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-ninth and final definition, part X, number 7 of 7:
Therefore soul is an immortal essence, eternal, intellective, having, as an intellectual (thought), its reason endowed with Nous. By understanding nature, it attracts to itself the intellect of (the planetary) harmony; then, once it is freed from this natural body, it remains alone with itself (and) is grieved, belonging only to itself in the intelligible world. It rules on its reason.
After the last few definitions, which I feel were getting a little dramatic in how they were presenting the interaction between mortals on earth and immortals in heaven and how us who are Man should act, we wrap things up with this definition, which talks about the soul, which really is the centerpiece and focus of the entire Definitions.
First, we start of with a list of attributions of the soul, and here specifically that of Man. It’s an essence, an underlying quality, which helps to define that which we are. It is immortal; it does not die, nor is it born; while it may have been made by Nous (X.3), it was not generated in the same way bodies are (V.5). The soul is eternal, which only confirms that it has always existed outside of time itself and experiences time only as much as God does or allows us to in our bodies; the soul truly is unbegotten, just as matter is (X.5). It is intellective, able to think and reason with Nous, since that is what makes Man distinct from other creatures (IV.1, V.3). Because of this, we can reason and understand the cosmos in a way that only God can, but it takes time, practice, skill, dedication, and perseverance to do so. We can similarly choose to do none of those things and remain as, essentially, animals are; we can let our reason and minds stay catatonic and remain as animals do, or we can use reason just enough to get things done but in nowhere a complete way as we ought.
The way we understand things as we ought to is obtained by acting reasonably with the soul in the body (V.3). This produces knowledge, true honest knowledge, which when obtained enough yields knowledge of everything: ourselves, all other things, and God itself (VII.5). By understanding that which goes on around us, we understand everything as it works together: how bodies increase and decrease, by what means, and why they do this. We understand the intelligible things that cannot be seen but we can still yet know, all the same. However, we must continue to choose to do this, lest influences from the heavenly beings above sway us to do otherwise. But even then, once we understand even a little bit of nature and the natural world, Man “attracts to itself the intellect of the planetary harmony”. We begin to associate ourselves with the planets and other gods, and we begin to raise ourselves up into knowledge of systems far beyond that of the material plane of the earth. As we attract ourselves to “the intellect of the planetary harmony”, we ascend into godhood, coming to know how all things work. This is not the final stage of gnosis or perfection, but it’s certainly getting there.
After all, the soul stays in the body only as long as it needs to; then, once the soul reaches perfection, the soul leaves the body to die (VI.2, VI.3). At this point, the soul is “freed from this natural body”, and, without a body, the soul becomes inert once more as it was beforehand. Thus, it “remains alone with itself”, but it is also “grieved”. After all, it has all the knowledge of the cosmos and of God at this point, yet it sheds its old skin, its old world, everything it had grown up knowing, and “grieves”. This is an interesting point, since why should we grieve? Sadness, after all, is an illness of the soul; without anything to expose itself to, how can the soul obtain anything? After all, it remains “belonging only to itself in the intelligible world”. It is without body, and it is now independent as a truly immortal being, a god, free from the sensible world in the infinity of God. It rules, on its own and by its own, according to “its reason”, it’s Logos.
So why should there be grief? All this work and perfection and godhood for…grief? It doesn’t make much sense, I’ll agree, so there’s something missing, I’d think. Jean-Pierre Mahé notes that the text is not only incomplete at this point, but that the rest of the text in several versions of the Definitions is spurious and an add-in from some other text dealing with astrological influences. It’s kind of a let-down for the final definition, but let’s assume that the text is complete, and that this is the final and definitory definition of them all. What follows is pretty much my interpretation, but this is going to be less logical and less based on the rest of the text than the other definitions.
The perfect soul, freed from the body, rules on its reason in the intelligible world of God. It, already possessing soul-Nous (VIII.4), has now also obtained divine Nous in its entirety, and thus becomes one with the knowledge of God and, thus, God. By knowing all the beings, by knowing the self, by knowing Man, by knowing God, the soul becomes everywhere God is. By ruling on its reason, which is now the Logos of the Nous, the soul acts according to the will of God without any external influence to sway it, and no unreasonable things to change its opinions or desires. It belongs only to itself, but since itself is now effectively God, then it belongs to and exists within God perfectly in harmony.
The grief mentioned in this definition refers to it being separated from the material sensible world, which is odd when you consider the etymological root of “grief” to mean “weighty” in Latin. The process of shedding the body for the soul may not be a very peaceful process, just as the process of birth for a human being is by no means easy or painless. Perhaps, then, the grief of the soul is the final removal of its illnesses of sadness and joy, or the experiences it can no longer experience as a moving soul in a sensing and sensible body. Yet, being joined in the knowledge of God, it already knows these things and experiences them intelligibly. But it also knows that there are others that have not yet experienced this, and that they suffer in envy and jealousy and death when they don’t have to. Why should they suffer? God loves Man, after all, and Man loves God; if you saw a loved one in pain, you might also do what you could to relieve it. As God, since that’s effectively what the soul is now, why wouldn’t you try to help out those who are suffering so that they wouldn’t need to suffer anymore? If that’s what reason dictates, after all, why couldn’t you return to animate a new body, speak reasonably, act reasonably, lead others to act and speak reasonably, lead others to knowledge, and help perfect the souls of others that they too might be free?
Maybe this is an indication that the soul, ruling on its reason, may reason to return to the world; after all, since this soul is now God, we know that “God changes and turns into the form of man” for the sake of Man, so that others may become God as well. In other words, to quote one of my favorite stories, perhaps the ending has not yet been written.