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-seventh definition, part IX, number 2 of 7:
The exterior (things) are understood by the external (organs): the eye sees the exterior (things), and Nous the interior. The exterior (things) would not exist, if there were not the interior (ones). Where(ever) Nous (is), there is light; for Nous is light and light is Nous. Who(ever) has Nous is enlightened, and who(ever) has not Nous is deprived of light.
Okay, so not all of the final definitions are long, and in fact this one is pretty straightforward. Let’s jump in, shall we? First, recall that there’s a crucial difference between that which is sensible and intelligible: the intelligible cannot be sensed unless it is has a sensible nature. It might be known or understood, but it cannot be sensed. All sensible things are intelligible, but not all intelligible things are sensible. That which makes the intelligible sensible is the presence of a body: all things with bodies are sensible.
We witness and observe the sensible things by the sensations they give us by means of our sensory organs. Thus, we see visible things with our eyes; we hear audible things with our ears; we smell odiferous things with our nose; we feel motion with our sense of balance. Some things are triggered by more than one sense, such as luminescent food that triggers both sight and taste. Some things trigger only one, some things trigger all of them at once. If something is registered as existing by at least one sense organ, it is sensible; moreover, it is external to the essential Man. The act of sense only makes logical sense if we have the sensor and sensee; if there is nothing external to someone, then nothing can be sensed. That’s why God has no senses and cannot sense anything, for God has all sensations within itself (VIII.2). Humans, however, are not everything like how God is, and so there are things that are not-humans, and so can be sensed by humans, including other humans.
Thus, “exterior things are understood by external organs”: things that are sensible are registered by the senses. As an example, the definition gives that of the eye: “the eye sees the exterior things”. However, the definition also gives a comparison, where the “Nous [sees] the interior [things]” just as “the eye sees the exterior things”. This accords with V.1, where “Nous sees everything, and eyes all corporeal things”. And about that bit about Nous seeing everything, where this definition says that Nous sees all internal things? This is about the things that cannot be sensed but still exist, i.e. the intelligible. Remember that “all of that [which is] visible cannot possibly be constituted without the invisible”. Nous sees “every move of soul” (II.6), and has all sensations and understanding within himself (VII.2); this is confirmed as the definition says “the exterior things would not exist, if there were not the interior ones”.
Nous is capable of understanding and “sensing” (in its own way) everything, while the corporeal body can only sense that which is sensible. However, all of that sensible stuff is fed as data to the Nous: “the eyes [become an observer] for Nous” (V.1). But Nous sees everything to begin with; Nous is both the means of sensing, the source of it, and the result of it. Without Nous, nothing would be known; with Nous, we can know things. There’s another word for this, introduced way back in II.6: light. Recall that light “makes appear all of the visible things”, and “light appears just as it is by itself”. The connections between Nous and light back there are made more clear here: “wherever Nous is, there is light; for Nous is light and light is Nous”. Think about that: we recognized light as a “good”, just as Nous is the Good (II.1); we assumed a connection between the two there, and now it’s confirmed here. Nous is what makes everything appear “as it is by itself”. Nous is what helps us to understand the intelligible things that we may come to know them. Light is what helps us to see the sensible things that we may come to know them. Nous is light, light is Nous.
This parallel can be seen earlier in VIII.5. Recall that “nature is the mirror of truth”, where truth is the form and essence of the intelligible things, and that we come to know truth by means of looking at nature. However, how do mirrors work? If we can’t see anything, the mirror doesn’t reflect anything. Mirrors work by reflecting light. Light is the means by which mirrors can reflect images. Light is what helps us see truth from nature, and which helps us see nature from truth. By coming to understand even part of the world, we come to understand God by the illumination of sense, observation, and understanding. What exists in the intelligible world is reflected down into the sensible world, and what exists in the sensible world is reflected up into the intelligible world. Light is what makes either of these things known to us by means of the other. And, since light is Nous and vice versa, Nous is what helps us understand everything.
When we come to a state of complete understanding, we often refer to this as “enlightenment”. We use it to translate the nirvana/nibbana of the Buddhists, the moksha of the Hindus, and for other states of awareness and at-one-ness in other paths. Note the root of that word: “en-light-enment”. One who is enlightened has the quality of being made or put into light. A similar term is “illumination”, coming from the Latin word lux, also meaning light. When we have Nous, we then have light; as our souls are joined with Nous, we are joined with light. We are literally made into light; we are enlightened. Thus, “whoever has Nous is enlightened”.
Similarly, the converse is true: “whoever has not Nous is deprived of light”. If one does not have Nous, one does not have light. Without Nous, we cannot reach enlightenment, since we cannot understand things as they are. That’s the whole point of Hermeticism, to perfect the soul through knowledge of the beings and of God. Without light, we cannot see, and without Nous, we cannot understand. If Nous sees by means of the eyes, and we have no Nous, then our sight is basically wasted, like having functional eyes for someone who is otherwise blind. That sight information, spiritually speaking, goes nowhere except the body itself; this is an animal condition, if we see for ourselves and not for Nous. Further, if we go back to the “nature is the mirror of truth” image, if we have no light, then we cannot see into the mirror. Without sight, we cannot understand the natures of sensible things and so cannot understand the corresponding intelligible things. Without Nous, we cannot understand the truth of intelligible things and so cannot see the corresponding sensible things.
The connection between eyesight and soulsight is important. Remember that Man is the only one among the living beings with capacity for Nous; although Nous exists within all souls, it’s our special capacity for divine Nous that allows us to become closer to and as God once we’re spiritually mature enough for it. This involves, again, a process of experience of the state, condition, and situation we’re in as human beings with a mortal body and immortal soul. We alone among the living beings belong to and experience all the parts of the sensible world, and since the sensible reflects the intelligible and vice versa, we can come to know all the things by means of that which we see and understand down here. Mankind is a very sight-based animal, and we’ve evolved to have fairly good eyesight as our primary sense. By using imagery associated with sight, Hermes does us a solid and makes things a little easier to understand.