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-sixth definition, part IX, number 1 of 7:
Every man has a notion of God: for if he is a man, he also knows God. Every man, by the very (fact) that he has (got) a notion of God, is a man, for it is not (given) to every man to have (such a) notion. Man and the gods and all things (exist) by God and because of man. God is everything and there is nothing outside God, even that which does not exist: since as to God, there is no such thing, even one single <that he is not himself>. Man (comes) from another man, the gods (exist) because of God. Man (exists) because of God; everything because of man. God rules over man; man over the whole.
As we get towards the final 14 of these definitions, you’ll note that a lot of them get pretty lengthy, but are no less important. Sections VIII, IX, and X all have seven definitions each, and every word here counts, just as in all the others. Don’t let the length of these final few definitions get to you; we’re getting into some of the really juicy stuff now that we’ve tackled the foundations and groundwork of Hermetic philosophy according to the Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus.
Remember that, as human beings made as Man in the image of God, we are bestowed with both body and soul. Heavenly beings and animals also have body and soul, but we’re different from both; heavenly beings are immortal while we are immortal, and neither heavenly beings nor animals are capable of possessing Nous. True, Nous dwells within all souls, since not only is God within everything and transcendent of it all, but they are only capable of possessing the Nous that directs them according to their nature. Man, on the other hand, mortal as he is, is capable of possessing the divine Nous that connects him to God and makes him into a god; this is radically different, and separates us out from the rest of all sensible living creatures. Because we have that sliver of God within ourselves as well as the capability of understanding God, we’re attuned to the realm of divinity in a way that other creatures are not.
Thus, “every man has a notion of God”. After all, we naturally according to our soul’s urgings would follow and understand God, so it’s pretty much an inborn quality of Man for us to know God, or at least have opinions of God or gods. It’s natural for us to think in terms of the divine and heaven, even if by our choices and understanding relegate it strictly to a material point of view (not just modern atheistic physicists, but also classical Stoics held this notion). We are made in the image of God, after all, and thus, if we have any knowledge of ourselves at all, we have at least some knowledge of God: “if he is a man, he also knows God”. Further, “every man, by the very fact that he has got a notion of God is a man”, which logically follows; this is just a repetition of the nature of Man, made in the image of God and whose perfection rests in knowing God.
But “it is not given to every man to have such a notion”. How can this be, if we just said that every man has a notion of God? We’ve seen a similar backtracking before in VIII.4: “every man has a body and a soul…there are two types of Nous: the one is divine and the other belongs to soul…there are certain men who do not have even that of soul”. Just as some men are incapable of possessing even soul-Nous, there are some men who are incapable of conceiving of God, i.e. the intelligible, i.e. anything not-sensible. This sounds unfair, but again it’s a result of the maldevelopment of souls and bodies. Just as not all souls with soul-Nous yet have divine-Nous, there are some souls who do not have soul-Nous…perhaps yet? Constant development may be needed to even begin the work of becoming human, or we might better say evolution here. Just as plants are more complex than stones, and animals more complex than plants, humans are more complex than animals; however, humans with soul and without soul-Nous are relegated to the same qualities as animals, just as humans without notions of God are. These two qualities or accidents may very well be linked, but there’s nothing concrete in the definitions to say as much yet. Suffice it to say for now that Man includes only those life forms who are both physically and spiritually mature enough to fall into the category of human beings with the capability of reason or Logos.
Again, how do we evolve so as to be physically and spiritually mature enough to wield Logos, have a notion of God, and “want and understand and believe and love” perfection of knowledge of God (VIII.7)? We must use that which we have: our natures, the world, and everything that exists. Everything exists for our sake, after all; “whatever God does, he does it for man” (VIII.2) and “everything came into being for you, so that by means of either one being or of the whole, you may understand [God]” (VIII.6). Thus, “man and the gods and all things exist by God because of man”. Everything exists for our sake, not just the world which is “man’s possession” (VI.1), but everything intelligible and sensible.
In a sense, God itself exists for our sake. Consider that everything God does is for the sake of Man; God cannot act on things other than God, because nothing is not God and everything is within and part of God. God acts on itself and within itself for the sake of Man. Everything is within God and part of God: “God is everything and there is nothing outside God”, which accords with much of what we’ve seen before (III.1, III.4). Moreover, there is nothing outside God “even that which does not exist: since as to God, there is no such thing, even one single (thing) that he is not himself”. Basically, there is no such thing as something that “does not exist”. God is literally everything: everything that is, everything that isn’t, everything that was and is no longer, everything that isn’t but yet will be, everything that never will be, everything that ever could be, everything that always is, everything that is some combination of the above, everything that is none of the above, and everything that is something else. God is infinite, without end, encompassing every possibility. It’s hard to grasp this without any kind of sensible example (being the sensible creatures that we are), but suffice it to say that no matter what you can imagine or how big you imagine it, God is always going to be that and far more.
As a result, all things come from God, since God is “previous to all the intelligible beings” (III.4) and the intelligible world is “larger than everything [sensible]” (III.3). Whatever exists does so because of God (as creator) and because of Man (as purpose). Thus, just as “man comes from another man” through birth, “the gods exist because of God”; God creates all heavenly beings, and indeed all beings that exist (or don’t exist). Similarly, “man exists because of God”, because God creates all things and is the “father of the intelligible”, which itself is the “maker of the body” (III.4). However, because all things exist because of God, everything also exists because of Man, because God does nothing that is not for Man. Man may not be the maker of all things, but we are the beneficiary of all things.
As beneficiaries, we basically own that which exists for us; thus, “man [rules] over the whole”, referring to the whole of existence, including the world. We already know that “man’s possession is the world” (VI.1), and that Man has as much power as the gods themselves do (VIII.6), especially since we ourselves can become gods (VIII.7). However, we are not all-powerful; that alone goes to God, and “God rules over man”. After all, the scope of Man’s action is far less than what God does (VIII.2), as well as our knowledge and understanding of things. However, God is effectively the only thing that truly rules over the immortal being of Man, since we are made in the image of God by God.