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-second definition, part VIII, number 4 of 7:
The body increases and reaches perfection due to nature; and soul fills up with Nous. Every man has a body and a soul, but not every soul has Nous. Consequently there are two (types of) Nous: the one (is) divine and the other (belongs to) soul. Nevertheless there are certain men who do not even have that of soul. Who(ever) understands the body, also understands soul; who(ever) understands soul, also (understands) Nous, because the admirable is (a) natural (object) of contemplation: each of the two is seen by means of the other.
From the last several definitions, we know that Man is meant to become God by means of knowledge of God. This is accomplished through our natural gifts of voice and speech, along with Logos or reason, to attain Nous or Mind. With this, we can come to know all of creation, which is God, and by this attain perfection of the soul. However, although we’re meant to do this, this is not always an assured thing; by means of voice and speech without Logos, we end up talking for the sake of talking, or talking for the sake of mankind. This applies to worship and our knowledge and opinions of divinity, too; with true knowledge of God, we endeavor to worship God by becoming God. However, with only our human and incomplete ideas and opinions of gods, we may worship them instead, preventing us from reaching our full goals and true gnosis of God. No one god is God, no matter how great, since God is always greater than everything else. The choice of attaining God or not attaining God is entirely up to us.
Of course, the definitions suggest that we already know what’s proper for us: “the body increases and reaches perfection due to nature; and soul fills up with Nous”. Our nature, as discussed in VIII.1, is basically what we’re meant to do and what we’re meant to accomplish; our nature is our design and core operating procedures. We’re meant to live, and in the process attain fullness and perfection of the body. (While “increase” is used here, according to J.-P. Mahé’s footnotes, the Armenian has “decrease”; in either case, it’s implied here that the body is meant to live and all that comes along with living). Further, in the course of the body attaining perfection, the soul also attains perfection by “fill[ing] up with Nous”. This, too, is our nature; every human being alive can be perfect and made holy by being anointed with Nous and coming to know God. This is our nature.
That said, we humans have the choice of going against our nature. We can purposefully or unreasonably ignore God and our souls, preventing our souls from filling up with Nous. Thus, while our bodies may be perfect, our souls may not be; perfection of the one does not mandate perfection of the other. Thus, “every man has a body and soul, but not every soul has Nous”. Even though Man generally and by design should have Nous, not all humans actually do; this is based on the humans’ own development and progress towards that goal. Just as it’s the goal of the fetus to be born whole in body, so too is it the human’s goal to be made whole in body and soul. Many things can prevent this, of course, which in turn prevents Nous being bestowed upon every human. This is no fault of God’s; after all, “whatever God does, he does it for man” (VIII.2), so the blame must then be laid on the shoulders of Man (or in astral demons, cf. VII.5, but even then, Man still deserves some of the blame).
We’ve mentioned the idea of there being two kinds of Nous before in set VII, but here we find it made explicit: “consequently there are two types of Nous: the one is divine and the other belongs to soul”. The former refers to Nous as a whole, which is identical with God; the divine Nous is God, and thus is the Whole and the All and the One. The other Nous is that which is in the soul itself and guides it to lead the body (cf. VIII.3). It’s that divine-Nous that we are meant to obtain, that saving perfection-grace, that the soul-Nous which comes from the divine-Nous leads us toward. Thus, it’s both true and untrue that all humans have Nous; we each have a tiny sliver of Nous (soul-Nous) within us that guides us, but not all of us are filled with divine-Nous. It’s the soul-Nous that leads us to divine-Nous once we’re spiritually mature enough to accept it from God. God/Divine-Nous wants us to have this at all points, but we’re not able to accept this until a certain point.
Even though all souls are designed by nature to be perfected with divine-Nous, not all souls have it; worse, there are even some humans who lack even soul-Nous, and are entirely unguided by Nous: “there are certain men who do not have even that [Nous] of soul”. This isn’t fully explained, and seems somewhat contradictory to our previous statements; in these cases, these particular Nous-less humans are made no better than animals, who only have soul without Nous. We might consider this severe mental disease or simply growing up feral, but these are essentially humans whose development was so stunted that they are unable to listen to or possess soul-Nous. This might be the result of not developing the soul enough to possess soul-Nous, which gives yet another darker and urgent shade to the development of the soul in the body (cf. VI.3). We must constantly strive to not only protect our shard of soul-Nous, but enjoin it with divine-Nous through perfection of the soul.
Of course, there’s more to perfecting the soul than the soul itself. If we were just focused on the soul and going right to Nous, there would be no need for our bodies; we’d be like the heavenly beings made of fire and soul. But no; that would relegate us to only the heavenly world, and we need to learn about all the parts of the world (VII.2), since it is our possession (VI.1), after all. Thus, because we need to experience the material world, we need to have material bodies. By fully using the body we have, we can come to understand it, and by understanding and perfecting the body, we can come to understand and perfect the soul (VI.3): “whoever understands the body also understands the soul”. Once we understand the soul, we can progress onto using the body and soul together with Logos to perfect the soul and attain Nous: “whoever understands soul, also understands Nous”.
That said, why is it that working with the soul leads to the Nous? Or that contemplating the Nous leads to perfection of the soul? That’s just part of the design and nature of humanity: our souls are designed to partake in Nous and soul-Nous to inhabit our souls. That is, after all, part of the nature of Man, made distinct from other living creatures in our capacity for Nous. The connection isn’t made absolutely clear yet about the manner in which this is done, though, but this definition teases us with a hint: “the admirable is a natural object of contemplation: each of [soul and Nous] is seen by means of the other”. Soul leads to Nous, and Nous leads to soul. Listening to the soul leads to Nous, since Nous is the sight of the soul just as “the sight of the body is the eye”, and listening to Nous leads to soul, since “whatever Nous in soul will crave for, so will man desire the same” (VII.3). The Nous looks out for soul and the soul is the means by which Nous is obtained. Working with one works with the other; it’s just that the soul-Nous is what connects us to divine-Nous, which we have yet to obtain. Yet.