The relationship between our defects and the Elements of hermetic practice

Italian version

At the end of the introspection phase, dividing the defects according to the Elements understood in their hermetic meaning is now a question. It is not an easy job, as it requires at least an understanding of what an Element is in this context.

The philosophy of the Elements

We often misunderstand the philosophy of the Elements because it gives the perception the modality of manifestation of the Elements is exhausted in their phenomenology, in the relationship between them and their physical analogues. It is undeniable that such a relationship exists, but it does not explore the vast symbolic meaning behind the phenomenon. Bardon is not of much help because in his works, the theoretical part is reduced to a minimum, always subordinated to practical work, and the treatment of the Elements is no exception. However, concomitantly with the course exercises, those qualities of intuition and inspiration develop, which are a prelude to a direct knowledge – free from intellectual intermediation – of phenomena. But until we reach it, the literature on the subject is a source of stimulation, meditation and help in the aspects of the practice that raise doubts.

In the theoretical part of IIH, Bardon takes his cue from the Elements subdivision according to the Hindu doctrine of the tattvas. They are the fundamental subtle elements, internal and external, which constitute the essence of the subsequent material and gross forms, the phases or categories of reality. The term’s meaning is “what is, principle, reality”, but in its plural meaning – the tattvas, the principles – they represent the modalities of descent of the Absolute in the formal manifestation. The various Hindu schools list a varying number of tattvas, but the ones that interest us are the last ten. The first group of five refers to the Elements as tanmātṛa, “potential”, or “essence”. They are the primary causes at the origin of the physical manifestation of the Elements, referred to as the qualitative principles of the Elements in their pure aspect. The last five are the Elements in their gross part (mahābhuta), or the quantitative aspects, the final point of manifestation. The following is the enumeration of the origin of the Elements according to the Sāṁhkya school:

  • The origin of the Ether Element is the tanmātṛa called Śábda, the unmanifest essence of sound, the space from which vibration emerges before it takes the form of sound. The associated sense organ is the ear; the action organ is the voice (mouth).
  • The origin of the Air Element is the tanmātṛa called Sparśa, the essence of touch, the tactile potential expressed in its subtlest form. The skin (through which touch is received) is the associated sense organ, while the organ of action is the hands (which touch the world).
  • The origin of the Fire Element is the tanmātṛa called Rūpa, the essence of the vision. Rūpa means “shape” or “colour”. Its unmanifest nature contains the potential of light, which allows for the visual perception of forms. The associated sense organ is the eyes.
  • The origin of the Water Element is the tanmātṛa called Rasa, the causal principle of the experience of taste. This energy provides the potential for that experience, even if it’s not the taste itself. The term has taken on a symbolic connotation in Indian poetry and dramaturgy as a “taste” of aesthetics, leading to a transcendent experience. The associated sense organ is the tongue.
  • The origin of the Earth Element is the tanmātṛa called Gandha, the primordial cause of the experience of smell. It is the potential manifested in the Earth Element. It then predisposes the subtle body to the experience of odour and the structures through which we can experience odour in the physical body. Gandha is not the smell, but smell depends on it. The associated sense organ is the nose.

Ether is the potential that exists before distinctive knowledge, and, as such, it is incomprehensible. It is the Word understood as divine Intellect, the genesis of reality, the “place of possibilities” of Christian theology, the “Holy of Holies” of kabbalistic speculation, the “Quintessence” of alchemists. At first, as an interior Thought, then as an exterior Word, addressed to universal existence, it creates the Sound which is the manifestation of Thought; to follow, all the other elements, in the order from the most subtle to the grossest. These are the “models” on which both the physical manifestation as we know it and the predisposition of the sense organs capable of perceiving it in its various states are based.

Franz Bardon follows a different order for the production of the Elements: to Aether follow Fire and Air and then the two remaining Elements. Air is the intermediary Element between Fire and Water, the world of communication and relationship; Fire represents the principles of expansion, extension, heat and light, while Water symbolises the opposite qualities of contraction, retraction, cold and dark. The Earth is the Element that solidifies and forms the three previous Elements, giving life to the space-time categories that allow their manifestation; it is stability and resistance to external influences.

Providing a list of the negative traits corresponding to the various Elements would not be of much use because the defect-Element pairing represents the very personal way in which we live and experience the Element in our intimacy. Bardon recommends assigning each defect based on intense reflection and considering that inner-development progress will help clarify the attributions. He provides some short examples, which are listed below:

Elementt Defects
Fire greed, jealousy, passion, irritability, intemperance, the tendency to destruction, hatred, vindictiveness, short temper, anger, arrogance, hyperactivity, avidity, impulsiveness.
Air persistent feeling of being outraged, contempt, inclination to chatter, lack of resistance, shrewdness, talkativeness, dishonesty, changeability, frivolity, conceit, struggling, squandering, gossip, lack of balance.
Earth insipidity, lack of scruples, misanthropy, gloom, delay, laziness, unreliability, wordlessness, inactivity, unconsciousness, melancholy, irregularity, apathy, loss of empathy, heaviness, depression.
Water indifference, depression, apathy, passivity, lack of vitality, shyness, laziness, frigidity, conformity, neglect, insolence, instability, tendency to live in the past.

One of the difficulties in assigning defects is that the same flaw can belong to multiple Elements. For example, we can think that greed is a characteristic of the Earth Element, caused by the propensity to possess or the fear of not having sufficient resources for one’s existential security. However, greed can be driven by the need to assert one’s ego, typical excess of the Fire Element.

The right attitude in the course of analysis consists in the first place in not generalising the defect. For example, saying that one is prone to anger does not mean that one is at the level of the fundamental trait at the origin of the feeling of anger because one is in the presence only of the result or effect generated by a deeper cause. The Element causing the problem could be Fire or any other Element. For this reason, it is essential to dissect the effect until we find the real root of the problem; from there, we can then proceed with the assignment of the Element.

Step I does not yet provide a thorough understanding of the Elements unless we have gained knowledge of the subject in some other way. Therefore, perfection is not expected, but only the commitment to mature self-knowledge and do one’s best in attributing character traits according to one’s abilities. Afterwards, we can always correct and refine the details.

Returning to practice, create a column in your diary for each Element, entering the defects that seem appropriate to you. Although it is essential to have a specific time dedicated to this work, every moment is auspicious to annotate, even if only mentally, one’s reflections and subsequently report them in writing. Add another column to your notes, labelling it “Other”, where you will put the dubious attributions and then redistribute them later when you have cleaned them up. Bardon allocates a week to complete this section, but you can always extend it for another week if you feel the need.