Earth, water, air and fire. Mirror of the human soul

By Andreas Höyng, May 2018

Rudolf Steiner opened up access to the four elements in a contemporary way. In gardening, in particular, the growing human being can enter into a direct experience of them.

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

On a day in early spring, we are taking a walk along a bubbling brook in the Black Forest. Sheets of ice are clustered around the rocks and can still be seen in the cool shadows. Under the first warming rays of the sun the ice begins to melt. There is a light wind and a rustling in the trees. As the sun strengthens, the first green begins to stir out of the earth. All of us have such experiences every day. We go out into nature with greater or lesser awareness, are revived there and return home refreshed. We basically do not know what happens to us there. When we raise our experience to consciousness, we see that the direct encounter with earth, water, air and warmth has vitalised us. Our whole world is interwoven from these four elements – they subtly interpenetrate one another and always act in a living context.

On the basis of such experience, we can ask ourselves about the extent to which the ancient view of the Greeks about the four elements, which applied into the eighteenth century, is still appropriate today for an understanding of nature. Are the ancient concepts of earth, water, air and fire still suitable for a modern view of the world, and particularly a system of education which endeavours to be contemporary and, above all, forward-looking?

If we immerse ourselves in these ancient ideas, we obtain an extraordinarily living picture of the interactions in nature and between its forces. It is true, however, that this picture is scientifically obsolete. Today’s chemist understands elements to be something different from what was meant in earlier times in a comprehensive sense by the word “element”. Because all the so-called elements today belong to the category of the earth element, whereas water, air and fire are subject to different laws.

Starting from the view of the ancient Greeks, Rudolf Steiner created new, contemporary access to these four elements for modern consciousness and showed various ways in which this theory could be given new life and deepened – ways which take account of contemporary consciousness and the demands of science. He described how the elements have their origin in the various stages of the non-sensory world and influence the visible world. To this end it is necessary to understand four stages of existence: the laws of physical matter (earth) and cosmic existence (water), the laws of the cosmic soul (air) and the laws of the cosmic spirit (warmth). All of this encompasses the mineral, plant, animal and human world.

It starts with wonder

Wonder is the gateway to the cognitive process. In wonder, we are initially given over to the phenomenon without already imposing finished concepts on it. Wonder is the starting point of science. It may seem surprising for a scientific researcher that wonder, an emotional reaction such as amazement, should have anything to do with cognition. But we need only observe the small child as they play in the sand and water, as they watch a fire, for this statement to be self-evident. Through their senses, they are wholly given over to the phenomenon. Anyone who observes children can experience how earth, water, fire and air are a natural reality for them which they deal with in an unmediated way. Such natural interaction is gradually lost and becomes so brittle that Pestalozzi advised in a letter: “… better to be in the barn, kitchen, garden or living room than suffering abstraction in front of a book with streaming eyes …” For education, it is necessary once again to unlock and include this world, which is still self-evident for the child, so that they can later handle it in a meaningful and responsible way. For if we succeed in including the elements in a proper way, nature with its inexhaustible wealth can gradually guide us from experience to thinking and abstraction.

Controlling the elements in gardening

When the children enter the school garden, they enter a realm of the elements in which they are not just observers but also actors. All work in the garden, be it composting, sowing, cultivating plants, caring for the beds, watering, hoeing, harvesting, laying in the vegetables for the winter, involves handling these four elements and their dry, humid, hot and cold characteristics. To produce good compost, it is necessary to ensure that the compost generates warmth at the beginning, is always aerated correctly, is neither too moist nor too dry. Only then do we get vitalising humus. The same applies to all other activities in the garden.

Practical activity reveals the quality of the elements in a direct way. The senses are sharpened through practice so that both the pupil and the instructing gardener make the right judgements on the basis of lived experience which are practical and relevant. All activity in the garden is to control these qualities and laws. When in spring the first seeds are sown, the seed begins to swell as soon as it comes into contact with water, the dry, earthy husk of the seed softens, the root connects with the moist earth, the stalk with the first delicate cotyledons senses its way into the space of air and light, then the gardener – also as growth continues – has to ensure that the relationship between these four elements and their qualities is correct. Since they never appear separately and in a one-sided way, but always subtly interpenetrate one another, since one is inconceivable without the other, our thinking also has to be mobilised. Otherwise we cannot act in the correct way. For the children this means that perception and thinking, abandonment to the phenomenon and initial conceptual understanding, have to be brought into a healthy rhythm.

Lifelong sensory impressions

The experience of the elements in their different qualities also always addresses the feelings directly and has an immediate motivating effect. When in summer the scent of freshly mown, drying  grass wafts through the warm air, then the children experience with such a sensory experience a feeling of wellbeing, the quality of summer. It is an impression which deeply engrains itself for life. At the same time this emotional experience forms the basis for the interest which is required to want to understand the process.

In connecting their soul with nature in this way, the child can also begin to exercise their will. Thus gardening is, on the one hand, about grasping the will and transforming nature in the right way through active work and, on the other hand, grasping and penetrating such work with the thinking. Using the example of hay, this means that it has to be deprived of an element in order to make it long-lasting. I do not explain this process theoretically to the children, nor do I reduce it to a chemically abstract formula, but they experience with all their senses that the water is removed from the grass and that as a result a transformation occurs and something new is created – hay. This step is necessary before subsequently the cognitive process can also be grasped in abstract terms.

World and humans in context

If gradually we obtain an understanding of the stepladder of the laws of the elements, we rediscover them not just outside in the world of natural phenomena (macrocosm) but also in human beings (microcosm) as active and creative forces: “… that the earthly element lives in them, in their bones; that the watery element lives in their blood circulation and in all that is fluids, vital fluids; that the airy element is at work in the breathing ..., in language; that the fiery element lives in the thoughts” (Steiner, GA 233).

What lives outside in nature has its counterpart in the human soul

If, for example, we describe the physical qualities of types of soil, this quickly becomes clear. Sandy soil is easy to work, permeable for air and water, poor in nutrients. If there is a downpour, it is quickly soaked through, but when the sun reappears it dries out just as quickly. The polar opposite is clay soil which is difficult to work. In the summer it is hard, dry and full of cracks. If it rains, it turns into a sludgy paste and the clumps of earth stick to our boots. It is rich in minerals and nutrients. It is not difficult to make the link with the soul element in humans. The sandy soil corresponds in this sense to a sanguine person who quickly creates a connection with everything and dissolves it again just as quickly. The clay soil, in contrast, corresponds to the profound, thoughtful melancholic.

If the teacher carries this inner connection between nature and the human being within themselves, then the pupils can obtain a sense of it as they handle the earth. This makes its meaningfulness in the widest sense capable of experience. The elements become the key for overcoming the dualism between the human being and the world.

About the author: Andreas Höyng is a teacher of gardening and free religion at the Uhlandshöhe Waldorf School in Stuttgart.