Explorations in Esoteric Philosophy Part II: The Elements and Spirit as an Emergent Quality

Now, for the Elements. This is one of the most misunderstood and controversial subjects in magick. Outsiders are prone to thinking magi foolish for clinging to a belief in four elements when there’s this thing called the “periodic table” that lists well over a hundred. Insiders are prone to trying to make the Classical Elements “fit” modern science by equating them with the states of matter.

The first is a simple matter of equivocation. The Elements in Occultism are a totally different subject than the elements on the periodic table. It is not just a matter of the same word referring to two slightly similar things. It’s a matter of two totally different categories using the same name. The Elements are not merely material building blocks or types of atoms. Nor are they states of matter, as some modern occultists would maintain.
The Four Classical Elements are actually the product of another muddled aspect of occultism: polarity, or “gender.” The traditional Aristotilian classification of Elements into variations of hot/dry and cold/wet has behind it the doctrine of polarity. In terms perhaps foreign but also more familiar, this is the interplay of Yin and Yang. Passive and Active. Positive and Negative. You get the idea.

“Hot” then, refers to positive, “Cold” to negative. “Dry” and “wet” refer to the degree of permanence and Element possesses. “Dry” things, rocks, trees, basically anything solid and relatively static, have a high degree of permanence. “Wet” things shift and move. So we have a system based upon the interaction of a particular kind of energy with a particular kind of object. If the Elements have anything to do with the states of matter, it is in the dry/wet polarity.

Another important aspect emerges now. That of the resolution of the Duad to make a harmonious triad. Cold and wet apart from each other are just conditions. When put together they become the Element of Water. A third thing, made up of two others, that is more and different than either of them.

Which is where the Four Elements meet and partake of the nature of the Three Philosophical Elements, Sulfur, Salt, Mercury. These represent the forces behind the forms. Sulfur is “active,” Salt is “passive,” while Mercury is a marriage of both. Like the “Y” chromosome, it is Mercury that makes the difference, being the mediating result that brings the higher forces downward into the triads of manifestation.

But what about Spirit, the Fifth Element? I would argue that, like Mercury, it is not a “thing” in itself, but an emergent property of the other Four Elements in unity. This of course reverses the usual hierarchy, where “spiritual” things are generally “above” the plane of manifestation.

Again, I think the problem here is semantic. “Spirit” as an Element is different from “Spirit” in terms of things “divine.” In order for something to be divine, it has to be eternal. It must exist beyond the realm of conditioned existence. So, really, divinity is Emptiness. Devoid of conditionality, it provides the field in which conditions arise. This would include things like Gods, as well as people and political systems.

Since “form is none other than emptiness” as the Good Sutra tells us, this places us in a position a good deal more positive than the usual ideas of “religion” in which we are to repair a defect. Spirit is Emptiness in full manifestation. In other words, Malkut. Which means that our task is not to overcome some inherently corrupt nature, but to partake in an ongoing process of development. Just like a child becoming an adult. No more, no less. Esoteric practice then becomes something quite different than the domination game or the “getting one over on the cosmos” game.

If we see our spiritual development as just another step in the general progression to adult and beyond, then the more rarified practices invite us to be not some elite with superhuman powers, but helpful teachers. The good teachers we had in school did not lord their superior knowledge of their subject over us. They gave us information, then showed us the way that experience had shown was one of the better ways to utilize it. The best teachers were inspiring, and nudged us by example into the path with the best results.

The “repair of defects” version of spirituality serves just one purpose: to enslave people. No one will ever measure up to the vague qualitative standards set by religious authority. Which means they will keep us coming, year after year, century after century, to their churches to pray away sins they made up. It’s a racket, pure and simple.

Well, that digressed quite a bit from a discussion about the Elements. Next, we’ll need to talk about “gender” as the concept plays out in Hermeticism, which will probably also lead us into interesting territory. It shouldn’t be thought that simply because esoteric concepts point to certain ideas, that they justify the outward expression of them. They form an interesting, higher order lens from which to view our current dilemmas, but that is all. Simply a broader, more abstract perspective. One that emerges, if you will, from living with these ideas and making them part of your life.

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