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

And now we come to the last bit of our interpretation of Book III of the Corpus Hermeticum (CH III).  As complicated as the last section was, discussing the creation of animal, vegetative, and human life and for what purposes humans were created due to the linguistic problems, this section is as complicated due to yet other linguistic issues as well as more contentious philosophical ones when you consider other translators’ interpretations of this section.  Let’s dig in!

Our translation of the third section of CH III from before:

[This is the] beginning of their living and becoming wise,
according to [their] lot from [the] course of [the] cyclic gods.
And [this is the beginning of their] being released,
leaving behind great memorials of [their] works of art upon the Earth,
and every generation of ensouled flesh,
and [every generation] of [the] sowing of fruit,
and [every generation] of every craftwork,
[all] for fame unto the obscurity of [the] ages—
[all] that is diminished will be renewed by Necessity
and by [the] renewal of the gods
and by [the] course of the measured wheel of Nature.

For the Divine is the whole cosmic combination renewed by Nature,
for the Nature is established in the Divine.

The original Greek from Nock and Festugière:

ἄρχεται αὐτῶν βιῶσαὶ τε καὶ σοφισθῆναι πρὸς μοῖραν δρομήματος κυκλίων θεῶν, καὶ ἀναλυθῆναι εἰς δ’ ἔσται μεγάλα ἀπομνημονεύματα τεχνουργημάτων ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς καταλιπόντες † ἐν ὀνόματι χρόνων ἀμαύρωσιν καὶ πᾶσαν γένεσιν ἐμψύχου σαρκὸς καὶ καρποῦ σπορᾶς καὶ πάσης τεχνουργίας † τὰ ἐλαττούμενα ἀνανεωθήσεται ἀνάγκῃ καὶ ἀνανεώσει θεῶν καὶ φύσεως κύκλου ἐναριθμίου δρομήματι.

τὸ γὰρ θεῖον ἡ πᾶσα κοσμικὴ σύγκρασις φύσει ἀνανεοθμένη.  ἐν γὰρ τῷ θεῖῳ καὶ ἡ φύσις καθέστηκεν.

The first section of CH III begins with how God is the beginning of all that is, but now that CH III has discussed how life came to be and for what purpose, it now talks about how the creation of life is the beginning of the actual life (and life’s end) of humanity.  All the purposes for which humanity was created, as described in the third section of CH III, is “the beginning of their living and becoming wise”; Copenhaver, somewhat following Nock and Festugière, has this as “the beginning of the virtuous life and of wise thinking”, though Copenhaver admits that the word “virtuous” is not in the Greek, only βιῶσαὶ (“to pass one’s life”) which Nock and Festugière render as “the human life”.  This, coupled with the word σοφισθῆναι (“to be made wise”), indicates that all that was discussed in the prior section indicates that we now know not just for what purposes humanity is created, but how best to live our lives and to become wise in living properly.  Dodd notes that the use of the word σοφισθῆναι, common especially in the Book of Sirach but also elsewhere in the Septuagint, along with CH III’s focus on wisdom as opposed to the γνῶσις of Book I of the Corpus Hermeticum (CH I), makes CH III read closer to Hellenistic Judaism (pace Ecclesiastes) than otherwise, in that “the chief value of human life lies in the acquisition of wisdom”.

All this is to be done “according to [their] lot from [the] course of [the] cyclic gods”, i.e. according to our destinies as shaped by the astral gods, both in the circumstances of our birth and in the happenings that occur during our lives since our birth.  Our lives are a matter of destiny, allotted to us through the works of the Divine and the workings of Nature as seen in the “sign-seeding [acts] of Heaven” and “the courses of the heavenly gods”.  Thus, not only are our lives in general determined by fate, but so too is our ability to grow and become wise; to even accept that much, in a very worthy sense, is wisdom, even if nothing else is to be learned in life.  Scott admits that, if only the author of CH III were more explicit in how we might observe these things to come to know the future, we’d have a good argument for following astrology, but we’re left here with just the (strong and compelling, in my view) implication that astrology is a thing.

But the creation of humanity and the purposes of humanity’s creation is not just the beginning of our lives, but also the beginning of our “being released”, or in other words, to pass away from this world through death.  In such release, we “[leave] behind great memorials of [our] works of art upon the Earth”; in release, we are essentially dissolved back into the components of our creation.  What survives our death are our works in the world, the monuments and memorials and other crafts that we engage in.  Scott and Dodd both point out that CH III is emphatically silent on anything else surviving of a human after death: no immortality of the soul, no reincarnation or metempsychosis of the soul, no ascent or salvation of the soul is stated, and in that, we have a similarity with Genesis 3:19 as well as in the older Jewish Wisdom tradition before it began to (quoth Dodd) “platonize” along the lines of CH I.  CH III would seem to say that humans are born to live, grow wise, and die, and our works are the only thing we leave behind in the sake of a lasting name until “the obscurity of the ages” (Dodd: “until time shall dim them”, Salaman: “until the darkening of ages”).  In time, our fame and even our monuments (including the tombs of kings, the stories of poets, the laws of statesmen, etc.) will pass away from the world as we do; Scott takes this one step further and reads CH III as disparaging even these things as futile and hopeless.

This is all rather Stoic, to be honest.  The Stoic model of life does not include reincarnation; as the body dissolves, so too does the soul return to its source, the very soul of the cosmos, dissolved back into the stuff from whence it came.  In this, salvation is a moot point; after all, in this light, what’s there to save?  If there is no reincarnation, then there is no worry about improving the circumstances of the next life; if there is no judgment (which CH I discusses but not CH III), then there is no fear about becoming so awful and wicked in life save for the effects one brings about upon themselves; if there is no concern for salvation, then there is no need to strive for it.  CH I describes salvation as an ascent of the soul based on the soul’s ability to learn, discern, and give up the vices it picked up in the course of its incarnation, but CH III is silent on all this.  Rather, and much more in line with Stoic thought, virtue is its own goal, which would aptly describe Wisdom in its relationship to the Good and to God in this context.  Whether we come to know God or not in life doesn’t bear much difference in the end, but a life well-lived is something that we should all strive for all the same.

All this stands in stark contrast to much of Hermetic literature and philosophy, especially CH I and CH XIII, where it’s said in no uncertain terms that we pass through body after body or are trapped between realms between different incarnations until we can perfect our souls to rise up and return to (be made) God—but the starkness is only a result of CH III’s silence on the matter.  I propose that there’s another issue at play here, too: that of the perspective from which the narrative of CH III is written.  Remember how we mentioned that Dodd, Scott, and others note how the cosmogony of CH III is so different from CH I, in that CH I we begin with Light and see the darkness develop and that Light (“a holy Word”) descends upon the darkness, but in CH III we begin with darkness from which Light emerges?  I proposed that this is a matter of whether one starts this observation from outside creation looking into it (as Hermēs does in CH I) or from within creation (as our author seems to do in CH III).  Whether one sees a sphere intersecting with a two-dimensional plane from a three-dimensional perspective outside it or a two-dimensional one within it, the same thing is happening (the sphere intersects the plane) but how it appears can be radically different (a sphere passing through a plane while remaining a sphere, or a circle that appears ex nihilo and grows, stops growing, decreases, and vanishes once more).  CH III takes a very within-creation view, and I suggest that that viewpoint is carried through here: from within manifest creation, it’s hard to describe or talk about anything that happens outside it.  Admitting that God is both that which is Divine and only subsists as well as that which is Nature and exists, the author of CH III focuses their concerns and writing mostly on the workings of Nature, not talking much about the works of the Divine.  Even in the first section with the aphorisms about God, the identities the author of CH III makes with the Divine are either Nature itself or related to Nature: “Working, Necessity, End, Renewal”.  CH III gives us an overview of life from the perspective of Nature, not from the perspective of the Divine; in that, silence about what happens outside manifest, material Nature would make sense.  Sure, CH III says nothing about salvation or anabasis or metempsychosis, but then, from this perspective, it wouldn’t need to.  I suggest that, in the broader context of Hermetic literature we find CH III, the silence of CH III on this topics is not, as Dodd describes, the author of CH III “repudiating the doctrine of man’s immortality”.  Admittedly, this is especially within the context of the broader Hermetic literature; if I were to take a sola scriptura approach, then yeah, I guess I would find more weight in Dodd’s and Scott’s argument, but even then, it’s hard to take that too seriously here.

I mentioned something in the matter of the identities of the Divine that CH III brought up: “Nature, Working, Necessity, End, Renewal”.  At this point, we’ve discussed pretty much everything except that last one, Renewal itself (ἀνανέωσις).  In the course of humanity’s birth and death, leaving behind not just their works but also “every generation of ensouled flesh, sowing of fruit, and every craftwork”—all of it left behind, all of it made for the sake of a lasting name and for the benefit of future generations until “the obscurity of [the] ages” dims it and forgets it as well—CH III goes on to say that “what is diminished will be renewed”.  This cyclic creation-destruction-recreation is a Stoic notion, too: the universe, having been made, will eventually decay, all differentiation will level out and become undifferentiated once more, and all will return to the original state of primordial chaos and rejoining once more in God.  At this point, a new cycle of the cosmos begins, that of παλιγγενεσία.  We encountered this word in the last section when we described “the seed of rebirth” that animals and vegetation have within themselves, but this is a Stoic notion, too, of the cosmos’ eventual cyclic creation, reproducing the next universe from the same seed as the prior one, playing out the cosmos time and time again as cows give birth to more cows who give birth to more cows, as pines give way to new pines who give way to new pines.  Heck, the very word παλιγγενεσία can be traced back to the Stoics, though it was used in biblical and rhetorical literature as well.  But we also see similar notions of cosmic rebirth and renewal in other Hermetic texts, as in the prophecy of Hermēs in the Asclepius (specifically AH 26, Copenhaver’s translation):

“….Then he will restore the world to its beauty of old so that the world itself will again seem deserving of worship and wonder, and with constant benedictions and proclamations of praise the people of that time will honor the god who makes and restores so great a work. And this will be the geniture of the world: a reformation of all good things and a restitution, most holy and most reverent, of nature itself, reordered in the course of time (but through an act of will,) which is and was everlasting and without beginning. For god’s will has no beginning; it remains the same, everlasting in its present state. God’s nature is deliberation; will is the supreme goodness.”

“Deliberation (is will), Trismegistus?”

“Will comes to be from deliberation, Asclepius, and the very act of willing comes from will. God wills nothing in excess since he is completely full of all things and wills what he has. He wills all that is good, and he has all that he wills. All things are good that he considers and wills. Such is god, and the world is his image—(good) from good.”

Thus, “all that is diminished will be renewed”, but as Scott notes, this is “only by substitution”: one human perishes, but humanity as a race is immortal, and while one human once dead does not return to life, others are born to succeed them.  In this, Scott and Dodd notes that it’s this renewal of kind (“generation”), a form of fungible substitution, is CH III’s own substitute for a formal doctrine on immortality.  This is why humans are bid by the gods to “grow in growth and multiply in multitude” to ensure our own immortality by continuing the cyclical process of renewal through regeneration of kind; this is the “renewal” of CH III.  But even if we were not bid to do so, it is what would happen all the same, because “what is diminished will be renewed by Necessity, by [the] renewal of the gods, and by [the] course of the measured wheel of Nature”.  Scott restates this as “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 on the sovereign power of God, by whom the stars were made and set in motion”.  Scott’s notion of the dependency of Nature makes it subordinate to the Divine, but as the initial section of CH III says, Nature itself is Divine, which makes this notion seem somewhat off the mark to me.  Nature, after all, is the movements of the stars and the “circular motion carried along by divine Spirit” as mentioned in the cosmogony and cosmology of CH III, not merely dependent on them, and because God is Nature, God’s will is inherently the activity of Nature as much as it is the actions of the Divine.

As a quick aside, that last phase, “by [the] course of the measured wheel of Nature” renders φύσεως κύκλου ἐναριθμίου δρομήματι.  The word ἐναριθμίου is a weird one, normally meaning “counted among” or “taken into account”, literally “in the number” or “ennumbered”, but here, a grander sense of ἀριθμός seems to be implied by the author of CH III.  Scott uses “measured” here, while Nock and Festugière render it as “that which sets the number”.  The “wheel of Nature” can be interpreted to be the spinning circles of Heaven, especially that of the Zodiac, which sets and marks and measures the times and seasons (and, in that sense, is a dim echo of the Egyptian god Thoth being the “lord of years” who reckons the times of the calendar, to say nothing of the classical depictions of Aiōn).  In conjunction with “renewal of the gods”, which we know to refer to the astral gods mentioned back in the second section of CH III, we can say that Necessity is played out through the works of the planets in the workings of their motions through the heavens, which effects the renewal of regeneration of all things.

Going back to the relationship of Nature and the Divine, CH III ends with another aphorism-like statement: “For the Divine is the whole cosmic combination renewed by Nature, for the Nature is established in the Divine” (τὸ γὰρ θεῖον ἡ πᾶσα κοσμικὴ σύγκρασις φύσει ἀνανεοθμένη, ἐν γὰρ τῷ θεῖῳ καὶ ἡ φύσις καθέστηκεν).  This is an echo of the very first line of CH III, δόξα πάντων ὁ θεὸς καὶ θεῖον καὶ φύσις θεία (“[the] glory of all things is the God, [who is both the] Divine and divine Nature”).  Of especial note that Copenhaver points out is the use of the word σύγκρασις “synkrasis”, which has astrological connotations of its own referring to a combination of influences from heavenly bodies which can be realized (and even effected) through συμπάθεια, “sympathy”, the notion that parts of the cosmos are interconnected so much that what happens in one thing affects something else, just as how things on Earth are affected by the influences of the happenings of the stars in Heaven.  This is the fundamental notion of how magic works, what is meant by “as above, so below” (though, notably, not the reverse: συμπάθεια is one-sided, in that what happens in Heaven affects that on Earth but not vice versa, as other parts of Hermetic literature affirm).  What CH III is saying here is that the confluence of the astral gods and bodies in all their various combinations is constantly effected, made, and remade again by the workings of Nature is the sum of that which is Divine, because σύγκρασις and συμπάθεια are the works of the Divine.  Because of this, and because the works of the Divine go hand-in-hand with the workings of Nature (as we see hammered again and again in the third section of CH III), “Nature is established in the Divine”: Nature is both found and founded in the Divine, because Nature is itself Divine, and that which is Divine is also Nature, because the Divine comes about through Nature.

This notion of renewal of things is intimately bound up with stars: just as the gods (known to be astral, both planetary and stellar) first made things, they also made things to remake themselves (as well as assisting in making and remaking them directly) time and time again, just as the planets revolve around the heavens and as the very stars precess in their motions.  The interaction between and influences of the planets and stars determine the lot of our lives down here on Earth, but also the whole of creation more generally, and as the planets renew themselves in their own cycles, so too do they renew our own.  This playing out of the works of the Divine and the workings of Nature is itself fate, which here is called Necessity, the communication and result of the will of God.  Necessity (ἀνάγκη) is described at length in some of the Stobaean Fragments (SH, cf. Litwa’s translations):

  • SH XII: Providence has two powers generated from its own nature: Necessity and Fate.  Fate serves Providence and Necessity; the stars serve Fate.
  • SH XIII: Necessity is a firm judgment and an unbending power of Providence.
  • SH XIV.1: Necessity constrains and contains the world, and is that which moves Fate, which is the cause of astral formations.  (Litwa notes that Fate is not identical to the stars or their formations, but their cause).

Fate is not made explicit in CH III except through heavy implied references by means of the astral gods and their motions, and Providence is not mentioned at all, but Necessity has been there in CH III right from the beginning, and the Asclepius in section 39 describes Necessity as that by which things “are forced into activity”, upon which Fate depends.  Thus, knowing that the regeneration of the cosmos is the will (and thus Providence) of God, Necessity forces all things to be renewed, which is accomplished through Fate causing the various syncrases of the stars above in Heaven to influence all that exists below here on Earth, both in its creation, its diminishing, and its renewal.

Our job, then, in light of all the injunctions and purposes stated of humanity in the third section of CH III, is to make the most of it all through Wisdom.  Sure, Necessity will have its way, but given that humans are created for these purposes—and especially in light of the fact that we have to learn about the distinction between that which is Good and that which is irrelevant or indifferent to the Good—we don’t have to.  We can try to fight Fate and Necessity if we want, but in a true-to-Stoicism sense, a better life is one lived in virtue and wisdom.  To offer my own take on the famous prayer of the Stoic philosopher Cleanthes:

Lead me, o Zeus, and holy Destiny
to wherever my post in life’s battle be.
Willing I follow; were it not my will,
wicked and wretched would I follow still.
Fate guides the willing but guides the unwilling.

It is in coming to possess “examination of that which is Good and knowledge of the troublesome lots of divine Power” that we start to become wise, and with this wisdom come to know that which is Good and that which is not, and by that which is Good, come to possess all the fine, skillful, crafty arts that make life worth living for the betterment of ourselves, all those around us, and all those who come after us.  Whether the silence of CH III on the immortality or salvation of the soul is a repudiation of such a doctrine or not, what CH III encourages us to consider is the proper way to live life as you’re already living it since you’re already here regardless of what may come later.

And that does it for my interpretation of this last section of CH III, and of CH III as a whole.  With all this done, we’ll tie everything up in the next post, coming right up!

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