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.

Hermeticism, God, and the Gods: Expecting (and Finding) Polytheism

This post has been one I’ve been struggling to write for a while now.  Normally, when I get the feeling to write a post, it either comes out in the moment and I set it up to be posted on my blog, or it doesn’t come out and I just let it sit in my drafts folder as a post idea until it’s time to actually write it; I let the thing mature inside, as it were, until it’s good enough to come out on its own.  However, this topic is one that I’ve seen crop up time and time again on the /r/Hermeticism subreddit or on the Hermetic House of Life Discord server for literal months now, and every time it does, I remind myself again that I should get to this post.  It’s not for lack of trying that it hasn’t been written yet, and it’s not like I don’t have statements or opinions about the subject (they’re all actually fairly straightforward), it’s just…been difficult to actually put all that together in a post.  Maybe my approach to it has been wrong, and maybe my more natural writing style prefers to take a different approach.  Either way, this post is one that’s been a long time coming.

Let’s start with a question, then: what’s with all the talk of “God” (singular) in the classical Hermetic texts?  When a lot of people come to the Hermetic texts for the first time (whether as a scholarly student or a spiritual one), the way a lot of Hermetic texts read makes it sound like some sort of weird Christian knockoff (or, as some patristic Christian authors wrote, some sort of weird pagan prophetical anticipation of Christianity).  For some people, this isn’t so much a problem, especially in our largely monotheistic culture in the West or who are used to monotheistic approaches in the modern occult scene, but for many people nowadays who are looking for something more classical, pagan, or otherwise non-Abrahamic and polytheist, the language used in the classical Hermetic texts can be off-putting or outright disorienting.  This is especially confusing when there is talk of gods or temple worship in the Hermetica, but it’s not always clear for some about how to correlate all this with each other.

In part III of my Hermeticism FAQ, I opened up with an answer about whether Hermeticism is monotheistic or polytheistic:

Either or both, depending on your perspective.  It is true that the bulk of the Hermetic texts, especially the “philosophical Hermetica”, focus on a singular God as the One and the Good for the purposes of both cosmological structure as well as theosophical devotion, but it’s also true that the same Hermetic texts discuss the ensoulment of statues by the gods and encourage the worship of such corporeal gods as well as the many gods in heaven.  Whether one wants to consider there to be just one God and all other entities as angels subservient to this one God, or whether one wants to consider the One to be on an ontological level beyond the gods and the gods to have their own reality, Hermeticism may admit both or either perspective.  It is also helpful to consider the One to be a “god whom the gods themselves worship” or a “god beyond the gods”, a perspective that is evinced in magical texts from the same time period.

Now, I admit, when I was writing the FAQ, I was hedging on this point.  It is true that Hermeticism has been contextualized (if not practiced) for a good few centuries within monotheistic cultures, specifically Christian ones in Europe and Islamic ones in north Africa and the near or middle East.  In that time, our extant Hermetic texts from the classical period (and a good many others besides) have been preserved and transmitted through generations of copyists and redactors, also of a similarly monotheistic bent, and have likewise been picked up, read, and made use of by plenty of magicians, mystics, scholars, and detractors who also operate more-or-less from a monotheistic perspective.  The language of the Hermetic corpora, after all, does focus hugely on God, the One, however you want to call it.  As a result, this question gets asked frequently enough to start open that FAQ segment on doctrine to clear the airs.

All that said, make no mistake: Hermeticism, properly speaking, is a polytheistic form of mysticism.  It was produced by polytheists within a polytheistic culture, and does not just admit the existence of multiple gods, but actively encourages their worship.  It’s not just a matter of “you can worship the gods”, but “you should worship the gods”.  It’s just that the emphasis on Hermeticism as a specific kind of mysticism within a broader religious context (specifically a Greco-Egyptian polytheistic one) isn’t on the gods, but on God which, notably, is not a god itself and the notion of which does not diminish the divinity or godhood of the gods.  This last part is, admittedly, a little confusing, and the distinctions between monism and monotheism can get blurred depending on one’s preexisting notion of “God”, especially within an otherwise monotheistic context or coming from an otherwise monotheistic background.

So, yes, the gods.  The classical Hermetic texts make abundant notes that gods (plural) exist: throughout CH III, CH II.14—16, CH V.3, CH X.7 and CH X.22—25, CH XII.1 and CH XII.12 and CH XII.21, CH XIII.17, CH XIV.8, CH XVI.10—18, throughout the Asclepius (§4—7, 18—19, 22—23, 25, 27, 32, 37, 39), SH 11, SH 14, SH 21, and on and on.  And that’s just looking for the word “gods” (theoi in Greek), setting aside any oblique or opaque references to them, like “governors”, “powers”, or even “statues” (in reference to the divine idols or cult images as worshipped in temples).  The Hermetic texts don’t make much of a big deal about there being multiple gods because they fundamentally assume their existence, declaring them in passing almost as if the authors of the Hermetic texts took their existence for granted.  And why shouldn’t they?  These texts were written in Hellenistic Egypt during the early Roman Empire, by a polytheistic people in a polytheistic culture.  Given Walter Scott’s tentative dating of most of the Hermetic texts being written between the first and fourth centuries CE (most of them between the second and third), this was all largely before the persecution of pagans in the late Roman Empire began, and written in an ancient bastion of civilization filled to the brim with temples that formed the institutional backbone supporting Egypt for literal millennia.  Although there was plenty of cultural and religious change starting with Alexander the Great’s colonization of Egypt, taking the Ptolemaic period into the Roman period, the underlying culture and civilization of Egypt was much as it ever was.  And all of this forms the backdrop for what is now the current scholarly consensus, established by the work of academic researchers Garth Fowden or Christian Bull or Wouter Hanegraaff, that the Hermetic texts (and classical Hermeticism more broadly) were produced in a quasi-priestly milieu, the texts either being written by Egyptian priests for a Greek-speaking audience or by their students in a more-or-less Hellenistic context, situating Egyptian religiosity amidst Greek philosophical inclinations.

And yet, when we read the Hermetic texts, all the above seems to be such a miniscule part of it all—because it is!  The vast majority, rather, is given to discussion about God (ho theos) in the singular, sometimes referred to as the Maker, the Father, the Good, the One, or so on; prayers of thanksgiving and praise pepper the Hermetic texts, as well as injunctions to show reverence and devotion to God.  Put beside each other, the polytheistic admissions above contrasted with this is enough to give someone whiplash, so what gives?  It’s not like the Hermetic texts are pulling a fast one on their readers, trying to get them to softly convert to some sort of monotheism, far from it.  There’s something a little more subtle happening here that requires a bit of extra historical and spiritual context, as well as a reminder of what “monotheism” actually is and how “monotheism” could be expressed in the cultural and temporal environment of the Hermetica.  And no, for what it’s worth, I don’t think that the Hermetic texts referring to ho theos is in reference to any specific god like Zeus or Amun, either, and how that might lead to any notion of henotheism, megatheism, or whatever.  There’s something else going on here, because (as I read it) God itself is something Else than what we might expect.

One of the issues that a lot of modern people wrestle with (and, let’s be honest, it’s a fair enough question) is what a “god” actually is.  We could talk all day about spirits generally, different kinds of spirits, how we might relate to entities on different levels of reality, and so on until the cows come home—but I wouldn’t try to define the term “god”, because the Hermetic texts don’t, either.  There is certainly talk of God and the gods, but there is never any strict discussion of what constitutes a god or what sets apart the gods from other kinds of spirits.  The notion of a god is something that is something assumed and otherwise implicit in the Hermetic texts, and to my understanding, it refers broadly to any powerful spiritual entity of a more refined or elevated nature than oneself that can or should receive worship and reverence and sacrifice, whether or not it is embodied.  In this light, the term “god” can be inclusive of the Cosmos itself, the planets and stars, heroes or deified teachers, divinized kings, the presiding entity of rivers or mountains, ensouled statues containing the presence of any of the above, and so on.  This is all still a rough definition, of course, but trying to get into the specifics of what is or isn’t a god isn’t the point of this post; at the end of the day, if you worship it, it’s a god.

And on that point, we can point to where the Hermetic texts instruct us or encourage us as to the worship of the gods, as in CH XVII, a dialogue between Tat and an unnamed king (though presumably Ammōn):

“…if you think about it, O king, incorporeals also exist among the corporeals.”

“What kind?” asked the king.

“Bodies that appear to be in mirrors seem incorporeal to you, do they not?”

“Yes, Tat, they do; your understanding is godlike,” said the king.

“But there are also other incorporeals: doesn’t it seem to you, for example, that there are forms that appear in body even though they are incorporeal, in the bodies not only of ensouled beings but of the soulless also?”

“You put it well, Tat.”

“Thus, there are reflections of the incorporeals in corporeals and of corporeals in incorporeals—from the sensible to the intelligible cosmos, that is, and from the intelligible to the sensible. Therefore, my king, adore the statues, because they, too, possess forms from the intelligible cosmos.”

CH XVII is a short fragment of a larger text that does not seem to be extant in its entirety anymore, although it does appear to be under the overall heading of Hermetic theology, i.e. discussions about God and the gods.  In this fragment, we see a bit of a logical argument that basically claims that statues of the gods are images of the gods, like the incorporeal reflection of a thing in a corporeal mirror, and so we should worship the statues of the gods—but why?  Because the gods themselves are to be worshipped.  The specific word used here is proskunei, which Copenhaver renders as “adore” but which is used more generally as “make obeisance to the gods”, “fall down and worship”, “prostrating oneself in reverence”, “do reverence towards”, and so forth; although one might try to split hairs and suggest a Christian-esque latria/dulia distinction, that’s not really seen much here using this word, especially when we have related words like proskunēia “act of worship” or proskunētēs “worshipper”.  What Tat (called a “prophet” in CH XVII, which itself is not just a general term but a title of a particular kind of ritual official in Egyptian priesthoods) is doing here is explicitly encouraging worship of the gods, not just generally but specifically towards cult images of the gods like the statues enshrined in temples.

Then there’s the Asclepius, which is abundant in its talk of the gods, and which was considered scandalous by patristic Christian writers (especially Augustine of Hippo in his City of God) for its explicit talk of how statues are ensouled and consecrated.  There are plenty of references towards worshipping the gods, like in AH 5 (“one who has joined himself to the gods in divine reverence, using the mind that joins him to the gods, almost attains divinity”) or AH 22 (“since he is conjoined to them in kinship, mankind honors the gods with reverent and holy mind; the gods also show concern for all things human and watch over them in faithful affection”), and the famous “Prophecy of Hermēs” from AH 24—29 talks at length about the horrible fate that will befall Egypt (and eventually the whole world) when humanity stops worshipping the gods.  However, when it comes to in-depth discussions of the gods, there are four main sections we can point out:

  • AH 19: a discussion of sensible gods (aisthētoi theoi) vs. intelligible gods (noētoi theoi), with the latter being heads-of-essences (ousiarchai) that produce all things throughout the cosmos
  • AH 23—24: just as God makes heavenly gods, humanity makes “temple gods who are content to be near humans”, i.e. the sacred statues that serve as cult images of the gods to which worship and sacrifice is directed so as to glorify, revere, and commune with the gods themselves
  • AH 27: a description of the functions of Jupiter and Jupiter Plutonius (Zeus, Zeus Ploutonios, and Korē in the Coptic AH from NHC VI,8) in creating and sustaining life in the world (which to me reads like interpretatio romana/graeca of Amun, Osiris, and Isis)
  • AH 37—39: how humanity came to learn of the hieratic art of ensouling statues with the presences of gods, the differences between heavenly gods (i.e. gods in their own domain which rule over universals) and earthly gods (i.e. the presences of the gods worshipped in temples via their cult images which rule over particulars)

The tone of the Asclepius here is nothing short of devoutly prescriptive: more than just raising the fact that the gods are worshipped, this text outright tells us that the gods are supposed to be worshipped, along with how and why we should do so.  In similar terms, though less prescriptive than descriptive, do we find Isis teaching Hōros in the Kore Kosmou (SH 23.65—68) about her role as a culture hero with Osiris to tame the savagery of the first humans on Earth by introducing, among other things, consecrated precincts and sacrifices for the ancestral gods, teachings regarding the gods, and a “perfect remedy in all of their prophets [so that] no future prophet who raised his hands to the gods would ever be ignorant” of divine truths and blessings to preserve good life on Earth.  Beyond even this, we also get Hermēs saying in SH 2A.14 that he “venerates and worships” (sebomai kaì proskunō—and note the use of that last word here!) the Sun (or, specifically, its truth/reality/existence).  While I could keep coming up with references like this, I’ve made my point: the classical Hermetic texts not only readily admit and recognize the existence of multiple gods (and, in some cases, elaborately detail and document them), but also explicitly encourage our worship of them.  The funny thing is with all this, though, is that the tone that these same Hermetic texts take, even in the above sections, seems to be an almost dismissive “of course you should do this, you fool, you absolute moron”.  Giving worship to the gods, after all, was something necessary for us to live happy and fruitful lives “down here”; as Hermēs says in AH 38:

And this is why those gods are entertained with constant sacrifices, with hymns, praises and sweet sounds in tune with heaven’s harmony: so that the heavenly ingredient enticed into the idol by constant communication with heaven may gladly endure its long stay among humankind.

Do not suppose that these earthly gods act aimlessly, Asclepius. Heavenly gods inhabit heaven’s heights, each one heading up the order assigned to him and watching over it. But here below our gods render aid to humans as if through loving kinship, looking after some things individually, foretelling some things through lots and divination, and planning ahead to give help by other means, each in his own way.

Through reverence, worship, sacrifice, hymning, and all the like, humanity is able to join with the gods in a way that is harmonious for the overall cosmos.  It allows us to be provided and cared for by the gods, it allows the gods to better abide with us and work with us in the world, and it allows both humanity and the gods to collaboratively maintain the right order of the whole cosmos that we are enjoined to perfecting.  To worship the gods is to maintain a right relationship with them as much as it is the whole of creation.  Likewise, earlier on in AH 9:

But I notice, Asclepius, that mind’s quick desire hastens you to learn how mankind can cherish heaven (or the things in it) and tend to its honor. Listen, then, Asclepius. Cherishing the god of heaven and all that heaven contains means but one thing: constant assiduous service. Except for mankind alone, no living thing, neither divine nor <mortal>, has done this service. Heaven and heavenly beings take delight in wonderment, worship, praise and service from humans. Rightly the supreme divinity sent the chorus of Muses down to meet mankind lest the earthly world lack sweet melody and seem thereby less civilized; instead, with songs set to music, humans praised and glorified him who alone is all and is father of all, and thus, owing to their praise of heaven, earth has not been devoid of the charms of harmony.

This bit of AH 9 comes immediately after Hermēs talking about all the other sciences and activities humans get up to in the world, including “agriculture, pasturage, building, harbors, navigation, social intercourse, reciprocal exchange”.  All of these things are what “preserves this earthly part of the world”, and that the world would be “incomplete” (and thus imperfected) without us engaging in these things.  Just as humanity is to tend to the world below through these mundane arts and sciences, so too are we to tend to the world above through more spiritual and religious ones.  Despite the importance (if not outright fervent glorification) Hermēs gives to all of this, he only really covers this in a surprisingly summary way before immediately moving onto other topics.

The overall feel of how the Hermetic texts talk about the gods and our worship of them is like it’s all a reminder rather than something revelatory—because, in the original context of Hermeticism, the reader would already be worshipping the gods (plural), and the actual revelation would be learning about God (singular).  That’s why the Hermetic texts spend so much time on God: as opposed to the gods more generally which everyone was already engaged with, the mystic (and monist) focus on Hermeticism is with this other thing that people aren’t so familiar with.  Being a good polytheist with an awareness of and reverence for the gods, in other words, is essentially a prerequisite for engaging with this new thing that all these texts attributed to Hermēs Trismegistos are trying to teach.

Let’s consider again the original context of the Hermetic texts.  As I mentioned before, Hermeticism arose in a polytheistic culture, specifically that of Hellenistic Egypt during the Roman Empire, but more specifically, based on the most recent academic analyses of the milieu in which these texts arose, it was in small, close-knit “communities” (such as they were) headed by a teacher with some number of students.  Unlike the centralized network of Egyptian temples (an ancient set of institutions in their own right), these groups were far more decentralized, even to the point of informality, likely within the home of the teacher or within an empty corner or room of local temples.  The teacher would likely have been either a career Egyptian priest interested in mysticism and skilled in particular hieratic arts, or otherwise one taught by them, blending Hellenistic philosophy with Egyptian religiosity in a way befitting the life and times of a post-Ptolemaic-now-Roman context.  In its original Greco-Egyptian environment, devotions and sacrifices to the gods would have been understood and performed as a given and would have provided the necessary religious and spiritual foundation for what would essentially be an “extracurricular activity”: the gods were already well-known, but having already approached them and having already understood their role in the lives of people in the world, those who would want “something more” would then seek out a teacher who could go beyond the exoteric into the esoteric.

Let’s get more into that stuff next time.

A False Fork in Hermeticism: Different Approaches, Same End

Although I have my reservations about doing so, I don’t think that it’s all that weird to consider Hermeticism a kind of gnosticism in one sense or another.  I mean, literally speaking, one of the major pushes in the study and practice of Hermeticism is for gnōsis, the Greek word for “knowledge” meant technically in a Hermetic sense as a revelatory, non-discursive experience of divine truth—in other words, something that is capital-T True but which you can’t reason your way into thinking it and which you can’t be taught it or pick it up from anything or anyone else except God.  In that light, since Hermeticism encourages us towards achieving such experiences of gnōsis as a vehicle for spiritual development and perfection (not just a one-time deal, but something we strive for both repeatedly and continuously), one could very much call Hermeticists “gnostics”.  Doing so, however, neglects the actual use of the term gnosticism to refer to a wide-ranging series of religious movements that arose in the early Roman Empire in the eastern Mediterranean and the Levantine region, including such traditions and schools as Sethianism, Valentinianism, the Basilideans, Manichaeism, Mandaeism, and others (even modern gnostic churches like the Apostolic Johannite Church).

Still, it’s not for nothing that Hermeticism might be considered a kind of “historical gnosticism” with these other groups, given how we find Hermetic texts in the Nag Hammadi Codices (specifically NHC VII,6—8, including the Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth which radically shifted our modern understanding of Hermeticism) and how there’s so much shared terminology (and even shared doctrines at times) between the Hermetic texts and various gnostic texts.  Moreover, even though the ultimate origins of gnosticism are obscure at best, we know that many such gnostic traditions arose in Jewish or early Christian communities centered in and around northeastern Egypt and Roman Palestine, neighbors with the historical origin of Hermeticism in location, time, and culture.  Even if Hermeticism may not be considered a child of the overall parent of “gnosticism”, we can consider Hermeticism and gnosticism to be like siblings—but even if they grew up in the same “household” at about the same time, they certainly went their separate ways once they moved out from their parent’s place.

Of course, it’s incorrect to think of “gnosticism” as being just one thing.  As I mentioned above, there are a whole bunch of various schools, traditions, and sects that were all “gnostic” to one degree or another, but they’re a really varied bunch that don’t have a lot of common with each other beyond being somehow tied to the idea that gnōsis (true spiritual or mystical knowledge) is tied to to salvation or ascension in some way.  It’s perhaps better to talk of “gnosticisms” or “gnostic spiritualities” rather than “kinds of gnosticism”.  Still, there are a few commonalities, and perhaps the most well-known one is a kind of matter-spirit dualism, a logical (though extreme) extension of Plato’s allegory of the cave such that there is the physical cosmos that we’re born into presided over by a Demiurge (δημιουργός dēmiourgós “craftsman”) along with some number of archons (ἀρχός arkhós “leader”) who control this world, and a truly divine world which “really exists” beyond this one.  This doesn’t sound all that weird on the spectrum of religious beliefs, but it’s that all this that we experience as our worldly lives is a sham and a con, separated as we are from being “really real”, but we’re cruelly trapped in this fake world of matter by wicked and blind demiurge and archons.  (If you’ve ever seen the 1999 film The Matrix, then you’ve got the right idea.)  As a result, “gnostic beliefs” (as varied as they are) are often stereotyped as being extremely pessimistic and dour about the world around us, seeing it only as a prison and cage that it’s on our duty to escape while the evil powers of this world (who are in a divine cosmic war with the forces of actual goodness) callously treat us as little more than amusing playthings.

Which takes me back to Hermeticism and how “gnostic” it may be in substance.  Sure, there are Hermetic texts that seem in line with this sort of pessimistic dualism that basically spits on the world. Consider CH VII, a fire-and-brimstone harangue against people in their drunken stupor of “loathsome pleasure”, how the body is an “odious tunic” that “strangles you and drags you down with it so that you will not hate its visciousness, not look up and see the fair vision of truth and the good that lies within”.  Time and again throughout the Hermetic texts, we see similar pessimistic opinions that the cosmos is evil, that we’re trapped here, and so on, but perhaps most notably in CH VI.2—6:

…Since generation itself is subject to passion, things begotten are full of passions, but where there is passion, there is no good to be found, and, where the good is, there is not a single passion—there is no night where it is day and no day where it is night. Hence, the good cannot exist in generation; it exists only in the unbegotten. Participation in all things has been given in matter; so also has participation in the good been given. This is how the cosmos is good, in that it also makes all things; (thus,) it is good with respect to the making that it does. In all other respects, however, it is not good; it is subject to passion and subject to motion and a maker of things subject to passion.

With reference to humanity, one uses the term “good” in comparison to “evil.” Here below, the evil that is not excessive is the good, and the good is the least amount of evil here below. The good cannot be cleansed of vice here below, for the good is spoiled by evil here below and, once spoiled, it no longer remains good. Since it does not remain so, it becomes evil. The good is in god alone, then, or god himself is the good. Therefore…only the name of the good exists among mankind—never the fact. It cannot exist here. Material body, squeezed on all sides by vice, sufferings, pains, longings, angry feelings, delusions and mindless opinions, has no room for the good. …

… All the things that are subject to the sight of the eyes are as phantoms and shadowy illusions, but those not subject to it, especially the (essence) of the beautiful and the good. … As the eye cannot see god, neither can it see the beautiful and the good, for they are integral parts of god alone, properties of god, peculiar to him, inseparable, most beloved; either god loves them or they love god.

… Hence, those who remain in ignorance and do not travel the road of reverence dare to say that mankind is beautiful and good, but a human cannot see nor even dream of what the good might be. Mankind has been overrun by every evil, and he believes that evil is good; therefore, he uses evil the more insatiably and fears being deprived of it, striving with all his might not only to possess it but even to increase it. …

But, well…there are two things that complicate this.  For one (as I’ve written about before), the Hermetic texts use somewhat different notions of “good” and “evil” than we might be accustomed to conventionally, and these terms get used in different ways in different texts (viz. a philosophical way and a moral way).  For two (and this is the more important point I want to make), for as many pessimistic and dualistic texts there are in the Hermetic corpora, there are at least as many optimistic and monist texts that outright praise and revel in the cosmos, in creation, and the like.  Although CH VI and CH VII are super pessimistic, they’re preceded by CH V, is a shockingly upbeat optimistic one that rejoices in how divinity is present right here with us and is directly responsible for all things (and which I once turned into a sort of quasi hymn, the Praise of the Invisible and Visible God).  Likewise, other texts like CH XIV explicitly say that creation cannot be separate in any way from the creator and that there’s nothing shameful or evil about creation.  There’s this weird and strange mix of monism and dualism replete throughout the Hermetic texts as a whole, and it can seem really bewildering to the point of getting whiplash when going from one text to the next.  While there are certainly “gnostic” and dualistic perspectives, Hermeticism as a whole lends itself more to a monist sort of understanding of theology and cosmology, and even dour-dualist texts like CH VI or CH VII have weird monist bits in them, too.

As Christian Bull points out in The Tradition of Hermes Trismegistus (THT) and Wouter Hanegraaff in Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination (HSHI), classifying certain Hermetic texts as pessimistic/dualist (as in CH VI) or optimistic/monist (as in CH V) has been a thing for over a hundred years now. Such a classification has formed much of the basis for the academic study and discussion of Hermeticism in that time, including postulating how particular Hermetic lodges might have come to form around particular core doctrines, some upholding an “optimistic” view of divine monism and others a “pessimistic” view of matter-spirit dualism.  Indeed, it’s because some of these Hermetic texts that had such pessimistic-dualist perspectives that many scholars have considered Hermeticism a kind of (stereotypical) gnosticism, doing much research into the similarities, parallels, and influences between Hermetic texts and non-Hermetic gnostic ones.  Moreover, following the work of A.-J. Festugière, it was more-or-less cemented as a notion that we had “Greek/Hellenistic” texts that were the monist ones, while the dualistic ones were variously “orientalist” or even just “Egyptian”.  It wasn’t until the later work of J.P. Mahé and (especially) Garth Fowden’s The Egyptian Hermes (ET), building on the recovery of texts like the Nag Hammadi Codices or the the Armenian Definitions of Hermēs Trismegistos to Asklēpsios together with better research on texts like the Greek Magical Papyri, that a new perspective on the whole shebang was made.  Rather than seeing the extant Hermetic corpora as being a mish-mash of texts from different groups from different cultural backgrounds that were at doctrinal odds with each other, scholars like Mahé or Fowden developed a notion of a “way of Hermēs” that understood and went through each of the texts (or similar texts close enough to what survives) as part of a complete system, moving from one perspective to another in a process of spiritual advancement.

From Bull’s THT:

… Mahé came to consider the monistic treatises as the earliest stage of the way of immortality, where the disciple would initially be taught that the material world was good, so as to ease him or her into a more spiritual life. As the disciples progressed they would become stronger and have less and less use for the material world, and at that stage of spiritual maturity they would be instructed to despise the body and the material world, focusing exclusively on the spiritual existence. … Fowden tried to surpass the essentializing dichotomy between what is “authentically Egyptian” and “authentically Greek,” and instead described “modes of cultural interaction” in Greco-Roman Egypt. It was in such a mixed milieu, he proposed, that the followers of the way of Hermes progressed from monistic epistēmē to dualistic gnōsis, in groups resembling the Gnostics: “small, informal circles of the literate but not (usually) learned gathered round a holy teacher and given up to study, asceticism and pious fellowship.” Egyptian priests may have been involved with such groups, though Fowden remained tentative on this point…

If we turn to ET, here’s how Fowden characterizes such a “way” in his monism-to-dualism progression:

…the way of Hermes, as Hermes himself points out at the end of the Asclepius, was not for the mind alone; nor did the attainment of epistēmē or even gnōsis provide any automatic access to salvation. ‘The pious fight consists in knowing the divine and doing ill to no man’: the ethical virtues also had their part to play. The intending initiate must lead a life of piety, obedience and purity—that is, abstinence from the pleasures of this world. The Hermetists do not seem to have been austere ascetics, though the demands they made on themselves undoubtedly increased as they advanced towards spiritual perfection. Generally they held that, just as God formed Man and his environment, so Man in turn is obliged to perpetuate his own race…while the Perfect discourse goes so far as to praise sexual intercourse as not merely a necessity but a pleasure, and an image of God’s own creative act. But the tone changes in the more spiritual treatises, where the body may be described as a prison, and sex rejected as a curse. The virtues are here taken much more for granted, and at this stage it can even be pointed out, as in the key-passage quoted earlier from The Ogdoad reveals the Ennead, that pure morals and a clear conscience are not in themselves a sufficient preparation for gnōsis. The relative neglect of the ethical virtues in the more spiritual treatises derives from their authors’ assumption that their audience will already have made the crucial choice on which all else depends—the choice, that is, between the ‘material’ to and the ‘essential’ Man, the corporeal and the incorporeal, the mortal and the divine realms. For one cannot love both simultaneously.

While Bull affirms some of Fowden’s points in THT, he takes issue with Mahé’s and Fowden’s notion that such a “Hermetic way” was “progression from monism to dualism…[but] that the progress goes in the opposite direction: at the early stage the disciple is asked to alienate himself from his body and from the physical world, in order to free his soul from the bodily passions[; o]nly then will he be able to undergo the initiatory rite of rebirth, after which he is once again reintegrated with the world and goes on to praise the creator god.”  More fully, he explains:

…we have argued that the first stages of the Way of Hermes was characterized by a pedagogical dualism, in which the candidate was taught first to despise the material body as an obstacle to the essential inner human, and then to consider the material cosmos as devoid of truth. A number of Hermetica can with some certainty be related to these stages (CH I, II, IV, VI, X; SH II A–B, VI, XI). When the acolyte had become a stranger to the world, he (or she) could undergo the ritual of rebirth (CH XIII). In the course of this initiatory ritual the dark avengers of matter, representing astral fatality, were conclusively exorcized. In their place, ten divine powers were invoked to descend into the candidate, who now became “the one human, a god and son of God,” namely the androgynous primordial human of the Poimandres. The initiate had thus become ontologically equal to the demiurgic mind residing in the Ogdoad, the brother of the primordial human, who surrounds and suffuses the cosmos. He was now fully integrated with the cosmos: the dualism of the earlier stages has been resolved into a monism, a union with the All, celebrated in the hymn of the rebirth. Now deified, the initiate could proceed to go through a rite of visionary ascent (Disc.8–9), on the principle that “like can only be understood by like” (CH XI, 20). In this rite, the spiritual master, in the role of Hermes, guided the initiate…The reborn was thus brought into the Ogdoad, where he saw indescribable glories and heard silent hymnodies sung by the powers that reside there. This is the culmination of the Way of Hermes, and the visionary was now fully initiated and could join his spiritual brothers in silent hymn-singing, which united them with the powers in the Ogdoad until the day when they would leave the body for good. …

Later, Bull summarizes this as saying:

I would however argue that the reason for this contempt of the body is not so much the result of dualistic anti-cosmism, but rather what we may call pedagogical dualism. The disciple is supposed to gain knowledge of himself, and the Hermetica are in unison agreement that the authentic human being is not identical with the body but with the immaterial noetic essence of the soul. At the earliest stage of teaching the disciple therefore has to be trained to stop identifying himself with the body, and this is why the body is condemned. At a later stage, however, the body will be seen in a more nuanced light, as a necessary tool to fulfill one’s duties as a human in the cosmos.

Okay, so, these are a lot of words and a lot of really lengthy excerpts that have probably rendered most of my readers’ eyes dry, drowsy, and distressed.  The reason why I wanted to bring all this up is because, time and again in the Hermeticism channel in the Hermetic House of Life (HHoL) Discord server, I and a few other people keep referencing the “Fowden approach” or the “Bull approach” to Hermetic practice.  This really is all about the practice of Hermeticism at this point: given that so many of us are already familiar with the doctrines and opinions in the various classical Hermetic texts (and all the critiques thereof), there are likewise so many of us actually doing the labor involved to put these words to work, actually living our lives according to the lessons in the texts.  This is difficult even at the best of times, given that we do technically only have an incomplete picture of what Hermeticism is from the classical period, but it’s because of good modern scholarship that we have a lot of the gaps filled in for us from otherwise good sources coupled with excellent extrapolation.

Because of the constantly-shifting landscape of academia on top of how the texts themselves can admit multiple interpretations, this leads to different ways one might actually walk the “Way of Hermēs”. One such difference plays out between what we’ve been calling the “Fowden approach” or the “Bull approach”.  Based on the texts referenced above, we can summarize what these mean accordingly:

  • The Fowden approach (also evinced by scholars like Mahé) can be thought of as “optimistic monism → pessimistic dualism”.  One begins study and practice of the Way of Hermēs by celebrating the immanence of God within creation and understanding how all things are divinely one.  Over time, as one becomes spiritually mature and ready for it, they then begin to separate themselves from the world through increasingly austere practices and perspectives which culminate in the final ascent of the soul to God to totally leave this world behind.
  • The Bull approach (also evinced by authors like Z. Pleše or G. Shaw) can be thought of as “pessimistic dualism → optimistic monism”.  One begins study and practice of the Way of Hermēs through detestation and dejection of the body, beginning with austere practices so as to purify the soul’s indwelling connection with the body.  It’s only once the student has properly purified themselves of any addiction or attachment to reality that they can more fully engage with it as a unified whole, leading them to see creation for what it really is and to see the Creator within it with eyes unclouded.

Both the Fowden approach and Bull approach look pretty reasonable for orienting oneself in Hermeticism, offering some notion of structure within which one can develop their practices and focus their studies.  Thinking about how to apply the various Hermetic texts together as a combined “way” (as in a curriculum of study) has led to us in HHoL thinking and talking about Hermeticism in terms of these “approaches”, and which “direction” we should pursue or why we should do so.  Personally, if I had to choose between the Fowden approach and the Bull approach as being the proper way to the Way, I’d go with the Bull approach, as I find it not only better argued, but also more meaningful in how it really does let the beautiful monistic outlook of Hermeticism shine through.

Of course, to posit that the Way of Hermēs takes either approach is itself a kind of dualistic thinking, and that itself is a problem for Hermeticism.  As Hanegraaff playfully chides in HSHI:

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.

While Hanegraaff makes this point of nondualism so as to introduce a “third kind” of reality that cuts across the Platonically-inspired dualism of divine Being and cosmic Becoming, I think it also helps to to consider these two approaches as just being different stages of a holistic Way of Hermēs rather than being two incompatible things.   To that end, instead of merely going “monism → dualism” or “dualism → monism”, I’d take a broader combined approach and recontextualization of these things as “noninitiated monism → initiatory dualism → initiated monism”.  Hear me out about how this plays out:

  • Hermēs Trismegistos is shown teaching primarily Tat, Asklēpios, and Ammōn as his disciples (or at least the ones explicitly named as such).  However, in CH I, Hermēs is charged with nothing less than the salvation of the human race by becoming “guide to the worthy”.  To that end, he immediately proceeds preaching on the street to whomever might listen, and for those who “desired to be taught”, Hermēs taught them all—yet, in texts like SH 11 or CH XIII, there are also exhortations to secrecy, and in CH XVI, there’s a notion of development from earlier doctrines to later doctrines.  There’s also AH 9 that lays out that different people have different capacities for spirituality, none of which are necessarily better than another but which simply accord each one’s lot in life. Based on all this, my opinion is that all people can be taught and can follow the Way to one degree or another, but some people will (or are meant to) take on a more intensive practice than others.
  • At first, the Way of Hermēs opens up with a benign, simple monism for the noninitiated-but-still-curious.  The student begins to learn about the Creator and Creation, our place within it, and how to lead a good life.  For some people, this is all they need to worry about, a sort of “everyday spirituality for the everyman”.  For them, their union with the Divine is something that can be attained on “the way up” after one’s death; for them, all of life while lived is simply preparation for that final ascent while participating in their role in the cosmos.
  • For others, living a good life and letting that “final ascent” happen after death isn’t enough; rather, they seek to strive for making such an ascent while still alive, or to ensure that such an ascent is guaranteed beyond the shadow of a doubt.  When the noninitiated student is ready to take that “next step”, they then begin a process of  studying and practicing austerity to break them of any misleading identifications of themselves with the body and other wrong views that may have come along uninspected but unwanted in their earlier noninitiated monism.  This helps resolve any “addictions” or “attachments” to incarnation they might have which would prevent them from properly engaging in mindful embodiment.
  • Upon the fullness of their initiatory ordeals and the actual performance and completion of initiation (in whatever form it might have taken, as exemplified by texts like CH XIII or NHC VII,6), the initiate has reached a state of spiritual maturity (or, rather, in the terms of CH XIII, spiritual rebirth) that enables them to be mindfully embodied. This is the realization of a sort of radical nondualism that not just believes in the transcendent and immanent unity of Creator with Creation, but knows it and lives it.  Having completely understood themselves, they have fully joined themselves to God while being alive in the body, achieving their own ascent before the final ascent, not only guaranteeing the completion of such an ascent after they leave this life but dwelling in union even while alive.

In other words, if I were to reterm the Fowden approach and Bull approach as “stages”, the “Fowden stage” is that of a noninitiate becoming an initiate, while the “Bull stage” is that of an initiate becoming a master.  They’re not so much different approaches on the Way as they are the difference between a moderate “outer court” and intense “inner court”, and yet both courts still have monism as their focus (as is proper for a comprehensive view of Hermetic doctrines).  And that’s hardly even a separation, really; both are set on achieving gnōsis and on union with God through gnōsis (which is all the result of having nous “mind”, which can be achieved either through reverence alone or through initiatory experiences).  The difference lies in whether one achieves such a thing while in this life or after this life, and how far one wants to take one’s own spiritual and mystic practice.  In that, perhaps even the notion of these being “outer court” and “inner court” approaches is misleading; it might be better thought of as “entering the temple from the outside world” and “leaving the temple into the outside world” (not unlike how the students of Hermēs enter into the temple at the start of the AH, but then leave it at the end).

The only time dualism ever appears in this whole thing is as a transition, and it doesn’t really so much a doctrine of actual-dualism as it is a practice (or even an aesthetic) of seeming-dualism.  Such a practice is only for the sake of refining and perfecting an overall monism, because such a practice is meant to be contextualized by monism and understood within the boundaries of a monistic understanding of the cosmos.  The “dualism” here is as much a fleeting illusion as dualism is generally, but illusory as it is, it’s one that matters; yet, by that very same token, it might be misleading to call this “pedagogical dualism” (per Bull) a “stage” as such, because it’s more of a transition between stages.  One does not merely stay with this detestation of the body forever, but must eventually move past it once the lessons of doing so are fully integrated; otherwise, one becomes mislead (from a Hermetic point of view), a sort of “falling into a pessimistic abyss” where one forgets the lessons from the earlier noninitiated simple monism while being unable to reach the lessons of the latter initiated radical monism.  (Mind the gnostic gap!)

In that light, we’re never truly engaging with dualism as an end, but rather as a means to an end, starting with monism and ending with monism; heck, we probably shouldn’t even think of this as “dualism” so much as it is “responsible non-solipsistic monism”.  To say “Fowden approach” or “Bull approach” doesn’t really represent distinct ways of “doing Hermeticism” so much as it demonstrates the whole lifespan of a mystic aspirant to the union of God within a Hermetic framework in general, whether done all at once in life or done partly in life and partly after life.  The complexity here of how to understand the Hermetic corpora as a whole belies a simpler foundation that Hermeticism is still all just a way to develop and live a monist mysticism.  Whether one dwells as a noninitiate in the simple monism of pistis/epistēmē or as an initiate in the radical monism of gnōsis, it’s still fundamentally the same teaching, because we all eventually end up at the same destination;  even the “transition” between the two that involves an austere rejection of the body may not even need to be all that austere depending on one’s own inclination to embodiment and divinity.

Such a “Hermetic dualism” is just the first part of the alchemical phrase solve et coagula.  It’s the part where we split ourselves apart, take ourselves apart, and inspect ourselves, all to learn what makes us tick and where our faults lie.  It’s the difficult stage where we really come to “know thyself”, and as a result of doing that, we come to put ourselves back together better than before, improved and more capable of becoming and being more of what we truly are.  It reminds me of a lot of those alchemical diagrams describing the process of generation and differentiation, all ultimately coming from The One and all ultimately leading back to The One, just like in the Golden Chain of Homer:

Despite some of the historical and textual similarities between Hermeticism and some gnostic traditions, I would argue that it’s inappropriate to apply the label “gnosticism” to Hermeticism, if only to avoid some of the stereotypes that “gnosticism” has accrued.  As Hanegraaff demonstrates in HSHI, “very far from the gloomy dualism and pessimistic otherworldliness imagined by modern scholars obsessed by narratives of fall and decline, Hermetic spirituality was grounded in a strongly world-affirming perspective that fully embraced the positive values of life, fertility, and the pursuit of happiness”, and the whole spiritual discipline of Hermeticism was meant to reverently realize that at one level or another for each person who engaged with it.  It might be more rigorous for some, sure, but it’s easy to mistake the rigor of austerity and harshness for “pessimistic dualism”; after all, to an outsider who isn’t clued into the nuances of a difficult situation, what might look like abuse  and violence may instead be in actuality tough love and a forceful but necessary intervention.  And even then, such austerity and detestation of one’s body is not meant for everyone, and for those who do go for it, it requires careful preparation, contextualization, and orientation, all of which is centered in an optimistic, life-loving monism that was never denied from the get-go.

Although I like the benefits that saying “Fowden approach” or “Bull approach” provides in discussion, I admit that it’s as much sleight-of-hand as it is shorthand.  The only approach that matters on the Way is the one that leads to its ultimate End, and while different people might take slightly different paths or be at different stages along their paths, it’s all still one Way.