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 thirty-first definition, part VIII, number 3 of 7:
Those who worship idols (worship plain) pictures. For if they worshipped with knowledge, they would not have gone astray, but since they do not know how they should worship, they have gone astray, (far) from piety. Man has the faculty of killing, God of giving life.
More about gods and divinity in this definition, to follow up with the previous one. In the previous definition, we talked about the difference between the “body” of God and other bodies: other bodies have things external to them, so they sense external things. God, however, has nothing external to itself, and so by definition cannot sense anything external nor does God have a means to do so, but still has sensations (literally all the sensations) within itself. God wants us to know God, and to do that we have to properly listen to our souls’ needs to understand Logos, by which we come to attain Nous, by which we know God.
However, if we distract ourselves with “human opinion” (VIII.1) and talk without reason for the sake of other humans (“speech without Nous is a finding of man”, V.3), then we end up getting mislead. We end up mistaking our human opinions and human talk for true divinity, and end up mixing IHVH or Jesus or Aten with God who’s actually, truly, wholly the Whole. We shouldn’t confuse the two, since the Whole/God/Nous is far more than any one entity (and, for that matter, all possible entities), but that’s where human speech without Nous can lead us. If we consider any such human creation to be a human construction, then we can liken these not-God gods to idols, and “those who worship idols worship plain pictures”. God is not in an idol or any one god; God is God, and nothing else is God though is a part of God.
Why would we get gods and God mixed up? Because of our lack of knowledge and Nous, which leads us to say unreasonable, non-Logos things (V.2), which leads our bodies astray despite the urgings of our souls (VII.3). Thus, “since they do not know how they should worship, they have gone astray, far from piety”. Those who have knowledge, and therefore Logos and potentially Nous, worship God, either by means of the idols or through some other means, but they do not worship the idols themselves. In more Christian terms, that’d be like worshipping a saint, which is a big no-no. You may venerate saints, but you never worship a saint; worship goes to God, and the saints are approached to get to God through intercession and aid. In this worldview, then, only God is worthy of worship; all else is not God, so why should we worship it? Just because it may be a god does not make it the God, in the Hermetic sense.
Compare what the Asclepius says (chapter XXXVII, parts 1 and 2):
Less to be wondered at are the things said of man,—though they are [still] to be admired. Nay, of all marvels that which wins our wonder [most] is that man has been able to find out the nature of the Gods and bring it into play.
Since, then, our earliest progenitors were in great error,—seeing they had no rational faith about the Gods, and that they paid no heed unto their cult and holy worship,—they chanced upon an art whereby they made Gods [for themselves]. To this invention they conjoined a power that suited it, [derived] from cosmic nature; and blending these together, since souls they could not make, [they set about] evoking daimons’ souls or those of angels; [and thus] attached them to their sacred images and holy mysteries, so that the statues should, by means of these, possess the powers of doing good and the reverse.
Again, even if our human opinion of divinity is good, it itself is not the end goal of it all. That’d be like confusing a raft to cross a river en route to a city as the end destination itself. If we worship idols for the sake of their own worship, we end up worshipping things that are not God, and that’s no bueno, since this is how people “have gone astray, far from piety”. Humans worshipping, effectively, their own opinions of divinity is effectively humans acting for the sake of humans; “what man does, he does it for soul/himself” (VIII.2).
The thing is, though, that we have a choice in this. We don’t have to end up with our opinions of divinity as the end result of all this philosophy and sophistry; we can heed our soul and act properly according to it for the sake of Logos and Nous, or we can ignore it or distort the urges of our soul and act for the sake of ourselves and humanity. The former leads us to Nous, while the latter leads us back to the world (V.2). The realm of Nous, the immortal and eternal realm of God, is knowledge and therefore perfection; ignorance and going astray from God, however, leads us back to the world, and therefore to death and destruction and perdition (VII.5). If we keep talking without Logos and are content with it, we then are complacent with the mortal, destructible realm and are headed right back to it. If we conceive speech with Nous and Logos, we end up with knowing God, and then while our bodies may die (as they should), that which is the essence of Man will live forever as opposed to enduring death.
So what do we choose? Do we choose to seek life, or seek death? Seeking death is effectively the natural course of Man without Nous, but God chooses to give Nous to those who earnestly seek it and are worthy of it. Thus, “man has the faculty of killing, God of giving life”. Yes, humanity has the power to kill whatever’s mortal, but it also has the power to kill off ourselves through our own action or inaction. We, however, do not have the power of giving (eternal) life, which is something that only God does by bestowing Nous upon Man. If we follow this comparison through, though, we end up saying that God does not have the power to kill. But if God is all things, God is therefore in control of it all, isn’t it? Shouldn’t offing something be within the power of God, especially if by God’s own choice God does not give Nous to Man?
Not at all, actually. “Whatever God does, he does it for Man” (VIII.2); God does nothing except to benefit us. If God does not bestow Nous upon someone, it’s because that someone has not yet earned it or is turning it away; according to the definitions, God is precluded from acting against Man, even by God’s own inaction. After all, if we are made in the image of God, why should God maim or prevent us from becoming God, which is our own perfection? For us to not reach perfection is out of God’s power; we have that power, and it’s up to us to willingly (whether in these terms or not) turn away from Logos and Nous or to accept it by acting according to how we ought according to our souls’ directives. We have more to listen to than the chatter of humans, after all.