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-eighth definition, part VII, number 5 of 5:
God is within himself, the world is in God, and man in the world. His (i.e. man’s) deficiency is ignorance, his plenitude in the knowledge of God. ※ He says that evil (consists) in ignorance and good in knowledge ⍜.
A short definition to finish up this section! The first part of this definition sounds awfully like the first definition from the third set, which said that “where heaven is, God is too, and where the world is, heaven is too”, and also that “God is in heaven, and heaven in the world”. Here, we have some more relationships between God and the world: namely, that God is within himself, that the world is in God, and that Man is in the world.
That God is within himself should come as no surprise. We already know that “nothing is uninhabited by God” (III.1), and that God is “the father of the intelligible” (III.4) while being intelligible himself (I.1). In other words, God is God, all things are within God, and God is in all things; everything is a complete Whole, and that Whole is the All, the One, or God. If you want to translate this into set theory of mathematics, we can say that God is a set that includes all things including itself. From this, it logically follows that the world, which is a thing that exists, exists within God. Man exists in the world, or at least the physical bodies of Man and the idea of Man; since these things exist in the world, and since they exist, and since the world exists within God, Man also exists within God. This basically rephrases III.1 using some more terms about Man now that we’ve been talking about Man for some time.
As for Man, however, we have some more talking to do. The last definition brought up the terms “good” and “evil”, and we said this about the two terms:
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.
The current definition talks about the deficiency and the plentitude of Man, or rather, wherein he is evil and wherein he is good. “His plentitude is the knowledge of God”; this accords with what we said before. We can tie this back further with the perfection of the soul, which is “the knowledge of beings” (VI.3), and this is effectively the knowledge of God. After all, 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. This is what is good for us to do.
If knowledge of God is good, and evil is the opposite of good, then the opposite of knowledge of God must be evil. The opposite of knowledge is ignorance, and that is indeed what this definition says: “[Man’s] deficiency is ignorance”. To not know God is evil, then, yet this is the state of us as we are; to know God, we must have Nous, and not all beings are accorded Nous consciously. Does that mean we were born evil? Not really, but kinda? This is where the Gnostic and Neoplatonic strains of thought shows itself within Hermeticism: because we have a material body, we are at least in some way cut off from God. Indeed, the past few definitions have talked about this, and it’s hard to come in contact with God while being in body. Moreover, because we have a body, we have the capacity for good and evil, which simply don’t exist outside the physical, material realm of bodies and matter. We can choose evil and thus choose to be ignorant; we can likewise choose good and thus choose to be knowledgeable of God.
But what about as we are in the world, as we were born? When we were born, we didn’t know how to walk or control our poop, much less high philosophy and God. But that’s okay, because we were still in possession of souls made in the idea of Man, and those souls we have provide us with the actions and movement to move us towards knowledge of God, so long as we listen and act accordingly. Soul is movement, and even more than that, a “necessary movement” (II.1); we cannot help but act. The soul can often be considered like water, which is always in motion; it will take the path of least resistance, one way or another. If water is dammed up or blocked off, it will find a new path or simply overflow it. There is no way to completely stop water without turning it into something else. Likewise, with the soul, we are always compelled to act, though how we act is determined by our own conscious choices and may not always be what the soul would ideally prefer.
The last part of this definition basically says the same thing as the second sentence here, but makes it explicit that ignorance is evil, not just the deficiency of Man, and that knowledge is good, not just the plentitude of Man. However, this is made awkward by the inclusion of two symbols, which I cannot replicate well on a computer. I tried to find similar Unicode characters to represent them, and they indicate common concepts or abbreviations in medieval Armenian manuscripts: ※ means “star”, while ⍜ means “sinner”. The footnotes provided by Jean-Pierre Mahé to the Definitions say that these are glosses provided by the scribe, and suggest some sort of connection between sin and stars. The Corpus Hermeticum talks about such connections, and suggests that sins and evil come from the stars high up in the heavenly part of the world (chapter XVI, parts 13 through 16), though I won’t get into it here. Suffice it to say that, because we have material bodies, we are at the whim of various influences that affect our bodies and, therefore, our souls. Many of these influences come from the stars, the “living beings in heaven”, and cause us or lead us to act in certain ways. Not all of these influences agree with what the Nous within our souls desires, and so may lead us into ignorant and evil actions. This complicates our role and job down here, but it’s also part and parcel of living within a large and complex system.
By acting in a good manner and striving to know God, ourselves, and all other things, we can attain our “plenitude”, our fullness and grace, that allows us to achieve perfection. Perfection is this very thing, and is moreover marked by the awareness of and reception of Nous into our bodies and souls, enabling us to be made closer to God as well as to the ideal humanity we should be anyway. This is what we’re supposed to do, and it’s difficult, but it’s worth it; moreover, it’s what we’re driven to do when left to our own devices and free from detrimental influences that would cause us to act otherwise. However, to attain our fullness of knowledge, we also have to use the full range of human experience and power; although different living creatures can only experience one type of world, humanity can explore all worlds, including those which are immaterial. To know all things, we must know all the worlds, and transcend them to become more and better than we are in any one world.