The Difficulty of Centralizing the Way of Hermēs

I guess I should write a follow-up to that last post about the difficulty of coming up with a set of coherent principles for Hermet(ic)ism.  The main point I was trying to make was that coming up with a short set of overall principles for the Way of Hermēs is really difficult, despite the popularity of such a notion as spread by the Kybalion to make bite-sized pieces of philosophy and spirituality easy to digest.  There are lots of reasons for this, which I brought up in the last post, but the big one is that the notion of a principle is (as defined by Dictionary.com) “a fundamental doctrine or tenet; a fundamental, primary, or general law or truth from which others are derived”.  This sounds all well and good, and it’s reasonable that we should want and strive to come up with some Hermetic principles to arrange for the study of Hermet(ic)ism and the Hermetic canon, but the problem I kept running into was that everything seemed to be contradicted at one point or another by the very texts those principles are supposed to derive from and summarize.  This isn’t so much a problem of the principalizers as it is the things to be principled; it’s a known fact that the Hermetic texts are not consistent among themselves, even by their own admission, by the very nature of what it is they teach and how they go about teaching it.

First, why should we want principles?  As we mentioned earlier, we have a notion of κεφαλαὶα, “chapter headings” as it were, brief gnomic statements about doctrine which often serve as mnemonics and fundamental…well, principles that other Hermetic texts work on expounding.  There are two excellent sets of such statements at our disposal—the Definitions of Hermēs Trismegistus to Asclepius on the one hand and the Eleventh Stobaean Fragment on the other—but there are about fifty such statements in each, and are often paradoxical, supremely terse and soaked with deeper meaning, and not exactly as memorable or catchy as the well-known (but faulty) “Seven Hermetic Principles” from the Kybalion.  To an extent, that really should be okay; as I’ve said before, the study of the Hermetic texts and of the Way of Hermēs generally is going to be a difficult process, just as the Hermetic texts themselves say, not because of how they’re written (through choice and style of translations can make it more difficult), but because of the very subject matter itself.  Even for those for whom the doors to the Way of Hermēs were built, the way is hard and long to walk.  To try to simplify everything into bite-sized things can be useful at times, but we should remember that a sugary snack is no replacement for a hearty meal.  Substituting a handful of Hermetic principles for the deeper lessons and lectures and logoi we should be studying and contemplating might be nice at times, but that’s not the same as actually doing the Work needed.  There’s a world of difference between a simple, high-level, abbreviated awareness of a concept, and fully understanding, comprehending, and grokking it, and the use of simple pithy principles does not help us accomplish that.  It might get us started, if at all, but simply remembering a pithy phrase is not the same thing as having actual wisdom to back it up.

But let’s say that we still want principles to write about, and let’s assume we have a good reason for their writing.  We still run into the problem of principles being contradicted by the very texts they’re supposed to be principles for; we still have the problem of a lack of consistency across the Hermetic canon for all but the broadest and highest-level of notions.  At that point, though, such statements would end up being neither particularly informative nor particularly helpful nor particularly distinct to Hermet(ic)ism.  This forces us to take a look at these contradictions and inconsistencies in the Hermetic texts, which forces us to realize that…well, Hermet(ic)ism isn’t just a single thing, not a single doctrine held by a single group, not a single practice implemented by a single temple, not a single lineage with a single source.  There are hints in the Hermetic texts of a variety of different views and standpoints, where the way the text is phrased suggests setting the specific author apart from the other views (sometimes as polemic, sometimes as correction, sometimes as an actual viewpoint held by other Hermetic groups, sometimes as views held by other traditions as incorrect views, sometimes a viewpoint made an example of without being seriously considered as being Hermetic):

  • A purely monist view of creation versus a dualist one.
  • A view of the cosmos that begins from a dualist standpoint to a monist one, versus one that begins from a monist standpoint to a dualist one.
  • Groups who proclaim direct descent from Hermēs through Asclepius, Tat, and Ammon, and groups who proclaim indirect descent from Hermēs through Isis, Osiris, and Horus.
  • Monotheistic versus polytheistic stances on God or the demiurge.
  • A favorable view or unfavorable view of the demiurge as relating to corruption and vice in the world.
  • A favorable view or unfavorable view of asceticism and abstaining from sex and reproduction.
  • A favorable view or unfavorable view of making material offerings to divinity, and in specific contexts.
  • A favorable view or unfavorable view of using magic to rectify or change things in the cosmos.
  • A view that in reincarnation the human soul can reincarnate into animals versus one that prohibits such a view.
  • A view that God is capable of sensation and understanding in the world versus one that prohibits such a view.

We see a variety of these differences in different Hermetic texts, and not just the philosophical Hermetica, but the technical Hermetica, too, depending on the specific genre of text, the specific time period it was written in, the presence of the influence of specific other traditions, and the like.  We see this not just in classical Hermetic texts, but in pretty much other texts right up through into the modern day.  While some of these viewpoints were argued against as a point to make about what’s Hermetic and what’s not Hermetic, some of these were also argued against as a point to make about what’s good Hermet(ic)ism and what’s bad Hermet(ic)ism, and it’s not always clear which is which.  What we end up with is, frankly, a mess, but there is one clear answer that arises from it like shining Harpocratēs on the lotus from the mud: there is no one single Way of Hermēs, but a whole bunch of such ways.  What we end up with is that there is not one single Hermet(ic)ism; what we end up with is a set of texts that are a collection of a survival of loosely-affiliated Hermet(ic)isms that did not always agree on the finer points of doctrine and practice.

I suppose the drive to have the “one true Way” is as strong with me as it is with others, and has been since the dawn of Hermēs Trismegistus in this light.  I recall some snarky comment on (probably?) Reddit—I don’t remember who made it, just the basic gist of the comment—that people are going to argue over whatever they think is Hermeticism that day.  And I admit that I do that, too; heck, my recent rant about relabling myself as a Hermetist and leaving the Hermeticist label behind is myself telling on myself that I have my view on what constitutes the “real” Way of Hermēs.  But, then, so did the authors of the Hermetic canon themselves, though they all use the mask of Hermēs or one of his disciples to teach.  While this was the custom at the time, to be sure, to ascribe all good, approved, traditionally-sourced knowledge to the god who was the font of all suck knowledge, we also have to admit that it gives us a false sense of unity that quickly falls apart based on what we have available to us, both in how little we have as well as in how much we have.

In almost any real-world scenario, when we want to get from Point A to Point B, we often have many ways to choose from to accomplish such a trip.  Though some might consider the shortest, most direct path to be the “correct” one like on an IQ test, let’s be honest: the way you get there doesn’t so much matter so long as getting there is.  Whether you walk the most direct path on foot or drive a cart for a more scenic path or take the bus along a preplanned route, whether you go straight to your destination or hit up other destinations along the way, whether you like taking only left turns or avoid taking any left turn at all, so long as you get from Point A to Point B to accomplish what you originally set out to do, that’s what matters more in the end, so long as you end up making your destination.  While I can point out the distinctions and departures any particular Hermetic (or, in some cases, “Hermetic”, quotes intentional) path might depart from that described by (whatever chunks of the Hermetic canon are consistent amongst themselves), the fact that they take such a path from A to B for the same underlying reasons is good enough to claim the Hermetic title for themselves.  Sure, they might not be classically Hermetist in their approach and would rather take a more modern Hermeticist approach, but that’s still just one approach out of many under the broader umbrella of the Ways of Hermēs.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying this with some sort of BS climax saying “yanno, maybe the Kybalion is alright in the end”, because it’s not; that’s still a New Thought text, not a Hermetic text except in cases of sheer coincidence where Atkinson took a break from lauding himself for sharing such “secret”, “ancient” knowledge out of the goodness of his heart to actually make a point about New Thought dolled up in faux-Hermetic drag.  (Quite the opposite, really, as we’ll get to eventually.) What I’m saying is that when it comes to the matter of coming up with principles for the Hermetic texts…maybe we’ve got it backwards, and that’s where we’re coming into problems.  That’s the distinction between the kephalaía statements and principles, because the kephalaía statements were the seeds of texts that had to be nourished to flourish into a beautiful garden, while here we are trying to make a jar of reduced jam from the fruit of such texts when not all such texts make compatible fruit.  Principles are supposed to be things from which we derive other truths, not to be merely summaries of existing ones.  Principles establish the guideposts and landmarks and directions to take on a given Way, but a difference in principles will set you up from a different Way than someone else who has different principles, even if both are derived from the same collection of texts.  This can’t really be avoided; without going through some super complex and arcane (and more than likely roughshod and ramshackle) effort to harmonize conflicting teachings on their surface (because all such teachings will be true at some point or another for some people and not others, all pointing the way towards a deeper truth of an ultimately ineffable Truth), you’re going to have to “pick sides” as it were.  This means that, although I call all these texts collectively “the Hermetic canon”, you’ve got to make a move here to say what’s really canonical or not.  A better term for all this is simply Hermetica, or Hermetic corpus (not to be confused with the Corpus Hermeticum), perhaps, with “Hermetic canon” being the specific texts one holds as consistent with each other and true or with elisions and explanations to deal with the things that aren’t consistent with the rest, but in the end, the principles you use need to be made with the full understanding that those are going to be the parameters for the Way you’re planning to follow.

Let me say that again: the principles you use need to be made with the full understanding that those are going to be the parameters for the Way you’re planning to follow—and, thus, the Way you’re planning to teach and guide others on, as well.  When you establish a set of principles, you end up making a new Way, whether you intend to or not, and that should only be done after great thought and deliberation in the process.  Otherwise, the Way you establish by means of those principles can be more dangerous, deceptive, repetitive, or misleading than you intend it to be.  In making canon, we use cannons; be careful where you aim, and be careful of collateral damage in the process.  I’m not saying that you can’t make a set of principles as guiding statements for (your preferred brand of) Hermet(ic)ism, but that you need to be supremely cautious that, in doing so, you don’t lose sight of where you’re coming from, where you’re heading to, how you’re getting there, and why you’re heading there at all, and that it all still looks, smells, and feels enough like other Ways of Hermēs to still be a Way of Hermēs itself.  After all, Hermēs is the god of all roads and all paths, and is the teacher of all students; he can teach you in any way, but only the way that is best for you.  If you’re going to take that role of Hermēs upon yourself for others, then you better know what you’re doing, because a faulty guide gets everyone lost.

I suppose this is one reason (out of many) for my own difficulty in trying to come up with “Hermetic principles”: I’m still learning, studying, and contemplating the classical Hermetic texts too much, and want to try to get at the deeper truth from all angles of each, to take a side just yet on any of them.  It’s why I don’t feel ready enough to make a judgment on the worthiness of any particular Hermetic text, at least within the bounds of that which was written up to and including the Emerald Tablet, after which my own interest in practice and belief wanes—again, a conscious choice I make on my part, and perhaps the only solid one I make regarding the broader notion of “Hermetic literature”, and which centers my view of Hermet(ic)ism on the philosophical Hermetica over the technical Hermetica, at least for the purpose of illustrating the overall Way as opposed to specific vehicles or directions to take on any given way, whether of Hermēs or otherwise.  It’s why I don’t feel at the proper point to proclaim what my recommend guideposts, landmarks, and directions on the Way of Hermēs should be, because I’m still figuring that out for myself and haven’t reached my destination yet to look back and see what can be said about the way I took to get there.  It’s why I like just pointing to Book III of the Corpus Hermeticum as my own sort of Hermetic “Heart Sutra” that I think should be the first Hermetic text one reads, because I feel that it’s a good summary of the Way of Hermēs as anything else without being too long, too obscure, or too challenging while also giving a good, high-level view of the Way that doesn’t have polemics against other quasi- or non-Hermetic ideas and which doesn’t have polemics against it elsewhere in the Hermetic canon.  In this, I suppose that Book III, “the Sacred Discourse of Hermēs”, is my preferred bedrock of the Hermetic life—and thus provides a ready, premade set of principles of its own.  (In addition to the kephalaía of the Definitions and the Eleventh Stobaean Fragment, of course.)

Not to overplay the song of the target of my disdain too much, but this matter of principles is fundamentally the substantial reason why I consider the Kybalion to not be Hermetic, in addition to its non-Hermetic origin.  Not only do the “Seven Hermetic Principles” not appear in any legitimate Hermetic text (classical or otherwise), but they all point to aspects of doctrine, none of which are written in a way that makes sense in the original contexts of Hermetic literature, and none of which are particularly Hermetic even when they aren’t outright contradicted by Hermetic texts, all without actually setting a goal or purpose.  In that, the Kybalion can be considered no more than that one miscellany drawer we all have at our desk or in our kitchen full of trash and knickknacks; some might be able to turn it into a toolbox of miscellaneous (and poorly-made, vague, undefined, indefinite) tools, but without any clear purpose for what those tools can be used for besides feel-good solipsistic “The Secret”-esque navel-gazing.  This is direct contrast to the ultimate goals of the Way of Hermēs, said in no uncertain terms from the Corpus Hermeticum (CH) and Stobaean Fragments (SH):

  • To show devotion (SH IIb.2)
  • To join reverence with knowledge (CH VI.5)
  • To not be evil (CH XII.23)
  • To enter into God so as to become God (CH I.26)

I refrain from calling these “principles” because, while these are all things that aren’t contradicted by other parts of the Hermetic canon, I’m not sure that these are sufficient to serve as axioms or declarations of truth from which other concepts can derive.  I’m not saying that this is all that there is along these lines, either, but these are sufficient to illustrate what the whole point of Hermet(ic)ism is about.  Thus, they point to a destination, an incontrovertibly Hermetic one in the truest sense as being part of the entire Hermetic literature—if not perhaps more than a little vague—but a destination, all the same, which is nowhere found in the Kybalion.  Can one use the Kybalion in a Hermetic fashion?  Sure, but that’s because of you, not because of the book, and so that’s you making the book a Hermetic aid, not the book being Hermetic in and of itself.  This is also why I center the philosophical Hermetica over the technical Hermetica to illustrate the Way of Hermēs, because the technical Hermetica can be used in non-Hermetic contexts and can be used in ways contrary to these statements; in this light, the Kybalion can be considered a sort of abstract technical text with quasi-philosophical elements, but that still doesn’t make it Hermetic.

Again, without calling these four statements “principles”, it is (in addition to a notion of being revealed by Hermēs Trismegistus for the sake of the well-being of humanity and their spiritual rejoining with God) a way to gauge how Hermetic something really is based on its claims, philosophies, theology, and practices.  And, barring other polemics, I think maybe these four statements can help us remember the goal that all of us who follow one of the myriad Ways of Hermēs work towards, and which can unite us all in singular purpose.  The specific roads might differ, but so long as we get to the same place in the end, there’s nothing truly wrong about it.