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 eleventh definition, part II, number 6 of 6:
Light is a good, a clear vision, (which makes) appear all of the visible (things). The essence of fire is burning. However, fire is one (thing) and light is another one. For what fire has reached shall be destroyed, but light appears just as it is by itself. Every move of soul is perceived by Nous; since it is some (kind of) energy, breath performs (it).
This last definition of part II may come as a surprise, seeing how the second through fifth definitions focused on the four elements; where the hell was light mentioned? It doesn’t appear to be an element, and it wasn’t really spoken of in II.1. However, read II.1 closely again, and you’ll read two parts that link this definition cohesively into this section:
- “Nous is the invisible good; soul is a necessary movement adjusted to every kind of body.”
- “Breath is the body of soul or the column of soul.”
Bearing in mind that we now know about the four elements that constitute “every kind of body”, this definition then goes on to describe the nature of the thing behind the body. If this is starting to make this sound like a fifth element or quintessence (literally, “the fifth essence”) like spirit or akasha of modern occultism, you’re catching on, but there’s some more unpacking to do first.
First, let’s talk about light. Light is “a good”, not “the good” of the Nous, but it is “a good”. While this type of phrase hasn’t yet been encountered in the Definitions, we can assume that this means that light is a quality of the Nous, or that light is something from of and part of the Nous. In either way, light is something divine, something mental. Light is also “a clear vision, which makes appear all of the visible things”. When modern people think of light, they think of some sort of electromagnetic waves that bounce off and reflect from objects, and these waves are then registered by the eyes to produce neural signals to be interpreted as a vision. Classically, however, light was seen to emanate from the eyes or objects themselves and catch alight of other things (and is one of the reasons gazing magic and the “evil eye” are still around). Light is vision itself; more importatly, light is a clear vision, that which illumines and enlightens, that which presents things clearly and truly in its true form. However, light can only work to make things appear that are already visible, or able to be seen. Things that are bodiless or only intelligible without being sensible cannot be seen, and so light is independent of these things; light, then, is probably a component of the Nous in the cosmos, since being visible is a special kind of being sensible, and only the cosmos is the part of God that is sensible.
However, this is an ideal kind of light, a mental or spiritual light that is independent of physical processes. The definition then goes on to compare fire and light, where “the essence of fire is burning” and that “fire is one thing and light is another one”. Many people, especially classically, equated fire and light as the same, since fire and other extraordinarily hot things are what gives off light. Fire does indeed give off light, but this is not the light that is a good; “what fire has reached shall be destroyed, but light appears just as it is by itself”. In other words, fire burns up and burns away, and anything exposed to firelight has this effect made upon itself. True light, however, acts differently: it presents what is visible and sensible, and nothing more. Compare Tat’s exclamation from the Corpus Hermeticum (chapter X, part 4):
Her. For It doth will to be, and It is both Itself and most of all by reason of Itself. Indeed all other things beside are just because of It; for the distinctive feature of the Good is “that it should be known.” Such is the Good, O Tat.
Tat. Thou hast, O father, filled us so full of this so good and fairest Sight, that thereby my mind’s eye hath now become for me almost a thing to worship. For that the Vision of the Good doth not, like the sun’s beam, fire-like blaze on the eyes and make them close; nay, on the contrary, it shineth forth and maketh to increase the seeing of the eye, as far as e’er a man hath the capacity to hold the inflow of the radiance that the mind alone can see. Not only does it come more swiftly down to us, but it does us no harm, and is instinct with all immortal life.
Things like firelight are temporary and easily consumed; once the matter on fire is consumed by fire, the fire dies out. When firelight dies out, darkness remains. However, light is something independent of sources of fire, and anything that can be seen can be illumined by light. Light, then, is something different, and anything that can be perceived or sensed is done so with light. In a sense, light is wherever the mind is, and if the mind of Man is made more fully like the Nous in whose image it is made, and if Nous is God, and if God is the All and the One, then light is everywhere, since light is in all things, not just in the sensible cosmos. Compare the Corpus Hermeticum (chapter XI, part 7):
Behold, again, the seven subject Worlds; ordered by Æon’s order, and with their varied course full-filling Æon! [See how] all things [are] full of light, and nowhere [is there] fire; for ’tis the love and blending of the contraries and the dissimilars that doth give birth to light down shining by the energy of God, the Father of all good, the Leader of all order, and Ruler of the seven world-orderings! …
Thus, while bodies are sensible, light may be the actual function of sense itself, where anything sensed is done so by means of light, which illumines the mind. And since all bodies in the cosmos have a soul made just for it, since each body cannot exist without one, soul itself is what makes itself known by means of the body. After all, the soul is “a necessary movement adjusted to every kind of body”, though itself is invisible, much how the Nous is the “invisible good”. The soul is what enables a body to move and function in the cosmos, and since the body is sensible, the soul is evident through the body. Because of light, we can sense the motion of bodies and therefore of souls, either physically through our eyes or mentally through the sight of the mind, but in either case this perception is done with light. And, further, because the Nous perceives all things, especially through and because of the minds of Man, “every move of soul is perceived by Nous”, and this perception is made possible through light.
The last part of this definition is a little complex, but it relates to the connection between soul and spirit. “Since [every move of soul] is some kind of energy, breath performs it.” In other words, the soul provides a force that is enacted through the body into the cosmos, but the relationship between the soul and the breath (or spirit, since these terms are interchangeable so far) has not yet really been fully explored. We know that Man exists as a microcosm due to “soul and breath” (I.4), and that breath is the “body of soul or the column of soul”. Because the body is moved by the soul, the body is moved by means of the breath because of the soul. The breath is what keeps the physical body able to receive the soul’s motions, so the breath is the facilitator of the soul into the physical body. In other words, breath performs the motions in the body that the soul desires to give it. We can think of the breath as something akin to air. Air is the element that binds the upper heavens with the lower earth. Similarly, the breath is something that combines the soul with the body. Just as the influences of the higher heavens can be felt down here by means of the air and the forces that travel through it, the influences of the soul can be felt and enacted by the body by means of the breath and the motions that pass through it.
So much for the last definition of part II. From this set, we know there are four elements that constitute the body: earth that provides the material basis for action, water which nourishes and moistens, air which conjoins and permits influence between different locations, and fire which desiccates and destroys. All bodies are made out of some composition from these elements, and all bodies are given motion and movement from the soul. The soul, which is necessary but not sufficient to animate the body, is given expression through the breath or spirit, which like the air that conjoins the upper heavens and lower Earth conjoins the soul and body together. All bodies, being sensible, are known by means of light, which provides pure and clear vision. Light, however, is not just a property of cosmos, but also of Nous, and by means of light the minds of Man as well as the Mind of God can know all things.