On the Third Book of the Corpus Hermeticum: Interpretation (Part I)

Continuing with our talk about Book III of the Corpus Hermeticum (CH III), the “Sacred Sermon of Hermēs Trismegistus”, we already talked about my original translation of the text plus a bit of contextualization.  With those done, I suppose it’s time to move onto actually digesting and interpreting the text itself, launching into an exegesis of this.

As for where to begin, I suppose the beginning itself is as appropriate as any.  The opening section (we’ll use my own arrangement of the text, which puts the final paragraph of the first section as the first paragraph of the second) of CH III begins with three aphorisms about God and the divine:

[The] glory of all things is the God,
[who is both] [the] Divine and divine Nature.

[The] beginning of that which exists is the God,
[who is thus of] Mind, Nature, and Matter,
being Wisdom for [the] making known of the All.

[The] beginning is [that which is] the Divine,
[which is] Nature, Working, Necessity, Purpose, and Renewal.

In the original Greek, according to Nock/Festugière:

δόξα πάντων ὁ θεὸς καὶ θεῖον καὶ φύσις θεία.

ἀρχὴ τῶν ὄντων ὁ θεός, καὶ νοῦς καὶ φύσις καὶ ὕλη, σοφία εἰς δεῖξιν ἁπάντων ὤν.

ἀρχὴ τὸ θεῖον καὶ φύσις καὶ ἐνέργεια καὶ ἀνάγκη καὶ τέλος καὶ ἀνανέωσις.

The first aphorism is “Δόξα πάντων ὁ θεὸς καὶ θεῖον καὶ φύσις θεία”.  This has been translated several ways:

  • Literal: Glory of all things is God and the Divine and the divine Nature.
  • Everard: The glory of all things, God and that which is Divine, and the Divine Nature…
  • Chambers: Glory of all things, the God and Divinity and Nature Divine.
  • Mead: The Glory of all things is God, Godhead and Godly Nature.
  • Nock/Festugière as well as Dodd: Glory of all things is God and the Divine, and Nature is divine.
  • Copenhaver: God is the glory of all things, as are also the divine and the divine nature.
  • Salaman: God is the glory of all things, the divine being and the divine nature.

My own translation falls more in line with Copenhaver and Salaman, interpreting the καὶ…καὶ construction as a “both…and” with implied copula.  In this view, we have the notion that God is both that which is divine (θεῖον) as well as nature (φύσις) which itself is divine (θεία).  The first line of CH III sets up this dichotomy between that which is Nature and that which is not, but that everything that is is still God.  This immediately recalls the notion from Stoic physics of corporeal things that exist and incorporeal things that only subsist; in this case, we might view Nature as that which exists and everything else that is real but which is immaterial—the “Divine”—to subsist, and God is both of these things.  In the Stoic view, things that are real but which do not exist are things like concepts, time, place, justice, wisdom, and the like.  We’ll turn to this again in a bit, but for now, we already have an understanding that there are material things and immaterial things, and all of it is found within (or as) God.

But what to make of the beginning of this line, “δόξα πάντων”?  The word δόξα is one that many of us would recognize nowadays as “glory” or “splendor”, but this is an influence from Jewish and Christian texts that use this word to translate Semitic concepts.  Originally, δόξα referred to some notion, opinion, judgment, conjecture, or expectation someone might have (thus words like “orthodox” or “heterodox” or “doxology”), or perhaps even an appearance or reputation something might have, coming from the root δοκέω meaning to seem, to be thought, to be reputed, or to appear.  At first, I wasn’t clear about how δόξα got this association with glory—specifically the glory of God—until the good Dr. Edward Butler stepped in to clarify that it’s about “the shining-forth of something…as a valid expression of the truth of that thing, hence ‘splendor'”.  Scott notes that δόξα being used in this concept in Jewish contexts is obvious, but he “can find no meaning in the statement that God is the δόξα of things”, so he emends it.  Dodd notes that “a reader familiar with Hebraic ways of speech would not find any great difficulty about it”, especially because “that which gives significance, beauty, or sublimity to the universe is its divine origin, and so God is its glory”, in addition to the Jewish notion that “‘the glory’ came to be an expression for the revealed presence of the transcendent God as immanent in this world” (thus the shining-forth splendor).  However, given that Scott and Dodd find CH III a text heavy in monism and immanenism without a notion of transcendence, Dodd concludes that “the glory resident in the universe is God, sans phrase” (emphasis his), recalling the Sanctus from Isaiah 6:3, “the fullness of the whole Earth is His glory”.  In this, God reveals himself through that which is Divine and that which is Nature, because God is that which is Divine and that which is Nature.

I suppose, given the alternate and more philosophical reading of δόξα could lead us to something like “the opinion of all people is that God is both that which is the Divine and that which is divine Nature”.  Given the rest of the Judaicizing elements in CH III, I think interpreting δόξα here as “glory” (perhaps “splendor” is a better word?) is more appropriate than this, but even in this case, we have this notion that God is seen to be the sum of all that is Divine and all that is Nature.  We should also remember that in the Definitions of Hermēs Trismegistus to Asclepius, DH IX.1 states that “every man has a notion of God: for if he is a man, he also knows God”, and that “God is everything and there is nothing outside God, even that which does not exist”; DH IX.6 says that “Wherever man is, also is God; God does not appear to anybody but man”.  Even in the immaterial and unseen things that are Divine but especially in the material and sensible things, God is apparent to all through and in all things—a notion that is discussed heavily and beautifully in Hermēs’ praise of God in CH V.

The second aphorism reads “ἀρχὴ τῶν ὄντων ὁ θεός, καὶ νοῦς καὶ φύσις καὶ ὕλη, σοφία εἰς δεῖξιν ἁπάντων ὤν”.  Now that we know that God is the glory of all things that reveals all things, we proceed to how God is the beginning of all things.  Using the same καὶ…καὶ construction as before, we can translate the first part of this aphorism as “[the] beginning” (ἀρχὴ, also perhaps “principle”) “of that which exists is God, [who is thus the that which exists of] Mind, Nature, and Matter”; I favor an emendation that puts Mind, Nature, and Matter in the genitive, but even if we weren’t, we could still translate this as “[who is] Mind, Nature, and Matter”.  Following the usual Hellenistic philosophical or Mosaic accounts of creation, it makes sense that we would see God as the beginning (or founding principle) of all the things that exist, but note how we have three types of things that exist: Mind, Nature, and Matter.  Interestingly, we have a notion that Matter (ὕλη) is distinct from Nature (φύσις), which throws our earlier assumption that Nature is put into distinction with the Divine as an echo of the Stoic notion of material things that exist versus the immaterial things that subsist.  We don’t yet know enough about the role Matter plays in Nature at this point, but perhaps one way we could think about this is that Matter are the things that exist within the cosmos, and Nature is the functioning of the cosmos itself; in other words, created/creature versus creation.  Scott also notes how CH III saying that God is the beginning of Matter is a distinctly non-Platonic concept, since Platonism holds that Matter has no beginning and is independent of God; to say otherwise is to then say that God made things ex nihilo.

Both of these, further, are distinguished from Mind/Nous (νοῦς).  Scott suggests that Nature in this case is the force that acts on Matter, that “the external world consists of [Matter] and [Nature] in combination”, and that Mind “is here the human mind, in contrast to the external world”.  We know that Mind is a famous concept in Hermetic literature, where God is either identical with Mind or the source of Mind depending on which specific text of the Corpus Hermeticum you read, but Mind is a concept that doesn’t get a lot of explanation or presence in CH III.  What we do have here, though, is that Mind is not Nature nor is it Matter; Mind is thus immaterial and does not exist in Nature, falling outside it.  Thus, Mind is then something that is Divine.

The second part of the second aphorism, “…σοφία εἰς δεῖξιν ἁπάντων ὤν”, is a little tricky to decipher, but basically it says that God is also “Wisdom for the showing-forth of everything” (or “of all the things that are”).  Although the Jews never identified God with Wisdom, the two have certainly been affiliated with each other; Dodd lists Proverbs 8:22, Wisdom 9:9, Sirach 1, and Sirach 24:3—6 as examples that illustrate points similar to this.  Thus, “if for the Jew, Wisdom = ἀρχὴ and for the Stoic, God = ἀρχὴ, then in a Judaeo-Stoic scheme God is Wisdom”.  Fair enough, I suppose, but then what is Wisdom?  CH XI says that “the wisdom of God” is “the good and the beautiful and happiness and all excellence and eternity”, and that “eternity establishes an order, putting immortality and permanence into matter” (note that connection with matter at the end!), and also that “the essence (so to speak) of God is wisdom”.  Perhaps an interesting thing to note is that “wisdom” as a concept is not all that common in the Corpus Hermeticum, but one place we see it come into play is the famous end to CH I, when Hermēs begins preaching to the world for their salvation (Copenhaver translation, emphasis in bold mine):

Some of them, who had surrendered themselves to the way of death, resumed their mocking and withdrew, while those who desired to be taught cast themselves at my feet. Having made them rise, I became guide to my race, teaching them the words—how to be saved and in what manner—and I sowed the words of wisdom among them, and they were nourished from the ambrosial water. When evening came and the sun’s light began to disappear entirely, I commanded them to give thanks to god, and when each completed the thanksgiving, he turned to his own bed.

Wisdom is connected to the notion of revealing and revelation, thus σοφία is δεῖξις, the “mode of proof” or “display” or “showing forth”.  In thinking about this, I thought I could spot some sort of etymological connection between δεῖξις and δόξα (that whole “d_ks_” bit)—after all, if Wisdom is that which shows forth, and if Glory is that which is apparent, why not use a related word?  Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like there is an actual etymological connection between the two; δόξα comes from δοκέω (to expect, think, suppose, imagine) and δεῖξις from δείκνυμι (to show, point out, display, make known, explain, teach) have two similar but different Proto-Indo-European roots (*deḱ- “to take, perceive” versus *deyḱ- “to point out”).  Still, perhaps a subtle pun or sly rhyme is being made here based on the similarity of the words.  Perhaps such a potential wordplay between Wisdom and Glory here could mean something like this: God is that which is made known, Wisdom is that which makes known, and God is Wisdom, so that which is made known is that which makes known, and that which makes known is that which is known.  In this light, perhaps we can link Wisdom to Mind, Nature, and Matter: we might say that Mind is that which knows, Nature is the process or arena by which Wisdom makes all things known, and Matter is the substance or object that Wisdom makes known—but because God makes known what is known and is made known by what makes known, we could just as easily swap Nature and Matter here.  In this, using Mind, we come to know more about Matter through Nature, and likewise about Nature through Matter, all by means of Mind.  God is the principle of this all; as Dodd puts it, God is the causa cognoscendi as well as the causa essendi of all things, being a God of revelation as well as of creation.

Then there’s the last aphorism of this first section:  “ἀρχὴ τὸ θεῖον καὶ φύσις καὶ ἐνέργεια καὶ ἀνάγκη καὶ τέλος καὶ ἀνανέωσις”.  Once again using that same καὶ…καὶ construction as before and using the same wording as the second aphorism, this is something we translated as “[The] beginning is [that which is] the Divine, [which is] Nature, Working, Necessity, End, and Renewal”.  I originally had “Purpose” here to render τέλος, as in a teleological sense to indicate the final ends for something being made, but it really is generally rendered more commonly as “end, fulfillment, completion, consummation”.  Dodd interprets along with ἀρχὴ to be a statement that God is the beginning and end of creation (cf. Revelation 22:13).  Scott suggests that τέλος being put beside ἀνανέωσις should indicate that τέλος might be better read as τελευτή (“completion, accomplishment, end, extremity”), which gives us a combined notion of “extinction and renewal” that is brought about by Necessity (here ἀνάγκη, but which Scott says is properly a synonym for εἱμαρμένη, “Fate” or “Destiny”, more literally as “that which one has received as one’s portion”) through Working…though working of what?

We do see ἐνέργεια (which we’d read as “energy”, but it’s more of a “being-at-workness” or “activity” rather than our modern sense of some sort of power or force that does something) frequently in this text, always in conjunction with φύσις (though usually with φύσις in the genitive, thus φύσεως ἐνεργουσαι and in distinction to θεῖον as in θείων ἔργων), but here we see Nature and Working separately.  I and Copenhaver and Salaman interpret this more literally as two separate things, but that means that Nature is something that is Divine like the rest of the things, and that seems to be a contradiction.  Scott reinterprets this to say “workings of God”, while Dodd puts both Nature and Working in the genitive case against the other concepts that remain in the nominative (“the Divine is the beginning both of nature and of energy, and is both necessity and end and renewal”).  Sticking to a literal interpretation, I get a notion that the Divine is not just Necessity (= Fate/Destiny) and Ending and Renewal, it is also Nature as well as Nature’s activity.  But this linking of Nature and the Divine then posits Nature as something Divine, when we’ve earlier noted a distinction between the Divine and Nature—but we should remember from the first aphorism that Nature, too, is divine, even when it’s something distinct from the rest of things that are divine.  The cumulative effect of this last aphorism, as Dodd suggests, is that the “divine is not only the origin of nature and its activity; it is also the necessity or fate by which they are directed; and as things take their origin from the divine, so they end in the divine and are brought into being again by it…in harmony with Stoic teaching”.  This largely agrees with Scott’s understanding that “‘necessity’ or ‘destiny’ is brought to bear on things below by the movements of the heavenly bodies…[and that extinction and renewal] are wrought by φύσις, the action of which is determined by the movements of the heavenly bodies; and these movements are themselves determined by God’s will[;] φύσις is thus θεία”.

And, considering what we already said earlier about Wisdom, if Workings of Nature are the means by which Ending and Renewal come to pass according to Fate, and if Nature is something that is to be made known and which makes known, then that means that all these other things—Necessity/Destiny, Ending, and Renewal—are also things that are to be known and which make themselves and other things known as well.  We get to know the activity of all things, how they come to be, how things come to end, and how they come to be again; we get to know what is destined and what is necessitated, and we get to know the will of God.  In this, in all of this, we come to know God, who as Wisdom makes himself known through his creation of all the things that are, because he is the glory of his creation of all the things that are.  All this takes place through which is external to us (Nature, Matter, and the workings of Nature) as well as that which is internal to us (Mind).  All of this proceeds from God as the principle (ἀρχὴ) of all things, and because he is also Wisdom for the showing-forth (δεῖξις) of all things, he is the glory (δόξα) of all things.  In this, God is the Being of Knowing, the Ultimate Being who Knows, and the Being to be Known.

All this from three short, obscure aphorisms; glory be, indeed.  We’ll pick up next time with the second section on cosmogony and cosmology.

2 responses

  1. Pingback: On the Third Book of the Corpus Hermeticum: Interpretation (Part II) « The Digital Ambler

  2. Pingback: On the Third Book of the Corpus Hermeticum: Summary « The Digital Ambler

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