49 Days of Definitions: Part X, 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 forty-seventh definition, part X, number 5 of 7:

Soul is bound to be born in this world, but Nous is superior to the world.  Just as Nous is unbegotten, so is matter too, (although) it (can be) divided.  Nous is unbegotten, and matter (is) divisible; soul is threefold, and matter has three parts; generation (is) in soul and matter, (but) Nous (is) in God for the generation of the immortal (beings).

Man is a creature composed of a material body inhabited and moved by soul, and the soul of Man (generally) have a contact with and capacity for Nous, or knowledge of God.  Because of the presence of Nous within us, we’re able to use Logos, or reasonable speech, which can help us understand and direct the world around us.  However, it turns out that we’re not the only ones in the game here; the immortal beings in heaven above us also move us down here, and it’s up to us to choose whether to steer ourselves in whichever way we think is best (even if it’s not really good for us) or let the stars and planets and gods steer us in whichever way they think is best.

Of course, the process of even bringing Man into the world is complicated; first Nous makes soul from itself, then soul uses the heavenly beings to create a body, then the soul joins the body at birth.  Souls without bodies are “inert” and motionless, so they can only fulfill their functions when they have a body.  Bodies are material, so they belong in the world; thus, “soul is bound to be born in this world”.  Soul has basically no choice in the matter; if it wants to move and carry out its functions, it must have a body, so the connection between the intelligible soul and sensible body is almost mandated.  However, the soul of Man is blessed with a connection to and part of Nous, and “Nous is superior to the world”.  Although all things in the cosmos exist within and as part of God/Nous, Nous does not blatantly or consciously reside within all things; that’s only given to Man.  This is what allows Man to be both of the world (as far as his body is concerned) and in the world (as far as his soul is concerned).  Nous is not bound to the world; Nous is the world and so much more.

So, it goes without saying that God is unbegotten; God is the creator of all things, and God is both immortal and eternal, so nothing can have created God; God, simply, has always existed.  Thus, “Nous is unbegotten”.  However, what may be surprising is that just as Nous is unbegotten, “so is matter too”.  Thus, not only does the world exist within God, but the world has always existed within God.  There was never a point, except outside of time itself perhaps, when matter and the world did not exist.  God and the world, Nous and matter, have always both existed.  However, we know Nous to be the One, while we can pretty easily pick out different kinds of matter and different numbers of body.  Indeed, “[matter] can be divided”; thus, while matter has always existed, it does not exist in the same forms from moment to moment, and can be broken off or split up or otherwise divided so as to be joined with other matter later on.  Thus, “Nous is unbegotten, and matter is divisible”.  This sounds somewhat like the law of conservation of mass: nothing new was ever brought in, but always existed in some form or another.

So how does soul relate to the material world, besides being in a body?  Well, according to this, “soul is threefold”.  That’s not very helpful, but the footnotes provided by Jean-Pierre Mahé indicate that the “threefold soul” refers to its reasonable, unreasonable, and sensible forms.  By saying that the soul is threefold, I don’t believe that Hermes is saying that we have three souls, but rather that the soul has three “modes”: it can act reasonably, it can act unreasonably, or it can act sensibly.  Reasonable action is when the soul acts agreeably with Nous; unreasonable action is when the soul acts disagreeably to Nous.  Sensible action, however, is when the soul works with the body.  The body contains the sense organs, but it delivers the sensory data to the soul for it to understand and know.  Of course, all this threefold soul stuff only applies to Man, since he’s the only creature endowed with Nous and so can act reasonably or unreasonably.  For all other living creatures, they can neither act reasonably or unreasonably, but only sensibly, since that’s all that’s available to them.

Matter, on the other hand, has “three parts”.  Jean-Pierre Mahé suggests this to mean three dimensions, or that of length, breadth, and depth.  Anything solid must exist in at least three dimensions, since two dimensional objects indicate only flat abstract forms, one dimensional objects indicate direction and motion, and zero dimensional objects indicate infinity, singularity, or nullity.  All bodies exist with three dimensions, in other words, and these things are both quantifiable and qualifiable, since matter brings about these things (VII.4).  We can count how long things are, how fast they may be moving, and so forth.  These things are meaningless outside the sensible world, since these are all sensible qualities and quantities.

One such quantity we can measure is growth, which is continued generation.  How are things generated?  By “soul and matter”; soul is what makes the body and moves it, and by making use of the fluidities of femaleness and maleness as well as the four elements, the soul can direct the body to increase or decrease, or to be born or bear children, and so forth.  Generation and growth exists as a property of matter.  However, what about for things immortal?  Immortal beings are either heavenly, in which case they are made of matter, or immaterial, in which case they have no body at all but are detached from them, e.g. Man.  For the generation of mortal beings, “Nous is in God”.  Nous is immortality, and God is the means by which it is spread and grows.  Nothing can be immortal in the true, unbegotten sense as God or Nous is without Nous, and Nous is perfect truth, which is perfect immortality exceeding that of the heavenly beings.  While birth and death are in soul and matter, truth and perfection are in God.

49 Days of Definitions: Part X, Definition 2

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-fourth definition, part X, number 2 of 7:

Nature in man is omniform, and (it is) an energy endowed with all qualities (whose) force (is) invisible and effects (are) conspicuous.  An energy is a movement.  Matter is a wet essence; a body is a agglomeration of matter.

In the last definition, we talked about four terms: good, evil, female, and male.  Of these, that which is Good is, basically, God; anything that is not God is within God, but not everything that is not God is evil.  That which hides the Good, which is knowledge, is evil, which is ignorance, and evil resides in the material world, since this is the world of nature.  Nature is a reflection of truth, but is not truth itself; nature generates within itself as God generates within itself, but that which is God stays God, while nature keeps to itself.  Nature generates within itself according to two principles, the female or passive principle which allows things to be changed, and the male or active principle which allows change to happen.  These are not elements, but forces present in all things; moreover, they are “fluidities”, implying constant change, motion, and mobility that constantly shifts every passing moment.

We know that everything that exists is within Man (IX.4), and that Man understands all of creation (VI.1), not least because Man is the sole creature capable of possessing Nous, but also because wherever Man is, so is God (IX.6).  Since God is literally everything that exists and does not exist and all that stuff (IX.1), God is greater than Man, but because God is Nous and Nous is within Man (or at least some of Man), Man has the capability and the understanding of all things.  How can this be, though?  God knows all things because God is all things.  If we follow that same logic, we can construct a parallel statement that also holds under what we’ve discussed so far: Man understands all nature because Man is all nature.  Indeed, this definition says as much: “nature in man is omniform”.  All natures and all of nature is within Man; after all, Man is a microcosm or “small world” (I.4).  Within Man (properly, the essence of Man), there are all qualities, all quantities, all good, all evil, all female, all male, and all other states of nature, including light, darkness, honesty, lies, ugliness, beauty, and everything else.  Every member of Man contains all natures, which allows every member of Man to be capable of experiencing and understanding all natures, much as how Man contains Nous and so is capable of receiving and understanding Nous.

Moreover, this omniform nature within Man is “an energy endowed with all qualities whose force is invisible and effects are conspicuous”.  We can see nature, since “nature is the mirror of truth” (VIII.5) and since truth is invisible, but the forces of nature are not necessarily visible.  We cannot see pure qualities or quantities; we cannot see maleness or femaleness, abstract number, or the like.  We understand them, though they may be invisible; we can certainly see their effects in the world where truth and nature are realized and materialized.  But note how these things are described: the force of nature is “invisible” and its effects are “conspicuous”.  These are the same words used to describe good and evil, respectively, in the previous definition.  Thus, the forces of nature can be likened to or are good and thus truths, while the effects of nature can be likened to or are evil.  Again, this leads us to say that the material world, being conspicuous and able to be seen, is evil, as opposed to the invisible and intelligible truths that are God.

But there’s one term in that statement that’s confusing, since we haven’t encountered it before and which carries a fair amount of baggage in modern parlance: “energy”.  Throw out all your notions of prana, qi/chi/ki, orgone, nuclear/quantum physics, or what have you; we’re not talking about those here.  According to this definition, energy “is a movement”.  Movement, as we know, is provided by soul (II.1), and which is seen by Nous and performed by breath (II.6).  Any motion, any movement, any act of nature is energy.  This is what allows plants, though they have no soul, to still yet move by breath/spirit (hypothesized from IV.2); movement is performed by breath, which plants have though they have no animating soul.  Thus, they can still experience forces of nature in a way that rocks and stones cannot, but cannot move around or act as animals, humans, or heavenly beings can.  Motions provided by nature are energies that work within nature, so long as there exists the forces of nature to provide them and matter to be moved by them.

Then again, what is matter?  All this talk about nature and bodies and elements and forces, and yet we’re not quite clear on what matter is.  This definition says that matter “is a wet essence”.  Looking back, we see that water is one of the qualities which is wetness (II.1), and that water is a “fecund essence, the support of earth, as a nutritive essence” (II.4).  Thus, matter is essentially watery, though no matter could exist materially without earth and vice versa.  The heavens are fire (II.5), the low world is earth (II.3), and air is the medium between heaven and earth (II.2), but water is what supports earth.  Water and earth are opposite qualities according to II.1, where water is wet and earth is dry; however, matter is primarily watery, which allows it to grow instead of just exist statically.  Fire can inhibit or remove growth, air can link growths together, and earth is that which is grown, but water provides the growth.  The world is essentially characterized by growth.  Moreover, the world is essentially characterized by life; not immortality or mortality, but life, bios, living.  All things that die provide life for other things, so life always continues in the world in some way.  A body may die by cancer, but cancer is merely the growth of something else that takes over an existing body; a body may die by being slaughtered, but provides food for other bodies to grow; life is death, death is life.  Both are wet.  Thus, material reality is wet.

So what about bodies in terms of matter?  A body is “an agglomeration of matter”, or matter piled on and stuck to matter.  Different matters combined form a body.  This is pretty straightfoward; every body is more than “a matter”, but which is why the phrase is so awkward to say when referring to physical objects.  Instead, we say that every body is “matter”, using a collective noun instead of a singular.  Even single atoms are compounds of smaller things, and a cloud of gas is a collection of, you guessed it, matter.  And, because matter is primarily wet, all bodies are primarily wet, too, unless they have a huge imbalance of one element or the other.  Dry sand, for instance, though it has some water in it, has an abundance of earth; pure water is mostly water with very little earth. While different bodies are composed of different elements (II.1), the basis for them is still matter, with the elements and fluidities of maleness and femaleness taking effect upon them.

And, because they’re material and worldly, they’re still evil.  Apparently.

49 Days of Definitions: Part VII, 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 twenty-seventh definition, part VII, number 4 of 5:

Soul enters the body by necessity, Nous (enters) soul by judgment.  While being outside the body, soul (has) neither quality nor quantity; (once it is) in the body it receives, as an accident, quality and quantity as well as good and evil: for matter brings about such (things).

We know from before that “soul is a necessary movement adjusted to every kind of body” (II.1), although not all bodies have souls (IV.2).  Of those that do, however, they are animated, both in the classical sense of being “ensouled” as well as in the modern sense of having motion and movement.  Plants and stones, for instance, do not move beyond their natural tendencies to increase or decrease, and so have no souls; animals, humans, and heavenly beings move in addition to their tendencies to increase and decrease, and so have souls.  Thus, “soul enters the body by necessity”, especially the bodies of Man, since it is there that soul can develop into perfection.

However, it is only the souls with Nous that do this, and why?  Because Nous wants to: “Nous enters soul by judgment”.  This, to me, has a double meaning, because other parts of the definitions don’t seem to make complete sense.  All souls come from Nous, and are given a touch of Nous that give it impetus for motion within the body (VII.3).  However, not all creatures have Nous, since this is a gift from the Nous itself and only visits to those who serve Nous through Logos (V.3, V.1).  Trying to reconcile this gap between “all souls in bodies have Nous within” to “not all bodies have Nous” requires a bit of a reach here, at least at this point in our understanding:

  1. Nous enters soul because it wants to.  While the Nous is God and God is in all things, not all things are consciously aware of being part of God.  Nous wants us all to be aware of that, since Nous is all about knowing and awareness.  Nous gives life through soul that it inhabits because it wants the life to be made fully part of God and aware that it is God.  In other words, there’s a much bigger party going on in the intelligible world than in the sensible world, and God wants us to join it by enabling ourselves to be aware of it and how to get in.  We can call this type of Nous within the soul the “seed Nous” or “heart Nous”; it’s not much different than what other definition say about God being part of all things: since the soul is a thing, God must be part of it.
  2. Nous enters soul because the soul is ready for it.  While the Nous within the soul may be the heart of the soul, it is not the same thing as the soul, and the soul may not be in full command or contact with the Nous.  It’s like how humanity has their conscious minds as well as their subconscious, and while the subconscious can drive or influence the conscious, we’re not aware of the subconscious desires doing this to us.  By bringing the subconscious to the conscious level, we become more fully aware of ourselves and our whole being.  Likewise, the Nous is buried so deep within ourselves that we are effectively cut off consciously from it, though we still retain that divine spark within ourselves.  By coming to know Nous through Logos, we bring the Nous closer and closer to the surface in ourselves, enabling perfection of ourselves.  This is only something that is done when we are ready for it, and requires active work on our part.

Thus, what this definition is saying is basically that wherever there is a body, there must be a soul, but souls on their own may not have Nous since they may not be necessary to a body, and so may not exist if Nous does not judge there to be a need for it.  God makes things happen and gives things life, and without God nothing could happen; thus, the soul exists only as God has allowed it to exist, but even so it must continue developing.  Just as a seed takes time to grow into a full tree, a soul takes time to grow into a full perfected soul.  This is done by helping it develop within the body across the four parts of the world (VII.2)  Only when the soul is properly developed can it receive Nous into itself wholly and fully; instead, we might say that the soul returns to and is fully connected to the Nous again, regardless of whether it is contained within a body.

The soul entering into the body has more effects than simply dimming the connection between Nous and itself, too.  The soul is an invisible and insensible thing that supports the body, and “while being outside the body, soul has neither quality nor quantity”.  In other words, there are no characteristics or details about the soul that we can know while it is outside a body.  It is only ever intelligible, and so is part of God in the intelligible world.  However, when a soul enters a body, “it receives, as an accident, quality and quantity”.  The soul, by entering into a body, picks up sensible qualities, but it does not enter into the body so as to do this.  This happens “as an accident”, or a side-effect of the animation of a body.  This is because “matter brings about such things”, and all matter is based on the element of earth (II.3), without which nothing sensible could exist.

Consider any arbitrary measurement or metric you might conceive of.  Length is a property of how much matter can be arrayed in a given distance.  Volume is several lengths in different directions.  Weight is how much mass can be packed into a particular object.  Density is the proportion of weight to volume.  These are all quantities, numbers that are all based in the physical realm.  Any measurement based on these or similar metrics is also a quantity, and therefore based in the physical, material realm.  What about qualities?  As opposed to an objective measurement, a quality is a subjective measurement.  Does something feel good or bad?  Do sour foods taste better than bitter foods?  How strongly do you like a particular object?  Does a certain action cause pride or shame in the actor?  These and more are all qualities, which although not directly based on material measurements, use the body and spirit to interpret them for us, and since these things are based on the material body, qualities too become material accidents.

The soul, much like God, has none of these to start with.   We cannot describe any quality or quantity of the soul without a body; it is, in a sense, ineffable, much as God is (I.4).  Moreover, the soul has no notion of these things either until it gains a body, since the soul is separated from the body, and as we puzzled out before in VI.2, without having a body we cannot sense the sensible or visible things, which are measured and interpreted according to their quantity and quality.  With a body, however, the soul can suddenly discern these things, as well as become these things by means of the body.  I don’t mean to say that God cannot sense things, since God senses and sees all things (V.1), but rather that God, who is Nous, who is both Mind as well as the faculties and exercise of Mind, is these things.  The soul, however, is not God, though it is a part of God, and so until it obtains Nous as given by God, it cannot similarly see, sense, or witness things in the same way as God does.  On its own, the soul cannot do much; in a body, it can act as and work as the body.

In addition to quantity and quality, however, by entering into the body the soul also picks up “good and evil”.  We know of things that are good, which we can associate with both light (II.6) and God (I.4).  Whatever evil is, we are not yet certain, but we have a few clues.  These are things that only exist where bodies exist; good and evil are not things that exist outside of the world or as part of God, but exist only as sensible things.  Hermes Trismegistus goes on about good and evil in the Corpus Hermeticum (chapter XIV, part 7):

And do not thou be chary of things made because of their variety, from fear of attribution of a low estate and lack of glory unto God.  For that His Glory’s one,—to make all things; and this is as it were God’s Body, the making [of them].  But by the Maker’s self naught is there thought or bad or base.

These things are passions which accompany the making process, as rust doth brass and filth doth body; but neither doth the brass-smith make the rust, nor the begetters of the body filth, nor God [make] evil.  It is continuance in the state of being made that makes them lose, as though it were, their bloom; and ’tis because of this God hath made change, as though it were the making clean of genesis.

Basically, good and evil exist as a special set of qualities in the sensible world, and are related to the process of increase and decrease, which only exists because of the element of earth.  Water helps to increase (“fecund essence”, II.4); fire helps to decrease (“destruction of the mortal”, II.5); air helps to join together (“heavens and earth are united with each other by the air”, II.2).  Death is a result of decrease without increase; creatures that are not heavenly and made of fire are therefore earthy and mortal (IV.1, IV.2); death prevents the soul from obtaining perfection when the soul is not yet ready (VI.3); bodies serving their own end without care for the soul serves only death (V.2).  Therefore, death, decay, and decrease that prevent the soul from fulfilling its perfection and Nous can be considered evil, and this can only be done in the material world that bodies live in.  These things on their own are not bad at all, and are necessary in the world, but when they interfere with ourselves, they become a harmful influence.  However, we must choose to let them interfere with ourselves, even if we choose inaction against them.

This is a crucial difference between the material world and the immaterial world: good and evil only exist where a chance to turn away from God exists.  Outside the material world, one is only ever part of God, and thus cannot turn away from God.  In the sensible world, it’s harder to be aware of God, and thus easier to turn away from God.  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.  This sort of thing is not possible outside the sensible world, where Nous can be absent from speech or action due to our own actions or speech.  Outside the sensible world, there is nothing (so far said, at least) that can distinguish us from God, therefore having us become God and God becoming us wholly, so that whatever God wills, we ourselves will, and whatever we do, God does.

This ties in tightly to notions of True Will and divine providence, too, and the ideas are similar.  When we do what God wants us to do, carrying out and serving our divine purpose, that’s our True Will, the will we are meant to fulfill which we ourselves can know once we can see ourselves clearly enough.  To do that, however, we have to carry out the Great Work, which helps us prepare ourselves across the four parts of the world and begin to hear and use Logos.  This allows our sensible, material bodies to better heed and serve our souls, which can then develop properly into a fully-knowledgeable and divine soul with Nous.  With Nous being known to ourselves, we then can carry out what it is we’re supposed to do; at that point, any distinction between what we want and what God wants is meaningless, because our wills have become God’s will and vice versa.