On Compassion in Hermeticism

It’s been several times now on the Hermetic House of Life Discord server that the topic of compassion has come up.  Sometimes the topic comes up by means of discussions of remorse, guilt, or penance for one’s actions, but more often than not it’s someone asking the question more directly, like:

In the Hermetic tradition, is there a call to compassion, as there is e.g. in Christianity or Mahayana/Vajrayana Buddhism?


What is the stance on compassion in Hermeticism? Like, in Buddhadharma, you have to show every being, including sinners, limitless compassion.  Does Hermeticism also have limitless compassion?

This is a conversation that I enjoy having (even if I just end up relinking to the older conversation threads whenever the topic comes up again in the server), because I think it raises a really neat point to discuss regarding the specifically modern role that compassion seems to play for a lot of people in a lot of modern or New Age-esque spiritual settings.

If we turn to the Hermetic texts, there’s a lot written about plenty for us to focus on, a lot that we’re called to do: show devotion (SH 2B.2), join reverence with knowledge (CH VI.5), not be evil (CH XII.23), enter into God so as to become God (CH I.26), etc.  Sections 6 and 8—9 of the Asclepius, especially, go on at length about humanity’s role in the cosmos (Copenhaver translation):

Because of this, Asclepius, a human being is a great wonder, a living thing to be worshipped and honored: for he changes his nature into a god’s, as if he were a god; he knows the demonic kind inasmuch as he recognizes that he originated among them; he despises the part of him that is human nature, having put his trust in the divinity of his other part. How much happier is the blend of human nature! Conjoined to the gods by a kindred divinity, he despises inwardly that part of him in which he is earthly. All others he draws close to him in a bond of affection, recognizing his relation to them by heaven’s disposition. He looks up to heaven. He has been put in the happier place of middle status so that he might cherish those beneath him and be cherished by those above him. He cultivates the earth; he swiftly mixes into the elements; he plumbs the depths of the sea in the keenness of his mind. Everything is permitted him: heaven itself seems not too high, for he measures it in his clever thinking as if it were nearby. No misty air dims the concentration of his thought; no thick earth obstructs his work; no abysmal deep of water blocks his lofty view. He is everything, and he is everywhere.

Just now, in speaking about mortal things, I mean to speak not about water and earth, those two of the four elements that nature has made subject to humans, but about what humans make of those elements or in them—agriculture, pasturage, building, harbors, navigation, social intercourse, reciprocal exchange—the strongest bond among humans or between humanity and the parts of the world that are water and earth. Learning the arts and sciences and using them preserves this earthly part of the world; god willed it that the world would be incomplete without them. Necessity follows god’s pleasure; result attends upon his will. That anything agreed by god should become disagreeable to him is incredible since he would have known long before that he would agree and that it was to be.

But I notice, Asclepius, that mind’s quick desire hastens you to learn how mankind can cherish heaven (or the things in it) and tend to its honor. Listen, then, Asclepius. Cherishing the god of heaven and all that heaven contains means but one thing: constant assiduous service. Except for mankind alone, no living thing, neither divine nor <mortal>, has done this service. Heaven and heavenly beings take delight in wonderment, worship, praise and service from humans. Rightly the supreme divinity sent the chorus of Muses down to meet mankind lest the earthly world lack sweet melody and seem thereby less civilized; instead, with songs set to music, humans praised and glorified him who alone is all and is father of all, and thus, owing to their praise of heaven, earth has not been devoid of the charms of harmony. Some very small number of these humans, endowed with pure mind, have been allotted the honored duty of looking up to heaven. But those who lagged behind <at> a lower reach of understanding, under the body’s bulk and because theirs is a mingled twofold nature, have been appointed to care for the elements and these lower objects. Mankind is a living thing, then, but none the lesser for being partly mortal; indeed, for one purpose his composition seems perhaps fitter and abler, enriched by mortality. Had he not been made of both materials, he would not have been able to keep them both, so he was formed of both, to tend to earth and to cherish divinity as well.

Amidst all this, though, even given notions of us being in love with the cosmos and creation or being given to taking care and cultivating the world around us, I don’t think that either of these things rise to the notion of “compassion”.  The word “love”, for instance, is a highly polysemic and polyvalent word, and we’re all familiar with how many Greek words there are for love and all the different kinds implied by it, but in the Greek of the Hermetic text, the word used for English “love” is ἔρως erōs.  Unlike the conventional sense of this being a sexual kind of love, philosophically it was used as a sort of attraction to and appreciation of beauty (especially that of the Good).  Such a love, which we naturally express for God because God is both Beauty and the Good (CH VI.5), can thus be extended to all things that partake in the Good, which is indeed everything (CH VI.2), because all things contain in themselves a lil’ sliver, a dim reflection of a higher, beautiful Divinity.  That said, from a Hermeticist’s perspective, we don’t love these things for their own sakes, but we love these things because we see God in them, and God is the thing that we all truly love in this philosophical, mystical sense of erōs.

But this is besides the point when it comes to compassion, which is a little different.  Sometimes understood as a blend of loving-kindness or mercy, sometimes phrased in terms of Buddhist karuṇā which exceeds loving-kindness (maitrī/mettā), sometimes a Christian or even Hellenic pagan notion of χάρις kharis “grace”, sometimes understood instead more literally as sympathy or feeling-together/suffering-with someone, a lot of people engaged in a lot of modern spiritual work (or spiritual work with an otherwise modern mindset) often give as much time to “compassion” as they do things like “mindfulness” (an important point to which I’ll return later).  However, unlike the straightforward use of erōs to talk about love, we don’t really see anything about this in the Hermetic texts.  Like, at all.  It’s just not discussed or brought up, because it’s not really in there.

To be sure, Hermeticism isn’t anti-compassion!  Personally, I think having compassion is a beautiful thing that the world could certainly do more of.  The important thing here is that there’s nothing in the Hermetic texts that encourages us to develop or practice compassion explicitly, or at least for its own sake.  Rather, in my view, compassion arises as a result of partaking in virtue and not partaking in vice.  In that sense, compassion may be useful to practice as a means to cultivate virtue and diminish vice, but only as a means to do so, and even then, it’s far from the only means.  After all, when it comes to various vices, there are lots of ways to develop ourselves spiritually to avoid them, staunch them, or mitigate them, but when the Hermetic texts talk about these things, by and large they encourage us to avoid vice because of the negative effects these things have on us who would indulge in them or engage with them.  Regardless of what effects any sort of vice might have on anyone or anything else, the whole point of Hermeticism is to get us, as individual human beings, to develop spiritually and grow closer to God.  What the Hermetic texts primarily talk about is the effect that our actions have on ourselves and why doing them impacts us; engaging in these “sins”, as it were, is harmful to us because it engages in our base animalian drives that keeps us attached to corporeality and thus sunk and mired in this material world of death.  (It was along these lines that I devised a list of “Hermetic sins” based on the planetary energies from CH I and irrational torments of matter from CH XIII, a useful moral guide for anyone but especially those with an eye on Hermetic self-development.)  Engaging in these activities furthers our harmful addiction to base incarnation that makes it harder for us to free ourselves from this cycle of birth and death, and that is the primary harm we wring by engaging in these sins, and thus why (from a Hermetic textual standpoint) we should avoid doing them.

Bluntly speaking, focusing less on the harm we do to others and more on the harm we do to ourselves basically renders the notion of “compassion” here almost moot; Hermeticism teaches us to act in a certain way because it benefits ourselves rather than benefitting others.  However, lest anyone suggest so, this isn’t motivated by selfishness or self-centeredness, but rather a desire to save ourselves first before we start worrying about others.  This is basically the same idea as putting on your own oxygen mask before helping others with theirs on an airplane, or the lesson of Matthew 7:3—5 “first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye”.  Just as Hermeticism is a heavily anthropocentric form of mysticism that privileges and centers humanity within the spiritual cosmos to get us to better contextualize divine truths, Hermeticism is also heavily self-centered in that it encourages us to focus on our own salvation and ascent—and, for that matter, that’s much the drive of pretty much any salvific religion, like Christianity or Buddhism.  Hermeticism teaches us to practice and develop virtue, to be sure, but “compassion” isn’t one of these virtues.

However, I’d argue that it’s precisely because Hermeticism encourages us to such holiness and virtue for our sake that we end up developing compassion all the same.  In my view, compassion is basically a side-effect of the development of virtue, holiness, awareness, and mindfulness, and even if it’s not something directly cultivated, it arises all the same because of the things that Hermeticism does teach us to cultivate.  For instance, going by the logic in the Hermetic texts, we shouldn’t engage in violence against others because it hurts them, but rather we shouldn’t engage engage in violence because that engages our lower base natures which keeps us apart from God, i.e. it hurts us; however, as we grow closer to God, not only does that keep us from doing violence to others, but it also leads us to rejoice in their not-being-hurt.  The fundamental motivation here in avoiding indulging in violence (or any other vice) isn’t compassion, but compassion is still developed regardless—a side-effect, in other words.

Compassion, in the Hermetic sense, is a mark of cultivating virtue, an extrapolation from the underlying directives and injunctions and goals of Hermeticism, but it is not something called for on its own, much less for its own sake.  I mean, consider: one can certainly cultivate compassion on its own, but what purpose does that serve?  And what limits should one impose so that one isn’t consumed by compassion as a passion itself?  If you cultivate complete and total compassion as an end unto itself, then unless you develop a lot of discernment and discretion at the same time in your own practice to contextualize and guide it, then you’d never even find anywhere to piss in peace because everything we do would affect something negatively; we’d bleed and eat our own hearts out all the time.  To be sure, this is taking compassion to a faulty extreme, but the point here is that compassion for its own sake is not the point, and arguably never the point when we look at most of the world’s religions or traditions.  Even in compassion-centric paths like Buddhism, where compassion may be considered inseparable from wisdom and is itself a vehicle to buddhahood or bodhisattvahood, it’s still just a vehicle, not the destination.

This is where a lot of modern takes on compassion in spirituality seem to go amiss, to my mind.  So much of our modern society (including where spirituality takes place or where people take off from for spirituality) does emphasize compassion as a primary in and of itself, even to the point of claiming that all the major world religions regard compassion as the point (there are countless TED Talks that touch on this), but when we dig into a lot of these religions, we don’t really see that; rather that seeing compassion as the point of these things, we rather see that compassion is a means to the point of these religions or otherwise as a side-effect of reaching the point one way or another.  Treating compassion as a primary point or goal for its own sake, to my mind, is a lot like ars gratia artis “art for the sake of art”: not to express anything deeper, not in service of some grand goal, not to develop one’s sensibilities—it’s the equivalent of doodling a few squiggles on a piece of paper that you throw away at the end of a boring meeting. It’s decontextualized, aimless, and meaningless—which is, unfortunately, how a lot of materialistic and fundamentally atheistic approaches to the world and human ethics or morality work, really.  In that light, people claiming that we should all strive to be more compassionate in society for its own sake isn’t unlike corporate execs saying we should all do mindfulness to increase workplace productivity: not for our own actual benefit, but to make the society we’re in more manageable and profitable.  It’s a depressing thought, and when we see this applied to compassion, it ends up faking it rather than meaning it, all to maintain a sort of status quo.  Our modern society (and the worldviews that it inspires) demands compassion as a primary behavior, but why it demands it is something of a sticky issue that doesn’t often get so examined.

In the same way that a lot of modern society has bastardized mindfulness, compassion has often been treated the same way; seeing religions as espousing compassion as a primary thing is a really modern, almost materialist and rationalist view of religions in general, mistaking the trees for the forest.  To my mind, more spiritual folk in any number of traditions should consider their spirituality less from the side of technology and technique (which they spend too time on) and more about ethics and morality (which they don’t spend nearly as much time on as they ought).  When it comes to Hermeticism, thinking of “compassion” as some sort of goal misses what Hermēs Trismegistos himself establishes as the goal, and even though some people (or even some traditions) might be able to take developing compassion as a vehicle to develop a sense of religious purpose or spiritual direction, it’s a really difficult thing for many people to manage, and ends up being a more circuitous route to take than a more direct approach of developing virtues that lead us to the goal anyway.  To be sure, compassion is no bad thing, and Hermeticism certainly isn’t anti-compassion, but it doesn’t appear anywhere in the Hermetic texts because it’s not something for us to worry about when we have so much else more important to focus on instead that’ll develop it anyway.

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