Hermeticism, God, and the Gods: Monism vs. Monotheism

As I mentioned in the first part of this post series, I was having an awfully difficult time putting all my thoughts together into a blog post about the polytheism inherent to Hermeticism and why it might seem monotheistic when it’s really just monistic.  As it turns out, while this is still a difficult thing to write about at length, I think the bigger issue is that there’s actually a surprising amount of nuance here that requires no little fleshing out and explaining to get through in order to show the points I otherwise make tersely on Reddit, Discord, or Twitter.  Now that I’m starting this third post, I’m wondering if what seems obvious to me might just be because I’m thinking about it to myself, and my short (but obvious, at least to me, I claim!) explanations of it online might have been less helpful than I originally thought.  I guess time will tell!

After explaining the polytheism inherent to the classical Hermetic texts in the first post and explaining how God is not a god but why we call and treat God like a god (sorta) in the second post, I left off by introducing a crucial distinction that often gets overlooked by some that can lead to some rather different approaches to Hermeticism as a whole: monism versus monotheism.  It’s this distinction that lies at the heart of so much of the confusion people end up having over the Hermetic texts and thinking it sounds Abrahamic or Christian in one regard or another, but it’s also one of the reasons why Hermeticism has been adopted and adapted by luminaries like Lodovico Lazzarelli, Marsilio Ficino, and countless others over the centuries into modern occulture via traditions like the Golden Dawn.

Now, for the sake of this post, I’m not going to bother with any sort of classification of individual Hermetic texts in terms of “optimistic monism” (e.g. CH V) vs. “pessimistic dualism” (e.g. CH VI), as might have been common in earlier generations of scholarship regarding how to understand the overall feel or motive of Hermeticism; rather, following more recent academic writers like Garth Fowden, Christian Bull, and Wouter Hanegraaff inter alia, it’s been fairly well-established now that Hermeticism is ultimately a monistic (or, in some ways, a nondualistic) tradition of spirituality.  As Hanegraaff notes in his Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination, “the Hermetic worldview is not dualistic but radically monistic, or rather nondualistic” (p. 168), and further (pp. 209—210):

We are now approaching a crucial point in our analysis. While the history of research has been haunted by the idea of a conflict between dualistic and monistic perspectives in the Hermetic literature, recent scholarship has seen an increasing trend towards non-dualistic readings. An older generation of scholars, from Festugière to Fowden, saw the soul of the Hermetic devotee progressing from a world-affirming “religion of the world” towards a purely spiritual salvation beyond the body and materiality; but contemporary specialists reverse that narrative and see the occasional expression of hostility towards the body as evidence for a merely “pedagogical dualism” limited to an early stage of the Way of Hermes. It seems to me that one must go even one step further and recognize that the very distinction between dualism and monism is itself a reflection of dualistic thinking. From the perspective of divinity to which practitioners aspired, such oppositions would be meaningless—little more than evidence of our limited consciousness.

But what do I mean at all by “monism” (or “nondualism” per Hanegraaff) in the context of Hermeticism?  There are a number of different ways one might understand the term monism, after all, and as Martiana over at her SARTRIX website notes, this can be a rather fraught term or notion when applied to theology or mysticism, to say nothing of the difficulties older kinds of philosophy have had to deal with when engaging with it.  Fundamentally, however, the idea of a “Hermetic monism” is that God (or “the God”, or “the Source”/Pēgē, whatever term you want to use—I’m starting to understand why some use the term “Godhead” instead of just “God”) can be construed in different ways that all revolve around the idea of God’s “one-ness”:

  • that God is the ultimate (and ultimately only) reality/truth
  • that all things have their origin in God
  • that the destined end of all things is henosis, or “union/oneness” in/with/as God, beyond even the distinction of subject and object

When we take a look at a number of Hermetic texts, especially the more mystical ones like CH I or CH XIII, we see an abundance of monist/nondual ideas:

  • CH I.6: “”I am the light you saw, mind, your god…who existed before the watery nature that appeared out of darkness. The lightgiving word who comes from mind is the son of god…that in you which sees and hears is the word of the lord, but your mind is god the father; they are not divided from one another for their union is life.”
  • CH I.26: “And then, stripped of the effects of the cosmic framework, the human enters the region of the ogdoad; he has his own proper power, and along with the blessed he hymns the father. Those present there rejoice together in his presence, and, having become like his companions, he also hears certain powers that exist beyond the ogdoadic region and hymn god with sweet voice. They rise up to the father in order and surrender themselves to the powers, and, having become powers, they enter into god. This is the final good for those who have received knowledge: to be made god.”
  • CH IV.10—11: ” The monad, because it is the beginning and root of all things, is in them all as root and beginning. Without a beginning there is nothing, and a beginning comes from nothing except itself if it is the beginning of other things. Because it is a beginning, then, the monad contains every number, is contained by none, and generates every number without being generated by any other number. But everything generated is imperfect and divisible, subject to increase and decrease. None of this happens to what is perfect. And what can be increased takes its increase from the monad, but it is defeated by its own weakness, no longer able to make room for the monad.”
  • CH V.10—11 (but really the entirety of CH V): “This is the god who is greater than any name; this is the god invisible and entirely visible. This god who is evident to the eyes may be seen in the mind. He is bodiless and many-bodied; or, rather, he is all-bodied. There is nothing that he is not, for he also is all that is, and this is why he has all names, because they are of one father, and this is why he has no name, because he is father of them all. Who may praise you, then, acting on your behalf or according to your purpose? And where shall I look to praise you—above, below, within, without? For there is no direction about you nor place nor any other being. All is within you; all comes from you. You give everything and take nothing. For you have it all, and there is nothing that you do not have. When shall I sing a hymn to you? One cannot detect in you time or season. For what shall I sing the hymn – for what you have made or what you have not made, for what you have made visible or what you have kept hidden? And wherefore shall I sing the hymn to you—for being something that is part of me, or has a special property, or is something apart? For you are whatever I am; you are whatever I make; you are whatever I say. You are everything, and there is nothing else; what is not, you are as well. You are all that has come to be; you are what has not come to be; you are the mind who understands, the father who makes his craftwork, the god who acts, and the good who makes all things.”
  • CH XIII.18 (the Secret Hymn): “Truth , hymn the truth. Good, hymn the good. Life and light, praise passes from you and to you. I thank you, father, energy of the powers. I thank you, god, power of my energies; through me your word hymns you; through me, O universe, accept a speech offering, by <my> word.”
  • CH XIV.6: “Thus, if one agrees that there exist two entities, what comes to be and what makes it, they are one in their unification, an antecedent and a consequent. The antecedent is the god who makes; the consequent is what comes to be, whatever it may be.”
  • SH 2A.15—18: “What then is the primal truth, father?” “It is singular and unique, Tat–not made from matter, not embodied, not qualified by color or shape; it is unshifting, unchanging, and ever existing.…As these states change, there is falsity, both with respect to what was before and is at present. Yet understand this, my child: even these false activities depend upon the truth itself from above. This being the case, I say that falsity is a product of truth.”

And on and on.  Even despite the “pedagogical dualism” found in some texts like CH IV or CH VI which is meant more for a process of catharsis/purification as a preparation for palingenesis/rebirth and anabasis/ascent, the end goal is still to attain the very one-ness of God itself, to no longer become but to only simply be, without anything between us and God, even the very notions themselves of “us” and “God”.  In this, we fully realize the fundamental one-ness of all things that exist, the underlying noumenon beyond all eternal and temporal phenomena.  It is in this overarching (one might even say overwhelming) sense that Hermeticism can be said to be “monist” (or, again, as Hanegraaff is fond of rephrasing, beyond even that into truly radical nondualism).

The delightfully awkward and absurd issue, however, is that some people have taken this monism entirely the wrong way, and interpreted the notion of “God as the One Thing” to be “God as the one and only god”.  Despite how I justified in the last post about how the notion of God does not diminish the godhood of the gods, many people inclined to monotheism have misread that notion entirely and instead understood it to mean something more like “if there is God then there cannot be gods”.  Even though the gods are amply treated upon in the classical Hermetic texts, and even though the readers of them are explicitly reminded of and encouraged to their worship, some would instead discount all that and instead focus on God as the only thing worthy of any kind of worship, reverence, or devotion—which is a fundamental error that runs counter to the entire impulse of Hermeticism as a monist form of mysticism, an esotericism of unity within a polytheistic religious framework.  It is this whole misconstruction that basically misreads, mistakes, and misunderstands theological monism for monotheism.

Now, to be fair, for someone already operating within a monotheistic context or who is already just a monotheist, like a Christian or Muslim inclined towards mysticism, reading Hermeticism as monotheistic can indeed make a good bit of sense—even if only for the sake of preserving pagan texts for future generations by giving them a pass or qualified approval.  Making the leap from monism to monotheism isn’t that hard, and that’s how Hermeticism has been adopted by and adapted to Christian, Islamic, or otherwise monotheistic milieux over the centuries.  Even in classical times, patristic Christian authors would sometimes read Hermēs Trismegistos as a sort of “pagan prophet” who would anticipate later Christian developments of theology, and likewise in Islamic moral texts, when Hermēs wasn’t outright identified with the Quranic Idris or Biblical Enoch, he was still seen as a holy man who maintained a doctrine of one God and should be judged as noble for it.  In such a light, despite that we should not see God as a god within a Hermetic (or more broadly Greco-Egyptian) context, the believers of Abrahamic religions likewise did not think of their God as “just” a god, either (although that’s…well, whatever).

In that light, if one were to adapt the polytheistic monism of classical Hermeticism to a monotheist approach, the changes one would need to make would be fairly straightforward:

  • The “God” of the Hermetic texts is still God, and is identified with the God of Christianity, Islam, etc.
  • The other gods referenced in the Hermetic texts are understood as merely non-entity forces but metaphorically described as “gods”, or which are relegated to a lesser status as some sort of angel or power subservient to God (a la the usual Christian angelic hierarchies)
  • The (semi-)divine personages of the characters in the Hermetic texts are relegated from the status of a demigod or hero to that of an inspired, devout, prophetical, or otherwise sagacious human

In other words, the changes one would need to adapt Hermeticism to some monotheist tradition like Christianity or Islam would be much the same as adapting any non-/pre-Christian/Islamic pagan philosophical, spiritual, or occult tradition by making the usual substitutions, identifications, and status modifications—and, of course, suppressing or disparaging anything too pagan, like the ensoulment of entities in statues for the purpose of polytheistic (and thus idolatrous) worship of gods.  Of course, at times, we see some really insightful attempts at a true synthesis of these things, like in Lodovico Lazzarelli’s Crater Hermetis from the 15th century, where he just about seamlessly blends Christianity with Hermeticism (and indeed claims at the start that “I am a Christian, but I am not ashamed to be a Hermeticist as well”), identifying Poimandrēs with Christ (and effectively himself with Hermēs), reinterpreting the creation of temple gods from the AH as the human power to create human souls/minds, draws parallels between Old Testament and New Testament proverbs and prophecies with those in the CH and other Hermetic texts, and so forth.  However, it should be strongly emphasized that all of these adaptations and parallels build upon a fundamental misconstruction of monism as monotheism: whereas monism focuses on the ontological origin of everything as being the One, monotheism makes the theological belief towards an exclusionary perspective (that there is not just “the God as the source of divinity” but that “the God is the only God, who alone is divinity and thus who alone is the only thing that is divine”).

I should note, at this point, that although some scholars (like C. H. Dodd in his 1935 The Bible and the Greeks) tend to overstate the influence of the Greek Septuagint or early Christian literature on the development and writing of the Hermetic texts, it is very much a fact that they were all produced at roughly the same time, in roughly the same area, under roughly the same cultures.  As a result, it shouldn’t come as a big surprise to see commonalities or parallels between the cosmogony accounts of CH I or CH III with the Book of Genesis, or particular religious teachings in line with things that Jesus was said to have taught or Philo of Alexandria was to have written on.  Although I would be conservative in my estimates about the extent and direction of specific influences at play, preferring instead to think that all these various religious and spiritual traditions were equally influenced by a background eastern Mediterranean Hellenistic religious culture and spiritual sentiments, others throughout the centuries have suggested (often with as much evidence as there isn’t, if not just making baseless assumptions) that there was actual influence and pressure from one side to another.  As a result, some like to see the Hermetic texts being nothing more than a pious Christian forgery (like Isaac Casaubon) or otherwise a welcoming gateway to lure pagans into Christianity; others, especially of a more theosophical or otherwise New Age streak (indebted, of course, to Marsilio Ficino’s doctrine of prisca theologia) rather see that it was really Hermēs Trismegistos who came first as some primordial teacher who laid the foundations (and thus actual teachings and wordings) of the holy texts of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Taoism, and other traditions ad nauseam.

Because of the parallels and similarities even in text and wording, on top of how easily theological monism might be construed as monotheism, in addition to the complicated historical processes that preserved (albeit with some corruption and redaction) the Hermetic texts into our modern age, it turns out to be really easy to conflate the theology and spirituality of the classical Hermetic texts with monotheistic religions.  For some who are amenable to that, that’s actually a neat thing, and fundamentally not a whole lot changes in terms of the teleological aims and purposes of the whole shebang.  Even though I myself am a polytheist (hard not to be as an orisha priest on top of everything else I get up to), when it comes to Hermeticism, I’d rather people get involved in this monist mysticism one way or another in whatever way is most sensible and amenable to them, and whether they take a monist monotheist approach or a monist polytheist approach, so long as we both agree on the philosophical Goodness of God and that our ultimate aim is henosis with God, then I won’t complain too much in the end.  However, adapting Hermeticism to monotheism is just that: an adaptation.  Conflating monism with monotheism, although some people might mistakenly consider this an “evolution” or some sort of “progress”, rather makes one to miss out on the original context and polytheistic piety inherent and explicit in the texts as they are.

Now, on this point, there is one last thing I want to mention.  Even though the classical Hermetic texts come from a polytheistic culture, I’ve noted above that the people who preserved these texts have not always been, and even in the best of times it can be easy to conflate or construe monism with monotheism.  We see evidence of that, too, at times in the classical Hermetic texts, like in the Armenian Definitions of Hermēs Trismegistos to Asklēpios, specifically definition 8.3.  I’ve talked about this definition once upon a time, and one of my colleagues on Twitter has also done a thread-based discussion of each of the Definitions including DH 8.3, but in its own words:

Those who worship idols (worship plain) pictures. For if they worshipped with knowledge, they would not have gone astray, but since they do not know how they should worship, they have gone astray, (far) from piety.  Man has the faculty of killing, God of giving life.

At a surface level, one might read something like DH 8.3 and conclude that this is an anti-idolatry statement, and thus Hermēs is against the worship of the gods plural (because, as is so often the case in monotheistic religions like Christianity or Islam, paganism and polytheism are synonymous with idolatry).  However, if we bear in mind the proper ways to worship and revere God that are elsewhere described in the Hermetic texts (pure speech offerings, thanks through gnōsis, abstaining from material offerings, etc.), we come to a more nuanced conclusion that God is not to be worshipped as an idol or through corporeal means like with representations or material sacrifices; after all, per SH 1, “it is impossible to signify with a body what has no body…it is grievous for the eternal to have fellowship with the ephemeral”.  When we take a broader look, DH 6.1 references the gods (“just as the gods are God’s possession…”), as does DH 8.6 (“man has as much power as the gods”), DH 9.1 (“man and the gods and all things exist by God…the gods exist because of God”), and DH 9.7 (“the gods have heaven…the air is common to gods and humans”).  Given all this, DH is a polytheistic text because it admits the existence of gods in the plural and even describes them to a small extent, but it doesn’t talk about the proper way to worship them—and, for that matter, neither do most of the other Hermetic texts that talk about the gods, because (again!) the spiritual focus in the Hermetic texts is not on the gods but on God.

Having said all that, I think I finally made my point I set out to make: despite how some people can easily misconstrue the Hermetic texts as being monotheistic or kinda-sorta Christian, they are fundamentally polytheistic, and specifically Greco-Egyptian at that.  However, the spiritual focus on Hermeticism is not on the gods (the existence of which it happily and readily proclaims, and the worship of which it explicitly and readily encourages), but on God.  The issue there, of course, is that “God” is actually a really complicated concept that revolves around a fundamental monism (or nondualism), which isn’t helped with 1500 years of baggage tacked onto that specific term and how it’s been applied to other religions—which means that, without the proper contextualization and framing, when someone otherwise without a clue reads the Hermetic texts and starts reading about “God”, they can be forgiven for thinking that the “God” of Hermetic texts is the “God” of the New Testament.  At the end of the day, though, the God in Hermeticism is not god, and while the Hermetic texts focus overwhelmingly on discussion of God, they are still fundamentally polytheistic writings that assume the reader not only accepts the existence of the many gods but is already engaged in their worship.

But what gods would those be, exactly?  Let’s talk about that more in the next (and last!) post.