49 Days of Definitions: Part X, Definition 7

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.

49 Days of Definitions: Part X, Definition 5

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-seventh definition, part X, number 5 of 7:

Soul is bound to be born in this world, but Nous is superior to the world.  Just as Nous is unbegotten, so is matter too, (although) it (can be) divided.  Nous is unbegotten, and matter (is) divisible; soul is threefold, and matter has three parts; generation (is) in soul and matter, (but) Nous (is) in God for the generation of the immortal (beings).

Man is a creature composed of a material body inhabited and moved by soul, and the soul of Man (generally) have a contact with and capacity for Nous, or knowledge of God.  Because of the presence of Nous within us, we’re able to use Logos, or reasonable speech, which can help us understand and direct the world around us.  However, it turns out that we’re not the only ones in the game here; the immortal beings in heaven above us also move us down here, and it’s up to us to choose whether to steer ourselves in whichever way we think is best (even if it’s not really good for us) or let the stars and planets and gods steer us in whichever way they think is best.

Of course, the process of even bringing Man into the world is complicated; first Nous makes soul from itself, then soul uses the heavenly beings to create a body, then the soul joins the body at birth.  Souls without bodies are “inert” and motionless, so they can only fulfill their functions when they have a body.  Bodies are material, so they belong in the world; thus, “soul is bound to be born in this world”.  Soul has basically no choice in the matter; if it wants to move and carry out its functions, it must have a body, so the connection between the intelligible soul and sensible body is almost mandated.  However, the soul of Man is blessed with a connection to and part of Nous, and “Nous is superior to the world”.  Although all things in the cosmos exist within and as part of God/Nous, Nous does not blatantly or consciously reside within all things; that’s only given to Man.  This is what allows Man to be both of the world (as far as his body is concerned) and in the world (as far as his soul is concerned).  Nous is not bound to the world; Nous is the world and so much more.

So, it goes without saying that God is unbegotten; God is the creator of all things, and God is both immortal and eternal, so nothing can have created God; God, simply, has always existed.  Thus, “Nous is unbegotten”.  However, what may be surprising is that just as Nous is unbegotten, “so is matter too”.  Thus, not only does the world exist within God, but the world has always existed within God.  There was never a point, except outside of time itself perhaps, when matter and the world did not exist.  God and the world, Nous and matter, have always both existed.  However, we know Nous to be the One, while we can pretty easily pick out different kinds of matter and different numbers of body.  Indeed, “[matter] can be divided”; thus, while matter has always existed, it does not exist in the same forms from moment to moment, and can be broken off or split up or otherwise divided so as to be joined with other matter later on.  Thus, “Nous is unbegotten, and matter is divisible”.  This sounds somewhat like the law of conservation of mass: nothing new was ever brought in, but always existed in some form or another.

So how does soul relate to the material world, besides being in a body?  Well, according to this, “soul is threefold”.  That’s not very helpful, but the footnotes provided by Jean-Pierre Mahé indicate that the “threefold soul” refers to its reasonable, unreasonable, and sensible forms.  By saying that the soul is threefold, I don’t believe that Hermes is saying that we have three souls, but rather that the soul has three “modes”: it can act reasonably, it can act unreasonably, or it can act sensibly.  Reasonable action is when the soul acts agreeably with Nous; unreasonable action is when the soul acts disagreeably to Nous.  Sensible action, however, is when the soul works with the body.  The body contains the sense organs, but it delivers the sensory data to the soul for it to understand and know.  Of course, all this threefold soul stuff only applies to Man, since he’s the only creature endowed with Nous and so can act reasonably or unreasonably.  For all other living creatures, they can neither act reasonably or unreasonably, but only sensibly, since that’s all that’s available to them.

Matter, on the other hand, has “three parts”.  Jean-Pierre Mahé suggests this to mean three dimensions, or that of length, breadth, and depth.  Anything solid must exist in at least three dimensions, since two dimensional objects indicate only flat abstract forms, one dimensional objects indicate direction and motion, and zero dimensional objects indicate infinity, singularity, or nullity.  All bodies exist with three dimensions, in other words, and these things are both quantifiable and qualifiable, since matter brings about these things (VII.4).  We can count how long things are, how fast they may be moving, and so forth.  These things are meaningless outside the sensible world, since these are all sensible qualities and quantities.

One such quantity we can measure is growth, which is continued generation.  How are things generated?  By “soul and matter”; soul is what makes the body and moves it, and by making use of the fluidities of femaleness and maleness as well as the four elements, the soul can direct the body to increase or decrease, or to be born or bear children, and so forth.  Generation and growth exists as a property of matter.  However, what about for things immortal?  Immortal beings are either heavenly, in which case they are made of matter, or immaterial, in which case they have no body at all but are detached from them, e.g. Man.  For the generation of mortal beings, “Nous is in God”.  Nous is immortality, and God is the means by which it is spread and grows.  Nothing can be immortal in the true, unbegotten sense as God or Nous is without Nous, and Nous is perfect truth, which is perfect immortality exceeding that of the heavenly beings.  While birth and death are in soul and matter, truth and perfection are in God.

49 Days of Definitions: Part X, Definition 3

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-fifth definition, part X, number 3 of 7:

Nous (is) in soul, and nature (is) in the body.  Nous (is) the maker of soul, and soul, (the maker) of the body.  Nous (is) not in all soul, but nature (is) in all body.

This section is starting to shape up to refer to how the world is.  The rest of the Definitions relate to soul, or Man’s relationship to God, and so forth, but until this tenth section of definitions, we haven’t spoken much about the relationship of things in the world to each other.  Now that we’re talking about matter, natures, good and evil, generation, and the like, we’re starting to understand what this hitherto missing corner of the puzzle is starting to look like.  After all, the final definition of part IX referenced humanity’s place in the world as part of the overall order of the cosmos, so it is fitting we start talking about the world and our place within it beyond simply to be Man.

From before, we know that all natures that exist do so within Man: “nature in man is omniform” (X.2) and “everything is within man” (IX.4).  Our bodies contain a reflection of the world, just as the sensible world is a reflection of the intelligible world and as all natures reflect truth (VIII.5).  However, within our bodies, we also have soul, and within the bodies of Man, there exists Nous.  Thus, this definition repeats once more that “Nous is in soul, and nature is in the body”.  Based on the parallel structure here, we can infer that just as nature in the body of Man is omniform, Nous in the soul of Man is omnipresent.  So not only can we understand the sensible world through and through, we can also understand the intelligible world through and through.  With a grasp of the highest Nous and lowest nature, Man is able to understand everything; the breadth of knowledge available to him is rivaled only by its depth, and both of these are fairly infinite.

Further, not only is Nous within the soul, but “Nous is the maker of soul”.  I mean, duh; all of creation, both the intelligible and sensible, were made and created by God.  But this makes it explicit: Nous creates soul, but since soul is intelligible, Nous creates soul from itself.  The soul is, therefore, something unseen, incorporeal, and invisible.  This, if you recall the terms from VIII.5, is what truth is.  God is truth as much as God is light and Nous and the Good, but this also means that soul itself is part of God and is also a truth, an immortal but not uncreated thing.  Thus, if the soul is a truth, then there must be some nature that reflects it, yes?  Yup!  “Soul [is] the maker of the body”.  Now this is interesting, since we haven’t come across this idea before, in that the soul not only inhabits the body but that the soul creates the body.

But this does logically follow.  If all soul is is just a “necessary movement adjusted to every kind of body” (II.1), then what happens when there is no body yet for a soul that still needs to inhabit one?  The soul moves part of the whole of the world, using the female and male fluidities and the four elements, and creates a body to live and grow.  The soul made by God determines the body made by soul according to its needs, perfection or lack thereof, and so forth.  Thus, whatever form, quirks, instabilities, infirmities, conditions, or oddities the body may have all come from soul, so it likewise comes from God.  Thus, no natural, gendered, hereditary, inborn, genetic, or similar condition, including the circumstances of one’s birth, can be called “wrong” or “sinful” or “evil”; skin color, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, predisposition to diabetes or obesity, or anything else should never be used against someone, since that’s literally how they were made.  It exists in the world and was made from the world; this is the definition of “natural” that we’ve been building up.  If you needed to be born that way, you would yourself, since you possess the capacity for experiencing those same things; don’t maltreat others when you don’t want to be maltreated.

So, since Man can be born with any nature in any body, Man inherently possesses the capacity for nature in every body.  Thus, “nature is in all body”.  Considering how much we’re changing, we can change natures at almost the drop of a hat, or a needle, or a weight, or a car; our entire bodies are constantly changing, increasing and decreasing, emitting and receiving.  The soul, however, is a little different.  Unlike nature, which is all present in all body, “Nous is not in all soul”.  Some souls do not have the full grasp of Nous, as we’ve said before (VIII.8), because they have not yet obtained perfection of soul yet.  But, assuming they begin to act and speak reasonably with Logos, they will.  As for those who lack even the innate Nous within the soul, that’s a little unclear; perhaps the soul needed to inhabit a body regardless for some early work before it begins its true path to perfection, but it’s unclear to me what happens to those people.

Understand that everything is created by something, and if not God directly, then something else that was ultimately made by God.  The Nous creates all things within itself, by itself, and from itself, and since Nous is everywhere, Nous dwells within all things.  However, the only means by which something can contact or understand Nous is through Logos; something with Nous but without Logos cannot effectively understand or know Nous.  Man, since he has the means of Logos, can do just this, since he is blessed with a deliberate share of Nous more than other creatures.  However, the body, being made of all the natures, also allows him to use Logos for unreasonable ends, clouding or muddling his connection to Nous.  Until that connection is made perfect and perfectly clear, we will not be able to fully dwell within Nous nor can Nous fully dwell within us.

49 Days of Definitions: Part IX, Definition 5

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 fortieth definition, part IX, number 5 of 7:

Who(ever) behaves well towards his body, behaves badly towards himself.  Just as the body, without a soul, is a corpse, likewise soul, without Nous, is inert.  Once a soul has entered the body, it (soul) will acquire Nous.  That which does not require (it), goes out such as it had entered.  For every soul, before entering the body, is deprived of Nous; then Nous joins it from the body, so that eventually the soul becomes endowed with Nous.  That (soul) which has gone out of the human body has (got) an ill memory: for soul, (even) covered with the body, is forced to remember its (soul’s) unforgetfulness.  One change is unforgetful and (another) change brings about forgetfulness.

We know that humans are constituted out of many things, and what makes us essentially human is really just that: the essence of being human.  This is an idea, a form that we realize through our bodies, souls, spirits, and minds.  Our bodies are born, live, increase, decrease, and die in the material world and the material world alone; our souls are sent into our bodies so they can be perfected through the life of the body; spirit is the medium between the soul and the body; the mind is what is able to use reason and the ability to know God.  This idea has been developed over the course of the Definitions, and this ninth set of definitions helps us understand how we can perfect the body by saying something a little more descriptive than “know yourself” or “know God”.

Although the soul lives within the body, what happens to the body is not always good for soul; the last definition talked about the illnesses and passions of the soul, which can prevent the soul from properly acting and developing or can sway it into acting in a manner that is unhelpful to its development.  We also know that actions, opinions, and speech that is unreasonable, i.e. it does not serve the goals of Nous/the Good, basically limits itself to the material world we live in (V.1, V.2), and to limit ourselves to this world causes ignorance and is thus evil (VII.5, VIII.6).  Thus, if we place the body over the soul, we do our souls damage, which then does ourselves damage (VI.3).  Thus, “whoever behaves well towards the body, behaves badly toward himself”.  If we treat our bodies as first and foremost, lavishing it in luxury and simply “treating it well”, then we neglect our souls, which should deserve that same or better treatment.  This isn’t to say that we should totally neglect the body, of course; if the body isn’t well maintained, then the soul doesn’t have a chance to perfect within it.  Rather, we should strive to perfect the soul and maintaining our bodies as necessary along the way.  It’s similar to how happiness and sadness happen to us when we interact with the world; we don’t strive to be happy for the sake of being happy, but we should strive for something good which makes us happy as a result.  Likewise, we shouldn’t treat the body well for the sake of treating it well, but we should strive for Nous which makes our body well as a result.

After all, “the body, without a soul, is a corpse, likewise soul, without Nous, is inert”.  The two rely on each other in order to live, and so they need to support each other.  If we neglect the soul, the body dies; if we neglect the body, the soul remains imperfect.  Neither of these are good, though it’s worse for the soul to remain imperfect than the body dying.  Again, though death is generally a bad thing, that only affects our bodies, which is not the entirety of us.  We are more than dying bodies; we are both mortal and immortal (I.5), and we have the power of choosing immortality and making ourselves the gods we ought to be (VIII.7).  All told, while we should neglect neither the body nor the soul in our lives, we should focus on the development of the soul as our primary task and the development of the body as a secondary (but still as necessary) task, or as a co-equal task in the process of perfecting the soul.

Going back a bit, “soul, without Nous, is inert”, meaning it has no motion, no impetus, no drive.  After all, just as God has no means to sense since there is nothing outside God to sense (VIII.2), the soul without body has no means to move since there is nothing to move.  Thus, it is motionless, incapable of doing anything.  “Once a soul has entered [a human] body, [the soul] will acquire Nous”; once the soul gains a body, it gains the ability to move and a source from which motion is derived.  This is the soul-Nous that comes with soul, not the divine Nous that we have to strive for with Logos (VIII.4).  So, before a soul ever gets to a body, it has no Nous, though it still exists within Nous; then, once it joins with a body, it is given Nous.  But if a soul already has Nous before entering the body, then it has already acquired it and does not get an “extra portion” of Nous: “[the soul] which does not require [Nous], goes out such as it had entered”.  This means that the soul has already been joined to a body before, and has already been given Nous, yet the soul is going to another body; thus, the soul has left one body and goes to another.  This statement implies reincarnation or transmigration of souls, which fits with hints from before about souls perfecting themselves through bodies.

To begin with, however, “every soul, before entering the body, is deprived of Nous”.  Then, “Nous joins it from the body”; note that soul-Nous is not simply given to the soul from Nous, but from the body.  The body is crucial to the soul’s development, and is the basis for soul-Nous to even be present.  Just as the world is in God and Man is in the world (VII.5), so too is God in the world, since “everything is within man” (IX.4).  God is in itself, too, but the soul is only intelligible and not sensible, though still lacking God in itself.  The soul must be mixed with the body in the essence of Man in order to be given soul-Nous; only then can it “eventually [become] endowed with Nous”.  There doesn’t appear to be any difference between different disembodied or unembodied souls, though once a soul has been mixed with the essence of Man, it gains the capacity for Nous in a way that other souls do not; the soul undergoes a fundamental difference.  To use alchemical terms, this makes the material world and the body the crucible within which the actions and reactions of spiritual “materials” interact with each other to refine themselves, using the body as the base stratum of material.  Through refinement and perfection, incorporating true knowledge of the world, ourselves, and God, the prima materia of the alchemists is transformed into the purest gold and leaves the Caput Mortum behind, the end result and Great Work of the alchemists, the Magnum Opus of the magician.

Still, this process isn’t easy, and can be easily set back. “That soul which has gone out of the human body has got an ill memory”; we know from before that the soul “will not know the beings outside the body” (VI.2), but now we see that there’s more at stake here.  “Soul, even covered with the body, is forced to remember its unforgetfulness”.  This is a little unclear, but keep in mind that memory is the retaining of knowledge and the ability to access it later on in time.  Knowledge is God; by remaining in knowledge, we remain in God.  By forgetting knowledge, we leave God.  Thus, by remembering our unforgetfulness, we remember our tendency to always be in knowledge/God, and so remember who and what we truly are as Man.  While we may not yet be unforgetful, we still have unforgetfulness.  This is what our immortality (at least in part) consists of.

Of course, that’s not all we are.  As Man, we have two natures, the immortal and mortal, and also the unforgetful and the forgetful.  Our eternal knowledge and union with God is our immortality and also our unforgetfulness; thus, our mortality and forgetfulness is our live and death as a living bodily creature.  Neither of these things is either the body’s or the soul’s pristine form, however: “one change is unforgetful and another change brings about forgetfulness”.  The bestowing of Nous upon the soul gives it unforgetfulness; the death of the body around the soul brings about forgetfulness.  We must choose immortality and Nous to never forget who we are; to choose mortality and the body, “to treat the body well [over the soul”, brings about forgetfulness, a lack of knowledge, and the “perdition” of V.2.

49 Days of Definitions: Part IX, Definition 2

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 thirty-seventh definition, part IX, number 2 of 7:

The exterior (things) are understood by the external (organs): the eye sees the exterior (things), and Nous the interior.  The exterior (things) would not exist, if there were not the interior (ones).  Where(ever) Nous (is), there is light; for Nous is light and light is Nous.  Who(ever) has Nous is enlightened, and who(ever) has not Nous is deprived of light.

Okay, so not all of the final definitions are long, and in fact this one is pretty straightforward.  Let’s jump in, shall we?  First, recall that there’s a crucial difference between that which is sensible and intelligible: the intelligible cannot be sensed unless it is has a sensible nature.  It might be known or understood, but it cannot be sensed.  All sensible things are intelligible, but not all intelligible things are sensible.  That which makes the intelligible sensible is the presence of a body: all things with bodies are sensible.

We witness and observe the sensible things by the sensations they give us by means of our sensory organs.  Thus, we see visible things with our eyes; we hear audible things with our ears; we smell odiferous things with our nose; we feel motion with our sense of balance.  Some things are triggered by more than one sense, such as luminescent food that triggers both sight and taste.  Some things trigger only one, some things trigger all of them at once.  If something is registered as existing by at least one sense organ, it is sensible; moreover, it is external to the essential Man.  The act of sense only makes logical sense if we have the sensor and sensee; if there is nothing external to someone, then nothing can be sensed.  That’s why God has no senses and cannot sense anything, for God has all sensations within itself (VIII.2).  Humans, however, are not everything like how God is, and so there are things that are not-humans, and so can be sensed by humans, including other humans.

Thus, “exterior things are understood by external organs”: things that are sensible are registered by the senses.  As an example, the definition gives that of the eye: “the eye sees the exterior things”.  However, the definition also gives a comparison, where the “Nous [sees] the interior [things]” just as “the eye sees the exterior things”.  This accords with V.1, where “Nous sees everything, and eyes all corporeal things”.  And about that bit about Nous seeing everything, where this definition says that Nous sees all internal things?  This is about the things that cannot be sensed but still exist, i.e. the intelligible.  Remember that “all of that [which is] visible cannot possibly be constituted without the invisible”.  Nous sees “every move of soul” (II.6), and has all sensations and understanding within himself (VII.2); this is confirmed as the definition says “the exterior things would not exist, if there were not the interior ones”.

Nous is capable of understanding and “sensing” (in its own way) everything, while the corporeal body can only sense that which is sensible.  However, all of that sensible stuff is fed as data to the Nous: “the eyes [become an observer] for Nous” (V.1).  But Nous sees everything to begin with; Nous is both the means of sensing, the source of it, and the result of it.  Without Nous, nothing would be known; with Nous, we can know things.  There’s another word for this, introduced way back in II.6: light.  Recall that light “makes appear all of the visible things”, and “light appears just as it is by itself”.  The connections between Nous and light back there are made more clear here: “wherever Nous is, there is light; for Nous is light and light is Nous”.  Think about that: we recognized light as a “good”, just as Nous is the Good (II.1); we assumed a connection between the two there, and now it’s confirmed here.  Nous is what makes everything appear “as it is by itself”.  Nous is what helps us to understand the intelligible things that we may come to know them.  Light is what helps us to see the sensible things that we may come to know them.  Nous is light, light is Nous.

This parallel can be seen earlier in VIII.5.  Recall that “nature is the mirror of truth”, where truth is the form and essence of the intelligible things, and that we come to know truth by means of looking at nature.  However, how do mirrors work?  If we can’t see anything, the mirror doesn’t reflect anything.  Mirrors work by reflecting light.  Light is the means by which mirrors can reflect images.  Light is what helps us see truth from nature, and which helps us see nature from truth.  By coming to understand even part of the world, we come to understand God by the illumination of sense, observation, and understanding.  What exists in the intelligible world is reflected down into the sensible world, and what exists in the sensible world is reflected up into the intelligible world.  Light is what makes either of these things known to us by means of the other.  And, since light is Nous and vice versa, Nous is what helps us understand everything.

When we come to a state of complete understanding, we often refer to this as “enlightenment”.  We use it to translate the nirvana/nibbana of the Buddhists, the moksha of the Hindus, and for other states of awareness and at-one-ness in other paths.  Note the root of that word: “en-light-enment”.  One who is enlightened has the quality of being made or put into light.  A similar term is “illumination”, coming from the Latin word lux, also meaning light.  When we have Nous, we then have light; as our souls are joined with Nous, we are joined with light.  We are literally made into light; we are enlightened.  Thus, “whoever has Nous is enlightened”.

Similarly, the converse is true: “whoever has not Nous is deprived of light”.  If one does not have Nous, one does not have light.  Without Nous, we cannot reach enlightenment, since we cannot understand things as they are.  That’s the whole point of Hermeticism, to perfect the soul through knowledge of the beings and of God.  Without light, we cannot see, and without Nous, we cannot understand.  If Nous sees by means of the eyes, and we have no Nous, then our sight is basically wasted, like having functional eyes for someone who is otherwise blind.  That sight information, spiritually speaking, goes nowhere except the body itself; this is an animal condition, if we see for ourselves and not for Nous.  Further, if we go back to the “nature is the mirror of truth” image, if we have no light, then we cannot see into the mirror.  Without sight, we cannot understand the natures of sensible things and so cannot understand the corresponding intelligible things.  Without Nous, we cannot understand the truth of intelligible things and so cannot see the corresponding sensible things.

The connection between eyesight and soulsight is important.  Remember that Man is the only one among the living beings with capacity for Nous; although Nous exists within all souls, it’s our special capacity for divine Nous that allows us to become closer to and as God once we’re spiritually mature enough for it.  This involves, again, a process of experience of the state, condition, and situation we’re in as human beings with a mortal body and immortal soul.  We alone among the living beings belong to and experience all the parts of the sensible world, and since the sensible reflects the intelligible and vice versa, we can come to know all the things by means of that which we see and understand down here.  Mankind is a very sight-based animal, and we’ve evolved to have fairly good eyesight as our primary sense.  By using imagery associated with sight, Hermes does us a solid and makes things a little easier to understand.

49 Days of Definitions: Part VIII, Definition 4

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 thirty-second definition, part VIII, number 4 of 7:

The body increases and reaches perfection due to nature; and soul fills up with Nous.  Every man has a body and a soul, but not every soul has Nous.  Consequently there are two (types of) Nous: the one (is) divine and the other (belongs to) soul.  Nevertheless there are certain men who do not even have that of soul.  Who(ever) understands the body, also understands soul; who(ever) understands soul, also (understands) Nous, because the admirable is (a) natural (object) of contemplation: each of the two is seen by means of the other.

From the last several definitions, we know that Man is meant to become God by means of knowledge of God.  This is accomplished through our natural gifts of voice and speech, along with Logos or reason, to attain Nous or Mind.  With this, we can come to know all of creation, which is God, and by this attain perfection of the soul.  However, although we’re meant to do this, this is not always an assured thing; by means of voice and speech without Logos, we end up talking for the sake of talking, or talking for the sake of mankind.  This applies to worship and our knowledge and opinions of divinity, too; with true knowledge of God, we endeavor to worship God by becoming God.  However, with only our human and incomplete ideas and opinions of gods, we may worship them instead, preventing us from reaching our full goals and true gnosis of God.  No one god is God, no matter how great, since God is always greater than everything else.  The choice of attaining God or not attaining God is entirely up to us.

Of course, the definitions suggest that we already know what’s proper for us: “the body increases and reaches perfection due to nature; and soul fills up with Nous”.  Our nature, as discussed in VIII.1, is basically what we’re meant to do and what we’re meant to accomplish; our nature is our design and core operating procedures.  We’re meant to live, and in the process attain fullness and perfection of the body.  (While “increase” is used here, according to J.-P. Mahé’s footnotes, the Armenian has “decrease”; in either case, it’s implied here that the body is meant to live and all that comes along with living).  Further, in the course of the body attaining perfection, the soul also attains perfection by “fill[ing] up with Nous”.  This, too, is our nature; every human being alive can be perfect and made holy by being anointed with Nous and coming to know God.  This is our nature.

That said, we humans have the choice of going against our nature.  We can purposefully or unreasonably ignore God and our souls, preventing our souls from filling up with Nous.  Thus, while our bodies may be perfect, our souls may not be; perfection of the one does not mandate perfection of the other.  Thus, “every man has a body and soul, but not every soul has Nous”.  Even though Man generally and by design should have Nous, not all humans actually do; this is based on the humans’ own development and progress towards that goal.  Just as it’s the goal of the fetus to be born whole in body, so too is it the human’s goal to be made whole in body and soul.  Many things can prevent this, of course, which in turn prevents Nous being bestowed upon every human.  This is no fault of God’s; after all, “whatever God does, he does it for man” (VIII.2), so the blame must then be laid on the shoulders of Man (or in astral demons, cf. VII.5, but even then, Man still deserves some of the blame).

We’ve mentioned the idea of there being two kinds of Nous before in set VII, but here we find it made explicit: “consequently there are two types of Nous: the one is divine and the other belongs to soul”.  The former refers to Nous as a whole, which is identical with God; the divine Nous is God, and thus is the Whole and the All and the One.  The other Nous is that which is in the soul itself and guides it to lead the body (cf. VIII.3).  It’s that divine-Nous that we are meant to obtain, that saving perfection-grace, that the soul-Nous which comes from the divine-Nous leads us toward.  Thus, it’s both true and untrue that all humans have Nous; we each have a tiny sliver of Nous (soul-Nous) within us that guides us, but not all of us are filled with divine-Nous.  It’s the soul-Nous that leads us to divine-Nous once we’re spiritually mature enough to accept it from God.  God/Divine-Nous wants us to have this at all points, but we’re not able to accept this until a certain point.

Even though all souls are designed by nature to be perfected with divine-Nous, not all souls have it; worse, there are even some humans who lack even soul-Nous, and are entirely unguided by Nous: “there are certain men who do not have even that [Nous] of soul”.  This isn’t fully explained, and seems somewhat contradictory to our previous statements; in these cases, these particular Nous-less humans are made no better than animals, who only have soul without Nous.  We might consider this severe mental disease or simply growing up feral, but these are essentially humans whose development was so stunted that they are unable to listen to or possess soul-Nous.  This might be the result of not developing the soul enough to possess soul-Nous, which gives yet another darker and urgent shade to the development of the soul in the body (cf. VI.3).  We must constantly strive to not only protect our shard of soul-Nous, but enjoin it with divine-Nous through perfection of the soul.

Of course, there’s more to perfecting the soul than the soul itself.  If we were just focused on the soul and going right to Nous, there would be no need for our bodies; we’d be like the heavenly beings made of fire and soul.  But no; that would relegate us to only the heavenly world, and we need to learn about all the parts of the world (VII.2), since it is our possession (VI.1), after all.  Thus, because we need to experience the material world, we need to have material bodies.  By fully using the body we have, we can come to understand it, and by understanding and perfecting the body, we can come to understand and perfect the soul (VI.3): “whoever understands the body also understands the soul”.  Once we understand the soul, we can progress onto using the body and soul together with Logos to perfect the soul and attain Nous: “whoever understands soul, also understands Nous”.

That said, why is it that working with the soul leads to the Nous?  Or that contemplating the Nous leads to perfection of the soul?  That’s just part of the design and nature of humanity: our souls are designed to partake in Nous and soul-Nous to inhabit our souls.  That is, after all, part of the nature of Man, made distinct from other living creatures in our capacity for Nous.  The connection isn’t made absolutely clear yet about the manner in which this is done, though, but this definition teases us with a hint: “the admirable is a natural object of contemplation: each of [soul and Nous] is seen by means of the other”.  Soul leads to Nous, and Nous leads to soul.  Listening to the soul leads to Nous, since Nous is the sight of the soul just as “the sight of the body is the eye”, and listening to Nous leads to soul, since “whatever Nous in soul will crave for, so will man desire the same” (VII.3).  The Nous looks out for soul and the soul is the means by which Nous is obtained.  Working with one works with the other; it’s just that the soul-Nous is what connects us to divine-Nous, which we have yet to obtain.  Yet.

49 Days of Definitions: Part VII, Definition 4

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 twenty-seventh definition, part VII, number 4 of 5:

Soul enters the body by necessity, Nous (enters) soul by judgment.  While being outside the body, soul (has) neither quality nor quantity; (once it is) in the body it receives, as an accident, quality and quantity as well as good and evil: for matter brings about such (things).

We know from before that “soul is a necessary movement adjusted to every kind of body” (II.1), although not all bodies have souls (IV.2).  Of those that do, however, they are animated, both in the classical sense of being “ensouled” as well as in the modern sense of having motion and movement.  Plants and stones, for instance, do not move beyond their natural tendencies to increase or decrease, and so have no souls; animals, humans, and heavenly beings move in addition to their tendencies to increase and decrease, and so have souls.  Thus, “soul enters the body by necessity”, especially the bodies of Man, since it is there that soul can develop into perfection.

However, it is only the souls with Nous that do this, and why?  Because Nous wants to: “Nous enters soul by judgment”.  This, to me, has a double meaning, because other parts of the definitions don’t seem to make complete sense.  All souls come from Nous, and are given a touch of Nous that give it impetus for motion within the body (VII.3).  However, not all creatures have Nous, since this is a gift from the Nous itself and only visits to those who serve Nous through Logos (V.3, V.1).  Trying to reconcile this gap between “all souls in bodies have Nous within” to “not all bodies have Nous” requires a bit of a reach here, at least at this point in our understanding:

  1. Nous enters soul because it wants to.  While the Nous is God and God is in all things, not all things are consciously aware of being part of God.  Nous wants us all to be aware of that, since Nous is all about knowing and awareness.  Nous gives life through soul that it inhabits because it wants the life to be made fully part of God and aware that it is God.  In other words, there’s a much bigger party going on in the intelligible world than in the sensible world, and God wants us to join it by enabling ourselves to be aware of it and how to get in.  We can call this type of Nous within the soul the “seed Nous” or “heart Nous”; it’s not much different than what other definition say about God being part of all things: since the soul is a thing, God must be part of it.
  2. Nous enters soul because the soul is ready for it.  While the Nous within the soul may be the heart of the soul, it is not the same thing as the soul, and the soul may not be in full command or contact with the Nous.  It’s like how humanity has their conscious minds as well as their subconscious, and while the subconscious can drive or influence the conscious, we’re not aware of the subconscious desires doing this to us.  By bringing the subconscious to the conscious level, we become more fully aware of ourselves and our whole being.  Likewise, the Nous is buried so deep within ourselves that we are effectively cut off consciously from it, though we still retain that divine spark within ourselves.  By coming to know Nous through Logos, we bring the Nous closer and closer to the surface in ourselves, enabling perfection of ourselves.  This is only something that is done when we are ready for it, and requires active work on our part.

Thus, what this definition is saying is basically that wherever there is a body, there must be a soul, but souls on their own may not have Nous since they may not be necessary to a body, and so may not exist if Nous does not judge there to be a need for it.  God makes things happen and gives things life, and without God nothing could happen; thus, the soul exists only as God has allowed it to exist, but even so it must continue developing.  Just as a seed takes time to grow into a full tree, a soul takes time to grow into a full perfected soul.  This is done by helping it develop within the body across the four parts of the world (VII.2)  Only when the soul is properly developed can it receive Nous into itself wholly and fully; instead, we might say that the soul returns to and is fully connected to the Nous again, regardless of whether it is contained within a body.

The soul entering into the body has more effects than simply dimming the connection between Nous and itself, too.  The soul is an invisible and insensible thing that supports the body, and “while being outside the body, soul has neither quality nor quantity”.  In other words, there are no characteristics or details about the soul that we can know while it is outside a body.  It is only ever intelligible, and so is part of God in the intelligible world.  However, when a soul enters a body, “it receives, as an accident, quality and quantity”.  The soul, by entering into a body, picks up sensible qualities, but it does not enter into the body so as to do this.  This happens “as an accident”, or a side-effect of the animation of a body.  This is because “matter brings about such things”, and all matter is based on the element of earth (II.3), without which nothing sensible could exist.

Consider any arbitrary measurement or metric you might conceive of.  Length is a property of how much matter can be arrayed in a given distance.  Volume is several lengths in different directions.  Weight is how much mass can be packed into a particular object.  Density is the proportion of weight to volume.  These are all quantities, numbers that are all based in the physical realm.  Any measurement based on these or similar metrics is also a quantity, and therefore based in the physical, material realm.  What about qualities?  As opposed to an objective measurement, a quality is a subjective measurement.  Does something feel good or bad?  Do sour foods taste better than bitter foods?  How strongly do you like a particular object?  Does a certain action cause pride or shame in the actor?  These and more are all qualities, which although not directly based on material measurements, use the body and spirit to interpret them for us, and since these things are based on the material body, qualities too become material accidents.

The soul, much like God, has none of these to start with.   We cannot describe any quality or quantity of the soul without a body; it is, in a sense, ineffable, much as God is (I.4).  Moreover, the soul has no notion of these things either until it gains a body, since the soul is separated from the body, and as we puzzled out before in VI.2, without having a body we cannot sense the sensible or visible things, which are measured and interpreted according to their quantity and quality.  With a body, however, the soul can suddenly discern these things, as well as become these things by means of the body.  I don’t mean to say that God cannot sense things, since God senses and sees all things (V.1), but rather that God, who is Nous, who is both Mind as well as the faculties and exercise of Mind, is these things.  The soul, however, is not God, though it is a part of God, and so until it obtains Nous as given by God, it cannot similarly see, sense, or witness things in the same way as God does.  On its own, the soul cannot do much; in a body, it can act as and work as the body.

In addition to quantity and quality, however, by entering into the body the soul also picks up “good and evil”.  We know of things that are good, which we can associate with both light (II.6) and God (I.4).  Whatever evil is, we are not yet certain, but we have a few clues.  These are things that only exist where bodies exist; good and evil are not things that exist outside of the world or as part of God, but exist only as sensible things.  Hermes Trismegistus goes on about good and evil in the Corpus Hermeticum (chapter XIV, part 7):

And do not thou be chary of things made because of their variety, from fear of attribution of a low estate and lack of glory unto God.  For that His Glory’s one,—to make all things; and this is as it were God’s Body, the making [of them].  But by the Maker’s self naught is there thought or bad or base.

These things are passions which accompany the making process, as rust doth brass and filth doth body; but neither doth the brass-smith make the rust, nor the begetters of the body filth, nor God [make] evil.  It is continuance in the state of being made that makes them lose, as though it were, their bloom; and ’tis because of this God hath made change, as though it were the making clean of genesis.

Basically, good and evil exist as a special set of qualities in the sensible world, and are related to the process of increase and decrease, which only exists because of the element of earth.  Water helps to increase (“fecund essence”, II.4); fire helps to decrease (“destruction of the mortal”, II.5); air helps to join together (“heavens and earth are united with each other by the air”, II.2).  Death is a result of decrease without increase; creatures that are not heavenly and made of fire are therefore earthy and mortal (IV.1, IV.2); death prevents the soul from obtaining perfection when the soul is not yet ready (VI.3); bodies serving their own end without care for the soul serves only death (V.2).  Therefore, death, decay, and decrease that prevent the soul from fulfilling its perfection and Nous can be considered evil, and this can only be done in the material world that bodies live in.  These things on their own are not bad at all, and are necessary in the world, but when they interfere with ourselves, they become a harmful influence.  However, we must choose to let them interfere with ourselves, even if we choose inaction against them.

This is a crucial difference between the material world and the immaterial world: good and evil only exist where a chance to turn away from God exists.  Outside the material world, one is only ever part of God, and thus cannot turn away from God.  In the sensible world, it’s harder to be aware of God, and thus easier to turn away from God.  Turning towards God and rejoining with him, coming into the perfect “knowledge of the beings” and light of Nous, is therefore good; turning away from God and ignoring the impetus of Nous and the directions that would lead us to God is therefore evil.  This sort of thing is not possible outside the sensible world, where Nous can be absent from speech or action due to our own actions or speech.  Outside the sensible world, there is nothing (so far said, at least) that can distinguish us from God, therefore having us become God and God becoming us wholly, so that whatever God wills, we ourselves will, and whatever we do, God does.

This ties in tightly to notions of True Will and divine providence, too, and the ideas are similar.  When we do what God wants us to do, carrying out and serving our divine purpose, that’s our True Will, the will we are meant to fulfill which we ourselves can know once we can see ourselves clearly enough.  To do that, however, we have to carry out the Great Work, which helps us prepare ourselves across the four parts of the world and begin to hear and use Logos.  This allows our sensible, material bodies to better heed and serve our souls, which can then develop properly into a fully-knowledgeable and divine soul with Nous.  With Nous being known to ourselves, we then can carry out what it is we’re supposed to do; at that point, any distinction between what we want and what God wants is meaningless, because our wills have become God’s will and vice versa.