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-fifth definition, part VIII, number 7 of 7:
You do not have the power of becoming immortal; neither does, indeed, the immortal (have the power) of dying. You can even become a god if you want, for it is possible. Therefore want and understand and believe and love; then you have become (it)!
So the rest of this section of definitions has been building up a theme involving the power of Man: we are powerful, and have the power within ourselves as bestowed by God to stay in the world as mere animals or to transcend it as part of God. It’s really all up to us; our actions, our thoughts, our opinions, our worship, our experiences all help us develop ourselves to perfection or inhibit our development. In that sense, “man has as much power as the gods” (VIII.6); we have the power of choosing for ourselves (each and every one of us) mortal, material perdition or immortal, transcendent salvation. Again, the whole goal of perfection and development according to the Definitions as a whole is knowledge of God, and by knowing God we come to know everything that exists and ourselves, and vice versa.
That said, keep in mind that despite all this power we’re entitled to have, we’re not omnipotent. We’re still human, and therefore consist of body and soul; we’re dual-natured, which means we still have some sort of nature, and since we’re sensible, we are not purely intelligible as God is. Our nature as humans is to die; we are mortal, after all, and the nature of things with material bodies is to die eventually. Remember that “all beings cannot exceed their own capacity” and that “every being in this world has a nature” (VIII.1); we have our own nature that we cannot change. Thus, even though we have the choice of choosing immortality for our souls, we “do not have the power of becoming immortal”. To do so is simply not in our nature, and we cannot change our nature. This natural law is something above destiny or choice, and while our nature is capable of possessing Nous, our nature is not capable of becoming a heavenly being, since human beings are not heavenly beings (owing to the different bodies, forms, and natures we possess). Likewise, “neither does, indeed, the immortal have the power of dying”; it’s not in their nature to. So it’s not just that we’re declined the power of changing natures, but everything is; whatever something is according to its nature, that is going to be how it will be for that being.
Despite that we cannot change our natures, we still have great power: “you can even become a god if you want”. This may pose something of a problem, since we’re told at once that we cannot change our natures, and yet we can become divine. Our nature as Man is to be human; this is understood. We’re subject to natural law, the human condition, “quality and quantity as well as good and evil” (VII.4). That said, it is also the nature of Man to be godly, if only we come to know God in the process, which we’re all capable of doing. This is because we are made like God “after the species” (I.1), so whatever God is, we inherently are in a way apart from other living creatures. But because of our twofold nature, this is complicated by the presence of the soul inhabiting the body. We alone dwell in the sensible world and understand (or are capable of understanding) the intelligible world, and we alone dwell throughout and in all parts of the sensible world. This is similar to how God exists throughout and in all parts of the intelligible world, which extends beyond the sensible world in all possible ways (IV.3, IV.4). Thus, by becoming gods in our own right within God, we’re simply following our nature and expanding upon it into the fullness of knowledge that is the fullness of the world within God.
This is complicated, I know, since it seems contradictory. Aren’t gods immortal? Yes: gods, as heavenly beings such as those made of fire, do not die, the quality of being immortal. However, Man dies, or more properly, the body of Man dies while the soul lives on in its own way. We know that the soul is not so tightly coupled with the body that the soul perishes with the body (VI.2); rather, the soul leaves the body upon the body dying, and the soul leaves. However, while the body requires the soul to move, the soul requires the body to develop. If the body dies before the soul completes its development, it is “imperfect and lacks a body” (VI.3), but we don’t yet know what happens to remedy that. If the soul requires the body to develop and it is made to leave the body before it can finish developing, then perhaps the soul returns to another body in a sort of reincarnation or transmigration; it hasn’t yet been said in the Definitions, but it’s also immaterial here. The point is that the soul is immortal, as is the essence of Man, though the realization of Man as human beings is imperfect as all realizations of ideas are. We are not just our bodies, and in a sense our bodies are not truly who or what we are, no more than any given pine tree is the idea of pine trees or the DNA of pine trees.
As humans with perfected souls, we are enjoined with God in perfect knowledge of God, which is in our nature, capability, and reason to do; this is what makes us gods in our own nature. This is not just some grand, divine theological statement, but a practical one: “you can even become a god if you want, for it is possible”. It is possible for us to perfect our souls; it doesn’t state when, how, or under what circumstances. It’s possible for us no matter who, what, or where we are. It’s possible for us, this very moment in each of our lives even, to perfect our soul. Every moment that we have not perfected our souls or done what is necessary for perfection is one in which we’ve essentially chosen not to, since if we were to just listen to the urges of our souls, we would naturally come to perfection and therefore godhood (VII.3). In a way, it’s almost Buddhist in its similarity to realization of one’s Buddha-nature; we just need to see through the inane material BS going on in our lives, wipe away the dirt and grime, and let the truth of our existence shine.
Of course, this is more difficult than it sounds. Many people are entrenched in unreasonable words or living or choices, or are made to be so by others, and it’s hard for many of us to understand or even listen to our souls and its urgings to do the right thing for ourselves. If it were easy, then we wouldn’t need Hermeticism or Christianity or Thelema or Buddhism or any other path; we’d just naturally do what comes to us. But it’s in our nature to choose what we do, beyond what animals or heavenly beings do; this set of choices that faces us each and every moment can lead us to knowledge of God or away from knowledge of God. But the fact remains that it’s possible to do the right thing for ourselves no matter who we are, so even in our present lives, we can attain perfection and, thus, godhood and godliness.
So what do we do? Hermes gives four commands to us to guide us to perfection: “therefore want and understand and believe and love”. By following these injunctions, we will “have become [gods]”. So what do these four commands really tell us to do?
- Want. Many of our choices are fueled by what we like and what we don’t like, or what we fear and what we desire. From our lizard brain to our emotional brain to our logical brain, all our choices are backed up by some sort of logic based on what we want to happen for ourselves. If we are to perfect ourselves, we must want to perfect ourselves in every way, so that our entire body works in unison with what our soul wants. Our soul wants perfection; we must consciously recognize that want, and similarly want it as well. We have to consciously want perfection in order for us to obtain it.
- Understand. It’s all well and good to want perfection, but if we don’t know why we want something or how to accomplish it, then we’re going to be stranded at square one. In order to properly want something, we need good logic behind it that appeals to our lizard, emotional, and rational brains. These logical reasons must be reasonable; thus, we must employ Logos, reasonable speech, in ourselves and in our lives. This helps us to understand ourselves and how we work, and likewise how we function across the entire world that we’ve inherited and possess. By understanding ourselves, we understand the world, and vice versa; by understanding ourselves, we understand God, and vice versa; by coming to understand God, we perfect ourselves. Thus, we must be completely aware of ourselves and our entire existence, both in and of the world, so as to be immanent within it and transcendent of it.
- Believe. There’s a lot of things in the cosmos that we cannot yet understand; this is natural, since it takes time for us to understand any one thing. For instance, if you don’t understand the principle of heat, you won’t understand how cooking with heat changes food. Likewise, until we understand the sensible world, we won’t understand the intelligible world, which is where truth really lies. However, even if we don’t fully understand it, we can still believe in it. Belief is where we hold something to be true without having reason for it yet; we must use reason to test that belief, and if it holds up to actually be true, then that belief becomes understandable knowledge. Understanding little things helps us to believe larger things, even if we don’t yet fully understand the larger things. This is especially true of that which is purely intelligible e.g. God, so we must believe in God and the intelligible for us to understand it. Thus, we must believe things properly just as we must reason about things properly. We must believe “that nothing is a vain work”, for then we “will find the work and the craftsman”, but if we believe that everything exists as some sort of nihilist joke, then we “will be mocked at” (VIII.5), which is a euphemistic threat for nothing good.
- Love. This isn’t something that’s come up before, but it’s a natural progression of belief, just as belief was from understanding and understanding from wanting. We must love perfection as something to be worshipped, or seen as worthy of our entire selves and work. We must hold perfection, and the object and goal of perfection of God, close to us as something that we not just adore but aspire to join with. We have to give ourselves wholly in body, in soul, in spirit, and in mind to God so as to become perfect. We need to devote ourselves in a passionate, almost lustful way that makes use of our entire selves, leaving nothing leftover, to the highest goal we possibly can. We must love perfection. We must love God.
Note how, by that last injunction of love, this forms a type of cycle, an iterative process towards perfection. After all, if we devote ourselves to perfection and we yet lack it, we must follow it and chase it and strive to obtain it. This is, essentially, wanting perfection. So if we want to love perfection, we must believe in it; if we are to believe in it, we must understand it; if we are to understand it, we must want it; if we are to want it, we must love it. Even with just a curious desire to do something, this will open the door and start one off on the path to perfection, but it may be a long road. It’s an iterative process that builds upon itself; we want a little, then eventually we want more, then we want even more, and so on. Eventually, our wanting, our understanding, our believing, our loving will become so great that it will completely overwhelm any evil, ignorant, unreasonable choice we might possibly make, and we will end up in perfection of ourselves.
Want, understand, believe, and love. This is the Work.