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 seventeenth definition, part IV, number 2 of 2:
And among the living (beings), some are immortal and animated, some have Nous, soul and spirit, some (have) only spirit, some (have) soul and spirit, and others only life. For life can aquire consistency without spirit, Nous, soul and immortality, but all of the others without life cannot possibly exist.
The previous definition described the beginnings of the importance and place of Man in the cosmos, as well as drawing some distinctions between Man and other living entities. We know that all living beings have bodies made from at least fire and air; heavenly beings have only these, while earthly beings have also water and earth. All living beings have breath and soul, but Man is special in that Man also has Nous, which links him to and raises him up to the level of God, though mixed with a mortal, earthly body.
This definition now brings up the qualities of different kinds of living beings, classifying them by the traits they have. To start with, all living beings have bodies; this is a necessary aspect of living (IV.1). First, there are the “immortal and animated” living beings; these would be the ones in the heavens, made of fire and air but no earth; “animated” here means “ensouled” or “made to move by soul”, since soul is the essence that allows any body to move (II.1). The beings that “have Nous, soul, and spirit” in addition to an (earthy) body are Man, as noted from before. However, the distinctions don’t stop there; there are also living bodies that have “only spirit”, those with “soul and spirit”, and those with neither soul nor spirit. Now this gets interesting.
First, let’s list the different categories of living beings offered in this definition:
- Immortality, soul, body
- Mortality, Nous, soul, spirit, body
- Mortality, soul, spirit, body
- Mortality, spirit, body
- Mortality, body
Note that we have five categories. Only one is immortal, and that’s because it has a non-earthy body; these are the heavenly living beings, who are able to move due to the presence of soul (“animated”) but, without a need for an earthy body, also have no breath or spirit, since spirit is what allows the soul to enact other changes and motion in an earthy body (II.6). All the rest of the living creatures, however, are worldly and thus mortal, because they all have earthly bodies. Thus, anything living not of the world we live on is immortal due to its lack of an earthy body; anything with an earthy body is mortal.
Next, we have mortal living beings with an earthy body with Nous, soul, and spirit. This is Man, as known from the last definition. This is pretty straightforward: Man can think (Nous), move (soul), breathe (spirit), and exist in the world (earthy body). The other categories, however, all have something missing, and the definitions so far don’t clarify what each of these categories might be. However, we can venture a guess or two. Note that only heavenly beings are known as immortal, so by omission of this quality we know that all other beings are mortal.
- Living beings that die, with soul, spirit, and bodies are animals. The last definition, we know that “all of the other living beings which are endowed with voice have breath [spirit] and soul”. These are bodies that breathe and move and can die. Plus, these living bodies have “voice”; the howls, cries, chirps, squeaks, chittering, and roars of animals are not unlike the voice of Man, though without Nous, their voices aren’t necessarily reasonable (at least to human ears).
- Living beings that die, with spirit and bodies are plants. It’s odd to consider living bodies without soul and that this definition should omit soul, since we know that “soul is a necessary movement adjusted to every kind of body” (II.1). However, plants don’t move; they may be moved and they may grow, but it’s not an intentional or directed motion of its own volition; plants have no such notion. Thus, though they breathe (respiration, photosynthesis, diffusion), they do not move. Spirit, though it’s the “column of soul”, does not require a soul itself; soul, however, does require spirit if the body has earth involved in it, which is why heavenly beings have soul without spirit, and not the other way around.
- Living beings that die with only bodies are stones or elements. This is “life” at its bare minimum, able to exist but without any other quality. It’s true: stones are technically considered living beings according to Hermetic doctrine, even according to the other definitions. Stones can increase or decrease over time, or can be made into dust and scattered and then remade into new bodies. They do not respire or breathe, so there is no spirit; they do not move on their own, so there is no soul, and thus no need of spirit. However, this only covers the notion when earthy bodies are considered; non-earthy bodies must therefore be pure elements, such as pure fire, pure air, pure water, or even pure light. Something that’s purely earth would, as it so happens, be a stone. I hesitate to use the word “force”, but that’s kinda the idea I’m reaching for with this. It’s odd to think that forces or elements might be mortal, but this is actually seen in other sources; Plato’s Timaeus notes that fire, air, and water can become each other, while earth is always going to remain earthy; when one element becomes another, we can consider that element to “die”.
Things with only life in the Hermetic sense are things that are only bodies, inanimate and which do not increase or decrease on their own but are still increasable and decreasable. Without a body, it would not have life, and “all of the others without life cannot possibly exist”. Thus, in order for something to be considered living, it must possess a body, which enables it to increase and decrease either on its own or because of other things. Without a body, there can be no notion of immortality or mortality; there can be nothing to move or be moved since there is no soul to animate a body; there can be no growth since there is no spirit or breath to respire and provide it; there can be no speaking or reasoning since there is no Nous to reason in the body. The body is the foundation of life and living, in the Hermetic sense of the word of “living”.
What does this mean for things that are bodiless? That things without bodies are not living, neither mortal nor immortal, and that they are uncreated and, without a body, inable to be destroyed. The only bodiless thing we know of are things outside heaven, and the only word for that for that which we know of is God. This also explains why, although we know of God to be “uncreated”, “intelligible”, “ineffable”, “immovable”, “invisible”, “eternal”, etc. (I.4, I.5), we have never seen God described as “immortal”. The notion simply doesn’t apply to something that can neither live and die nor live forever, because God doesn’t work on that level.