PART II: Goetheanism – Whence and Whither?
CHAPTER XI Matter as Part of Nature’s Alphabet
In the preceding chapter we drew attention to the fact that any spatially extended mass is under the sway of both gravity and levity. We then saw that with the transition of matter from the solid via the liquid to the gaseous state, not only does the specific gravity of the substance decrease, but at the same time an increase takes place of what we might call ‘specific levity’. In the gaseous state, therefore, we find gravity-bound matter becoming so far levity-bound that it assumes the property of actively expanding in space.
Having once adopted the Goethean way of thinking-in-polarities, we may feel sure that there is somewhere in nature a phenomenon which represents the polar opposite of the levity-gravity relationship peculiar to the gaseous state. In this latter state we find ponderable matter so far brought under the sway of levity that its behaviour is of a kind which van Helmont, when he first observed it, could not help describing as ‘paradoxical’. Where, we must now ask, do we find imponderable essence so much under the sway of gravity that it shows the correspondingly paradoxical features? In other words, where does nature show levity concentrated in a limited part of space – that is, in a condition characteristic of ponderable matter?
Such concentrations of levity do indeed exist in varied forms. One is the ‘warmth-body’ represented by the blood-heat of the higher animals and man. There is, however, an occurrence of this kind also on the purely mineral level of nature, and it is this which has particular significance for our present study of matter. We meet it in all physical substances which have the peculiarity of being combustible.
Our next task is to study certain fundamentals in regard to the different ways in which levity and gravity are found to be intertwined in combustible substances, manifesting through the difference of their relation to the process of combustion – that is, the process by which levity is restored to its original condition. It is the aim of the present chapter to show that by doing justice to the imponderable aspect of combustion, the way is opened to a view of the ‘elements’, as scientific chemistry understands them, which will be in line with our dynamic conception of matter.
There is nothing surprising in the fact that a new conception of the chemical element can arise from a re-study of the process of combustion, if we remember that it was the picture of combustion, characteristic of the spectator-consciousness, which determined the conception of the chemical element as it prevails in modern science. Let us see how this conception came to pass historically in order to find where we stand to-day.
With the establishment of the knowledge of a state of physical matter which, as the definition ran, ‘neither results from a combination of other physical substances nor is resolvable into such’, the conviction arose that man’s searching mind had reached ‘rock-bottom’. This conviction, however, was shaken when, with the discovery of radium, an element became known whose property it is to disintegrate into two other elements, helium and lead. Although this did not force science to abandon the element-concept altogether, it became necessary to find a new definition for it.
This definition was established by Professor W. Ostwald at the beginning of the present century, when he stated that the chemical element represents a condition of physical matter in which ‘any chemical change results in an increase of weight’. In this way, the chemical concept of the element achieved a meaning which had actually been implicit in it from its first conception. For its very formation had been the outcome of the Contra-Levitatem maxim. The following glance over the history of chemistry will show this.
The birth of chemistry as a science, in the modern sense, is closely connected with a revolutionary change in the conception of what can be called the chemical arch-process-combustion, or, to use a more scientific term, oxidation. This change arose out of the Contra-Levitatem maxim and the new conception of heat which this maxim required. In the old doctrine of the four Elements, Heat had been conceived as a manifestation of the element of Fire, and so, together with Air, as belonging to the realm of the ‘uncreated things’. Hence the release of heat from created substance was always felt to be a sacred act, as is shown by the fire rites of old.
Modern man’s conception of the same process is revealed in the answer one invariably receives from both layman and scientist when they are asked what they understand by combustion. It is described as a process through which oxygen combines with the combustible substance. And yet this side of combustion, first observed by J. Priestley (1771), is neither the one for the sake of which man produces combustion in the service of his everyday life, nor is it at all observed by ordinary sense-perception. Nevertheless, to describe the obvious fact, that combustion is liberation of heat from the combustible substance, will hardly occur to anyone to-day. This shows to what extent even the scientifically untrained consciousness in our time turns instinctively to the tangible or weighable side of nature, so that some effort is required to confess simply to what the eye and the other senses perceive.
During the first hundred years after the establishment of the Contra-Levitatem maxim, man’s situation was in a certain sense the opposite of this. Then, people were struggling hard to get away from the old concept which saw in combustion nothing but the liberation of a super-terrestrial element from earthly fetters. This struggle found expression in a theory of heat which at that time greatly occupied scientific thinking. It is the so-called phlogiston-theory first proposed by the chemist Stahl (1660-1734).
This theory reveals the great uncertainty into which man’s thinking about the world of the senses had arrived at that time. Clinging to ideas inherited from antiquity, man’s consciousness was already so far restricted to the forming of pure matter-bound concepts that he was tempted to conceive heat as a material element. To this heat-substance the name ‘phlogiston’ was given. At the same time, under the Contra-Levitatem maxim, it was impossible to conceive of substance except as ponderable substance. This led to the conviction that whenever heat appears as a result of some treatment of matter (combustion or friction), the material substance subject to this treatment must lose weight.
The experiments of Lavoisier (1743-94), which he undertook following Priestley’s discovery of the role of oxygen in combustion, put an end to this theory. These experiments are rightly regarded as the actual beginning of modern chemistry. In Lavoisier we find an observer of nature who was predominantly interested in what the scales could tell about changes in substances. It was from this aspect that he investigated the process of oxidation. What had already been observed by a few others, though without being taken seriously by them, he found confirmed – that, contrary to the phlogiston – theory, matter does not lose weight through oxidation but gains weight. Further experiments proved beyond doubt that in all chemical reactions the total weight of the components remained constant. However much the substance resulting from the chemical reaction of others might differ from these, its weight always proved to be the same as their total weight. What else could be concluded from the apparent unchangeability of weight throughout all the chemical happenings in nature than that the ponderable world-content was of eternal duration? We see here how much modern chemistry and its concept of the chemical element has been ruled right from the start by the one-sided gravity concept of the onlooker-consciousness.
Together with the overcoming of the fallacy that heat is a ponderable substance (full certainty was indeed established only some time later through the investigations of Davy and Rumford into heat generated by friction) – human thinking was led into a one-sided conception of combustion which was merely the opposite of the one held earlier. Whereas formerly man’s mind was pre-eminently occupied by the liberation of the imponderable element through combustion, it now turned entirely to what goes on in the ponderable realm.
As we have seen, one outcome of this one-sided view of combustion was the modern concept of the chemical element. To-day our task is to overcome this concept by taking a step corresponding to the one that led to it, that is, by a study of combustibility which does justice to both sides of the process involved.
As objects of our observation we choose three chemical elements all of which have the property of combustibility: Sulphur, Phosphorus, and Carbon. As will become clear, our choice of these three is determined by the fact that together they represent an instance ‘worth a thousand, bearing all within itself.
We begin by comparing Sulphur and Phosphorus. In their elementary state they have in common the fact that any chemical change is bound up with an increase in their weight. In this state both are combustible. Apart from this similarity, there is a great difference between them, as the way of storing them illustrates. For while elementary sulphur needs only an ordinary container, phosphorus has to be kept under cover of water in order to prevent the atmospheric oxygen from touching it. The reason is that the combustible state is natural for sulphur, but not for phosphorus, the latter’s natural state being the oxidized one. This different relationship of sulphur and phosphorus to the oxidizable (reduced) and the oxidized state manifests itself in all their chemical reactions.
To object here that the different reactions of the two substances are due only to the difference of their respective temperatures of ignition, and that above these temperatures the difference will more or less disappear (all combustible substances at a sufficiently high temperature becoming more or less similar to phosphorus), would not meet the argument. For what matters here is just how the particular substance behaves at that level of temperature on which the earth unfolds her normal planetary activity. To ignore this would be to violate one of the principles we have adopted from Goethe, which is never to derive fundamental concepts of nature from observations obtained under artificial conditions.
Sulphur and phosphorus are thus seen to represent two polarically opposite tendencies with regard to the levity-gravity coherence which breaks up when combustion occurs. In the case of sulphur, the ponderable and imponderable entities appear to cling together; in the case of phosphorus, they seem to be anxious to part. These two different tendencies – which are characteristic of many other substances and represent a basic factor in the chemical happenings of the earth – are in their own way a pair of opposites. Since each of them represents in itself a relationship between two poles of a polarity-gravity and levity – so in their mutual relationship they represent a ‘polarity of polarities’. In Fig. 4 an attempt has been made to represent this fact by a symbolic diagram.
In this figure the shaded part represents the imponderable, the black part the ponderable entity. In the left-hand symbol both are shown in a relationship corresponding to the one characteristic of sulphur; in the right-hand figure the relationship is characteristic of phosphorus.
Here we have an instance of a kind of polarity which belongs to the fundamentals of nature as much as does the levity-gravity polarity itself. Wherever two poles of a polarity meet, they have the possibility of being connected in two ways which in themselves are again polarically opposite. Our further studies will bring up various other instances of this kind, and will show us that part of the epistemological trouble in which science finds itself to-day results from the fact that the scientific mind has been unable to distinguish between the two kinds of polarity – that is, as we shall say henceforth, between polarities of the first order (primary polarities) and polarities of the second order (secondary polarities).
In actual fact, the distinction between the two orders of polarity has been implicit in the descriptions given in this book right from the start. Remember, in this respect, how the picture of the threefold psycho-physical structure of man, which has proved a master-key for unlocking the most varied scientific problems, was first built up. There, ‘body’ and ‘soul’ represented a polarity which is obviously one of the first order. By our observation of the human organism, in relation both to the different functions of the soul and to the different main organic systems, we further recognized the fact that the ways in which body and soul are interrelated are polarically opposite in the region of the brain and nerves and in the region of the metabolic processes, which again results in two polarically opposite activities of the soul, mental on the one hand, and volitional on the other. In what we called the pole-of-consciousness and the pole-of-life we therefore have a clear polarity of the second order, and so in everything that is connected with these two, as our further discussions will show.
Remembering that our first occasion to concern ourselves overtly with the concept of polarity was in connexion with the four elements, we may now ask whether the old doctrine did not embrace some conception of secondary polarity as well as of primary polarity, and if so, whether this might not prove as helpful in clarifying our own conceptions as was the primary polarity, cold-warm. That this is indeed so, the following description will show.
Beside the two qualities cold and warm the doctrine of the four elements pointed to two further qualities forming in themselves a pair of opposites, namely, dry and moist. Just as the four elements were seen as grouping themselves in two pairs, Fire-Air on the one hand,
Water-Earth on the other, the first being characterized by the quality warm, the second by cold, so were they seen to form two opposing groups, Fire-Earth and Air-Water, of which one was characterized by the quality dry, the other by the quality moist. Fig. 5 shows how the four elements in their totality were seen to arise out of the various combinations of the four qualities.
In this diagram the element Earth appears as a combination of the qualities Dry and Cold; Water of Cold and Moist; Air of Moist and Warm; Fire of Warm and Dry. As a result, Earth and Fire, besides representing opposite poles, are also neighbours in the diagram. Here we encounter a picture characteristic of all earlier ways of looking at the world: the members of a system of phenomena, when ranked in due order of succession, were seen to turn back on themselves circle-wise, or, more precisely, spiral-wise.
In what way do the qualities dry and moist form a polarity of the second order, and how do they represent the chemical polarity characteristic of sulphur and phosphorus as well as all the other secondary polarities dealt with in this book? To understand this we must submit the couple dry-moist to the same scrutiny as we applied to cold and warm in our earlier discussion of the four elements.
It lies in the nature of things that we instinctively associate these qualities with the solid and liquid states of matter respectively. This certainly agrees with the diagram given above, where the elements Earth and Water are distinguished precisely by their connexion with these two characteristics. Yet, in addition to this, the qualities dry and moist are found to be characteristic also of Fire and Air respectively, though with the difference that they are linked not with the quality cold, as in the case of the lower elements, but with the quality warm. So we see that the concepts Dry and Moist, as they lived in the old picturing of them, mean a good deal more than we understand by them to-day.
That these two respective attributes do not belong exclusively to the solid and the liquid states of matter can be seen at once by observing the different reactions of certain liquids to a solid surface which they touch. One need only recall the difference between water and quicksilver. If water runs over a surface it leaves a trail; quicksilver does not. Water clings to the side of a vessel; again, quicksilver does not. A well-known consequence of this difference is that in a narrow tube the surface of the liquid – the so-called meniscus – stands higher at the circumference than at the centre in the case of water; with quicksilver it is just the reverse. In the sense of the two qualities, dry and moist, water is a ‘moist’ liquid; quicksilver a ‘dry’ one. On the other hand, the quality of moistness in a solid substance appears in the adhesive power of glue.
Let us now see how, in accordance with the scheme given in Fig. 5, the four qualities in their respective combinations constitute the four elements. From the description we shall give here it will be realized how little such ancient schemes were based on abstract thoughts, and how much they were read from the facts of the world. Moreover, a comparison with our description of the four stages of matter, given in the previous chapter, would show how far the conceptual content of the old doctrine covers the corresponding facts when they are read by the eye of the modern reader in nature, notwithstanding the changes nature has undergone in the meantime.
The element Fire reveals its attributes of warm and dry in a behaviour which combines a tendency to dynamic expansion with a disinclination to enter into lasting combination with the other elements. Correspondingly, the behaviour of the element Earth unites a tendency to contraction with an inclination to fall out of conjunction with the other elements. Thus the attribute, dry, belongs equally to pure flame and sheer dust, though for opposite reasons. Distinct from both these elements are the middle elements Water and Air; with them the attribute, moist, comes to expression in their tendency both to interpenetrate mutually and to absorb their neighbours – the liquid element absorbing solid matter and the aeriform element taking up heat. What distinguishes them is that water has a ‘cold’ nature, from which it gains its density; while air has a ‘warm’ nature, to which it owes its tendency to expand.
In the most general sense, the quality ‘moist’ applies wherever two different entities are drawn into some kind of intimate relationship with one another; ‘dry’ applies where no such relationship prevails. Seen thus, they reveal themselves as a true polarity of the second order, for they describe the relationship between two entities which already exists, and, in the case of the four elements, are themselves a polarity. As such, they characterize precisely those polar relationships of the second order on which the threefold structure of man, we found, is based. For from the physical, as much as from the superphysical aspect the nerve-system represents the ‘dry’ part, and the metabolic system the ‘moist’ part of man’s being. The same is true of the relationship between the soul and the surrounding world at both poles. Here we have the antithesis between the ‘dry’ onlooker-relationship of the intellect to the world, conceived as a mere picture whose essence remains outside the boundaries of the soul, and the ‘moist’ intermingling of the will-force with the actual forces of the world.
It needs no further explanation to realize that sulphur and phosphorus, by the way in which levity and gravity are interlinked in each of them, are representatives of these very qualities ‘moist’ and ‘dry’. As such they are universally active bearers of these qualities in every realm of nature’s varied activities, as their physical presence in such cases confirms. Consequently, sulphur is found in the protein-substances of the human body wherever they are bearers of metabolic processes, while the presence of phosphorus is characteristic of the nerves and bones. (Although its full significance will become clear to us only later, the fact may here be mentioned that the composition of the bone-material in the different parts of man’s skeleton, as scientific analysis has shown, is such that the content of phosphate of calcium in proportion to carbonate of calcium is higher in all those parts which are spherically shaped, such as the upper parts of the skull and the upper ends of the limb-bones.)
In particular the plant reveals clearly the functional significance of phosphorus as the bearer of the quality ‘dry’. For its healthy growth the plant needs the quality ‘dry’ in two places: at the root, where it unites with the element earth, and in the flower, where it opens itself to the fire element. Root and flower as distinct from the middle parts of the plant are both ‘dry’ formations. In a still higher degree this applies to the seed, which must separate itself from the mother plant to produce a separate new organism. All these are functions in the plant which, as was mentioned in the last chapter, require phosphorus for their healthy performance.
Our examination of phosphorus and sulphur from the functional point of view throws light also on their effect on the alternating conditions of waking and sleeping, necessary for the life of the higher organisms. This rhythmic change, which affects especially the nervous system, is an alternation between the qualities dry and moist. Disturbance of this alternation in one direction or the other makes it difficult for the organism to react in full wakefulness or normal sleep. It follows that treatment with phosphorus or sulphur in suitable preparations, according to the nature of the disturbance, can be beneficial.
If we study the functional properties of such substances we see that they can teach us a rational understanding of therapeutic practices, which otherwise must remain mere results of trial and error. The same applies to phosphorus and sulphur treatment in cases where in the functionally ‘dry’ bone system or in the functionally ‘moist’ metabolic system of the organism the wrong quality predominates. If the bones remain too ‘moist’ there is a tendency to rickets; against this, certain fish-oils are a well-known remedy on account of their highly phosphoric nature. Conversely, the application of sulphur can help where weakness of the metabolic forces produces rheumatic or gouty sediments in parts of the body whose function is to serve by their mobility the activities of the will. In this case the abnormal predominance of the quality ‘dry’ can be counteracted by the medical application of sulphur.
Having observed the action of sulphur and phosphorus in the laboratory and in living organisms, we will now turn to phenomena of a macrotelluric nature which reveal the participation of sulphur and phosphorus. There, sulphur points unmistakably to the earth’s volcanism. It is a fact that, wherever mineral sulphur occurs in the earth, there we find a spot of former or present volcanic activity. Similarly, there is no such spot on the earth without sulphur being present in one form or another. Hence the name Solfatara for the fumarole described in Chapter IX.
Once again it is the Solfatara which offers us a phenomenon, this time in connexion with the special role sulphur plays in its activities, which, regarded with the eye of the spirit, assumes the significance of an instance ‘worth a thousand’.
In spite of the very high temperature of the sulphurous fumes emitted from various crevices on the edge of the Solfatara, it is possible, thanks to the complete dryness of the fumes, to crawl a little way into the interior of these crevices. Not far away from the opening of the crevice, where the hot fumes touch the cooler rock surface, one is met by a very beautiful spectacle – namely, the continual forming, out of nothing as it seems, of glittering yellow sulphur crystals, suspended in delicate chains from the ceiling.
In this transformation of sulphurous substance from a higher material state, nearer to levity, to that of the solid crystal, we may behold an image of the generation of matter. For every physical substance and, therefore, every chemical element, exists originally as a pure function in the dynamic processes of the universe. Wherever, as a result of the action of gravity, such a function congeals materially, there we meet it in the form of a physical-material substance. In the same sense, sulphur and phosphorus, in their real being, are pure functions, and where they occur as physical substances, there we meet these functions in their congealed state.
One of the characteristics of the volcanic regions of the earth is the healing effect of substances found there. Fango-mud, for instance, which was mentioned in the last chapter, is a much-used remedy against rheumatism. This is typical of functional sulphur. We may truly characterize the earth’s volcanism as being qualitatively sulphurous. It is the sulphur-function coming to expression through a higher degree of ‘moistness’ in the relationship between gravity and levity which distinguishes volcanic regions from the rest of the otherwise ‘dry’ earth’s crust.
To develop a corresponding picture of the function of phosphorus, we must try to find the macrotelluric sphere where this function operates similarly to that of sulphur in volcanism. From what has been said in the last chapter it will be evident that we must look to the atmosphere, as the site of snow-formation. It is this process which we must now examine more closely.
In the atmosphere, to begin with, we find water in a state of vapour, in which the influence of the terrestrial gravity-field is comparatively weak. Floating in this state, the vapour condenses and crystallization proceeds. Obeying the pull of gravity, more and more crystals unite in their descent and gradually form flakes of varying sizes. The nearer they come to earth, the closer they fall, until at last on the ground they form an unbroken, more or less spherical, cover.
Imagine a snow-covered field glistening in the sun on a clear, quiet winter’s day. As far as we can see, there is no sign of life, no movement. Here water, which is normally fluid and, in its liquid state, serves the ever-changing life-processes, covers the earth in the form of millions of separate crystals shaped with mathematical exactitude, each of which breaks and reflects in a million rays the light from the sun (Plate V). A contrast, indeed, between this quiet emergence of forms from levity into gravity, and the form-denying volcanism surging up out of gravity into levity, as shown by the ever-restless activity of the Solfatara. As we found volcanism to be a macrotelluric manifestation of functional sulphur, we find in the process of snow-formation a corresponding manifestation of functional phosphorus.
In the formation of snow, nature shows us in statu agendi a process which we otherwise meet in the earth only in its finished results, crystallization. We may, therefore, rightly look upon snow-formation as an ur-phenomenon in this sphere of nature’s activities. As such it allows us to learn something concerning the origin in general of the crystalline realm of the earth; and, vice versa, our insight into the ‘becoming’ of this realm will enable us to see more clearly the universal function of which phosphorus is the main representative among the physical substances of the earth.
It has puzzled many an observer that crystals occur in the earth with directions of their main axes entirely independent of the direction of the earthly pull of gravity. Plate VI shows the photograph of a cluster of Calcite crystals as an example of this phenomenon. It tells us that gravity can have no effect on the formation of the crystal itself. This riddle is solved by the phenomenon of snow-formation provided we allow it to speak to us as an ur-phenomenon. For it then tells us that matter must be in a state of transition from lightness into heaviness if it is to appear in crystalline form. The crystals in the earth, therefore, must have originated at a time when the relation between levity and gravity on the earth was different from what it is, in this sphere, to-day.
The same language is spoken by the property of transparency which is so predominant among crystals. One of the fundamental characteristics of heavy solid matter is to resist light – in other words, to be opaque. Exposed to heat, however, physical substance loses this feature to the extent that at the border of its ponderability all matter becomes pervious to light. Now, in the transparent crystal matter retains this kinship to light even in its solid state.
A similar message comes from the, often so mysterious, colouring of the crystals. Here again nature offers us an instance which, ‘worth a thousand’, reveals a secret that would otherwise remain veiled. We refer to the pink crystals of tourmaline, whose colour comes from a small admixture of lithium. This element, which belongs to the group of the alkaline metals, does not form coloured salts (a property only shown by the heavier metals). If exposed to a flame, however, it endows it with a definite colour which is the same as that of the lithium-coloured tourmaline. Read as a letter in nature’s script, this fact tells us that precious stones with their flame-like colours are characterized by having kept something of the nature that was theirs before they coalesced into ponderable existence. In fact, they are ‘frozen flames’.
It is this fact, known from ancient intuitive experience, which prompted man of old to attribute particular spiritual significance to the various precious stones of the earth and to use them correspondingly in his rituals.
Crystallization, seen thus in its cosmic aspect, shows a dynamic orientation which is polarically opposite to that of the earth’s seismic activities. Just as in the latter we observe levity taking hold of ponderable matter and moving it in a direction opposite to the pull of gravity, so in crystallization we see imponderable matter passing over from levity into gravity. And just as we found in volcanism and related processes a field of activity of ‘functional sulphur’, so we found in snow-formation and related processes a field of activity of ‘functional phosphorus’. Both fields are characterized by an interaction between gravity and levity, this interaction being of opposite nature in each of them.
Here, again, sulphur and phosphorus appear as bearers of a polarity of the second order which springs from the two polarically opposite ways of interaction between the poles of the polarity of the first order: levity-gravity.
As in man there is a third system, mediating between the two polar systems of his organism, so between sulphur and phosphorus there is a third element which in all its characteristics holds a middle place between them and is the bearer of a corresponding function. This element is carbon.
To see this we need only take into consideration carbon’s relationship to oxidation and reduction respectively. As it is natural for sulphur to be in the reduced state, and for phosphorus to be in the oxidized state, so it is in the nature of carbon to be related to both states and therefore to oscillate between them. By its readiness to change over from the oxidized to the reduced state, it can serve the plant in the assimilation of light, while by its readiness to make the reverse change it serves man and animal in the breathing process. We breathe in oxygen from the air; the oxygen circulates through the blood-stream and passes out again in conjunction with carbon, as carbon dioxide, when we exhale. In the process whereby the plants reduce the carbon dioxide exhaled by man and animal, while the latter again absorb with their food the carbon produced in the form of organic matter by the plant, we see carbon moving to and fro between the oxidized and the reduced conditions.
Within the plant itself, too, carbon acts as functionary of the alternation between oxidation and reduction. During the first half of the year, when vegetation is unfolding, there is a great reduction process of oxidized carbon, while in the second half of the year, when the withering process prevails, a great deal of the previously reduced carbon passes into the oxidized condition. As this is connected with exhaling and inhaling of oxygen through carbon, carbon can be regarded as having the function of the lung-organ of the earth. Logically enough, we find carbon playing the same role in the middle part of the threefold human organism.
Another indication of the midway position of carbon is its ability to combine as readily with hydrogen as with oxygen, and, in these polar combinations, even to combine with itself. In this latter form it provides the basis of the innumerable organic substances in nature, and serves as the ‘building stones’ of the body-substances of living organisms. Among these, the carbohydrates produced by the plants show clearly the double function of carbon in the way it alternates between the states of starch and sugar.
When the plant absorbs through its leaves carbonic acid from the air and condenses it into the multiple grains of starch with their peculiar structure characteristic for each plant species, we have a biological event which corresponds to the formation of snow in the meteorological realm. Here we see carbon at work in a manner functionally akin to that of phosphorus. Sugar, on the other hand, has its place in the saps of the plants which rise through the stems and carry up with them the mineral substances of the earth. Here we find carbon acting in a way akin to the function of sulphur.
This twofold nature of carbon makes itself noticeable down to the very mineral sphere of the earth. There we find it in the fact that carbon occurs both in the form of the diamond, the hardest of all mineral substances, and also in the form of the softest, graphite. Here also, in the diamond’s brilliant transparency, and in the dense blackness of graphite, carbon reveals its twofold relation to light.
In Fig. 6 an attempt has been made to represent diagrammatically the function of Carbon in a way corresponding to the previous representation of the functions of Sulphur and Phosphorus.
By adding carbon to our observations on the polarity of sulphur and phosphorus we have been led to a triad of functions each of which expresses a specific interplay of levity and gravity. That we encounter three such functions is not accidental or arbitrary. Rather is it based on the fact that the interaction of forces emanating from a polarity of the first order, produces a polarity of the second order, whose poles establish between them a sphere of balance.
Through our study of levity and gravity in the matter-processes of the earth, a perspective thus opens up into a structural principle of nature which is actually not new to us. We encountered it at the very beginning of this book when we discussed the threefold psycho-physical order of man’s being.
In the days of an older intuitive nature-wisdom man knew of a basic triad of functions as well as he knew of the four elementary qualities. We hear a last echo of this in the Middle Ages, when people striving for a deeper understanding of nature spoke of the trinity of Salt, Mercury and Sulphur. What the true alchemists, as these seekers of knowledge called themselves, meant by this was precisely the same as the conception we have here reached through our own way of studying matter (‘Salt’ standing for ‘functional phosphorus’, ‘Mercury’ for ‘functional carbon’). Only the alchemist’s way was a different one.
This is not the place to enter into a full examination of the meaning and value of alchemy in its original legitimate sense (which must not be confused with activities that later on paraded under the same name). Only this we will say – that genuine alchemy owes its origin to an impulse which, at a time when the onlooker-consciousness first arose, led to the foundation of a school for the development of an intuitive relationship of the soul with the world of the senses. This was to enable man to resist the effects of the division which evolution was about to set up in his soul-life – the division which was to give him, on the one hand, an abstract experience of his own self, divorced from the outer world, and on the other a mere onlooker’s experience of that outer world. As a result of these endeavours, concepts were formed which in their literal meaning seemed to apply merely to outwardly perceptible substances, while in truth they stood for the spiritual functions represented by those substances, both within and outside the human organism.
Thus the alchemist who used these concepts thought of them first as referring to his own soul, and to the inner organic processes corresponding to the various activities of his soul. When speaking of Salt he meant the regulated formative activity of his thinking, based on the salt-forming process in his nervous system. When he spoke of Mercury he meant the quickly changing emotional life of the soul and the corresponding activities of the rhythmic processes of the body. Lastly, Sulphur meant the will activities of his soul and the corresponding metabolic processes of the body. Only through studying these functions within himself, and through re-establishing the harmony between them which had been theirs in the beginning, and from which, he felt, man had deviated in the course of time, did the alchemist hope to come to an understanding of their counterparts in the external cosmos.
Older alchemical writings, therefore, can be understood only if prescriptions which seem to signify certain chemical manipulations are read as instructions for certain exercises of the soul, or as advices for the redirection of corresponding processes in the body. For instance, if an alchemist gave directions for a certain treatment of Sulphur, Mercury and Salt, with the assertion that by carrying out these directions properly, one would obtain Aurum (gold), he really spoke of a method to direct the thinking, feeling and willing activities of the soul in such a way as to gain true Wisdom.1
As in the case of the concepts constituting the doctrine of the four elements, we have represented here the basic alchemical concepts not only because of their historical significance, but because, as ingredients of a still functional conception of nature, they assume new significance in a science which seeks to develop, though from different starting-points, a similar conception. As will be seen in our further studies, these concepts prove a welcome enrichment of the language in which we must try to express our readings in nature.
1 Roger Bacon in the thirteenth, and Berthold Schwartz in the fourteenth century, are reputed to have carried out experiments by mixing physical salt (in the form of the chemically labile saltpetre) with physical sulphur and – after some initial attempts with various metals – with charcoal, and then exposing the mixture to the heat of physical fire. The outcome of this purely materialistic interpretation of the three alchemical concepts was not the acquisition of wisdom, or, as Schwartz certainly had hoped, of gold, but of … gunpowder!
- CHAPTER X – The Fourth State of Matter
- CHAPTER XII – Space and Counter-Space