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-third definition, part VI, number 3 of 3:
The present (things) follow close upon the past, and the future (close upon) the present. Just as the body, once it has gained perfection in the womb, goes out, likewise the soul, once it has gained perfection, goes out of the body. For just as a body, if it goes out of the womb (while it is still) imperfect can neither be fed nor grow up, likewise if soul goes out of the body without having gained perfection, it is imperfect and lacks a body; but the perfection of soul is the knowledge of the beings. Just as you will behave towards your soul when it is in this body, likewise it will behave towards you when it has gone out of the body.
—Contain yourself, O Trismegistus!
Let’s skip the connections with the past few definitions and get right into this one. The first part of this definition simply says that things follow in a logical order from point A to point B: “the present things follow close upon the past, and the future close upon the present”. There is nothing coming that isn’t already being made now, and there’s nothing currently that wasn’t made in the past. Essentially, the cosmos is causal in some way; certain events follow each other in time, and importantly, only in one direction in time. The past does not follow the present, nor does the present follow the past, but the other way around. Things once done cannot simply be undone or nullified. Whatever happens in the future happens because of things happening now, which themselves happen because of things that happened in the past; thus, everything that happens in the future happens because of things in the past. How things happen, in what ways, and for how long, however, are left unspecified by this definition.
Continuing the comparisons between the baby in the womb and Man in the body, this definition affords a few more comparisons. The first is that “just as the body, once it has gained perfection in the womb, goes out, likewise the soul, once it has gained perfection, goes out of the body”. First, we now know what part of the immortal Man survives death: the soul, not (only) the Nous! (Then again, the Nous may be said to be part of or within the soul, but that’s another point.) We know that all Man must eventually die and leave the body, just as an unborn child must leave the womb at some point; we now know that the soul “goes out of the body” once it has gained “perfection”. “Perfection” here is first used to describe a fully-formed baby in the womb, when birth is supposed to happen so the baby can “go out” of the womb. Thus, the soul only leaves the body when it is fully-formed; while we can summarize what this means for a body, we aren’t yet told in what ways the soul develops (besides being given Nous and Logos and the ability to use reasonable speech from definition set V).
Of course, there are times when babies miscarry or are stillborn, and we often talk about people dying or being killed “before their time”. What of them? Well, “if [a baby] goes out of the womb while it is still imperfect can neither be fed nor grow up, likewise is soul goes out of the body without having gained perfection it is imperfect and lacks a body”. A prematurely-born child, though in some cases is well-developed enough to survive on its own, often has significant problems that prevent its viability. If born too early, then the baby will be unable to function as an independent entity and will not “grow up”, i.e. it will die. Likewise, the soul is in the body for a reason: to attain perfection. If the soul “goes out of the body” before it attains perfection, the soul is stunted and will have significant soul-related problems, like the lack of reasonable speech or understanding of the cosmos. How might this happen? An early death, catching a plague, murder, suicide, and many other causes.
It’s important to note that what happens to the body isn’t synonymous with what happens to the soul. Based on what we know, a soul can attain perfection at any time or through many means; any soul can technically be perfect, and murder can destroy the body of one whose soul is perfect just as it can destroy the body of one whose soul is imperfect. The soul needs time to develop on its own within the body; depending on how the body treats the soul and how the soul acts on its own, this may be a fast process or a slow process. What is the perfection of the developed soul? The definition says that it is “knowledge of the beings”, which is a faily obsure statement, but remember that what the Nous is: mind. Nous is the ability to understand the intelligible, the sensible, and all things that exist and can exist within itself. Nous is, essentially, gnosis, and gnosis is knowledge. Thus, perfection of the soul is the knowledge of God. This statement echoes that of Hermes Trismegistus when he proclaimed his wishes to Poemander in the Corpus Hermeticum (chapter I, part 3): “I long to learn the things that are, and comprehend their nature, and know God”.
Thus, in order for us to properly develop our souls, we need to come to know God; this is the “perfection of soul”. How do we do that? Through the use of reasonable speech or Logos (section V), which is made possible through Nous and the body. The body nurtures the progress of the soul much as the womb does to the baby; thus, we need to use the sensible, mortal body to come to know the intelligible, immortal God. This is kind of a shocking revelation, but it follows from the rest of the comparisons and definitions. To know God is to know all the things within God, all the gods, all the worlds, and ourselves, and “know thyself” is among the most holy maxims ever uttered or written.
The penultimate part of the definition sounds like a warning: “just as you will behave towards your soul when it is in this body, likewise it will behave towards you when it has gone out of the body”. In order for us to be treated well, we need to treat our souls well and guide our souls towards God in this life and body; if we mistreat our souls and lead it away from gnosis, it will lead us away from life, pleasure, and perfection. Then again, this same warning also has something of an issue: what is Man if neither body nor soul? After all, the warning says that the soul will treat us in a certain way after it leaves the body, so there’s something else besides soul or body that is also part of Man. Remember that, although we have two natures according to definition VI.1 (the immortal and the mortal), we also have three essences: the intelligible Nous, the animated soul, and the material body. There is another part of us, the Nous, that is not soul. Nous is the image after which Man is made, and Nous is bestowed upon Man who deserves it. After all, even if Nous is generally with Man, not all of Man has Nous (V.2, V.3).
Essentially, what this warning says is that if we want perfection of Nous and its presence in our lives, we need to strive for it by perfecting our soul; by denying the soul’s perfection, Nous is removed or blocked from our lives. This is said as much in definition V.3, but the Poemander says more in the Corpus Hermeticum (chapter I, parts 22 and 23):
I, Mind, myself am present with holy men and good, the pure and merciful, men who live piously. [To such] my presence doth become an aid, and straightway they gain gnosis of all things, and win the Father’s love by their pure lives, and give Him thanks, invoking on Him blessings, and chanting hymns, intent on Him with ardent love. And ere they give the body up unto its proper death, they turn them with disgust from its sensations, from knowledge of what things they operate. Nay, it is I, the Mind, that will not let the operations which befall the body, work to their [natural] end. For being door-keeper I’ll close up [all] the entrances, and cut the mental actions off which base and evil energies induce.
But to the Mind-less ones, the wicked and depraved, the envious and covetous, and those who murder do and love impiety, I am far off, yielding my place to the Avenging Daimon, who sharpening the fire, tormenteth him and addeth fire to fire upon him, and rusheth on him through his senses, thus rendering him the readier for transgressions of the law, so that he meets with greater torment; nor doth he ever cease to have desire for appetites inordinate, insatiately striving in the dark.
Thus, good actions produce good fruit, and bad actions produce bad fruit. Simple enough; we see similar rules in many religions and philosophies from Buddhist karma/kamma and Christian salvation and sin. To know Mind, our creator and our true selves, is our purpose; by denying our purpose, we get enmeshed in the pains and sufferings of life and death, but by fulfilling our purpose, we find holiness and blessing from that which we seek to know.
The final part of this definition is confusing; it seems to be an injunction from…someone to tell Hermes Trismegistus himself to calm down or keep quiet. It’s not something I fully understand in the text; it could be an injunction or addition from some manuscriptist telling Hermes “enough” or “I’m tired of this”, or one telling Hermes to contain his soul in his body to teach more or show more perfection of the soul and Nous to his students. It might similarly be an injunction from Nous itself as is seen in the Poemander for Hermes to keep still or silent. It might even be an order to “contain yourself” in good conduct, i.e. behavior towards the soul. In any case, it doesn’t seem to properly belong, considering the abrupt change in voice and style, but my hunch that it’s a student (say, Asclepius?) calming Hermes after an ecstatic state of gnosis and wisdom.
Overall, this section of three definitions elaborated on the position and power of Man in the cosmos, and how we’re made more special than other entities by our weird combination of body, spirit, soul, reason, and mind. Being both mortal and immortal, we can split ourselves (the soul and the Nous) from the body by death, but this can be risky, since we only want to do that when we have perfection of the soul, which is gnosis of God. In other words, we should try really hard not to die until we’re fully ready. It’s a difficult prospect, but further definitions will begin to describe how to become “fully ready”. This will have the ability for us to raise our eyes to heaven, see within, and overcome our mortal condition.