This post is part of a series, “49 Days of Definitions”, discussing and explaining my thoughts and meditations on a set of aphorisms explaining crucial parts of Hermetic philosophy. These aphorisms, collectively titled the “Definitions from Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius”, lay out the basics of Hermetic philosophy, the place of Man in the Cosmos, and all that stuff. It’s one of the first texts I studied as a Hermetic magician, and definitely what I would consider to be a foundational text. The Definitions consist of 49 short aphorisms broken down into ten sets, each of which is packed with knowledge both subtle and obvious, and each of which can be explained or expounded upon. While I don’t propose to offer the be-all end-all word on these Words, these might afford some people interested in the Definitions some food for thought, one aphorism per day.
Today, let’s discuss the first definition, part I, number 1 of 5:
God: an intelligible world; world, a sensible God; man, a destructible world; God: an immovable world; heaven; a moveable world; man, a reasonable world. Then there are three worlds. Now the immovable world (is) God, and the reasonable world is man: for both of (these) units (are) one: God and man after the species.
So short a statement, so dense the meaning! This aphorism starts off the Definitions by discussing the different worlds that exist in the broader sense of the word, but we already have some confusion. “There are then three worlds”, which are God, man, and heaven. However, the only definition for “world” that we have is that it’s a “sensible God”, leading to a recursive definition between God and a world. God is a world which is God, and a world is God which is a world. So clear, right?
The distinction between what God is and what a world is, however, is present both verbally and spacially here. God is called “intelligible”, while a world is called “sensible”, and this distinction is crucial to understanding the intertwined relationship between the two. A little unpacking of these terms, however, is also in order. Sensible refers to anything that can sense or be sensed by an outside observer. Intelligible, however, refers to something higher and greater than mere capacity for logic and imagination; the philosophical sense of “intelligence” is closely associated with the Greek word nous, meaning “mind” but having connotations of the metaphysical soul or Oversoul and the most divine parts of creation. Consider that Agrippa places intelligence as the highest power of the Soul under the element of Fire in his Table of Four (book II, chapter 7), where intelligence is greater than the other faculties of reason, fantasy, and sense, and you’ll begin to grasp the far-reaching implications of these words.
For our human selves, it may help to describe these things in terms of the bodily functions. Sensible things are things that the human body can physically sense, observe, or interact with through the senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, motion, pain, and so forth. This sense data is picked up through the body’s nervous system and relayed to the brain, which collects and prepares sense data for the mind as well as relaying instructions and directives to the rest of the body from the mind. The brain can be thought of as the physical component, antenna, or hardware for the mind, which itself is immaterial and nonphysical. The mind is given sense data for it to understand and know; this capacity is called intelligence. However, the mind is not limited to understanding just the things the body senses; it can also understand dreams, see hallucinations, and work with other data similar to sense data but not derived from it. It’s like the difference between hearing something via clairaudience versus hearing it with the ears, or predicting with logic tables that a given event will happen though it has not yet happened to be sensed. Mind, in this case, can work with both intelligence and sense, but the body only works with sense.
So we have things that can be sensed, and things that are known. Things that are sensed are known, but not all the things that are known can be sensed. Thus, things that are sensible form a strict subset of things that are intelligible; God, which is intelligible, is greater than any world, but includes it because it knows and can be known by it. However, the world is only the part of God that can be sensed; God is in the world and yet still greater than it, which is a classic statement of panentheism. Only things that are a world can be sensed, so while God is a world, not all of God is sensible. This is further implied by the way the definition is phrased: God comes first, and world comes after God, which relies on God. The two cannot be separated, but neither are they the same. This is similarly said in the Asclepius (book VIII, part 1), where Hermes describes the distinction between the bigger and lower states of God that we might call God and the world:
The Lord and Maker of all things, whom we call rightly God, when from Himself He made the second [God], the Visible and Sensible,—I call him Sensible not that He hath sensation in Himself (for as to this, whether or no He have himself sensation, we will some other time declare), but that He is the object of the senses of those who see;—when, then, He made Him first, but second to Himself, and that He seemed to Him [most] fair, as one filled to the full with goodness of all things, He fell in love with Him as being part of His Divinity.
(Yeah, I know I’m pulling from another contemporaneous text. I’ll do that from some well-known texts, such as Cornelius Agrippa later on, but bear with me. This will only be needed rarely, primarily for the first few aphorisms, which do require heavy unpacking.)
Next, we have Man, which is another world, and since worlds are sensible and part of God, so too is Man sensible and part of God. Further, just as worlds come after God, Man comes after the world, and just as the world is part of God, so too is Man part of the world. However, Man and the world are not the same, because Man is further identified as “destructible” in addition to “sensible”, indicating that things that of the world may or may not be destructible but that Man certainly is; Man is part of the world now and again, and while the world always is, Man may not always be. However, we need to clarify the meaning of “destructible”, since it can be difficult to say what exactly is destroyed. According to the Corpus Hermeticum (book VIII, part 1):
Concerning Soul and Body, son, we now must speak; in what way Soul is deathless, and whence comes the activity 1in composing and dissolving Body. For there’s no death for aught of things [that are]; the thought [this] word conveys, is either void of fact, or [simply] by the knocking off a syllable what is called “death,” doth stand for “deathless.” For death is of destruction, and nothing in the Cosmos is destroyed. For if Cosmos is second God, a life that cannot die, it cannot be that any part of this immortal life should die. All things in Cosmos are parts of Cosmos, and most of all is man, the rational animal.
Thus, Man is unique in that the part of him that is in the world can be destroyed, but as Man is part of God, Man cannot ever truly be annihilated out of existence entirely. The sensible part of Man, or the body and the physical senses, may be destroyed, but not the intelligible part of Man.
The next two definitions come up for both God and heaven: God is an immoveable world, and heaven is a moveable world. God is both intelligible and immoveable, while heaven (a new term) is a world that is moveable. God, in this case, moves but is not moved; heaven is moved by others, which (if nothing else is immoveable) generally means God. Thus, heaven is, like any world, less than and part of God, but God exerts a force on heaven that causes it to move, while the same force cannot be exerted on God. However, since heaven is also a world, and a world is sensible while only the part of God that is in that world is sensible, we can also say that heaven is sensible. The difference between that which is moveable and that which is immoveable is more clearly referenced in the Corpus Hermeticum (book II, parts 6 through 9):
Her. If space is, therefore, to be thought, [it should] not, [then, be thought as] God, but space. If God is also to be thought, [He should] not [be conceived] as space, but energy that can contain [all space]. Further, all that is moved is moved not in the moved but in the stable. And that which moves [another] is of course stationary, for ’tis impossible that it should move with it.
Asc. How is it, then, that things down here, Thrice-greatest one, are moved with those that are [already] moved? For thou hast said the errant spheres were moved by the inerrant one.
Her. This is not, O Asclepius, a moving with, but one against; they are not moved with one another, but one against the other. It is this contrariety which turneth the resistance of their motion into rest. For that resistance is the rest of motion. Hence, too, the errant spheres, being moved contrarily to the inerrant one, are moved by one another by mutual contrariety, [and also] by the stable one through contrariety itself. And this can otherwise not be. The Bears up there, which neither set nor rise, think’st thou they rest or move?
Asc. They move, Thrice-greatest one.
Her. And what their motion, my Asclepius?
Asc. Motion that turns for ever round the same.
Her. But revolution—motion round same—is fixed by rest. For “round-the-same” doth stop “beyond-same.” “Beyond-same” then, being stopped, if it be steadied in “round-same”—the contrary stands firm, being rendered ever stable by its contrariety. Of this I’ll give thee here on earth an instance, which the eye can see. Regard the animals down here,—a man, for instance, swimming! The water moves, yet the resistance of his hands and feet give him stability, so that he is not borne along with it, nor sunk thereby.
Asc. Thou hast, Thrice-greatest one, adduced a most clear instance.
Her. All motion, then, is caused in station and by station. The motion, therefore, of the cosmos (and of every other hylic animal) will not be caused by things exterior to the cosmos, but by things interior [outward] to the exterior—such [things] as soul, or spirit, or some such other thing incorporal. ’Tis not its body that doth move the living thing in it; nay, not even the whole [body of the universe a lesser] body e’en though there be no life in it.
Asc. What meanest thou by this, Thrice-greatest one? Is it not bodies, then, that move the stock and stone and all the other things inanimate?
Her. By no means, O Asclepius. The something-in-the-body, the that-which-moves the thing inanimate, this surely’s not a body, for that it moves the two of them—both body of the lifter and the lifted? So that a thing that’s lifeless will not move a lifeless thing. That which doth move [another thing] is animate, in that it is the mover. Thou seest, then, how heavy laden is the soul, for it alone doth lift two bodies. That things, moreover, moved are moved in something as well as moved by something is clear.
Thus, we know that the heavens are a part of God that is inanimate, and can be moved, while God is animate yet cannot be moved by another, since God cannot technically move; God is intelligible, and that which is intelligible has no space in which to really move, since space is something sensible and the intelligible is not necessarily sensible. In this sense, we might describe heaven as less as a spiritual place but more of a cosmic place, containing the spiritual and material realms that are within God. This, then, also includes the world literally around us physically. This makes more sense if we use the Greek word for heaven used here: cosmos, implying both “order” as well as “heaven”.
The last of the definitions here relates to Man again, where Man is described as “reasonable”. Reason is not the same as intelligence; again, just as Intelligence and Reason are described as associated with the elements of Fire and Air or the Mind and the Spirit in Agrippa’s Table of Four, intelligence refers to that which is spiritually knowable by the divine mind while reason refers to that which can be predicted and calculated by taking in data from both above and below. For instance, once can predict that, based on the physical sensation that fire is hot, they will burn themselves if they put their hand in a fire; this is reasoning using sensible data. If one receives a vision or prophecy of a king losing in battle, one can reason based on intelligible knowledge that they will have a new king; this is reasoning using intelligible knowledge. Reasoning is what separates Man out from the rest of the world, in addition to being destructible.
Thus, there are three worlds, in something that begins to look like a list of correspondences:
- God: intelligible, immovable, partially sensible
- Heaven: sensible, moveable
- Man: sensible, destructible, reasonable
The definition goes on to say that that which is immoveable is God, and that which is reasonable is Man, but also that “both of these units are one”. After all, both Man and God are worlds, and while God is intelligible and greater than and including every other world, Man is one particular world, and thus is part of God. However, there are parts of Man that are also part of the world, and there are parts of Man that are destructible, and so do not necessarily belong to any one world except the world-containing-all-worlds that is God. Plus, not only are God and Man one, but they are one since they are paired as “God and man after the species”. “Species” here refers to the type of substance or essence or form that both God and Man take, or that Man takes after God. In this sense, God and Man are one in substance, which is another way of saying that Man is of the same form (as in Platonic form) as God. This recalls the Biblical statement in Genesis 1:27, “so God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them”. However, while God may be the form of Man, Man is only an instance of this form; God is far more than just what Man might describe just as the concept of “tree” encapsulates every possible variation we know of between individual trees or species of trees, and even those that we have never yet seen or witnessed (sensible vs. intelligible).