Georg Maier opens up a new way of encountering the world. The four elements earth, water, air and fire are no longer simple components of things. Rather, they are different approaches to our involvement in the world. Discover how we can approach nature and the world in this way.
In 1970, the German physicist Georg Maier, born in 1933, wrote the essay "Die Elemente als Stufen der Naturbetrachtung",which title can be translated with "The elements as stages of the observation of nature". This is the basis for this article.
Inspired by the ancient Greek concept of the four elements of earth, water, air and fire, Maier described how we can approach nature through these elements in four different ways. Each of these elements represents a different level of knowledge.
People who had the privilege to meet Georg Maier described that they were inspired by him to relate to diverse topics in new ways. They were continuously nourished and enriched by growing interest and joyful wonder, new observations and discoveries, and a deeper understanding.
The fountain - embodiment of the elements
In his above-mentioned essay, Maier draws on a historical fountain to show us how the four classical elements of earth, water, air, and fire can be recognized and experienced in it.
Much more how they reveal themselves when we are ready to encounter the world from the different perspectives. These perspectives complement each other, just as the elements themselves do.
Earth: "The stone trough of the fountain is lasting and permanent. Generations of people have known it. We can remember its shape and trust that we will find it, again and again, in the same place."
-> continuity of appearance
-> something that does not change
Water: "The water flowing through the trough takes on the shape of the basin. It is always new, but always behaves in the same way."
-> continuous motion
-> relationship of what is flowing in and what is
-> relationship to the surrounding
Air: "Sometimes the wind plays with the stream of the falling water. In the changing weather, the fountain is part of a greater context that constantly changes." Maybe the water freezes, raindrops fall into it, or it's so slick that the sky is reflected in it.
-> constant change
-> nothing repeats itself
-> being present
Fire: "On a hot summer’s day, we gratefully enjoy the cool and refreshing water. Only then do we relate to the fountain in its essential nature as a drinking fountain."
-> it is about the act of man
-> purpose is brought to life by the human being
Think anew, the elements teach us
This view of the elements and the world reveal themselves when we are willing to see everything from a different perspective. According to Maier, the examination of the elements can give us a direction for this. Below you will learn more about his thoughts for each element.
Earth & the solid
~ openness to everything given & object of permanence
The element earth stands for the solid. It is the things you can see on your desk, for example, whether it is a pottery cup or a stone lying there. We can observe such an object and become familiar with its shape, texture and coloring and thus laying the groundwork for recognizing it when we come face to face with it again.
This is about what does not change. You can always return to it and it is permanent. It has a form and it rests in itself.
You can describe all the details of these objects by observing them as "onlooker". Thereby we see the things in the sense of the object thinking as object, separately from us. I am thus separate from the object and outside. I grasp everything objectively. I am not involved or connected.
Water & the liquid
~ the prudent attention to all phenomena in their relation to each other & adaptive process
What can water teach us and tell us? It shows us how we are integrated into the world. It makes us understand (inter)relationships and see things as such. To understand this, it requires a heightened attention from us.
For example, the water leaves a lake, flows into a stream, then perhaps into a well, on to another lake. There is a constant interrelationship between water flowing in and water flowing out. Thus, one change brings another new change. One movement leads to another movement.
The form of the liquid, or water, is not permanent and we are constantly witnessing transformations. We cannot look at details in isolation from the surrounding circumstances and the shapes and patterns of liquids are interconnected.
By connecting perceptions, we learn to understand order. When we study the element of water, we must take into account all circumstances and look at the world around us as a whole picture. Active thinking is required to find a law-like relationship of the "if...then" type.
Goethe's "Gesang der Geister über den Wassern" (transl. Song of the Spirits over the Waters) (1797) illustrates this very well.
"When the pure jet
gushes from the high,
it sprays gratefully
its misty waves
against the smooth rock,
If cliffs loom up
in the path of its fall,
it foams angrily,
step by step,
into the abyss."
The nature of water is described by Goethe in relation to certain external factors. When the jet of water flows down from a cliff, it sprays. When it meets the cliffs, it foams. Here there is a separation between subject and object, but a purely functional one, for the observer must engage in the experience of the liquid (and the essence of water in all its facets).
The elements and the world are fluid. I go to the water and I cannot bring this into my study. The water in the brook flows on and on. Accordingly, I can't get into the same stream twice. The water has flowed on. The brook is another one.
It is also possible to dive so deeply into the experience of falling, splashing water or a stream flowing by that I engage in it with my whole body and soul. Compared to the experience of complete engagement, the attitude of "if...then" shown before is a reduction.
Air & the gaseous
~ the incessant transformation & intense development
We participate in the air as breathers. We breathe in air and we breathe out air. There is no other way. We cannot detach ourselves from the air and we cannot see it as an object. We are in the air and the air is in us. Thus, the separation between subject and object is dissolved here.
The element of air shows us the embedding and connection of all subjects and objects in this world. The element of air is never separate from us and we are never separate from it.
The air is in ceaseless transformation. It is about profound change. No moment repeats itself, every moment is its own moment. Let's think of clouds. They form, constantly change, dissolve, disappear. Like an artistic performance. The constellation of many factors.
Weather events evolve as spatio-temporal entities in constant flux. If we want to observe the weather, we must actually engage in these transformations.
The nature of air invites you to be present when these performances of the world take place. The world is event-rich. You should stop feeling separate from it. Be a witness to it. Be consciously present when something takes place - be it something in our interpersonal world or out in the more-than-human world.
When you perceive and name certain qualities of the elements, you are engaging your human inner self, and thus your soul life. Take a particular observation and let it mature into a qualitative experience. To practice this is to form your own inner soul life and let it become more alive.
The element of air requires us to pay attention to the relationship between the observer and the observed, and to realize that everything is in constant motion and interconnected. This change of view of the world and the elements and embodiment of this would definitely bring about a positive change in our current, modern society.
Fire & the warmth
~ the inner willingness to act & effective action
The element of fire stands for warmth and transformation. Maier explains that fire transforms the materials it touches and that this transformation is irreversible.
The element asks us to recognize the irreversibility of transformation and to understand that transformation is an essential aspect of existence.
According to Maier, fire could also be called the "deed element." Translated for us humans, it is about the willingness to act and to do what we do with full mindfulness. We are to understand what we are doing and what we are doing it for, according to Maier. It is also about recognizing that we do what we do in connection with a reference and thus do it "in warmth" or from the heart.
I actively participate in an event for which my humanity, my responsibility and my inner creativity is required. I am able to do something actively through my being human. And what I do, I do wisely, in accordance, in legitimacy, in reverence, in warmth.
Follow the elements as steps to view the world
According to Georg Maier, sensing and embodying being consciously integrated into the world succeeds by using the elements as stages of contemplating nature, as described in the course of the article.
In summary, the following stages can be noted:
by heat exchange (fire) the three aggregate states change into each other: solid (earth) -> liquid (water) -> gaseous (air)
through our sustained effort of will (fire) we are able to move from the first perception of something unknown (earth) to a more complete understanding (water) and experience of something given (air)
Identification (earth) + reflection (water) + transformation (air) + capacity for moral consideration (fire).
Feel yourself as part of the whole
Unconsciously we are strongly integrated into the world. Now, however, it is a matter of bringing this involvement into consciousness. Don't be an onlooker or a scientist who observes something from the outside with his hands in his pockets. Take yourself seriously as an actor in this world.
Be there when we practice and experience all this out in nature - consciously or unconsciously. Here you can find all upcoming events & retreats of Kailo Nature Therapy.
Goethe, J. W. (1779): Gesang der Geister über den Wassern.
Holdrege, H. (2016): In Gratitude. In Context. 36: https://www.natureinstitute.org/article/henrike-holdrege/in-gratitude-georg-maier (acessed at 04.04.2023).
Maier, G (1970): The Classical Four Elements as Different Ways of Approaching Nature. Übersetzt aus dem Deutschen von Henrike Holdrege (2017).
The Nature Institute (o.J): Georg Maier: Brief Background and Publications. https://www.natureinstitute.org/about/georg-maier (acessed at: 04.04.2023).
Oxford Lieder: Gesang der Geister Op.88: https://www.oxfordlieder.co.uk/song/6686 (acessed at: 17.04.2023)