The 5´th element

Minik Rosing
Natural History Museum of Denmark, University of Copenhagen

The world order. The concept of order tends to connote something lacklustre and pallid, whereas the opulence of disorder is perceived as a fertile medium in which art and creativity thrive.

We live in a universe where any process that takes place of its own accord invariably leads to disorder. Buildings and mountains crumble to dust, but no pile of dust has, as yet, formed itself into a palace of its own volition. Only through hard work are we able to counter this cosmic disarray – entropy – and bring a localised state of order to a small, controlled segment of the world. We endlessly build and rebuild in an eternal struggle against decay. On the domestic battlefield, this war plays out between the act of tidying up and the uncontrollable growth of piles and mounds of unsorted papers, socks and underwear. This is always a one-sided battle, which we inevitably lose.

We humans have always strived to create order in the world around us. This is why we have divided it up into concepts and objects, and given them names so that we can deal with them and discuss their meaning with each other. Throughout the ages, we have been convinced that every single component of the world belongs to a category of similar things – deer, fallow deer and elk are all types of deer, which in turn belong to the Animal Kingdom, etc.

In antiquity, the desire for order was expressed by the division of the entire universe, the cosmos, into several basic components. The cosmos was thought to have emerged from a primal state of chaos. Philosopher Empedocles defined four elements: fire, air, water and earth. These elements were affected by two forces: Love and Strife. It was believed that the cosmic elements were reflected in people’s characters as four basic temperaments: the sanguine, the melancholic, the choleric and the phlegmatic. Thus, our psychological state was thought to be part of the world order itself, rooted in the very construction of the universe.

If our minds emerged from an ordered universe, the opposite of chaos, then it makes sense that our aesthetic preferences include a desire for ordered surroundings. Aesthetics, the creation of art and beauty, is fundamental when it comes to satisfying our craving for order. Art is an act of creation, which observes the order that reigns in the natural world, a reflection of the world order in something man-made.

If we were to identify a fifth element, we may perhaps look to the words of natural historian Niels Steensen, who, in 1673, opened a lecture at the University of Copenhagen as follows:

Wondrous is that which we see
Even more wondrous is that which we understand
But by far the most wondrous is that which we do not understand

Just as the ‘third seasoning’, or MSG, is neither salt nor pepper, the fifth element should perhaps be defined as that which is neither water, fire, earth nor air; something which lies outside of the scope of our understanding.

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