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 sixth definition, part II, number 1 of 6:
Nous is the invisible good; soul (is) a necessary movement adjusted to every (kind of) body. A body is (made out) of the four qualities, (as) a well-tempered composition of warm, cold, dry and wet: of warm (i.e.) of fire, of cold (i.e.) of air, of dry (i.e.) of earth, of wet (i.e.) of water. Breath is the body of soul or the column of soul.
While the first set of definitions focused on an introduction to the three worlds of Hermes Trismegistus, now we start to dig deeper into the actual meat of the worlds, and here we’re given an introduction to the world of the cosmos, that of ordered creation. Recall that, while God is intelligible, the cosmos is sensible and intelligible where God exists and is evident. Although the world is visible (a special kind of sensible), God is invisible, and since God is the Nous and is also the Good, so too is Nous the Good and invisible. From the Nous is created the cosmos, within the Nous and not exceeding it, so all things that exist in the cosmos are part of the Nous. Plus, the Nous has a special power over the cosmos: the cosmos is moved by the Nous, while the Nous itself is immovable.
The cosmos is formed from a multitude of bodies, some of which are the body of Man, a particular world that intersects with the material world of the cosmos and with the immaterial world of God, being both destructible, inasmuch as anything material can be “destroyed”, i.e. changed or reorganized into another material form. Each body, being movable, must have some quality that allows it to be moved; this is the soul (see definition I.3), where “all of the visibile cannot possibly be constituted without the invisible”, where the invisible portion here is the soul without which “[the body] cannot possibly be constituted”. The soul here is explained to be a “necessary movement” that allows it to function, the special quality derived from God that allows things made in the cosmos to still be a part of God while being so distinct from it.
Further, each soul is “adjusted to every kind of body”, so the animating principle of each body in the cosmos is unique depending on the type of body it is. Note here that the definition says “kind of body” and not simply “body”; this indicates that there are uniform types of souls for different classes of bodies. However, we also know that something made from another thing inherits the qualities of those things; thus, the cosmos as made by God inherits a certain divinity from God, though because the cosmos is not identical with God, it does not inherit those qualities identically. So, while there may be a soul for the type of bodies known as “mammals”, there are also souls for those of “squirrels”, which is a type of mammal; likewise, there will be individual souls for individual squirrels, each suited for each individual body (which itself can be considered a class with only one member). Essentially, this statement is the Hermetic equivalent of the Liskov substitution principle in software engineering. However, to go with a more Hermetic route, we might also explain it with the Corpus Hermeticum (pretty much all of chapter XII, but especially parts 2 through 4):
But in irrational lives Mind is their nature. For where is Soul, there too is Mind; just as where Life, there is there also Soul. But in irrational lives their soul is life devoid of mind; for Mind is the in-worker of the souls of men for good;—He works on them for their own good. In lives irrational He doth co-operate with each one’s nature; but in the souls of men He counteracteth them. For every soul, when it becomes embodied, is instantly depraved by pleasure and by pain. For in a compound body, just like juices, pain and pleasure seethe, and into them the soul, on entering in, is plunged.
O’er whatsoever souls the Mind doth, then, preside, to these it showeth its own light, by acting counter to their prepossessions, just as a good physician doth upon the body prepossessed by sickness, pain inflict, burning or lancing it for sake of health. In just the selfsame way the Mind inflicteth pain upon the soul, to rescue it from pleasure, whence comes its every ill. The great ill of the soul is godlessness; then followeth fancy for all evil things and nothing good. So, then, Mind counteracting it doth work good on the soul, as the physician health upon the body.
But whatsoever human souls have not the Mind as pilot, they share in the same fate as souls of lives irrational. For [Mind] becomes co-worker with them, giving full play to the desires towards which [such souls] are borne,—[desires] that from the rush of lust strain after the irrational; [so that such human souls,] just like irrational animals, cease not irrationally to rage and lust, nor ever are they satiate of ills. For passions and irrational desires are ills exceeding great; and over these God hath set up the Mind to play the part of judge and executioner.
Now that we understand more about the soul, we can now go onto more about bodies. And, finally, we get something concrete: “a body is made out of the four qualities, as a well-tempered composition of warm, cold, dry and wet: of warm i.e. fire, of cold i.e. air, of dry i.e. earth, of wet i.e. water”. Here we have the four classical elements of Empedocles along with his four qualities: hot and cold, wet and dry. However, unlike Empedoclean classical elements with two qualities, each element here is ascribed one quality: fire is hot, air is cold, water is wet, earth is dry. Empedoclean elements have two qualities: fire is hot and dry, air is hot and wet, water is wet and cold, earth is dry and cold. Aristotle ascribed each of the Empedoclean elements a primary and secondary quality: fire is primarily hot and secondarily dry, air is primarily moist and secondarily hot, water is primarily cold and secondarily moist, earth is primarily dry and secondarily cold. The system in this definition, however, is the same as that of the Stoics, which focused more on the material basis of the cosmos than most other philosophies.
These four qualities of hot, cold, dry, and moist provide the foundation for all bodies that exist, and each body has certain amounts of each. We can be simple about things, saying that a body of water has little air in it since it is full of water, or that a brick has little air in it since it is full of earth; likewise, that things like fire have no coldness, and that ice has no heat in it. However, this can also be expanded as Cornelius Agrippa does in his First Book to more spiritual or immaterial distinctions (book I, chapter 3):
For some are heavy, as Earth and Water, and others are light, as Aire and Fire. Wherefore the Stoicks called the former passives, but the latter actives. And yet once again Plato distinguished them after another manner, and assigns to every one of them three qualities, viz. to the Fire brightness, thinness and motion, but to the Earth darkness, thickness and quietness. And according to these qualities the Elements of Fire and Earth are contrary. But the other Elements borrow their qualities from these, so that the Aire receives two qualities of the Fire, thinness and motion; and one of the Earth, viz. darkness. In like manner Water receives two qualities of the Earth, darkness and thickness, and one of Fire, viz. motion. But Fire is twice more thin then Aire, thrice more movable, and four times more bright: and the Aire is twice more bright, thrice more thin, and four times more moveable then Water. Wherefore Water is twice more bright then Earth, thrice more thin, and four times more movable. As therefore the Fire is to the Aire, so Aire is to the Water, and Water to the Earth; and again, as the Earth is to the Water, so is the Water to the Aire, and the Aire to the Fire. And this is the root and foundation of all bodies, natures, vertues, and wonderfull works; and he which shall know these qualities of the Elements, and their mixtions, shall easily bring to pass such things that are wonderfull, and astonishing, and shall be perfect in Magick.
So much for an introduction to the elements. All bodies that exist, as said above, consist of these four elements and qualities, but there is one more physical phenomenon to explain still in this definition: that of breath. Breath “is the body of soul or the column of soul”, and the text seems to offer both these descriptions equivalently or equally. In the first, that the breath is the “body of soul”, we can go back to our earlier definitions and describe the breath as the physical evidence of the invisible part of the body that affords it motion; in other words, the breath (or spirit) is the mechanism that allows the soul to come in contact with the body and vice versa. As such, just as all bodies are given a mind, and because all bodies require a soul in order to be moved, the spirit allows the mind to interface between the soul and the body. In this sense, the spirit can be seen as the body of soul that allows the body of Man to live.
In the other view, however, the breath is the “column of soul”, which is a similar but new interpretation. Columns indicate support or understanding, something that holds another thing up, and just as the soul “keeps up the figure while being within the body” (from I.3), the breath is similarly the support that keeps up the soul while being within the soul. In this view, the spirit is within the soul, and animates the soul as much as the soul animates the body. However, in the previous view where the spirit is the body of the soul, it’s the soul that exists within the spirit, which may indicate that the soul is within the spirit independently of the body or that the soul inhabits the body as well as the spirit and the spirit interacts with the body in a different manner than the soul does, or that the soul is within the spirit which is itself in the body. In the former interpretation, it would seem that the Mind goes through two agents to work with the Body: both soul and spirit equally yet independently, with the soul acting on the spirit which acts on the body as well as with the soul acting on the body directly. In the latter interpretation, it sould seem that the Mind goes through the soul to activate the spirit which itself activates the Body. Both of these accounts, however, conflict with the notion that the breath is the “column of soul”, where it seems that the Mind goes through the spirit to activate the soul which itself activates the body.
Between the different interpretations here of the role of body, soul, spirit, and mind, it doesn’t seem clear which view is being presented here. Then again, perhaps that’s the point; maybe different bodies simply require different arrangements of soul and spirit, having one but not the other or operating in different ways depending on the body and the type of soul. After all, we know that all bodies have souls, and that all souls come from Nous. However, we only have concrete evidence that man has breath (from I.4) without yet speaking of other types of bodies, and this makes sense, kinda. Rocks don’t breathe, right? Rocks, despite having souls, also don’t really move independently (yet, being movable, still have souls) but are utterly movable and mutable, being changed by other forces that are more animate than itself. Perhaps the function of spirit is tailored to each body much as the soul is for each body, or that spirit really is independent of soul but relies on the nature of the body (bodies without lungs or means to breathe simply do not breathe). In either case, where the breath is the body of soul (having the soul within the spirit to animate it) or the column of soul (having the spirit within the soul to animate it), it’s clear that both interpretations have different roles to play in the cosmos.