principle of all things to be twofold; mind (which was incorporeal) and air (which was corporeal), the rarefaction and condensation of the latter resulting in fire and water respectively”.
- “Heraclitus… asserted fire to be the first element and also the state into which the world would ultimately be reabsorbed. The soul of the world he regarded as an exhalation from its human parts, and he declared the ebb and flow of the sea to be caused by the sun”. (all quotes p15–16)
One could easily be forgiven for thinking that these ancient Greeks contradicted each other, were therefore hopelessly confused and, of course, that they believed ridiculous things. It struck me, however, that these points of view are not necessarily contradictory from a spiritual perspective; a case can be made that they are compatible. In order to do this, one has to assume that in these statements words like water, fire, air, and earth were not intended in the same sense as in the opening sentence above. Let’s look at them one by one.
The statement by Thales can be compared to a verse in Genesis (1.9): “And God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear’. And it was so”. The suggestion is that the material universe emerges out of a more fluid, less dense state, and therefore metaphorically floats upon it. This is the view of quantum physicists (who sometimes refer to the quantum sea, and it’s interesting, since we are talking about waters, that their term is quantum waves). It is also the view of esoteric and secret societies down the ages, according to Jonathan Black in The Secret History of the World².
Despite what Manly Hall says, Anaximander’s viewpoint does not necessarily contradict that of Thales. His “measureless and indefinable infinity” clearly refers to the ultimate impersonal source of all things, beyond the four elements and therefore not one of them, and in the hierarchy of levels way above what Thales calls water — the immediate more fluid level above the material world. (In spiritual traditions words like astral, and etheric are used.)
If souls and the Deity are considered to be composed of air, as Anaximenes says, then in this context the word is obviously intended to mean something incredibly rarified, some kind of primal cloud prior to individual, separate entities, rather than one of the four elemental principles out of which the universe is composed. This seems to be also the view of Archelaus, who says that fire and water are lower in the hierarchy than air, which must therefore be understood differently than as one of the four elements, and beyond them.
Heraclitus’s statement shows that he is also of the view that fire and water are separate levels of reality, and does not use the terms as two of the four elements. It can also be compared to Genesis 1 (v3) where God’s first command is that there should be light, which can therefore be considered the basic building-block of the lower levels. (According to physicists Fred Alan Wolf and Bob Toben ” ‘Matter’ may be nothing but gravitationally trapped light [energy]”3.)
We should note that light here should not be understood as the light that comes from the heavenly bodies, enabling us to see things — the conventional meaning. This was called lumen by early Christian writers, and was contrasted with lux, “the primary stuff God used to make the cosmos, close to a cosmic creative force, almost a manifestation of God himself”⁴.
Both fire and light are bright and shining; perhaps the same meaning was intended by Heraclitus. Modern physicists consider matter to be “patterns of organic energy”5, which can perhaps be considered fire-like. It is reasonable to assume that Heraclitus associates fire with the sun, and that by ‘sea’ he means the same as what Thales calls water. In his view the behaviour of the waters (the psyche, the astral level) is caused by the higher level, the sun (which can be considered a symbol for fire or energy).
To conclude, if you think my arguments have not been especially convincing, it’s worth noting that at least some physicists agree, because in these statements physicists Wolf and Toben seem to express the non-contradictory position that I’m suggesting:
- “The chair is not ‘solid’. It is a fantastic interplay of vibrating, spinning rings of light (the basic building block of everything) in the turbulent sea (waters) of space”.
- “The incomprehensible unaware oneness beyond space-time (Anaximander’s measureless and indefinable infinity) becomes aware of itself, creating light. (God said ‘Let there be light’.) Light chases itself in gravitational collapse!”. (p46 and p47, my insertions.)
It’s an interesting question, how did these ancient Greek philosophers have such amazing insight into the nature of reality?
1. originally 1928, my copy Tarcher/Penguin, 2003
2. Quercus, 2008
3. Space-Time and Beyond, Bantam, 1983, p46
4. Science Stories, BBC Radio 4 August 22nd 2017, a programme about Bishop Robert Grosseteste
5. Gary Zukav, The Dancing Wu Li Masters, Fontana/Collins, 1980, p31