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-ninth definition, part IX, number 4 of 7:
Soul’s illness: sadness and joy; soul’s passions: desire and opinion. Bodies are silimar to souls when they are seen: none (is) ugly (if it is) good, none is evil (if it is) honest. Everything is visible to one who has Nous; who(ever) thinks of himself in Nous knows himself and who(ever) knows himself knows everything. Everything is within man.
The Definitions have been good in explaining things at a high level: where we came from, what our job is, the nature of God, and so forth. Being short as it is, however, it doesn’t afford us many of the details to a lot of the questions it brings up. This is how we have a traditions of philosophy that go back for two thousand years and analytic texts that help explain the core tenets of a religion and how things play out based on actual scripture which, almost always, doesn’t answer every question in full. That’s often the point; what’s the point of describing the nature of God to someone who doesn’t know what God is? The core texts exist to help get the proper footing needed to start learning and experiencing on our own. Likewise, with the Definitions, we’re not told much about some of the things that we may want to know. For instance, consider the soul: we know that all moving things have souls and that Man’s soul is different from other types of soul. We know the high-level bare-bones theory of the soul, but we haven’t talked much about the nitty-gritty details of soul. While we don’t (and can’t) know everything from a simple single text, we can get a basic grasp of it from learning and reasonable speech, which the Definitions provide us. And this short definition has quite a lot to unpack.
Here, we learn that the soul isn’t something immutable: it has illnesses and passions. Illnesses, broadly speaking, are temporary conditions where something is afflicted and cannot function properly. For instance, a cold or catching the flu are illnesses, where the body’s immune system is compromised and several parts of the body go out of whack for a short while. Some illnesses don’t affect us much and are as quickly lost as they were caught; some have a sudden onset and kill us; some linger around forever waiting for an opportunity to strike in tandem with something else to kill us. Passions, on the other hand, are strongly felt emotions or mental states that drive us to action; the root word for this in English comes from Latin meaning “to suffer”, while the Greek means “feeling”, “suffering”, or “what befalls to one”. Passions change us, drive us, and steer us to certain actions that normally might not be taken. The difference between illnesses and passions is that illnesses affect someone from the outside; they’re never caught in isolation (I’m referring only to the common sense of communicable diseases, not genetic or other “natural” diseases). Passions, however, arise from within. If we restrict the meaning of “illness” to communicable diseases, passions might be associated with genetic disorders or other internal states such as heat, hunger, or fatigue.
We now know that the soul has two illnesses, “sadness and joy”, which arise from external causes. The soul doesn’t make itself sad or happy, but gets the causes for these things from outside itself: the body, things that happen to the body or soul, and other external events or entities. Likewise, the soul has two passions, “desire and opinion”, which arise from internal causes. The soul creates these or are predisposed to these things on its own; we don’t directly get desires or opinions from outside ourselves, but come up with them on our own. Of course, the two are connected; emotions (“illnesses”) can provide the impetus for passions, such as finding something that makes us happy and us leading to believe that we should get more of it. Likewise, passions can help produce emotions once effected, such as desiring something that we cannot obtain, the lack of which makes us sad.
The illnesses and passions of the soul, though different and arising from different sources, are intertwined in a complex way. Both, however, afflict the soul. A healthy soul free of illness would be free from sadness or joy, and a calm soul free of passions would be free from desire and opinion. Of course, no soul in a body can be properly free of these things; these are all qualities, and a soul gains “quality and quantity as well as good and evil” when it gains a body, “for matter brings about such things” (VII.4). These things cloud the judgment, knowledge, and action of the soul, and so change the movement, function, and state of the body that it inhabits. Because the soul would not have these things without a body, the body can be said to be the cause of both soul-illness and soul-passion, though it may not be the source for their’ arising. Just as bodily illnesses prevent the body from acting the way it should, soul-illnesses prevent the soul from acting as it should. Similarly, just as bodily passions drive the body to act in certain ways, soul-passions drive the soul to act in certain ways. While all illnesses are to be avoided since they prevent action, not all passions are bad if they drive us to act a certain way; after all, it’s a good and healthy passion of the body to live and eat, and it’s a good and healthy passion of the soul to desire and know Nous (VII.3). (The terminology here hints at Hermeticism’s influence from classical Stoicism, one of my favorite philosophies.)
Why are things like sadness and joy bad? After all, while sadness might be seen as undesirable (note how a passion here comes into play!), we often find joy and happiness to be desirable and fun. Keep in mind, however, that these are things that arise from external things, which are material in nature. If we pursue the material for the sake of the material, or if we produce things that make us happy because they make us happy, then we’re effectively rising no higher than the material realm where these things exist. If we pursue things for their own sake or for a proper opinion of them (as developed by Logos and Nous within ourselves), and if we become happy in the process, awesome, but that shouldn’t be the goal of our pursuit and only serves to distract us if we hold onto that feeling. (I’m reminded of the Zen koan “if you meet the Buddha in the road, kill him”.) It’s normal for us to be afflicted by sadness and joy as we go through the world doing our stuff, just as we’re accosted by germs and parasites and viruses every time we leave the house to go to work or the store. We get these things that may make us sick in the course of doing something else; we don’t try to hold onto them, so that way we don’t get distracted from what we went outside our houses for. If we become happy on the way to the grocer because we enjoy driving, we don’t keep driving for the sake of driving hoping that it continues to make us happy. We drive to get to the store and we drive back, lest we run out of gas on the road and end up never going to the store or getting home. Likewise, if we become happy or sad in the process of our Work, that’s just what happens to us; we should shrug it off naturally as the body sheds off illnesses naturally,
Opinions and desires, on the other hand, drive us to do different things based on what we consider. These are things that arise up out of the soul from different intelligible causes; according to opinion, after all, many gods have come into being that are not God (VIII.1), yet, through unreasonable speech and opinions, are worshiped as ultimate divinity for spiritual or political reasons (VIII.3). While the Nous dwelling within the soul provides a set of natural opinions and desires that would help us lead proper lives, we as humans are capable of choosing them or choosing other ones that can lead to God or to elsewhere (VIII.6). Depending on what external stimuli we have, our opinions and desires are swayed both by them and by Nous, and depending on which tendencies to action are stronger, our bodies and selves are led to act in certain ways by our souls, which can produce more sets of external stimuli. For instance, we desire to go to the store to get food to cook for the week, but we may be tempted by an immediate hunger and a carelessness of money and go to a fancy restaurant instead. Likewise, we may desire to study magic or religion, but we can be persuaded by other people to study this tradition instead of that one or no tradition at all, or we can get tempted to use it more of a means to impress or socialize other people because we think it more helpful to us instead of studying it for its own sake as a means to gnosis.
Sadness and joy, the illnesses of the soul, happen to us and afflict us as they will; just as exposing ourselves to bodily illness largely can’t be avoided, so too do we expose ourselves to them, though we can take measures and caution to make sure they don’t affect us too much and prevent us from acting how we will. Desires and opinions, however, are much more within our control, and how do we form these? With deliberation and our use of reason and speech, which help to provide knowledge (V.2). By this knowledge we come to understand the world around us, which helps to provide knowledge of God. Thus, by even trying to know God as bodily beings, we expose ourselves to danger and affliction, but this is just part of being a material being with qualities, quantities, and “good and evil”. We should choose good, but what is good? Knowledge, which is God, which is Nous, which is light (IX.2). When we have Nous and knowledge, we know things as they are (II.2), which produces desires and opinions that lead us to where we need to be.
Thus, when we truly see things, we know them as they are. “Bodies are similar to souls when they are seen: none is ugly if it is good, none is evil if it is honest”. We do not fear the things we know (IX.3), so we are not averted by them; thus, if things are good, we know them as they are and as part of God, and so they are not “ugly”, which would cause fear and aversion if we did not truly see them. Similarly, if they are honest, they show themselves as they are, not hiding anything. If something hides itself without honesty, it is a lie, which is a result of unreasonable speech; further, if it hides from light which is Nous, it clouds knowledge of itself and produces darkness, the absence of light. These things are then “evil”, since they prevent knowledge from being obtained. These things hide, and hiding is caused by fear (IX.3), which is caused by a lack of knowledge, which is ignorance, which is evil (VII.5). We can draw several comparisons here:
- Things that are good are not ugly (causing attraction)
- Things that are good are honest (truth)
- Things that are evil are ugly (causing aversion)
- Things that are evil are not honest (lies)
- Things that are ugly are not honest
- Things that are honest are not ugly
With light, one can see; with knowledge, nothing is hidden (V.2). Nous is knowledge; thus, “everything is visible to one who has Nous”, since Nous sees all things (V.1). Further, since one’s self is within Nous as everything is, “whoever thinks of himself in Nous knows himself and whoever knows himself knows everything” (cf. the Delphic maxim “know thyself”). Everything is within God, which is Nous. If we know ourselves, we know God, and if we know ourselves, we know everything. Thus, this definition finishes with a powerful statement: “everything is within man”. We’ve seen references to this before: “man is a small world…a perfect world whose magnitude does not exceed…the world” (I.4);”God is within himself, the world is in God, and man in the world” (VII.5). We are a microcosm, a reflection of the world as well as of God, and if we know one part of the Whole, we come to know the Whole, so if we come to know ourselves, we come to know the Whole, which is everything. Everything is within us.