On Good and Evil in Hermeticism

I know it’s been quiet here as of late, but then, life is quiet.  Besides, my long-time readers will know that this is far from the first time I’ve gone quiet; it seems to just come and go in cycles, where occasionally I’m bursting with words, and other times I’m just off doing other things besides writing.  In general, I’ve been using my words either on the Hermetic Agora Discord server with all the great conversations and discussions we have or for my friends on FFXIV, but this is a case where a series of discussions over several months reminded me that “hey, maybe I should put some of this on my blog, too”.  While I’m not entirely thrilled at how this post has turned out, I think it’s still in a good enough shape to share, since it’ll help with a good bit of discussion when it comes to further discussions regarding Hermeticism.

When it comes to reading the Hermetic texts…well, it’s easy for people to get stuck on quite a bit.  Not everyone is used to reading old texts, philosophical texts, religious texts, or old philosophical and/or religious texts; there’s a different kind of mindset you have to adopt, different methodologies of interpreting the texts you have to take on, and the like in order to make good sense of the texts beyond a naïve surface-level reading.  To me, it’s important to not just read the texts, but to contextualize them—to get into the author’s head, as it were, understanding the impetus of why they wrote in the setting and time period they wrote—so we can actually understand the message of these texts in addition to their mere content.  Even at the best of times, this is a tall order to make of anyone, no matter how experienced they might be with old philosophical and/or religious texts.  For the Hermetic texts especially, which straddle the border between the religiously didactic and the mystically persuasive, there necessarily has to be a period of chewing-on to break the skin of the presentation, and an even longer period of digestion to get to the real meat of their meaning.  (This is, coincidentally, one of the reasons why we’re continuing to engage in our weekly discussions on different Hermetic texts in the Discord server I mentioned earlier.  We just got to SH 11 this week!)

Of all the questions people tend to have when it comes to the classical Hermetic texts, there are definitely a few trends and commonalities between many of them.  One repeated topic that comes up is how these texts discuss good and evil, and why they say that things like the cosmos or humanity is evil, what the nature of evil is, what that means for us as humans in our day-to-day lives or in our spiritual progression, and the like.  It’s a fascinating topic, albeit a challenging one at times, and it’s something I’ve clarified repeatedly for a number of people at that point.  Because it’s a topic that does come up repeatedly, I think having my own thoughts fleshed out in a post would be helpful, not just for me but for others to reference as well.

Turning to the Corpus Hermeticum, we get our first substantial mention of good and evil right in CH I.22—23, when Poimandrēs tells Hermēs about the role of Nous in how it affects different kinds of people:

I myself, the mind, am present to the blessed and good and pure and merciful—to the reverent—and my presence becomes a help; they quickly recognize everything, and they propitiate the father lovingly and give thanks, praising and singing hymns affectionately and in the order appropriate to him. Before giving up the body to its proper death, they loathe the senses for they see their effects. Or rather I, the mind, will not permit the effects of the body to strike and work their results on them. As gatekeeper, I will refuse entry to the evil and shameful effects, cutting off the anxieties that come from them. But from these I remain distant—the thoughtless and evil and wicked and envious and greedy and violent and irreverent—giving way to the avenging demon who wounds the evil person, assailing him sensibly with the piercing fire and thus arming him the better for lawless deeds so that greater vengeance may befall him. Such a person does not cease longing after insatiable appetites, struggling in the darkness without satisfaction. This tortures him and makes the fire grow upon him all the more.

Okay, so good people are those who are reverent (and also pure and merciful), and evil people are those who are thoughtless, wicked, envious, greedy, violent, and irreverent—pretty straightforward moralizing stuff, especially from a revelatory text from the Hellenistic/Roman Empire period.  People being people, some people are going to be good, and others evil, and we should strive to be good and to not be evil; after all, one of my favorite lines from the entire Corpus Hermeticum is the last line of CH XII.23: “There is but one religion of God, and that is not to be evil.”

But then we get texts like the following which throw a wrench into the works:

  • CH II.14: “Except god alone, none of the other beings called gods nor any human nor any demon can be good, in any degree.”
  • CH VI.3: “Therefore, Asklēpios, only the name of the good exists among mankind—never the fact.”
  • CH VI.4: “As for me, I give thanks to god for what he has put in my mind, even to know of the good that it is impossible for it to exist in the cosmos. For the cosmos is a plenitude of vice…”
  • SH 11.2.18: “There is no good upon earth, there is no evil in heaven.”
  • SH 11.2.19: “God is good and humanity evil.”
  • SH 11.2.48: “What is God? Unchanging good. What is humanity? Changing evil.”

This sort of stark pessimism when it comes to how the cosmos is evil (or full of evil), or how humanity is evil, etc. is what can trip up a lot of people, and make them wonder whether they’re really reading a Hermetic text or some sort of patristic or gnostic Christian one that emphasizes original sin or how we’re all horrible entities that need to be punished before we can approach divinity.  That’s not the case in Hermeticism, not by a long shot, but one could certainly be forgiven for thinking that.

Alternatively, there are statements like from CH VI.2, where it says this:

…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…

If all things come from God, then we can assume for the moment that God is good, but if all things come from God and are evil, how can they have come from the good, or at least “participate in the good”, while still being evil?

First, let’s clarify what we mean by “the good”.  This notion of something being “the good” as a singular noun can be traced back to Platonism, where in texts like the Republic, the Good (or, perhaps more properly, the form/idea of the Good) is “what gives truth to the things known and the power to know to the knower”, the “cause of knowledge and truth”.  It is the Good that provides for things to be just and true, to be useful and valuable, and the goal of aspiration for all things that exist; in some accounts (or critiques), the Good is equivalent to the One.  Of course, Platonism is not synonymous with Hermeticism, no matter how big the influence of the former was on the latter, though we can certainly take a similar understanding of the Platonic Good as a starting point to illustrate our Hermetic understanding of what goodness (or the good) is.  In Hermeticism’s own terms and texts, CH VI opens up with an excellent definition of what goodness is from a Hermetic standpoint.  According to CH VI.1, the Good is what has these qualities:

  • is in God alone
  • is God
  • is the substance of all motion and generation (for nothing is abandoned by it)
  • has an energy about it that stays at rest
  • has no lack and no excess
  • is perfectly complete
  • is a source of supply
  • is present in the beginning of all things
  • is wholly and always good
  • longs for nothing, since it lacks for nothing
  • grieves for nothing, since nothing can be lost to it
  • antagonizes nothing, since nothing is stronger than it and nothing can injure it
  • desires nothing, since nothing is more beautiful than it to cause desire
  • is angered by nothing, since nothing is unheeding of it
  • is jealous of nothing, since nothing is wiser than it

In a similar vein, we can also turn to the Stobaean Fragments.  In SH 2A.8—15, Hermēs answers Tat’s question regarding what is true, or what is truth, where it is literally equated to “the undiluted Good itself”, to the point where we can swap out “truth” and “good” interchangeably.  Using SH 2A, then, we can also add the following attributes to the Good:

  • is the most perfect excellence
  • is truth
  • is what is not muddied by matter
  • is what is not shrouded by body
  • is naked, manifest, unshifting, sacred, unchangeable
  • is not corruptible, vulnerable, dissolvable, shifting, or ever-changing from one thing to another
  • is what remains in its own nature
  • is what maintains its consistency from itself alone
  • is what remains in itself
  • is what is not able to be born or to change
  • is singular and unique
  • is not made from matter, not embodied, not qualified by color or shape
  • it is unshifting, unchanging, and ever-existing

In short, what we arrive at is the following definition of the Good: the Good is literally God, the most perfect reality which is complete unto itself, which remains as it is eternally without changing, which is immaterial and unborn, which is not affected by anything, which lacks nothing, which has an excess of nothing, and which is the source of all things without it being anything itself just as it is the source of all motion without itself moving or being moved.

A note about motion here: it might be weird to talk philosophically about motion, but this was a big deal back in Hellenic and Hellenistic philosophy, especially to the Platonists and the Stoics, where motion itself was equated with life and also with passion (literally “that which undergoes or suffers something”).  A thing, being able to be moved, can therefore undergo particular influences that cause it to move in a particular direction in a particular manner, which then causes it to undergo passions like distress, fear, lust, or delight.  This is why CH II opens up with this seemingly out-of-place discussion about place and motion, because these had fundamental implications in the philosophical milieux of the day regarding the nature of God and creation as a whole.  Thus, when it comes to the Good, because it does not experience passion, it therefore experiences no motion, because there is nothing to move it, since (as CH II.1 states) everything moved is moved by something and in something.  Thus, (from CH II.8) all motion is moved by immobility and in immobility.  CH II later goes on to say, in sections 12 through 16:

“Your reasoning is irrefutable, Trismegistos. So what have we said of the place in which the universe is moved?”

“That it is incorporeal, Asklēpios.”

“What is the incorporeal, then?”

“Mind as a whole wholly enclosing itself, free of all body, unerring, unaffected, untouched, at rest in itself, capable of containing all things
and preserving all that exists, and its rays (as it were) are the good, the truth, the archetype of spirit, the archetype of soul.”

“What, then, is god?”

“God is what does not subsist as any of these since he is the cause of their being, for all of them and for each and every one of them that exists. And he has left nothing else remaining that is not-being, for all things are those that come to be from things that are, not from those that are not. Things that are not do not have a nature that enables them to come to be; their nature is such that they cannot come to be anything. Things that are, on the other hand, do not have a nature that prevents them from ever existing.

“God is not mind, but he is the cause of mind’s being; he is not spirit, but the cause of spirit’s being; and he is not light, but the cause of light’s being. Hence, one must show god reverence with those two names assigned to him alone and to no other. Except god alone, none of the other beings called gods nor any human nor any demon can be good, in any degree. That good is he alone, and none other. All others are incapable of containing the nature of the good because they are body and soul and have no place that can contain the good. For the magnitude of the good is as great as the substance of all beings, corporeal and incorporeal, sensible and intelligible. This is the good; this is god.

“You should not say that anything else is good or you will speak profanely, nor should you ever call god anything but ‘the good’ since this too would be profane. All use the word ‘good’ in speaking, of course, but not all understand what it can mean. For this reason, god is not understood by all. In their ignorance, they apply the name ‘good’ to the gods and to certain humans even though these beings are never able to be good or to become so. The good is what is inalienable and inseparable from god, since it is god himself. All other immortal gods are given the name ‘good’ as an honor, but god is the good by nature, not because of honor. God has one nature—the good. In god and the good together there is but one kind, from which come all other kinds. The good is what gives everything and receives nothing; god gives everything and receives nothing; therefore, god is (the) good, and the good is god.”

From this latter bit, we can also extract the following qualities of the Good, which certainly has some overlaps with CH VI and SH 2A:

  • is inalienable and inseparable from God
  • is by nature itself God
  • is the only nature of God
  • is the source of all other “kinds” (γένος in Greek)
  • is what gives everything
  • is what receives nothing

Now, admittedly, CH II does depart from some of the other Hermetic texts in a few details here and there (namely on the division between Nous itself and God, since many of the attributes given to Nous in CH II.12 are given elsewhere to God), but this discussion further elaborates on the nature of the Good, with the important bit that the Good is God and God is the Good.  But we also get a very strongly-stated corollary of this statement: that only God is the Good and is thus the only thing that is Good, and nothing else is Good (or the Good) because nothing else is God.  We might call other things “good”, but it is either done as an honorary thing for other gods that are not God, or it is done in ignorance of things in general.

It is this notion—that only God is Good and the Good, and nothing else is Good or the Good since nothing else is God—which takes us back to CH VI.2.  After Hermēs describes to Asklēpios what the Good is, he raises the question: “since none of these qualities [like longing or lacking, grief or losing, anger or weakness, ugliness or desire, etc.] belongs to the substance [of God], what remains but the Good alone?”  He then proceeds to give this answer:

Just as none of these other qualities exists in such a substance, by the same token the good will be found in none of the other substances. All the other qualities exist in all things, in the small, in the large, in things taken one by one and in the living thing itself that is larger than all of them and the most powerful. 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.

Because the Good is only Good, it has nothing else that would make it not-Good.  Everything else we might consider that is not-Good, then, cannot be part of the Good.  Likewise, due to the nature of the Good, it cannot be found in anything else (“there is no night where it is day and no day where it is night”); after all, consider that the Good always remains Good and has neither anything too little nor too much, but all other things that exist do to one extent or another.  Consider yourself: at times you are hungry, meaning you have eaten too little food which causes you pain, but at other times you overindulge, meaning you have eaten too much food which also causes you pain, and you are in a constant state of flux between overindulging—satiation—hunger, never remaining in any one state for long.  Everything that is generated (i.e. born or begotten) suffers from this in similar ways (remember what we said about motion and passion), and so everything that is generated/born/begotten cannot be Good, which means the Good is and can only be unbegotten, and the only thing unbegotten is God.

You can expand this sort of logic with almost any quality to pretty much everything that exists, right up to the very cosmos itself…sorta.  The cosmos is in a sort of halfway point, because the cosmos is described as Good in one way, namely that it “makes all things”, and thus “it is good with respect to the making that it does”.  This is because God is also the maker of all things, including the cosmos, while the cosmos is the maker of all things within itself; nothing else within the cosmos is like the cosmos itself, since everything within the cosmos that makes something can only make certain things, and all of such limited making requires sources from outside that limited maker, while the cosmos constantly generates from itself.  This is much like the Good in how it is a source of supply, gives everything, and takes nothing; however, we must not forget that the cosmos itself is subject to motion (things within the cosmos move, and the cosmos itself can be debated that it moves, even if it is motion in place like rotation around an axis), and thus also subject to passion.  In this regard, the cosmos is fundamentally not Good, just like everything else within the cosmos.  The cosmos is, after all, in a constant state of flux, and it changes from moment to moment, so while it still remains the cosmos, it never maintains a constant state, which rules out it being Good.  In this case, while CH VI.2 describes the cosmos as Good in one regard, it is perhaps more of a metaphor in that it is the closest thing that comes to being Good.  We see a similar thing happen in SH 2A.14, when Tat asks Hermēs what in the cosmos one might call true (noting that there is nothing truly true in the cosmos), and Hermēs replies:

Only the sun, which is beyond all other things unchanging, remaining in itself, we would call truth. Accordingly, he alone is entrusted with crafting everything in the world, with ruling and making everything. I indeed venerate him and worship his truth. I recognize him as Craftsman subordinate to the One and Primal.

Note how similar this description is of the Sun being true and the cosmos being Good, right down to the aspect of creation, but we should note that the Sun is “beyond all other things unchanging, remaining in itself” and so on—not to necessarily say that the Sun is unchanging, etc.  After all, immediately preceding this, Hermēs clarifies to Tat that even “eternal bodies” (like planets and stars) aren’t true, and while they can possess “true matter”, they are still false because they change over time.

What this gives us is a notion that everything that is not God is in a constant state of flux: they grow, they starve, they are healthy, they grow sick, they are born, they die.  Everything that exists is constantly waxes and wanes, and everything that exists can be added to or taken away from.  Even the cosmos itself and the most perfect body within the cosmos changes from moment to moment due, if nothing else, to the movement they experience, which causes change upon and within them.  The Good, however, does none of these things: the Good is static, and thus does not change, does not increase, does not decrease, cannot be added to, cannot be taken away from.  The only thing that satisfies these qualities of the Good is God, which means only God is the Good, and thus only God is Good (as a nature or quality).

So what does that leave us when it comes to “evil”?  CH VI.3 continues its discussion of the Good (ἀγαθὸν) now by comparing it against evil (κακόν):

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, Asklēpios, 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. And this is the worst of all, Asclepius: here below, they believe in each of the things I have just mentioned as the greatest good when actually it is insuperable evil. Gluttony is the supplier of all evils…Error is the absence of the good here below.

For us down here, we often bandy about the terms “good” and “evil”, but speaking from a Hermetic and philosophical standpoint, to do so is kind of an error.  After all, things that are truly good (i.e. “Good”) cannot really exist in creation, yet we call things good all the same, so what do we mean by that? Hermēs points out that, for many people down here, “good” is just a state of being the least possible evil, and “evil” is a state of things being more good than not-good.  But as we noted, there is nothing that is truly Good down here, so anything that we might perceive or judge as “good” isn’t really so.  Rather, “evil” seems to be this contagious thing:

…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.

We arrive at this notion that “evil”, when contrasted with the Good, is a state of not being Good.  That’s basically all there is to it: evil is just not Good.  Unlike the Good which we can consider as a “thing” or a concept-unto-itself, evil isn’t really described as such in the Hermetic texts, but is more just an absence of the qualities of the Good.  But this gets really tricky when we run into texts like CH I.22—23 (“I will refuse entry to the evil and shameful effects…giving way to the avenging demon who wounds the evil person”), CH IV.8 (“the evils for which we are responsible”), CH IX.4 “[the godfearing person] refers [all plots laid against him] to knowledge, and he alone makes evil into good”), and especially texts like CH X.12 (“the human is not only not good, but because he is mortal he is evil as well”) and SH 11.5 (“these teachings…incite evil people towards evil…the human animal is starkly inclined towards evil”).  These statements are further complicated by other texts like CH XIV.7 (“there is nothing evil or shameful about the maker himself…nor did god make evil”).

It should be noted that the same words are basically used here throughout the Hermetic texts for “good” and “evil”, which can then lead one into some weird readings of these texts that might at once be contradictory as well as concerning for those who would rather stay away from a gnostic, pessimistic approach of understanding the cosmos and humanity.  It is at this point that I’ve developed a sort of model for interpreting the various ways Hermetic texts use the terms “good” and “evil” in different contexts: a philosophical way and a moral way.  To summarize this approach:

  • Philosophical goodness and evil pertain to matters strictly involving the nature of God or of not-God.
    • Philosophical goodness is God.
    • Philosophical evil is that which is not God.
  • Moral goodness and evil pertain to behaviors, actions, and other things that we engage in as humans
    • Moral goodness is that which leads to philosophical goodness, i.e. towards God.
    • Moral evil is that which leads away from philosophical goodness, i.e. away from God.

It’s never stated explicitly in the Hermetic texts that the words “good” and “evil” are used in different ways, although it seems abundantly clear to me that “goodness” in one paragraph of one text isn’t always used in the same sense as the same word used in another text, or even in another paragraph of the same text.  To be sure, the semantic field of “goodness” is huge, so it’s still totally fair to use the same word for different things that still fall within that semantic field, although it comes with a cost to intelligibility.  To that end, I’ve been classifying certain uses of “good” and “evil” as either being used in a philosophical sense (e.g. “God is the Good and the Good is God”) or in a moral sense (e.g. “it is good to pray to God”), and I don’t think the two should be confused with each other (even if they are related).  I find that taking on this approach of classifying certain uses of “good” and “evil” as either philosophical or moral greatly helps with reading and interpreting the Hermetic texts, personally, and it’s what I use when people ask about the role or nature of evil in the discussion of Hermetic texts.  (It also helps reduce the weird capitalization I’ve been using, since I can just restate “the Good” with a capitalized ‘G’ as simply “philosophical good”.)

So, consider how things change or are in a constant state of flux, deprivation, excess, etc.; this is a philosophical evil.  It’s not that we should consider such things inherently wicked or sinful, far from it; I mean, consider that the Greek word for “change” is μεταβολή, from which we get the modern word “metabolism”.  As a biological function, metabolism is the set of life-sustaining chemical processes and reactions in living organisms that proceeds from eating, digestion, and waste expulsion that convert food to energy.  In a sense, the central mechanism that allows life as we know it to exist is etymologically bound up with this thing Hermēs calls “evil”—but this is only in a philosophical sense, as I see it, because change precludes stasis, and only stasis is (philosophically) good, but living things cannot be in a state of perfect stasis, so they cannot be (philosophically) good.  On the other hand, as Hermēs states at the end of CH VI.3, “gluttony is the supplier of all evils”; this is a moral discussion, now, since even if we have to eat in order to sustain our metabolism, greed in wanting to eat more than what is proper, the distractions we cultivate by striving after things that taste good as a pleasurable experience, the lethargy we experience after eating too much—these are all moral things that can happen but which are not necessarily bound to happen in the cosmos.  But, because these things distract us and lead us away from living a life oriented towards divinity and philosophy—away from the philosophical good—we can call this, specifically, a moral evil.

In a sense, moral goodness and evil proceed from philosophical goodness and evil.  Consider this statement from AH 27:

For just as god dispenses and distributes his bounty—consciousness, soul and life—to all forms and kinds in the world, so the world grants and supplies all that mortals deem good, the succession of seasons, fruits emerging, growing and ripening, and other such things.

We must remember that all things come from God, who is the Good, and so all things that exist and come from God can be said to “participate” in the philosophical good (the Greek word here used is μετουσία “participation, partnership, communion”, as in something universal by a particular), so even if all things are not philosophically good, they still share in the philosophical good inasmuch as they share in the same creation by God.  Because God distributes all things, so too do all things that we consider morally good also come from God, and thus moral good comes from philosophical good.

But can we say the same thing of moral evil, then?  After all, if all things come from God, then things that are evil must also come from God, too, right?  In a trivial sense, sure, but I would argue that it’s not in the same overall sense here.  Consider now CH XIV.7:

You need not be on guard against the diversity of things that come to be, fearing to attach something low and inglorious to god. God’s glory is one, that he makes all things, and this making is like the body of god. There is nothing evil or shameful about the maker himself; such conditions are immediate consequences of generation, like corrosion on bronze or dirt on the body. The bronzesmith did not make the corrosion; the parents did not make the dirt; nor did god make evil. But the persistence of generation makes evil bloom like a sore, which is why god has made change, to repurify generation.

In addition to this section being a great statement about how we should carefully consider our judgments of things in a Stoic sense (a la Shakespeare’s “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”), I also consider this an explanation of things we deem to be moral evil proceeding from philosophical evil.  Remember that philosophical evil is simply not-being-God, and thus being susceptible to motion, to passion, and the like; all of this is essentially the continuous, ever-present process of change in all things that exist.  Change is the direct result of generation, and which causes both corruption as well as the fix for corruption.  Philosophical evil is, in a way, both poison as well as remedy, depending on how it arises and how it takes effect.  Moral evil, on the other hand, is what arises from philosophical evil and what can be seen to continue philosophical evil: because we get hungry, we are susceptible to gluttony, to avarice, to envy, and to all other sorts of vices that we might otherwise simply call “evil”.  But do these things then not proceed from God?  Yes, they do, in the same way that all other things proceed ultimately from God, but I’d argue that these things proceed from God in a more indirect way than things that are morally good.  After all, things that are morally good proceed from that which is philosophically good, and thus from God directly, but things that are morally evil proceed from that which is philosophically evil, which is generation, which itself comes from God.  There’s an extra step thrown in there that keeps things from being completely parallel between the moral things we’ve been talking about and God.

Consider the implications of that lack of parallelism, and how it introduces a different one: the moral things we get into, good or bad, lead us to their philosophical origin, and so things that are morally good lead us to God while things that are morally evil lead us to not-God.  What does “not-God” mean in this context?  If we bear in mind CH VI.3’s definition that “error is the absence of the [philosophical] good”, then consider the first instance of “error” we find all the way back in CH I.18—19, when Poimandrēs talks about the initial creation of humanity (emphasis in bold mine):

“When the cycle was completed, the bond among all things was sundered by the counsel of god. All living things, which had been androgyne, were sundered into two parts—humans along with them—and part of them became male, part likewise female. But god immediately spoke a holy speech: ‘Increase in increasing and multiply in multitude, all you creatures and craftworks, and let him (who) is mindful recognize that he is immortal, that desire is the cause of death, and let him recognize all that exists.’

“After god said this, providence, through fate and through the cosmic framework, caused acts of intercourse and set in train acts of birth; and all things were multiplied according to kind. The one who recognized himself attained the chosen good, but the one who loved the body that came from the error of desire goes on in darkness, errant, suffering sensibly the effects of death.

Things that are morally good lead us to the philosophical good, which is to say that things that are morally good (like the attainment of knowledge through mindfulness, etc.) lead us to God and immortality, while things that are morally evil lead us to philosophical evil, like ignorant love of the body and lack of recognition leads us to death.  In a sense, this describes a sort of “Hermetic saṃsāra”, where those who are suffering in ignorance (and any other number of moral evils) do so through repeated reincarnation in the cosmos and, thus, continued separation from God.  It’s not just that it’s ignorance of God, but it’s also ignorance of the true relationship between the cosmos and God.  The main ethical and moral gist of CH I is to remind us that we humans have an immaterial, immortal soul which is who and what we truly are, and since those come from God, we should strive to return to God, while the bodies our souls inhabit are not who we truly are, since they are creations of the cosmos.  We end up heading towards the source of what we focus on: if we focus on the health and well-being of the soul, we go to the origin of the soul, which is God, but if we focus on the health and well-being of the body (notably to the exclusion of the soul), then we go to the origin of the body, which is the cosmos—not God.

This explains why Poimandrēs talks about the various planetary energies the soul gives up as it rises through the spheres after death on its way to rejoin God in CH I.24—25, and why Hermēs discusses the various torments of matter that must be cleansed in order for one to be spiritually reborn in CH XIII.7—8 (about which I’ve already said plenty here and here, and how that might play out in terms of ethics and behavior here regarding specific moral evils to avoid).  These planetary energies and material torments—these are the things that keep creation going.  They are philosophical evils, but not necessarily moral evils per se; they are merely the energies that keep generated things generating other things.  After all, consider sexual procreation: it’s necessary for animals to produce other animals, and for the most part, this takes place through sex.  But animals don’t have sex for the intent of procreation, going into mating with the notion that they’re doing this to further the species; no, they have sex because it feels good, and evolution has set up the system so that these animals will find attraction and arousal in things that will get them to fuck and make babies.  The same goes for us, too, in much the same way: after all, we experience hunger because we’re running low on our caloric reserves, which then drives us towards finding food at any cost necessary (without heavy mental gymnastics and training to control those impulses and drives, much as it is with us and sex).

To me, all these things that are morally evil are things that keep us in the cosmos.  Sex, hunger, and the like are not moral evils in and of themselves, although they may well be called philosophical evils, because these are functions of the cosmos itself; however, that which is morally evil is that which gets us to engage in these things beyond what is right and proper for us, which entices us to remain in the cosmos and away from God longer and longer.  Engaging in things that are morally good helps us to reach the philosophical good, which entails escaping the cycle of rebirth and torment we under in this material world—this “going on in darkness, errant, suffering sensibly the effects of death”.  When Poimandrēs tested Hermēs in CH I.20, quizzing Hermēs as to why “they deserve death who are in death”, Hermēs replies “because what first gives rise to each person’s body is the hateful darkness, from which comes the watery nature, from which the body was constituted in the sensible cosmos, from which death drinks”.  Moral evils are that which keeps that font of darkness flowing, keeping us borne aloft in a torrential river of generation and repeated death; moral goods are those which stop up that font and help us out of the river into immortality and peace.

At this point, I think I’ve waxed on long enough about playing out the distinction between good and evil, both in a philosophical sense and a moral sense, but I hope that others can make good use of this model of interpretation.  To be sure, this is a model I’ve come up with that can help explain away the different contexts in which “good” and “evil” appear in the Hermetic texts; this is something I’m saying, not something that Hermēs is saying, and it helps in the effort of synthesizing various teachings from different Hermetic texts in all their differences and contradictions.  As a hermeneutic, this distinction that we can draw between philosophical and moral uses of good and evil can help us better understand, beyond a naïve surface level, the different ways that Hermēs and his students use them, and flesh out particular ideas better.

Personal Piety

What is piety?

  • According to etymology, piety comes from Latin pietas, the noun from of pius, meaning “good” or “devout”.
  • According to the dictionary, piety means “reverence for God or devout fulfillment of religious obligations”.

Simple enough.  Time to end this post, let’s all get drunk.  Not.

Back in ancient Greece, Plato once wrote a dialogue wherein his then-dead teacher, Socrates, was talking to someone outside the courts.  Socrates was on his fated and fatal trial charging him with impiety and the introduction of new gods to Athens, and he encounters Euthyphro, a prosecutor for another case (against his father for murder) which also involves piety and doing what is just in the eyes of the gods.  Chatting idly before the courts, they engage in a bit of discussion about their upcoming trials, which eventually settles on the nature of piety.  After all, if piety weren’t an issue, Socrates couldn’t be charged with corrupting the youth of Athens because of his impiety, and if piety weren’t demanded of Euthyphro, he wouldn’t be testifying and placing a charge against his own father.

The problem is that neither of them can give an explanation for what piety actually is.  Through their dialogue, Socrates gets the following answers out of Euthyrphro for what piety is, but notices a problem with each of them.

  1. Piety is what Euthyphro is doing right then, viz. prosecuting someone of a crime, just as Zeus restrained and punished his father, who restrained and punished his father before him, which were acts of justice.  Socrates points out that, while this act may be pious indeed, there are other acts which are considered pious; this is an example of piety, not an explanation or definition of it.  Rejected.
  2. Piety is what is dear to the gods, and impiety is what is not dear to the gods.  Socrates points out that the gods disgree amongst themselves, and that some disagreements may be on points where there is no factual or objective measure to agree by, such as what is just and what is unjust.  So, though the gods may hold what is dear to them to be what is pious, what is dear to one god may be repulsive to another, so the same action may be both pious and impious at once, which is a contradiction.  Rejected.
  3. Piety is what is dear to all the gods, and impiety is what is all the gods hold not dear.  This is something they both agree on, but then Socrates asks a crucial question: is what is pious pious because the gods love it, or do the gods love it because it’s pious?  In other words, is it pious because the gods say so, or is it pious because of something intrinsic to itself?  It can’t be both, because then that would lead to a vicious circle, and further, just the fact that the gods love something doesn’t mean that it is intrinsically pious because of that fact.  Their loving it is a recognition of it being pious is thus an attribute of piety, but is not a definition for piety.  Rejected.
  4. Piety is a type of justice.  In other words, Socrates supposes that, since all things that are pious are just, piety is based on what is just.  However, because there are things that are just that are not necessarily pious, we can’t just assign the qualities of justice to piety and be finished there.  It’s a superclass/subclass or genus/species issue of definition; we may have some qualities of piety, but not all of them, without which we can’t yet have a definition of piety.  If piety is only a part of justice, which part is it?  Neither Socrates nor Euthyphro can answer.  Rejected.
  5. Piety is an action that is just that attends to the gods.  In this instance, attendance to something is done to improve, benefit, and guide them.  However, Socrates then states that pious acts are done to improve the gods, which they both quickly agree is a dangerous statement of hubris.  Instead, Euthyphro restates the definition of attendance to be something more like ministration or service to a god to deliver things that please them.  This then defines piety as giving the gods what pleases them, which then devolves into the definition of what is dear to the gods.  Rejected.
  6. Piety is the art of sacrifice and prayerto the gods, learning how to please the gods in word and deed.  Sacrifice is defined as the act of giving to the gods, and prayer as asking or receiving from the gods; piety, then, is an art and science of giving and asking, which is a kind of business or transaction.  However, the gods want from us things that please them, which is essentially gives piety the same definition as above.  Rejected.

After this point, Euthyphro has to leave to get to his trial on time, leaving Socrates just as confused as ever as he prepares to combat a charge about a quality he hasn’t found any explanation or definition for.  Kinda sucks, really, but we end up with the notion that piety is intricately bound up with what divinity approves of.  So we have a bit of a dilemma on our hands: is something pious because it has an innate nature called “piety” that is only recognized and approved of by an outside source, or is it pious because it is explicitly liked by divinity for no other reason than it pleases them?

  • If what is pious is instrinsically pious, then that implies that there is a rule or order of things outside of divine order.  If so, then divinity has no power over it to change it, divinity is itself holy based on things that are pious and so aren’t worthy of worship in and of themselves but only to the degree that they support piety, and piety would still exist even if there were no gods to approve of them.
  • If what is pious is just what is pious to the gods because they like it, then that implies that pious things amount to no more than “because I said so”.  If so, then anything could be possible, allowed, legal, or demanded just because divinity wants it: if he said it pleased him to kill unborn babies, or for triangles to have more than three angles.  Morality could not exist without divinity already existing, morality could not be eternal laws due to the potential for divinity to change its mind about a command, and removes any reason to praise God.

In Hebrew thought, the similar quality of tzedeq (same triliteral root that gives Jupiter and its angel their names) doesn’t have the same dilemma, since it’s considered an action or event that can be seen and recognized.  The only way to describe the totality of things that are tzedeq is a list of all things that fall under that category.  In other words, it can only be enumerated specifically, not formulated generally.

From the point of view of a Hermetic philosopher, this is where a slightly different notion of divinity come into play.  In my case, good is not separate from divinity; divinity is not separate from what is good, or anything else for that matter.  Being good is being godly, and the only thing that is purely and only good is God (or, rather, the Divine Source).  Being good in a godly way (not in the common, mundane, or humane way) is, then, what piety could very well be.  This permits bad things to happen, in the sense that bad is what is not good, but only from a humane or mundane perspective.  This agrees with the earlier definition Euthyphro kept getting stuck on, because God likes and constantly contemplates Itself Mindfully, at one point speaking the Word to act and interact with itself; thus, being Good (capital-g “good in a godly way”) is being what God likes, i.e. pious and piety.

How do we know what being Good is?  By being Godly.  In being Godly, we learn the mind of the Nous, the word of the Logos, and the wisdom of Sophia, which help us collectively in knowing ourselves.  By knowing ourselves, we learn what we really want to do and what we really need to do; from a teleological or Godly point of view, the two are ultimately the same.  This is knowing our True Will, knowing the true course of our lives and how to act in accordance with our nature and Nature/God itself.  “Do what thou wilt” isn’t just a license to fuck around and fuck up as fancy would drive one to do, but is really an injunction to do what you need, are suited, and are destined to do.  In doing this, we do what is Good, and in doing what is Good we become pious.

However, this type of Good defies definition beyond “what is Godly”.  It’s entirely above and beyond mechanical, natural, logical, or spiritual revelation, coming from the superclass and source of all these things.  The only way to learn what one should do is to…well, you tell me.