Third Book like a First Sermon: Book III of the Corpus Hermeticum

Perhaps fitting for all those Carcers I got in the yearly readings I did at the start of 2020, these past few weeks have been marked by self-isolation and quarantine both voluntary and involuntary for many of us. Frankly, this has been an excellent time for me; not only do I naturally take to a hermitic life, but I don’t have to waste time commuting, getting dressed, or the like, and can instead spend more time in my daily prayers and meditations, more time doing rituals, more time writing, more time reading, and more time sleeping. (Well, maybe not sleeping, but one can always hope.) In addition to being a hermitic time, it is also—surprising positively nobody—a rather Hermetic time for me, as well. I’m going back more and more lately, it seems to what I’ve been calling the “Hermetic canon”: the Corpus Hermeticum, the Asclepius, the Stobaean Fragments, and various other bits of classical Hermetic bits and pieces that have been compiled throughout the centuries and translated thanks to the like of Brian Copenhaver, M. David Litwa, Clement Salaman, A.D. Nock and A.-J. Festugière, Walter Scott (vols. one, two, and three), and the like back and back through time. For me, I’ve been diving in deeper and deeper, contemplating and mulling over these texts, as they rightly and well deserve. They are, after all, the foundation of Hermetic thought, belief, and practice. So, it’s not uncommon that I’ll crack open my copy of Copenhaver or Litwa as I curl up in bed, read a few passages, and think them over as my head stops thinking and starts dreaming. It’s not exactly light reading, of course, but it’s a hard meal to take for the mind, full of roughage and slow-digesting nutrients—and thus among the most nutritious for the soul.

Although a number of the books of the Corpus Hermeticum are well-known and well-loved and have their own nicknames—Book I as the Divine Poemander, Book IV as the Mixing-Bowl, Book X as the Key, and so on—it’s Book III that recently caught my attention. It’s succinctly titled The Sacred Discourse of Hermēs Trismegistos (Ἑρμοῦ τοῦ Τρισμεγίστου λόγοσ ἱερός according to Scott, Ἑρμοῦ ἱερός λόγος according to Nock/Festugière), and like its short name, is a short section of the Corpus Hermeticum, indeed, coming in at only 23 (oddly long) lines of text, broken down into five short paragraphs. The trouble is, however, that the original manuscript is badly preserved, with rather lengthy lacunae on the seventh, thirteenth, and fourteenth lines, and with the first eight lines having a chunk cut off of them at the end. We also don’t have a good idea of when the text was written; some suggest as early as the third century bce, others as late as the third century ce. But what we do have, I think, is probably one of the best introductions to what Hermeticism (or Hermetism), the “Way of Hermēs”, is really all about.

Grab a drink and buckle in, dear reader. We’re going on a bit of a trip this time.

In his notes on his translation, Scott says that Book III:

…is so corrupt as to be almost wholly meaningless; and I have altered it with a free hand. It is not likely that the conjecturally emended text which is here printed is precisely what the author wrote; but I think it probable that, in the main at least, it correctly represents his meaning.

There is no necessity to take this little piece to be an extract from a longer treatise; it appears to be a complete whole in itself, and it is rounded off by a recurrence, in the concluding words, to the same thought with which it began. It is the concentrated essence of some unknown Egyptian’s reflections on the universe.

The author of Corp. III had read the first chapter of Genesis. It is impossible to doubt this, when we compare the corresponding passages in detail [between Genesis 1:1—3, 7, 11, 13, 20, 22, 24, 26, and 28 and Book III]. It is evident then that the writer of Corp. III knew the Mosaic account of the creation. But he also knew the Stoic cosmology; and in this document, he has tried to harmonize the one with the other, and so “reconcile Genesis with science”.

We have fragments of another cosmogony, which appears to have been likewise derived in part from Genesis and in part from Stoic science, but was said by its author to be based on the writings of Thoth, whom the Greeks called Hermēs Trismegistus,—namely, the cosmogony of Sanchuniathon, as reported by Philo Byblius; and it seems worth while to compare this with Corp. III…

Nock and Festugière in their notes instead comment that (my translation, with the generous help of Google Translate from the French original):

According to the remarks of L. Ménard, this whole treatise is full of inconsistencies and obscurity. This is probably due, at least in part, to the corruption of the text. In this case, the comparison with some of the variants from the Stobaean Fragments testifies to the small chance we have to correct errors that go back to the very sources of the [Hermetic] tradition. But a large part of the obscurity is also undoubtedly attributable to the author; he likes the long, sonorous words and the style of the Septuagint, which recalls the extreme obscurity of the Greek versions of the Book of Ecclesiastes. Further, we do not here have a cosmogony in the genre of Book I of the Corpus Hermeticum or of the Korē Kosmou; this is a ἱερός λόγος and, in fact, is a prose hymn.

The background of this book is worthy of attention. We do not start, as in Book I, with Light, but, in the normal order, with darkness: sand here plays a role analogous to that which we see in what Damascius knew as an Egyptian cosmology, and the celestial gods have and play their part. God is in the universe, and is not transcendent from nor separate of the universe: there are these and other marks of Stoic influence and traces of Platonism (cf. Scott and Ferguson IV, p. XLVII for a Neopythagorean parallel in §4). Everything else comes from the Septuagint. However, the ideas of redemption and immortality [which we find earlier in Book I and elsewhere in the Hermetic canon] are absent. One moves, in fact, in the atmosphere of Judaism of the kind of Ecclesiastes, before eschatological hopes for nature or for the individual had become important and before, in certain circles, one had highlighted, like the Greeks, the opposition of the soul and the body, which was a constant idea in Philo (who was hardly the first, eschatologically speaking). Perhaps this treatise is of older date than many others in the Corpus, and it was accepted as it is, because of the affinities which it presents with the circle where the rest of the treatises were composed.

Copenhaver notes the various issues and debates over Book III in his footnotes to his translation. It is certainly a conflicted part of the Corpus Hermeticum, and it doesn’t help that the lacunae are formidable here, but which Scott and Nock/Festugière have attempted to repair admirably, giving us reasonably complete translations (with caveats) later on courtesy of Copenhaver and Salaman, as well as earlier translators like G.R.S. Mead from 1906 or John Everard from 1650. Of them all, Scott really seems to do his own thing, with everyone else remaining in more-or-less agreement about what the text says (to varying levels of accuracy, of course). Although Nock and Festugière give their own summary and outline of Book III, I want to give my own, based on their translation and version of the text, as opposed to what Scott gives. This isn’t a full version of the text, for which I’d suggest reading Copenhaver or Salaman, but it hits on all the same essential things, broken down into five fairly short paragraphs:

  1. God, the gods, and godly Nature is the glory of all things.
    1. God is Mind, Nature, and Matter.
    2. God is the beginning of the All.
    3. God is Wisdom that shows all things.
    4. The gods, who have their beginning in God, perform and consist of the creation of the cosmos.
  2. The creation of the world.
    1. In the beginning was boundless darkness, water, and spirit, all existing in chaos.
    2. Light descended upon the chaos, and the elements solidified out of the chaos.
    3. The gods separated out the part of nature that could generate and regenerate, and divided it among themselves.
    4. In the moment of separation of the elements but before the formation of matter, the subtle elements (Fire and Air) rose up and the dense elements (Water and Earth) remained behind mixed together.
    5. The world was created, bounded by Fire and set aloft in the air of the cosmos, borne by spirit.
    6. The heavens formed in seven layers around the world.
    7. The gods became visible in the shapes of the stars and their constellations, the constellations conforming themselves to the gods.
    8. The heavens around the world began to rotate by spirit.
  3. The creation of life.
    1. The gods created life according to the powers and responsibilities given unto them, making animals and plants.
    2. The gods created humanity in all its generations to know the works of God and to increase and multiply.
    3. The gods created the souls of humanity for the bodies of humanity to contemplate creation and to discover all things.
  4. The way of life.
    1. To know God, to contemplate creation, etc. is the beginning of virtue and wisdom.
    2. To know God, to contemplate creation, etc. is the beginning of release from the works of the world.
    3. The things of the world will fade, and will be remade anew through the processes of Nature set in motion by the gods.
  5. All the powers of nature in the cosmos are divine, for nature is divine.

The cosmogony of Book III reads a little weird to Scott and Nock/Festugière: as Nock and Festugière noted, “we do not start, as in Book I, with Light, but, in the normal order, with darkness: sand here plays a role analogous to that which we see in what Damascius knew as an Egyptian cosmology, and the celestial gods have and play their part”. But I would counter that by saying it’s virtually the same thing as what’s given in Book I, when Poimandrēs reveals the origin of creation to Hermēs, just from the perspective of creation rather than the creator. Per Copenhaver:

I saw an endless vision in which everything became light—clear and joyful—and in seeing the vision I came to love it. After a little while, darkness arose separately and descended—fearful and gloomy—coiling sinuously so that it looked to me like a snake. Then the darkness changed into something of a watery nature, indescribably agitated and smoking like a fire; it produced an unspeakable wailing roar. Then an inarticulate cry like the voice of fire came forth from it. But from the light…a holy word mounted upon the watery nature, and untempered fire leapt up from the watery nature to the height above. The fire was nimble and piercing and active as well, and because the air was light it followed after spirit and rose up to the fire away from earth and water so that it seemed suspended from the fire. Earth and water stayed behind, mixed with one another, so that earth could not be distinguished from water, but they were stirred to hear by the spiritual word that moved upon them.

Note that this vision of revelation is given to Hermēs from the perspective of God, who (arguably does or does not) exist in Light. Before the creation of matter itself, all is Light; it’s only when God makes a little room within himself, within the Light, can there be a darkness, within which matter can manifest and take shape, and once it does, God sends forth from the Light the Logos, the “holy word”, which puts the process of creation into motion. That’s virtually what we see here in Book III, too, just from the perspective of the space-within-God where matter first manifests; after all, darkness was the beginning of creation, but God preexisted creation in Light.  In other words, Light is still pre-eminent in Creation, it’s just that it hasn’t reached where the darkness existed “by divine power in chaos”.  Likewise, although Nock and Festugière claim that Book III has God being only immanent without being transcendent of creation, that can only really be said if you ignore any implications of transcendence in this account of creation; just because something is not made explicit doesn’t mean the text denies it. I see no real issue here in mismatch between the cosmogonies of Book I and Book III; it’s just that Book III is easier to grok from what we or other common people might expect, already born and present here in creation.

But it’s the third paragraph of Book III that really struck me as important as I’ve been reading it. After describing the creation of animals and plants, the gods (which Scott takes to refer to the four elements themselves, acting as demiurges under God, though the text pretty clearly seems to refer to the gods of the stars and also maybe the planets) create the race of humanity. But it’s not just creation for creation’s own sake; rather, the gods create humanity for a particular set of…ideals, goals, aims, or purposes, I guess, for humanity to aspire to. Going with Copenhaver’s translation, based on Nock and Festugière, “the gods sowed the generations of humans to…”:

  1. To know the works of God
  2. To be a working witness to Nature
  3. To increase the number of mankind
  4. To master all things under Heaven
  5. To know that which is Good
  6. To increase by increasing
  7. To multiply by multiplying

But the text continues after this and gives another list, saying that “through the wonder-working course of the cycling gods they created every soul incarnate to…”:

  1. To contemplate Heaven
  2. To contemplate the paths of the heavenly gods
  3. To contemplate the works of God
  4. To contemplate the working of Nature
  5. To examine the things that are good
  6. To know the power of God
  7. To know the whirling changes of fair and foul
  8. To discover every means of working skillfully with things that are good

As opposed to Nock and Festugière, who follow the text as it is lacunae and all, Scott heavily amends and “repairs” the text and proposes a different wording and suggestions for the lacunae here, causing notable drift between his translation and what other translators propose. He only gives (only can give?) the following list of goals, which reads like a combination of what Nock and Festugière have above. Scott suggests that, given the similarity of these two lists based on their phrasing, “the two passages cannot have been intended to stand together in the same paragraph; one of them must have been written as an alternative or substitute for the other”. Thus, the Scott translation says that God (not the gods) created to:

  1. To contemplate Heaven
  2. To have dominion over all things under Heaven
  3. To know the power of God
  4. To witness the workings of Nature
  5. To mark what things are good
  6. To discern the diverse natures of things good and bad (elsewhere: to learn to distinguish good things from bad things)
  7. To invent all manner of cunning arts

I see Scott’s logic, I have to admit, but it also does seem a bit hacky; he does admit, after all, to altering the text freely to suit his own understanding, while Nock and Festugière preserve more of the original wording, which does seem repetitive. Perhaps, however, what Nock and Festugière have could be interpreted in a different way, a double-creation of humanity, the first material (creation of the body) and the second spiritual (creation of the soul), giving the spiritual essence of the soul one set of tasks to fulfill and the material vessel of the body another set to fulfill. That ties in closely with the wording and order of creation, following up the creation of animals and plants with humanity (“sowed the generations of humans”) and following that up with the creation of souls to inhabit human bodies (“they created every soul incarnate”). This also ties in with the wording of these different tasks: the first set are more manifest and material (mastering things under Heaven, increase the number of humanity, etc.) and the second more subtle and immaterial (to contemplate, examine, know, or discover various things).

A potential problem with this interpretation, however, is that Scott heavily argues that Book III basically denies a Platonic or spiritual understanding of immortality (of the soul, the spiritual part of humanity) which we find elsewhere in the Corpus Hermeticum as being of primary importance. According to Scott’s notes:

Corp. III shows hardly a trace of Platonism; and its writer definitely rejects the Platonic doctrine of the survival of the individual soul. It contains nothing distinctively Egyptian; and there is not the slightest sign of Christian influence. The document may be shortly described as Judaeo-Stoic. …

Each individual man, at the termination of his life on earth, “disappears” and “undergoes dissolution”. Not only is there no mention of a survival of the individual soul after the dissolution of the body, but the contrary is clearly implied. Nothing of a man continues to exist after his death, except his “name” (i.e. the memory of him in the minds of living men); and even that, in most cases, fades away in a little while. …

… Men, beasts, and plants alike (must perish). The end of the sentence is lost; but its meaning can be inferred with certainty from the context. Perhaps the author’s thought might be better expressed by writing…”all flesh is grass”. …

… If we retain these words, we must take them in connexion with ἀπομνημονεύματα τεχνουργημάτων, and the suggested thought would be this: “not only do men perish, but their works perish also; and though the names of great men may be preserved into long ages by the memorials they have left behind them, yet even the greatest will be forgotten in the end”. But the phrase is awkwardly interposed, and hardly suits the context; it cannot be said of the works of human art that they are “renewed by the operation of the stars”, in the sense in which this is said of human and animal births and vegetable growths. …

That which decays and passes away is “renewed”, but only by substitution. The individual perishes, but the race is immortal. The dead do not live again, but others are born to succeed them. And this unceasing renewal of life on earth is caused by the unvarying movements of the heavenly bodies, through the operation of which fresh births are continually taking place. The force by which the renewal is effected may be called φύσις; but φύσις is dependent on the movements of the stars, and therefore the sovereign power of God, by whom the stars themselves were made and set in motion.

Personally—based primarily on my reading of Copenhaver, and thus Nock and Festugière, which seems closer to the original text rather than the overly dour translation (and heavy-handed “repairing”) of Scott—I don’t buy this interpretation. It is true that Book III doesn’t touch on the immortality of the soul explicitly or any sort of higher goal than what was stated above as the goals of the human (whether as a whole, per Scott, or as human body and human soul, per Nock/Festugière). But consider the fourth paragraph, which Scott’s notes above describe as relating to the passing away of humanity and their works a la Ozymandias. From Copenhaver:

For [humans], [the whole of these goals for the body and soul] is the beginning of [the virtuous] life and of wise thinking as far as the course of the cycling gods destines it, and it is also the beginning of their release to what will remain of them after they have left great monuments on earth in works of industry. In the fame of seasons they will become dim [i.e. their memory will wane and be forgotten], and, from every birth of ensouled flesh, from the sowing of crops and from every work of industry, what is diminished will be renewed by necessity and by the renewal that comes from the gods and by the course of nature’s measured cycle.

To me, the lack of anything substantial of what Book III says about the soul after death or the greater cosmic path of the soul as we might find in Book I or Book XIII isn’t a statement about the non-immortality of the soul at all. Rather, Book III is giving us insight into the overall purpose of what we have to do and focus on in life, any greater cosmic eschatology being irrelevant to this topic. Although this is a “sacred discourse”, I would rather argue that this is not one held to be kept secret or reserved for initiates; rather, this is a sermon to be given to people as a whole, whether or not they’re focused on a philosophical or religious life. This is a sermon that Hermēs Trismegistus might give to passers-by or to the public community who might or might not (or just might not yet) have some sort of interest in divine philosophy no matter how small, a sermon that describes in brief a summary of the creation of the world and showing a real-world, walking-the-talk way of life for those who would follow in his way. For the common people or the world at large who might have different views about where their souls might go or who might not think anything of it, it wouldn’t matter what Hermēs would say about what Poimandrēs told him about what happens to the soul after death and how to ascend through the heavenly spheres to be made God (as in Book I), so Hermēs here says nothing about it. Rather, Book III is trying to inspire people to engage in the divine work right here, right now, in this very world, in this very body that God and the gods have given us, not to put it off for some theoretical eschatology that might beggar belief. After all, it is living this divine way of life that “is the beginning of life and of wise thinking”.

By that same token, though, it is also “the beginning of their release to what will remain of them after they have left great monuments on earth in works of industry”. How to interpret this? Scott would read this derisively as that it is our lot to die and pass away, with all that we leave behind passing away too in time, but recall that other parts of the Hermetica warn us against attachment to the world and love for the body, because it is this that traps us here in the world in an endless cycle of torturous rebirth ignorant of the Good. After all, we should not forget God’s announcement at the creation of humanity according to Book I:

… But God immediately spoke a holy speech: “Increase in increasing and multiply in multiplying, all you creatures and craftworks, and let him who is mindful recognize that he is immortal, that desire is the cause of death, and let him recognize all that exists.”

After God said this, Providence, through Fate and through the cosmic framework, caused acts of intercourse and set in train acts of birth; and all things were multiplied according to kind. The one who recognized himself attained the chosen good, but the one who loved the body that came from the error of desire goes on in darkness, errant, suffering sensibly the effects of death.

Is this spread of humanity in the world not like what we see described in Book III, where “through the wonder-working course of the cycling gods they created every soul incarnate”, and that “what is diminished will be renewed by necessity and by the renewal that comes from the gods and by the course of nature’s measured cycle”? The wording is a bit different, but the meaning here reads identically. In fulfilling the tasks set for us in body and in soul, we begin to live a virtuous life—or, really, in the Greek original, just “way of living”, perhaps in the sense of true life, which itself is a divine blessing and virtue that corrects and heals the torments of existence along with Light and the Good. At the same time as we begin life and wisdom, we begin to free ourselves from the death of the body. The phase here of “what will remain of them after they have left great monuments on earth in works of industry” is one I interpret euphemistically to refer to our corpses, the thing that stays behind when we die as our souls move on—or should move on, at least, assuming we can free ourselves from our attachments to it, the world, and the works of the world. In many ways, Book III reads a lot like what the historical Buddha might have preached when going from town to town, describing what entering the stream would be like for those who begin on the path to enlightenment. Consider the Buddha’s second sermon, the Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta:

Bhikkhus, when a noble follower who has heard (the truth) sees thus, he finds estrangement in form, he finds estrangement in feeling, he finds estrangement in perception, he finds estrangement in determinations, he finds estrangement in consciousness.

When he finds estrangement, passion fades out. With the fading of passion, he is liberated. When liberated, there is knowledge that he is liberated. He understands: “Birth is exhausted, the holy life has been lived out, what can be done is done, of this there is no more beyond.”

Although my understanding of how the Corpus Hermeticum eventually became compiled as a series of books into a single “text” is weak, if I were to compile the books myself, I’d put Book III at the very front of the line for thematic reasons before all the rest of the books of the Hermetic canon. To me, after mulling it over and chewing on it a good while, Book III reads like the introduction to the teachings and way of life that Hermēs Trismegistus teaches. All the other revelations, philosophy, mysteries, and initiations that Hermēs teaches to Asclepius, Tat, and Ammon are all well and good, but for someone who is otherwise wandering in the dark without guidance at all, Book III shines for them a beacon that can guide them to a safe harbor, planting the seed (as the gods themselves did and do in the world) of life and wisdom.

5 responses

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