This post is part of a series, “49 Days of Definitions”, discussing and explaining my thoughts and meditations on a set of aphorisms explaining crucial parts of Hermetic philosophy. These aphorisms, collectively titled the “Definitions from Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius”, lay out the basics of Hermetic philosophy, the place of Man in the Cosmos, and all that stuff. It’s one of the first texts I studied as a Hermetic magician, and definitely what I would consider to be a foundational text. The Definitions consist of 49 short aphorisms broken down into ten sets, each of which is packed with knowledge both subtle and obvious, and each of which can be explained or expounded upon. While I don’t propose to offer the be-all end-all word on these Words, these might afford some people interested in the Definitions some food for thought, one aphorism per day.
Today, let’s discuss the thirty-fourth definition, part VIII, number 6 of 7:
You have the power of getting free since you have been given everything. Nobody envies you. Everything came into being for you, so that by means of either one (being) or of the whole, you may understand the craftsman. For you have the power of not understanding with your (own) will; you have the power of lacking faith and being misled, so that you will understand the contrary of the (real) beings. Man has as much power as the gods. Only man (is) a free living (being), only he has the power of good and evil.
At last, Hermes takes on the role of Captain Planet and tells us definitively that the power is ours! What power is that? That of “getting [ourselves] free”. But free from what? That’s something that’s only been hinted at before: lack of divine-Nous (VIII.4, V.2), which is that which we seek in order to perfect ourselves by means of perfecting our souls (VI.3). After all, our deficiency or evil is ignorance of God, since our grace and good is in knowledge (VII.5) of the world (VI.3, VIII.4). We free ourselves from being deprived of and separated consciously from God to rejoin God as God, while those who are not (yet) free are those who “have gone astray” and worship human opinion (VIII.1, VIII.3) instead of worshiping truth and God reasonably (V.2, V.3, VIII.3). By being in our current body-soul state, we end up with good and evil (VII.4), and having to choose between them. While this choice is apparent down here, it’s only a reflection of true existence of God (VIII.5), and it’s ultimately a false choice, since such things only exist down here in this material realm. By freeing ourselves of this false choice, we return to the original grace and plenitude of real knowledge, of harmony with the divine.
But how can this be accomplished? We must strive to become godly by emulating and becoming close to God because we “have been given everything”; after all, our possession “is the world” (VI.1), and it’s our duty to fully explore and understand the world to complete ourselves (VII.2), by means of which we understand our body, thence our soul, thence God (VIII.4). Literally everything that exists, especially within the world but also beyond it, exists for our own sake (VIII.5), because Nous dwells within us and wants us to rejoin fully with Nous. See how all these definitions are to building upon itself into a cohesive philosophy and guide to salvation? It’s been taking some time, but now we start to see how we’re able and meant to do the Work we’re called to do.
Does that make us, as humans and part of Man, special? After all, we’re the only beings capable of being endowed with Nous. In a sense, yes, but not in the sense that we have to jealously guard our specialness. “Nobody envies [us]”, but what does that mean, really? People often confuse jealousy and envy, but the two are subtly different: jealousy is desire to keep others from possessing something of our own, while envy is desire to obtain something that someone else has that we lack. Thus, if someone were to envy us, they’d envy us for either our capability of having Nous or our actual obtaining of Nous, but Hermes tells us that nobody envies us for that. Why? Well, other beings without the capability of Nous don’t know any better. Of the animate creatures, animals only concern themselves with themselves and don’t process death or birth like we do, and the heavenly beings are already immortal and detached from the material realm; while they are part of God, they are without the reason that enables them to realize it or perform acts that only humans can. Of the inanimate creatures, plants and stones…well, they’re plants and stones. They don’t do much of anything in terms of motion, since they have no animating soul.
But what about other humans? Well, other humans are similarly capable of possessing Nous and themselves have soul-Nous to link them back to the divine Nous/God, so they can’t envy anyone else for something they already have. (The humans who lack soul-Nous, like those mentioned in VIII.4, are basically relegated to the realm of animals, which sounds cruel, but that’s just a result of the maldevelopment of body and soul.) We’re all given the starting chance, capability, and resources to apply ourselves to our goal and to our Work, so we’re all on the same starting line, more or less. The only thing that some of us might envy others is the possession of divine-Nous within ourselves, those who have been bestowed Nous through their use of reason. But then, they worked for it. They used the chances and resources they had that everyone has. They earned what they did and completed their objective.
Why should other people who strive for obtaining divine-Nous envy those who have already obtained it? They shouldn’t; to do so is unreasonable, and inhibits their progress towards obtaining divine-Nous through reasonable work. Thus, if they do, they’re not really striving for divine-Nous as they ought, and end up going astray and ending up content in their own world of human opinion and unreasonable speech. What about those who don’t bother striving for divine-Nous? These people (and I have materialist atheists who call all religion and spirituality hokum in mind) don’t see the point in any such endeavor, and thus mock those who strive and have striven for divine-Nous; they find that the Nous-strivers and their worldview are mockeries, and they “will be mocked at” in turn (VIII.5). These, too, end up in a world of human opinion and unreasonable speech (as far as Hermes is concerned), and they will have their own rewards in time; they don’t care nor work towards Nous, so they don’t envy the Nous-strivers anyway. Thus, nobody can really envy those who strive for Nous, either for their starting point or their destination.
Again, we humans have the power to free ourselves from mortality and lack of God. Everything that exists exists, in effect, for us: “everything came into being for you, so that by means of either one being or of the whole, you may understand the craftsman”. Nothing in this cosmos or Creation was created in vain or for uselessness, because “whatever God does, he does it for man” (VIII.2). Further, by inspecting the nature of the world, we come to know truth, and truth is the existence and body of the intelligible without body. Truth is God, and truth was made by God; God is the “craftsman” (VIII.5), and by understanding God’s work, we understand God. This, again, is both “knowledge of the beings” (VI.3) and knowledge of God (VII.5), and this is the perfection of the soul, our aim and directive. We can either inspect just one thing that exists, such as ourselves or the nature of a particular function of the world, or we inspect all things that operate as a whole, but either way it leads to God. Inspecting any nature leads to truth (VIII.5), and since truth is intelligible, truth has no body, no quantity nor quality as bodies do. Truth is, in effect, divinely simple: there are no parts to Truth, but there is only Truth. It’s like understanding the entirety of the human body to understand how it develops, or a single cell and its DNA which represents all of it in a compressed manner; both represent human nature in their own ways at different levels. All of the things that exist are not really distinguished from each other except in appearance, since all things are part of and within God, and also God itself. So long as we actually do the work of understanding, we’ll get to our goal.
Of course, we have the choice to do the opposite, as well: “for you have the power of not understanding with your own will”. Remember that as a soul descends into the body, it gains good and evil as well as quantity and quality (VII.4), and we can be good and choose knowledge or we can be evil and choose ignorance (VII.5). Further, we have the “faculty of killing”, which is to say that we have the ability to continue death and mortality for ourselves or we can shed it by returning to our immortal natures. It’s all up to us, really, and goes hand-in-hand with what we understand and what we choose to understand: “you have the power of lacking faith and being mislead, so that you understand the contrary of the real beings”. If the perfection of the soul is knowledge of the beings, then the imperfection of the soul is the lack of knowledge of beings, or believing other things that aren’t real or true. In either case, we unreasonably distance ourselves from knowledge, and therefore lengthen our path to perfection or shut it down entirely into perdition (V.2).
We can choose salvation and knowledge or perdition and ignorance; we can choose Heaven or Hell for ourselves; we can choose Life or Death. This is no trivial thing; these are things that were only ascribed to major powers before Hermeticism, and indeed, Hermes says that “man has as much power as the gods”. We are powerful in similar, though not the same, ways as the gods are; we own and use and work with and live in the world because it is our possession, just as we and the gods are God’s possession. The world is the lot of Man, and we essentially rule it and manage it. Our powers are vast, and incredibly potent, though they should not be confused with that of the other gods or heavenly beings. For instance, Venus is the goddess of love, lust, beauty, and luxury; she bestows these things, because she is these things. She does what she is, and thus acts according to her nature. We have our own natures and our own powers, and we use them in similar ways on our own targets.
However, unlike gods, Man is different in that we don’t always act for the Good like other living creatures do: “only man is a free living being, only he has the power of good and evil”. Venus does what she does because that’s what she is; she can do no other, and she can choose no other thing to do. She has her own mode of operation, her own directive, and nothing that inhibits her from doing it. Man, however, doesn’t have to follow his nature and soul-Nous; we can choose good and evil, knowledge or ignorance, life or death. In that sense, Man is given free will in a manner utterly unlike other living creatures. Plants can only grow and synthesize energy; animals can only act according to instinct; gods can only act according to their divine natures. Man, however, can act according to or against his nature, for better or for worse. And it’s pretty clear at this point what those choices are and manifest as, and which of those choices we should be picking.