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-sixth definition, part X, number 4 of 7:
The immortal nature (is) the movement of the mortal nature, (as to) mortality, earth is its grave; (and) heaven (is) the place of the immortal. The immortal came into being because of the mortal, but the mortal comes into being by means of the immortal. Evil is a deficiency of the good, good (is) fullness of itself.
So, now that we know that all of nature exists within the body of Man, what can we say about what nature actually is? We know that there are four elements: earth which forms the basis for material existence, water which helps to grow, fire which inhibits growth, and air which joins together (II.2,3,4,5). We know that there are different groups of living creatures: heavenly beings with only soul and immortal bodies, stones with only mortal bodies, plants with mortal bodies and breath, animals with mortal bodies and breath and soul, and Man with mortal bodies, breath, soul, and Nous (IV.2), and each of those bodies is composed of some mixture of the elements (IV.1). There are two fluidities, the female which receives things and the male which emits things, which are always at work in the world to cause increase and decrease (X.1). So far, that’s all we know.
Now we start to read about the interaction of different natures and what those natures are. For one, “the immortal nature is the movement of the mortal nature”. Natures with immortality refer to heavenly beings, which we can say are gods, or more Hermetically, the planets and stars of the sky. These are the beings that “have” and “adorn heaven” (IX.7), and as we might infer from the place of astrology in many occult sciences and philosophies, these are the things that influence anything and everything down below. Indeed, the planets and stars are the movement of the life and natures on the world, giving them impetus to act in certain ways just as the soul moves the body.
Further, note how this definition makes a clear demarcation between things high up and things down below: “as to mortality, earth is its grave; and heaven is the place of the immortal”. Human beings and all mortal life down here is relegated to the earth, since earth is “the receptacle of the dead” as well as “nurse of the living” (II.3). On the other hand, the immortal creatures reside in heaven, forever there and never down here, just as humans do not ascend into heaven to be immortal; after all, “you do not have the power of becoming immortal; neither does, indeed, the mortal have the power of dying” (VIII.7). The only means by which we can interact is the air, since “heavens and earth are united with each other by the air” (II.2).
So, what gives with the fact that the immortal beings move us mortal ones around? After all, isn’t Man the one to own and manage the world (VI.1)? Don’t we ourselves have the power of the gods and the heavenly beings (VIII.6)? Well, yes, we do. We have the power of leading ourselves around in a way that nothing else does; the immortal beings move the mortal things, and most mortal things would, as I read this, be influenced by and obey the immortal ones. However, we who are Man don’t have to follow suit; we can be led around by the immortal beings, or we can move ourselves. In either case, movement is still accomplished, but if we let other things push us around, we basically relinquish our control to them, and those other things may not have our best interests at heart. If our soul wants us to do one thing, but our bodies are pushed around to do the opposite, that hurts us and we’re driven further from perfection, not closer to it. Thus, we can resist the power of the immortal beings and choose our own path, though it may not be easy (and it’s often not in the face of actual danger or adversity provided by them).
So why have immortal beings at all? To help us learn more about ourselves, the world, and God. After all, “the immortal came into being because of the mortal”. The immortal beings, with their nature, have their own things and experiences and worlds that we as Man need to learn from. From them we learn immortality, rulership, power of motion over others, and the like; they came into being as the entire world came into being for us (VIII.6). However, they still have influence over us, and it is by them (not the soul, or not just the soul, as we hypothesized in the last definition!) that move bodies around down here to create more bodies. Thus, “the mortal comes into being by means of the immortal”. While the soul is the maker of the body, the body is made by the soul by means of the immortal beings in heaven. (This should sound familiar if you know emanationism in Qabbalah, where an Idea comes down from God through the sephiroth of the planets and stars down to manifestation here on Earth.)
Recall, though, that this isn’t the first mention of stars and astral influences in the Definitions. Way back in VII.5, I mentioned these two little symbols that I couldn’t type, common symbols in Armenian manuscripts for glosses, but one meant “star” and the other meant “sinner”. While the propensity and judgment of individual humans according to their soul’s “illness” and “passion” (IX.4) can lead them to choose certain actions, the motion of the stars and planets above can also lead us to do the same. We can be moved by the stars, just as anything mortal down here can, if we let it. Certain influences, thoughts, accidents, opportunities, and the like can all be presented to us to lead or move us in certain ways that our souls may agree with or cry out against.
After all, keep in mind that these heavenly beings may not have our best influences at heart; they are still in the world and thus of matter, and moreover, have no Nous (IV.2). They are entirely worldly, and as such, they are evil just as anything material is (according to X.1). Evil, as we’re aware, is “conspicuous” (X.1), and we know that not only is evil the opposite of good, but that evil “is a deficiency of good”. Evil is a lack, that which is missing something. A dark room is dark because it has no light; one is ignorant because they do not know something. Evil is defined by what it lacks; this is why it’s so conspicuous. Good, on the other hand, is “fullness of itself”; it is complete in itself, just as light shows things to be just as they are without changing or modifying them (II.6). Good “bears no comparison”, and knowledge of something cannot be compared to knowledge of anything else; ignorance is simply lacking knowledge, while knowledge is knowledge. It cannot be substituted with knowledge of anything else, nor can it be enlarged or decreased in any way.
So, about those planets, stars, gods, and heavenly beings? While they may not be outright ignorance, they don’t have all knowledge, either. They are without Nous, and so while they may exist as part of and within God, they are without knowledge of God and therefore without knowledge of the world or themselves. This makes them ignorant, and thus possessing the quality of evil. They lead us to potentially ignorant ends, unaware of the intelligible or non-worldly aspects of their actions, and can so lead us to stay trapped down here when we let them. (This should now sound like the function of the archons in Gnosticism.) With knowledge, we understand the entire world and all the influences and natures within; without, we get trapped and are moved to know only a select few things in a select few ways.