The ancient philosophers and mystics of this world proposed the theory of the five elements and this theory is still seen at play, though transformed, in the science of the present day. From air, fire, water and earth we have gases, energy and heat, liquids and matter. The fifth element is the aether, the quintessence crowning the four other elements. And though science seems to have discarded the aether it is yet everywhere around us.
The early Ionian cosmologists thought there was an infinite and unbegotten divine substance, neither created nor ever to be destroyed, permeating the entire universe. Empedocles used the term elements and roots interchangeably, and the four classical elements had their roots in the divine everlasting substance. Combined in various ratios these four elements make up the physical universe.
Later Plato writing Timaeus of the air element said "there is the most translucent kind which is called by the name of aether.” His student Aristotle continued to explore the four elements, and introduced the fifth element in his book On the Heavens. Aristotle posited that there was another element located in the heavenly and celestial realm of the stars and planets. Aristotle considered this new element to be the first element, in that the other four elements had their origin and root in it. In his book he did not give it a name, but later writers commenting on his work started referring to this element as the aether, or fifth element.
The heavenly element of the aether was not the same as the four terrestrial elements. Aristotle held that it could not move outside of the natural circles made by the stars in their spheres. He related this idea of aethereal spheres to his observation of the planets and stars in their perfect orbits. The scholastic philosophers of the medieval era thought that the aether might change and fluctuate in density, as they reasoned the planets and stars were denser than the universal substance permeating the universe.
The theory of the five elements continued to spread throughout medieval times, transmitted and passed in particular among the alchemists who embraced the idea as part of their secret lore. The Latin name for the fifth element was the quintessence and this word can be found throughout the many alchemical treatises penned over the centuries. The idea of the quintessence became especially popular among the medical alchemists for whom aetheric forces became part of healing substances and elixirs.
Robert Fludd, the great 17th century hermetic philosopher, Rosicrucian, natural magician and follower of Paracelsus, claimed that the nature of the aether was “subtler than light”. In this he started to point to later ideas of the aether as a kind of catch all for a variety of electromagnetic phenomena. Fludd cited the view of Plotinus from the 3rd century who thought the aether was non-material and interpenetrated the entire universe of manifest reality and its various forms.
Isaac Newton, himself a devoted alchemist, used the idea of the aether as a way to explain his observations of the strict mechanical rules he was writing about in his works on physics. In turn the physicists of the 18th century developed a number of models for various physical phenomena that came to be known as aether theories, used to explain how gravitational forces worked and how electromagnetic forces propagated.
19th century scientist and successful business magnate Baron Dr. Carl von Reichenbach took up the study of the field of psychology in 1839 after making important discoveries in the fields of geology, chemistry, and metallurgy. If it hadn’t been for Reichenbach’s research in the physical sciences and his study of the properties of coal we wouldn’t have creosote, paraffin, or phenol which he developed the process for extracting. When he set out to tackle the field of psychology after striking it rich from his many patents and factories he discovered that people he termed “sensitives” were able to pick up on things the rest of us couldn’t. This often led the sensitive person to develop emotional and mental problems. But he also noticed these sensitives could sometimes see a force field around such things as a magnet.
This led Reichenbach to the works of Franz Anton Mesmer who had already been deemed a heretic by people like Benjamin Franklin and other members of the scientific establishment of the time. What Mesmer called Animal Magnetism, Reichenbach called Odic Force. Reichenbach was in turn denounced for his studies of this force which he observed as behaving in ways similar to yet distinct from magnetism, electricity, and heat. He wouldn’t be the last to be called a crank and a catamount for his investigation of the life force.
The two terms of Animal Magnetism and Odic Force would both have been recognized by metaphysicians, occultists and philosophers as the aether.
By the time Albert Einstein had introduced special relativity the aether theories used by physicists wer discarded among the scientific intelligentsia of the time. Einstein had shown that Maxwell’s equations, which form the mathematical foundation for form the foundation of classical electromagnetism, classical optics, and electric circuits, did not need the idea of the aether for the transmission of these forces. Yet even Einstein admitted that his own theory could be thought of as an aether theory because it seemed to show that there were physical properties in the seemingly empty space between objects.
As the 20th century rolled on the idea of the aether continued to be propagated among theosophists, adherents of the new thought movement, and various other occultists. In 1907 the French philosopher Henri Bergson spoke of the Élan vital in his book Creative Evolution. Bergson used this concept as an explanation for evolution and development of organisms, which he linked closely with consciousness.
Psychologist Wilhelm Reich made his own discovery of the life force in the 1930s, which he called orgone. As a direct student of Freud, his concept of orgone was the result of work on the psycho-physiology of libido, of which he took an increasingly bio-energetic view. After Reich emigrated to the United States his attention increasingly turned to speculation about the nature of the universe, and ideas about biological development and evolution, even the weather. Reich was more at home in the mode of “natural philosopher” or “natural scientist” than in the ideologically strict compartmentalization that had occurred in the field of psychology.
Despite his documentation of the successful effects of orgone therapy, and his devices such as the orgone accumulator and cloud buster, Reich remained a heretic among doctors and scientists. He lost his teaching position at the New School in 1941 after telling the director he had saved several lives using orgone therapy. Due to his associations as a socialist he was arrested by the FBI after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He continued to be persecuted throughout the 1950s. It’s an interesting story and too long to tell in detail for the present purposes, but suffice it to say through various injunctions the FDA destroyed his orgone accumulators and later burned six tons of his journals, books, and papers.
Then he was thrown in jail where he died. All because he was audacious enough to believe in, study, and experiment with the life force, what he called orgone, and what the ancients have called aether.
Those who haven’t been afraid to stand on the fringe and hang out in the margins, have continued to research and investigate the nature of the aether and various means for utilizing it. There is a lot of work and experimentation to be done, and the relationship between musical healing modalities, electronics and the aether promises to be an area full of vitality.
As a wellspring of creativity the aether continues to inspire musicians and composers. Robert Ashley asked the question “Will something of substance replace the Aether? Not soon. All the parts are in disarray.”
Ashley also said “Aether fills the void, as in not knowing when you might get a chance to hear somebody make music, or where is the nearest town where something might be going on… or whether you got the idea that wakes you up at night from the hard-to-hear part of what comes over the radio, or from something you read about in a magazine about electricity, or from something you just dreamed up.”
Artists, writers and musicians such as him have continued to think of the aether and tap into it as a prime source. The music of the spheres continues to inspire those of us down here on earth who do their best to translate it into new compositions. Musicians continue to look up to the stars as a source of creativity. They take that aetheric light from the stars into themselves to create new works that show our relationship with the rest of the cosmos.
Where do ideas come from? Transmitted over the aether they spill into the head of the artist, who is the vessel. They give voice to the aether. With the tools of radio, telecommunications, images and data from satellites and the sonic possibilities opened up by electricity, they have a lot of rich source material to translate the voice into compositions. This chapter explores some of these works inspired by the celestial realms.
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Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.