On the Third Book of the Corpus Hermeticum: Summary

One of my favorite texts from the classical canon of philosophical Hermetic literature is that of the Third Book of the Corpus Hermeticum (CH III), titled the Ἑρμοῦ Λόγος Ἱερός, or “The Sacred Sermon of Hermēs Trismegistus”. It’s a short text, certainly obscure and corrupt at parts whether by degeneration of the medium or by the degeneration of the language of the original author, and nobody seems particularly sure of its actual origins, but the meaning of is is fairly clear and straightforward: this is a guide of how to live life properly in a Hermetic sense, perhaps even proto-Hermetic when allowing for its Jewish and Stoic influences heavier here than in other parts of Hermetic literature. Not content with existing translations of it, I decided to translate it myself from the original Greek (my first major translation work for the language!) and dig in deep into what it’s actually saying. That’s been the major goal of these past few weeks of posts, and I hope I’ve done just that, or at least started the process of a deeper exegesis and meditation on the text for myself and others. I know that one go-through is not enough for something like this—let’s be honest, none of the Hermetic texts are—but at least, with a better understanding of the specific language used in CH III, I can get a better foothold and grasp of the text more than I could otherwise. In this, I dedicate this whole little project of mine to Hermēs himself, a humble honoring of Hermetic hermeneutics that he might open the door to his mysteries for all those who knock.

In addition to an unofficial prologue post I made some time ago, which in some ways anticipated this series of posts, we covered the following:

  1. Translation of the text from Greek along with my own notes and commentary
  2. Contextualization and similarities with other Hermetic texts
  3. Interpretation on the first section of CH III
  4. Interpretation on the second section of CH III
  5. Interpretation on the third section of CH III
  6. Interpretation on the fourth section of CH III

So, what did we learn about this text?

  • CH III is a short text that seems to be among the earliest written of Hermetic literature, and may well be proto-Hermetic in a sense. We don’t know exactly when it was written, but sometime between 100 bce and 100 ce appears to be a safe bet.
  • CH III shows heavy influence from both Jewish wisdom literature, especially the earlier such texts like the Book of Sirach, as well as from Stoic philosophy. Although Hermetic philosophy is, especially in its later and post-classical forms, considered to be largely (Neo-)Platonic, it has deep Stoic roots as well, which show abundantly in this text.
  • Based on the text, the author of CH III was either an Egyptian pagan influenced heavily by Hellenistic philosophy and Jewish belief, or was a heterodox Hellenized Jew from Egypt. In either case, Greek does not appear to be the author’s first language, which has complicated the translation at times.
  • CH III bears much in common with Book I of the Corpus Hermeticum (CH I, “The Divine Poimandrēs”) in terms of cosmogony, cosmology, and doctrine, as well as its own linguistics; neither book bears an explicit reference to Hermēs, either, for that matter. Both of these texts appear to be heavily influenced by the Greek Septuagint, and both bear significant resemblance to the Book of Genesis, though both also have differences with the Biblical account of creation as well as with themselves. Although it is unlikely that either CH I or CH III were based on the other, both seem to be based on the same texts and use the same unusual phrasing that mark them as unique among the rest of Hermetic literature.
  • Even if CH III is not fully “Hermetic” in its doctrines or views, whether due to implied or explicit statements on such, later Hermetic compilers reasonably included this text since it either conforms to and resonates well with the rest of Hermetic literature or can easily be interpreted to read as a properly Hermetic text.

The biggest commentators (at least, to my own knowledge, there may well be others!) on CH III are W. Scott (volume 1, volume 2) and C. H. Dodd, who both translated the text in the first part of the 20th century and offered their own thoughts on it. Although both wrote before A. D. Nock and A.-J. Festugière who published the current de facto authoritative version of the Greek Hermetica along with their own translation, to which are indebted especially Brian Copenhaver and Clement Salaman et al., their insights are invaluable for understanding this and much of the rest of Hermetic literature. My own translation differs from theirs, partly due to my grammatical analysis and surely due to my experience, but I feel like I’ve been able to build on the translations and insights of those who have gone before me to produce a new take on CH III as well.

The original Greek of the text, based on that of Nock and Festugière, reads as such:

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.

ῆν γὰρ σκότος ἄπειρον ἐν ἀβύσσῳ καὶ ὕδωρ καὶ πνεῦμα λεπτὸν νοερόν, δυνάμει θείᾳ ὄντα ἐν χάει. άνείθη δὴ φῶς ἅγιον καὶ ἐπάγη † ὑφ’ ἅμμῳ † ἐξ ὑδρᾶς ουσίας στοιχεῖα καὶ θεοὶ πάντεσ † καταδιερῶσι † φύσεςσ ἐνσπόρου.

ἀδιορίστων δὲ ὄντων ἁπάντων καὶ ἀκατασκεύαστων, ἀποδιωρίσθη τὰ ἐλαφρὰ εἰς ὕψος καὶ τὰ βαρέα ἐθεμελιώθη ἐφ’ γρᾷ ἅμμῳ, πυρὶ τῶν λων διορισθέντων καὶ ἀνακρεμασθέντων πνεύματι ὀχεῖσθαι.

και ὤφθη ὁ οὐρανὸς ἐν κύκλοις ἑπτά, καὶ θεοὶ [ταῖς] ἐν ἄστρων ἰδέαις ὀπτανόμενοι, σὺν τοπις αὐτῶν σημείοισ ἅπασι, καὶ διηρθρώθη … σὺν τοῖς ἐν αὐτῇ θεοῖς, καὶ περιειλίγη τὸ περικύκλιον ἀέρι, κυκλίῳ δρομήματι πνεύματι θείῳ ὀχούμενον.

ἀνῆκε δὲ ἕκατος θεὸς διὰ τῆς ἰδίας δυνάμεως τὸ προσταχθὲν αὐτῷ, καὶ ἐγένετο θηρία τετράποδα καὶ ἑρπετὰ καὶ ἔνυδρα καὶ πτηνὰ καὶ πᾶσα σπορὰ ἔνσπορος καὶ χόρτος καὶ ἄνθους παντὸς χλόη. τὸ σπέρμα τῆς παλιγγενεσίας ἐν † ἑαυτοῖς ἐσπερμολόγουν † τάς τε γενέσεις τῶν ἀνθρώπων εἰς ἔργων θείων γνῶσιν καὶ φύσεως ἐνεργοῦσαν μαρτυρίαν καὶ πλῆθος ἀνθρώπων καὶ πάντων τῶν ὐπὸ οὐρανὸν δεσποτείαν καὶ ἀγαθῶν έπίγνωσιν, εἰς τὸ αὐξάνεσθαι ἐν αὐξήσει καὶ πληθύνεσθαι ἐν πλήθει, καὶ πᾶσαν ἐν σαρκὶ ψυχὴν διὰ δρομήματος θεῶν ἐγκυκλίων † τερασπορίας † εἰς κατοπτείαν οὐρανοῦ καὶ δρομήματος οὐρανίων θεῶν καὶ ἔργων θείων καὶ φύσεως ἐνεργείας εἴς τε † σημεῖα ἀγαθῶν † εἰς γνῶςιν θείας δυνάμεως † μοίρης ὀχλουμένης † γνῶναι ἀγαθῶν καὶ φαύλων, καὶ πᾶσαν ἀγαθῶν δαιδαλουργίαν εὑρεῖν.

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.

And my own translation as such:

[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, End, and Renewal.

Lo: in [the] Abyss there was boundless darkness and water,
and delicate, intelligent Spirit,
existing by divine Power in Chaos.
Then, under [the] sand, out of [the] moist essence,
holy Light arose and [the] elements solidified,
so that all [the] gods might parcel out seed-bearing Nature.

While all was indefinite and unformed,
[all] that which was light was separated off to [the] heights
and [all] that which was heavy was grounded upon [the] moist sand,
the whole of them all separated and hung up by Fire to be carried along by Spirit.

And the heavens were seen in seven circles,
[the] gods being seen in the forms of [the] stars with their constellations,
perfectly filled each with their own gods.
The periphery was wrapped all around by Air
and carried along in a circular course by divine Spirit.

Each god sent forth through their own power
that which was assigned to them.
Thus came to be [the] beasts—
[the] four-footed, [the] crawling, [the] water-dwelling, and [the] winged—
and every germinating seed, herb, and fresh shoot of every flower,
[having] the seed of rebirth within themselves.

They then cast the seeds for the generations of humans
for [that they might have] knowledge of [the] works of [the] Divine, and testimony of [the] workings of Nature.

And [they likewise made] great numbers of humans
[for that they might have] management of all things under Heaven,
and recognition of that which is Good
so as to grow in growth and multiply in multitude.

And, through the course of [the] encycling gods,
[they created] every soul in flesh for [that they might have]:
observance of [the] sign-seeding [acts] of Heaven,
[observance] of [the] course of the heavenly gods,
[observance] of [the] works of the Divine, and
[observance] of [the] working of Nature
for [that they might have] examination of that which is Good and knowledge of [the] turbulent lots of divine Power
[for the gods made them so as] to
come to know [the] things of [the] Good and [the] things of [the] insignificant, and
discover [the] arts of everything that is Good.

[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.

So, in that light, how might we summarize the content and meaning of CH III? Excluding the more commonplace parts of the cosmogony and cosmology that we otherwise find in CH I and other philosophical texts:

  • God is certainly present in creation, both in the immaterial Divine and in material Nature.
  • The Divine is renewed and formed from Nature, and Nature is both found and founded in the Divine.
  • The cosmos is created and constantly recreated through both the works of the divine and the working of Nature.
  • God is the beginning of all things that exist and subsist.
  • God is Wisdom itself, so that all things can be known.
  • Spirit is the sustaining and ordering force that underlies creation, maintaining its structure as well as its constant motion.
  • Spirit is what enables things to live, as well as that which enables things to know God.
  • The heavens contain the gods, which are astral in nature, both the wandering planets and the fixed stars in their own heavens.
  • God created the gods, and the gods created and continue to create life on Earth by the will of God.
  • All that which is born, lives, and dies on Earth is subject to the influence of Fate, but Fate also makes it so that whatever dies or passes away is regenerated through renewal and rebirth of a new generation of its kind.
  • Humans are made to take rulership and stewardship over all the things under Heaven and to recognize that which is Good so that they might reproduce and ensure the survival and well-being of future generations that come after them.
  • Humans are made as souls in flesh to know the works/action of the Divine and the working/activity of Nature.
  • In knowing the Divine and Nature, humanity comes to obtain Wisdom, which is how they know God.
  • In obtaining Wisdom, humanity comes to learn that which is Good and that which is not, which allows them to explore and excel at all the arts and crafts of the Good, which make life better and worth living for us, for those around us, and for those who come after us.
  • Coming to know that which is Good comes from observing the heavens, what occurs within them, and how those events occur, which informs our understanding of life and events on Earth.
  • All things that are born will die and all that is built will dissolve in time, and which will be renewed by the workings of Nature through the works of the astral gods and as determined by Necessity.

That said, CH III is not without its controversy, it’d seem, at least as far as the differences I draw in interpreting CH III compared to Scott or Dodd. One can interpret CH III in a fatalist, purely Stoic and old-school Jewish sense where there is neither reincarnation nor ascent nor salvation of the soul and that God is only immanent within creation without being transcendent of it, but that comes about as a sola scriptura viewpoint that takes CH III’s silence on the subject as a repudiation of it. CH III might also be interpreted as a representation of life as it already exists for us, a narrative that begins within creation as opposed to outside it as CH I does, and does not mention though could be thought of as referring to or implying other doctrines. In this, CH III is indeed a “hymn in prose” per Nock and Festugière, and “the concentrated essence of some unknown Egyptian’s reflections on the universe” per Scott. Whether it is meant to be a compilation of doctrine regarding the soul or an abbreviated prose-hymn that only gives the highest and most important points to bear in mind, whether it is a deep reflection for the advanced students of the Way of Hermēs or something to open up the minds of those who hear his call for the first time, the “Sacred Sermon of Hermēs Trismegistus” is a compact and deceptively simple piece of Hermetic literature that bears much to meditate and contemplate, especially insofar as it instructs us as to the proper way of human life.

Knowing the Hermetic fondness for gnomic aphorisms of wisdom (a.k.a. κεφὰλαια, as noted before), we might consider the whole of CH III to be a series of such kephalaic statements that summarize Hermetic doctrine as a whole, eliding out what could be explained or meditated on later to concentrate on the outline of the whole of Hermetic philosophy and doctrine.  In this, I see a parallel to how succinct yet meaningful CH III could be compared to the Heart Sutra of Buddhism, which is meaningful enough on its own but which itself is a condensation to mere groups and lists of concepts that bear much to be explained and meditated on (as attested by how many links I had to throw into the translation of it on that old post of mine).  It may well be that CH III originated as a Judaeo-Stoic text which was then later adopted by the early Hermetic philosophers in a different light, but so much of it could be explained through textual parallels and references in the rest of the Hermetic canon that it still fits neatly and nicely; after all, given CH III’s (likely) early date of composition, it likely influenced later Hermetic thought, potentially in profound ways, the texts of which would then necessarily have roots in CH III.  This book of the Corpus Hermeticum, as I noted in my quasi-prologue to this series, is much akin to a “first sermon” of sorts, something that introduces a simple (proto-)Hermetic worldview for those seeking guidance to hearken to, for students to begin meditating on, and for teachers to begin expounding more deeply.  Brevity is the soul of wit, after all, and CH III is short indeed.

There’s also one other thing I wanted to touch on, too, that didn’t fit anywhere else. The language and symbolism of CH III is heavily indebted to the Septuagint, that much is sure, but there are two symbols that crop up time and again in the way CH III is written: that of the seed and that of the wheel. There’s much to be said about the seed that contains within itself a seed, the seed of rebirth itself, and how the gods “cast the seeds that seed themselves” for humanity, and how the heavens effect changes on Earth through their “portent-sowing” or “sign-seeding” actions; this, bearing in mind that humanity is to take mastery and stewardship over the creation that we find ourselves in, suggests a tender cultivation of the world outside and the world within, always cultivating from seed that which is Good and planting the seed for that which is Good to come for those after us. There’s also the notion of the wheel, from the cyclic motions of the astral gods to the “measured measuring wheel of Nature”, and even the structure of CH III ends where it began in emphasizing that the Divine and Nature are equal and are both God. In this, we can get a notion for the celestial Plough, another image for the constellation of Ursa Maior, always rotating in a wheel around the ever-fixed North Star. Remembering that Polaris is the symbol of immortality for the ancient Egyptians, and how this very star acts as a gate to immortality and divinity in various parts of the Greek Magical Papyri, we can think of CH III as a simple reminder to tend to our lives and our world, for in so doing, even when all that we are and all that we do passes away from the world, the work we have accomplished takes place as part of the working of Nature itself, and is thus part of the works of the Divine. In this, in one sense or another, we achieve true wisdom and, thus, immortality and divinity.

Now, of course, I should reiterate that I’m barely an amateur at translating Greek, and by my own admission, my actual philosophical background is relative crap compared to many of the other professional academics, translators, and scholars of texts like this out there.  There are certainly other, and likely better, ways to approach this text, as there are for all the Hermetic texts we have available to us in our time; case in point, I recently was introduced to the works of Christian Wildberg, who wrote a paper regarding CH III and provided his own translation which is based on a theory that considers chunks of CH III to originally be marginalia written in by a later redactor familiar with Genesis that were eventually reincorporated into the text proper.  As a result, his translation (in the last few pages of that paper) gives a translation in two columns, the original text on one side with hypothesized marginalia on the other.  There’s always more to consider along these lines, and what I did in this little series is just one small dish among many other and bigger buffets of philosophy and philology.

I hope this little journey into the Hermetica was fun and informative, dear reader, and I hope you’re as inspired as I am to engage with both this text and other members of the Hermetic canon on a deeper level, whether for the first time or anew!

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!

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

Now for the third part of our interpretation of Book III of the Corpus Hermeticum (CH III).  This is where things get fun, but also super difficult given the challenges the language of CH III poses to translation, so let’s get right into it, shall we?

Our translation of the third section of CH III from before (with our fancy numbered lists for the sake of more easily seeing the structure here in this section):

Each god sent forth through their own power
that which was assigned to them.
Thus came to be [the] beasts—
[the] four-footed, [the] crawling, [the] water-dwelling, and [the] winged—
and every germinating seed, herb, and fresh shoot of every flower,
[having] the seed of rebirth within themselves.

They then cast the seeds for the generations of humans for [that they might have]:

  1. knowledge of [the] works of [the] Divine, and
  2. testimony of [the] workings of Nature.

And [they likewise made] great numbers of humans [for that they might have]:

  1. management of all things under Heaven, and
  2. recognition of that which is Good

So as to:

  1. grow in growth, and
  2. multiply in multitude.

And, through the course of [the] encycling gods,
[they created] every soul in flesh for [that they might have]:

  1. observance of [the] sign-seeding [acts] of Heaven,
  2. [observance] of [the] course of the heavenly gods,
  3. [observance] of [the] works of the Divine, and
  4. [observance] of [the] working of Nature

for [that they might have]:

  1. examination of that which is Good, and
  2. knowledge of [the] turbulent lots of divine Power

[for the gods made them so as] to:

  1. come to know [the] things of [the] Good and [the] things of [the] insignificant, and
  2. discover [the] arts of everything that is Good.

The original Greek from Nock and Festugière:

ἀνῆκε δὲ ἕκατος θεὸς διὰ τῆς ἰδίας δυνάμεως τὸ προσταχθὲν αὐτῷ, καὶ ἐγένετο θηρία τετράποδα καὶ ἑρπετὰ καὶ ἔνυδρα καὶ πτηνὰ καὶ πᾶσα σπορὰ ἔνσπορος καὶ χόρτος καὶ ἄνθους παντὸς χλόη.  τὸ σπέρμα τῆς παλιγγενεσίας ἐν † ἑαυτοῖς ἐσπερμολόγουν † τάς τε γενέσεις τῶν ἀνθρώπων εἰς ἔργων θείων γνῶσιν καὶ φύσεως ἐνεργοῦσαν μαρτυρίαν καὶ πλῆθος ἀνθρώπων καὶ πάντων τῶν ὐπὸ οὐρανὸν δεσποτείαν καὶ ἀγαθῶν έπίγνωσιν, εἰς τὸ αὐξάνεσθαι ἐν αὐξήσει καὶ πληθύνεσθαι ἐν πλήθει, καὶ πᾶσαν ἐν σαρκὶ ψυχὴν διὰ δρομήματος θεῶν ἐγκυκλίων † τερασπορίας † εἰς κατοπτείαν οὐρανοῦ καὶ δρομήματος οὐρανίων θεῶν καὶ ἔργων θείων καὶ φύσεως ἐνεργείας εἴς τε † σημεῖα ἀγαθῶν † εἰς γνῶςιν θείας δυνάμεως † μοίρης ὀχλουμένης † γνῶναι ἀγαθῶν καὶ φαύλων, καὶ πᾶσαν ἀγαθῶν δαιδαλουργίαν εὑρεῖν.

(Did you guys know that I hate typing up polytonic Greek?  Because I sure do now!  One more section to go after this, I suppose.)

The first section of CH III opened up with a few gnomic aphorisms regarding God, and the second section introduced the creation of the cosmos and how it is arranged.  This section now continues the cosmology by introducing zoogony and anthropogony, the creation of animal life and human life, respectively.  Once the creation of the order of the cosmos has been established, with the subtle elements above and the gross elements below and the heavens arranged into seven spheres, life itself is created, first animal life and then vegetative life.  This was done by “each god [sending] forth through their own power that which was assigned to them”: the astral gods (and maybe also the elemental gods, if you follow Scott’s reasoning) bring forth into existence through their own powers of potentiality (δυνάμεως) life itself.  This section could be read such that animal life was created first and vegetative life second, or whether they were made simultaneously.

In either case, knowing that CH III is similar to the creation account of Book I of the Corpus Hermeticum (CH I) as well as the Book of Genesis from the Septuagint, there is a difference here: CH III just says that the gods made them all (four-footed beasts that walk, crawling beasts that slither around, beasts that swim in the water, and winged beasts that fly) without distinction as to who made what.  Genesis says that Water produced the creeping, flying, and swimming animals and Earth the walking animals that dwell on land; CH I says that the Air produced flying animals, Water swimming animals, and Earth the four-footed and crawling animals (Fire being reserved for holy and immortal entities that aren’t animal).  Here, it’s only said more simply that the four kinds of animals were just made by the gods.

Then comes the creation of vegetative life: “every germinating seed, herb, and fresh shoot of every flower”.  CH I doesn’t bring up vegetative life at all, but Genesis does.  However, as Dodd points out, Genesis brings up the creation of vegetative life much earlier in its account of creation before the heavenly components of the cosmos; CH III, taking a more Stoic approach, puts the creation of vegetative life much later after the creation of heavenly entities and along with animal life.  Straightforward enough, I suppose.  It’s also noted that all these things—whether of vegetative life specifically or both vegetative and animal life, and I’m inclined to think the latter is meant here—contain “the seed of rebirth within themselves” (τὸ σπέρμα τῆς παλιγγενεσίας ἐν ἑαυτοῖς).  Genesis does make the claim that it is the plants alone “bearing seed according to their kind, and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds”, but given the placement here between the creation of animals and vegetation, it may well be that CH III implied that both animals and vegetation are capable of reproducing by virtue of their being reproduced.

Then there’s the word ἐσπερμολόγουν, which is…challenging, and much ink has been spilled over the meaning and purpose of this word.  I translate it as “cast seeds”, though a better and more literal meaning (so far as we know) is more like “pick up seeds”, based on σπερμολόγος, literally “seed-taking”, generally referring to birds, but which also has a metaphorical meaning of “someone who picks up and retails scraps of knowledge”; this leads to the word σπερμολογία meaning “gossip” or “babbling”.  As I mentioned in the notes to my translation, the form of this word is weird; it could be considered a neuter singular active present participle, in which case it could well modify σπέρμα, which it’s not too far from, yielding a translation like “[having] the seeding(?) seeds of rebirth within themselves” (τὸ σπέρμα τῆς παλιγγενεσίας ἐν ἑαυτοῖς ἐσπερμολόγουν), though I take the approach of Dodd in that it refers rather to the gods themselves “[casting] seeds for the generations of humans” (ἐσπερμολόγουν τάς τε γενέσεις τῶν ἀνθρώπων).  Again, the form and meaning of this word is unclear, and it’s caused no small amount of trouble for translators of this section.  Although Dodd and Copenhaver translate this as “the gods sowed”, with Salaman giving a similar “the gods sent forth”, I like “the gods cast seeds”, a pun on λόγος with the spoken word being inherently magical (again, an Egyptian implication, though this is perhaps me reading this into the text where no such implication exists).

So, the gods “sent forth through their own power that which was assigned to them”, and created all the beasts and all the vegetation of the world, all of which would be self-reproducing, and then “cast the seeds” for humanity.  But, as we noted in our translation, it looks like there’s three different kinds of creation going on here.  Copenhaver and Salaman simply give two lists of things that the gods created humanity for.  Using Salaman as a base for this:

  1. The generations of humanity
    1. To know the works of God
    2. To be active witnesses of Nature
    3. To multiply (Copenhaver: increase the number of mankind)
    4. To rule over all under Heaven
    5. To know what is Good
    6. To increase by increasing
    7. To multiply by multiplying
  2. The human souls in flesh
    1. To survey Heaven, the paths of the heavenly gods, the works of God, and the workings of Nature
    2. To know the signs of what is Good
    3. To know the power of God (Copenhaver: to know divine power)
    4. To know the turning fate of Good and Evil (Copenhaver: to know the whirling changes of fair and foul)
    5. To discover all the marvelous works of the Good (Copenhaver: every means of working skillfully with things that are Good)

This is what I thought was most beautiful about CH III back when I first started discussing it, specific goals and reasons and purposes that the gods made humanity.  However, on a closer inspection of the grammar, I don’t agree with this twofold division, and instead go with a threefold division, divided up into things the gods made us to do and also for what purpose, as given in my translation above.  I figured this out independently of Dodd, who in his commentary on CH III discerns a similar pattern here, though we seem to disagree on particulars.  Dodd summarizes this section of CH III as giving a high-level view of the reasons for what humanity was made: to know God in Nature, to multiply and rule over the Earth, and to become civilized through the study of astronomy, theology, ethics, and the arts.  Dodd also brings up similarities with Sirach 17:1—8 and Wisdom 7:17—19, and how the peculiar phrasings of this section resemble much in Genesis.

What I end up with in my own translation and analysis of the text is that:

  1. In general, the gods made the generations of humanity to:
    1. Know the works of the Divine
    2. Witness the workings of Nature
  2. So that they might grow in growth and multiply in multitude, the gods made great numbers of humans to:
    1. Manage all things under Heaven
    2. Recognize that which is Good
  3. In order to examine that which is Good and to know the turbulent lots of divine Power, so that they might know the difference between that which is Good and that which is not, and to discover the arts of everything that is Good, the gods (through their own heavenly courses) made every human soul in flesh to:
    1. Observe the sign-seeding acts of Heaven
    2. Observe the course of the heavenly gods
    3. Observe the works of the Divine
    4. Observe the working of Nature

Humans in general are to know the works of the Divine (ἔργων θείων) and witness the workings of Nature (φύσεως ἐνεργοῦσαν); remember how there’s that initial dichotomy between the Divine and divine Nature way back in the first section of CH III, and how God is both.  Thus, fundamentally, humans are made to know God, being the form of life that has Mind and which can have Wisdom (“for the showing-forth of all things”) so as to know all things.  And this whole section of CH III describes what among all things, specifically, is to be known and how, to be sure, but in general, humans are to come to know God by means of that which is of the Divine and that which is of Nature.

The gods also made “great numbers of humans” (πλῆθος ἀνθρώπων, which Copenhaver and Salaman translate similarly as “to increase the number of mankind” which I personally find to not follow from the grammar here) fundamentally to “grow by growth and multiply in multitude”.  This sort of injunction is phrased in a rather unusual, especially Hebraic sense, and is also found in CH I.18 (Copenhaver translation):

…When the cycle was completed, the bond among all things was sundered by the counsel of god. All living things, which had been androgyne, were sundered into two parts—humans along with them—and part of them became male, part likewise female. But god immediately spoke a holy speech: “Increase in increasing and multiply in multitude, 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.”

The use of αὐξάνεσθαι ἐν αὐξήσει καὶ πληθύνεσθαι ἐν πλήθει, especially that latter phrase, echoes the use of πλῆθος ἀνθρώπων at the start of this series of injunctions, encouraging humans not just to be a great number but to ensure the greatness of its number by continuing to be a great number through increasing and multiplying.  This is facilitated by the two injunctions here given, the first being to tend to the Earth (literally “all under Heaven”) by taking mastery, rulership, and stewardship over it (δεσποτείαν).  The word δεσποτεία literally refers to “the power of a master” (think of the word “despot”), which in the sense of Genesis means for humans to have dominion over the world, and also echoed in Wisdom 9:2.  CH I also gives mastery to humans by having authority in CH I.13, but Dodd notes that this is before humanity’s incarnation while humanity is still within “the craftsman’s sphere”, and not coupled with an injunction to increase and multiply until afterwards in CH I.18.

The second injunction given in this section is to recognize that which is Good.  Simple enough, I suppose (in the sense that doing so is at all simple), but I should note that it’s here that we start encountering the Good (ἀγαθῶν) frequently, and I tend to take this in a more Platonic sense than others seem to do, as it’s not otherwise explained in CH III.  Other translators use it in a more common, common-sense meaning of just things that are lowercase-g good, useful, or beneficial, but “the Good” is a concept otherwise discussed quite a bit in the rest of Hermetic literature as something that pertains to God, and which does not properly exist down here in the world of matter.  Again, this has the benefit of tying into this notion of humanity coming to know God.  Notions of the Good in the Corpus Hermeticum are inherently and intensely intertwined with God (not even the gods in general, but specifically just God as in CH II.16 and CH VI.2) and divinization (cf. CH I.26, “this is the final good for those who have received knowledge: to be made god”).  And, again, recall the connection that CH XI.2—3 gives between the Good and Wisdom that Mind describes to Hermēs (Copenhaver’s translation):

“God makes eternity; eternity makes the cosmos; the cosmos makes time; time makes becoming. The essence (so to speak) of god is [the good, the beautiful, happiness,] wisdom; the essence of eternity is identity; of the cosmos, order; of time, change; of becoming, life and death. But the energy of god is mind and soul; the energy of eternity is permanence and immortality; of the cosmos, recurrence and counterrecurrence; of time, increase and decrease; of becoming, quality (and quantity). Eternity, therefore, is in god, the cosmos in eternity, time in the cosmos, and becoming in time. And while eternity has stood still in god’s presence, the cosmos moves in eternity, time passes in the cosmos, but becoming comes to be in time.”

“The source of all things is god; eternity is their essence; the cosmos is their matter. Eternity is the power of god, and the cosmos is eternity’s work, but the cosmos has never come into being; it comes to be forever from eternity. Therefore, nothing in the cosmos will ever be corrupted (for eternity is incorruptible), nor will it pass away since eternity encloses the cosmos.”

“But the wisdom of god—what is it?”

The good and the beautiful and happiness and all excellence and eternity. Eternity establishes an order, putting immortality and permanence into matter.”

That which is Good is inherently bound with Wisdom, and Wisdom is what enables us to know all things because it shows forth all things that exist, both that which is of the Divine and that which is of Nature.

Then we have the final set of injunctions, which is the most complicated to discuss.  At this point, CH III has already discussed how the gods “cast the seeds” for the generations of humanity, and then how they made “great numbers” of humanity.  These are all fairly physical, but now we step into a more spiritual context: “through the course of [the] encycling gods, they created every soul in flesh”.  Now we’re talking about a spiritual dimension of humanity that we haven’t yet encountered.  While CH III does not explain the nature of the soul, it does say that it exists, and in distinction to the other forms of life that don’t have a soul; all things might have Spirit, since Spirit is instrumental to the order and functioning of the cosmos, but not necessarily Mind or Soul.  Dodd brings this up in a peculiar way:

Now Poimandres agrees that the mortal part of man came form the διοικηταὶ, the astral gods, and Philo found in Genesis a hint that it was the work of the divine δὺναμεις, and not of God Himself.  But both Genesis and Poimandres teach that man in his higher aspect is the image of God.  This sublime doctrine is the climax of the biblical cosmology, and the determining motive of the Poimandres.  The Sacred Discourse knows nothing of it.  Nevertheless, the author follows the LXX as closely, from his point of view, as the author of the Poimandres does from his, and clearly independently.

We know from other doctrines related to the soul in Hermetic literature that all other things have soul, it’s true, but not all have the same types of soul; some Hermetic texts suggest that reincarnation between different forms of life is a possibility, others argue that it’s impossible for a human soul to be incarnated in anything but a human body.  That humans have souls is not questioned by CH III, but whether this is made in the image of God is left unspecified.

These human souls are thus put into flesh (σάρξ here, though σῶμα “body” is used in CH I) to do four things, all based on observation: to observe (κατοπτείαν) the “sign-seeding” (τερασπορίας, “sowing of portents”, another complicated word that gives translators trouble) things (acts, as I interpret it) of Heaven, the course of the heavenly gods, the works of the Divine, and the working of Nature.  Again we have this distinction between “works of the Divine” and “working(s) of Nature”), but there’s something interesting about this list of injunctions: it’s a set of four, while everything else is a set of two things.  This might just be me, but I sense a parallel going on in this set of four: the “sign-seeding” acts of Heaven are the works of the Divine, and the courses of the heavenly gods are the workings of Nature.  In other words, the second two injunctions are just a clarification on the first two.  In this light, we might rephrase this section as:

…through the course of [the] encycling gods, [they created] every soul in flesh for [that they might have] observance of [the] sign-seeding [acts] of Heaven and [observance] of [the] course of the heavenly gods, [which are the observance] of [the] works of the Divine and [observance] of [the] working of Nature…

After all, we already know that the generations of humanity were seeded to have knowledge of the works of the Divine and bear witness to the workings of Nature, so this seems like a way to reemphasize that in more concrete terms through the observance of what goes on above the Earth.  Dodd, in a slightly different take based on similarities here with Psalms 7:4, associates “man’s contemplation of God’s works in the heavens with his rule over His works below”.

So humanity is made by the gods as ensouled flesh, or rather incarnate souls, to observe what happens in Heaven.  We are enjoined to do this so that we might examine that which is Good (again, using my Platonic sense of the word) and to know the “turbulent lots of divine Power” (θείας δυνάμεως μοίρης ὀχλουμένης).  This latter phrase is a tricky one, and again the unclear Greek doesn’t help us, but there’s a notion of crowds, mobs, turbulence, turmoil, and trouble bound up with the fates and lots that come from “divine Power”.  We encountered “divine Power” in the previous section on cosmology, referring to the infinite potential associated with the primordial chaos before the ordering of creation; while this could just be a general phrase to be used (Dodd compares it to Psalms 62:3 and 76:15), I get a notion of things that are still as yet potential which have not yet come to pass being “turbulent” or “troublesome”, perhaps because of their unknown and unformed nature held in the unknown and unformed future.  Are these, too, Good?  It’s unclear, but perhaps that’s because they’re supposed to be.  In this vein of logic, were Scott to carry it further, he might argue that this is an implied argument against the use of astrology and divination to know the future, but perhaps it’s in that very act of discerning that we come to know more about them.

But we’re not done yet here: we’re made incarnate souls and ensouled flesh to observe what happens in Heaven so that we come to examine the Good and know the “turbulent lots of divine Power” specifically for an even grander purpose.  First, we must come to know that which is ἀγαθῶν καὶ φαύλων, which is a phrase I translate as “that which is Good and that which is insignificant”.  It would make more sense to translate this as “Good and Evil”, but CH III doesn’t treat theodicy or evil or things that are bad, and φαύλων doesn’t really have those connotations as such.  Rather, the word φαύλων usually indicates things that are more cheap, easy, slight, trivial, paltry, petty, mean, or common; in other words, the things that are insignificant, indifferent, or otherwise unrelated to that which is Good.  CH III doesn’t treat these things as evil, per se (although other parts of the Corpus Hermeticum would certainly say that anything that is not Good is therefore evil, and only God is Good, thus all things that are not God are evil even if they participate in the Good or have a share of it), but rather as things that just don’t matter to our quest in searching for the Good.  It is certainly possible, of course, that the author of CH III did suggest something along the lines of evil; Dodd points out that the language here borrows from that of Genesis 2:17 and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil which caused the Fall of Man.  But that notion is rejected by Hermetic literature: in CH I, such knowledge is the remedy for our fall, and in CH III, it seems that we are destined for it from the get-go.

With such knowledge of that which is Good and that which is not, it’s then incumbent on us humans—as ensouled flesh and as incarnate soul—to then “discover the arts of everything that is Good”.  Salaman translates this as “discover all the marvelous works of good men”, Copenhaver as “discover every means of working skillfully with things that are good”, Scott as “invent all manner of cunning arts”, and Dodd “discover the craft of all arts”; lots of variation here, I suppose, but in keeping with the theme of the Good here, I think we need to focus on the relationship between arts (δαιδαλουργίαν, which I translated generically as “arts” but literally meaning “skillful workings”) and the Good.  That there’s a relationship is implied given the grammatical structure of this last part of this section of  CH III, and I interpret that relationship to be that once we come to learn about the Good and how that which is Good differs from that which is not (φαύλων), we can then discard the things that are not Good so as to focus on the Good.  In so doing, we come to expand on the Good, make use of it, implement it, and propagate it; to me, these are the arts of the Good, which bring us closer to God through Wisdom.  As for what these arts are, CH III does not specify, but we can make a good guess: astrology, alchemy, theurgy, medicine, writing, theology, ethics, philosophy, religion, and the like.  All these are things that help us investigate the divinity of the Divine and the nature of Nature; all these are the studies and practices of Wisdom; all of these things reveal to us the goodness and beauty and joy of creation; all of these things bring us closer to God.

Thus the third section of CH III.  We’ll pick up next time with the fourth and last section, which talks about where humans go from here now that we’re here.

A Reminder to All Those who (Claim to) Follow the Way of Hermēs

Whether you call it Hermeticism or Hermetism, regardless of how much Hellenic or Solomonic or qabbalistic influence it may bear, irrespective of whether you’re focused on classical or medieval or Renaissance or modern approaches to it all, the Way of Hermēs Trismegistos is fundamentally Egyptian at its core—and Egypt is still a place in Africa. None of us should ever, ever forget that.

Those Hermet(ic)ists who aren’t stepping up to aid those who belong to an oppressed minority and aren’t stepping up to bring life and light to their fellow humanity through healing and wisdom need to reconsider what they’re really doing with their lives and to do better to actually implement the teachings in their own Work—especially if they’re white, straight, cis, or otherwise privileged to belong to one non-oppressed majority or another. And those Hermet(ic)ists who aid or abet racism, fascism, or other such oppressive thoughts and practices need to take a good, long look at themselves, pray, go back to the original texts and philosophies, relearn the inherent dignity and holiness of all humanity, and reconsider literally everything it is they are—and to fuck all the way off and out of the way of humanity until they get a grip on the Way of Hermēs, no matter which route they’re taking.

Even if ancient Egyptians didn’t see themselves like other African ethnicities, even if Hermet(ic)ism wasn’t pan-Mediterranean syncretic from the start, even if Hermetic practices hadn’t changed over millennia, racism and fascism and oppression have no place in the Way—and it is not enough to simply not participate in those things, but it is on us to stand up against them and to actively work against them.

Black Lives Matter.

Work accordingly.

For the love of God and the gods, for the sake of all humanity all made in the image and likeness of the Divine, for the betterment and salvation and good order of the whole Creation of the Creator for all its creatures, let all followers of the Way of Hermēs—whether Hermeticist or Hermetist—hear and help.