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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  1. eleonora says:

    Grazie per quanto letto sopra!!!

  2. Marie-Christine says:

    Imagine….J’ai travaille pour de l’air toute ma vie.
    – a breathing space – it’s a health’s matter – .
    From the day I was born I have been running a bit of a handicap in this department.
    HEAL TH it’s an encouraging word.

    I love that element………so light

    It';s so important – BREATHING – one of the basic survival in this life.
    Thank you for the in spiration Paulo, You are magic!
    I am breathing better now.
    I love you

  3. Marie-Christine says:

    Dear Paulo,
    This afternoon, I was cleaning up the drawers of my desk, and I found that little gem.
    I just wanted to share it with you.

    -Secret Diary
    Sunday 2.1.2010
    To day is the last day of the Xmas holidays. I think I have done quite well this Xmas, what with an Aero Hover bike with turbos. I will now have the second fastest Hover bike in the whole school. Barry Kent has the fastest. He has got a turbo charger added on! He nicked it from a craftsman’s workshop.
    I know that because turbo chargers cost over $500,000 and Barry Kent’s mum and dad, even though they are millionaires like the rest of my area, wouldn’t give him that much of a present.

    Monday 3.3.2010
    6.30 –
    I have school to day (worst luck). Chemistry for first period and then Metal work for 2nd and 3rd periods. We are making a Ho-Beast to help the school crack down on vandalism and stealing. The last one they had was shot by a disruptor flare in the under-belly. It remained static for three weeks and destroyed the energy cassette and its memory banks. It was a vintage piece of machinery anyway, made in 1987. To-morrow, Nigel and I are going to see the big Robo Championship Fight between “Maximilian” and “Thor”. Nigel has just come over and shown me the tickets. We are sitting in the front row so we’re sure to get a good view of the ultimate fight. Maximiliam holds the belt but Thor could make a fight of it. One of the old human fighters, Paul Orndorf is opening the stadium which is brand new.

    In Chemistry to-day, the power went off five minutes into the period. Our Computer teacher stopped operating. It was a real rage! Barry Kent and Michael Bensan pulled the Computer Teacher apart with a sonic screwdriver and fiddled around inside for a little while. Barry Kent is excellent with computers. He has been nicking them since he was 12. We played games for 2 periods. I wonder what the Year 8’s thought when we got out of class.

    I have just returned from the Robo contest. It was really excellent! Maximillian still holds the belt but Thor gave him something to think about. Thor had Maximillian pinned down in the arena and the count went to 8, just 2 seconds from the limit. Maximilian fired his flamed retro-rockets in his legs and hit Thor’s chest. Maximilian then held Thor to the final count and retained the belt. Both will be in the workshops for a long time.

    5/3/2010 –
    It is all around the school now that my form class are going on a holiday to the Moon! I have never been Inter Planetary before. From what I have heard it’s a ball of fun.We leave in two days time – it has been paid for by the school – Mum says I can go – It’s going to be excellent! Nigel is going (Yahay) What a pity the rest of the class is going, including Barry Kent (sigh). The Headmaster has found out about Barry Kent changing the circuits of our chemistry teacher. No body will confirm Barry and Micheal have done it – wise choice – so the Headmaster can’t give them the electric shock. He certainly has his eyes on Barry Kent though. The electrician that visited the school said that the school may as well throw it out as far as Chemistry is concerned. The stupid school are putting up the price of entering the school every day to two dollars per day to pay for a new computer.

    I have just packed for the Moon Trip. We are staying at the “Harlem” Tour Base. They have the best simulators of any machine from a horse and cart to a Space Shuttle. There is a rumour going around that we are traveling in the Defence Forces new “Ace 25″ transformation robots, but I did not believe it myself. I am getting one thousand dollars spending money. Bloatey Baloney is getting five-space credits. Yes, Dear Diary a cool five thousand dollars! With that type of money the fat slob will eat us out of house and home. He also likes the 1986 model “Hornet” simulator so when he gets on it no-one will get a go. The machine of that simulator on the moon has been modified so that it is twice as hard – Bloatey will like that – The rooms we are staying in are mint. You open a hatch in the side of a wall and hop into a room that has just a bed – there is a bed, walls and roof in one –

    Diagram is shown

    It has got an Intercom in each room as well that sends a signal to any room you wish to talk to by entering a number into the dashboard. It has a television on the inside of the hatch with 25 channels plus a game channel – like the simulators – There is a 24 hour butler that stands outside the cylinders and serves anyone who wants anything.

    We have been on the Moon for approximately 6 hours now. It is mint! I played on the doubles simulators all day with Nigel. He won 33 games – assorted games – to 29. I am in my room. It is so far out as to be unreal! I have been served hamburgers, chips, sodas, F.M.’s and cokes all night. I am full. I have my Intercom on Nigel’s number. We are talking to each other about the scores we are getting on the games channel. Barry Kent keeps on jamming our signal and you can hear him swearing. He does it for about 20 seconds and then enters into another number.. The Headmaster is looking for Barry’s room. All the hatches are pressurised so when he opens the hatch you hear a loud hissing noise. It is mint.

    It looks like I’ll have to buy a new Diary now dear Diary. I only have two lines left so this will be my last entry.

    Jean-Paul (aged 13)
    Issue Nr 41 of Community News

    I thought it fitted really well with what you are saying.

    …I’m trying to make you realise how truly “useful” and “necessary” a world of imagination is to our souls.”

    With love

  4. Marie-Christine says:

    I was talking with a woman who goes and does some work with children with special needs
    I was telling her I met one a while ago and she was top
    she said that they can change from one minute to the other
    I said to her they are like bi polars.
    She agreed
    I could not help thinking that nature does things well
    even all the humans have to follow and accept it at one time or another that we all are bi polar and have our good and bad moments

  5. Marie-Christine says:

    “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.”

  6. Marie-Christine says:

    Understanding natural law is crucial to help us to get in touch with ourselves.
    I regard this “assignment” as a scientific explanation of our genetic make-up in relation with nature. I believe it should be taught in the formative years in school.
    Everytime I read it, I learn more and more.
    It’s brilliant!
    Thank you once again.

  7. Marie-Christine says:

    “No one holds the ultimate truth” but some capture more “truths” and you can build upon it layers by layers.

  8. Marie-Christine says:

    ..experiencing a bit of a jet lag? the Winter blues? your natural rythme .. a bit out of whack?
    The changing of the clock.
    A disruptive element.

  9. marie-christine says:

    “Those who look for the law of Nature as a support for their new works collaborate with the creator.” Antoni Gaudi

  10. marie-christine says:

    cette “notion de centralite de la Terre” m’a fait penser au rapport avec les couleurs. Une de mes preferees est le marron.Je comprends pourquoi j’en ai besoin.

  11. Eric Garner says:

    I cannot write as eloquently and as beautifully as Paulo on the Four Elements. But if you want to see how we still use the Four Elements in training people to use their time better, have a look at this article on our ManageTrainLearn website:

    The Earth element symbolizes the groundwork tasks in our life, eg routines, chores, procedures.
    The Fire element symbolizes the creative tasks in our life, eg projects, new ideas, innovation.
    The Air element symbolizes the thought and consciousness tasks in our life, eg managing the past, present and future.
    The Water element symbolizes the work we need to do with others, eg teamwork and developing relationships.

  12. Marie-Christine says:

    Je suis allee voir qui etait ce Bachelard mentionne dans la Milanesiana.J’ai trouve cette citation interessante de lui.

    ” Et quoi qu’on en dise, dans la vie scientifique, les problemes ne se posent pas d’eux-memes. C’est precisement ce sens du probleme qui donne la marque du veritable esprit scientifique.Pour un esprit scientifiqye, toute connaissance est une question. Si il n’y a pas eu de question, il ne peut pas y avoir de connaissance scientifique. Rien ne va de soi. Rien n’est donne. Tout est construit.” P. Bachelard

    “And, irrespective of what might assume, in the life of science, problems do not arise by themselves. It is precisely this that marks out a problem as being of the true scientific spirit : all knowledge is a response to a question. If there were not question, there would be no scientific knowledge. Nothing proceeds from itself.Nothing is given. All is constructed.” P Bachelard

  13. Marie-Christine says:

    En meme temps, j’ai compris qu’il arrive un moment dans la vie ou il faut faire un trait sur son passe, se dire “assez est assez” , l’accepter et se remettre en route.

  14. Marie-Christine says:

    I realised that by not knowing where I was coming from, (which is the earth element (“the notion of centrality”) why I was missing such an important link. Without it, you are not functioning to your optimal.

  15. Marie-Christine says:

    C’est le cas de le dire -“Je suis dans mon “element” avec ce texte.”

    Je viens le lire regulierement et aujourd’hui j’ai decide de le re-copier manuellement – cela me donne plus de clarite –
    Je comprends beaucoup mieux l’importance de l’intuition dans notre vie.

    La necessite de connaitre “notre Histoire” (La terre de nos ancetres), le pivot central.
    l’etincelle du “feu” pour injecter la passsion avec l’energie et son pouvoir,

    et lorsque les quatre elements fonctionnent ensemble….quel potentiel!
    You know…the stuff dreams are made off….

    Merci Paulo, j’ai beaucoup apprecie.

    1. Marie-Christine says:

      at the same time I understood that there comes a time in life where you need to draw a line with your past , said “enough is enough” accept it and move on.

      I visit this text regularly and to day I decided to write it down by hands. It gives me more clarity.
      I understand better the importance of intuition in our life.
      The need to know our history (the place of our ancestors), the central pivot the spark from the “fire” to inject passion with the energy and its power.
      and when the four elements work together …what potential

      Thanks Paulo, I appreciated this text very much.It is so well explained. Even I -after a lot of time -am starting to make sense of it.

  16. Marie-Christine says:

    the four elements teach you how to communicate better with yourself.

  17. Marie-Christine says:

    Earth = your origins, your roots
    Fire = Passion, energy
    Air =mind, intellectual
    Eau = feelings, love

  18. Marie-Christine says:

    Je suis un lien
    Je suis une ame qui connecte
    Je suis un melange de tous les elements
    Je suis la fusion entre le bien et le mal
    Je suis un mouvement, un tic-tac avec une tactique
    Je suis une petite nacelle qui change et qui grandit continuellement
    Je suis naive, je suis le fou, je suis drole et egalement tres profonde
    Je suis un ballon qui rebondit
    Je suis mon propre alchimiste
    Je suis la chair d’une espece en voie d’extinction.

  19. Agnieszka says:

    Thank you Paulo,

    reminds me of this song by Demis Roussos:
    “take me far beyond imagination…”


  20. Love says:

    Thank you.

    Again, as everytime I read something I like, the only thing that come to me when I finish reading (or listening, or seeing somehting) is either Silence or I simply start … crying.


    It is always good to me to read about the Four Elements. I don´t know how to explain why, but it´s good for me.

    Maybe that´s why I would like to learn the Path to Wisdom and my True Self through Magic.

    I knew nothing about Magic till I read for the first time a few years ago “The Pilgrimage” (in Spanish) and “Brida” (long ago in Spanish and now thank that you put it on you blog in English).

    So, in the same way that I know nothing (well, I Know but I have to remember) about the Four Elements yet I like even just to think about them, happen with Magic and what you write in your books.

    It´s like if a Wiser Woman than me where happier and more Alive when I allow Her to be close to You.

    She (the Woman inside me)is the most beautiful treasure I Know I have; that´s why I´d like to do anything to Help Her and give Her the reins of my Life.

    And, as we are All the same, that´s why almost everybody can´t avoid to be kept in trance (even without having followed the Path of learning through Magic, like you or Brida, for instance) when we look at the flames of a Fire. Or when we stop a moment to feel the Wind. Or the Water. Or the Earth.

    Or when we read a book, or a few lines.

    Depends on how close we may be to our True Self, we will pay more attention to these “Things” or not.

    It may be like what my lord Jesus said about what people do after hearing the Truth; I think almost everybody is kept in trance when hearing the truth. But not all of them go on Hearing the Truth after the trance has ended.

    What I want is to Hear the Truth all the time and be One with my Guardian Angel despite of the shadows.

    I want to Stay with Him. All the time.

    I want to be Wise, Illuminated. That´s the only Way.

    Thank you.