O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count my selfe a King of infinite space…were it not that I haue bad dreames.
—Hamlet, First Folio, II; ii
One of less-delicate sentiment than Hamlet the Dane have might beat his breast in choleric ostentation:
All cows are grey at night & all nutshells are concave!
he might have axiomatically proclaimed. His enunciation would be perfectly true, but also perfectly false. It takes a melancholic atheling of the Danish throne to appreciate that nutshells can also be convex, and that cows come in sundry colours. Truth indeed appears shimmering and multifaceted, provided one first escape one’s wonted frame of reference (i.e. midnight). All spheres are indeed concave, unless you measure them from the outside, in which case they are convex.
This is why, contrary to contemporary prejudice, the Ptolemaic solar system remains accurate & actual: the Sun still revolves around the Earth. As Edmund Husserl scribbled in the market of one of his manuscripts:
Overthrow of the Copernican Theory…the Earth, the original ark, does not move.
We could trace Western man’s understanding of his cosmic residence according to a progression through the four elements of hermetic philosophy.
Earth, most solid of elements, represents hard facts wrought of direct sensory observation. Even amoebas can sense diurnal oscillation & thus, in a rudimentary sense, gather factual knowledge of the clockwise solar pilgrimage across the heavens. Earth consciousness is unelaborated observation of phenomena. Though it lack all meaning and poetic majesty, yet it forms the foundation for subsequent epistemic strata.
Water seeks to relate the discreet phenomenal data of Earth into a fluid context. Out of this impulse, ancient thinkers sought to synthesise their observations into a cohesive understanding. In Water consciousness, fact becomes fluid & relational. Hence, quickening arbitrary observations with coherence, natural philosophers of old conceived of a circumabulatory model for our resident star, in reference to our watery home; Earth as Center & Sun in dynamic revolution.
Air represents reversal, counterposition. Copernicus provided the quintessential extraversion of the Ptolemaic universe with his heliocentric solar system: the Sun is central & our Earth a mere satellite. To understand the consciousness of Air, we may consider the aphorism that “paradox is the portal to understanding.” Finally, out of the counterposition of these opposing paradigms, we ascend to
Fire, most rarified of elements, whose lucent emanation offers true intuitive insight. We sense a virtual & holographic quality to the universe that embeds us; relativity is absolute. In Fire consciousness, we experience epiphany. Spiritual meaning is kindled out of factual ashes. Here a totality reveals itself before our mind’s eye. As Walt Whitman famously declares in Leaves of Grass as a description of this transition from Air to Fire:
Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contract myself
I am large, I contain multitudes
All truth is only half-truth therefore. Such union of opposites is the necessary crucible out of which real apprehension of the world is forged. This marriage of contradiction is the fiery coniunctio oppositorum, which transmutes leaden facts into inaureate insight—mere telluric ore into the gold of gnosis. In the cognitive friction wrought of entertaining mutually exclusive ideas, one generates a spark that ignites the flame of this epistemic alchemy.