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-seventh definition, part VII, number 4 of 5:
Soul enters the body by necessity, Nous (enters) soul by judgment. While being outside the body, soul (has) neither quality nor quantity; (once it is) in the body it receives, as an accident, quality and quantity as well as good and evil: for matter brings about such (things).
We know from before that “soul is a necessary movement adjusted to every kind of body” (II.1), although not all bodies have souls (IV.2). Of those that do, however, they are animated, both in the classical sense of being “ensouled” as well as in the modern sense of having motion and movement. Plants and stones, for instance, do not move beyond their natural tendencies to increase or decrease, and so have no souls; animals, humans, and heavenly beings move in addition to their tendencies to increase and decrease, and so have souls. Thus, “soul enters the body by necessity”, especially the bodies of Man, since it is there that soul can develop into perfection.
However, it is only the souls with Nous that do this, and why? Because Nous wants to: “Nous enters soul by judgment”. This, to me, has a double meaning, because other parts of the definitions don’t seem to make complete sense. All souls come from Nous, and are given a touch of Nous that give it impetus for motion within the body (VII.3). However, not all creatures have Nous, since this is a gift from the Nous itself and only visits to those who serve Nous through Logos (V.3, V.1). Trying to reconcile this gap between “all souls in bodies have Nous within” to “not all bodies have Nous” requires a bit of a reach here, at least at this point in our understanding:
- Nous enters soul because it wants to. While the Nous is God and God is in all things, not all things are consciously aware of being part of God. Nous wants us all to be aware of that, since Nous is all about knowing and awareness. Nous gives life through soul that it inhabits because it wants the life to be made fully part of God and aware that it is God. In other words, there’s a much bigger party going on in the intelligible world than in the sensible world, and God wants us to join it by enabling ourselves to be aware of it and how to get in. We can call this type of Nous within the soul the “seed Nous” or “heart Nous”; it’s not much different than what other definition say about God being part of all things: since the soul is a thing, God must be part of it.
- Nous enters soul because the soul is ready for it. While the Nous within the soul may be the heart of the soul, it is not the same thing as the soul, and the soul may not be in full command or contact with the Nous. It’s like how humanity has their conscious minds as well as their subconscious, and while the subconscious can drive or influence the conscious, we’re not aware of the subconscious desires doing this to us. By bringing the subconscious to the conscious level, we become more fully aware of ourselves and our whole being. Likewise, the Nous is buried so deep within ourselves that we are effectively cut off consciously from it, though we still retain that divine spark within ourselves. By coming to know Nous through Logos, we bring the Nous closer and closer to the surface in ourselves, enabling perfection of ourselves. This is only something that is done when we are ready for it, and requires active work on our part.
Thus, what this definition is saying is basically that wherever there is a body, there must be a soul, but souls on their own may not have Nous since they may not be necessary to a body, and so may not exist if Nous does not judge there to be a need for it. God makes things happen and gives things life, and without God nothing could happen; thus, the soul exists only as God has allowed it to exist, but even so it must continue developing. Just as a seed takes time to grow into a full tree, a soul takes time to grow into a full perfected soul. This is done by helping it develop within the body across the four parts of the world (VII.2) Only when the soul is properly developed can it receive Nous into itself wholly and fully; instead, we might say that the soul returns to and is fully connected to the Nous again, regardless of whether it is contained within a body.
The soul entering into the body has more effects than simply dimming the connection between Nous and itself, too. The soul is an invisible and insensible thing that supports the body, and “while being outside the body, soul has neither quality nor quantity”. In other words, there are no characteristics or details about the soul that we can know while it is outside a body. It is only ever intelligible, and so is part of God in the intelligible world. However, when a soul enters a body, “it receives, as an accident, quality and quantity”. The soul, by entering into a body, picks up sensible qualities, but it does not enter into the body so as to do this. This happens “as an accident”, or a side-effect of the animation of a body. This is because “matter brings about such things”, and all matter is based on the element of earth (II.3), without which nothing sensible could exist.
Consider any arbitrary measurement or metric you might conceive of. Length is a property of how much matter can be arrayed in a given distance. Volume is several lengths in different directions. Weight is how much mass can be packed into a particular object. Density is the proportion of weight to volume. These are all quantities, numbers that are all based in the physical realm. Any measurement based on these or similar metrics is also a quantity, and therefore based in the physical, material realm. What about qualities? As opposed to an objective measurement, a quality is a subjective measurement. Does something feel good or bad? Do sour foods taste better than bitter foods? How strongly do you like a particular object? Does a certain action cause pride or shame in the actor? These and more are all qualities, which although not directly based on material measurements, use the body and spirit to interpret them for us, and since these things are based on the material body, qualities too become material accidents.
The soul, much like God, has none of these to start with. We cannot describe any quality or quantity of the soul without a body; it is, in a sense, ineffable, much as God is (I.4). Moreover, the soul has no notion of these things either until it gains a body, since the soul is separated from the body, and as we puzzled out before in VI.2, without having a body we cannot sense the sensible or visible things, which are measured and interpreted according to their quantity and quality. With a body, however, the soul can suddenly discern these things, as well as become these things by means of the body. I don’t mean to say that God cannot sense things, since God senses and sees all things (V.1), but rather that God, who is Nous, who is both Mind as well as the faculties and exercise of Mind, is these things. The soul, however, is not God, though it is a part of God, and so until it obtains Nous as given by God, it cannot similarly see, sense, or witness things in the same way as God does. On its own, the soul cannot do much; in a body, it can act as and work as the body.
In addition to quantity and quality, however, by entering into the body the soul also picks up “good and evil”. We know of things that are good, which we can associate with both light (II.6) and God (I.4). Whatever evil is, we are not yet certain, but we have a few clues. These are things that only exist where bodies exist; good and evil are not things that exist outside of the world or as part of God, but exist only as sensible things. Hermes Trismegistus goes on about good and evil in the Corpus Hermeticum (chapter XIV, part 7):
And do not thou be chary of things made because of their variety, from fear of attribution of a low estate and lack of glory unto God. For that His Glory’s one,—to make all things; and this is as it were God’s Body, the making [of them]. But by the Maker’s self naught is there thought or bad or base.
These things are passions which accompany the making process, as rust doth brass and filth doth body; but neither doth the brass-smith make the rust, nor the begetters of the body filth, nor God [make] evil. It is continuance in the state of being made that makes them lose, as though it were, their bloom; and ’tis because of this God hath made change, as though it were the making clean of genesis.
Basically, good and evil exist as a special set of qualities in the sensible world, and are related to the process of increase and decrease, which only exists because of the element of earth. Water helps to increase (“fecund essence”, II.4); fire helps to decrease (“destruction of the mortal”, II.5); air helps to join together (“heavens and earth are united with each other by the air”, II.2). Death is a result of decrease without increase; creatures that are not heavenly and made of fire are therefore earthy and mortal (IV.1, IV.2); death prevents the soul from obtaining perfection when the soul is not yet ready (VI.3); bodies serving their own end without care for the soul serves only death (V.2). Therefore, death, decay, and decrease that prevent the soul from fulfilling its perfection and Nous can be considered evil, and this can only be done in the material world that bodies live in. These things on their own are not bad at all, and are necessary in the world, but when they interfere with ourselves, they become a harmful influence. However, we must choose to let them interfere with ourselves, even if we choose inaction against them.
This is a crucial difference between the material world and the immaterial world: good and evil only exist where a chance to turn away from God exists. Outside the material world, one is only ever part of God, and thus cannot turn away from God. In the sensible world, it’s harder to be aware of God, and thus easier to turn away from God. Turning towards God and rejoining with him, coming into the perfect “knowledge of the beings” and light of Nous, is therefore good; turning away from God and ignoring the impetus of Nous and the directions that would lead us to God is therefore evil. This sort of thing is not possible outside the sensible world, where Nous can be absent from speech or action due to our own actions or speech. Outside the sensible world, there is nothing (so far said, at least) that can distinguish us from God, therefore having us become God and God becoming us wholly, so that whatever God wills, we ourselves will, and whatever we do, God does.
This ties in tightly to notions of True Will and divine providence, too, and the ideas are similar. When we do what God wants us to do, carrying out and serving our divine purpose, that’s our True Will, the will we are meant to fulfill which we ourselves can know once we can see ourselves clearly enough. To do that, however, we have to carry out the Great Work, which helps us prepare ourselves across the four parts of the world and begin to hear and use Logos. This allows our sensible, material bodies to better heed and serve our souls, which can then develop properly into a fully-knowledgeable and divine soul with Nous. With Nous being known to ourselves, we then can carry out what it is we’re supposed to do; at that point, any distinction between what we want and what God wants is meaningless, because our wills have become God’s will and vice versa.
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