This post is part of a series, “49 Days of Definitions”, discussing and explaining my thoughts and meditations on a set of aphorisms explaining crucial parts of Hermetic philosophy. These aphorisms, collectively titled the “Definitions from Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius”, lay out the basics of Hermetic philosophy, the place of Man in the Cosmos, and all that stuff. It’s one of the first texts I studied as a Hermetic magician, and definitely what I would consider to be a foundational text. The Definitions consist of 49 short aphorisms broken down into ten sets, each of which is packed with knowledge both subtle and obvious, and each of which can be explained or expounded upon. While I don’t propose to offer the be-all end-all word on these Words, these might afford some people interested in the Definitions some food for thought, one aphorism per day.
Today, let’s discuss the forty-first definition, part IX, number 6 of 7:
Where(ever) man is, also (is) God. God does not appear to anybody but man. Because of man God changes and turns into the form of man. God is man-loving and man is God-loving. There is an affinity between God and man. God listens only to man, and man to God. God is worthy of worship, man is worthy of admiration. God does not appear without man; man is desirable to God and God to man, because desire comes from nowhere, but from man and God.
“[Both God and man] are one: God and man after the species” (I.1); “nothing is uninhabited by God…God is in heaven, and heaven in the world” (III.1); “God is within himself, the world is in God, and man in the world” (VII.5); “everything is within man” (IX.4). These are all things we’ve seen before: not only does God dwell within the soul that dwells within the body, but that not only is Man within God, but God is within Man. Moreover, “whoever thinks of himself in Nous knows himself and whoever knows himself knows everything[;] everything is within man” (IX.4). This tightly couples up the identities and existence of God and Man so closely, especially with knowledge itself delivered by God/Nous/light being everywhere as it is. Man, being endowed with Nous, can know all things, and can in a way be everywhere just as God is everywhere. Thus, this definition starts off with a profound statement: “wherever man is, also is God”. We are not only made in the image of God, and we are not only endowed with the power of God, but we are with God wherever we go. We are always within and with God, so perhaps it’s not shocking, but this definition makes it clear that we are never separated from God.
Moreover, “God does not appear to anybody but man”. This is probably shocking, but consider that Man is the only one among the living beings capable of Nous. Because of this, we’re the only ones who are able to transcend the material realm (VIII.7), and we’re the only ones capable of examining the entirety of creation (VI.1, VII.2). While Nous sees all things through all souls, only Man among all the ensouled creatures can know Nous in the other direction, and in the process know himself and all other things. Other creatures are limited in what they can see, and can only see themselves and their own worlds that exist within God. But Man is Man because “he has got a notion of God” (IX.1), so only Man truly understands what God is, while other beings don’t. Man is special because he alone can know God, and since knowledge is so tightly bound up with light and sight, Man is special because he alone can see God. Thus, “God does not appear to anybody but man”.
Of course, if we can see God appear, then that means God must appear sensible to us, but we know that God is intelligible. But that’s not always the case: “because of man God changes and turns into the form of man”. God condescends down to us and takes on a human form, which allows us to know God. This can be taken in two big ways, as far as I can tell: either God comes down as his own human to lead us to God, or God comes down as us and becomes us so we can know ourselves to know God. The former is basically soteriology: we have some savior, some divine human (as if humans aren’t divine!) who comes down as God and appears to us, speaks to us, and leads us; this could be Jesus, or Dionysus, or Horus, or Mithra, or Krishna, or any other savior-god. This allows us to witness God as something external to ourselves (though this isn’t ultimately true, but in the world of forms and matter it can appear so), making it easier for ourselves to know God through the God-human. On the other hand, God comes down to the world as us, taking on human forms as us, and lives down here as us. In this case, it makes sense why human souls are given Nous; that’s God who dwells within us, and by coming to know ourselves, we come to know Nous, and we come to know God. In either case, we are made as God and as gods to know God, and to do this, God appears to us in ways we can understand.
But why? Why does God even bother with us? “God is man-loving and man is God-loving”. God loves us. With knowledge, there is no fear (IX.3), but now we know that love is the opposite of fear. With knowledge, we love God, and God loves us. God, by extension, loves everything, since everything is within Man and everything is within God and Man is within God and God is within God, but we alone are the only form that God takes down here, and it’s for our sake. Everything God does is for our sake (VIII.2), because God loves us. This isn’t some passionate romantic love, but this is an existential, “you are family”, “you are part of me”, “you are me” love. This is agape, the unconditional love of God for Man, a promotion of well-being in response to having been made well. “There is an affinity between God and man”, suggesting that everything between God and Man is mutual, and that we love each other, as spouses love each other. Together we form a whole, as was mentioned in I.1.
Not only does God appear only to Man, but “God listens only to man, and man to God”. Just as God appears to Man because Man is the only creature endowed with Nous to know and sight to see, God listens to Man because Man is the only creature capable of Logos to speak reasonable speech. Logos is the servant of Nous, and is the only means by which we can come to approach and know God (V.1). All reasonable speech is of God, while unreasonable speech is only worldly (V.2, V.3). Thus, God only listens to reasonable speech, and the only source of that that is not itself is Man, so “God listens only to man”. Man, however, listens among himself and the words of others, but can also listen to God. Whether an “only” is omitted in that latter half of the statement or whether it was intentionally left out is not known, but if we assume the parallel structure here omitted it, then “Man [listens only] to God” is what we should be reading. All speech comes from the world and the voices it produces, though reasonable speech comes from voice and Logos used at once. But the world and all voices all come from God, and voice is used according to one’s nature, whether Man or any other creature, and “nature is the mirror of truth” (VIII.5). Whatever Man hears, he can understand, and he can understand it with reason even if the original utterance was unreasonable. Thus, no matter what is said, or where or when or by whom, Man listens only to God.
God loves us and is so much bigger than us; this we know now, but we also know that everything is within God, and everything is within Man. So which is “bigger”? When you deal with matters of infinity, things can always get a little hazy, since God is truly infinite while Man is…well, Man is finite. But yet we have everything within ourselves; this isn’t as much a literal truth as it is a reflection of it. So, rather, while Man is by nature representative of God, God is in truth God; we might say that Man is the nature of God, especially if God appears in the world as Man and if truly “nature is the mirror of truth” (VIII.5). Thus, no matter how great Man may be, God is greater, and gives that greatness to us. Thus the next part of the definition: “God is worthy of worship, man is worthy of admiration”. Admiration literally means “to look at”, and we know that by knowing Man/ourselves, we know God. To know God is perfection and completion in all things, and is where our reverence and prayers truly go toward. God is worthy of worship above all, since God is the greatest and, moreover, the Good (II.1), while we have the choice between good and evil and can choose good (VII.6).
“God does not appear without man”; after all, “God does not appear to anybody but man” and “wherever man is, also is God”. This makes sense with an older definition, VI.1: “if there were nobody to see [the world], what would be seen would not even exist”. After all, if everything is within Man, and if knowledge of the world is knowledge of God, and if we know God through the world, then God appears to us through the world and through other human forms. So, if we were no Man to exist to see things, then there would be no God to see, and there would be no need for light or things to exist. Yet, here we are, and so “everything exists because of man” (IX.1). So why is it that we exist at all? Because “man is desirable to God”, so God wants Man to exist and live; moreover, “God [is desirable] to man” because we are within and blessed with God which leads us to him as our desire. Where does this desire come from? We know that desire is a passion of the soul that moves it and the body (IX.4), but this desire comes from Nous within our souls (VII.3). Desire as a passion does not come from the world, nor does it come from other humans, but it comes from within ourselves. Thus, “desire comes from nowhere, but from man and God”.
Now, one of the things that this definition introduces but does not clarify is why we should worship God. God made us, and God loves us, and God finds us desirable. Sure, okay, we can get that. We also know that because knowing God is immortality and knowledge and love, we also love God and naturally strive to know God. Okay. But why does God love us and find us desirable? This isn’t something said or known yet, and it’s unclear at this point whether the Definitions will say so later on. That said, why would it matter for the Definitions to tell us? Why would God make the world at all? Why would God make things the way God did? These are purely intelligible things, I’d claim, that are not for humans to know, at least not those without Nous. Suffice it to say that it gets us started on our path to God to know that God loves us and God wants us to live and perfect ourselves.