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-eighth definition, part IX, number 3 of 7:
Who(ever) knows God, does not fear God; who(ever) does not know God fears God. Who(ever) knows none of the beings fears everyone; who(ever) knows all of them fears none.
So we know that the perfection of the soul, the whole point of living according to Hermes Trismegistus, is to know God; this is our “plenitude”, our “good” (VII.5). This is equivalent to knowing all that exists (VI.3), both in the mutually-reflective sensible world and intelligible world (VIII.5). In coming to know God, we come to know ourselves; by coming to know ourselves, we come to know God. Our nature is godly; as “nature is the mirror of truth”, we can see and know God through ourselves. Cool stuff, cool stuff.
Recall also from the last definition that Nous is light and light is Nous. Since God is Nous and Nous is God, we can also say that God is light and light is God. Nous, the divine Mind, is both the thing that knows as well as the action of knowing and the object of knowledge all at once; recall the identification in V.1 between Nous and Logos, Mind and Word; the Mind is what it does. Likewise, light is knowledge, knowing, and knower all at once. When we understand something by knowing it, we know what it’s like, how it acts, how it manifests, how it comes into being and passes out of being (if possible). We see it, experience it, and as a result come to be it. After all, as we join with divine Nous, we return to God and know God, and since God is literally everything everywhere all the time constantly forever eternally, we come to know all things. We become all things, everything everywhere all the time constantly forever eternally. Again, cool stuff.
As a result, “whoever knows God, does not fear God”. We haven’t yet encountered the concept of fear yet in the Definitions, but we have encountered warnings and threats to our immortality and well-being by choosing ignorance and evil instead of knowledge and good. We don’t choose ignorance because we enjoy being ignorant; we choose ignorance because that’s what we think is good for us (VIII.1, VIII.6), despite what our soul urges us to do (VII.7). If we know God, we completely hear and understand what is good for us, and so we do what we must and are urged to do because that’s what we know for a fact to be good. We understand what is good and what the Good is, and how we relate to it. There is nothing to fear here, nothing to make us choose anything else but good and knowledge, since we are not swayed by unreasonable opinions.
However, those who are swayed by unreasonable opinions choose ignorance of God, and “whoever does not know God fears God”. There really isn’t anything to fear to begin with, of course; Man is blessed to be made in the image of God, and we are in our own ways part of God. God has nothing against us, since we are within God. However, people who fear God have no understanding of what God is, and since “nature is the mirror of truth”, they have no understanding of who they themselves are. They lack knowledge generally of themselves, of the beings, and of God.
Let’s go back to the imagery of light for a bit. If you’re in a well-lit room, you can see what’s around you; nothing is hidden from you, you know where to step to avoid harm and enjoy luxury, you know what’s present and what’s missing. With light, you see and know what’s in the room. If there are people in it, you can see them too, and can see who they are, what they have, and the like. Nothing surprises you, nothing hides from you, nothing is hidden from you. Without light, however, you’d be in a pitch black room without any means to know what’s going on. You can’t see whether there’s a chair in front of you or not, so you fear to walk forward lest you hurt yourself. You can’t see whether there’s a dog or a murderer in the room, so you fear for your livelihood. Everything is hidden from you, even if there’s really nothing even there, and you end up in fear.
It’s the same with the world. By knowing everything by God through Light with Nous, we see and understand all the things that exist. We’re aware of them, how to act with them, how to keep ourselves well while avoiding or interacting with them, how to talk with them, and so forth. Without knowledge, we don’t know what to do. We fear these things. Even if we have nothing to fear, we fear them; this is unreasonable, because we don’t understand them, and a lack of understanding is a lack of reason. Thus, “whoever knows none of the beings fears everyone; whoever knows all of them fears none”. If we know even one being, we know them all (“by means of either one being or of the whole, you may understand”, VIII.6), but if we don’t know even one being, we know nothing at all. And, even by understanding one being, we understand God.
How might we go about fearing God through a lack of knowledge? Human opinion (VIII.1), mostly, and unreasonable speech (V.3). Both of these things work hand-in-hand and serve to lead Man astray on his path to God, either by setting up false gods who end up getting worshipped instead of God, or by letting others determine one’s action for oneself instead of listing to one’s soul. By not understanding the truth of God, we don’t understand ourselves and our relationship to God. Thus, we might assume God is capable of punishing and murdering us (when definition VIII.3 suggests otherwise), or that God is eternally separated from us (when VII.5 and other definitions contradict that), or that God is a material, living entity with a beginning (when III.4 says that’s wrong). In another sense, we might think that God acts on behalf of some humans or does their bidding, or we might think that God acts in political ways within religions or groups; these are likewise wrong, and are fueled by human opinion for human needs, just as unreasonable speech serves unreasoning humans (V.2).
As for the world, if we know God, then we know all beings, and we fear them no longer. At the risk of sounding like a trite New Age guru, by becoming enlightened through God we come to be at one with all things, understanding all things as part of ourselves as we are part of God through the ubiquitous Nous that sees and knows all things. Just as we don’t (or shouldn’t) properly fear our own hands or our teeth, when we are at one with other beings, we don’t fear them, either; they are us and we are them, just as we are God and within God. The whole illusion of duality and separation that we have in the meanwhile leads us to unreasonably think that “they can hurt me” or “they will kill me”, since we perceive other beings to external to us and not as extensions of us or as us. We end up seeing ourselves as victims of the world instead as owners of it, and we fear that which we rule (IX.1).
I’m tempted to draw a connection between the use of “fear” in this definition and the use of “love” from VIII.7. There, we are told that one of the ways we are to perfect ourselves is to “love”, which comes about from belief and which leads into desire of perfection and God. If we love something, we come to understand it and know it, we chase after it, we long to be with it, we strive to serve it. If we fear something, we run away from it, we disavow it, we defend ourselves against it, we shut it out. Those who know God are those who are perfected, and those who are perfected are those who love. What do they love? God, and by extension, themselves and all beings. In love they are at one with God and the cosmos; in fear they separate themselves from them and shut them out.