49 Days of Definitions: Part IX, Definition 2

This post is part of a series, “49 Days of Definitions”, discussing and explaining my thoughts and meditations on a set of aphorisms explaining crucial parts of Hermetic philosophy. These aphorisms, collectively titled the “Definitions from Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius”, lay out the basics of Hermetic philosophy, the place of Man in the Cosmos, and all that stuff. It’s one of the first texts I studied as a Hermetic magician, and definitely what I would consider to be a foundational text. The Definitions consist of 49 short aphorisms broken down into ten sets, each of which is packed with knowledge both subtle and obvious, and each of which can be explained or expounded upon. While I don’t propose to offer the be-all end-all word on these Words, these might afford some people interested in the Definitions some food for thought, one aphorism per day.

Today, let’s discuss the thirty-seventh definition, part IX, number 2 of 7:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

49 Days of Definitions: Part VII, Definition 3

This post is part of a series, “49 Days of Definitions”, discussing and explaining my thoughts and meditations on a set of aphorisms explaining crucial parts of Hermetic philosophy. These aphorisms, collectively titled the “Definitions from Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius”, lay out the basics of Hermetic philosophy, the place of Man in the Cosmos, and all that stuff. It’s one of the first texts I studied as a Hermetic magician, and definitely what I would consider to be a foundational text. The Definitions consist of 49 short aphorisms broken down into ten sets, each of which is packed with knowledge both subtle and obvious, and each of which can be explained or expounded upon. While I don’t propose to offer the be-all end-all word on these Words, these might afford some people interested in the Definitions some food for thought, one aphorism per day.

Today, let’s discuss the twenty-sixth definition, part VII, number 3 of 5:

From the murk into light the body goes out of the womb, but soul enters the body from the light into darkness.  The sight of the body is the eye; but that of soul is Nous.  Just as a body which as (got) no eyes sees nothing, likewise a soul which has (got) no Nous is blind.  Whatever the (babe) in the womb will crave for, so will the pregnant woman desire the same; likewise whatever (Nous) in soul will crave for, so will man desire the same.

Ah, yet another comparison between the development of the soul in the body and the development of the body in the womb!  Yet what’s that?  This is actually a contrasting statement for once!  Before we’ve only ever seen things that liken the soul/body and body/womb images, but here we get an inversion.  “From the murk into light the body goes out of the womb”; simple enough.  The body, once formed, leaves the womb from a small enclosed space with little to sense, witness, or experience into the greater world as an independent being.  Its eyes are opened and it can finally see.  However, the case is different from the soul and the body.  When the soul enters the body, it does so “from the light into darkness”.  It’s like the reverse of the body and the womb; the body cannot really be un-born, but if it were, it’d also enter into darkness from light.  Thus, the soul, in order to develop, has to be taken out of a bigger world and put into a darker, corruptible body.  This implies some sort of affectation or impediment on the soul, especially given the connotation of “light” here.

Recall that “light is a good, a clear vision, which makes appear all of the visible things” (II.6).  It is good when we enter into light, which helps us see and sense and make intelligible the things in the world to ourselves.  Thus, it is good when a body is born from the womb, since it enters into light and is then able to see; after all, “the sight of the body is the eye”, and “eyes [see] all corporeal things” (V.1).  However, when the soul enters the body, it enters into darkness, and thus it cannot see.  Or can it?  If the eye is the sight of the body, then “that of soul is Nous”, and “Nous sees everything” (V.1).  We know that all of Man has the capability for Nous, but does not always possess it depending on their progress towards Nous through Logos (V.3).

So, when a body is born from a womb, its eyes are free and open to see the world; while in the womb, it cannot see, since it has no eyes apart from that which are in the womb.  What about the soul, though?  “Just as a body which has got no eyes sees nothing, likewise a soul which has got no Nous is blind.”  The Nous, which sees everything, allows the soul to likewise see everything just as Man is able to be part of the entire world and not just any single part (VII.2).  However, not all souls are given Nous, and so some souls are blind.  It is by the development of our souls through using the entirety of the essence of Man that we can obtain and be gifted with Nous, enabling our souls to see clearly, and thus reenter into light.  After all, light is a good, just as the Nous is the Good; light and Nous are very tightly coupled.  We don’t call it “enlightenment” for nothing, after all.  By entering into light, we enter into the Nous, and thus enter into God, which is everywhere at all times, just as Man is in all parts of the world at all times.  However, just as the world exists only as one part of God, individual humans exist only as one part of Man and in one part of the world at any given time.

Now we start to get a better notion of what this whole “perfection of the soul” thing is.  When is the soul ready to leave the body?  When is the soul fully formed?  We’ve read comparisons saying that the soul develops in the body just as a body is developed in the womb, but we haven’t seen what that completion criterion might be.  Now we do: it’s when the soul is given Nous.  After all, when a body is fully formed in the womb, it has all the parts and pieces of the body that should be there, not least of which are eyes, which is sight; sight is only used, or rather the eyes are only used, once the body leaves the womb, “from the murk into light”.  Entering into light is the mark of full development; thus, when the soul can see again, it can be considered fully developed within the body and can attain perfection, “from the murk into light”.  Thus, to know God, to be gifted with Nous and to serve it with reasonable speech, this is the mark of perfection in the soul.

Of course, the soul was already in light to begin with; after all, it “enters the body from the light into darkness”.  Thus, the soul was already in contact with and part of the Nous; the soul, then, comes from Nous.  We already know that “every move of soul is perceived by Nous” (II.6), but to say that souls come from Nous is interesting.  Where else would they come from, though?  They are not sensible, and so cannot be part of the world; they are only intelligible, and thus part of God that dwells within the world.  When the soul enters the body, it becomes separated or cut off somehow, entering into darkness and therefore separation from God where it can no longer see or maintain contact with God.  This is an interesting idea, but goes along with the division of the cosmos into the world, heaven, God, and the like.  After all, the soul inhabits a sensible body, which can only sense other sensible things; God is not sensible, and so God cannot be sensed by the body, though it dwells within and as a part of God.  Just as the body within the womb cannot sense things outside the womb, the soul within the sensible body cannot sense things outside the sensible bodies it can sense.

The body within the womb develops according to how it must, and in order to develop properly, it requires certain needs: food, drink, activity, and the like.  We often joke about mothers eating bizarre things like pickles and ice cream at midnight while pregnant, but that’s not wholly unfounded; dehydration, exhaustion, pica, and similar conditions can happen to women who aren’t preparing for a proper pregnancy.  This was known even in ancient times: “whatever the babe in the womb will crave for, so will the pregnant woman desire the same”.  The same holds true for the Nous and the soul while the soul develop in the body: “whatever Nous in soul will crave for, so will man desire the same”.  Nous is the core function of the soul, the heart of the soul, the home of the soul, and it is Nous that guides the soul and provides it with the impetus for the motion the soul gives to the body.    The needs of the Nous are, thus, the needs of the soul.  While the soul develops in the body, the needs of the soul must be tended to, and so the body that develops a soul will be driven to act in whatever ways the soul needs to benefit from.

Of course, just like a mother who denies eating or acting right to provide for the proper development of her child, a human can ignore the impulses the soul gives him so as to provide for the proper development of the soul.  It’s like speech: whereas “speech endowed with Nous is a gift of God, speech without Nous is a finding of man” (V.3).  When we act with Nous, we act properly and for the development and good of our souls.  When we act without Nous, we act only for the benefit of the body.  The soul, however, is insensible, invisible, and immortal, while the body is mortal, corruptible, and temporary.  The Definitions are getting pretty clear where we should set our priorities; after all, “just as you will behave towards your soul when it is in this body, likewise it will behave towards you when it has gone out of the body” (VI.3).

49 Days of Definitions: Part V, Definition 1

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 eighteenth definition, part V, number 1 of 3:

(Reasonable) speech is the servant of Nous.  For what Nous wants, speech in turn interprets.  Nous sees everything, and eyes all corporeal (things).  And yet Nous does not become an observer for the eyes, but the eyes for Nous.

The last set of definitions investigated the different types of living beings, and most significant among them is Man.  Man has a body, so Man is a living being.  Further, Man has soul and spirit, enabling Man to grow and move of its own accord.  Because it increases and decreases according to the element of earth within its body, Man can die, so it is mortal and not immortal.  We know that living beings with body, soul, and spirit also have voice, but Man has this in addition to Nous.  This distinction from IV.1 is important, and the clarification between living beings with voice with Nous and living beings with voice without Nous now becomes apparent.

For one, “reasonable speech is the servant of Nous”.  Thus, Nous as God or Nous as possessed by Man enables any living being or entity or non-entity to be reasonable; Man is, after all, a reasonable entity (I.1, IV.1).  Now we find that speech, which is made possible by voice that animals and Man possess, serves Nous, and above all reasonable speech.  This is made a little more clear in the Greek word logos, meaning many things, but among them speech, reason, discourse, order, logic, science, knowing, and many other things.  The concept of logos is pretty complex and has been used in many traditions and philosophies, but suffice to say that here it refers to the power of languge and utterance.

However, not all utterance is reasonable.  Animals, for instance, utter many different kinds of sounds and patterns of sounds in a way that modern biologists and zoologists would classify as language, but this is a pretty far cry from how humans communicate using their utterances.  We can get by using grunts and cries, it’s true, but that’s still a marked change from the language used to describe, say, Hermetic philosophy.  It’s by this sort of high-minded “reasonable” speech that Man makes use of when he uses Nous, since reasonable speech serves Nous and not Man.  This also implies that all reasonable speech, used everywhere and by any human, also serves Nous; after all, Nous is with each member and entity belong to Man, which connects all of us to the Nous itself that is God.

Continuing the definition, this makes sense: “what Nous wants, speech in turn interprets”.  Thus, whatever Nous desires to happen, this is made clear and reasonable (and, thus, intelligible in a way unique to humanity) by the power of reasonable speech, by the power of logos.  The idea of reasonable speech, or what we might call the Word, is what enables Nous to act.  Consider the first words of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”.  Word and Mind go together very tightly.  The relationship between Nous and Logos was clarified by Hermes in the Corpus Hermeticum (chapter 9, part 1):

Now sense and thought do seem to differ, in that the former has to do with matter, the latter has to do with substance. But unto me both seem to be at-one and not to differ—in men I mean. In other lives sense is at-oned with nature, but in men thought.

Now mind doth differ just as much from thought as God doth from divinity. For that divinity by God doth come to be, and by mind thought, the sister of the word (logos) and instruments of one another. For neither doth the word (logos) find utterance without thought, nor is thought manifested without word.

When “speech in turn interprets” what Nous desires, this allows Nous to make its intelligibility known to those who can reason.  Man reasons due to the presence of Nous within Man.  Thus, Nous can communicate with Man through Logos, and vice versa.  However, this is often done by means of Logos itself, since Nous contacting Nous doesn’t really work, since Nous is Nous.  Reasonable speech is what bridges the gap between intelligibility and sensibility; it’s what allows things from outside heaven without body to communicate and interact with things inside heaven with body.  All things are part of God, but it’s impossible to sense what is not sensible.  Speech allows such a thing to happen; speech is an important intrinsic mechanic that allows the different parts of God to work in harmony with each other.  Voice is a sensible thing; reason is an intelligible thing.  Combining both to obtain reasonable speech allows both to interact, and allows the intelligible to become sensible.

The next part of the definition essentially makes a comparison to drive this point home using sight and observation.  Consider that “Nous sees everything”; after all, “God is Nous” (I.4), “nothing is uninhabited by God” (III.1), and “every move of soul is perceived by Nous” (II.2).  Thus, all things both in heaven and out of heaven are seen by Nous, or God.  However, the eyes that living beings have can only see that which is “corporeal”, i.e. sensible since sensible things possess bodies of some sort.  The set of observable things is greater than and includes the set of visible things; for instance, Nous can perceive soul, which is invisible (I.3), but living beings cannot see soul.  This is made extra powerful by the fact that light is what reveals visible things (II.6), and the eyes react to light in order to witness or observe a visible thing; however, being visible requires something to be sensible, and that which is only intelligible cannot be seen, i.e. the bodiless and intelligible God.  Thus, in this sense, Nooic observation is to corporeal sight what reasonable speech is to utterance: that which involves Nous is broader and more transcendent, and that which serves to aid Nous.

However, the definition clarifies that “Nous does not become an observer for the eyes, but the eyes for Nous”.  What this means is that Nous does not exist to observe for the sake of the eyes; Nous and observation are not the result of seeing.  Intead, seeing is a means by which the Nous observes.  The eyes serve the Nous; the Nous does not serve the eyes.  In another sense, this also means that the eyes cannot see the Nous or by means of the Nous, but the Nous can see both eyes and by the means of the eyes.  Hermes said as much in the Corpus Hermeticum (chapter 7, part 2):

No ear can hear Him, nor can eye see Him, nor tongue speak of Him, but [only] mind and heart.

What this means for speech is that Nous uses speech to further the aims and desires of the Nous; Nous can use logos itself, the concept behind speech, as well speak as any word.  However, those who speak cannot do the same to Nous: those who speak cannot speak Nous for their own benefit, nor can they directly speak of the Nous, nor can they speak pure logos itself, though it manifests in reasonable speech.  Reasonable speech comes about as a result of Nous, but Nous does not come about as a result of reasonable speech, just as observation of the intelligible does not come around from sight of the visible alone.  Consider what Hermes taught Asclepius regarding his own words in the Corpus (chapter 9, part 10):

My word (logos) doth go before [thee] to the truth. But mighty is the mind, and when it hath been led by word up to a certain point, it hath the power to come before [thee] to the truth.  And having thought o’er all these things, and found them consonant with those which have already been translated by the reason, it hath [e’en now] believed, and found its rest in that Fair Faith.  To those, then, who by God[’s good aid] do understand the things that have been said [by us] above, they’re credible; but unto those who understand them not, incredible.

There, Hermes has used his reasonable speech of logos to serve the Nous in bringing Asclepius forward to it.  However, the mind (Nous) is more powerful than words, and words serve the mind only up until a certain point, when the mind is able to act and work directly instead of by servants or media such as words.  The Nous works in the world by means of Logos, just as a wealthy landowner uses his servants to work outside or even within his land; however, only when the servants bring something to his attention and presence directly does the landowner work directly.  This requires the servants to work for the landowner, and not vice versa; the landowner speaks, and things are done.  Thus, the Nous employs Logos, and things are accomplished.  Hermes was indeed employed by the Nous, through the guide of Poemander, to spread the word to guide others to Nous (chapter 1, part 27):

Why shouldst thou then delay? Must it not be, since thou hast all received, that thou shouldst to the worthy point the way, in order that through thee the race of mortal kind may by [thy] God be saved?

The comparison with sight and eyes in this definition brings up another interesting thought to my mind here.  With sight, we have two components: the act of seeing (sight) and the faculty of seeing (the eye).  The two are very tightly coupled; the eye sees, because that’s what the eye does.  In a sense, the eye is embodied sight.  Similarly, there’s Nous and Logos, the Mind and Word; the Mind makes Word because that’s what the Mind does.  Thus, the Mind is a kind of divine Word, since it is what it does.  This brings to mind the phrase “I am what I am” from Exodus, the reply of God given to Moses when asked for the divine name: “EHYEH ASHER EHYEH” (aleph-heh-yod-heh aleph-shin-resh aleph-heh-yod-heh).  However, if we change the “Y” in the second “EHYEH” from a yod to a vav, we get “EHYEH ASHER EHWEH”.  As it turns out, there’s a grammatical relationship between “EHWEH” (aleph-heh-vav-heh) and “YAHWEH” (yod-heh-vav-heh), the Tetragrammaton, the ineffable name of God in the Torah; this holy name has a meaning something similar to “I make to be” or “I create”.  Thus, the hypothetical name “EHYEH ASHER EHWEH” can be interpreted as “I am what I do” (using the obscure Hebraic root heh-vav-heh).  Thus, the One who is what it is is also what it does; this is both faculty and act at once.  The Mind spoke the Word in the beginning to create, and since the faculty and the act are one because God is what God does, the Mind is the Word.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”