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 nineteenth definition, part V, number 2 of 3:
To Nous nothing is incomprehensible, to speech nothing ineffable: when you keep silent, you understand; when you talk, you (just) talk. Since Nous conceives speech in silence, only (that) speech (which comes) from silence and Nous (is) salvation. (But that) speech (which comes) from speech (is) only perdition; for by (his) body man is mortal, but by speech (he is) immortal.
Speech with reason is Logos; speech without reason is voice (V.1). Among all the creatures with voice, Man is the only one with Nous, which enables him to reason (I.1, IV.1). Logos, which is “reasonable speech”, is the servant of Nous, allowing for the gap between that which is only intelligible and that which is both sensible and intelligible (or, said another way, that which is sensible and that which is insensible) to be bridged. Voice is sensible; reason is intelligible only; by combining the two, we get reasonable speech, which allows for the intelligible to become sensible. Now we start to see how the Logos works with the Nous, and how Man works with both of these in its own manner.
First, we read that “to Nous nothing is incomprehensible”; this follows from V.1, where “Nous sees everything”, and from III.1, where “nothing is uninhabited by God”. Nous is Mind, and more than that, the Mind of All as well as the All. After this, we learn that “to speech nothing [is] ineffable”; thus, there is nothing that cannot be intelligible nor reasoned about. Consider that it is impossible for anything to exist outside of God; all things must be a part of God, and all of God is intelligible. Add to it, where the Mind is, so too is the Word, so the Word is with the Mind in all places at all times and is a servant to Mind. The Word, the Logos, allows things to be reasoned and reasonable; thus, where Logos goes, so too does reason. Whatever can be reasoned can be spoken of; thus, “nothing is ineffable” to Logos, which can reason about literally everything that exists and can possibly exist within God.
However, while nothing is ineffable to the Word itself, this is a far cry from the words we humans use. “When you keep silent, you understand; when you talk, you just talk” suggests that the real reason within us is not connected to sensibility, since silence is not sensible. Sensing a lack of talking is not the same thing as sensing silence, since we can sense the absence of something but not something that is truly insensible, as Logos is. Reason allows us to bridge the gap between the sensible and the insensible, but is not itself sensible. Consider the beginning of Hermes Trismegistus’ prayer from the Poemander (chapter I, parts 30 through 32):
Accept my reason’s offerings pure, from soul and heart for aye stretched up to Thee, O Thou unutterable, unspeakable, Whose Name naught but the Silence can express.
We know that “to speech nothing [is] ineffable”, though we also know that God is ineffable (I.4); this would appear to be a contradiction, but remember that speech is not the same thing as reasonable speech. Reasonable speech allows us to learn about the intelligible through sensible means, but does not allow us to bring the intelligible into sensibility, much as “Nous does not become an observer for the eyes, but the eyes for Nous” when it comes to sight (V.1). True understanding through reasonable speech requires us to abandon voice; I’m reminded of the parable of the raft to explain this point:
A man is trapped on one side of a fast-flowing river. Where he stands, there is great danger and uncertainty – but on the far side of the river, there is safety. But there is no bridge or ferry for crossing. So the man gathers logs, leaves, twigs, and vines and is able to fashion a raft, sturdy enough to carry him to the other shore. By lying on the raft and using his arms to paddle, he crosses the river to safety.
The Buddha then asks the listeners a question: “What would you think if the man, having crossed over the river, then said to himself, ‘Oh, this raft has served me so well, I should strap it on to my back and carry it over land now?'”
The monks replied that it would not be very sensible to cling to the raft in such a way.
The Buddha continues: “What if he lay the raft down gratefully, thinking that this raft has served him well, but is no longer of use and can thus be laid down upon the shore?”
The monks replied that this would be the proper attitude.
The Buddha concluded by saying, “So it is with my teachings, which are like a raft, and are for crossing over with — not for seizing hold of.”
Reasonable speech serves the Nous by bringing us closer to understanding, that which the Nous does, but this is done through speech which serves reasonable speech which serves Nous. Once we reach understanding, we no longer have need of speech, since we are enjoined with Logos, and once we are brought by Logos to Nous, we no longer have need of even that. And, much as the innate Buddha-nature within us all according to several kinds of Buddhist thought, Man already has Nous, and nothing really stops us from understanding things as we are immediately. To talk for any purpose besides reason, and only then when understanding is not yet obtained through it, is talking simply for the sake of talking. Speech just becomes voice, and Man acts as animals with only voice and no Nous.
“Nous conceived speech in silence”; it’s easier to understand this as “Logos” rather than “speech”, since speech implies sensibility, but Logos was not conceived in the realm of sense. Logos is intelligible; voice is sensible; reasonable speech is the cross between the two. Thus, reason abides in silence, not merely a lack of talking, but silence as intelligibility can only be. Because of this, “only that [Logos] which comes from silence and Nous is salvation”. This is making the case that simply reasoning about things out loud, using sensibility as the primary and only means of understanding creation, is not the way to go; silent contemplation, reasoning from reasoning itself, is the way to approach the Nous. This itself is directed by the Nous, who conceived Logos in silence; similarly, as Man is made in the image of Nous, we too must conceive within ourselves Logos in silence and not jabbering about.
Contrasted to this, “speech which comes from speech is only perdition”. Remember that all living beings with voice are earthly; although the immortal, heavenly beings made of fire and air have soul and body, it’s only the earthy mortal beings that have soul and breath as well as voice (IV.1, IV.2). And, since earthy living beings are mortal, they must die. Speech-from-speech is part and parcel of this; this is an aspect of animalian, mortal, worldly speech, which limits one’s understanding of things only to that which is sensible. Speech-from-speech binds Man to the world just as it does for animals, who can only ever use speech-from-speech. This is not the way to “salvation”, to Nous, which requires speech-from-silence.
The last part of this definition clarifies something about Man: “by his body man is mortal, but by speech he is immortal”. Now we start to pick up on the last part from definition I.V, where it said that “man is mortal although he is ever-living”. Speech-from-speech represents the animalian, inferior part of Man; speech-from-silence represents the spiritual, superior part of Man. The former is a creation of the world; the latter is the Nous and Logos itself. Creations of the world die, while the Nous and Logos are eternal and undying. It’s by reasonable speech, Logos, speech-from-silence that Man can attain salvation and immortality; in other words, we talked ourselves into this mess, and now we have to understand it to get back out. Merely keeping on talking will only serve to get us further entrenched in the mess of the world, so that’s not the route we need to take. We need to understand what’s going on, how the higher affects the lower and vice versa, and what reason itself is to get back on our immortal legs; in order to become immortal, we need to be silent.
We have to understand that Man is not merely a creature of this sensible world; Man is something made from both above and below, from God as well as from Heaven. Man is made in the image of God because Man was given Nous; Man was also made in the image of Heaven being made from the four elements with an animalian body. We’re a weird syncresis of purely-divine and impurely-divine parts, or directly-divine and indirectly-divine, that gives us both death and immortality at once. The Poemander describes this weird amalgamation of Mankind and how we came to be (chapter I, parts 14 and 15):
So he who hath the whole authority o’er [all] the mortals in the cosmos and o’er its lives irrational, bent his face downwards through the Harmony, breaking right through its strength, and showed to downward Nature God’s fair Form. And when she saw that Form of beauty which can never satiate, and him who [now] possessed within himself each single energy of [all seven] Rulers as well as God’s [own] Form, she smiled with love; for ’twas as though she’d seen the image of Man’s fairest form upon her Water, his shadow on her Earth. He in his turn beholding the form like to himself, existing in her, in her Water, loved it and willed to live in it; and with the will came act, and [so] he vivified the form devoid of reason. And Nature took the object of her love and wound herself completely round him, and they were intermingled, for they were lovers.
And this is why beyond all creatures on the earth man is twofold; mortal because of body, but because of the essential Man immortal. Though deathless and possessed of sway o’er all, yet doth he suffer as a mortal doth, subject to Fate. Thus though above the Harmony, within the Harmony he hath become a slave. Though male-female, as from a Father male-female, and though he’s sleepless from a sleepless [Sire], yet is he overcome [by sleep].
So, where does that leave me with all this writing and talking about the Definitions, or any of my magic and philosophical work? If talking only serves to keep talking, and if silence is the only means to real understanding, why am I bothering with all of this? We have to remember that, being made from two parts, we must be able to act as One, just as God is One from the All. God conceived Logos in silence, which is the realm of God. Thus, to do the same for us, we must conceive Logos in a lack of talking, which is the correspondence in our realm to that of silence in God’s. However, God not only conceived the Word but spoke it, creating the rest of the cosmos; Man must, then, not only conceive the Word in a lack of talking but speak it. Understanding is silence, but salvation is reason, and reason and speech go together as one in Man; just as Man is a combination of the intelligible (Nous) and sensible (body), so too is reasonable speech a combination of the intelligible (Logos) and sensible (voice). Speech borne from silent understanding allows Logos to enter more into the world; speech borne from speech brings more of the world into itself.
In other words, we have to use speech to sensibly approach Logos, which is the first step to salvation in the Definitions. This leads us from talking to a lack of talking, which produces silence within ourselves. Once we approach and obtain Logos, and thus reason and Nous within ourselves, we must use Logos instead of speech to approach the Nous itself. After all, why else would Hermes Trismegistus have spoken and taught, if not to bring others to Logos and Nous when he himself had already accomplished it? For that matter, why else would Jesus have taught his disciples, or Buddha Shakyamuni the arhats? Because they wanted to bring others to truth. Because they saw the need for more people to obtain understanding. Because reasonable speech is the servant of Nous. “For what Nous wants, speech interprets it” (V.1); and if those who understand Nous speak from their (silent) understanding, then it’s not speech-from-speech they’re saying, but speech-from-silence, and it’s only speech-from-silence that shows the way to salvation, to nirvana, to enlightenment, to immortality, to God, to Nous. We can then derive from this, then, that Nous wants Man to join itself through Logos.
I’ll let Hermes finish this post off, with his own explanation of his own spoken words to his student Asclepius, from the Corpus Hermeticum (chapter IX, part 10):
These things should seem to thee, Asclepius, if thou dost understand them, true; but if thou dost not understand, things not to be believed. To understand is to believe, to not believe is not to understand.
My word (logos) doth go before [thee] to the truth. But mighty is the mind, and when it hath been led by word up to a certain point, it hath the power to come before [thee] to the truth. And having thought o’er all these things, and found them consonant with those which have already been translated by the reason, it hath [e’en now] believed, and found its rest in that Fair Faith.
To those, then, who by God[’s good aid] do understand the things that have been said [by us] above, they’re credible; but unto those who understand them not, incredible.
Let so much, then, suffice on thought-and-sense.