The Mixing-Bowl of Mind

The usual way I’ve seen to refer to a particular book and section of the Corpus Hermeticum is CH A.B, with “A” being the book number in Roman numerals and B being a section of that book in Arabic numerals (such that CH X.15 is section 15 of the tenth book of the Corpus Hermeticum).  It’s a system I like using to cite particular extracts of Hermetic doctrine from the Corpus Hermeticum as well as the Stobaean Fragments (SH), the Definitions of Hermēs to Asclepius (DH), and other Hermetic texts, but I should also note that a number of the various books of the Corpus Hermeticum sometimes have a title of their own.  CH I, for instance, is often called “Poimandrēs” (which is why Marsilio Ficino entitled his entire translation of the Corpus Hermeticum “The Divine Pymander”, though that’s like calling the entirety of the Old Testament “The Book of Geneisis”), CH X is called “The Key”, CH III is called “The Sacred Sermon”, and so forth.

CH IV, specifically, is called “The Mixing-Bowl”.  It’s also sometimes called just “(A Discourse of) Hermēs to Tat” or “The Monad”,  with the former indicating that this is a dialogue between Hermēs and Tat and the latter bringing up the discussion of the Monad at the end of the book, but it gets the name “Mixing-Bowl” from the dialogue in CH IV.3—6 in a discussion about Mind (Νους) (Copenhaver translation, here and below):

“God shared reason among all people, O Tat, but not mind, though he begrudged it to none. Grudging envy comes not from on high; it forms below in the souls of people who do not possess mind.”

“For what reason, then, did god not share mind with all of them, my father?”

“He wanted it put between souls, my child, as a prize for them to contest.”

“And where did he put it?”

“He filled a great mixing bowl with it and sent it below, appointing a herald whom he commanded to make the following proclamation to human hearts: ‘Immerse yourself in the mixing bowl if your heart has the strength, if it believes you will rise up again to the one who sent the mixing bowl below, if it recognizes the purpose of your coming to be.’  All those who heeded the proclamation and immersed themselves in mind participated in knowledge and became perfect people because they received mind.

“But those who missed the point of the proclamation are people of reason because they did not receive (the gift of) mind as well and do not know the purpose or the agents of their coming to be.  These people have sensations much like those of unreasoning animals, and, since their temperament is willful and angry, they feel no awe of things that deserve to be admired; they divert their attention to the pleasures and appetites of their bodies; and they believe that mankind came to be for such purposes.

“But those who participate in the gift that comes from god, O Tat, are immortal rather than mortal if one compares their deeds, for in a mind of their own they have comprehended all—things on earth, things in heaven and even what lies beyond heaven. Having raised themselves so far, they have seen the good and, having seen it, they have come to regard the wasting of time here below as a calamity. They have scorned every corporeal and incorporeal thing, and they hasten toward the one and only.

“This, Tat, is the way to learn about mind, to {resolve perplexities} in divinity and to understand god. For the mixing bowl is divine.”

This is an interesting metaphor Hermēs decided to use, and it’s one that’s given me some pause for thought.  Some scholars interpret this notion of “immersing yourself in the mixing-bowl of Mind” to be evidence of a ritual baptism practiced among the classical Hermeticists, but not everyone buys it.  I like the idea of it, but it’s not a lot of evidence to go on to indicate that baptism was actually a thing for the followers of Hermēs.  One might draw parallels to early forms of Christian baptism or Jewish tvilah upon which Christian baptism was based which, given the influence Judaism had on the early development of Hermeticism, isn’t too far a stretch, but there’s little else to go on besides this reference to immersion.  Neither CH XIII, which is Tat’s rebirth and initiation into the Hymns of Silence, nor “Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth”, which is another story of Tat’s initiation and elevation into the higher spheres of the cosmos, bring up a notion of baptism or ritual immersion, and those are our strongest texts indicating such ritual works performed by the early Hermeticists from the Hermetic corpora themselves.  It’s an idea I don’t not like, at any rate, though one with not a lot of firm foundation to stand upon.

What strikes me more oddly is the use of the word “mixing-bowl” (κρατήρ).  There were obviously words for “basins” or “fonts” or “pools” or “baths” in Koiné Greek, but this text specifically uses “mixing-bowl”.  It’s not like a mixing bowl one might use for cooking, though; a kratēr was a specific type of large vessel used in Greek sumposia for mixing wine that was to be served.  A Greek sumposion (or symposium, as we’d better know it in its Latin form) was a kind of formal drinking party and a key institution to Hellenic civilization for men, sometimes to revel, sometimes to discuss and debate, sometimes to initiate boys into adulthood.  Sometimes there was entertainment, sometimes philosophy, sometimes orgiastic mystery rites reserved for initiates, but every symposium had two things in common: a kratēr—the mixing-bowl in question—and a symposiarch who oversaw its use.  The symposiarch, the “leader of the symposium”, was basically the master of ceremonies and director of the symposium, ordaining what was to be the order of the event, what sorts of activities were to be engaged in, and (most importantly) decided how strong the wine was to be.  This last aspect was the crucial and fundamental job of the symposiarch.

Wine back in ancient times was most likely different from our times, and was probably much stronger (though not necessarily fortified), so while we nowadays would just drink wine straight from the bottle, drinking undiluted wine back in ancient times was seen as a massive error in behavior, and something that was suited only for barbarians and those who were drunkards to the point of insanity.  Wine was to be diluted to an acceptable strength, and determining the proper dilution for a symposium was the symposiarch’s job.  For a more relaxed, philosophical time, the wine would be diluted to a 1:3 ratio of wine to water; for a more pleasurable and entertaining time, 1:2; for the rare orgiastic rites and revelries, 1:1.  With the wine diluted to the appropriate level, the symposiarch would send his servants or slaves around with pitchers filled from the kratēr to serve the attendees.  Wine was not drunk from the kratēr directly, because this is a pretty massive vessel we’re talking about, like a mega-punchbowl ranging from 14″ to 22″ in height, and wouldn’t have been able to easily be transported when full (if at all).  It’s this notion of the kratēr that Dionysos brings up regarding how much is proper to drink at such events from Eubulos’ Semēlē:

For sensible men I prepare only three kratērs: one for health which they drink first, the second for love and pleasure, and the third for sleep. After the third one is drained, wise men go home. The fourth kratēr is not mine any more—it belongs to bad behavior; the fifth is for shouting; the sixth is for rudeness and insults; the seventh is for fights; the eighth is for breaking the furniture; the ninth is for depression; the tenth is for madness and unconsciousness.

This instrument of symposia, the kratēr, is what Hermēs describes as God having filled with Mind for people.  The use of the image of the kratēr should not be overlooked or misconstrued as just a regular bowl or basin, for which other words exist, especially for the purposes of ablution or purification (like the word χερνιβεῖον khernibeîon used for the usual lustral water outside temples, aka khernips).  This isn’t a mere matter of purification going on here; something else is happening in this passage Hermēs is trying to describe.

Let’s back up fist a bit and consider the notion of the symposium again.  CH IV, like all of the Corpus Hermeticum, is a philosophical text, so it assumes a philosophical outlook, context, set, and setting; a symposium of the Corpus Hermeticum would be more like Plato’s Symposium rather than just a simple college party, especially when there’s plenty of negative references to and metaphors of (common especially in gnostic texts and traditions) people being drunk and sick from inebriation (like from CH VII.1, which I discussed not too long ago).  A Hermetic symposium would be one where the symposiarch would likely dilute the wine rather well, and would gather people together for an intellectual time rather than one for the sake of mere entertainment.  But there are always those who go out to any event for the sake of having fun and being social, regardless of what the wishes of the host are; some people host parties for a purpose, but some people attend such parties for the sake of partying regardless of the purpose itself, like that one uncle who shows up to their nephew’s third birthday party with a keg of beer.  Now, bearing that notion in mind, consider what Hermēs says about people of Mind versus people of Reason:

“But those who missed the point of the proclamation are people of reason because they did not receive (the gift of) mind as well and do not know the purpose or the agents of their coming to be.  These people have sensations much like those of unreasoning animals, and, since their temperament is willful and angry, they feel no awe of things that deserve to be admired; they divert their attention to the pleasures and appetites of their bodies; and they believe that mankind came to be for such purposes…”

At a Hermetic symposium, the people of Reason are like those who show up just to drink and have fun, who ignore the symposiarch’s wishes for a philosophical time to use the wine provided for conversation (“they feel no awe of things that deserve to be admired”) and instead just drink the wine to drink wine and get drunk; they “divert their attention to the pleasures and appetites of their bodies”, and in believing “that mankind came to be for such purposes”, it’s like seeing any such social event as a party to which they go just for the sake of partying.  It’s the people of Mind, rather, who participate in the symposium for the proper ends and using the means provided properly instead of improperly; they “participated in knowledge” because they “received mind”.  Mind is the drink provided, and those who use Mind appropriately and let it absorb into their being instead of letting it simply pass through them in the mouth and out the urethra is what enables them to become “perfect people”.

But Mind isn’t just the thing being drunk; no, God set the kratēr of Mind for those who could to immerse themselves within it.  God has provided Mind to fill the kratēr, but a kratēr is used to mix things together, not just to have something there as it is.  While some would interpret this immersion in the kratēr of Mind to be more like a baptism, in which one is purified and from which one is reborn, the more obvious idea here is staring at us in the face: we’re the things to be mixed with Mind.  God is the symposiarch, and we are that which is mixed with Mind.  Earlier, I might have said that Mind would be wine, but…thinking about it, I think that we ourselves are the wine, and Mind is the water that dilutes it.  After all, drinking unmixed wine, or ἄκρατος akratos, was considered to be (and to lead to) insanity.  Is that not a perfect metaphor for what Hermēs is trying to save us from?  In CH VII.1, he calls out to people to save them (my emphasis, Greek from Festugière/Nock given first to show the original wording):

Ποῖ φέρεσθε, ὧ ἄνθρωποι, μεθύοντεσ, τὸν τῆς ἀγνωσίας ἄκρατον λόγον ἐκπιόντες, δ’ν οὐδὲ φέρειν δύνασθε, ἀλλ’ ἤδη αὐτὸν καὶ ἐμεῖτε;

Where are you heading in your drunkenness, you people? Have you swallowed the doctrine of ignorance undiluted, vomiting it up already because you cannot hold it? Stop and sober yourselves up!

And in CH I.27—29, when Hermēs begins his kergyma (“you who have surrendered yourselves to drunkenness and sleep and ignorance of god, make yourselves sober and end your drunken sickness…”) and teaching to the people after being told by Poimandrēs to guide and save the human race (emphasis mine):

Some of them, who had surrendered themselves to the way of death, resumed their mocking and withdrew, while those who desired to be taught cast themselves at my feet. Having made them rise, I became guide to my race, teaching them the words—how to be saved and in what manner—and I sowed the words of wisdom among them, and they were nourished from the ambrosial water.

The mixing-bowl is not for the purpose of diluting Mind, but for the purpose of diluting us with Mind.  We are the unmixed wine of insanity and ignorance, that dark liquid that cannot be seen through and which keeps one drunk in ignorance and insanity; as CH I.20 would put it, this is “the hateful darkness, from which comes the watery nature, from which the body was constituted in the sensible cosmos, from which Death drinks”.  And it is God who wishes for us to be diluted and elevated with the “ambrosial water” of everlasting and eternal life, provided by Mind and knowledge.  In diluting wine, the wine becomes palatable and healthful, and impurities in the wine are washed away so that the goodness of wine shows through.  This is why not everyone’s “heart has the strength”, why not everyone “believes that you will rise up again”; those who are mired in their own ignorance do not wish to be diluted, do not wished to be washed out, just as a party-goer deep in their cups will forego a refreshing glass of water for another glass of booze to keep the buzz going, but those who see and recognize the ignorance and darkness in them and wish to be made into a clearer and better form will admit the necessity of diluting the wine with water.

With us being the wine to be diluted, so long as we enter into the mixing-bowl of God, God will dilute us with the water of Mind as we need to be.  The only thing we really lose in the process is our ignorance and insanity; by us (or, perhaps better, our souls) being mixed with Mind, we cease becoming insane and causing insanity, and instead “participate in knowledge” (γνώσεωςi.e. gnōsis).  Those who undergo this mixing and dilution become “perfect people”, and in so doing, we become the drink of life itself, and so participate in ourselves with ourselves.  This is, perhaps, a difficult thing to explain, and maybe it’s just the metaphor of the mixing-bowl and symposium breaking down here, but I am reminded of the exclamation of Tat in the process of his rebirth from CH XIII.11—13:

Since god has made me tranquil, father, I no longer picture things with the sight of my eyes but with the mental energy that comes through the powers. I am in heaven, in earth, in water, in air; I am in animals and in plants; in the womb, before the womb, after the womb; everywhere…

Father, I see the universe and I see myself in mind.

Tat, in the process of his rebirth, no longer sees himself as merely apart from or within the cosmos; he witness himself as the cosmos and within it.  More than that, he sees himself “in Mind”.  I’m also reminded of how Hermēs tells Asclepius in CH X.12 that:

A human soul is carried in this way: the mind is in the reason; the reason is in the soul; the soul is in the spirit; the spirit, passing through veins and arteries and blood, moves the living thing and, in a manner of speaking, bears it up.

And later on in CH X.19:

The human soul—not every soul, that is, but only the reverent—is in a sense demonic and divine. Such a soul becomes wholly mind after getting free of the body and fighting the fight of reverence. (Knowing the divine and doing wrong to no person is the fight of reverence.) The irreverent soul, however, stays in its own essence, punishing itself, seeking an earthy body to enter…

The human entity consists of Reason (λόγος), yes, which all people have, but Mind (νους) is mixed with this for those who can.  Those who have Mind in their souls mixed with Reason will, in the process of their spiritual progression along the Way, eventually become entirely Mind, and as such, as Poimandrēs tells Hermēs in CH I.26, “enter into God[; for] this is the final good for those who have received knowledge: to be made God”.  This requires us to dilute ourselves with the water of Mind in the mixing-bowl from CH IV, which, as the long night of the symposium of our earthly incarnation continues, should progress so that only the water of Mind is left, and none of the wine of our bodily selves remain.  The people of Reason, however, devoid of Mind, do not wish for this to happen due to their ignorance, and instead “stay in their own essence”, remaining undiluted and continuing in their life of ignorance, “willful and angry” (as one might be from having drunk unmixed wine, or just drinking too much wine at all, per Dionysos’ disavowal of the fourth kratēr and beyond).

This all makes the following sections of CH IV.6—7 make so much more sense to me.  Most people interpret this as a straightforward world-denying body-hating section, but in light of the notion of dilution…well, read for yourself:

“I too wish to be immersed, my father.”

“Unless you first hate your body, my child, you cannot love yourself, but when you have loved yourself, you will possess mind, and if you have mind, you will also have a share in the way to learn.”

“What do you mean by this, father?”

“My child, it is impossible to be engaged in both realms, the mortal and the divine. Since there are two kinds of entities, corporeal and incorporeal, corresponding to mortal and divine, one is left to choose one or the other, if choice is desired. One cannot {have both together when one is left to choose}, but lessening the one reveals the activity of the other.

“Choosing the stronger, then [ ], not only has splendid consequences for the one who chooses—in that it makes the human into a god—but it also shows reverence toward god. On the other hand, choosing the lesser has been mankind’s destruction, though it was no offence to god, with this single reservation: just as processions passing by in public cannot achieve anything of themselves, though they can be a hindrance to others, in the same way these people are only parading through the cosmos, led astray by pleasures of the body.”

Ignorance and death is the unmixed wine, while knowledge (from Mind) and life is the water that dilutes it in the mixing-bowl.  Hone in, specifically, on the statement “lessening the one reveals the activity of the other”: by diluting the wine, the water begins to come to the fore.  As we begin the process of moving from a focus in living from the corporeal to the incorporeal, the wine of our ignorance and death becomes further diluted, until eventually there is no wine left, only the water of Mind.  Doing this admits that the undiluted wine of ignorance we possess cannot remain as such; we cannot love being so undiluted, but instead must seek to destroy that state through dilution (“unless you first hate your body, my child, you cannot love yourself, but when you have loved yourself, you will possess mind”).  Those who insist on remaining undiluted in their ignorance, however, ignore the importance of the incorporeal, of Mind and knowledge and God, and continue in their own destruction, and in so doing, cause a “hindrance to others…parading through the cosmos, led astray by pleasures of the body” as one would in a reckless and drunken revel.

Something still bothers me about all this, though.  When Tat asks Hermēs why God did not share Mind with all people from the get-go, Hermēs responds that God “wanted it put between souls…as a prize for them to contest” (ἠθέλησεν, ὧ τέκνον, τοῦτον ἐν μέσῳ ταῖς ψυχαῖς ὥσπερ ἄθλον ἱδρῦσθαι with a rough translation of “he willed, my son, this in the midst of these souls just as a prize of contest to be found”).  This notion of “contest” for one to strive towards is a weird one, but it’s not wholly unfamiliar; there is a notion of intentful striving throughout the corpora Hermetica that leads to divinity: CH I.21 has Poimandrēs telling Hermēs that “if you learn you are from light and life and that you happen to come from them, you shall advance to life once again”, after recounting God’s counsel to all of creation in CH I.18 that “let him who is mindful recognize that he is immortal, that desire is the cause of death, and let him recognize all that exists”.  I interpret this notion of a “prize for a contest” to mean that we are not necessarily striving against one another, though it may feel that way, but it’s more of our souls striving against our bodies, the divine and immortal part of ourselves striving against the corporeal and mortal part of ourselves.    I suppose one could make a game of it with others, of course, which would be appropriate at a symposium, and depending on how long the symposium of God goes on, more and more wine will need to be drawn upon and mixed one way or another so that everyone, in the end, gets mixed with the water of Mind.  I’m not entirely settled on the meaning of the wording of this, and I think this part is definitely worthy of more contemplation and consideration.

Likewise, Hermēs mentions that God appointed “a herald whom he commanded to make the following proclamation to human hearts” regarding immersing ourselves in the mixing-bowl.  Who or what might this herald be?  Given Hermēs’ commission from Poimandrēs to teach and guide humanity so that they might be saved, he may well be referencing himself, but there is also the possibility of this being one of the personified forces of the cosmos, of which there are no small number: Providence, Necessity, and Fate have been personified at times in the Stobaean Fragments, and SH XXVI.3 (from the last part of the Korē Kosmou excerpts) mentions that Providence has “two ministers”: a Steward of Souls and an Escort of Souls.  We also shouldn’t forget Poimandrēs himself, of course, too, an emanation from Mind who (depending on your perspective and analysis of the name) could be Ra, Thoth, or the XIIth Dynasty pharaoh Amenemhat III (I swear at least one scholar thinks this).  Whether this herald is a cosmic entity or not, whether it’s an oblique reference by Hermēs to himself or not, the identity of the herald isn’t the focus of this book from the Corpus Hermeticum, and it’s certainly less important than the fact that a message was given to humanity: “immerse yourselves in the mixing-bowl if your heart has the strength”.  Fittingly, this message does bear much in similarity with what Hermēs calls out to people in CH I.27—29 and in CH VII, but that alone doesn’t make this particular topic particularly clear, either.

At any rate, Hermēs goes on to say in CH IV.9 that “knowledge is not a beginning of the good, but it furnishes us the beginning of the good that will be known”.  If knowledge is produced from Mind, and our immersion in the mixing-bowl and our first dilution with the water of Mind is just the start of it all on our way to become wholly Mind (as in CH X.19), then this is just the beginning of a long party, indeed.  But even if the Way is long, we won’t be thirsty along the way, so long as we keep listening to and following the Leader who keeps us nourished with what is right for us.

49 Days of Definitions: Part X, Definition 7

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-ninth and final definition, part X, number 7 of 7:

Therefore soul is an immortal essence, eternal, intellective, having, as an intellectual (thought), its reason endowed with Nous.  By understanding nature, it attracts to itself the intellect of (the planetary) harmony; then, once it is freed from this natural body, it remains alone with itself (and) is grieved, belonging only to itself in the intelligible world.  It rules on its reason.

After the last few definitions, which I feel were getting a little dramatic in how they were presenting the interaction between mortals on earth and immortals in heaven and how us who are Man should act, we wrap things up with this definition, which talks about the soul, which really is the centerpiece and focus of the entire Definitions.

First, we start of with a list of attributions of the soul, and here specifically that of Man.  It’s an essence, an underlying quality, which helps to define that which we are.  It is immortal; it does not die, nor is it born; while it may have been made by Nous (X.3), it was not generated in the same way bodies are (V.5).  The soul is eternal, which only confirms that it has always existed outside of time itself and experiences time only as much as God does or allows us to in our bodies; the soul truly is unbegotten, just as matter is (X.5).  It is intellective, able to think and reason with Nous, since that is what makes Man distinct from other creatures (IV.1, V.3).  Because of this, we can reason and understand the cosmos in a way that only God can, but it takes time, practice, skill, dedication, and perseverance to do so.  We can similarly choose to do none of those things and remain as, essentially, animals are; we can let our reason and minds stay catatonic and remain as animals do, or we can use reason just enough to get things done but in nowhere a complete way as we ought.

The way we understand things as we ought to is obtained by acting reasonably with the soul in the body (V.3).  This produces knowledge, true honest knowledge, which when obtained enough yields knowledge of everything: ourselves, all other things, and God itself (VII.5).  By understanding that which goes on around us, we understand everything as it works together: how bodies increase and decrease, by what means, and why they do this.  We understand the intelligible things that cannot be seen but we can still yet know, all the same.  However, we must continue to choose to do this, lest influences from the heavenly beings above sway us to do otherwise.  But even then, once we understand even a little bit of nature and the natural world, Man “attracts to itself the intellect of the planetary harmony”.  We begin to associate ourselves with the planets and other gods, and we begin to raise ourselves up into knowledge of systems far beyond that of the material plane of the earth.  As we attract ourselves to “the intellect of the planetary harmony”, we ascend into godhood, coming to know how all things work.  This is not the final stage of gnosis or perfection, but it’s certainly getting there.

After all, the soul stays in the body only as long as it needs to; then, once the soul reaches perfection, the soul leaves the body to die (VI.2, VI.3).  At this point, the soul is “freed from this natural body”, and, without a body, the soul becomes inert once more as it was beforehand.  Thus, it “remains alone with itself”, but it is also “grieved”.  After all, it has all the knowledge of the cosmos and of God at this point, yet it sheds its old skin, its old world, everything it had grown up knowing, and “grieves”.  This is an interesting point, since why should we grieve?  Sadness, after all, is an illness of the soul; without anything to expose itself to, how can the soul obtain anything?  After all, it remains “belonging only to itself in the intelligible world”.  It is without body, and it is now independent as a truly immortal being, a god, free from the sensible world in the infinity of God.  It rules, on its own and by its own, according to “its reason”, it’s Logos.

So why should there be grief?  All this work and perfection and godhood for…grief?  It doesn’t make much sense, I’ll agree, so there’s something missing, I’d think.  Jean-Pierre Mahé notes that the text is not only incomplete at this point, but that the rest of the text in several versions of the Definitions is spurious and an add-in from some other text dealing with astrological influences.  It’s kind of a let-down for the final definition, but let’s assume that the text is complete, and that this is the final and definitory definition of them all.  What follows is pretty much my interpretation, but this is going to be less logical and less based on the rest of the text than the other definitions.

The perfect soul, freed from the body,  rules on its reason in the intelligible world of God.  It, already possessing soul-Nous (VIII.4), has now also obtained divine Nous in its entirety, and thus becomes one with the knowledge of God and, thus, God.  By knowing all the beings, by knowing the self, by knowing Man, by knowing God, the soul becomes everywhere God is.  By ruling on its reason, which is now the Logos of the Nous, the soul acts according to the will of God without any external influence to sway it, and no unreasonable things to change its opinions or desires.  It belongs only to itself, but since itself is now effectively God, then it belongs to and exists within God perfectly in harmony.

The grief mentioned in this definition refers to it being separated from the material sensible world, which is odd when you consider the etymological root of “grief” to mean “weighty” in Latin.  The process of shedding the body for the soul may not be a very peaceful process, just as the process of birth for a human being is by no means easy or painless.  Perhaps, then, the grief of the soul is the final removal of its illnesses of sadness and joy, or the experiences it can no longer experience as a moving soul in a sensing and sensible body.  Yet, being joined in the knowledge of God, it already knows these things and experiences them intelligibly.  But it also knows that there are others that have not yet experienced this, and that they suffer in envy and jealousy and death when they don’t have to.  Why should they suffer?  God loves Man, after all, and Man loves God; if you saw a loved one in pain, you might also do what you could to relieve it.  As God, since that’s effectively what the soul is now, why wouldn’t you try to help out those who are suffering so that they wouldn’t need to suffer anymore?  If that’s what reason dictates, after all, why couldn’t you return to animate a new body, speak reasonably, act reasonably, lead others to act and speak reasonably, lead others to knowledge, and help perfect the souls of others that they too might be free?

Maybe this is an indication that the soul, ruling on its reason, may reason to return to the world; after all, since this soul is now God, we know that “God changes and turns into the form of man” for the sake of Man, so that others may become God as well.   In other words, to quote one of my favorite stories, perhaps the ending has not yet been written.

49 Days of Definitions: Part VIII, 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 twenty-ninth definition, part VIII, number 1 of 7:

All (beings) cannot possibly exceed their own capacity.  Nature is everyone of the beings of this (world); there is a law which is in heaven above destiny, and there is a destiny which has come into being according to a just necessity; there is a law which has come into being according to the necessity of humans, there is a god who has come into being according to human opinion.

At this point in the Definitions, we’re a little more than halfway done, and we have only three sets of definitions left.  However, nearly all of these are lengthy, and the sets themselves have more definitions within them than the previous sets.  We’re just now getting to the real meat of philosophy; everything before was basically setting up the groundwork for the philosophical and theological structures we’ll be building in these sets.

First, “all beings cannot possibly exceed their own capacity”.  We’re not given a definition or context for this phrase, but from the other definitions, we know enough to explain this.  First, all beings that are not God are finite (based on I.4); they are not infinite, unending, immovable, or the like, since these are only things that belong to God.  Something that is finite has an end; it is defined, or set in by boundaries.  The maximum extent of these boundaries can be called something’s capacity.  Further, we know that when a being is created from body and soul, these obtain “quality and quantity as well as good and evil” (VII.4); these things can be measured, sensed, described, and defined in many ways.  However, because they can be defined and measured, there will always be things that they are not; these things are outside the being’s capacity.  So, because I’m six feet tall, I am not taller than my own height, so I cannot be seven feet tall; my shirt is red, and so it cannot be any color but red; and so forth.  Anything that can be sensed can only be sensed in a particular time, location, and condition; it cannot be sensed elsewhere or elsewhen, since those lie outside the thing’s capacity.

A common word used to replace “capacity” when used like this is “fate”, and Hermes Trismegistus talks a little about fate in the Corpus Hermeticum (chapter XII, part 7):

Her. But all men are subject to Fate, and genesis and change, for these are the beginning and the end of Fate.  And though all men do suffer fated things, those led by reason (those whom we said the Mind doth guide) do not endure like suffering with the rest; but, since they’ve freed themselves from viciousness, not being bad, they do not suffer bad.

Thus, everything that exists has a certain way of existing up to a certain point, whether it be in quantity or quality or good or evil; these things cannot act outside or beyond that point, because then it would “exceed their own capacity”.  It makes sense, after all; I cannot be immortal, because I only have an approximate lifespan.  I can lengthen or shorten that lifespan depending on my life choices, but it’s certain that I will eventually run through my lifespan and eventually die, because it is in my nature to die, being a mortal human being.

What is nature, though?  “Nature is everyone of the beings of this world”, so it basically sounds like the microcosm of the sensible world in relation to the macrocosm of the intelligible world.  Nature is the whole of increase and decrease, the four elements, sense and vision, and all the bodies here.  Nature is the restrictions, capacities, and abilities that we have.  Nature is, in effect, everything that sensibly exists and each of their qualities along with it.  Alternatively, however, a footnote provided by Jean-Pierre Mahé in the text suggests that this same statement might be translated another way, which I prefer: “every being in this (world) has a nature”.  Thus, our natures are our own capacities and tendencies; it is in the nature for the wolf to hunt and form packs, for the tiger to hunt and remain solitary, for the deer to graze and run, and for all animals to be born, live, and die.  In effect, our natures are our design, the Idea of ourselves and the things we are.  It might be said that nature is, in a way, our fate or destiny.

Of course, though, destiny isn’t the only force we have to deal with, nor is it the greatest force.  “There is a law which is in heaven above destiny” suggests that there are things that even destiny itself must bow down to.  After all, the destiny of something exists so long as that thing itself exists or can exist.  And, even if all ideas were formed in the beginning of time, they were still formed by something else, and thus preceded by something else: God (III.4).  Things work according to the divine plan of the Nous, which in turn creates destiny, which then acts on heaven, which then acts on the world (cf. the bit about astral demons affecting human actions in VII.5) and, thus, on Man and all other entities.  In effect, destiny is brought into existence because without it there could be no design or form for things that exist.  Destiny is “a just necessity”, providing for and supporting forms, species, and ideas just as souls are “a necessary movement” to provide for and support bodies of all kinds.  Destiny is a law in its own way; certainly not the highest one, but not the lowest one, either.

Of those other laws, one has “come into being according to the necessity of humans”.  This could be interpreted in several ways on its own, but the context for this is provided by the next statement: “there is a god who has come into being according to human opinion”.  Thus, as humans work and live and exist down in the world, there are certain needs that we have that we also fulfill.  Of those, there are human laws, such as prohibitions on stealing or usury or land management or equal pay.  These are laws that humans need that other beings or realms don’t need; it doesn’t make sense to talk about food and drug regulation in a realm where there is no matter to constitute food or drugs, and it likewise doesn’t make sense to discuss same-sex marriage laws for species that have no capability for abstract social connections, much less marriage benefits and contracts.  These are not laws of the Most High, but they’re needed by us all the same to help us live our lives down here.

Likewise, to help us live our lives, we also have invented gods for ourselves: “there is a god who has come into being according to human opinion”.  This smacks of Voltaire’s famous quote, “si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer”, or “if God did not exist, we would have to invent him”.  What this definition is saying is that, much as we have set up laws and regulations for ourselves in our endeavor to be human, we have also set up religions and gods for ourselves for the same endeavor.  Whether it be the gods of Olympus or Meru or the various Buddhafields or Yggdrasil, or whether it be the physical world itself, we have these opinions and conceptions of divinity that we rely on to help us understand and make sense of the world.  I wrote about some of these different views about materialists and spiritualists a ways back, and some people (notably the atheists in the crowd) essentially make the material, physical world their God, their All, their Whole.  They may not worship, pay reverence, or make offerings to the world, but it fills the same role that YHVH would have for an Abrahamist, or moksha or paranirvana to a Dharmist.

Everything in creation, whether it be in the intelligible or the sensible worlds, is needed; nothing is out of place, and everything has a purpose.  However, there are purposes, whole destinies, that individual things are not meant to fulfill; whether it’s a certain quality or quantity or characteristic, or a use or experience, there are things that other things cannot be.  This is okay; these are needed just as much as anything else.  Further, everything even down to the nitty-gritty of human transactions have needs and laws; much as the law of destiny governs all beings and were set up by God to manage the affairs of the world, the laws of humanity govern all human interactions and were set up by Man to manage the affairs of the human world.  Of these, we have developed notions of divinity and whole gods and religions to help us manage our understanding of God and the world.

But note that, even though the text distinguishes the gods of human invention from the God of Hermes Trismegistus, there is no word on which is right or wrong.  It may be that these different opinions and notions of divinity may reflect true Divinity, depending on how they arise.  It’s much like reasonable speech, Logos, as Hermes explains to Tat in the Corpus Hermeticum (chapter XII, part 13):

Tat. Why, father mine!—do not the other lives make use of speech (logos)?

Her. Nay, son; but use of voice; speech is far different from voice. For speech is general among all men, while voice doth differ in each class of living thing.

Tat. But with men also, father mine, according to each race, speech differs.

Her. Yea, son, but man is one; so also speech is one and is interpreted, and it is found the same in Egypt, and in Persia, and in Greece.

Logos is not restricted to any one language, or to any language at all; Logos is reason derived from silent understanding and knowledge of God.  Reasonable speech is speech with Logos imbued in it by Nous; it doesn’t matter what language it’s spoken in, since the reason itself is universal to all languages.  It’s like communicating a mathematical problem; you can solve it through geometry, infinitesimal calculus, or even a memory-bounded Turing machine, but the mathematical problem itself and the answer will be the same.  Reason is abstract, much as ideas are; speech is manifest, and helps to manifest ideas to others.  Thus, reasonable speech “is found the same in Egypt, and in Persia, and in Greece”, because it all reflects the same reason.  Similarly, it may be that the gods of Egypt and of Persia and of Greece, while appearing different, all reflect the same God, just as their languages can reflect the same Logos.  More on that later.

49 Days of Definitions: Part VI, 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 twenty-first definition, part VI, number 1 of 3:

Just as the gods are God’s possession, (so is) man too; and man’s possession is the world: if there were nobody to see (it), what would be seen would not even exist.  Only man understands the intelligible (things) and sees the visible, for they are no aliens to him.  Man has at once the two natures, the mortal and the immortal (one).  Man has the three essences, (namely) the intelligible, the animated and the material (one).

Previously we learned that among all of the created things and creatures, Man alone has Nous or Mind, which enables him to dwell among both the sensible-intelligible and solely-intelligible worlds.  Although other living creatures may have voice, Man alone has the ability to use speech, which is voice used in a reasonable way due to the presence and use of Nous through the means of Logos, or the reasonable speech that the Nous itself is able to use.  However, not all of Man can use reasonable speech; although Man generally has Nous, not all of humanity has the means of understanding or using it.  Nous is what enables Man to be divine, and without it, we become simply animal creatures.

This definition continues into the relationship between God and Man, as well as between Man and the world, as well as Man and Man.  First, “just as the gods are God’s possession, so is man”; we know from before that God is not only everywhere that exists and includes everything, but is also outside everything, both immanent within creation as well as transcendent of it.  In a sense, everything that exists within God can be said to belong to God, hence they are in “God’s possession”.  This part of the definition also brings up another point: there are many divinities and gods in the world.  From the Greek Olympians and Hadeans to the Egyptian court to the Romans or Gaulish or Chinese, there are many gods in the world that dwell among us or apart from us; they’re probably among the heavenly beings mentioned before (II.5, IV.1).  None of these gods, however great, is properly God, because there is always something that they are not.  Ares, for instance, is not Athena, nor an aspect of her, nor a power within her; God inhabits all things, and so is part of both Ares and Athena.  While both Ares and Athena obey Zeus and are said to belong to him (being his children), we also know that there are things that Zeus is not; God, however, rules and owns all things, and is also part of them.  Thus, we can say that God is a sort of meta-entity, beyond and above any entity we know or think exists.  This is something that distinguishes Hermetic philosophy from Abrahamic or other types of divine philosophies: God is not any one thing, but All things as One.

In a sense, the gods and Man are equal in that they are both part of God.  There are other differences, such as the ability for Man to die physically while the gods are immortal, but we are all part of God, and are all related to each other through and by God.  However, Man is unique in that “man’s possession is the world”.  Ownership, rulership, and maintenance of the world is our duty as Man, which is kind of a radical idea.  We’d think that everything is ruled by and owned by the gods or by the divine, and while that’s technically true, of all the entities that are not God, only Man rules the world down here.  It makes sense in a way: the gods are without the earth element, and so have no bodies, being composed of fire; the world, however, is earthy, and so the gods generally have no similarity with it.  This is distinct from gods-of-the-earth, which might be said to be the soul of the world, but that’s another topic for another day; generally speaking, the gods are without tangible earthy form, and so are separated by air from the earthy world.  Man, however, being possessed of Nous and earth, is essentially the god of the earth.  Just as God rules the gods and all under them, Man rules humanity, the world, and all under it.

What makes Man so special?  As ever, Nous, which enables Man to know and reason about the world, God, and itself.  Without the ability to know, the core and the whole point to Nous would be meaningless and would preclude anything further from happening; without the intelligible being, well, intelligible, they would be nothing.  Hermes Trismegistus says as much in the Corpus Hermeticum (chapter X, part 4):

For [the Nous] doth will to be, and It is both Itself and most of all by reason of Itself. Indeed all other things beside are just because of It; for the distinctive feature of the Good is “that it should be known.” Such is the Good, O Tat.

In a similar sense, if that which is sensible were to be unsensed, it wouldn’t matter that they were sensible at all; they effectively wouldn’t be sensed and would cease to become sensible.  Thus the definition: “if there were nobody to see [the world], what would be seen would not even exist”.  Based on this, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the world exists because of the ability to sense by other things in it, which itself depend on the world.  If the world could not be seen, it wouldn’t matter that it’s visible; it would be meaningless (one might say unreasonable) that it should exist at all.  If nothing actually distinguishes the sensible (which is intelligible) and the intelligible, then sensibility would cease to be a distinguishing factor, and would become a moot point.

Because Man is a sensible creature possessed of earthy body, he can understand the sensible world, unlike heavenly beings who can only understand the heavenly aspects of other things.  Because Man is also an intelligent creature possessed of Nous, he can understand the intelligible world, unlike animals or other creatures who can only understand the sensible, worldly things around them.  Thus, “only man understands the intelligible things and sees the visible, for they are no aliens to him”.  While “seeing the visible” can be understood to refer to “sense the sensible”, it’s a little more than that, too; not all sensible things are visible.  Consider breath, for instance; it is invisible, though it can be sensed.  Likewise, consider light; light requires some surface to be reflected off of or some source that provides it, but itself cannot be seen though it enables other things to be seen.  While it may be agreed that animals, plants, and the like can sense or see (depending on their organs) what’s around them, what about heavenly beings who possess only fire and air for their bodies?  Well, they have no eyes in the sense that we have eyes; they have no physical substance that enables them to reflect light; they are composed only of Nous, soul, and spirit (IV.2), all of which are invisible; they might be intelligible and able to understand the intelligible and possibly the same for some kinds of sensibility, but the same does not hold for the visible.  Thus, there is nothing among the heavens that is visible, though it may be sensible; the invisible cannot see the visible, since that which is capable of seeing (apparently?) requires a visible nature.  Again, alone among all the living creatures, Man is unique in this.

So, Man has a physical body composed of earth and the other elements, as well as Nous which enables Man to understand and reason.  Thus the definition: “man has at once the two natures, the mortal and immortal one”.  The physical body, the worldly part of ourselves, is mortal; due to the change, growth, increase, decrease, destruction, and death involved with any physical body, the body in Man must die.  However, the Nous within us and the Logos that is transferred between us is no less a part to Man than the body; these things are imperishable, and so are “immortal”.  This was said already in I.5: “man is mortal although he is ever-living”.  There is a part of us that does not die with the body; this part, the Nous, is immortal and even eternal.

Between the interplay of the immortal and mortal natures of Man, we have three “essences”: the intelligible, animated, and material.  The intelligible essence is the Nous itself; it’s what enables us to understand the intelligible, God, and everything else.  The material essence is the physical body of Man, which enables us to increase and decreases, to live and die, with Nous.  The animated, however, is the aspect of soul; it’s what gives us motion.  Because of soul, we can be more than plants or stones which have matter for their bodies but no motion besides the increase and decrease afforded by the elements themselves.  Because of soul, we can speak reason and Logos through spirit or breath and through the motion of our bodies.  Because of soul, we can bridge the gap between the intelligible and sensible parts of ourselves.  Spirit and soul are closely intertwined, since “breath is the body of soul or the column of soul” (II.1), so we might equate them both.  Hermes links mind, reason, soul, spirit, and body together in the Corpus Hermeticum (chapter X, part 13):

Now then the principles of man are this-wise vehicled: mind [the Nous] in the reason (logos), the reason in the soul, soul in the spirit, [and] spirit in the body.  Spirit pervading [body] by means of veins and arteries and blood, bestows upon the living creature motion, and as it were doth bear it in a way.

The interplay between Nous, Logos, soul, spirit, and body is a highly complex one, but all comes together in the form of Man.  Alone among all the worldly creatures is Man which has all of these qualities, while the other creatures have some subset of them; some have only body, while some have body and spirit, and some have spirit, soul, and body.  None of them have Nous or Logos like Man, however.  Because of this uniqueness and connection to God by Nous, we are essentially the Nous of the world; we are the god of the world, and just as God “possesses” all things, so too does Man “possess” the world.  Again, this goes back to the whole bit about Man being made in the image of God, or “after the species” (I.1); Man is a microcosm that reflects the higher world (I.3).  So, how far can this connection be made?  How Godly can Man truly be?