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 sixteenth definition, part IV, number 1 of 2:
The living (beings) in heaven are constituted of fire and air, and those (which are) on earth of the four elements. Man (is) a reasonable living (being), for he has Nous; but all of the other living (beings) which are endowed with voice have breath and soul, since all that decreases and increases is a living being.
At this point in the Definitions, we know that there are multiple parts of the world, from the meta-world of God to the pale blue dot of Earth where Man resides, at least for a part of it. All things within God are intelligible, indicating that they can be known. Within the meta-world of God, we know that there’s a place referred to as heaven, within which there are the four elements which constitute all of the bodies. Things with bodies are not only intelligible, but they are sensible, which is a necessary quality of existing within heaven. However, all things both intelligible and sensible and non-sensibile are all part of the One, the All, the Whole that is God; everything is interconnected, even if some parts of the worlds are outside and seemingly unconnected to other parts of the worlds.
Although the definitions have mentioned living beings before, now we finally get to what those beings are composed of and what they’re all about. First, just as we know that there’s a distinction between heaven and earth (II.2), we also know that there are “superior beings” and “inferior beings” (III.3), or entities that are of heaven but not of Earth and entities that are of Earth within heaven, respectively. According to this definition, the superior beings or “living beings in heaven” are made of “fire and air”, while the inferior beings “which are on earth” are made of the “four elements”. So, while superior beings are made of fire and air, inferior beings are made from fire, air, water, and earth. This makes sense: we know that air is the glue that binds the earth and heaven together but is of neither heaven nor earth (II.2), and we know that fire is sterile and the “perpetuation of immortal beings” (II.5). Earth and water, however, support each other (II.3, II.4) but are much denser than air or fire.
Knowing that the superior beings are made of only air and fire, we also know that they cannot die nor can they reproduce by growing; these are qualities that fire prohibits. Fiery beings without earth must be immortal, since earth exists to be changed as well as to hold both life and death, while fire is the life itself of immortal beings. In addition, without earth to be changed, heavenly beings inherently are incapable of change, since there’s nothing to change within their bodies; this is not the same thing as increase and decrease, however, which fire and air both permit them to do. Air, however, allows the heavenly beings to move around both in the heavens and between heaven and earth. By including water and earth into fire and air, we obtain inferior beings, who have the capacity to be born, grow, increase, decrease, and die. However, inferior beings also have air and fire, which give them some of the qualities of the superior beings, but not all of them; indeed, the fire itself within an inferior being may be the seed of its downfall and death, since fire is the “destruction of the mortal [bodies]”; fire will, over time without proper maintenance, burn out the rest of the body and kill it.
However, even though heavenly bodies can travel between the upper heavens and lower earth, the same is not true of earthly bodies. This is due to the earth within the bodies themselves; we know that, from the Poemander, earth and water were left behind when the Nous separated the elements. Fire rose up first and highest, and air followed the fire underneath it, but water and earth remained below, being heavy and dense. Due to this, without removing all the earth and water from an earthly body, it will be too dense to rise higher than the earth itself from which it was made and grown.
Of all the living beings, there also exists Man, the reasonable, sensible, and destructible world (I.1). Man is reasonable because “he has Nous”, meaning that Man has Mind. More importantly, the definition doesn’t say that Man has “a mind”, but that he has “Nous”, being God. Thus, Man possesses or carries with him “the invisible good” of Mind with him, allowing him to reason as Nous or God itself reasons. However, “all of the other living beings which are endowed with voice have breath and soul”. This shouldn’t be taken to mean that Man only has Nous and no soul nor breath, since we know that all bodies must possess a soul of some kind (I.3), and that Man has both soul and breath (I.4), and now that Man has soul, breath, and Nous. Other living beings, though, have only soul and breath, though they have “voice”, which is something we can expect that Man also has, but what this function is relative to the other attributions is as yet unknown. After all, without Nous, something can still be a living being if it has soul and breath and is composed of at least some of the elements, since “all that decreases and increases is a living being”, and all things down here under heaven perform that function by means of the interactions of the elements.
Because Man alone among the living beings possesses Nous, Man is the only reasonable living being, or the only living being capable of understanding God and the cosmos as God does. This is huge in anthropocentric ideas, and begins to clarify some of the meanings from before. We know that Man was made after the “species of” God (I.1); this is because we were made with the same reasoning, mental capabilities that God has. We know that Man, although mortal due to his body, is “ever-living” (I.5), because the Nous is immortal, eternal, and immovable; we owe at least the immortal part of ourselves that cannot be touched by death to God through the Nous we have. Thus, Hermes’ speech to Tat in the Corpus Hermeticum becomes a little clearer (chapter 13, part 13):
Tat. Tell me, O father: This Body which is made up of the Powers, is it at any time dissolved?
Her. Hush, [son]! Speak not of things impossible, else wilt thou sin and thy Mind’s eye be quenched. The natural body which our sense perceives is far removed from this essential birth. The first must be dissolved, the last can never be; the first must die, the last death cannot touch. Dost thou not know thou hast been born a God, Son of the One, even as I myself?
Because of our godly creator and who gave us a godly component, we too are not only part of God but we are, in a sense, many made in the image of God or the likeness of God. And it’s all because of our reasoning, mental, thinkable capability; it’s not due to our physical form, though that may also be true through a highly indirect path via the heavens, Earth, and elements. Thus, though we are a living being capable of death, we are unlike the other such mortal living beings because of Nous, which makes us, in a sense, immortal-but-not-in-the-normal-sense.