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-seventh definition, part X, number 5 of 7:
Soul is bound to be born in this world, but Nous is superior to the world. Just as Nous is unbegotten, so is matter too, (although) it (can be) divided. Nous is unbegotten, and matter (is) divisible; soul is threefold, and matter has three parts; generation (is) in soul and matter, (but) Nous (is) in God for the generation of the immortal (beings).
Man is a creature composed of a material body inhabited and moved by soul, and the soul of Man (generally) have a contact with and capacity for Nous, or knowledge of God. Because of the presence of Nous within us, we’re able to use Logos, or reasonable speech, which can help us understand and direct the world around us. However, it turns out that we’re not the only ones in the game here; the immortal beings in heaven above us also move us down here, and it’s up to us to choose whether to steer ourselves in whichever way we think is best (even if it’s not really good for us) or let the stars and planets and gods steer us in whichever way they think is best.
Of course, the process of even bringing Man into the world is complicated; first Nous makes soul from itself, then soul uses the heavenly beings to create a body, then the soul joins the body at birth. Souls without bodies are “inert” and motionless, so they can only fulfill their functions when they have a body. Bodies are material, so they belong in the world; thus, “soul is bound to be born in this world”. Soul has basically no choice in the matter; if it wants to move and carry out its functions, it must have a body, so the connection between the intelligible soul and sensible body is almost mandated. However, the soul of Man is blessed with a connection to and part of Nous, and “Nous is superior to the world”. Although all things in the cosmos exist within and as part of God/Nous, Nous does not blatantly or consciously reside within all things; that’s only given to Man. This is what allows Man to be both of the world (as far as his body is concerned) and in the world (as far as his soul is concerned). Nous is not bound to the world; Nous is the world and so much more.
So, it goes without saying that God is unbegotten; God is the creator of all things, and God is both immortal and eternal, so nothing can have created God; God, simply, has always existed. Thus, “Nous is unbegotten”. However, what may be surprising is that just as Nous is unbegotten, “so is matter too”. Thus, not only does the world exist within God, but the world has always existed within God. There was never a point, except outside of time itself perhaps, when matter and the world did not exist. God and the world, Nous and matter, have always both existed. However, we know Nous to be the One, while we can pretty easily pick out different kinds of matter and different numbers of body. Indeed, “[matter] can be divided”; thus, while matter has always existed, it does not exist in the same forms from moment to moment, and can be broken off or split up or otherwise divided so as to be joined with other matter later on. Thus, “Nous is unbegotten, and matter is divisible”. This sounds somewhat like the law of conservation of mass: nothing new was ever brought in, but always existed in some form or another.
So how does soul relate to the material world, besides being in a body? Well, according to this, “soul is threefold”. That’s not very helpful, but the footnotes provided by Jean-Pierre Mahé indicate that the “threefold soul” refers to its reasonable, unreasonable, and sensible forms. By saying that the soul is threefold, I don’t believe that Hermes is saying that we have three souls, but rather that the soul has three “modes”: it can act reasonably, it can act unreasonably, or it can act sensibly. Reasonable action is when the soul acts agreeably with Nous; unreasonable action is when the soul acts disagreeably to Nous. Sensible action, however, is when the soul works with the body. The body contains the sense organs, but it delivers the sensory data to the soul for it to understand and know. Of course, all this threefold soul stuff only applies to Man, since he’s the only creature endowed with Nous and so can act reasonably or unreasonably. For all other living creatures, they can neither act reasonably or unreasonably, but only sensibly, since that’s all that’s available to them.
Matter, on the other hand, has “three parts”. Jean-Pierre Mahé suggests this to mean three dimensions, or that of length, breadth, and depth. Anything solid must exist in at least three dimensions, since two dimensional objects indicate only flat abstract forms, one dimensional objects indicate direction and motion, and zero dimensional objects indicate infinity, singularity, or nullity. All bodies exist with three dimensions, in other words, and these things are both quantifiable and qualifiable, since matter brings about these things (VII.4). We can count how long things are, how fast they may be moving, and so forth. These things are meaningless outside the sensible world, since these are all sensible qualities and quantities.
One such quantity we can measure is growth, which is continued generation. How are things generated? By “soul and matter”; soul is what makes the body and moves it, and by making use of the fluidities of femaleness and maleness as well as the four elements, the soul can direct the body to increase or decrease, or to be born or bear children, and so forth. Generation and growth exists as a property of matter. However, what about for things immortal? Immortal beings are either heavenly, in which case they are made of matter, or immaterial, in which case they have no body at all but are detached from them, e.g. Man. For the generation of mortal beings, “Nous is in God”. Nous is immortality, and God is the means by which it is spread and grows. Nothing can be immortal in the true, unbegotten sense as God or Nous is without Nous, and Nous is perfect truth, which is perfect immortality exceeding that of the heavenly beings. While birth and death are in soul and matter, truth and perfection are in God.
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