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 forty-third definition, part X, number 1 of 7:
What is good? What bears no comparison. Good is invisible, (but) evil is conspicuous. What is a female? A receptive fluidity. What is a male? A seminal fluidity.
Alright, guys, here we go! We’re in the home stretch now, with seven definitions ahead of us. This is the final set of aphorisms given in the Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius, though Jean-Pierre Mahé notes that there was a spurious eleventh set which was copied from other Hermetic texts, and so are not given as part of these aphorisms. Mahé notes that lists of aphorisms have historically tended to be subject to additions, interpolations, subtractions, and other modifications, and we’ve seen some of these things before in sections III and VII. On the whole, however, the Definitions have been providing us with a more-or-less coherent foundation for Hermetic philosophy, and this last section should prove to be interesting. The last section emphasized the role and place of Man in the cosmos, after building up the case for the actions of knowledge and ignorance leading to immortality or mortality for man, his unique connection to God that allows knowledge of the entire cosmos, and what the cosmos is structured like. With that, let’s begin this final part of the Definitions.This definition actually acts as a definition, affording meanings for four words, two of which we’ve already seen: good, evil, female, and male.
That which is good “bears no comparison”; there is nothing that can be compared to the good. We know that good is knowledge, especially knowledge of God and the beings (VII.5), that Nous/God/light is good, or more properly the Good (II.1, II.6, IX.2), and that Man can choose to do good when he carries out the will of Nous and works toward God and perfection of the soul, a power of the gods (VIII.7). By using the associations of God with the Good from I.4, we also know that the Good is uncreated, ineffable, intelligible, immovable, and invisible, and is also eternal (I.5); further, it is also honest and beautiful (IX.4) God is, effectively, “knowledge of the beings” (VI.3), all at once, all together. God which is the Good is the Whole, the All, the One, the greatest and greater than greatest. In this light, there is nothing that can compare to the Good, hence it “bears no comparison”. Even Man, made in the image of God, is nothing like God in some ways. There is nothing that can be compared to the Good, because the Good will always dwarf everything, no matter what it may be.
Further, “good is invisible”; after all, that is what God is, being everywhere and beyond all at once. God dwells within all things, and, being light as well, “appears just as it is by itself” without itself being visible. We cannot see or sense the Good, no more than we can see or sense truth or knowledge directly, but it is there all the same. This is contrasted with evil, which is “conspicuous”. Evil is everything we can see or sense that we know for a fact is not Good. Of course, since everything is within God, everything is (as it is) good and nothing is to truly be feared (IX.3), but anything we see is only a reflection of truth, since it has nature and quality and quantity (VIII.5, VII.7). Evil is anything that hides the truth; it is ignorance (VII.7), darkness (implied in II.6 and VIII.5), and lies and ugliness (IX.4). Evil is what keeps us from attaining knowledge of God, and what prevents us from knowing the Good.
Does this mean that the material world is evil? Basically, yeah. Evil is that which hides the good, ignorance that hides knowledge. This material world we live in with bodies, increase and decrease, birth and death is all natural, sure, but it is a reflection of the truth, which is invisible and immaterial. Truth is God, God is good; nature is not truth, therefore nature is neither God nor good. (This shows the Platonic/Neoplatonic/Gnostic influence on Hermeticism, which holds that material things are evil and not really made by God, but that a greater and more perfect world exists beyond this imperfect, fatal one and whoever made the mistake of making this world fucked shit up.) But if you follow this through, it accords with the rest of what we’ve said before. Remember the warning about “whoever behaves well towards his body, behaves badly towards himself” (IX.5), “just as you will behave towards the soul when it is in this body, likewise it will behave towards you when it has gone out of the body” (VI.3), and “speech which comes from speech is only perdition” (V.2)? Whatever comes from this world is nothing more than nature arising from nature. Without Nous/God or Logos/Reason to guide or create things, there is no good in them. Speech that comes from speech, or that comes from the world about the world for the world, is essentially unreasonable; treating the body before the soul or instead of the soul neglects the Good within ourselves.
So what exactly brings about nature that generates nature? This definition introduces to us two new terms: female and male. They are both “fluidities”, which indicates flow, transformation, change, and mobility. Female fluidity is receptive; it is changed. Male fluidity is seminal; it changes other things. We might use the terms “passive” and “active” instead, if you wanted to go with a less gendered way to say it, but the concepts are the same. Anything that is shaped, molded, formed, built, and the like has female qualities. Anything that shapes, molds, forms, builds, and the like has male qualities. The interaction between these two fluidities is what generates things down here. Note that, while it may be tempting, we can’t really associate these with the elements as we know them. Earth, as we might guess, has strong female qualities (consider how many things we make out of solid objects!); likewise, water is the height of fluidity, and its flow is contained or shaped by other things. But then, water can also be male when it chips away and molds earth, and earth can be male when it contains or redirects the flow of water. Remember that female and male are fluidities, forces of change independent of form. They’re even less material than the elements themselves; they’re modes of operation, action, and change.
But, however, because they are forms of change, they are not immovable and uncreated as God is (I.4). God is immovable and cannot be moved, while things that are female are moved and are created and things that are male move and create. We might say that God takes on some male qualities, but this wouldn’t be completely honest to say at this point, I think. Female and male are qualities, which are properties of matter (VII.4), and as such are still not Good, and therefore not God, and therefore “evil”, since we can see these things or at least these forces at work in the world. This isn’t saying that female humans are receptive or that male humans are active, either; it’s important to draw the line with these definitions here in that these are forces of change and no more.