This post is part of a series, “49 Days of Definitions”, discussing and explaining my thoughts and meditations on a set of aphorisms explaining crucial parts of Hermetic philosophy. These aphorisms, collectively titled the “Definitions from Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius”, lay out the basics of Hermetic philosophy, the place of Man in the Cosmos, and all that stuff. It’s one of the first texts I studied as a Hermetic magician, and definitely what I would consider to be a foundational text. The Definitions consist of 49 short aphorisms broken down into ten sets, each of which is packed with knowledge both subtle and obvious, and each of which can be explained or expounded upon. While I don’t propose to offer the be-all end-all word on these Words, these might afford some people interested in the Definitions some food for thought, one aphorism per day.
Today, let’s discuss the forty-eighth definition, part X, number 6 of 7:
Providence and Necessity (are), in the mortal, birth and death, and in God, unbegotten (essence). The immortal (beings) agree with one another and the mortal envy one another with jealousy, because evil envy arises due to knowing death in advance. The immortal does what he always does, but the mortal does what he has never done. Death, if understood, is immortality; if not understood (it is) death. They assume that the mortal (beings) of this (world) have fallen under (the dominion) of the immortal, but (in reality) the immortal are servants of the mortal of this (world).
The relationships between different material bodies in the world is complicated, ranging from different types of living beings, some immortal and some not, some with Nous and some not, to the motions provided by the immortal heavenly beings that influence the lower mortal ones, and so forth. Between figuring out what’s really us when we move and what’s an influence we’re being moved by can be difficult, and this is starting to raise some cosmological questions that this text is probably unsuited to answer adequately. This definition, however, affords some more reason and rules to how everything down here works.
First, we’re introduced to Providence and Necessity. We’ve already met necessity once before, in VIII.1: “there is a destiny which has come into being according to a just necessity; there is a law which has come into being according to the necessity of humans”. Necessity is, then, an ordering principle of the cosmos, which structures things just so according to what we need so that everything can work together. No matter what else happens in the world, it must fulfill necessity, else it cannot happen at all. For all intents and purposes, we can consider necessity, providence, fate, and destiny to all be the same thing here; the two terms are not seen apart from each other, even in a similar passage in the Corpus Hermeticum (chapter XII, part 14):
Necessity and Providence and Nature are instruments of Cosmos and of Matter’s ordering; while of intelligible things each is Essence, and Sameness is their Essence.
In the world, each thing that exists must fulfill a particular fate. For the mortal, these things are “birth and death”; these things are mandated for every mortal being that lives. For every birth, there is a death; for every death, there is a birth. Nothing mortal can live without being born, and all mortal things, by virtue of their being mortal, must die. On the other hand, for Man who is both mortal and immortal in his own godly way, the corresponding fate of God is being “unbegotten”. God is unbegotten, as we’ve mentioned before in the last definition, and God can neither die nor be born, nor can God grow or increase or decrease. Simply put, God is, was, always will be, and can only ever be.
So, mortal beings are born, live for a short while, and die, and immortal beings live forever. Cool. But there’s more to it than that, especially when you put two of the same kind of beings with each other. With immortal beings, they “agree with one another”; they do not fight, they do not bicker, they do not argue, but they agree and exist in more-or-less harmony with each other. They have their roles and their parts to play, they always have, and they always will. Consider the planets of the sky; though they may enter into harmful or violent aspects with each other, they do not fight or try to take from another what they have. Mortal beings, on the other hand, “envy one another with jealousy, because evil envy arises due to knowing death in advance”. So us mortal beings, including animals and plants, fight and bicker and harm each other because we always want things that others have. We envy others for what they have, and we’re jealous over what we already possess. This is because we’re afraid of losing it when we die, so we want to hold onto it as much as we can before our bodies expire.
But this is stupid, isn’t it? I mean, look at the planets: “the immortal does what he has always done”. They don’t care what other things are doing; they’ve got their own job to do, and they’re in no rush nor lax state to get it done. They just keep doing it forever; that’s their job. A mortal being, on the other hand, “does what he has never done”. Although any immortal part within us may have done it at some point before, these bodies are constantly changing (cf. panta rhei), not to mention that every body has not existed forever before. There is always something new that we’re doing that we have not yet done, and may never get the chance to do it again. We are only born once, we only take our first breath once, we only eat a particular plate of food once (different food is on it the next time!), and so forth. Nothing is ever the same for us mortals, and with death approaching as is due for all mortals, we want to try to get everything we can done, and to obtain everything we can. Being material creatures, we often find solace in material ends, which leads us to “envy one another with jealousy”.
Still, it’s stupid. I mean, what is death? It’s just the ending of the body’s use for the soul. Man may have a body, but Man is so much more than that. The essential Man is more than the sum of its parts; the essential Man is immortal and cannot die, no matter what kind of death the body may undergo. The body simply doesn’t affect the soul in that way; while the body’s premature death may leave the soul stunted in development, it doesn’t kill the soul or the essential Man. “Death, if understood, is immortality”, which is obtained through knowledge, and knowledge is perfection of the soul. If we properly understand death, just as we can understand anything else, we will not fear it (IX.3), which then removes death from jealousy and envy and fighting over things. That said, if we do not understand death, “it is death”. By being ignorant of the nature of life and death, mortality and immortality of Man, we who are Man condemn ourselves to death and forsaking our chances at immortality and knowledge.
And, trust me, there are plenty of people who fit that bill. How many people do you know are focused only on the material world? How many who fight over money or possessions or Black Friday deals or what-have-you? How many who conceive of nuclear wars to get rid of some pesky people from the face of the planet so we can get more oil? There’s a lot of these people, and they find death to be fascinating without understanding it. These type of people “assume that the mortal beings of this world have fallen under the dominion of the immortal”. In other words, these people are violent or are ignorant because they think that’s just the way things are. They don’t stop to think how they can change it, they don’t think they’re capable of changing it, and they don’t care about what the world might be if they changed it. They think that the underlying reality of everything that happens is out of their control, so they may as well play along and “do their part” in being ignorant, however wise and reasonable it may seem to them.
But, as you who’re reading these Definitions know, that’s not the case. Those who understand the nature of beings, who know reality and God and truth, understand that Man has as much power as the gods in determining our own actions (VIII.7). We don’t have to be led around by the nose according to the whims and influences and passions of other beings. We have the power to choose good or evil, knowledge or ignorance. Those who realize these things have knowledge, and they understand that “in reality the immortal are the servants of the mortal of this world”. The immortal don’t serve to rule or own the world; that’s for Man. Man rules and owns the world, and we’re to understand and properly live our lives with the immortal beings so as to know them, by which we know ourselves, by which we know God, by which we obtain Nous, by which we perfect the soul, by which we obtain true immortality.
So what do we have to gain from the immortal gods? Let’s restrict ourselves to the topic of the astrological planets and stars, then, when we talk about these heavenly beings. Just as the four elements constitute four essences or qualities of created bodies down here, the stars and planets constitute essences or qualities of motion and action that are performed by bodies down here. Mars, for instance, cuts off and burns up and produces a heat strong enough to lead people to fight. Venus, on the other hand, embraces and nourishes and produces a cold mild enough to nurture and join people together. All the planets, stars, gods, and heavenly beings produce other effects, and they take place down here in the world. If we understand these influences, we understand what we do when we’re exposed to them, how we internalize and realize them, how we effect them, what they make use of in different situations, and how we can make the best use of them. We use the immortal beings as a means to knowledge, which is why they exist in the first place. The immortal beings, just as everything else, are a means by which we can know ourselves.