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 fifth definition, part I, number 5 of 5:
God is eternal and uncreated; man is mortal (although) he is ever-living.
Short, but this contains not only another comparison between God and Man, but also an apparent contradiction regarding Man. Since this statement affords us some more correspondences, let’s continue building up our sets of correspondences to the three worlds given in the first definition:
- God: intelligible, immovable, partially sensible, invisible, ineffable, Monad, Good, eternal, uncreated
- Heaven: sensible, moveable
- Man: sensible, destructible, reasonable, mortal, ever-living
First, let’s go to God. We already know from previous definitions that God is uncreated; God is the Monadic Source of all things, creating all things within itself yet never being made from anything besides itself, never taking away from itself into less nor multiplying itself into more. God is Mind, and Mind is the source of Word, which enables things to be both intelligible and sensible, though the Word itself is spoken only by Mind; although Mind and Word are one, they are not identical, no more than a man’s speech is the same thing as the man itself. I think we get the point by now with this.
However, God is also “eternal”. Eternity is something different from the popular conception of it; while most people consider “eternal” to mean “forever and ever”, extending infinitely foreward and backwards in time, this would more properly be called “everlasting” or “sempiternity”. Eternity, on the other hand, means timelessness. We can consider the passage of time to be like a car driving on an infinite road. A temporal car (neither sempiternal nor eternal) gets on the road at one point, continues driving along it for some time, then exits off the road. A sempiternal car drives along the road, has always driven along the road, and will always continue to drive along the road; just as the road was infinite, so too is the car itself, the only thing changing is its position along the road. An eternal car isn’t on the road at all; instead, the car is off the road entirely infinitely high above it, observing the entire road at once, seeing all points along the road. Similarly, an eternal being is one who doesn’t experience time but is outside it entirely, seeing any set of distinct points in time at the same time, much as one might look at multiple objects on a table from afar instead of feeling each object at the same time; in a geometric manner, it’s similar to a three-dimensional being seeing the entirety of a two-dimensional shape, while a two-dimensional beingcan only see one side of a two-dimensional shape at one time. (You might be interested to go read Flatland to further illustrate this point.)
Because God is both uncreated and eternal, it makes God wholly separate from anything made or unmade. There is simply no way God can be part of time or space; God is bodiless, invisible, and insensible, only being intelligible. God is eternal time just like how he is transcendent in space; although God is always present in all parts of the sensible world, God also is independent of and extends far beyond it and is far more than just that, and in a similar manner just as God is present at all times of the worlds, God also is independent of and extends far beyond it and is far more than just that. This is a powerful statement, allowing God to be truly infinite and unbounded. (There’s also the implication that because God is uncreated, God is also undestructed; that which cannot be made likewise cannot be destroyed, but we’ll encounter that later, probably.)
Now we go to Man. Man is both “mortal” while being “ever-living”; these terms seem to contradict each other. By being mortal, Man can die; by being ever-living (i.e. immortal), Man cannot die. We know that from the first definition, Man is a destructible world; that which is Man can be destroyed. However, Man is also made in the image of God, who is immovable and eternal, and so Man is made like God, and so Man is also in some way immoveable and eternal, right? It’s complicated, but it reflects the inherent complication within the world of Man. This much is said in the Corpus Hermeticum (chapter IV, part 2):
So down [to Earth] He sent the Cosmos of this Frame Divine,—man, a life that cannot die, and yet a life that dies. And o’er [all other] lives and over Cosmos [too], did man excel by reason of the Reason (Logos) and the Mind. For contemplator of God’s works did man become; he marvelled and did strive to know their Author.
The problem here lies in the fact that Man is made in the image of God while being made in Heaven, i.e. the cosmos or material world. Part of us is cosmic, and part of us is godly; we have mind from God “after the species”, but body from Heaven. The parts of soul and spirit are intermediaries between the mind and body, and are neither here nor there for this discussion of mind and body. Mind, being from God, is immovable and eternal; this is the “ever-living” part of Man. The body, being from Heaven, is moveable and destructible; this is the “mortal” part of Man. This is discussed, though not very fully, in the Corpus Hermeticum (chapter VIII, parts 1 and 2):
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.
For truly first of all, eternal and transcending birth, is God the universals’ Maker. Second is he “after His image,” Cosmos, brought into being by Him, sustained and fed by Him, made deathless, as by his own Sire, living for aye, as ever free from death. Now that which ever-liveth, differs from the Eternal; for He hath not been brought to being by another, and even if He have been brought to being, He hath not been brought into being by Himself, but ever is brought into being. For the Eternal, in that It is eternal, is the all. The Father is Himself eternal of Himself, but Cosmos hath become eternal and immortal by the Father.
Now we get a connection between Man and God: “now that which ever-liveth differs from the Eternal”, since that which is eternal is unmade (“not brought to being by another”), but that which is ever-living (sempiternal) is made and made to be so by God. In addition, since God is uncreated, God is also undestroyable, since God “ever is brought into being”, so God is never destroyed. Similarly, things that are made cannot be destroyed in the true sense of not-existing, hence “nothing in the Cosmos is destroyed”. The Corpus Hermeticum discusses what we call death and what actually happens in the world (chapter VIII, parts 3 and 4):
For matter, son, when it was yet incorporate, was in unorder. And it doth still retain down here this [nature of unorder] enveloping the rest of the small lives—that increase-and-decrease which men call death.
It is round earthly lives that this unorder doth exist. For that the bodies of the heavenly ones preserve one order allotted to them from the Father as their rule; and it is by the restoration of each one [of them] this order is preserved indissolute. The “restoration” then of bodies on the earth is [thus their] composition, whereas their dissolution restores them to those bodies which can never be dissolved, that is to say, which know no death. Privation, thus, of sense is brought about, not loss of bodies.
In other words, this is a Hermetic variant of the law of conservation of mass in physics: mass is neither created or destroyed, but may be rearranged or processed into new forms of mass. Just as “nothing comes from nothing”, the world has always existed, being made sempiternal by the eternal God. However, Man in bodily form is not sempiternal, so only sees part of the sensible world for part of the time it exists. In this way, Man speaks improperly of things “passing into existence” (true creation) or “passing out of existence” (true death). Because of a lack of constant ordering, material and sensible things constantly increase and decrease, while immaterial and intelligible things preserve themselves or are preserved by higher things forever.
Thus, Man takes part of two natures: a temporary material one, and a sempiternal immaterial one. Both come from God, with the material one indirectly through the world of Heaven and the immaterial one directly from God. This produces a weird nesting-doll effect, which I can liken best to a large container of water containing a bubble of air within it, which contains a water droplet within itself. The big water around the bubble represents the intelligible God; the air bubble within the water represents the sensible world; the water droplet inside the bubble represents the entity of Man, which exists within the sensible world with a shape that can change much like the bubble itself, but with a nature like that of the intelligible God outside the bubble and which doesn’t change. At any time, the water droplet can leave the world (with the boundary of air surrounding the water droplet returning to the bubble and not leaving), or a new water droplet can enter the bubble (with the boundary of air surrounding that water droplet coming from the rest of the bubble). In either case, the parts of the bubble proper to the bubble stay within the bubble, while the parts of the water proper to the water stay in the water or stay watery even in air. This, as best as I can describe it, is like the relationship of God (big water), cosmos (air bubble), and Man (water droplets).
This is the final definition for the first set. From this set, we know that there are three worlds: God, Heaven, and Man. God is the uncreated, unbegotten, eternal, intelligible first world of all worlds; there is nothing outside of God, and all things that exist are within God. Within God, which is intelligible, there is an additional world known as Heaven or the cosmos, which begins to be sensible; this contains the material world and all things within that, though things immaterial may not be in the cosmos. Within the Cosmos, there exists another world, that of Man, which acts as a kind of “water droplet in a bubble in water”, partaking of the sensibility of the cosmos and the intelligibility of God, being made from both godly Mind and material Body. To link the two, bodies are also given soul (which provides physical and emotional motion from the mind) and spirit (which provides the capability for reason and speech from the mind and enables the body to live). The mental part of Man is ever-living, just as all things in the cosmos fundamentally are, but the physical part of Man is as physical as anything else in the cosmos is; thus, the link between mind and body is temporary, because the body is only temporary. Because Man is made from both cosmos and God directly, Man reflects both in its own microcosmic form; we derive all our characteristics, forms, motions, words, and qualities from God directly (providing sempiternal qualities) or indirectly via the Cosmos (providing temporal qualities).