La Milanesiana : On the Four Elements

By Paulo Coelho

When I was invited to participate in La Milanesiana by Elisabeta Sgarbi, she gave me an assignment: to write on the four elements.

The idea was very appealing to me, specially since this “assignment” would give me the opportunity to re-read some of the books of my youth, but I decided, even before opening my books on Alchemy or turning myself to the writings of pre-Socratic thinkers, to go to one of the most used sources of knowledge available in the world: Wikipedia.

I wanted to see how most people that seek this type of information would find it.

It was all extremely simple: I typed “fire”, “water”, “air” and “earth” and started to read the definitions given. All was predictable (except for “air” – I found out, even before I reached the element of air – that there was this extremely known French band of the same name). Basically Wikipedia would give me the atomic composition of these elements, described earth as the planet we inhabited, revealed the current problems of pollution of the oceans and of the atmosphere, and that was that.

Not one line, not even a mere link, talking about the very roots of these elements, about the traditions and symbols they represent. Of course, I was expecting the scientific and more pragmatic vision on the elements but not to find anything on what they represent really surprised me.

Why this lack of interest on the part of the editors on dedicating some lines on the symbolic significance of the elements?

It felt almost as disdain – as if the symbolic meaning was unimportant, a simple curiosity, ultimately a waste of time.

In a way it’s not news: the encyclopedic pursue is based on discrimination and things have to be kept separate, in their defined boxes and the modern scientific discourse is the ultimate source of truth. The pragmatic, empirical, scientific discourse is considered, in our society as the neutral one – the objective one.

Maybe that’s why a theme such as the Four Elements is so removed from today’s considerations.

The world nowadays is practical – we want to know, at a glimpse, what a word means, its function and it’s eventual utility.

And yet, when one dives into the meanings of the four elements, one goes back to a world based on analogies, on echoes between realities. As Baudelaire would call it: a world of correspondences.

A drop of sand is not only a chemical compound but a small door to the very essence of the cosmic laws that reign over our psyche.

The very notion of “utility” in this mindset is different.

Indeed – what is the utility thinkers had, centuries before Christ, in trying to understand oneness and multiplicity? the mystery of life? the will of the gods?

To understand the four elements, one needs to make a real effort and go back to a world where gods reigned sovereign upon men, to a world where curiosity and questionings were intimately linked to the supernatural, to what laid beyond the surface of things. To a world where transcendence was considered more “real” than the immanent.

Now, imagine yourself going back to small cities, near harbors, where men would go about their lives and were priests would draw in the sand a circle and look to the skies.

By the flight of the birds, the direction of the winds, wars would be decided, business would be done or not with the other cities – basically the fate of the whole city would be determined.

Superstition you would say. Probably. Certainly even.

But men abide to that – would you say that this is because they were ignorant? or maybe because they perceived the world through different lenses?

Why would they believe in certain superstitions?

To reduce it to fear would be inaccurate – ancient Greece was an unstable place, were constant wars between the different city-states would happen.

To say they were irrational would also be inaccurate – in ancient Greece (as well as in other ancient cultures or, as we too hastily say “primitive cultures”) rules were meticulous, men were extremely rational in building their political systems, their trades, and their wars.

No – the answer lies elsewhere.

Serious men, with a real sense of responsibility and with all the components of those that seek power (determination, vision and creativity) believed in these rituals (and also in the famous oracles) because nature was perceived as one and one was divine.

The elements were perceived as having correspondences with the seasons; the seasons were intimately linked to deities and would reign the conduct of mortals.

Would things stop there? No.

Pre-socratic thinkers such as Heraclitus and Empedocles would constantly question and verse themselves in the concept of change.

What does this tell us? Those men felt the need to look at the world and seek teachings. In a way – what modern scientists do today.

But with this difference: knowledge was about perceiving continuity between ourselves and what lay outside of ourselves. Without this necessity of making it “useful” for a practical purpose. The aim was another – it was to attain wisdom.

Knowledge was thus not the dissection of reality but rather it’s profound understanding – in the form of intuition and not only rationality.

Let’s take the case of Empedocles, a fascinating Magus, that in the western tradition is considered to be the father of the “four roots” – he wouldn’t call “air”, “water”, “earth” and “fire” “elements” (that came later on with Plato).
According to this thinker change was the result of two forces constantly combining themselves through the elements: Love and Strife.
Through love, the roots would combine themselves in a myriad of ways and through strife they would depart from each other.
Humans would be then the result of these two forces: life would generate through love – elements would fuse – and a baby would be born – dissociating himself from his mother.
Individuation – necessary for life – would be the result of necessary strife – but inside of each of us a flame would lie waiting to be rekindled from the outside, yearning for fusion, for love.
The elements in this way would be always interacting between themselves and constituting reality – but a reality that would also encompass things that are not visible such as the soul.

Empedocles saw creation as this constant canvas in which the elements, such as colors would be mixed up, tainted one by the other and constitute not only the diversity of nature, but also the wonderful maze of life.

Empedocles considered himself as a God and set out to relieve the suffering of his fellow men. His knowledge, wisdom of the elements was so astounding that he was famously known as the “wind stopper” – being able to stop the winds that were bringing the plague to a city. Many myths surround his death – some say he was retrieved from this earth, others say he threw himself inside the volcano Etna.
In sum – this man, throughout his life, as well as upon his death – is a myth.
Would this chock you? Would you have the need to “know” if this is true or not? Or you can indulge into thinking that there’s maybe more truth into this fabulous story than in any other account?

What does this man, this life, this symbol – bring to you?
As the elements:
– Fire bringing motion
– Air bringing ascension
– Earth bringing the notion of centrality
– Water bringing fluidity

The story of this magus brings something that is empirically unverifiable but necessary: fuel for the imagination. And bizarrely enough – a deep, grounded sense of truth and reality.

There’s a French thinker called Bachelard that wrote beautiful books about the four elements.
This thinker – that was first and foremost a biologist and scientist – came with these books on the poetry of the elements.
He would call the elements the “hormones of imagination”.

Today, having to speak about the elements I see myself as having a great deal of responsibility towards you:
Because I’m not here to prove anything.
Because i’m not here to bring you the ultimate truth.
But because in these stories I’m trying to make you realize how truly “useful” and “necessary” a world of imagination is to our souls.

Thank you

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