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-fourth definition, part VII, number 1 of 5:
But now, what is man? What (else) if neither body nor soul?
Aye, dear Asclepius, who(ever) is not soul, is neither Nous nor body. For (one) thing is what becomes the body of man, and (another) thing is what comes in addition to man. Then what should be called truly a man, O Asclepius, and what is man? the immortal species of every man.
This definition starts off with a question, and it seems to be posed to Hermes Trismegistus and not a rhetorical question of Hermes. The answer, in the second paragraph, would be spoken by Hermes to Asclepius, his disciple; in fact, coupled with the last definition (VI.3), we might say that the “Contain yourself!” bit was spoken by Asclepius to calm him down or get him to clarify something otherwise unclear. This happens enough in the Corpus Hermeticum, and these are the “Definitions from Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius”, so it makes sense that there’d be at least a passing reference to dialog here.
The last section of 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. However, as Man, we’re more than the sum of the parts; what is it that makes Man Man? What is the essence of Man? Or, as Asclepius asks, “what is man…if neither body nor soul?” This is a valid question to ask; we know we consist of various parts, but we also know that there’s still something distinct that allows Man to be more than animal and different than heavenly body.
First, remember what the relationships are between Nous, body, and soul. Bodies that move on their own need soul to perform it, and bodies that live and grow on their own need breath or spirit which allows the soul (if any) to enact itself (IV.2). Thus, stones are mere bodies; plants are bodies and breath; animals are body, breath, and soul. The combination of body, breath, and soul allow animals to use voice and utterance. Man, however, is a special type of animal that has the capacity for Nous, or Mind, which allows his voice to be reasonable and thus allow him access to Logos, or reasonable speech, which can endow him with Nous. Nous, however, isn’t something guaranteed among all of Man, but only to those worthy of it (V.3).
We know that we are neither just body (we breathe and move with animation and soul), nor just soul (it doesn’t make sense to be a soul without a body), nor just Nous (which is God); this is what Asclepius and Hermes agree on. After all, bodies are “what become the body of man”, implying that our material side comes from material causes, but doesn’t constitute all of Man with his dual nature. The other thing, Nous, is “what comes in addition to man”, since it is a “gift of God” (V.3). We are not merely soul, either, since soul “is a necessary movement adjusted to every kind of body” (II.1), so souls go along with that which have bodies.
There’s still something beyond all this, something else, some essential quality of Man which makes Man Man. Hermes says that it is the “immortal species of every man”, but what does this mean? We find the term “species” elsewhere so far: Man is the “reasonable world…after the species” (I.1). We’re not exactly told what the species of Man exactly is, and that’s because Man is distinctly Man. In other words, there is a form, a quality, an essence, a form, an idea of Man that distinguishes Man apart from all else in the world, just as there are chairs and the idea of a chair as distinct from phones and the idea of phones. Man is something unique in the world, and not because of the ability to be both immortal and mortal at once, though this is another result of the same cause. Man is distinct in the cosmos and is made distinct.
This is probably a confusing idea, but contrast what modern scientists would think of species of creatures versus other thinkers. To a modern biologist, a species of animal or plant or fungus or what-have-you is made distinct only because of subtle, gradual changes from other species on the same phylogenic tree or path. Evolution causes these small changes and, over time, these accumulated changes become so distinct that one branch of the phylogenic tree from another that they can no longer breed or intermingle successfully. Species, then, is just a matter of random subtle differentiation over a period of time. However, a premodern thinker would conceive of species as distinct units or groups that do not change over time, though they might be grouped into categories. Consider felines: all felines share certain characteristics, though there are characteristics that distinguish tigers from housecats. These groups are species and were made so from The Beginning (i.e. that of Creation Itself), but not necessarily in a merely physical way. The spiritual form and type of these creatures was also made separate, such that the “soul” of tigers would be distinct from the “soul” of cats.
This gets into some heavy Platonic notions of forms and ideas, which I honestly don’t care to get into or explain at this point. Suffice to say that a “species” here is an abstract generalized perfect concept that can be manifested in imperfect ways through material means. Thus, we have the immortal “species” of Man, and the mortal humans that are made in the image of Man. The essential quality that defines Man is, simply, the essence of Man itself. Compare with what Hermes is taught by the Poemander in the Corpus Hermeticum (chapter I, part 15):
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].
Of course, when we start talking about ideas and forms, those too can undergo a type of speciation. For instance, I belong overall to the idea of Man; I also belong to the idea of Magus, and that of Caucasian, and so forth. There are a lot of archetypes, cosmic roles, or ideas that I fulfill; would it not also be said that I fulfill an idea of polyphanes? That there is a perfect me, and this physical, material body is just an imperfect manifestation of that perfect idea? This, to me, is the implication I get from all this; we might even consider the idea of our perfect selves as what makes us immortal within the broader immortal idea of Man, and the bodies that are moved by breath and soul the material manifestations of those ideas, and the Nous that visits us the bridge between our imperfect bodies and the perfect ideas to make our bodies more perfect and, thus, more in line with our perfect selves and God, which is what Nous has us strive to do.