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-third definition, part VIII, number 5 of 7:
Nature is the mirror of truth; the latter is at once the body of the incorporeal (things) and the light of the invisible. The generous nature of this (world) teaches all (the beings). If it seems to you that nothing is a vain work, you will find the work and the craftsman, if it seems to you (like) a mockery, you will be mocked at.
We’ve been having a hard time defining the word “nature” in a Hermetic sense since it popped up a few definitions ago. There, we read that “nature is everyone of the beings of this world” or that “every being in this world has a nature”, and also that “the body increases and reaches perfection due to nature”. But what is nature? Nature is the whole of increase and decrease, the four elements, sense and vision, and all the bodies here. Nature is the restrictions, capacities, and abilities that we have. Nature is, in effect, everything that sensibly exists and each of their qualities along with it. Nature is, in a way, fate and destiny.
But beyond all that, in this definition we get an actual explanation, or about as much as one as we’re likely to get: nature is “the mirror of truth”. Nature reflects true things. It is not itself true things, but it shows them to those who look and observe. Consider your reflection in a mirror: the mirror is not you, but it shows how you are. It shows your form, your age, your condition; it shows you. Likewise, nature shows all these things, but it is not these things on its own. Nature is a reflection, a microcosm of something greater, and what’s greater than the cosmos we find ourselves in? God is bigger than the world, after all; is God truth? (Well, duh.) What is truth? Truth is “the body of the incorporeal and the light of the invisible”. These statements must be meant metaphorically, because they on their own don’t make sense.
- What are bodies? Bodies are corporeal masses, things with form and length and breadth and depth, things with “quality and quantity” (VII.4). These things do not belong to incorporeal things, since quality and quantity are sensible just as bodies are. The solely intelligible, however, are without bodies, and as such cannot be sensed. However, they can be known. They have some sort of substance, but it is not material substance. The concepts, the words, the knowledge itself has a form, and that form is the “body” of the incorporeal. What they are is truth; a truth is something intelligible that exists.
- What is light? Light is “a clear vision which makes appear all of the visible things” (II.6). However, the invisible cannot be seen, so light does it no good. However, light can be used to see visible things in the darkness, clearing away ignorance of the physical world around ourselves. Likewise, truth can be used in the same way to know the invisible things in ignorance. Truth is the means by which we come to know the things that are invisible without seeing them.
Nature, then, is the reflection of things that are. Nature is the material, corporeal result of the intelligible and incorporeal; just as software code is the reflection of its design, or a constructed building the reflection of its blueprints, nature is the reflection of truth. If what is intelligible is truth, then God is also truth.
Just as “whatever God does, he does it for man” is a truth (VIII.2), so too does the world reflect that: “the generous nature of this world teaches all the beings”. If perfection of the soul is knowledge of the beings (VI.3), and it is our soul’s directive to come to know God by knowing all the beings (VII.3, VIII.4), then the world exists to help us do that. The soul works within the body to learn; the world offers itself to learn from. Again, “man’s possession is the world” (VI.1), so it would almost (maybe not quite?) be tautological to say that it’s for our benefit. Further, Man’s job is to experience the entire world in all its parts for the benefit of the soul and body (VII.2), so we must fully experience and learn from the world in all that it has to teach us and offer us. Every part of the world is necessary to experience and know for ourselves to be perfected in body, soul, and Nous. Add to it, if we make use of the Hermetic maxim “as above, so below”, then we might also say that because everything God does is for Man, then everything the World does is also for Man, since the World is a microcosm reflecting the macrocosmic God. This makes sense because “nature is the mirror of truth”, so whatever is done above is done below; that which is below represents, reflects, and indicates that which is above; if the nature of God is to act for Man, then the nature of the world is to do the same, as is the nature of Man (which gives the actions of Man a dual meaning here, both for himself as well as for soul/soul-Nous/God).
Since nothing God does is not for Man, then nothing the World is or does is not for Man. Thus, nothing is made, done, or created in vain; this is similar to the statement in VI.1, where “if there were nobody to see [the world], what would be seen would not even exist”. All things exist for a purpose and that is to act by God within God for Man and God. Further, by properly seeking to learn what the world generously teaches us, we come to fully experience the world, perfecting our bodies and our souls in the process, coming to the perfection of the soul, which is the knowledge of beings as well as of God. Thus, “if it seems to you that nothing is a vain work, you will find the work and the craftsman”, where the work is the body, soul, world, and beings and where the craftsman is God. Neglecting this, however, yields the opposite result: “to you like a mockery, you will be mocked at”. This is another thinly-veiled warning, much as from VI.3: “just as you will behave towards the soul when it is in this body, likewise it will behave towards you when it has gone out of the body”.