On the Inconvenience of Wholeness

Earlier this winter, I was taking the train to work in the morning, as I usually do.  It was during one of the exceptionally cold days—I honestly don’t think I’ve ever experienced negative degrees Fahrenheit before—and I was ruing sitting against the window, as I usually do (the sitting, not the ruing).  I take the standard Northern approach to winter clothing, applying layer after layer after layer until you end up a spherical mess of unflattering insulation, but even then, it didn’t seem to work as well as I had hoped that morning.  Worse, I had to pee, and I typically try to avoid that on the trains.  Yeah, there are bathrooms on the commuter trains, but trying to wiggle out past the person sitting next to me, wobbling down an unsteady train down to the bathroom in the next car, then having to undo layer after layer of unflattering insulation just to take a leak wasn’t worth it.  I just held it until I got to the office.

The whole experience recalled to mind a method of excreting bodily waste in abnormally or dangerously low temperatures: the use of insulated diapers.  I thought it an amusing technique, both incredibly uncomfortable to sit in my own urine while simultaneously finding the warmth probably very welcome in below-zero temperatures.  Of course, I’m not a diaper fetishist, and the idea is far more uncomfortable to me than it is to others; it’d probably have to be truly, awfully cold outside, and I’d need to be out there for quite a long duration before even giving it a serious thought.  Still, the technique of it is valid, and if I were someone like a Siberian ice-fisher, I’d probably actually consider it.

Now, I don’t often think about diapers; I leave that to some of my other friends and colleagues for their own reasons.  No, I originally heard about the notion of insulated diapers from…well, of all places, a Legend of Zelda fanfic.  Yes, dear reader, your beloved/despised polyphanes is a nerd, and while I haven’t really read fanfic or engaged in much fandom in years, it was definitely a major influence on my formative teen life.  Between Myst, Legend of Zelda, Sonic the Hedgehog, and a handful of other anime and manga, I had quite the list going.  The Legend of Zelda fandom was probably the first one I started getting involved with, and there was this one site…god, it’s been years, and I can’t remember it, and I have no idea if it’s even online anymore.  It was, for the early 2000s, a fantastic fan-maintained resource of Zelda-related content, ranging from game walkthroughs to rumors of finding the Triforce in Ocarina of Time to, of course, fanfiction.  The site author maintained his own (as I judged it at the time) pretty epic storyline, and even I helped contribute with some of my own stuff.  It was a fascinating timesink for me.

The fanfic the site maintainer himself wrote was pretty involving, I have to admit, or at least for my 12-to-14-year-old self.  It had everything I could want: drama, an unexplored dichotomy leftover from the actual mythos of Zelda, exploration, and, of course, angst.  (Yes, I still have a soft spot for Linkin Park and Gackt, and my mom still fondly remembers my overuse of “angst!” cried out as an expression of frustration and…well, angst.)  There was one part in the fanfics the site author wrote that stuck in my mind, and which this cold train morning brought up after making the leap from insulated diapers: in an earlier part of the story, Link is sent on a quest to defeat the Truly Unspeakable Evil in a place far colder than Antartica (hence the insulation), but which was so evil, Link was warned not to give even an ounce or an inch of thought or credence to it, for to even give it that much would let the Truly Unspeakable Evil get a foothold in Link’s mind, which would inevitably lead to his corruption and ultimate doom.  Later on in the series, you can guess what happened; Link, as it turned out, gave a half-second’s thought of considering the merits of what the Truly Unspeakable Evil was proposing to Link as he approached the den of the Truly Unspeakable Evil, and that was just enough to plant the seed of Truly Unspeakable Evil in Link’s head, which eventually began to drive him to depression, to madness, and ultimately, to climb the heights of Death Mountain, watch the sunrise one last time, and fling himself over the edge to end it all so as to give in to the Truly Unspeakable Evil.  He didn’t die, of course; that’d be a poor end to a Zelda fanfic, indeed, and the fanfic author had more in mind to write.  Link was grievously wounded, to be sure, but he survived, and was rescued by his friends and allies and, together, they worked to (painfully, if I recall correctly) excise and exorcise the Truly Unspeakable Evil from Link’s mind and body.  It was a surprisingly sweet, uplifting, empowering story to read for a young teenager.

Now, as a somewhat older person with a little more (but only a little more) experience under my belt in both magic, spiritual works, demonic possession and obsession, and just life in general, I can look back and realize…well, first, how fucked up that story was.  I still think fondly of it, but christ, that was a dark story to read.  All the same, it does actually have strong parallels to some of the worst case scenarios of demonic affliction, and how, in some cases, demons can drive someone mad or burden them with depression, and ultimately, it is possible for a demon to drive someone to suicide.  But…now that I look back on it, there’s something that nags me about the whole thing.  I know that I’m evaluating the merits and virtues of a fanfic I read literally 15 years ago and only dimly recall, so please suspend your sense of absurdity for my sake, but…it almost seems like it was too easy for the Truly Unspeakable Evil to be so cleanly excised from Link.  Yeah, falling off a cliff a hundred meters tall would probably knock quite a bit out of you more than just wind, but…

Problems like depression and mania and anxiety or dementia, or psychological urges to murder, rape, abuse, and the like are, indeed, problems.  They’re human problems, of course, and so many of us suffer from them all the time.  We do our best to keep ourselves in good physical and mental health, and hold in our destructive and malefic urges so we can at least maintain a semblance of non-psychopathic decency.  While there’s a little bit of the Divine in all of us, a little shard of the Good, a little spark of the Nous, we’re still mortal and material creatures, born to die.  Matter, in the Gnostic-influenced Hermetic view, stands apart from God in several ways, and is largely considered evil, or at the very least, incredibly inconvenient.  (I’m reminded of the Douglas Adams quote: “In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.”)  Try as we might, there is not one of us who is truly good, because we’re not made to be; while the part of us that is Good can aspire to Goodness, a human being, when considered as a whole, is a mixture of both Good and Evil.  We’re both.  We have both blessings and curses, benefits and hindrances, positives and negatives.

A human being, any one of us, is a whole entity, and you can’t simply excise evil from a human.  You can’t just rip those destructive urges out, nor can you just banish anxiety and be done with it.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not saying that one should have an urge to rape and kill, nor that we should be so “blessed” with depression and suicide; far from it, these are awful things that I wish we could do without, and work towards a day when we don’t have to worry about them and can maintain them so that they don’t pose a problem anymore, if not get rid of them completely.  But we all have our afflictions, our vices, our sins, and you can’t just fling yourself off a cliff to be rid of them, nor can you jam a red-hot sword into your flesh to burn it out.  Those who have these afflictions are still human, and still have an ounce of Good in them, no matter how covered up or small.  We all have our own essential dignity, so to speak.  But that dignity and that little bit of Good we have don’t excuse the shit we pull and the evil we make in the world around us or in the world within us; we can’t simply be forgiven for the awful, harmful things we do to ourselves or others, because forgiveness without remediation is wasted breath and energy.

We’re whole creatures.  We have good and bad within us, and we can’t really separate the bad out and claim it’s not us.  It’s part of us, and in a sense, it is us.  We have to own it.  We have to take responsibility for ourselves, and we have to actively work to make ourselves as Good as possible.  If only it were as simple as just letting the Good be Good, but it’s not; we have to fight, every second of every minute of every day of every month of every year we draw breath, to preserve the Good, protect the Good, enhance the Good, and elevate the Good, while fighting off the Bad, diminishing the Bad, restraining the Bad, and eventually controlling the Bad as best we can until we’re no longer human and no longer have the Bad as part of us.  Until then, the Bad is just as much as part of the whole of us as the Good is.

Being whole is inconvenient.  It’s not easy, and there’s no straightforward solution, no deus ex machina that can save us as the hero in our individual stories.  It’s not a problem to solve, but a predicament we must live with; in this view, then, every moment of every human life is a crisis, where we must constantly take responsibility for ourselves, own our wholeness and all the parts of the whole that constitutes who we are, and actively make the decision to be Good and to enhance the Good.  We have to be better than what we are.  Not only is that a matter of enhancing the Good all the time, but of diminishing the Bad all the while.

I wish it were easier.  But it’s not.  That’s just the nature of the Work, which is actual work.

49 Days of Definitions: Part X, Definition 4

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-sixth definition, part X, number 4 of 7:

The immortal nature (is) the movement of the mortal nature, (as to) mortality, earth is its grave; (and) heaven (is) the place of the immortal.  The immortal came into being because of the mortal, but the mortal comes into being by means of the immortal.  Evil is a deficiency of the good, good (is) fullness of itself.

So, now that we know that all of nature exists within the body of Man, what can we say about what nature actually is?  We know that there are four elements: earth which forms the basis for material existence, water which helps to grow, fire which inhibits growth, and air which joins together (II.2,3,4,5).  We know that there are different groups of living creatures: heavenly beings with only soul and immortal bodies, stones with only mortal bodies, plants with mortal bodies and breath, animals with mortal bodies and breath and soul, and Man with mortal bodies, breath, soul, and Nous (IV.2), and each of those bodies is composed of some mixture of the elements (IV.1).  There are two fluidities, the female which receives things and the male which emits things, which are always at work in the world to cause increase and decrease (X.1).  So far, that’s all we know.

Now we start to read about the interaction of different natures and what those natures are.  For one, “the immortal nature is the movement of the mortal nature”.  Natures with immortality refer to heavenly beings, which we can say are gods, or more Hermetically, the planets and stars of the sky.  These are the beings that “have” and “adorn heaven” (IX.7), and as we might infer from the place of astrology in many occult sciences and philosophies, these are the things that influence anything and everything down below.  Indeed, the planets and stars are the movement of the life and natures on the world, giving them impetus to act in certain ways just as the soul moves the body.

Further, note how this definition makes a clear demarcation between things high up and things down below: “as to mortality, earth is its grave; and heaven is the place of the immortal”.  Human beings and all mortal life down here is relegated to the earth, since earth is “the receptacle of the dead” as well as “nurse of the living” (II.3).  On the other hand, the immortal creatures reside in heaven, forever there and never down here, just as humans do not ascend into heaven to be immortal; after all, “you do not have the power of becoming immortal; neither does, indeed, the mortal have the power of dying” (VIII.7).  The only means by which we can interact is the air, since “heavens and earth are united with each other by the air” (II.2).

So, what gives with the fact that the immortal beings move us mortal ones around?  After all, isn’t Man the one to own and manage the world (VI.1)?  Don’t we ourselves have the power of the gods and the heavenly beings (VIII.6)?  Well, yes, we do.  We have the power of leading ourselves around in a way that nothing else does; the immortal beings move the mortal things, and most mortal things would, as I read this, be influenced by and obey the immortal ones.  However, we who are Man don’t have to follow suit; we can be led around by the immortal beings, or we can move ourselves.  In either case, movement is still accomplished, but if we let other things push us around, we basically relinquish our control to them, and those other things may not have our best interests at heart.  If our soul wants us to do one thing, but our bodies are pushed around to do the opposite, that hurts us and we’re driven further from perfection, not closer to it.  Thus, we can resist the power of the immortal beings and choose our own path, though it may not be easy (and it’s often not in the face of actual danger or adversity provided by them).

So why have immortal beings at all?  To help us learn more about ourselves, the world, and God.  After all, “the immortal came into being because of the mortal”.  The immortal beings, with their nature, have their own things and experiences and worlds that we as Man need to learn from.  From them we learn immortality, rulership, power of motion over others, and the like; they came into being as the entire world came into being for us (VIII.6).  However, they still have influence over us, and it is by them (not the soul, or not just the soul, as we hypothesized in the last definition!) that move bodies around down here to create more bodies.  Thus, “the mortal comes into being by means of the immortal”.  While the soul is the maker of the body, the body is made by the soul by means of the immortal beings in heaven.  (This should sound familiar if you know emanationism in Qabbalah, where an Idea comes down from God through the sephiroth of the planets and stars down to manifestation here on Earth.)

Recall, though, that this isn’t the first mention of stars and astral influences in the Definitions.  Way back in VII.5, I mentioned these two little symbols that I couldn’t type, common symbols in Armenian manuscripts for glosses, but one meant “star” and the other meant “sinner”.  While the propensity and judgment of individual humans according to their soul’s “illness” and “passion” (IX.4) can lead them to choose certain actions, the motion of the stars and planets above can also lead us to do the same.  We can be moved by the stars, just as anything mortal down here can, if we let it.  Certain influences, thoughts, accidents, opportunities, and the like can all be presented to us to lead or move us in certain ways that our souls may agree with or cry out against.

After all, keep in mind that these heavenly beings may not have our best influences at heart; they are still in the world and thus of matter, and moreover, have no Nous (IV.2).  They are entirely worldly, and as such, they are evil just as anything material is (according to X.1).  Evil, as we’re aware, is “conspicuous” (X.1), and we know that not only is evil the opposite of good, but that evil “is a deficiency of good”.  Evil is a lack, that which is missing something.  A dark room is dark because it has no light; one is ignorant because they do not know something.  Evil is defined by what it lacks; this is why it’s so conspicuous.  Good, on the other hand, is “fullness of itself”; it is complete in itself, just as light shows things to be just as they are without changing or modifying them (II.6).  Good “bears no comparison”, and knowledge of something cannot be compared to knowledge of anything else; ignorance is simply lacking knowledge, while knowledge is knowledge.  It cannot be substituted with knowledge of anything else, nor can it be enlarged or decreased in any way.

So, about those planets, stars, gods, and heavenly beings?  While they may not be outright ignorance, they don’t have all knowledge, either.  They are without Nous, and so while they may exist as part of and within God, they are without knowledge of God and therefore without knowledge of the world or themselves.  This makes them ignorant, and thus possessing the quality of evil.  They lead us to potentially ignorant ends, unaware of the intelligible or non-worldly aspects of their actions, and can so lead us to stay trapped down here when we let them.  (This should now sound like the function of the archons in Gnosticism.)  With knowledge, we understand the entire world and all the influences and natures within; without, we get trapped and are moved to know only a select few things in a select few ways.

49 Days of Definitions: Part X, Definition 1

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-third definition, part X, number 1 of 7:

What is good? What bears no comparison.  Good is invisible, (but) evil is conspicuous.  What is a female? A receptive fluidity.  What is a male?  A seminal fluidity.

Alright, guys, here we go!  We’re in the home stretch now, with seven definitions ahead of us.  This is the final set of aphorisms given in the Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius, though Jean-Pierre Mahé notes that there was a spurious eleventh set which was copied from other Hermetic texts, and so are not given as part of these aphorisms.  Mahé notes that lists of aphorisms have historically tended to be subject to additions, interpolations, subtractions, and other modifications, and we’ve seen some of these things before in sections III and VII.  On the whole, however, the Definitions have been providing us with a more-or-less coherent foundation for Hermetic philosophy, and this last section should prove to be interesting.  The last section emphasized the role and place of Man in the cosmos, after building up the case for the actions of knowledge and ignorance leading to immortality or mortality for man, his unique connection to God that allows knowledge of the entire cosmos, and what the cosmos is structured like.  With that, let’s begin this final part of the Definitions.This definition actually acts as a definition, affording meanings for four words, two of which we’ve already seen: good, evil, female, and male.

That which is good “bears no comparison”; there is nothing that can be compared to the good.  We know that good is knowledge, especially knowledge of God and the beings (VII.5), that Nous/God/light is good, or more properly the Good (II.1, II.6, IX.2), and that Man can choose to do good when he carries out the will of Nous and works toward God and perfection of the soul, a power of the gods (VIII.7).  By using the associations of God with the Good from I.4, we also know that the Good is uncreated, ineffable, intelligible, immovable, and invisible, and is also eternal (I.5); further, it is also honest and beautiful (IX.4)  God is, effectively, “knowledge of the beings” (VI.3), all at once, all together.  God which is the Good is the Whole, the All, the One, the greatest and greater than greatest.  In this light, there is nothing that can compare to the Good, hence it “bears no comparison”.  Even Man, made in the image of God, is nothing like God in some ways.  There is nothing that can be compared to the Good, because the Good will always dwarf everything, no matter what it may be.

Further, “good is invisible”; after all, that is what God is, being everywhere and beyond all at once.  God dwells within all things, and, being light as well, “appears just as it is by itself” without itself being visible.  We cannot see or sense the Good, no more than we can see or sense truth or knowledge directly, but it is there all the same.  This is contrasted with evil, which is “conspicuous”.  Evil is everything we can see or sense that we know for a fact is not Good.  Of course, since everything is within God, everything is (as it is) good and nothing is to truly be feared (IX.3), but anything we see is only a reflection of truth, since it has nature and quality and quantity (VIII.5, VII.7).  Evil is anything that hides the truth; it is ignorance (VII.7), darkness (implied in II.6 and VIII.5), and lies and ugliness (IX.4).  Evil is what keeps us from attaining knowledge of God, and what prevents us from knowing the Good.

Does this mean that the material world is evil?  Basically, yeah.  Evil is that which hides the good, ignorance that hides knowledge.  This material world we live in with bodies, increase and decrease, birth and death is all natural, sure, but it is a reflection of the truth, which is invisible and immaterial.  Truth is God, God is good; nature is not truth, therefore nature is neither God nor good.  (This shows the Platonic/Neoplatonic/Gnostic influence on Hermeticism, which holds that material things are evil and not really made by God, but that a greater and more perfect world exists beyond this imperfect, fatal one and whoever made the mistake of making this world fucked shit up.)  But if you follow this through, it accords with the rest of what we’ve said before.  Remember the warning about “whoever behaves well towards his body, behaves badly towards himself” (IX.5), “just as you will behave towards the soul when it is in this body, likewise it will behave towards you when it has gone out of the body” (VI.3), and “speech which comes from speech is only perdition” (V.2)?  Whatever comes from this world is nothing more than nature arising from nature.  Without Nous/God or Logos/Reason to guide or create things, there is no good in them.  Speech that comes from speech, or that comes from the world about the world for the world, is essentially unreasonable; treating the body before the soul or instead of the soul neglects the Good within ourselves.

So what exactly brings about nature that generates nature?  This definition introduces to us two new terms: female and male.  They are both “fluidities”, which indicates flow, transformation, change, and mobility.  Female fluidity is receptive; it is changed.  Male fluidity is seminal; it changes other things.  We might use the terms “passive” and “active” instead, if you wanted to go with a less gendered way to say it, but the concepts are the same.  Anything that is shaped, molded, formed, built, and the like has female qualities.  Anything that shapes, molds, forms, builds, and the like has male qualities.  The interaction between these two fluidities is what generates things down here.  Note that, while it may be tempting, we can’t really associate these with the elements as we know them.  Earth, as we might guess, has strong female qualities (consider how many things we make out of solid objects!); likewise, water is the height of fluidity, and its flow is contained or shaped by other things.  But then, water can also be male when it chips away and molds earth, and earth can be male when it contains or redirects the flow of water.  Remember that female and male are fluidities, forces of change independent of form.  They’re even less material than the elements themselves; they’re modes of operation, action, and change.

But, however, because they are forms of change, they are not immovable and uncreated as God is (I.4).  God is immovable and cannot be moved, while things that are female are moved and are created and things that are male move and create.  We might say that God takes on some male qualities, but this wouldn’t be completely honest to say at this point, I think.  Female and male are qualities, which are properties of matter (VII.4), and as such are still not Good, and therefore not God, and therefore “evil”, since we can see these things or at least these forces at work in the world.  This isn’t saying that female humans are receptive or that male humans are active, either; it’s important to draw the line with these definitions here in that these are forces of change and no more.

49 Days of Definitions: Part VIII, Definition 6

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 thirty-fourth definition, part VIII, number 6 of 7:

You have the power of getting free since you have been given everything.  Nobody envies you.  Everything came into being for you, so that by means of either one (being) or of the whole, you may understand the craftsman.  For you have the power of not understanding with your (own) will; you have the power of lacking faith and being misled, so that you will understand the contrary of the (real) beings.  Man has as much power as the gods.  Only man (is) a free living (being), only he has the power of good and evil.

At last, Hermes takes on the role of Captain Planet and tells us definitively that the power is ours!  What power is that?  That of “getting [ourselves] free”.  But free from what?  That’s something that’s only been hinted at before: lack of divine-Nous (VIII.4, V.2), which is that which we seek in order to perfect ourselves by means of perfecting our souls (VI.3).  After all, our deficiency or evil is ignorance of God, since our grace and good is in knowledge (VII.5) of the world (VI.3, VIII.4).  We free ourselves from being deprived of and separated consciously from God to rejoin God as God, while those who are not (yet) free are those who “have gone astray” and worship human opinion (VIII.1, VIII.3) instead of worshiping truth and God reasonably (V.2, V.3, VIII.3).  By being in our current body-soul state, we end up with good and evil (VII.4), and having to choose between them.  While this choice is apparent down here, it’s only a reflection of true existence of God (VIII.5), and it’s ultimately a false choice, since such things only exist down here in this material realm.  By freeing ourselves of this false choice, we return to the original grace and plenitude of real knowledge, of harmony with the divine.

But how can this be accomplished? We must strive to become godly by emulating and becoming close to God because we “have been given everything”; after all, our possession “is the world” (VI.1), and it’s our duty to fully explore and understand the world to complete ourselves (VII.2), by means of which we understand our body, thence our soul, thence God (VIII.4).  Literally everything that exists, especially within the world but also beyond it, exists for our own sake (VIII.5), because Nous dwells within us and wants us to rejoin fully with Nous.  See how all these definitions are to building upon itself into a cohesive philosophy and guide to salvation?  It’s been taking some time, but now we start to see how we’re able and meant to do the Work we’re called to do.

Does that make us, as humans and part of Man, special?  After all, we’re the only beings capable of being endowed with Nous.  In a sense, yes, but not in the sense that we have to jealously guard our specialness.  “Nobody envies [us]”, but what does that mean, really?  People often confuse jealousy and envy, but the two are subtly different: jealousy is desire to keep others from possessing something of our own, while envy is desire to obtain something that someone else has that we lack.  Thus, if someone were to envy us, they’d envy us for either our capability of having Nous or our actual obtaining of Nous, but Hermes tells us that nobody envies us for that.  Why?  Well, other beings without the capability of Nous don’t know any better.  Of the animate creatures, animals only concern themselves with themselves and don’t process death or birth like we do, and the heavenly beings are already immortal and detached from the material realm; while they are part of God, they are without the reason that enables them to realize it or perform acts that only humans can.  Of the inanimate creatures, plants and stones…well, they’re plants and stones.  They don’t do much of anything in terms of motion, since they have no animating soul.

But what about other humans?  Well, other humans are similarly capable of possessing Nous and themselves have soul-Nous to link them back to the divine Nous/God, so they can’t envy anyone else for something they already have.  (The humans who lack soul-Nous, like those mentioned in VIII.4, are basically relegated to the realm of animals, which sounds cruel, but that’s just a result of the maldevelopment of body and soul.)  We’re all given the starting chance, capability, and resources to apply ourselves to our goal and to our Work, so we’re all on the same starting line, more or less.  The only thing that some of us might envy others is the possession of divine-Nous within ourselves, those who have been bestowed Nous through their use of reason.  But then, they worked for it.  They used the chances and resources they had that everyone has.  They earned what they did and completed their objective.

Why should other people who strive for obtaining divine-Nous envy those who have already obtained it?  They shouldn’t; to do so is unreasonable, and inhibits their progress towards obtaining divine-Nous through reasonable work.  Thus, if they do, they’re not really striving for divine-Nous as they ought, and end up going astray and ending up content in their own world of human opinion and unreasonable speech.  What about those who don’t bother striving for divine-Nous?  These people (and I have materialist atheists who call all religion and spirituality hokum in mind) don’t see the point in any such endeavor, and thus mock those who strive and have striven for divine-Nous; they find that the Nous-strivers and their worldview are mockeries, and they “will be mocked at” in turn (VIII.5).  These, too, end up in a world of human opinion and unreasonable speech (as far as Hermes is concerned), and they will have their own rewards in time; they don’t care nor work towards Nous, so they don’t envy the Nous-strivers anyway.  Thus, nobody can really envy those who strive for Nous, either for their starting point or their destination.

Again, we humans have the power to free ourselves from mortality and lack of God.  Everything that exists exists, in effect, for us: “everything came into being for you, so that by means of either one being or of the whole, you may understand the craftsman”.  Nothing in this cosmos or Creation was created in vain or for uselessness, because “whatever God does, he does it for man” (VIII.2).  Further, by inspecting the nature of the world, we come to know truth, and truth is the existence and body of the intelligible without body.  Truth is God, and truth was made by God; God is the “craftsman” (VIII.5), and by understanding God’s work, we understand God.  This, again, is both “knowledge of the beings” (VI.3) and knowledge of God (VII.5), and this is the perfection of the soul, our aim and directive.  We can either inspect just one thing that exists, such as ourselves or the nature of a particular function of the world, or we inspect all things that operate as a whole, but either way it leads to God.  Inspecting any nature leads to truth (VIII.5), and since truth is intelligible, truth has no body, no quantity nor quality as bodies do.  Truth is, in effect, divinely simple: there are no parts to Truth, but there is only Truth.  It’s like understanding the entirety of the human body to understand how it develops, or a single cell and its DNA which represents all of it in a compressed manner; both represent human nature in their own ways at different levels.  All of the things that exist are not really distinguished from each other except in appearance, since all things are part of and within God, and also God itself.  So long as we actually do the work of understanding, we’ll get to our goal.

Of course, we have the choice to do the opposite, as well: “for you have the power of not understanding with your own will”.  Remember that as a soul descends into the body, it gains good and evil as well as quantity and quality (VII.4), and we can be good and choose knowledge or we can be evil and choose ignorance (VII.5).  Further, we have the “faculty of killing”, which is to say that we have the ability to continue death and mortality for ourselves or we can shed it by returning to our immortal natures.  It’s all up to us, really, and goes hand-in-hand with what we understand and what we choose to understand: “you have the power of lacking faith and being mislead, so that you understand the contrary of the real beings”.  If the perfection of the soul is knowledge of the beings, then the imperfection of the soul is the lack of knowledge of beings, or believing other things that aren’t real or true.  In either case, we unreasonably distance ourselves from knowledge, and therefore lengthen our path to perfection or shut it down entirely into perdition (V.2).

We can choose salvation and knowledge or perdition and ignorance; we can choose Heaven or Hell for ourselves; we can choose Life or Death.  This is no trivial thing; these are things that were only ascribed to major powers before Hermeticism, and indeed, Hermes says that “man has as much power as the gods”.  We are powerful in similar, though not the same, ways as the gods are; we own and use and work with and live in the world because it is our possession, just as we and the gods are God’s possession.  The world is the lot of Man, and we essentially rule it and manage it.  Our powers are vast, and incredibly potent, though they should not be confused with that of the other gods or heavenly beings.  For instance, Venus is the goddess of love, lust, beauty, and luxury; she bestows these things, because she is these things.  She does what she is, and thus acts according to her nature.  We have our own natures and our own powers, and we use them in similar ways on our own targets.

However, unlike gods, Man is different in that we don’t always act for the Good like other living creatures do: “only man is a free living being, only he has the power of good and evil”.  Venus does what she does because that’s what she is; she can do no other, and she can choose no other thing to do.  She has her own mode of operation, her own directive, and nothing that inhibits her from doing it.  Man, however, doesn’t have to follow his nature and soul-Nous; we can choose good and evil, knowledge or ignorance, life or death.  In that sense, Man is given free will in a manner utterly unlike other living creatures.  Plants can only grow and synthesize energy; animals can only act according to instinct; gods can only act according to their divine natures.  Man, however, can act according to or against his nature, for better or for worse.  And it’s pretty clear at this point what those choices are and manifest as, and which of those choices we should be picking.

49 Days of Definitions: Part VII, Definition 5

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 twenty-eighth definition, part VII, number 5 of 5:

God is within himself, the world is in God, and man in the world.  His (i.e. man’s) deficiency is ignorance, his plenitude in the knowledge of God.  ※ He says that evil (consists) in ignorance and good in knowledge ⍜.

A short definition to finish up this section!  The first part of this definition sounds awfully like the first definition from the third set, which said that “where heaven is, God is too, and where the world is, heaven is too”, and also that “God is in heaven, and heaven in the world”.  Here, we have some more relationships between God and the world: namely, that God is within himself, that the world is in God, and that Man is in the world.

That God is within himself should come as no surprise.  We already know that “nothing is uninhabited by God” (III.1), and that God is “the father of the intelligible” (III.4) while being intelligible himself (I.1).  In other words, God is God, all things are within God, and God is in all things; everything is a complete Whole, and that Whole is the All, the One, or God.  If you want to translate this into set theory of mathematics, we can say that God is a set that includes all things including itself.  From this, it logically follows that the world, which is a thing that exists, exists within God.  Man exists in the world, or at least the physical bodies of Man and the idea of Man; since these things exist in the world, and since they exist, and since the world exists within God, Man also exists within God.  This basically rephrases III.1 using some more terms about Man now that we’ve been talking about Man for some time.

As for Man, however, we have some more talking to do.  The last definition brought up the terms “good” and “evil”, and we said this about the two terms:

Turning towards God and rejoining with him, coming into the perfect “knowledge of the beings” and light of Nous, is therefore good; turning away from God and ignoring the impetus of Nous and the directions that would lead us to God is therefore evil.

The current definition talks about the deficiency and the plentitude of Man, or rather, wherein he is evil and wherein he is good.  “His plentitude is the knowledge of God”; this accords with what we said before.  We can tie this back further with the perfection of the soul, which is “the knowledge of beings” (VI.3), and this is effectively the knowledge of God.  After all, to know God is to know all the things within God, all the gods, all the worlds, and ourselves, and “know thyself” is among the most holy maxims ever uttered or written.  This is what is good for us to do.

If knowledge of God is good, and evil is the opposite of good, then the opposite of knowledge of God must be evil.  The opposite of knowledge is ignorance, and that is indeed what this definition says: “[Man’s] deficiency is ignorance”.  To not know God is evil, then, yet this is the state of us as we are; to know God, we must have Nous, and not all beings are accorded Nous consciously.  Does that mean we were born evil?  Not really, but kinda?  This is where the Gnostic and Neoplatonic strains of thought shows itself within Hermeticism: because we have a material body, we are at least in some way cut off from God.  Indeed, the past few definitions have talked about this, and it’s hard to come in contact with God while being in body.  Moreover, because we have a body, we have the capacity for good and evil, which simply don’t exist outside the physical, material realm of bodies and matter.  We can choose evil and thus choose to be ignorant; we can likewise choose good and thus choose to be knowledgeable of God.

But what about as we are in the world, as we were born?  When we were born, we didn’t know how to walk or control our poop, much less high philosophy and God.  But that’s okay, because we were still in possession of souls made in the idea of Man, and those souls we have provide us with the actions and movement to move us towards knowledge of God, so long as we listen and act accordingly.  Soul is movement, and even more than that, a “necessary movement” (II.1); we cannot help but act.  The soul can often be considered like water, which is always in motion; it will take the path of least resistance, one way or another.  If water is dammed up or blocked off, it will find a new path or simply overflow it.  There is no way to completely stop water without turning it into something else.  Likewise, with the soul, we are always compelled to act, though how we act is determined by our own conscious choices and may not always be what the soul would ideally prefer.

The last part of this definition basically says the same thing as the second sentence here, but makes it explicit that ignorance is evil, not just the deficiency of Man, and that knowledge is good, not just the plentitude of Man.  However, this is made awkward by the inclusion of two symbols, which I cannot replicate well on a computer.  I tried to find similar Unicode characters to represent them, and they indicate common concepts or abbreviations in medieval Armenian manuscripts: ※ means “star”, while ⍜ means “sinner”.  The footnotes provided by Jean-Pierre Mahé to the Definitions say that these are glosses provided by the scribe, and suggest some sort of connection between sin and stars.  The Corpus Hermeticum talks about such connections, and suggests that sins and evil come from the stars high up in the heavenly part of the world (chapter XVI, parts 13 through 16), though I won’t get into it here.  Suffice it to say that, because we have material bodies, we are at the whim of various influences that affect our bodies and, therefore, our souls.  Many of these influences come from the stars, the “living beings in heaven”, and cause us or lead us to act in certain ways.  Not all of these influences agree with what the Nous within our souls desires, and so may lead us into ignorant and evil actions.  This complicates our role and job down here, but it’s also part and parcel of living within a large and complex system.

By acting in a good manner and striving to know God, ourselves, and all other things, we can attain our “plenitude”, our fullness and grace, that allows us to achieve perfection.  Perfection is this very thing, and is moreover marked by the awareness of and reception of Nous into our bodies and souls, enabling us to be made closer to God as well as to the ideal humanity we should be anyway.  This is what we’re supposed to do, and it’s difficult, but it’s worth it; moreover, it’s what we’re driven to do when left to our own devices and free from detrimental influences that would cause us to act otherwise.  However, to attain our fullness of knowledge, we also have to use the full range of human experience and power; although different living creatures can only experience one type of world, humanity can explore all worlds, including those which are immaterial.  To know all things, we must know all the worlds, and transcend them to become more and better than we are in any one world.