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-second definition, part VI, number 2 of 3:
Just as you went out of the womb, likewise you will go out of this body; just as you will no longer enter the womb, likewise you will no longer enter this material body. Just as, while being in the womb, you did not know the (things which are) in the world, likewise when you are outside the body, you will not know the beings (that are) outside the body. Just as when you have gone out of the womb, you do not remember the (things which are) in the womb, likewise, when you have gone out of the body, you will be still more excellent.
The last definition described the power and place of Man in the world: “…the gods are God’s possession…and man’s possession is the world”. Because of the combination of body, breath, soul, Logos, and Nous, being made after the image of God, Man is this weird, complex entity that spans both the sensible and the intelligible worlds like nobody and nothing else except for God. Because of that same weird mixture, though, we have this weird quandry like no other entity has, being both partially mortal and partially immortal. This isn’t something that hasn’t been talked about much besides the fact that we have this problem until now.
This definition is basically one big comparison between Man as the body dies and a baby being born from a womb. There are basic statements made here:
- A baby leaving the womb vs. Man leaving the body
- A baby having left the womb unable to reenter vs. Man having left the body unable to reenter
- A baby in the womb ignorant of the world outside vs. Man outside the body ignorant of the physical things outside the body
- A baby having left the womb ignorant of the inside of the womb vs. Man having left the body being “still more excellent”
First, why is the comparison between Man and the body and a baby and the womb being used? Because it shows how things are able to develop over time. A baby in the womb is both made in the womb and nurtured by it, but it is not a permanent thing. Once the baby is fully-formed (assuming no accidents along the way), the baby leaves the womb through birth. Until then, however, the baby will remain in the womb and continue to develop. The baby’s senses are not only being developed while this happens, but are limited to the womb itself; the baby will not know of anything outside the womb, such as who the mother is or where the womb might be placed on the earth. The baby’s world is limited to the womb, but only for so long. After that point, the baby is born from the womb and lives independently of it, never returning for it but continuing to grow and develop apart from the womb; however, the person now born will always be marked by how it developed in the womb, forming a link to it through its own existence.
With that said, let’s talk about each of these comparisons. The first comparison says that “just as you went out of the womb, likewise you will go out of this body”. Simple enough; a baby born cannot be un-born, nor can it be re-born from the same womb with the same body. Once born, that’s it; the baby is separated, the umbilical cord cut, the placenta removed, and the baby now lives as an independent human being. This is contrasted with the process to “go out of this body”, i.e. physical death of the body while the immortal part of us lives on. Thus, once we die, we “go out” from the body; it’s the immortal part that is not part of the mortal body that leaves, i.e. the Nous. There is a part of Man that survives physical death, but it’s tied to the body just as a baby is tied to the womb: temporarily until it can survive on its own. This implies that the Nous, the immortal essence within Man, develops in some way within the body until it is developed enough to leave it to exist on its own apart from the body.
The second comparison says that “just as you will no longer enter the womb, likewise you will no longer enter this material body”. Simple enough; once a baby exits the womb, it cannot be stuffed back in nor will it grow back into the same womb. The baby will grow, mature, and live on its own independent of it, having left the womb where it developed only but so long enough to continue the process on its own. Likewise, when Man dies, the immortal part of Man cannot reinhabit the body that it left. When the body dies, it dies; it’s no longer good for anything, and the immortal part of Man cannot reenter or be stuffed back inside it. The Nous, the immortal essence within Man, can be said to develop in the body for just as long as it needs to, then leaves the body to live on its own, independent of the body. It’s like the parable of the raft from before: just as we don’t need to carry a raft with us after we’ve crossed the river, we similarly don’t need the womb to continue developing after we’ve left it, and we similarly don’t need the body to develop ourselves after the bodiless part of us leaves it.
Let’s skip ahead to the fourth and final comparison in this definition before tackling the third. The last part of this definition suffers from a bit of a mistranslation: “just as when you have gone out of the womb, you do not remember the things which are in the womb, likewise, when you have gone out of the body, you will be still more excellent”. This last part was written in Greek, but the Armenian text has it written as “you will remember nothing of what belongs to it”, which I like a little more but with the connotation of what the Greek says. Consider your experience with your life: do you remember what it was like before you were born? Do you remember the warmth of the womb, the texture of the umbilical cord? I highly doubt it; most people don’t remember what happened last week, much less what happened in the nine months while they were forming, especially since a good chunk of that was before we even had the ability to sense or become aware of things. Upon leaving it, we simply started new, and don’t recall the experience of being inside; we had known nothing before it, and only know the things after birth since it was the first contrasting experience we could have. The case is similar with the immortal aspect of Man with the body: upon dying, the immortal part of Man leaves the body and essentially forgets the experience of the body. After all, if everything we’ve ever known is regulated and determined by the body, imagine what it’s like to be bodiless. It’s about as hard for an as-yet unborn child to imagine worldly existence. This allows us to be “still more excellent”, which seems to imply that being bodiless and purely immortal is preferable and better than being mortal and worldly. It’s an interesting thought that we’ll develop later on, but at the risk of developing an anti-matter dualistic viewpoint, it’s not wholly unreasonable to say here that immortality and bodiless living is overall preferable to mortality and bodily living.
Let’s go back a bit now. The third comparison is a little difficult, and I question whether there’s an error in the text. The text says “just as, while being in the womb, you did not know the things which are in the world, likewise when you are outside the body, you will not know the beings that are outside the body”. Consider the baby in the womb: it isn’t aware of what’s going on outside the womb, since its ability to sense what’s going on around it is limited to the womb itself. Its ability to sense lies in its body (cf. VI.1), and since its body is tied to the womb, it cannot sense things that are outside its body and the womb. Thus, the baby cannot know what’s going on in the world outside the womb: who’s standing nearby, whether it’s daytime or nighttime, and so forth. When it comes to Man and the body, it seems like the comparison should read “likewise when you are in the body, you will not know the beings that are outside the world” (my suggestion being bolded). After all, it makes sense, right? We’d be limited to the body and that which the body is connected to, i.e. the world. But we know that this isn’t the case; we know that Man even within the body can look into the world and outside the world due to Nous; “nobody sees heaven and what is therein, but only man” (V.3), and “man’s possession is the world” (VI.1). Man is indeed fully capable of knowing the things inside and outside the body and the world.
However, all these comparisons describe the immortal nature of Man leaving the mortal nature, so let’s try that third comparison again: “…likewise when you are outside the body, you will not know the beings that are outside the body”. The immortal part of Man, once it leaves the body, will not know the things outside the body. It’s important to notice that, since the same word and phrasing is used for “body” in both parts of this statement, and since this statement only refers to the physical body itself as opposed to the etheric or spiritual immortal part of Man, we need to reinterpret this statement with that notion. If a baby in the womb does not know the world outside it, then a baby having left the womb becomes aware of the world outside. Thus, if the immortal part of Man in the body knows does not know what’s going on outside the body, the immortal part of Man having left the body…still doesn’t know what’s going on outside the body? Again, it would make sense for this to read that the immortal Man would be aware of what goes on outside the physical world, unless our initial comparison with the baby leaving the womb was off. If a baby in the womb does not know the world outside, then it knows the world inside; thus, when it leaves the womb, the baby…still wouldn’t know what goes on outside the world? Isn’t that what the whole point of being Man is about?
I’m really tempted to correct this part of the definition, since something here seems off and contradictory to the other definitions we’ve been through; something in this comparison keeps breaking. Without changing the definition, we might draw a connection here between the third comparison and the fourth one here. Remember that the fourth comparison basically says that when the immortal nature of Man leaves the body, it forgets all the experiences it had with the body, though it still relied on the body to develop it. Thus, once we leave the body, we lose all memory of it and knowledge of it, just as we know wombs exist but don’t remember ours or our experiences within it. To connect it back to the third definition, once we leave the body, we lose our memories of it, and therefore our connection to it; what happens to the body is no longer anything we care about or have control over. We “will not know the beings that are outside the body” once we’ve left it, since it’s nothing we can sense anymore, since being bodiless we have no more sense to sense the sensibility. This does actually fit with the comparison made to being in the womb: a baby’s sense is limited only to itself, and it is entirely in the womb, so it is unable to know anything outside the womb. The immortal part of Man understands itself (which is quite a bit), but is unable to know anything outside of the intelligible. It may know that bodies exist, but is unable to remember, sense, or use the body; thus, once the immortal part of us leaves the body, we are unaware of what’s outside the body. Physical embodiment is meaningless to something bodiless.
So, what does all this say about Man? The two parts of us, the mortal body and the immortal part of us which is as yet unspecified (possibly Nous?), are not so tightly coupled that they live and die at once. Instead, the body can die but the immortal part of us will live on independently of it. As the body lives, the immortal part dwells within it; once the body dies, the immortal part leaves it forever, and the body becomes inert material that returns to the four elements. Further, once the immortal part leaves the body, it essentially becomes its own independent thing of the body, forgetting and severing all connections with the body into an utterly new kind of existence. While Man may be a combination of the mortal and the immortal, it seems more like a detachable pieces of paper than something so deeply intertwined and coupled together.