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 fortieth definition, part IX, number 5 of 7:
Who(ever) behaves well towards his body, behaves badly towards himself. Just as the body, without a soul, is a corpse, likewise soul, without Nous, is inert. Once a soul has entered the body, it (soul) will acquire Nous. That which does not require (it), goes out such as it had entered. For every soul, before entering the body, is deprived of Nous; then Nous joins it from the body, so that eventually the soul becomes endowed with Nous. That (soul) which has gone out of the human body has (got) an ill memory: for soul, (even) covered with the body, is forced to remember its (soul’s) unforgetfulness. One change is unforgetful and (another) change brings about forgetfulness.
We know that humans are constituted out of many things, and what makes us essentially human is really just that: the essence of being human. This is an idea, a form that we realize through our bodies, souls, spirits, and minds. Our bodies are born, live, increase, decrease, and die in the material world and the material world alone; our souls are sent into our bodies so they can be perfected through the life of the body; spirit is the medium between the soul and the body; the mind is what is able to use reason and the ability to know God. This idea has been developed over the course of the Definitions, and this ninth set of definitions helps us understand how we can perfect the body by saying something a little more descriptive than “know yourself” or “know God”.
Although the soul lives within the body, what happens to the body is not always good for soul; the last definition talked about the illnesses and passions of the soul, which can prevent the soul from properly acting and developing or can sway it into acting in a manner that is unhelpful to its development. We also know that actions, opinions, and speech that is unreasonable, i.e. it does not serve the goals of Nous/the Good, basically limits itself to the material world we live in (V.1, V.2), and to limit ourselves to this world causes ignorance and is thus evil (VII.5, VIII.6). Thus, if we place the body over the soul, we do our souls damage, which then does ourselves damage (VI.3). Thus, “whoever behaves well towards the body, behaves badly toward himself”. If we treat our bodies as first and foremost, lavishing it in luxury and simply “treating it well”, then we neglect our souls, which should deserve that same or better treatment. This isn’t to say that we should totally neglect the body, of course; if the body isn’t well maintained, then the soul doesn’t have a chance to perfect within it. Rather, we should strive to perfect the soul and maintaining our bodies as necessary along the way. It’s similar to how happiness and sadness happen to us when we interact with the world; we don’t strive to be happy for the sake of being happy, but we should strive for something good which makes us happy as a result. Likewise, we shouldn’t treat the body well for the sake of treating it well, but we should strive for Nous which makes our body well as a result.
After all, “the body, without a soul, is a corpse, likewise soul, without Nous, is inert”. The two rely on each other in order to live, and so they need to support each other. If we neglect the soul, the body dies; if we neglect the body, the soul remains imperfect. Neither of these are good, though it’s worse for the soul to remain imperfect than the body dying. Again, though death is generally a bad thing, that only affects our bodies, which is not the entirety of us. We are more than dying bodies; we are both mortal and immortal (I.5), and we have the power of choosing immortality and making ourselves the gods we ought to be (VIII.7). All told, while we should neglect neither the body nor the soul in our lives, we should focus on the development of the soul as our primary task and the development of the body as a secondary (but still as necessary) task, or as a co-equal task in the process of perfecting the soul.
Going back a bit, “soul, without Nous, is inert”, meaning it has no motion, no impetus, no drive. After all, just as God has no means to sense since there is nothing outside God to sense (VIII.2), the soul without body has no means to move since there is nothing to move. Thus, it is motionless, incapable of doing anything. “Once a soul has entered [a human] body, [the soul] will acquire Nous”; once the soul gains a body, it gains the ability to move and a source from which motion is derived. This is the soul-Nous that comes with soul, not the divine Nous that we have to strive for with Logos (VIII.4). So, before a soul ever gets to a body, it has no Nous, though it still exists within Nous; then, once it joins with a body, it is given Nous. But if a soul already has Nous before entering the body, then it has already acquired it and does not get an “extra portion” of Nous: “[the soul] which does not require [Nous], goes out such as it had entered”. This means that the soul has already been joined to a body before, and has already been given Nous, yet the soul is going to another body; thus, the soul has left one body and goes to another. This statement implies reincarnation or transmigration of souls, which fits with hints from before about souls perfecting themselves through bodies.
To begin with, however, “every soul, before entering the body, is deprived of Nous”. Then, “Nous joins it from the body”; note that soul-Nous is not simply given to the soul from Nous, but from the body. The body is crucial to the soul’s development, and is the basis for soul-Nous to even be present. Just as the world is in God and Man is in the world (VII.5), so too is God in the world, since “everything is within man” (IX.4). God is in itself, too, but the soul is only intelligible and not sensible, though still lacking God in itself. The soul must be mixed with the body in the essence of Man in order to be given soul-Nous; only then can it “eventually [become] endowed with Nous”. There doesn’t appear to be any difference between different disembodied or unembodied souls, though once a soul has been mixed with the essence of Man, it gains the capacity for Nous in a way that other souls do not; the soul undergoes a fundamental difference. To use alchemical terms, this makes the material world and the body the crucible within which the actions and reactions of spiritual “materials” interact with each other to refine themselves, using the body as the base stratum of material. Through refinement and perfection, incorporating true knowledge of the world, ourselves, and God, the prima materia of the alchemists is transformed into the purest gold and leaves the Caput Mortum behind, the end result and Great Work of the alchemists, the Magnum Opus of the magician.
Still, this process isn’t easy, and can be easily set back. “That soul which has gone out of the human body has got an ill memory”; we know from before that the soul “will not know the beings outside the body” (VI.2), but now we see that there’s more at stake here. “Soul, even covered with the body, is forced to remember its unforgetfulness”. This is a little unclear, but keep in mind that memory is the retaining of knowledge and the ability to access it later on in time. Knowledge is God; by remaining in knowledge, we remain in God. By forgetting knowledge, we leave God. Thus, by remembering our unforgetfulness, we remember our tendency to always be in knowledge/God, and so remember who and what we truly are as Man. While we may not yet be unforgetful, we still have unforgetfulness. This is what our immortality (at least in part) consists of.
Of course, that’s not all we are. As Man, we have two natures, the immortal and mortal, and also the unforgetful and the forgetful. Our eternal knowledge and union with God is our immortality and also our unforgetfulness; thus, our mortality and forgetfulness is our live and death as a living bodily creature. Neither of these things is either the body’s or the soul’s pristine form, however: “one change is unforgetful and another change brings about forgetfulness”. The bestowing of Nous upon the soul gives it unforgetfulness; the death of the body around the soul brings about forgetfulness. We must choose immortality and Nous to never forget who we are; to choose mortality and the body, “to treat the body well [over the soul”, brings about forgetfulness, a lack of knowledge, and the “perdition” of V.2.