Episode 29: Hermes Trismegistus

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In previous episodes, I’ve alluded to several other figures whose place in the Ideal tradition is more difficult to establish than those of Plotinus, Ficino, et al.  In the next few episodes, we will take a look at some of these writers and see what they have to teach us about The One.

A Page from Ficino's Translation of Hermes Trismegustus, published in 1503, from Bayerische Staatsbibliothek

A Page from Ficino's translation of Hermes Trismegustus, published in 1503, from Bayerische Staatsbibliothek

The first is Hermes Trismegistus, whose works were also, along with Plato’s, first translated into Latin from the Greek by Marsilio Ficino.   The rediscovery of his texts was seen as so important that Cosimo de Medici, who was sponsoring Ficino’s work, told him to stop his work on Plato and turn to Hermes.  And given the tone of the works, it is not hard to see why: they have a revelatory quality that can make one feel as if he is undergoing a mystic initiation, that the agrapha dogmata has in fact been written down.

Hermes Trismegistus, in a mosaic on the floor of Siena Cathedral, 1481

Hermes Trismegistus, in a mosaic on the floor of Siena Cathedral, 1481

At this time, Hermes was though to be ancient, even contemporary with Moses, and was depicted as such in the 15th century cathedral in Siena.  This was later shown not to be the case–that the texts attributed to him were written down in the Christian era.  I will not step into the turbulent waters surrounding the identity of Hermes, or even whether he existed at all, except to say that reading his works, one hears ideas and phrases that indicate a familiarity with the Platonic and Judaic as well as Egyptian traditions.  My own feeling is that they were written by several different people and compiled under the one name.  But of course, when writing about the most timeless and universal truth, the Ideal, it should come as no surprise that the descriptions should be the same in their essence, regardless of the culture or language in which they are expressed.  For those interested, Brian Copenhaver’s introduction to his exhaustively annotated Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius in a New English Translation, with Notes and Introduction is probably the best treatment, and even he cannot place him with certainty.  But of course the bona fides are in the works themselves, not the biography of their author.

The major work, The Corpus Hermeticum¹, consists of 17 books, some of which are missing, some fragmentary.  They take a variety of forms from the long revelatory Parmenideian vision of Book 1 to Platonic dialogues to the hectoring sermon-like quality of Book 7.  It is almost impossible to avoid getting drawn in at the beginning, when he says

“…it seemed that someone immensely great of infinite dimensions happened to call my name and said to me: ‘What do you wish to hear and behold, and having beheld what do you wish to learn and know?’

‘Who are you?’ said I.  He said, ‘I am Poimandres the Nous² of the supreme.  I know what you wish  and I am with you everywhere.’

‘I wish to learn,’ said I, ‘the things that are and understand their nature and to know God.  O how I wish to hear these things!’  He spoke to me again. ‘Hold in your Nous all that you wish to learn and I will teach you.’

What an offer!  Poimandres proceeds to give Hermes a vision of the creation of the world, starting with “a gentle and joyous light,” from which earth, water, fire and air emerge.  Poimandres offers by way of explanation,

‘That light,’ he said, ‘is I, Nous, your God, who was before the watery substance which appeared out of the darkness; and the clear Word from Nous is the Son of God.’

‘How can this be?’ said I.

‘Know this,’ he said.  ‘That which sees and hears within you is the Word of the Lord, and Nous is God the Father.  They are not separate from each other, for their union is life.’

‘Thank you,’ I said.

‘But perceive the light and know it,’ said Poimandres.

So our consciousness, “that which sees and hears within you,” is derived from the Nous of God, and “they are not separate from each other.”  As with Plato’s formulation of the Divided Line, there is a continuum of consciousness which is identical in the Ideal and the individual, although with our senses turned outward, we do not see it as such.  We take our own consciousness for granted, even to the point of regarding it as a by-product of our brain activity, but as described here (as in other Idealists), it is the same quality of knowing as that of the Good.  But it is required that we “perceive the light and know it.”

Now if he had left it at that, Hermes could be subject to the criticism that Plotinus made of the Gnostics, as seen in the last episode: that all that is needed is to repeat the name of the Good, and still be able to lead one’s life in a way harmful to oneself and others.  But Hermes is aware of the workings of ego, “the resident thief,” and catalogs a number of its “tormentors.”³

Fortunately though, he also gives a listing of the qualities that bring us to knowledge of the Good or God:

Knowledge of God has come to us, and therefore ignorance has been banished.  Experience of joy has come to us, and therefore, O son, sorrow will flee to those who give place to it.  After Joy, the power I summon is self-control; most welcome power, let us receive her too, my son; on her arrival see how she drives off intemperance.  Now I call the fourth, steadfastness, the power opposed to lust.  This next step, O son, is the seat of justice.  See how without trial she has chased out injustice.  With injustice gone we become just.  I summon the sixth power, generosity, opposed to greed.  With greed gone, I next summon truth, deceit flies and truth is present.  See how upon the arrival of truth the Supreme Good arises; envy has fled far from us.  The Supreme Good, together with life and light, has followed upon truth, and the torments of darkness no longer fall upon us, but conquered, they all fly off with a rush of wings.

You know now, O son, the manner of rebirth.  And with the arrival of these ten, spiritual birth is complete and it drives out the twelve (tormentors), and by this birth we have become divine. Whoever, then, by God’s mercy attains a divine birth is freed from the bodily senses and is made whole by these powers.  He knows himself and rejoices. (Book 13)4

Earlier, in book 11, Hermes also gives advice on how to achieve this understanding of God: through what would seem to be the rather blasphemous act of making oneself “equal to God.”

If you do not make yourself equal to God you cannot understand Him.  Like is understood by like.  Grow to immeasurable size.  Be free from every body, transcend all time.  Become eternity and thus you will understand God.  Suppose nothing to be impossible for your self.  Consider yourself immortal and able to understand everything: all arts, sciences and the nature of every living creature.  Become higher than all heights and lower than all depths.  Sense as one within yourself the entire creation: fire, water, the dry and the moist.  Conceive yourself to be in all places at the same time: in earth, in the sea, in heaven; that you are not yet born, that you are with the womb, that you are young, old, dead; that you are beyond death.  Conceive all things at once; times, places, actions, qualities and quantities; then you can understand God.

Again, we hear the quality of Idealism coming through: that we are in fact of the nature of the One, that we are not separate from it, and we can come to remember it.  We are limited only by the “tormentors,” which can be banished by the ten powers, and will lead to living in the present and the presence.

To be able to know and to will and to hope is the straight and easy way appropriate to each that will lead to the Supreme Good.  When you take that road this Good will meet you everywhere and will be experienced everywhere, even where and when you do not expect it; when awake, asleep, in a ship, on the road, by night, by day, when speaking and when silent, for there is nothing which it is not.

The Hermetic texts also include materials that caused many people, especially in the Renaissance, to veer off into magic and alchemy, and that has contributed to their continuing neglect.  But I believe that at their core, they also offer a true and vivid account of The One and our own identity with it.  I hope that the brief selections offered here will encourage you to read the complete works.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.   Graphics are not copyrighted, and are believed to be in the public domain.  Music courtesy of Stefan Hagel, and used by permission.

¹Two main modern translations exist: The one Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius in a New English Translation, with Notes and Introduction translated by Copenhaven, Cambridge, 1992, referenced above, and The Way of Hermes: New Translations of The Corpus Hermeticum and The Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius, Inner Traditions, 2004.  Generally I will quote from this latter since I find its English less academic.  (Full disclosure: I am acquainted with Mr. Clement Salaman, the leader of the translation team.)

²νοῦς pronounced like “noose,” from which our word “noetic” is derived.  It is difficult to translate (which is why it often isn’t), but carries the sense of “mind,” “intelligence” (in the Platonic sense), or “understanding.”

³As listed in The Way of Hermes (p. 67)these are twelve in number: ignorance, sorrow, intemperance, lust, injustice, greed, deceit, envy, treachery, anger, recklessness, and malice.  What do they have in common?  Discuss.

4The Way of Hermes, p. 67-68  This of course brings to mind the teaching of Jesus: Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. (John 3:3)

5The Way of Hermes, p. 57-58.