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 twenty-first definition, part VI, number 1 of 3:
Just as the gods are God’s possession, (so is) man too; and man’s possession is the world: if there were nobody to see (it), what would be seen would not even exist. Only man understands the intelligible (things) and sees the visible, for they are no aliens to him. Man has at once the two natures, the mortal and the immortal (one). Man has the three essences, (namely) the intelligible, the animated and the material (one).
Previously we learned that among all of the created things and creatures, Man alone has Nous or Mind, which enables him to dwell among both the sensible-intelligible and solely-intelligible worlds. Although other living creatures may have voice, Man alone has the ability to use speech, which is voice used in a reasonable way due to the presence and use of Nous through the means of Logos, or the reasonable speech that the Nous itself is able to use. However, not all of Man can use reasonable speech; although Man generally has Nous, not all of humanity has the means of understanding or using it. Nous is what enables Man to be divine, and without it, we become simply animal creatures.
This definition continues into the relationship between God and Man, as well as between Man and the world, as well as Man and Man. First, “just as the gods are God’s possession, so is man”; we know from before that God is not only everywhere that exists and includes everything, but is also outside everything, both immanent within creation as well as transcendent of it. In a sense, everything that exists within God can be said to belong to God, hence they are in “God’s possession”. This part of the definition also brings up another point: there are many divinities and gods in the world. From the Greek Olympians and Hadeans to the Egyptian court to the Romans or Gaulish or Chinese, there are many gods in the world that dwell among us or apart from us; they’re probably among the heavenly beings mentioned before (II.5, IV.1). None of these gods, however great, is properly God, because there is always something that they are not. Ares, for instance, is not Athena, nor an aspect of her, nor a power within her; God inhabits all things, and so is part of both Ares and Athena. While both Ares and Athena obey Zeus and are said to belong to him (being his children), we also know that there are things that Zeus is not; God, however, rules and owns all things, and is also part of them. Thus, we can say that God is a sort of meta-entity, beyond and above any entity we know or think exists. This is something that distinguishes Hermetic philosophy from Abrahamic or other types of divine philosophies: God is not any one thing, but All things as One.
In a sense, the gods and Man are equal in that they are both part of God. There are other differences, such as the ability for Man to die physically while the gods are immortal, but we are all part of God, and are all related to each other through and by God. However, Man is unique in that “man’s possession is the world”. Ownership, rulership, and maintenance of the world is our duty as Man, which is kind of a radical idea. We’d think that everything is ruled by and owned by the gods or by the divine, and while that’s technically true, of all the entities that are not God, only Man rules the world down here. It makes sense in a way: the gods are without the earth element, and so have no bodies, being composed of fire; the world, however, is earthy, and so the gods generally have no similarity with it. This is distinct from gods-of-the-earth, which might be said to be the soul of the world, but that’s another topic for another day; generally speaking, the gods are without tangible earthy form, and so are separated by air from the earthy world. Man, however, being possessed of Nous and earth, is essentially the god of the earth. Just as God rules the gods and all under them, Man rules humanity, the world, and all under it.
What makes Man so special? As ever, Nous, which enables Man to know and reason about the world, God, and itself. Without the ability to know, the core and the whole point to Nous would be meaningless and would preclude anything further from happening; without the intelligible being, well, intelligible, they would be nothing. Hermes Trismegistus says as much in the Corpus Hermeticum (chapter X, part 4):
For [the Nous] 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.
In a similar sense, if that which is sensible were to be unsensed, it wouldn’t matter that they were sensible at all; they effectively wouldn’t be sensed and would cease to become sensible. Thus the definition: “if there were nobody to see [the world], what would be seen would not even exist”. Based on this, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the world exists because of the ability to sense by other things in it, which itself depend on the world. If the world could not be seen, it wouldn’t matter that it’s visible; it would be meaningless (one might say unreasonable) that it should exist at all. If nothing actually distinguishes the sensible (which is intelligible) and the intelligible, then sensibility would cease to be a distinguishing factor, and would become a moot point.
Because Man is a sensible creature possessed of earthy body, he can understand the sensible world, unlike heavenly beings who can only understand the heavenly aspects of other things. Because Man is also an intelligent creature possessed of Nous, he can understand the intelligible world, unlike animals or other creatures who can only understand the sensible, worldly things around them. Thus, “only man understands the intelligible things and sees the visible, for they are no aliens to him”. While “seeing the visible” can be understood to refer to “sense the sensible”, it’s a little more than that, too; not all sensible things are visible. Consider breath, for instance; it is invisible, though it can be sensed. Likewise, consider light; light requires some surface to be reflected off of or some source that provides it, but itself cannot be seen though it enables other things to be seen. While it may be agreed that animals, plants, and the like can sense or see (depending on their organs) what’s around them, what about heavenly beings who possess only fire and air for their bodies? Well, they have no eyes in the sense that we have eyes; they have no physical substance that enables them to reflect light; they are composed only of Nous, soul, and spirit (IV.2), all of which are invisible; they might be intelligible and able to understand the intelligible and possibly the same for some kinds of sensibility, but the same does not hold for the visible. Thus, there is nothing among the heavens that is visible, though it may be sensible; the invisible cannot see the visible, since that which is capable of seeing (apparently?) requires a visible nature. Again, alone among all the living creatures, Man is unique in this.
So, Man has a physical body composed of earth and the other elements, as well as Nous which enables Man to understand and reason. Thus the definition: “man has at once the two natures, the mortal and immortal one”. The physical body, the worldly part of ourselves, is mortal; due to the change, growth, increase, decrease, destruction, and death involved with any physical body, the body in Man must die. However, the Nous within us and the Logos that is transferred between us is no less a part to Man than the body; these things are imperishable, and so are “immortal”. This was said already in I.5: “man is mortal although he is ever-living”. There is a part of us that does not die with the body; this part, the Nous, is immortal and even eternal.
Between the interplay of the immortal and mortal natures of Man, we have three “essences”: the intelligible, animated, and material. The intelligible essence is the Nous itself; it’s what enables us to understand the intelligible, God, and everything else. The material essence is the physical body of Man, which enables us to increase and decreases, to live and die, with Nous. The animated, however, is the aspect of soul; it’s what gives us motion. Because of soul, we can be more than plants or stones which have matter for their bodies but no motion besides the increase and decrease afforded by the elements themselves. Because of soul, we can speak reason and Logos through spirit or breath and through the motion of our bodies. Because of soul, we can bridge the gap between the intelligible and sensible parts of ourselves. Spirit and soul are closely intertwined, since “breath is the body of soul or the column of soul” (II.1), so we might equate them both. Hermes links mind, reason, soul, spirit, and body together in the Corpus Hermeticum (chapter X, part 13):
Now then the principles of man are this-wise vehicled: mind [the Nous] in the reason (logos), the reason in the soul, soul in the spirit, [and] spirit in the body. Spirit pervading [body] by means of veins and arteries and blood, bestows upon the living creature motion, and as it were doth bear it in a way.
The interplay between Nous, Logos, soul, spirit, and body is a highly complex one, but all comes together in the form of Man. Alone among all the worldly creatures is Man which has all of these qualities, while the other creatures have some subset of them; some have only body, while some have body and spirit, and some have spirit, soul, and body. None of them have Nous or Logos like Man, however. Because of this uniqueness and connection to God by Nous, we are essentially the Nous of the world; we are the god of the world, and just as God “possesses” all things, so too does Man “possess” the world. Again, this goes back to the whole bit about Man being made in the image of God, or “after the species” (I.1); Man is a microcosm that reflects the higher world (I.3). So, how far can this connection be made? How Godly can Man truly be?