On Good and Evil in Hermeticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…the good cannot exist in generation; it exists only in the unbegotten. Participation in all things has been given in matter; so also has participation in the good been given. This is how the cosmos is good, in that it also makes all things; thus, it is good with respect to the making that it does. In all other respects, however, it is not good…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That it is incorporeal, Asklēpios.”

“What is the incorporeal, then?”

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

“What, then, is god?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just as none of these other qualities exists in such a substance, by the same token the good will be found in none of the other substances. All the other qualities exist in all things, in the small, in the large, in things taken one by one and in the living thing itself that is larger than all of them and the most powerful. Since generation itself is subject to passion, things begotten are full of passions, but where there is passion, there is no good to be found, and, where the good is, there is not a single passion—there is no night where it is day and no day where it is night. Hence, the good cannot exist in generation; it exists only in the unbegotten. Participation in all things has been given in matter; so also has participation in the good been given. This is how the cosmos is good, in that it also makes all things; thus, it is good with respect to the making that it does. In all other respects, however, it is not good; it is subject to passion and subject to motion and a maker of things subject to passion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

With reference to humanity, one uses the term “good” in comparison to “evil.” Here below, the evil that is not excessive is the good, and the good is the least amount of evil here below. The good cannot be cleansed of vice here below, for the good is spoiled by evil here below and, once spoiled, it no longer remains good. Since it does not remain so, it becomes evil. The good is in god alone, then, or god himself is the good. Therefore, Asklēpios, only the name of the good exists among mankind—never the fact. It cannot exist here. Material body, squeezed on all sides by vice, sufferings, pains, longings, angry feelings, delusions and mindless opinions, has no room for the good. And this is the worst of all, Asclepius: here below, they believe in each of the things I have just mentioned as the greatest good when actually it is insuperable evil. Gluttony is the supplier of all evils…Error is the absence of the good here below.

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

…the good is spoiled by evil here below and, once spoiled, it no longer remains good. Since it does not remain so, it becomes evil.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hermeticism FAQ: Part III, Doctrine

Continuing our Hermeticism FAQ series (see part I and part II here), let’s continue today with Part III, on the various doctrines, beliefs, and teachings of Hermeticism!

Is Hermeticism monotheistic, or is it polytheistic?

Either or both, depending on your perspective.  It is true that the bulk of the Hermetic texts, especially the “philosophical Hermetica”, focus on a singular God as the One and the Good for the purposes of both cosmological structure as well as theosophical devotion, but it’s also true that the same Hermetic texts discuss the ensoulment of statues by the gods and encourage the worship of such corporeal gods as well as the many gods in heaven.  Whether one wants to consider there to be just one God and all other entities as angels subservient to this one God, or whether one wants to consider the One to be on an ontological level beyond the gods and the gods to have their own reality, Hermeticism may admit both or either perspective.  It is also helpful to consider the One to be a “god whom the gods themselves worship” or a “god beyond the gods”, a perspective that is evinced in magical texts from the same time period.

Is Hermeticism pantheistic or panentheistic?

It is perhaps most accurate to describe Hermeticism as panentheistic, where God is both immanent within and throughout the cosmos as well as transcendent of it.  All things in this cosmos come from God, and God is visible throughout all of creation by means of God’s creatures; at the same time, God is also infinitely beyond the cosmos.  God, however, should not be equated with the cosmos, which is a strictly pantheistic (and not panentheistic) perspective.  Although one may understand all things that exist as existing within God, it should be remembered that God can only be known in a way that extends beyond and outside the cosmos; one must rise above and beyond the cosmos to get on God’s own level in order to know God, which is also how we return to our own origin, which also lies beyond the cosmos.

Is there a demiurge in Hermeticism?

Depending on the specific text, yes, Hermeticism does teach that while God is the ultimate creator of all things, God creates worldly, material things by means of a demiurge.  The word “demiurge” (dēmiourgos in Greek) literally means “craftsman” or “artisan”, and in Hermeticism is seen to fashion the material, sensible, and perceptible world in accordance with the reason and will of God.  This perspective of the demiurge should not be confused with the demiurge of gnostic teachings, which tends to consider the demiurge in a much more negative light, ignorant of God and thus considered “blind” or “stupid”.  No such association is made with the Hermetic demiurge, who is considered a representative of the will and reason of God and in our cosmos is represented by (or, depending on the text, literally present as) the Sun itself.

Is there fate or is there free will in Hermeticism?

Hermeticism is essentially deterministic, with notions of free will (as generally thought of on a mundane level) being an illusion, but there is some nuance to this stance in Hermeticism.  There is a sort of chain that makes Hermeticism deterministic: 

  1. The fundamental ruling principle in all things is the will of God, also called Providence.  As the will of God, this is what establishes the high-level notions of what things are to be.
  2. Necessity, as a “servant” of Providence, is what arranges the logical consequences and ramifications of Providence.
  3. Fate, as a “servant” of Necessity as Necessity is a “servant” of Providence, is what arranges the sequence of things that happen (and which must happen, either according to Necessity or to Providence).
  4. The powers of the stars, both the seven planets as well as the myriad fixed stars, facilitate Fate upon the things that exist in the world below from the directives of Fate above.

This is one of the reasons why the study of astrology is important for Hermeticism, since—as the study of the planets and stars—grants us insight into Fate and, thus, the very will of God.  It should be noted, however, that things only apply in the domains upon which they bear; thus, Fate only applies to the cosmos (and, more specifically, our material world).  Because of this limitation on Fate, it is proper to say that Hermeticism is only deterministic within the realm of the cosmos; beyond it, other rules apply.  That distinction of determinism or lack thereof between the encosmic and hypercosmic realms becomes important once one understands the nature of and the relationship between the soul and the body, and what the goal of the Way of Hermēs is.

What exactly is the soul in Hermeticism, and what role does it play?

The existence of the soul is taken for granted in Hermeticism, and is one part of the dualistic understanding of what a human consists of: a material, mortal body and an immaterial, immortal soul.  Of these two parts, it is the soul that is held to be the “true” human, the essence of a human being, and is made in the image of God as God’s own child (and can be considered a sibling to the Demiurge and the cosmos itself).  Being created directly by God and, thus, not as a product of the cosmos, the soul is essentially above Fate.

What exactly is the body in Hermeticism, and what role does it play?

The body is the material, mortal component of a human being, housing and being animated by the immaterial, immortal soul.  Unlike the soul, which has its origins directly in God and is made as an image of God, the body is a creation of the cosmos and is made as an image of the soul.  Because the body is a creation of the cosmos, the body is subject to Fate.  Unlike the soul, which provides its own “energy” and will, the body is driven by two energies: that of drive (thumos, the emotional and passion-based desires of the body-generated ego) and desire (epithumia, the physical needs and appetites of the body).

What is the relationship between the soul and the body?

The essential human, being soul and thus being immaterial, cannot directly interact with a material cosmos without a material body, which is why the soul is housed in the body, and the connection between soul and body is facilitated by means of spirit (pneuma, literally “breath” but also with connotation of the subtle powers of air in general).  Although the soul is nominally the master of the body, the body can sometimes overpower the soul if the drive and desire of the body is stronger than the intentions and will of the soul itself; because drive and desire are bodily, and because the body is subject to Fate, the overpowering of the soul by drive and desire thus afflicts the soul with Fate.  Even though the soul comes from a realm beyond the cosmos and is thus not necessarily subject to Fate, it can still be influenced and impacted by Fate due to the body, especially when the body is stronger than the soul that it houses.  It is part of the way of Hermēs to learn how to tame the drive and desire of the body so that they remain in service to the soul and not the other way around, thus minimizing the impact of Fate upon the soul and freeing the soul to act how it needs to.

Is there reincarnation in Hermeticism, or is there a Heaven and Hell, or other afterlife?

Reincarnation of the soul into different bodies is generally held to be the case in Hermeticism, at least up until the point where the soul is able to break free of the cycles of birth, death, and rebirth in the cosmos and rejoin with its origin in God beyond the cosmos.  This does not mean that incarnation is a punishment, but it is where we are all the same.  The bulk of Hermetic texts agree that the reincarnation of the human soul only occurs in human bodies, even if one’s conduct in their previous life can determine the quality of the next.  There is a strong similarity between these Hermetic notions and the doctrines of saṃsāra and mokṣa in Vedic religions like Hinduism.  There is no notion of a generic neutral afterlife of shadehood, like Haidēs for the Hellenes or Sheol for the Jews.  In most texts, likewise, there is no notion of a hell for sinners as in Christianity, although some texts like the Perfect Sermon do describe a punishment for souls who are unconditionally “stained with evil”, so it appears that this doctrine was being developed in later texts or which was added onto Hermeticism from outside sources, and is not generally common or a universally-held belief.

Why are we here to begin with?

It is difficult to question the reason behind the creation of God, but the explanation for humanity’s creation and incarnation is that God created the cosmos and thought it beautiful, since it was made according to the will of God and, thus, in an image of God.  In order to fully celebrate the creation of the cosmos, God also created humans, also in the image of God (but in a different way than the cosmos was created), so as to engage with, understand, and adore the creation of God that was the cosmos.  However, creating humans as immaterial soul alone was not enough for them to fully engage with the material cosmos, and so bodies were created to house the soul so as to fully immerse the human soul in creation as a human being consisting of both body (so as to interact with the cosmos) and soul (so as to know and comprehend the cosmos as a creation of God).  The problems begin to arise when we misunderstand the proper relationship between the soul and the body, or between humanity, the cosmos, and God; when this relationship is imbalance or misunderstood, we begin to depart from our original tasks and forget what it is we’re supposed to do and become while down here.  This is part of the goal and aim of the Way of Hermēs: to remember our divine origin, to remember what we truly are, and to fully engage in the work of creation as is right and proper for us, but only as is right and proper for us.

What exactly is gnōsis in Hermeticism, and what role does it play?

The Greek word gnōsis literally means “knowledge” in English, but this is more than just an intellectual understanding of a concept.  In the Way of Hermēs, gnōsis is more the experiential, non-discursive knowledge of something true; it is not something that can just be arrived at through discourse or logical proofs (what might be called logos in Greek), nor something that is simply taught and believed (what might be called epistēmē).  Rather, gnōsis is more akin to a “divine revelation”, and the experience of gnōsis is something Hermeticists aim for achieving—usually multiple times.  The proper way to approach gnōsis (as evidenced in the Hermetic texts where such experiences are described) is one of care, through preparation and purification ahead of time and by means of unpacking and analysis afterwards, so as to properly integrate the experience and meaning of such an experience of gnōsis without misinterpreting it or going crazy because of it.  It is thus beyond mere insight or a hunch, and closer to a literal inspiration in the soul by God itself.

What exactly is nous in Hermeticism, and what role does it play?

Nous is the Greek word for “mind”, but this is not to be understood as what we generally or conventionally understood as our day-to-day thinking mind of thoughts and imagination.  As a technical term in Hermeticism, nous refers to a sort of divine awareness, the faculty that allows one to achieve gnōsis.  The specific nature of nous is not always clear in the Hermetic texts, and some Hermetic texts tend to describe it differently from others; as such, it is not clear whether nous is something external to the soul and “added onto/into” worthy souls that lack it and seek it, or whether it is simply a faculty preexistent in the soul but which lies dormant until awakened.  Either way, not all people have access to nous, and realizing that access (and the potential gnōsis it permits) is an early part of the Way of Hermēs.

Why is the cosmos described as “evil”?

Although the words “good” and “evil” are bandied about in the Hermetic texts, it’s important to remember that these were, for the most part, used in a philosophical sense and not a moral sense (although the moral senses of the words come about from the philosophical senses). Suffice it to say that the Good, as a philosophical concept, is equated with God, and anything that is not God is thus not Good; as a result, anything that is created by God is not Good, but because all things are in Good, all things are likewise in (or participate in) the Good. This can be expanded to notions of being able to be moved by passion, change, corruption, or the like, which are all discussed in the Hermetic texts, but this is the simple notion; thus, evil is just “not Good”.  When extended to morality, things are morally good if they draw one closer to God, and evil if they do not.  A single act done by one person may be morally good for them, depending on their fate and whether or not they do that thing in accordance with fate and with the awareness that nous confers, while that same act may be morally evil for another depending on their fate and awareness (or the lack thereof) that nous confers.  It can be a tricky subject to tackle at times, but in general, the more we align ourselves to act in accordance with our fate in this world and with the will of God directing our souls, the more good we do, since that is what helps us reach closer to the good.

Why did God create evil or allow it to exist?

It’s fair to give God in the Hermetic texts the usual “all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful” description according to the usual arguments of theodicy, but we also need to give God the descriptor “all-rational”, too; in that light, this is the best of all possible worlds, and all things that exist and happen do so according to the will of God (remember the Providence-Necessity-Fate chain described before).  Evil, in this light, doesn’t exist except as an illusion of duality, and the same generative and change-based processes that produce “evil” in the cosmos also purge the cosmos of that same “evil”.  Suffering, likewise, only exists as an artifact of sensation and ignorance, and it too is liable and obligated to pass away from existence just as much (and just as fast) as it passes into existence.  In this, moral evil and suffering exist as part and parcel of the cosmos in which we live just as much as moral good and pleasure, because both are part of the same overall creation, and the existence of one logically necessitates the existence of the other.  By coming to understand the processes of the cosmos, we also understand the nature of things and how they impact us, whether for weal or for woe; similarly, by coming to better understand the cosmos and our place in it, we also learn the means of rising above and beyond the cosmos, and thus away from suffering and closer to the peace of divinity.

In Book II of the Corpus Hermeticum, it says something weird about having children and how those who don’t have children are cursed. Um…?

This part has caught a number of people off-guard, seemingly out of place when it comes to Hermetic discussions, as it seems to imply a sort of divine retribution for not rearing children.  After all, not all people are willing or able to bear or raise children, sometimes for very good reasons (e.g. lack of means) and other times for reasons outside their control (e.g. infertility).  That being said, in order to maintain the good ordering of the cosmos, humanity is enjoined to continue reproducing itself, which Book II of the Corpus Hermeticum interprets to place a moral obligation on individuals to continue that work of reproduction and the continuation of the human race.  This text can just as much be said to apply to physical children as well as to spiritual children; thus, those who can manage to “increase by increasing and multiply by multiplying”, whether by having children of one’s own or by supporting the children of others, or by giving the gift of spiritual birth to those who seek the Way of Hermēs (since the spiritual womb that all have is used as a metaphor in several Hermetic texts) are all valid ways to fulfill this sort of obligation.  Further, one can also interpret this injunction to have children even more generally by interpreting all acts of creation to be one’s children, including the development of medicine, the cultivation of plants, the generation of art, the ensoulment of statues and talismans, the production of invention, and so forth; all of these are just as valid ways to engage in the work of creation in addition to bearing and raising children.

What about the Seven Hermetic Principles/Laws?

This is just more stuff from The Kybalion, and has no meaningful bearing on the study of Hermeticism.  Unless you’re actively engaged with The Kybalion as a self-help book, all they’re good for is getting more clicks on YouTube for badly-overdone video shorts on what miserably passes for “content” nowadays.

Something something gender?

We really don’t need any more bad or historical cis takes in spirituality at this point.  Besides the fact that the oft-vaunted “principle of gender” is nothing more than more tripe from The Kybalion, there’s also nothing—zero, zip, zilch, nada—in Hermeticism that teaches about any divine or essential notion of masculinity or femininity.  Rather, God is explicitly androgyne (which, in classical terms, is also equivalent to saying “genderless”), and as the essential human (i.e. the soul) is made in the image of God, so too is the essential human also androgyne (or genderless).  Even the original humans were considered to be bimorphic, consisting of both genders (in much the same way as Aristophanēs’ story regarding the origin of love in Plato’s Symposium) before they were split into distinct genders.  Gender only comes about in terms of physical bodies for the explicit and sole purpose of biological reproduction, and otherwise has no bearing on any Hermetic teaching or practice.  While some might find the notion of spiritual or divine gender comfortable or useful for their models of cosmology and theology, there is no such notion in Hermeticism, nor is one needed in order to make sense of the cosmos, of divinity, or of ourselves from a Hermetic standpoint.  If there is any indication at all regarding gender in Hermeticism, even when it comes down to the physical level, it is that they are to be held equal in power and ability, just with distinct roles to play in a small handful of acts related to procreation.

What about the role of women in Hermeticism?

It is true that the vast majority of Hermetic texts involve male characters, or characters which are grammatically described as male in the original Greek, Latin, or Coptic language: Hermēs Trismegistos, Asklēpios, Tat, Ammōn, Osiris, Poimandrēs, and the like.  The only woman who appears is Isis in the Korē Kosmou texts, where she appears as the mentor and instructor of Hōros taking on the same role that Hermēs did for his students.  The dearth of women in the Hermetic dialogs can be attributed largely to the culturally male-dominant milieu in which the Hermetic texts (and, for that matter, the vast majority of religious and philosophical texts of the time) were written, but this should not be construed to say that the absence of women is indicative of anything significant.  As mentioned earlier, neither sex nor gender have any role to play on any level except that of biological procreation; in all other respects, both in this world and in any other, women are just as important, valid, necessary, and powerful as men, because there is no fundamental distinction between them that matters on any level beyond the merely physical, and that for one concern only.  

What about the disagreements in doctrine amongst the Hermetic texts themselves?

It is true that not all the Hermetic texts agree on all details or on all points; after all, they were written by different teachers across several hundred years with varying influences, even if they all agreed on the same high-level things and participated in the same fundamental cultural, social, religious, and philosophical environment.  Sometimes this is a case where different teachers started with the same set of premises, but used different logical arguments or different perspectives to end up at different conclusions; other times, different fundamental premises were used that led to different conclusions, even if the overall logic was the same.  In some cases, different things were taught to students at different times, such as a simpler and more general model for beginner students but more complicated models with unexpected outcomes for more advanced students who are already comfortable with the general models; in other cases, one teacher’s takeaway from a mystic vision leads them to have information and conclusions that fundamentally change their perception of a particular teaching.  It is a fool’s errand to try to get all the different and differing points of doctrine in the Hermetic texts to agree with each other completely, even if they can be said to agree generally; these differences should be understood for what they are.  Such inconsistencies do not mean that Hermeticism is a fundamentally flawed form of mysticism, but that there is a wide variety of ways to perceive, reckon, and approach the cosmos and divinity even within the same overall milieu.

Did Hermetic doctrines or beliefs change over time?

To be sure, Hermeticism is not something necessarily fixed in time, as it continued to evolve through the millennia across several continents, adapting and adopting other beliefs and practices for its own ends just as much as it was adapted and adopted by other beliefs and practices for theirs. That being said, to trace the specific growth and evolution of Hermeticism through all these circumstances can be difficult.  As a result, such doctrines and beliefs definitely underwent change, but not all such changes were done in a way that furthered the logic of Hermeticism, and some such changes ended up causing even more difference or disagreement in doctrine than what was there previously, especially if it meant Hermeticism could be made more tolerable to otherwise intolerant religious communities or authorities.  Unless one is specifically focusing on a particular post-classical era or context in which Hermetic doctrines were present in some form or another, it is recommended to always draw things back to their origins and compare against the original fundamental Hermetic texts to get a better idea of what changed, how it changed, why it changed, and whether it is in accord with the original logic and goals of the Way of Hermēs.

Can I incorporate modern or non-Hermetic beliefs into Hermeticism?

It depends on the belief; if we use the classical Hermetic texts (the origin of the notion of “Hermeticism”) as a foundation to gauge the “Hermeticness” of something, then we can identify things that are compatible with Hermeticism and things that are incompatible with Hermeticism.  There’s a general rubric I like to recommend for things like this, whether or not such beliefs are modern:

  1. If a particular doctrine agrees with the doctrines of the Hermetic texts, both in means as well as in ends (i.e. they both end up at the same place and using the same road), then the thing can just be considered Hermetic as it is.
  2. If a particular doctrine does not agree with the Hermetic texts but does not disagree either (i.e. the Hermetic texts don’t talk about it at all and the logic of Hermeticism does not preclude it), then it can be used or adopted by Hermeticism within reasonable bounds, until extending such a doctrine begins to conflict with those of the Hermetic texts.
  3. If a particular doctrine disagrees with the Hermetic texts and relies on fundamentally conflicting assumptions, then it is not Hermetic, but may (with enough effort and changes) be altered or adapted by Hermeticism for Hermetic ends.

When discussing such doctrines that are added to or which extend the explicit doctrines of Hermeticism according to the Hermetic texts, it should be made clear what they are, why they are included, and whether and how much they agree with the explicit underlying doctrines or why they are permissible.  In other words, it is better to justify one’s approach in including such doctrines rather than simply adding them haphazardly in because one can.

Lovecraft and I Don’t Get Along

I’m going to make a terrible, terrible admission to you all that may ruin my oh-so-high and noble standing in occulture: I don’t like H.P. Lovecraft or his universes, and it’s not for a lack of trying, either.  At least half of my friends online and offline love the dude and his works, and all the works and worlds that he’s inspired, many of which actually working with the gods and entities from the Lovecraftian universe in an occult setting or dedicating some of their art and crafts to his world.  I’ve even taken a Vacation Necronomicon School a few years ago, a structured introduction to Lovecraft and his universe and how to write Lovecraftian horror and fiction.  I see Chthulhu this and Nyarlathotep that and Azazoth that other thing frequently and often.  And despite all that, I cannot stand the dude and his works.  I’ve known this for years now, but as my own spiritual life and practices have developed, I have a more solid understanding why.

The basic gist of his cosmos, as I understand it, is that the world is full of things.  Especially people, and especially white people.  And we as the logical, rational, material human race is responsible enough to abandon all but the most scientific of approaches to understanding the cosmos, especially white people.  But there are also other things in the cosmos that are bigger, stronger, and older than people, and especially white people.  And these things operate in a way that people cannot understand, especially white people.  This is obviously grounds for going insane or causing mass chaos and hysteria, because people are supposed to be the best, especially white people.

Please tell me you see where I’m going with this.

Now, I credit the fact to Lovecraft that he grew up in a late Victorian/early modern society and was enamored of what we nowadays call “hard science”, disregarding anything superstitious or religious as BS.  His family had a history of mental and psychosomatic illnesses.  He was brought up sheltered and lived as a recluse.  He held views that we’d consider racist in modern times, holding highest the Anglo-Norman people (from which he was descended), wanting to keep races distinct for the purpose of preserving cultural identity.  He was a man of his times, and especially the nighttime, and I understand that.

But the whole premise of his universe and drama just clashes so directly and fundamentally that I derive no enjoyment nor satisfaction from his works.  The way I see it, Lovecraft starts with the premise of a material cosmos and throws in the supernatural (magic, deities, etc.) almost as an afterthought, as if the metaphysical came from the physical and not the other way around.  In this light, the “gods” of Lovecraft’s universe are no more than beings that have had longer and more resources to evolve than humanity has, with abilities and knowledge that they’ve had more time and practice to develop than we have.  This makes them terrible, frightful, and deserving of crude and vulgar cults set up by the superstitious and unrespectable outcasts of the world.  Just as the poor become sycophants to the rich to eke out an existence by using some of the rich’s power, these low and vulnerable people turn to entities of cosmic power and fright against the more civilized and structured world of civilization.  But, because these mega-entities are so powerful, they stand to destroy all that civilization has made through the progress fueled by scientific advancement and industrialism.  We can’t have that, now, can we?

Basically, Lovecraft started with the basic ideas of social Darwinism and human (especially white human) supremacy over the world and showed how vulnerable we are.  This I agree with: there are things older than us and bigger than us and stronger than us in the cosmos.  I call them theoi, angels, gods, ancestors, totems, whatever; he calls them the Old Ones and Outer Gods and Elder Gods.  Where we split ways is that he finds the existence of these mega-entities incompatible with human understanding and outside our capacity to understand, inducing insanity, madness, and destruction.  I basically read his works as saying “But we’re humans! We’re supposed to be the best! HOW CAN SOMETHING BE BETTER THAN US I CANNOT HANDLE THIS KNOWLEDGE AAAAAAH.”  Note that this is what happens to the more civilized people, often scientists, while the lower classes of people tend to devolve and debase themselves into crude worship of these entities because they just don’t know any better.  But then, they not only don’t know better, but if they knew any better they’d go crazy, so they’re surviving where the civilized scientists can’t and becoming more powerful than civilization, which makes them a constant threat to the existence of humanity’s progress and civilized future.

Lovecraft, in spite of the cultural, scientific, philosophical, and spiritual heritage of humanity that actually exists, disregards all that we’ve actually done and posits it all as worthless in the long run.  Every story we’ve told, every building we’ve built, every discovery we’ve made, everything we’ve done and everything we’ve become is pointless and worthless in the cosmos, imprisoned as we are to this tiny rock in space, bound by our own limitations both physical and intellectual.  This is especially in contrast to beings who transcend spacial limitations (physical or metaphysical), whose power and knowledge vastly exceeds our own, who have their own aims and ends that either don’t take humanity into account at all or uses us for their own ends without regard for our well-being or survival.  All this boils down to, when we really think about it, everything we know and do is basically meaningless and there’s no point to anything.  The man himself even admits that his works are all about the futility and nihilistic pseudo-existence of humanity in the grand scheme of things:

Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large. To me there is nothing but puerility in a tale in which the human form—and the local human passions and conditions and standards—are depicted as native to other worlds or other universes. To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all. Only the human scenes and characters must have human qualities. These must be handled with unsparing realism, (not catch-penny romanticism) but when we cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown—the shadow-haunted Outside—we must remember to leave our humanity and terrestrialism at the threshold.

If your worldview puts the material, physical world first and the spiritual, metaphysical world as second, or that the spiritual developed from the material, then you’re assuming that there’s nothing really distinct from the physical, since all things ultimately come from it, and all spiritual stuff is just a physical process we haven’t understood yet.  Everything that lives, going by Darwin’s theory of evolution, is merely accident and happenstance, and nothing is in control of anything except by sheer power alone.  One human may control thousands with enough power, but no power of humanity can ever dominate the world we find ourselves locked into and trapped upon, especially the existence of other and more powerful (though by no means “higher”) entities whom we can only cravenly worship in the hope of having other powers not being used over us.  The only thing that differentiates humanity from the Old/Outer/Elder Gods is the shitty and inexorable luck that we weren’t here first and weren’t strong enough to evolve fast enough.

But if your worldview puts the spiritual, metaphysical world first and the material, physical world second, or that the material developed from the spiritual, everything changes.  Instead of humanity happening at the same time or by the same processes of other mega-entities, we developed after them or by their involvement.  If the spiritual comes before the material, then no material process can begin to describe how the spiritual works, since it cannot apply; science is useless there, but only because science (as Lovecraft would have thought of it) operates only on the physical.  In that case, we need other tools of humanity: religion, superstition, spirituality, the occult.  These things, reserved for the poor and uncivilized in Lovecraft’s works, become the true tools of power and knowledge that can not only preserve our minds but expand them.  Yes, we can go crazy, too (too much knowledge does that to anyone in any field), but it’s not because we’re incapable of knowing these things, only because we get too used to operating on a spiritual level and not on a material one.  Insanity caused by knowledge isn’t a fundamental breaking down of comprehension, it’s expansion in a way that doesn’t mesh well with human custom and civilization.  Even if there are other and bigger entities in the cosmos, and even if humanity is stuck on this little blue speck in the infinite black, we still hold the keys to our own gates to infinity and aether and power that can put us on the level of any Old One, if not far higher.  Am I saying that spiritual entities always love and care for us?  Nope; demons, angry spirits, hell-beings, and the like from any number of cultures would love nothing more than to see us burn.  Am I saying that happenstance and accident didn’t create the cosmos, both spiritual and material?  It’s impossible to know without being God, and even then, when you’re God, there’s really nothing you can do that can be completely understood by a lower being because of God’s infinite nature.  And even if everything were an accident of creation, this doesn’t mean that a purely Epicurean, atomic-materialist cosmos is the only possible result where everything is random and nothing is ordered.  The possibility of order, however temporary, and to reflect on the nature of order and chaos is an indication that, if the universe isn’t strictly ordered, then order (and, therefore, meaning) is an essential component of it.

Humans, even in my worldview and spiritual learning, are not the top of the foodchain.  We may be powerful, but of course there are more powerful entities than us.  We may be smart, but of course there are smarter entities than us.  We don’t know everything, nor can we do everything.  The only course of action we have available to us is to learn and do as much as we can and then more, growing in our own power and wisdom.  We don’t need to get off this rock for that, nor do we need to understand the entirety of the physical cosmos, especially when power and origins lie in the metaphysical that physical laws cannot begin to describe.  Not all spiritual entities may care for us, but we must have come from some of them, and some of them are by no means indifferent to us.  Everything I describe is what Lovecraft refuted, and everything I believe is what Lovecraft denied.  While I won’t go so far as to say he’s wrong in the grand scheme of things, it wouldn’t matter to him either way if I did; his universe and worldview is less than helpful and more of an impediment to anything I do and study.

Nihilism and meaninglessness may make for an entertaining read, but it’s no more than the flip side of the “catch-penny romanticism” Lovecraft himself decries.

Clarifying Magic, Religion, and Ways of Life

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been making good use of some of my Christmas presents (books on magic, religion, and the like) and heartily absorbing some of the points they make.  While many of the texts talk about specific ways to implement ritual practices or the general cultural milieu occult practices take place within, the overarching theme that’s being presented is that it’s really really hard to make clear distinctions between magic and religion based on the evidence we have of ancient cultures.  Sure, we might call ourselves “magicians” or “priests” nowadays, but the worldview we have when we apply these labels to ourselves is kinda weird when we consider what the ancients and our ancestors would have done.

For instance, a magician nowadays might set aside some time every day for magical work, but beyond that doesn’t do a damn thing; no prayers, no offerings, no involvement of “magic” beyond their set rituals.  Someone we might call devout or religious might go to church every week and occasionally get involved in scripture study with their friends, but outside of that barely involves themselves in religious activity.  We basically consider ourselves part-time magicians; part of the time we’re magicians, and the rest we’re just our normal mundane selves.  This is such a modern way of thinking, and so prevalent around us, that it’s hard to consider that it might have been any different for the people who have gone before us.

What would the ancients have done?  Rather than set aside times for doing magic or being religious, they involved these things literally all the time in everything they did.  Not one single thing was separate from magic or the gods or religion; not one single act had explicitly mundane purposes completely detached from the spirits.  Every herb picked, every meal served, every trip made, every speech spoken invoked the gods or spirits in some way, or was performed for some spiritual purpose no matter how small.  Rather than clearly thinking of something as magical or non-magical, or religious or non-religious, their entire lives were lived by incorporating the spirits in every action.  Of course, there were atheists and people with different beliefs doing the same thing as others who might be more canonical or traditional in their works, but that didn’t matter.  Everything actually done was the important thing, and even those who didn’t believe in a particular spirit or the efficacy of the spirit still performed the rituals just as everyone else did.

We might call this all the “religion” of ancient peoples, but it’s unclear whether they would have considered it so.  To an Athenian, their style of Hellenistic belief was simply what was always done; there was no set reference of texts, no central hierarchy, no canon.  The only things that were set were the festivals, the rituals, and the observances of the gods that, as far as they were concerned, sustained them in their livelihood and lives. There was no “religion” beyond daily life itself, and all the observances and stories that gave importance to their lives.

What do we consider “religion” nowadays for ourselves, though?  We might consider a set of canonical scriptures, a defined set of beliefs, some sort of priesthood or hierarchy, and regular observances of ritual or significant times.  We generally consider religion to follow an orthodox (literally “right teachings”) model, where belief is the core part of religion.  After all, given the past 2000 years of Christian development and influence on Western culture and philosophy, where Christians were more concerned with “what is the real word of God” or “what is heretical and against us”, this isn’t too surprising.  Christians have had a set of four gospel texts with a number of other texts appended on and deemed canonical by central authorities, with any deviance from these texts considered heretical.  A central authority deems whether a particular text is worth studying, or whether a particular person has been initiated into the priesthood, or whether a particular ritual is acceptable or not for use within the church.  It’s all very centralized and set in stone, and any deviance from the approval of the authorities is bad.  What the authorities believe is “religion”; what they don’t is deemed heretical or magical.

But this sort of central authority simply didn’t exist for most of human history, or even in a majority of world cultures.  Take Hinduism for instance; while there are a few central texts crucial to the understanding of Hindu philosophy and beliefs, there is no central hierarchy to determine what’s right and what’s wrong.  Local communities might practice their festivals or rituals differently, or might place more emphasis on one practice than another.  Different communities might hold different stories or myths to be more important than others.  They might add more scriptures, or consider fewer.  None of them dispute the correctness of each other, since other practices can augment or reflect one’s own in useful ways depending on need and practice.  The ancient Greeks are another good example; they might have had the Odyssey and Iliad to reflect ancient myths, or other bodies of myth and stories, but there was no central hierarchy to determine whether this temple had illegitimate practices or priests initiated incorrectly.  Even within the same city, the same god might be worshipped any number of ways, and that was alright.

Rather than following an orthodox model of religion, many cultures place more importance on orthoprax models, literally “right practice”.  So long as you do the rituals to spec (whatever that “spec” might have been), you’re in the clear.  You might think that the god is really some other god, or that the ritual has this importance and not the one others think is important, but that doesn’t matter so long as you actually get your hands dirty and do the work.  Even if the community is just a tightly-knit family with ten people, the rituals and practices and customs done would be considered legit by them, and that’s all that matters.  There is no standard to determine which practices or beliefs are right or wrong, beyond what’s done for a good reason.

Partially, this lack of orthodox standard is influenced by the presence of “set texts”.  Oral traditions, like the classical Hindu or modern Santería or other religions, don’t have any particular set texts.  They’re all spoken aloud, passed down by word from one generation to the next; while the songs may be the same, they’re ephemeral, and require people to memorize them.  Changes, especially if the songs are lost or misheard or inappropriate for further use, are organic and allow different communities to develop their own flavors of the original religion that reflect their own cultures and communities.  There’s nothing to compare against besides each other, no “canon”, to say that something is right or wrong.  If something simply isn’t done anywhere else and contradicts every other surviving practice, it might be weird, but if it works and gets the same stuff done, it’s hardly “wrong”.  It might not be acceptable to one group, but if it works within the group in which it developed, there’s nothing “heretical” about it, so long as it pleases their gods and gets the job done.

So what’s the big difference between magic and religion?  Honestly, there isn’t one as far as I can see.  Even to define the two is difficult enough, but might better both be put under a broader header of “spiritual customs” that a group or individual makes use of to accomplish certain goals.  Whether gods are invoked by name or a simple announcement of intent is made, these customs are something “extra” to the purely mundane causes and effects that somehow make the action fit in better with one’s life.  It would seem that religion is simply the approved practices of the majority or a central hierarchy, and magic is anything outside that realm within the same culture, but this definition is kinda weak.  What would we make of a curse tablet that invokes the gods of the underworld in a purely prayer format?  Is that magic, or religion?  Many people employed curse tablets, and there’s nothing overly disapproved of the wording.  The grey area between magic and religion is so large that it incorporates both magic and religion.

Within a particular pantheon or philosophy, so long as you do what’s done, you’re pretty much set.  Just because some central authority detached from your culture and need says that your actions are wrong doesn’t make it so, but not all authorities are completely detached on the matter.  For instance, if you try to invoke the Santería orisha Chango in a ceremonial magic working or use symbols and offerings that are more appropriate to the Greek thea Aphrodite, that’s probably not going to end up too good.  Why?  Because that’s not how Chango has ever been treated, nor how Chango ever grew by those that worship him, and it’s also likely that Chango himself wouldn’t agree with the practices.  It’s not bad to innovate, but it’s also not bad to listen to custom and tradition.

Those two words, “custom” and “tradition” have important etymological roots that can clarify and guide our practices.  Custom ultimately comes from the Latin word “consuescere”, meaning “to become used to with oneself”.  Anything that is done over time that has been adopted or integrated into a community, family, culture, or even individuals is a custom.  Tradition comes from the Latin word “tradere”, meaning “to hand across, to hand down”.  Anything that we are taught to do, or picked up from others, or passed down from one generation to the next is a tradition.  Between these two, we already have a good body of things that can help us build our practice and educate us: the stories we’re told from birth, the tricks and quirks our parents show us in the kitchen or around the house, the polities and courtesies we show others that we were taught to show, all these things are customs and traditions that help us build ourselves into the people we are.

Neither customs nor traditions preclude changes to them or innovations of new practices, but customs and traditions should guide us and offer a sounding board for these new practices.  Thus, if a particular kind of fruit offered to Chango in Africa cannot be found in Cuba where he’s also worshipped, a substitute can be made if the new fruit is appropriate (similar color, taste, texture, etc.), or the practice might be eliminated entirely.  Offering Chango something entirely different with no connection or relationship to the original offering or anything Chango is known to like, however, may not be recommended unless Chango asks for it.  Similarly, if one’s traditions involve calling upon Chango with another set of gods that have been passed down by one’s family or culture (e.g. native American religions or pre-slave trade Caribbean faiths), asking for Chango’s presence with another god can be good if the two gods are known to get along well.  On the other hand, asking for Chango’s presence with a Celtic or Slavic god, when these gods are new to the family or culture and no connections between them have been formally made yet, may not end up too well unless one asks Chango and the other god how they might interact with each other.  Overall, it’s a respect thing.

In a sense, ritual acts might be considered “wrong” only if they’re disagreeable with the forces that they call upon.  If other people don’t like it, they don’t have to practice it or go along with it, especially if their traditions and customs dictate they act in certain ways that don’t agree with this other ritual.  If the spirits are okay with something and its continued use, there’s nothing wrong with taking that and passing it on for others to use.  If a ritual act gets something done or spiritually completes an act without harm and with benefits, it should be maintained and practiced by those who can use it.  That’s really the only difference between “wrong” or “heretical” acts and “right” or “proper” acts when it comes to ritual.  Acts that are deemed heretical and magical by central authorities, then, can be of no less use and efficacy than those that are deemed religious and proper, so long as the acts themselves don’t conflict with the customs and traditions that help build someone up into the person they are within the community that was also shaped by those customs and traditions.

So what’s the difference between magic and religion?  There isn’t one besides what’s deemed “proper” by someone who probably doesn’t matter.  What’s the difference between these and ways of life?  There shouldn’t be one for those who are serious about either.