The Spiritual Hierarchies and the Physical World. Lecture 2 of 10.
Rudolf Steiner, Düsseldorf, April 12, 1909:
The teaching which came from the holy rishis during the first post-Atlantean period of civilization was a knowledge that sprang from purely spiritual sources of existence. What is so important in that teaching and in the investigations of those times is that it entered so deeply into the processes of nature and realized so well the activity of the spirit in those processes. In reality we are always surrounded by spiritual activities and by spiritual entities. When during the time of that ancient holy teaching mention was made of the phenomena of the world surrounding us, one was always referred to as being the most significant, the most important of all these: this was considered (by that ancient spiritual science) to be the phenomenon of fire. In all explanations of what exists and happens upon the Earth, the central point of importance was always given to the spiritual investigation of fire. If we want to understand what we may call the Eastern teaching about fire, which was of such far-reaching importance in those ancient times for the acquisition of the knowledge and understanding of all life, then we must look around us at the other phenomena and occurrences of nature and see how these were considered by that very ancient teaching, which can still be useful nowadays for the purposes of spiritual science. All that surrounds man in the world was then referred back to the so-called four elements. These four elements are respected no longer by the materialistic science of today. You all know that these four elements are called Earth, Water, Air, Fire. But where spiritual science flourished the word ‘earth’ had not the same meaning as it has nowadays. It stood for a certain state in the material realm: the state or condition of solidity. All that is solid was called ‘earthy’ by the spiritual science of those times. So whether we take the solid earth of a field, or a piece of crystal, or lead, or gold, anything that is solid was then called earth. Everything liquid, not only the water of today, was characterized as watery, or as water. If for instance you take iron, pass it through heat to the point of melting so that it can flow, then that liquid iron would have been called water by spiritual science. All metals when liquid were described as water. Everything that has the character of air for us today, no matter whether it was the condition we call gas, or oxygen, or hydrogen, or other gases, was called air. Fire was considered the fourth element. Those of you who remember elementary physics will know that modern science does not see in fire anything that could be compared with either earth, water, or air: the physical science of today sees in it only a certain condition of movement. Spiritual science sees in warmth or fire something which has in it a still finer substance than air. Just as earth or solidity changes into liquid, so does all air-substance change gradually into the condition of fire — according to spiritual science — and fire is so fine an element that it interpenetrates all other elements. Fire interpenetrates the air and makes it warm, the same with water and earth. The other three elements are, so to speak, separated from each other, but we see the element of fire interpenetrating them all.