In my downtime between chores, ritual work, office work (done at home as it is), I’ve been mulling over a lot lately and quietly when it comes to talking about the Way of Hermēs, which is my preferred way to call what many are more familiar with as Hermeticism, or Hermetism, to be more exact. And I feel…honestly, I feel pretty daunted about this particular topic, not just because of the extreme breadth and depth of it all, but because of how difficult it can be to correlate everything together in a neat, clean, organized way.
Not too long ago, Nick Farrell made a blog post called The Real Hermetic Principles, which is his attempt to come up with a set of guiding principles or axioms about the cosmos and the spiritual practices that evolve from them to replace what people popularly (and wrongly) consider to be the “Seven Hermetic Principles” as found in the Kybalion (and nowhere else in the Hermetic canon, I might add). I applaud Nick’s effort, though I take issue with a few of these principles of his, especially his principle #5, that “the macrocosm and microcosm influence each other (as above so below); the planetary spheres are a Microcosm of the Divine Sphere and Nature is a microcosm for the planetary macrocosm”. The notion of “as above, so below” comes from the Emerald Tablet, which (most likely) postdates the rest of the classical Hermetic corpus (Corpus Hermeticum, Asclepius, Stobaean Fragments, etc.) by a few centuries, and although the idea seems reasonable, there are plenty of counterpoints made in the Hermetic canon that refute this notion of both influencing the other, where the higher influences the lower but the lower does not influence the higher in the same way. They can resemble each other, sure, but resemblance is not the same thing as influence. I’m not saying that one can’t use the notion of “as above, so below” as a Hermetic concept in some way, but doing so requires care in order to keep continuity and coherence with the rest of actual extant Hermetic belief.
But therein lies a problem: although I treat the “Hermetic canon” as one set of literature equivalent to a Bible of sorts, it’s important to realize what these texts are and are not, what they do and do not do. And one thing the Hermetic canon isn’t is consistent. I mean, consider the opening paragraph of Book XVI of the Corpus Hermeticum (Copenhaver translation), in a letter from Asclepius to Ammon:
I have sent you a long discourse, my king, as a sort of reminder or summary of all the others; it is not meant to agree with vulgar opinion but contains much to refute it. That it contradicts even some of my own discourses will be apparent to you. My teacher, Hermes—often speaking to me in private, sometimes in the presence of Tat—used to say that those reading my books would find their organization very simple and clear when, on the contrary, it is unclear and keeps the meaning of its words concealed…
It’s easy to just read the Corpus Hermeticum, Asclepius, and so forth and so on, but without actual meditation, unpacking, and contemplation of the texts, they’ll simply seem like some sort of classical pop occulture. After all, our notion of “intellectual understanding” is not a classical one; to the ancients, the notion of “intellect” was something much more profound and all-encompassing than a mere surface-level, quasi-Apollonian awareness of something. And when one looks at a single Hermetic text in isolation, like a single book of the Corpus Hermeticum or a single Stobaean Fragment, all is well and good, but when one starts to look at the broader picture, we run into difficulties with inconsistencies, contradictions, and paradoxes that make trying to hold all of the Hermetic canon in our minds at the same time impossible.
There are a few major things to bear in mind when we read the Hermetic texts:
- What we have as our Hermetic canon is only that which survived the cruel knife of history. We know for a fact that there was much more Hermetic literature written and produced in classical times than what we have nowadays, and we know that what we have is only what survives, and even then not always in a complete form. While hopefully further classical Hermetic literature will come to light, either in part or in whole, we have to be aware that we’ll likely never have access to all the texts that we find references to otherwise.
- There wasn’t one single Hermetic school or lineage. Although there’s much in common between all the Hermetic texts, there’s evidence in the very texts themselves of different Hermetic groups that contributed bits and pieces to the Hermetic canon, and evidence as well of polemics and debates and disagreements between those groups. Just as in other things, there was no monolithic, centralized authority on what was or was not Hermetic back in the day.
- Even if we were to take the Hermetic canon as a more-or-less continuous single “thing”, we still run into the fact that we see some major difficulties even on a pretty fundamental level, such as the goodness or badness of the cosmos. Modern scholars of Hermetic works, such as Garth Fowden or Christian Bull, posit that these inconsistencies point to the notion of the Way of Hermēs as a progressive thing, either going from a monist to dualist viewpoint (Fowden’s theory) or a dualist to monist one (Bull’s theory).
What we end up with is a notion that the Hermetic texts are not a single thing, even though there’s plenty in common in underlying thought between these texts, because the whole of the Hermetic tradition (even limiting ourselves to a classical Hermetist stance) isn’t a single, static thing. There’s a reason why I call this the “Way of Hermēs”, because it really is a way, a process towards divinity. This isn’t a single philosophy or a single religion, but something more like a meta-philosophy or meta-religion, something that goes on at a different level either behind the scenes or beyond the outward practice of discourse and cult. What we have as the Hermetic texts, most of which is representative of back-and-forth dialog between master and student, are more indicative of an ongoing upraising (both in the conventional sense as well as the metaphorical sense), and because of that, we have to understand that not everyone is going to be ready for the same notions or ideas at the same time. A single “Hermetic catechism” that lays it all out bare would seem to go against this notion, because not everyone would be able to understand it all, and need to go through a process of expounding and understanding (a very old school form of “solve et coagula”) in order to get there.
For instance, consider Fowden’s and Bull’s theories on dualistic versus monistic Hermetic beliefs. It’s a fact that some of the Hermetic texts seem to be incredibly supportive and encouraging of the world of creation we live in, seeing it as worthy of veneration and adoration, while others consider it in a more gnostic light of it being evil and something to be shunned and departed from. Fowden posits that the Way of Hermēs begins with a monistic stance that proceeds to a dualist one, while Bull has it the other way around. From Christian Bull’s paper Ancient Hermetism and Esotericism (Aries (15), 2015, pp.109—135):
Another central question in the scholarship on Hermetism regards the internal doctrinal consistency between the various treatises ascribed to Hermes and his disciples; to wit, a reader of the Hermetica in toto faces conflicting injunctions as to how one should view the world and one’s place in it. Early scholars such as Thaddeus Zielinski and Wilhelm Bousset maintained that there were two main groups of texts, containing mutually exclusive teachings: the “Gnostic”, dualistic, and pessimistic texts, and, on the other hand, the “philosophical”, monistic, and optimistic texts (while a third set of texts mixed the two tendencies). This distinction was further elaborated by perhaps the twentieth-century’s most influential scholar of Hermetism, André-Jean Festugière. However, the theory has been challenged in the last three decades by Garth Fowden and Jean-Pierre Mahé, who both consider the different texts to belong to various stages on a cohesive “Way of Hermes”, an initiatory way of spiritual formation. In the view of both of these authors, this way would lead the candidate from initially seeing the cosmos as good, an image of god, and then progressively develop a more negative view on matter, the body, and the world, ostensibly no longer important for the upward journey of the soul. This theory of a way of Hermes has so far not been seriously challenged, although Tage Petersen questioned the usability of the term dualism for the texts commonly so-called, and instead postulated an overriding monistic tendency even in these texts. For my own part, I have suggested that the way in fact moves from a pedagogical dualism, in which the disciple is taught to alienate himself from the body and the world, so as to be able to achieve visionary experiences on the higher stages of the way, at which point the value of the body and the world is reaffirmed.
In this way, I think the notion of a progressive Way is useful to understand what Hermet(ic)ism “is”, and not just for this monist/dualist bit, but for much else as well. It’s like the Buddhist parable of the raft from the Alagaddūpama Sutta combined with the parable of the burning house from the Lotus Sutra, in that we need to use and phrase things the right way for the right person for them to develop the right way, but only when it’s right for them; any earlier, and we might not lead them or develop them in the right way (or even do harm), but any later and the value of it will be diminished or pointless having already served its purpose. This is much like what Asclepius tells Ammon in his letter from Book XVI: “earlier I taught this, but what I’m about to tell you now is going to contradict that”, because at this point, Ammon is ready to be revealed a deeper truth that couldn’t be contained in the earlier teachings. In other words, while general truths can be taught in general teachings, more nuanced and subtle truths cannot. It’s like learning physics: introductory physics uses simple models that account for things in an ideal sense, but more advanced and applied physics often require different models that would go against the simpler ones to account for more meaningful or profound contexts.
All this to say that trying to think of Hermet(ic)ism, the Way of Hermēs, in terms of a handful of “principles” is surprisingly really hard to do.
Now, I’m not saying it can’t be done, and there’s already a historical parallel for this, even in the Hermetic texts themselves: that of the κεφαλαία kephalaía, the “chief points” (sometimes translated as “principles”). We see this most clearly in the Definitions of Hermēs Trismegistus to Asclepius (as given in English by J.P. Mahé in Clement Salaman’s Way of Hermēs and which I expounded on on my blog years ago) as well as in the Eleventh Stobaean Fragment, but all of these are rather long lists of gnomic, sometimes paradoxical statements. The purpose of these kephalaía are to act as the “chapter headings”, as it were, of other discourses, the fundamental points that would need to be borne in mind in the context of other talks or topics, and each of which would be expounded in other discourses and lessons. In many cases, many of these kephalaía are found in extant discourses (especially the Definitions), and suggests that they’re of an older date than the later Hermetic texts, with those texts written to expound on (or at least reference) those given kephalaía. So it’s not like it has always been impossible to come up with a set of principles or axioms to bear in mind when it comes to Hermetic studies, but with about 50 such statements made each in the Definitions and in the Eleventh Stobaean Fragment, they’re not going to be as catchy or as memorable necessarily as the Kybalion’s made-up stuff.
Going back to that Christian Bull paper I linked to earlier, Bull brings up another perspective: six “central elements of esotericism” present in the Hermetic canon. These are based on the work of the earlier scholar Antoine Faivre, who studied the various currents of Western esotericism after the 1400s CE to provide a set of themes that various Western esoteric traditions fulfill. In a Hermetic context, only the first four are truly necessary, with the latter two being supplied as additional elements which
- Correspondence: everything is mystically connected, with the divine Above represented through symbols as well as emanations into the worldly Below.
- Living Nature: nature is animated by a central force that can be tapped into through sympathies found in the occult/hidden virtues of things and works in the world.
- Imagination and Mediation: the student imagines with their mind (Nous) the forces that connect the cosmos, and such imagined symbols can be used to mediate between the student, nature, and divinity, and thereby to become divine.
- Transmutation (Rebirth): the inner being of the student is transmuted (reborn) through rites of initiation and/or esoteric knowledge, estranging themselves from the world and the life they have known to be reborn as something new to properly “live in the world without being a part of it”, a sort of “solve et coagula” of the soul and whole of the human being.
- Concordance: there is a common core to all religions derived from the perennial philosophy or prisca theologica, present in all humanity due to their divine element (Logos), but which can only be fully realized through following the Way of Hermēs (by means of the Nous). We see this in the syncretic background blending Greek and Egyptian elements with other input from other traditions, giving Hermet(ic)ism that whole “meta” quality of both religion and philosophy.
- Transmission: esoteric knowledge is transmitted from master to disciple in a chain going back to an authoritative source, providing a sense of continuity that allows for future generations to have the same mysteries as older generations.
There are issues with this use of principalization leading to reification of esotericism, of which Hermet(ic)ism is just one example and emanation, which Bull goes on to discuss at length. Still, using Faivre’s model of esotericism isn’t a bad start to think of the Way of Hermēs so long as one can also understand their proper place and context. Bull is more a fan of Hugh B. Urban’s notion of three principles that can be seen to better understand the phenomena of esotericism, instead:
- The creation of a private social space
- The claim to possess deeper insights into canonical texts than outsiders
- Rites of initiation designed to create a new human being, which is a prerequisite to gain access to the social space and deeper insights
For the sake of understanding what Hermet(ic)ism is, Bull prefers Urban’s model of three principles over Faivre’s model of six principles because of the difference in what they focus on: Faivre focuses on matters of doctrine, while Urban focuses on matters of strategy. And it’s this distinction that makes all the difference between viewing Hermet(ic)ism as a destination versus as a path:
Widely dissimilar doctrines can be used as part of similar social strategies, which therefore have a more universal, cross-culturally comparative potential. By considering esotericism as a strategy for a group and its members to gain social prestige we can come closer to the lived reality of the humans behind the texts, instead of becoming lost in their (often convoluted) metaphysical speculations. This is especially so in the case of the Hermetica, where the actual authors have totally disappeared behind the pseudonym of Hermes Trismegistus and his associates; since we have little external evidence of the lived reality of Hermetism, we must try to deduce it from the social strategies we perceive to be at work in the texts.
The issue with this approach, however, is that unless you’re in an actual lodge or circle or some other thing, that first point is basically moot for us; many of us (especially me) discuss Hermet(ic)ism openly without such a secret, esoteric, restricted group to teach things in, and are largely independent of one another as individuals. To be sure, this is far from being the case across the board, and there are definitely Hermetist/Hermeticist teachers who take people and initiate them and teach them as needed and as appropriate, but perhaps not so widely on the same level as it might have been back in classical times (or even a hundred or so years ago). As a result, matters and rites of initiation, except for the few Golden Dawn and Thelemic lodges that survive, don’t mean much unless you’re just focused on your own personal growth and development, and that doesn’t necessarily come about through a single big ritual (and even then, a Way is still composed not only of opening the door but taking many small steps afterward, as well).
Trying to sift and sort out the issues in doctrine, as Bull pointed out, is a major problem for anyone who wants to try to “principalize” Hermet(ic)ism, because there’s rarely a unity of doctrine that one can neatly summarize without also needing to immediately get into the weeds to clarify when those principles hold and when not. Some super high-level stuff can be said, sure, like Garth Fowden’s summary of the doctrines of the cosmos in The Egyptian Hermes:
God is one, and the creator of all things, which continue to depend on God as elements in a hierarchy of beings. Second in this hierarchy after God himself comes the intelligible world, and then the sensible world. The creative and beneficent powers of God flow through the intelligible and sensible realms to the sun, which is the demiurge around which revolve the eight spheres of the fixed stars, the planets and the earth. From these spheres depend the daemons, and from the daemons Man, who is a microcosm of creation. Thus everything is part of God, and God is in everything, his creative activity continuing unceasingly. All things are one and the pleroma of being is indestructible.
This sounds all extremely reasonable, at least until when you consider some of the Stobaean Fragments which say in no uncertain terms that “once [God] created, ceased creating, and does not create at present” (SH V.1), that there’s the ninth sphere of the decans underneath a tenth (and outermost) sphere of the Primum Mobile which exerts influence and power on all the planets including the Sun (SH VI.3—9), and so forth. Again, we run into issues of doctrine, which could result either from working from the ideas of different Hermetic groups that may not have seen eye-to-eye on these matters, or from trying to figure out when it’s proper to actually bring up or teach about the decans and how important they really are. Again, a general idea can be stated as an all-around principle, so long as there are plenty of asterisks to mark it with for exceptions and edge cases.
Maybe I’m just letting perfect be the enemy of the good here, and maybe I’ve lost sight of the importance of beginner’s models that are a lie but useful ones to get started with. After all, nobody starts off in a physics 101 course trying to account for every possible variable and fluctuation, but they start with simple models with only a few terms to get an idea of the simplest base case first, and it’s only once those are fully understood is further complexity introduced. But I also feel like that undermines the whole notion of what a principle is, a statement of truth that can guide and lead us in our ways, in the Way. Maybe, then, it’s improper to make principles about doctrine based on the Hermetic texts, and perhaps then it’d be better to make principles about practice instead. And even then, perhaps that, too, is too changeable and changing in order to say anything concrete about. But, I mean…if the ancients could make kephalaía-type statements about individual bits or bobs of Hermetic ideas and practice, why does it seem so hard to make one big kephálaios for it all? There is the whole of Book III of the Corpus Hermeticum that I like, but even then…hm. Even the Emerald Tablet, which is getting to be a bit late in the game to be representative of Hermetism (after all, “as above, so below” appears nowhere in the Corpus Hermeticum, Asclepius, Stobaean Fragments, Definitions, or other classical Hermetic texts, although similar more nuanced notions do crop up), seems too obscure and metaphorical to offer much in the way of concrete, clear principles.
More to think about, to be sure, and this is something I want to keep mulling over. I mean, it really is the work and mark of a true master to simplify something, and I’m far from a master in this; between needing more study, meditation, and contemplation and needing more just outright experience, it’s clear even to myself that I’m not sure what a set of reasonable principles should look like, if anything at all. If nothing else, this is where we can see the whole Hermēs-as-god influence comes in, both as guide and as trickster, ever-shifting and ever-flowing, always leading to truth in the essence without necessarily being true in the instant.