As a software engineer, I like drawing a distinction between something being complex and something being complicated. While I’m as much a fan of “simplicity is the highest form of elegance” as anyone else, sometimes you just can’t avoid things being difficult or nuanced. While there are some who distinguish complexity and complication as being the difference of a system with lots of moving parts or which have non-deterministic emergent properties vs. a system that is difficult while still remaining deterministic, I take a different approach inspired more by software design: complex systems are often complex due to the nature of the problem they aim to solve or task they aim to fulfill, while complicated systems are just badly-designed systems that could be done in a better, simpler way. While one may not be able to code a complex system in a simple way, one might still endeavor to do so as simply as possible; it’s when one doesn’t do what’s as simple as possible that one introduces complication into the system. In other words, the difference I like drawing between complexity and complication is that the former is not always avoidable due to something’s nature, but that the latter is always avoidable as a matter of conscious approach.
And in that light, I think there are a lot of people who want to make Hermeticism more complicated than it needs to be. To be sure, Hermeticism can be complex, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. And, most of the time when I see people complicate Hermeticism, they do so by calling it and thinking of it as a “philosophy”, with all the baggage that term brings about. To be fair, I totally get expecting and wanting Hermeticism to have all the answers to life, the universe, and everything, and to have a fully developed cosmology complete with diagrams and whatnot, and to be able to prescribe doctrine and dogma as finely-detailed as the Catechism of the Catholic Church with an accompanying Hermetic parallel to the Rituale Romanum/Missale Romanum/Pontificale Romanum/Caeremoniale Romanum in as much exalted elaboration. But it doesn’t, and it probably never did—and that’s totally okay!
The big issue I want to draw attention to here is in thinking of Hermeticism (as in the teachings of Hermēs Trismegistos as collected in the classical Hermetic texts) as a “philosophy”. To be sure, Hermēs Trismegistos does refer to what he teaches as “philosophy” at a number of points, as in CH XVI.2 (Copenhaver translation, and note the great punning going on between philo-sophia/logon psophos rendered in English as “philosophy”/”foolosophy”):
Therefore, my king, in so far as you have the power (who are all powerful), keep the discourse uninterpreted, lest mysteries of such greatness come to the Greeks, lest the extravagant, flaccid and (as it were) dandified Greek idiom extinguish something stately and concise, the energetic idiom of <Egyptian> usage. For the Greeks have empty speeches, O king, that are energetic only in what they demonstrate, and this is the philosophy (φιλοσοφία) of the Greeks, an inane foolosophy (λόγον ψόφος) of speeches. We, by contrast, use not speeches but sounds that are full of action.
Or in AH 12—14 (Copenhaver translation):
Hermēs: “[…] Speaking as a prophet, I will tell you that after us will remain none of that simple regard for philosophy found only in the continuing reflection and holy reverence by which one must recognize divinity. The many make philosophy obscure in the multiplicity of their reasoning.”
Asklēpios: “What is it that the many do to make philosophy incomprehensible? How do they obscure it in the multiplicity of their reasoning?”
Hermēs: “In this way, Asklēpios: by combining it through ingenious argument with various branches of study that are not comprehensible—arithmētikē and music and geometry. Pure philosophy that depends only on reverence for god should attend to these other matters only to wonder at the recurrence of the stars, how their measure stays constant in prescribed stations and in the orbit of their turning; it should learn the dimensions, qualities and quantities of the land, the depths of the sea, the power of fire and the nature and effects of all such things in order to commend, worship and wonder at the skill and mind of god. Knowing music is nothing more than being versed in the correct sequence of all things together as allotted by divine reason. By divine song, this sequencing or marshalling of each particular thing into a single whole through reason’s craftwork produces a certain concord—very sweet and very true.
“Accordingly, the people who will come after us, deceived by the ingenuity of sophists, will be estranged from the true, pure and holy philosophy. To adore the godhead with simple mind and soul and to honor his works, also to give thanks to god’s will (which alone is completely filled with good), this is a philosophy unprofaned by relentlessly curious thinking.”
Or in SH 2B.2—4 (Litwa translation):
Tat: “If there is no truth in this realm, what should one do, father, to live one’s life well?”
Hermēs: “Show devotion, my child! The one who shows devotion has reached the heights of philosophy. Without philosophy, it is impossible to reach the heights of devotion. The one who has learned the nature of reality, how it is ordered, by whom, and for what purpose, will offer thanks for all things to the Creator as to a good father, a kind provider, and a faithful administrator; and the one who gives thanks will show devotion.
“The one who shows devotion will know the place of truth and its nature. The more one learns, the more devout one will become. Never, my child, has an embodied soul that disburdened itself for the perception of him who is good and true been able to slip back to their opposites. The reason is that the soul who learns about its own Forefather holds fast to passionate love, forgets all its ills, and can no longer stand apart from the Good.
“Let this, my son, be the goal of devotion. Arriving at this goal, you will live well and die blessed, since your soul is not ignorant of where it should wing its upward flight. This alone, my child, is the way toward truth which our ancestors trod and having trod it, attained the Good. This way is venerable and smooth, though it is difficult for a soul to travel on it while still in the body.”
That’s basically all the references to “philosophy” I can find in the Hermetic texts proper. Of course, there are a bunch of Hermetic fragments and testimonia (Tertullian in Against the Valentinians and On the Soul, Lactantius in Divine Institutes, Zosimus in On the Letter Ōmega, etc.) that call Hermēs Trismegistos and his followers philosophers and the like, but as far as what Hermēs Trismegistos himself considers to be “philosophy”, the above is all we have extant on the notion. And what sort of thing do we see as “philosophy” in this context? Although the AH quote above might seem almost anti-intellectual in its description, the “philosophy” of Hermēs Trismegistos that he teaches is more of a way of life and of lived devotion, sincerity, and thanksgiving to God. In this sense, what Hermēs teaches and preaches is a kind of mystic spirituality more than anything else, and while it can take into account rational approaches to understanding the cosmos through mathematics and the like, that’s not the point of it all.
I forget where specifically I read it, but I dimly remember the ever-amazing Patrick Dunn (yes, the author of a number of great books on magic, divination, religion, and theurgy) talking about what philosophy (in the traditional, classically Western sense) generally is. In his words, philosophy needs to be an approach of knowing things that is coherent and systematic; there has to be a system behind a philosophy, where you start with premises, use a particular toolkit of reason, extrapolate conclusions from premises using that toolkit, look for inconsistencies, and the like. For instance, with the philosophy of Epicureanism, you can start from two basic premises (“atoms exist” and “people seek pleasure as a good”), and derive everything else from there, from the nature of the gods to the quality of virtue. Philosophies in this “strict” sense are systematic approaches to the investigation of knowledge through formal observation, rational deduction, and logical consistency.
Such philosophies require a sort of rigor and order, which Hermeticism according to the Hermetica, frankly, lacks. True, many such classical Western philosophies weren’t just about mathematics or logic or rhetoric, and often included elaborate discussions and dissertations on ethics, morality, virtue, divinity, and (most especially and most commonly) how to live a good, happy life. The thing is that they still had systematic approaches to arriving at conclusions from given axioms that avoided or otherwise resolved contradictions and errors in argument or judgment, and it’s this criterion that Hermeticism just doesn’t fulfill. When you take a look at what’s in the various Hermetic texts (truly, take your pick!), you come across countless variations, differences, and outright contradictions at times, even sometimes within the very same text. By and large, we don’t see a rigorous form of argumentation from hypotheses to conclusions; we rather see divine revelation and ecstatic outburst, spiritual exhortations and mystical directives. As I read it, that’s the actually juicy parts of the Hermetic texts; while there is an abundance of descriptions of the nature of things, the processes of reproduction or meterology, arguments to elaborate or describe the divine through metaphors of physics, and the like, all of these are secondary to the fundamentally spiritual and mystical impetus that drives Hermēs Trismegistos to teach what he teaches. And that’s just not what most people consider “philosophy” to be, by and large; for Hermēs, such philosophy renders what he teaches “incomprehensible”, while to most philosophers, what Hermēs teaches would just be irrational.
To be sure, to define what “philosophy” is or what the word means is a difficult thing, so much so that there’s a whole Wikipedia article just about the debate over doing so. However, when people generally encounter the word “philosophy”, there are certain connotations, suggestions, and ideas that come with the word—the word’s own “baggage”, as it were—that color the conversations in which we use it. It is only when we take the broadest possible view of what “philosophy” might connote, a literal “love of wisdom” and the vaguest notion of a “way of life” for such a love of wisdom, that we might call Hermeticism a philosophy, in the same way one might call Buddhism or Christianity a philosophy. And while that may well work for some people some of the time (Hermēs Trismegistos uses this very same sense in those Hermetic excerpts I mentioned above), when people call Hermeticism a “philosophy”, what they effectively try to do is put it into the same semantic field as we might find Stoicism or Platonism, and Hermeticism just doesn’t act the same way or produce the same things as what those do. And yet, to call Hermeticism a philosophy has always been super common, although the very meaning of what the word “philosophy” suggests has shifted over the past 2000 years to make things more difficult for everyone involved.
In his recent book (which is a supremely excellent tour de force for the study and practice of Hermeticism that I encourage anyone and everyone to check out) Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination: Altered States of Knowledge in Late Antiquity, Wouter J. Hanegraff spends a good amount of space in his introduction in figuring out what to call Hermeticism at all, and why he settles on it being a “spirituality”. Although “scholars have long been used to speaking of Hermetic philosophy“, Hanegraaff makes an excellent argument about why we should avoid thinking of Hermeticism in terms of “philosophy” at all”. Forgive the long quote, but it’s a fantastic argument that I really want people to grasp here:
The Hermetica are full of statements to the effect that true knowledge of ultimate realities “that cannot be thought” is is not just possible, but essential to human salvation and true felicity; and we will see that the pursuit of such “knowledge” is at the very heart of the ancient experiential practices that modern scholars refer to as “the Way of Hermes.” […] the true concern of the Hermetic writings is not with philosophy as commonly understood today.* What their authors meant by “knowledge” is something entirely different from the intellectual understanding achieved through mental activity—thinking–that our modern philosophical traditions have taught us to understand by that word.
* Or, for that matter, as understood in antiquity. Socrates’ “love of wisdom,” as described by Plato, was likewise focused on an ultimate level of reality–the eternal forms or ideas–that could only be beheld directly in a trans-rational state of mania, divine madness…Philosophers are those who have recognized their own ignorance and desire to become wise: therefore Plato’s ideal philosopher, Socrates, is precisely not the man of wisdom…By contrast, the ideal Hermetic sage resembles Socrates’ teacher Diotima: a priestly visionary who no longer needs to aspire to knowledge because she knows the truth through direct experience.
A second reason not to speak of Hermetic “philosophy” has less to do with the exact content of that term than with its polemical function in common academic and even in everyday discourse. Specialists have always been aware that the texts they labeled as “philosophical” might as well be described as “religious,” “theological,” “mystical,” or “theosophical.” If they still preferred to speak of Hermetic philosophy, this was because it helped them draw a normative boundary. For them, the eminently serious and respectable pursuit of intellectual reflection about the nature of reality could have nothing in common with the so obviously disreputable and unserious business of magical or occult practice as reflected in many texts attributed to Hermes Trismegistus or associated with his name. The former type of activity deserved respect in their eyes, while the latter did not, and many scholars found it hard to imagine that one and the same text or author could be involved in both. Philosophers did not practice magic, for magicians were not thinking straight.
On a rather obvious level, this juxtaposition of respectable Hermetic philosophy against disreputable Hermetic practice seemed perfectly self-evident to academic armchair intellectuals trained to value thinking as a noble pursuit and dismiss “occult” practices as embarrassing nonsense. More specifically, it reflected the strong ideological allegiance of professional classicists to ancient Greece as the idealized home of rational thought, an attitude referred to as philhellenism or hellenophilia and intimately linked to the liberal neo-humanist perspectives of nineteenth-century German Kulturprotestantismus. This stance was accompanied by profound feelings of suspicion, hostility, and contempt for anything reminiscent of its traditional competitor, that is to say of Egypt, the symbolic center of pagan idolatry, the primitive heart of irrational darkness. That the Hermetica were Greek texts written in Egypt was an irritant to the scholarly imagination and made them an ideal arena of ideological contestation. […] In other words, anything philosophical in the Hermetica must be Greek by definition, for even the very language of the Egyptians prevents them from understanding rational thought. Zielinski’s “higher Hermetism” stood for Greek philosophy, while its “lower” counterpart stood for Egyptian magic; the former was worthy of attention, the latter was not.
[…] From the 1970s, the pro-Greek/anti-Egyptian ideology was gradually weakened and finally abandoned, due partly to the discovery of new Hermetic manuscripts in Coptic and other ancient languages and partly to a slow decline of philhellenic bias in the study of ancient religions more generally. […] these developments did not lead scholars to abandon the basic distinction between two types of Hermetica. Only the terminology was adapted somewhat: in the wake of Jean-Pierre Mahé’s seminal publications of the 1970s and 1980s, most scholars now refer to the astrological, magical, and alchemical materials ascribed to Hermes as “practical” or “technical” Hermetica. Their counterpart is usually still referred to as “theoretical” or “philosophical” even by scholars who are quick to point out that those adjectives are inadequate.
[…] The terminologies we choose will not just color and influence our interpretations, but often determine which other texts, practices, ideas, or traditions will be seen as most relevant for understanding what the Hermetica are all about. If we call them “philosophical” we will try to analyze their philosophy and compare them with other philosophical traditions, and if we call them “theoretical” we will be looking for theories and systematic speculation. In both cases, this will lead us to relativize, minimize, marginalize, or even wholly overlook dimensions that may be important or even central to the texts themselves but are hard to understand in terms of philosophical theories. By and large, as will be seen, this is exactly what happened in the study of the Hermetica. By speaking of “Hermetic spirituality,” I hope to highlight precisely those dimensions that philosophers (and, for that matter, theologians) have always found most difficult to handle but which are central to the study of religion: experiences and practices.
[…] If Hermetic spirituality was a type of privatized, experience-oriented religion, this has consequences for conventional ways of categorizing the materials. By and large, most of the texts that used to be called “philosophical” remain relevant, but their theoretical discussions about the exact nature of God, humanity, and the cosmos must be considered from the perspective of their function in a wider spiritual framework: they do not stand on themselves, as contributions to philosophical debate, but are meant to provide background information that spiritual practitioners need while navigating their journey of healing and salvation. As for the corpus that used to be called “technical,” we will see that it contains some texts that are of great importance to Hermetic spirituality, while many other texts concerned with practical astrology, magic, alchemy, or philosophy have little or no relevance to it.
I need to emphasize that my approach does not imply a mere reshuffling of the texts according to a somewhat different principle of division, replacing the traditional framework of “philosophical versus technical Hermetica” by one of “spiritual versus non-spiritual Hermetica.” […]
Honestly, Hanegraaff’s Hermetic Spirituality is a fantastic book for so many reasons, but this particular bit is really important for the framing of so much his study, and something I think a lot of people should bear in mind. To be sure, although the Hermetic texts call themselves “philosophy” and although then-contemporaries and other sources closer in time than us to the Hermetica call it likewise, there has been sufficient semantic drift (and scholarly baggage) involved that we cannot honestly call it a “philosophy” except how Hermēs Trismegistos himself loosely defines it (or may even be seen to redefine it). And that, likewise, only really applies to the teachings of the texts themselves, which (as Hanegraaff points out) are meant not to serve as some sort of scientific end in and of themselves, but rather for the ecstatic and spiritual advancement of a human soul towards its divine ends.
To be fair, to call Hermeticism “philosophy” is something super commonly seen, and while it’s not really a mistake per se, it is something we should probably reconsider as a matter of appropriately-descriptive terminology. But then you have books like the Kybalion that lament how “true philosophy” becomes marred by theology or superstition—which, let’s be honest, fills actual Hermetic texts abundantly—while never itself amounting to much more of the use of such a term than it has a right to (and arguably has even less than just referring to things as a “way of life”). And, again, this gets back to the difficulty of trying to offer a solid definition of “philosophy”: what we call the sciences of biology, geology, physics, and the like were once called natural philosophy, and then you have Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim’s summary composition of religion and magic as being an exploration of occult philosophy, but even then, these are all systematic approaches to learning about things and establishing their reality, which Hermeticism simply doesn’t do. However, when we refer to Hermeticism as a “philosophy”, the burden of that term insinuates that Hermeticism should (must!) do these things, provide detailed answers to how many layers of reality there are, explain experience from both physical and metaphysical perspectives, establish ontologies in addition to epistomologies, and the like. And it just doesn’t really do that.
So, if Hermeticism doesn’t do those things, what does it do? If calling Hermeticism a “philosophy” and suggesting that it behave like one a la Platonism is a matter of complication, then what’s the simpler approach that respects what Hermeticism actually is and does? In that light, the answer is straightforward, really: while Hanegraaff calls it a “spirituality” (in the sense of it being a tradition considered as being primarily religious rather than rational/scientific, with a focus on direct experience rather than doctrine or belief, and concerned more with the cultivation of private individual practice rather than membership of a social organization), I call it more of a “mysticism” (which effectively, albeit informally, approximates Hanegraaff’s terminological choice). Hermēs Trismegistos is focused less on establishing the reality of things that are and more on showing us how to experience them, focused less on establishing a contradiction-free approach to knowledge and more on laying a useful framework for the ascent of the soul. Hermeticism is not about knowledge in the sense of rational discourse (logos) or things learned or taught (epistēmē), but more about the direct experience of truth (gnōsis). As Hanegraaff points out, Hermēs Trismegistos is not aiming to be the philosopher and ponderer Socrates, but rather the priest and prophet Diotima.
Hermeticism is far from the easiest way of life to follow, sure. Despite Hermēs teaching that we only need but a “simple regard…found only in the continuing reflection and holy reverence by which one must recognize divinity”, this is still challenging due to the nuanced and careful subtleties involved of doing just that. However, by trying to insist that we should do this through making it “incomprehenseible…obscuring it in the multiplicity of reasoning” and “combining it through ingenious argument with various branches of study”, we end up turning something complex into something complicated—and Hermēs strongly tells us in no uncertain terms that we should not do that. We shouldn’t hope to find all the answers to everything in the Hermetic texts, because they don’t have such answers, and they never had such answers; Hermēs isn’t one who preaches “believe or perish”, but rather teaches “believe and come find out for yourself”. What Hermēs teaches in the Hermetic texts might well be a lot, but it’s all within a limited in scope and aim: that of salvation and ascent. All else that he teaches and talks about is meant to serve that specific goal and no other, and warns us against getting overly involved in such “relentlessly curious thinking” which would otherwise serve as nothing more than a distraction.
Excellent essay. And thank you for the book recommendation!