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 seventh definition, part II, number 2 of 6:
Heaven is an eternal body, an immutable body, unalterable and mixed up out of soul and Nous. Air is the separation of heaven from the earth or the conjunction of heaven with earth. What is air? They call ‘air’ the interval between heaven and earth, by which they are not separated fromeach other, since heavens and earth are united (with each other) by the air.
This definition focuses primarily on the element of air, the element of the quality of cold from the last definition, and one of the four elements that together compose all bodies that exist. First, however, the definition talks about the relationship of heaven, or the cosmos, to God. Based on this first statement about the cosmos, we can add to our correspondence list for the three worlds from the first set of definitions:
- God: intelligible, immovable, partially sensible, invisible, ineffable, Monad, Good, eternal, uncreated
- Heaven: sensible, movable, eternal, immutable, unalterable
- Man: sensible, destructible, reasonable, mortal, ever-living
We now know that the cosmos is an “eternal body”, so it’s eternal in the same sense that God is eternal; although God made the cosmos which gives the cosmos a “beginning”, it’s not in the sense of time that it has a beginning. Instead, it can be asserted that the cosmos has no temporal start or end: it always has been and it always will be. Add to it, we also know that the cosmos is a body, and more importantly, one single body. Although there are many parts to the cosmos (every rock, tree, person, entity, etc. that exists), it is still all one cohesive body, joined together by means of the elements in the cosmos, all of which exists within and as part of God, which itself is a single Monad. This is kinda cool, and suggests that all things that exist operate more-or-less harmoniously just as the parts of a human body work together as one entity.
When the definition calls the cosmos “immutable”, it doesn’t mean in the fact that nothing in the cosmos can change. Rather, that quality of the cosmos would make it “immovable”, just as God is immovable; when something is immovable, it means both in terms of spacial motion as well as composition. God is immovable because there is spacially nowhere where God is already not, so God cannot move somewhere where it is not; further, all things that exist exist within and as part of God, so God cannot change into something that does not exist. This is what immobility would be, and we already know from the first definition that the cosmos is, indeed, movable; thus, the cosmos has the capacity to be moved within itself (especially as it pertains to things within the cosmos in relationship to each other), as well as has the capacity to change its composition from one thing into another thing. Although, as discussed before, all things that exist do not truly become destroyed but only ever change form, so too are things in the cosmos able to change form and composition, never truly leaving the cosmos or being destroyed out of it.
That the cosmos is “unalterable” is similar in tone to “immutable”, though the difference is subtle. I contend that while “immutable” indicates that the composition of the cosmos will never change, “unalterable” indicates that it can never actively be changed by some agent. In other words, no matter how hard we might try to bomb something out of existence, the unalterable quality of the cosmos prevents it from actually being made non-existent. The distinction here is very minor, but indicates that the cosmos can neither have something added to it or removed from it that is similarly cosmic either on its own or by some outside or inside force. The cosmos, in other words, is a system whose material properties are fixed in amount and essence, though the materials inside the cosmos are subject to change in terms of composition and arrangement.
Add to it, the cosmos is “mixed up out of soul and Nous”. After all, since the cosmos is a body (just an eternal, immutable, and unalterable one), the cosmos must have a soul, since all bodies have souls. Further, just as the soul comes from the Nous which is God, so too is the cosmos made from God as well as being mixed up within and with God. In this sense, due to the shared natures between the cosmos and God, we might also say that the cosmos is the body of God. After all, just as any sensible thing requires the nonsensible intelligible aspect to exist, the body of heaven must similarly have something intelligible behind it; here we are told that the cosmos is empowered and ensouled by God itself. God, of course, is far more than the cosmos, just as the mind of any human is greater than the human itself belonging properly to the world of Man.
Now we come to something new: a new distinction within the sensible world: “air is the separation of heaven from the earth or the conjunction of heaven with earth”. While before we supposed that all sensible things were part of heaven (i.e. the cosmos), now we have some new separation between heaven and earth. While all of the cosmos is one body, that body is composed of the four elements; the air is one such element that separates the earthy part of the cosmos from itself yet exists within the cosmos, just as the cosmos is separated from God yet exists within it. The thing that separates or joins together these parts of the heavenly cosmos with the earthly cosmos is air.
The next part of the definition poses a rhetorical question: “what is air?” Air, as it turns out, is no separation; air is the “interval between heaven and earth”, and can be thought of as a glue that binds the two together. Since the cosmos is one body, there can be no disjointed parts within the body, no gaps or voids. Air, since it is an element that composes a body, is not void; thus, any area filled with air is not truly empty. This would be equivalent to saying that two lands separated by a river are completely and forever cut off, when one can simply walk, swim, or sail across the river to reach to the other side; the water joins the two lands, but does not truly separate them. Compare Hermes’ talk to Asclepius about the notion of air and void from the Corpus Hermeticum (chapter II, part 11):
Her. Is not air body?
Asc. It is.
Her. And doth this body not pervade all things, and so, pervading, fill them? And “body”; doth body not consist from blending of the “four”? Full, then, of air are all thou callest void; and if of air, then of the “four.” Further, of this the converse follows, that all thou callest full are void—of air; for that they have their space filled out with other bodies, and, therefore, are not able to receive the air therein. These, then, which thou dost say are void, they should be hollow named, not void; for they not only are, but they are full of air and spirit.
Indeed, the definition goes on to fully state that air is not a separation between heaven and earth, “since heavens and earth are united with each other by the air”. Air, then, is a means of linking and joining things in the cosmos. Things on earth down here are joined to the bodies of the cosmos high above in the heavens by means of air; just as one can use a river to link two bodies of land, so too can air allow us to engage with forces high above just as things high above can interact with forces down below. Truly, the air is a “conjunction” far more than a “separation”, though one might mistakenly call it a separation just as one might consider a man’s death to be the utter annihilation and cosmic removal of the man. In other words, perspective matters.
The only thing left unexplained in this aphorism is the matter of earth. Earth, as far as can be said now, is some part within the cosmos that exists as part of the world of heaven; as such, the earth has at least some of the qualities that the cosmos itself has, such as sensibility and mobility. Earth elementally has the quality of dryness, as from definition II.1, while air has the quality of coldness. Earth is part of the cosmos and is joined to the higher parts of the cosmos and non-earth things by means of air. That’s about as much as we can say so far.