Third Book like a First Sermon: Book III of the Corpus Hermeticum

Perhaps fitting for all those Carcers I got in the yearly readings I did at the start of 2020, these past few weeks have been marked by self-isolation and quarantine both voluntary and involuntary for many of us. Frankly, this has been an excellent time for me; not only do I naturally take to a hermitic life, but I don’t have to waste time commuting, getting dressed, or the like, and can instead spend more time in my daily prayers and meditations, more time doing rituals, more time writing, more time reading, and more time sleeping. (Well, maybe not sleeping, but one can always hope.) In addition to being a hermitic time, it is also—surprising positively nobody—a rather Hermetic time for me, as well. I’m going back more and more lately, it seems to what I’ve been calling the “Hermetic canon”: the Corpus Hermeticum, the Asclepius, the Stobaean Fragments, and various other bits of classical Hermetic bits and pieces that have been compiled throughout the centuries and translated thanks to the like of Brian Copenhaver, M. David Litwa, Clement Salaman, A.D. Nock and A.-J. Festugière, Walter Scott (vols. one, two, and three), and the like back and back through time. For me, I’ve been diving in deeper and deeper, contemplating and mulling over these texts, as they rightly and well deserve. They are, after all, the foundation of Hermetic thought, belief, and practice. So, it’s not uncommon that I’ll crack open my copy of Copenhaver or Litwa as I curl up in bed, read a few passages, and think them over as my head stops thinking and starts dreaming. It’s not exactly light reading, of course, but it’s a hard meal to take for the mind, full of roughage and slow-digesting nutrients—and thus among the most nutritious for the soul.

Although a number of the books of the Corpus Hermeticum are well-known and well-loved and have their own nicknames—Book I as the Divine Poemander, Book IV as the Mixing-Bowl, Book X as the Key, and so on—it’s Book III that recently caught my attention. It’s succinctly titled The Sacred Discourse of Hermēs Trismegistos (Ἑρμοῦ τοῦ Τρισμεγίστου λόγοσ ἱερός according to Scott, Ἑρμοῦ ἱερός λόγος according to Nock/Festugière), and like its short name, is a short section of the Corpus Hermeticum, indeed, coming in at only 23 (oddly long) lines of text, broken down into five short paragraphs. The trouble is, however, that the original manuscript is badly preserved, with rather lengthy lacunae on the seventh, thirteenth, and fourteenth lines, and with the first eight lines having a chunk cut off of them at the end. We also don’t have a good idea of when the text was written; some suggest as early as the third century bce, others as late as the third century ce. But what we do have, I think, is probably one of the best introductions to what Hermeticism (or Hermetism), the “Way of Hermēs”, is really all about.

Grab a drink and buckle in, dear reader. We’re going on a bit of a trip this time.

In his notes on his translation, Scott says that Book III:

…is so corrupt as to be almost wholly meaningless; and I have altered it with a free hand. It is not likely that the conjecturally emended text which is here printed is precisely what the author wrote; but I think it probable that, in the main at least, it correctly represents his meaning.

There is no necessity to take this little piece to be an extract from a longer treatise; it appears to be a complete whole in itself, and it is rounded off by a recurrence, in the concluding words, to the same thought with which it began. It is the concentrated essence of some unknown Egyptian’s reflections on the universe.

The author of Corp. III had read the first chapter of Genesis. It is impossible to doubt this, when we compare the corresponding passages in detail [between Genesis 1:1—3, 7, 11, 13, 20, 22, 24, 26, and 28 and Book III]. It is evident then that the writer of Corp. III knew the Mosaic account of the creation. But he also knew the Stoic cosmology; and in this document, he has tried to harmonize the one with the other, and so “reconcile Genesis with science”.

We have fragments of another cosmogony, which appears to have been likewise derived in part from Genesis and in part from Stoic science, but was said by its author to be based on the writings of Thoth, whom the Greeks called Hermēs Trismegistus,—namely, the cosmogony of Sanchuniathon, as reported by Philo Byblius; and it seems worth while to compare this with Corp. III…

Nock and Festugière in their notes instead comment that (my translation, with the generous help of Google Translate from the French original):

According to the remarks of L. Ménard, this whole treatise is full of inconsistencies and obscurity. This is probably due, at least in part, to the corruption of the text. In this case, the comparison with some of the variants from the Stobaean Fragments testifies to the small chance we have to correct errors that go back to the very sources of the [Hermetic] tradition. But a large part of the obscurity is also undoubtedly attributable to the author; he likes the long, sonorous words and the style of the Septuagint, which recalls the extreme obscurity of the Greek versions of the Book of Ecclesiastes. Further, we do not here have a cosmogony in the genre of Book I of the Corpus Hermeticum or of the Korē Kosmou; this is a ἱερός λόγος and, in fact, is a prose hymn.

The background of this book is worthy of attention. We do not start, as in Book I, with Light, but, in the normal order, with darkness: sand here plays a role analogous to that which we see in what Damascius knew as an Egyptian cosmology, and the celestial gods have and play their part. God is in the universe, and is not transcendent from nor separate of the universe: there are these and other marks of Stoic influence and traces of Platonism (cf. Scott and Ferguson IV, p. XLVII for a Neopythagorean parallel in §4). Everything else comes from the Septuagint. However, the ideas of redemption and immortality [which we find earlier in Book I and elsewhere in the Hermetic canon] are absent. One moves, in fact, in the atmosphere of Judaism of the kind of Ecclesiastes, before eschatological hopes for nature or for the individual had become important and before, in certain circles, one had highlighted, like the Greeks, the opposition of the soul and the body, which was a constant idea in Philo (who was hardly the first, eschatologically speaking). Perhaps this treatise is of older date than many others in the Corpus, and it was accepted as it is, because of the affinities which it presents with the circle where the rest of the treatises were composed.

Copenhaver notes the various issues and debates over Book III in his footnotes to his translation. It is certainly a conflicted part of the Corpus Hermeticum, and it doesn’t help that the lacunae are formidable here, but which Scott and Nock/Festugière have attempted to repair admirably, giving us reasonably complete translations (with caveats) later on courtesy of Copenhaver and Salaman, as well as earlier translators like G.R.S. Mead from 1906 or John Everard from 1650. Of them all, Scott really seems to do his own thing, with everyone else remaining in more-or-less agreement about what the text says (to varying levels of accuracy, of course). Although Nock and Festugière give their own summary and outline of Book III, I want to give my own, based on their translation and version of the text, as opposed to what Scott gives. This isn’t a full version of the text, for which I’d suggest reading Copenhaver or Salaman, but it hits on all the same essential things, broken down into five fairly short paragraphs:

  1. God, the gods, and godly Nature is the glory of all things.
    1. God is Mind, Nature, and Matter.
    2. God is the beginning of the All.
    3. God is Wisdom that shows all things.
    4. The gods, who have their beginning in God, perform and consist of the creation of the cosmos.
  2. The creation of the world.
    1. In the beginning was boundless darkness, water, and spirit, all existing in chaos.
    2. Light descended upon the chaos, and the elements solidified out of the chaos.
    3. The gods separated out the part of nature that could generate and regenerate, and divided it among themselves.
    4. In the moment of separation of the elements but before the formation of matter, the subtle elements (Fire and Air) rose up and the dense elements (Water and Earth) remained behind mixed together.
    5. The world was created, bounded by Fire and set aloft in the air of the cosmos, borne by spirit.
    6. The heavens formed in seven layers around the world.
    7. The gods became visible in the shapes of the stars and their constellations, the constellations conforming themselves to the gods.
    8. The heavens around the world began to rotate by spirit.
  3. The creation of life.
    1. The gods created life according to the powers and responsibilities given unto them, making animals and plants.
    2. The gods created humanity in all its generations to know the works of God and to increase and multiply.
    3. The gods created the souls of humanity for the bodies of humanity to contemplate creation and to discover all things.
  4. The way of life.
    1. To know God, to contemplate creation, etc. is the beginning of virtue and wisdom.
    2. To know God, to contemplate creation, etc. is the beginning of release from the works of the world.
    3. The things of the world will fade, and will be remade anew through the processes of Nature set in motion by the gods.
  5. All the powers of nature in the cosmos are divine, for nature is divine.

The cosmogony of Book III reads a little weird to Scott and Nock/Festugière: as Nock and Festugière noted, “we do not start, as in Book I, with Light, but, in the normal order, with darkness: sand here plays a role analogous to that which we see in what Damascius knew as an Egyptian cosmology, and the celestial gods have and play their part”. But I would counter that by saying it’s virtually the same thing as what’s given in Book I, when Poimandrēs reveals the origin of creation to Hermēs, just from the perspective of creation rather than the creator. Per Copenhaver:

I saw an endless vision in which everything became light—clear and joyful—and in seeing the vision I came to love it. After a little while, darkness arose separately and descended—fearful and gloomy—coiling sinuously so that it looked to me like a snake. Then the darkness changed into something of a watery nature, indescribably agitated and smoking like a fire; it produced an unspeakable wailing roar. Then an inarticulate cry like the voice of fire came forth from it. But from the light…a holy word mounted upon the watery nature, and untempered fire leapt up from the watery nature to the height above. The fire was nimble and piercing and active as well, and because the air was light it followed after spirit and rose up to the fire away from earth and water so that it seemed suspended from the fire. Earth and water stayed behind, mixed with one another, so that earth could not be distinguished from water, but they were stirred to hear by the spiritual word that moved upon them.

Note that this vision of revelation is given to Hermēs from the perspective of God, who (arguably does or does not) exist in Light. Before the creation of matter itself, all is Light; it’s only when God makes a little room within himself, within the Light, can there be a darkness, within which matter can manifest and take shape, and once it does, God sends forth from the Light the Logos, the “holy word”, which puts the process of creation into motion. That’s virtually what we see here in Book III, too, just from the perspective of the space-within-God where matter first manifests; after all, darkness was the beginning of creation, but God preexisted creation in Light.  In other words, Light is still pre-eminent in Creation, it’s just that it hasn’t reached where the darkness existed “by divine power in chaos”.  Likewise, although Nock and Festugière claim that Book III has God being only immanent without being transcendent of creation, that can only really be said if you ignore any implications of transcendence in this account of creation; just because something is not made explicit doesn’t mean the text denies it. I see no real issue here in mismatch between the cosmogonies of Book I and Book III; it’s just that Book III is easier to grok from what we or other common people might expect, already born and present here in creation.

But it’s the third paragraph of Book III that really struck me as important as I’ve been reading it. After describing the creation of animals and plants, the gods (which Scott takes to refer to the four elements themselves, acting as demiurges under God, though the text pretty clearly seems to refer to the gods of the stars and also maybe the planets) create the race of humanity. But it’s not just creation for creation’s own sake; rather, the gods create humanity for a particular set of…ideals, goals, aims, or purposes, I guess, for humanity to aspire to. Going with Copenhaver’s translation, based on Nock and Festugière, “the gods sowed the generations of humans to…”:

  1. To know the works of God
  2. To be a working witness to Nature
  3. To increase the number of mankind
  4. To master all things under Heaven
  5. To know that which is Good
  6. To increase by increasing
  7. To multiply by multiplying

But the text continues after this and gives another list, saying that “through the wonder-working course of the cycling gods they created every soul incarnate to…”:

  1. To contemplate Heaven
  2. To contemplate the paths of the heavenly gods
  3. To contemplate the works of God
  4. To contemplate the working of Nature
  5. To examine the things that are good
  6. To know the power of God
  7. To know the whirling changes of fair and foul
  8. To discover every means of working skillfully with things that are good

As opposed to Nock and Festugière, who follow the text as it is lacunae and all, Scott heavily amends and “repairs” the text and proposes a different wording and suggestions for the lacunae here, causing notable drift between his translation and what other translators propose. He only gives (only can give?) the following list of goals, which reads like a combination of what Nock and Festugière have above. Scott suggests that, given the similarity of these two lists based on their phrasing, “the two passages cannot have been intended to stand together in the same paragraph; one of them must have been written as an alternative or substitute for the other”. Thus, the Scott translation says that God (not the gods) created to:

  1. To contemplate Heaven
  2. To have dominion over all things under Heaven
  3. To know the power of God
  4. To witness the workings of Nature
  5. To mark what things are good
  6. To discern the diverse natures of things good and bad (elsewhere: to learn to distinguish good things from bad things)
  7. To invent all manner of cunning arts

I see Scott’s logic, I have to admit, but it also does seem a bit hacky; he does admit, after all, to altering the text freely to suit his own understanding, while Nock and Festugière preserve more of the original wording, which does seem repetitive. Perhaps, however, what Nock and Festugière have could be interpreted in a different way, a double-creation of humanity, the first material (creation of the body) and the second spiritual (creation of the soul), giving the spiritual essence of the soul one set of tasks to fulfill and the material vessel of the body another set to fulfill. That ties in closely with the wording and order of creation, following up the creation of animals and plants with humanity (“sowed the generations of humans”) and following that up with the creation of souls to inhabit human bodies (“they created every soul incarnate”). This also ties in with the wording of these different tasks: the first set are more manifest and material (mastering things under Heaven, increase the number of humanity, etc.) and the second more subtle and immaterial (to contemplate, examine, know, or discover various things).

A potential problem with this interpretation, however, is that Scott heavily argues that Book III basically denies a Platonic or spiritual understanding of immortality (of the soul, the spiritual part of humanity) which we find elsewhere in the Corpus Hermeticum as being of primary importance. According to Scott’s notes:

Corp. III shows hardly a trace of Platonism; and its writer definitely rejects the Platonic doctrine of the survival of the individual soul. It contains nothing distinctively Egyptian; and there is not the slightest sign of Christian influence. The document may be shortly described as Judaeo-Stoic. …

Each individual man, at the termination of his life on earth, “disappears” and “undergoes dissolution”. Not only is there no mention of a survival of the individual soul after the dissolution of the body, but the contrary is clearly implied. Nothing of a man continues to exist after his death, except his “name” (i.e. the memory of him in the minds of living men); and even that, in most cases, fades away in a little while. …

… Men, beasts, and plants alike (must perish). The end of the sentence is lost; but its meaning can be inferred with certainty from the context. Perhaps the author’s thought might be better expressed by writing…”all flesh is grass”. …

… If we retain these words, we must take them in connexion with ἀπομνημονεύματα τεχνουργημάτων, and the suggested thought would be this: “not only do men perish, but their works perish also; and though the names of great men may be preserved into long ages by the memorials they have left behind them, yet even the greatest will be forgotten in the end”. But the phrase is awkwardly interposed, and hardly suits the context; it cannot be said of the works of human art that they are “renewed by the operation of the stars”, in the sense in which this is said of human and animal births and vegetable growths. …

That which decays and passes away is “renewed”, but only by substitution. The individual perishes, but the race is immortal. The dead do not live again, but others are born to succeed them. And this unceasing renewal of life on earth is caused by the unvarying movements of the heavenly bodies, through the operation of which fresh births are continually taking place. The force by which the renewal is effected may be called φύσις; but φύσις is dependent on the movements of the stars, and therefore the sovereign power of God, by whom the stars themselves were made and set in motion.

Personally—based primarily on my reading of Copenhaver, and thus Nock and Festugière, which seems closer to the original text rather than the overly dour translation (and heavy-handed “repairing”) of Scott—I don’t buy this interpretation. It is true that Book III doesn’t touch on the immortality of the soul explicitly or any sort of higher goal than what was stated above as the goals of the human (whether as a whole, per Scott, or as human body and human soul, per Nock/Festugière). But consider the fourth paragraph, which Scott’s notes above describe as relating to the passing away of humanity and their works a la Ozymandias. From Copenhaver:

For [humans], [the whole of these goals for the body and soul] is the beginning of [the virtuous] life and of wise thinking as far as the course of the cycling gods destines it, and it is also the beginning of their release to what will remain of them after they have left great monuments on earth in works of industry. In the fame of seasons they will become dim [i.e. their memory will wane and be forgotten], and, from every birth of ensouled flesh, from the sowing of crops and from every work of industry, what is diminished will be renewed by necessity and by the renewal that comes from the gods and by the course of nature’s measured cycle.

To me, the lack of anything substantial of what Book III says about the soul after death or the greater cosmic path of the soul as we might find in Book I or Book XIII isn’t a statement about the non-immortality of the soul at all. Rather, Book III is giving us insight into the overall purpose of what we have to do and focus on in life, any greater cosmic eschatology being irrelevant to this topic. Although this is a “sacred discourse”, I would rather argue that this is not one held to be kept secret or reserved for initiates; rather, this is a sermon to be given to people as a whole, whether or not they’re focused on a philosophical or religious life. This is a sermon that Hermēs Trismegistus might give to passers-by or to the public community who might or might not (or just might not yet) have some sort of interest in divine philosophy no matter how small, a sermon that describes in brief a summary of the creation of the world and showing a real-world, walking-the-talk way of life for those who would follow in his way. For the common people or the world at large who might have different views about where their souls might go or who might not think anything of it, it wouldn’t matter what Hermēs would say about what Poimandrēs told him about what happens to the soul after death and how to ascend through the heavenly spheres to be made God (as in Book I), so Hermēs here says nothing about it. Rather, Book III is trying to inspire people to engage in the divine work right here, right now, in this very world, in this very body that God and the gods have given us, not to put it off for some theoretical eschatology that might beggar belief. After all, it is living this divine way of life that “is the beginning of life and of wise thinking”.

By that same token, though, it is also “the beginning of their release to what will remain of them after they have left great monuments on earth in works of industry”. How to interpret this? Scott would read this derisively as that it is our lot to die and pass away, with all that we leave behind passing away too in time, but recall that other parts of the Hermetica warn us against attachment to the world and love for the body, because it is this that traps us here in the world in an endless cycle of torturous rebirth ignorant of the Good. After all, we should not forget God’s announcement at the creation of humanity according to Book I:

… But God immediately spoke a holy speech: “Increase in increasing and multiply in multiplying, 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.

Is this spread of humanity in the world not like what we see described in Book III, where “through the wonder-working course of the cycling gods they created every soul incarnate”, and that “what is diminished will be renewed by necessity and by the renewal that comes from the gods and by the course of nature’s measured cycle”? The wording is a bit different, but the meaning here reads identically. In fulfilling the tasks set for us in body and in soul, we begin to live a virtuous life—or, really, in the Greek original, just “way of living”, perhaps in the sense of true life, which itself is a divine blessing and virtue that corrects and heals the torments of existence along with Light and the Good. At the same time as we begin life and wisdom, we begin to free ourselves from the death of the body. The phase here of “what will remain of them after they have left great monuments on earth in works of industry” is one I interpret euphemistically to refer to our corpses, the thing that stays behind when we die as our souls move on—or should move on, at least, assuming we can free ourselves from our attachments to it, the world, and the works of the world. In many ways, Book III reads a lot like what the historical Buddha might have preached when going from town to town, describing what entering the stream would be like for those who begin on the path to enlightenment. Consider the Buddha’s second sermon, the Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta:

Bhikkhus, when a noble follower who has heard (the truth) sees thus, he finds estrangement in form, he finds estrangement in feeling, he finds estrangement in perception, he finds estrangement in determinations, he finds estrangement in consciousness.

When he finds estrangement, passion fades out. With the fading of passion, he is liberated. When liberated, there is knowledge that he is liberated. He understands: “Birth is exhausted, the holy life has been lived out, what can be done is done, of this there is no more beyond.”

Although my understanding of how the Corpus Hermeticum eventually became compiled as a series of books into a single “text” is weak, if I were to compile the books myself, I’d put Book III at the very front of the line for thematic reasons before all the rest of the books of the Hermetic canon. To me, after mulling it over and chewing on it a good while, Book III reads like the introduction to the teachings and way of life that Hermēs Trismegistus teaches. All the other revelations, philosophy, mysteries, and initiations that Hermēs teaches to Asclepius, Tat, and Ammon are all well and good, but for someone who is otherwise wandering in the dark without guidance at all, Book III shines for them a beacon that can guide them to a safe harbor, planting the seed (as the gods themselves did and do in the world) of life and wisdom.

Plato’s Timaeus and the Tetractys of Life

At this point, it’s becoming plain to see that the occult system of mathesis, including the Tree of Life, goes beyond Neoplatonism right into the teachings of Pythagoreanism.  While I’m not annoyed at this per se, I am annoyed because Pythagoreanism is one of those things I haven’t studied too well before.  There’s plenty on Neoplatonism, sure, and plenty more on Hermeticism, but on Pythagoreanism itself, all I know is that it had a huge effect on later philosophical and mystery traditions and that’s about it.  That said, that’s basically the thrust of the academic and historical record of what we know; when we get into pinpointing exactly what in those later traditions had their roots in Pythagoreanism, it’s hard to say, since we have so little original source material on Pythagorean practices and beliefs.  So, all this Tetractys of Life stuff is half read from summaries of Pythagorean thought and half made up based on my own experiences and knowledge.  I have no idea if any such Tetractys of Life has been developed before, but then, I don’t suppose it matters at this point if it did.

One of the texts I’ve read before, obtuse as it was, is the Timaeus of Plato.  Plato, that awesome student of Socrates and teacher of Aristotle, wrote a number of books using Socrates himself and many other Greeks of his day as his mouthpieces, exploring various aspects of philosophy.  Of course, philosophy back in classical Greece had a much wider scope than modern philosophy; back then, it was focused on understanding how to live well, with questions of existence and ontology coming in second (or so I see it).  Plato is known for many of his works, especially his Republic, wherein he talks about the ideal city-state ruled by a philosopher-king.  Other works of his focus on things of arguably smaller scope, but the Timaeus is an exception to this.  This text talks about nothing less than the creation of the cosmos itself and how the structure of the cosmos is perfect in every way, and how everything that happens is directly attributable to the harmonies and ordering of the cosmos.  It’s a fascinating read, though the famous Roman writer Cicero himself claimed that he never was able to understand it.

While Plato is known for founding the philosophical school of Platonism, plenty of Pythagorean thought can be found in his texts because of course.  The Timaeus itself is the prime example for this, when the character of Timaeus explains the creation of the cosmos by the Demiurge, the World Creator.  Timaeus opens up his discourse with an important question distinguishing…something:

First then, in my judgment, we must make a distinction and ask, What is that which always is and has no becoming; and what is that which is always becoming and never is? That which is apprehended by intelligence and reason is always in the same state; but that which is conceived by opinion with the help of sensation and without reason, is always in a process of becoming and perishing and never really is.

Timaeus is setting the argument up for distinguishing the eternal, uncreated, and absolute from the temporal, created, and ephemeral.  Things that are, in other words, are unchanging and immutable, never becoming anything different from what they already are.  Things that become, however, are made to become and do not become on their own, since that would imply a power over their own selves.  Things that become can be perceived by sense and opinion, the lower faculties of the human entity, while things that are cannot be perceived yet they can be known by intelligence and reason, the higher faculties of the human entity.  (If this is sounding an awful lot like the stuff from the 49 Days of Definitions, it should!)  In other word, there is a dualism between that which is the Creator and that which is the Created, where the Creator is eternal and absolutely true and can never be directly perceived and where the Created is temporal and can be perceived without an underlying basis in reality.  Why can’t that which is become anything else?  Because that would imply that there is more than one absolute.  The creator, here, is the Good, the One, the Whole, or God, a single entity who created all other things.  Because everything else was created, it cannot be the creator, yet it comes from the creator.  The creator itself, however, was alone in this, since there is only one Good.  (Why?  It’s in other works of Plato, but if everything that becomes is due to a creator, the creator itself is uncreated, so there logically follows that there is only one creator, since there’s nothing to create the creator.  I guess.  Kinda.)

A little later on, Timaeus explains the nature of the things that become, that which is created, in terms of their physical bodies:

Now that which is created is of necessity corporeal, and also visible and tangible. And nothing is visible where there is no fire, or tangible which has no solidity, and nothing is solid without earth. Wherefore also God in the beginning of creation made the body of the universe to consist of fire and earth. But two things cannot be rightly put together without a third; there must be some bond of union between them. And the fairest bond is that which makes the most complete fusion of itself and the things which it combines; and proportion is best adapted to effect such a union. For whenever in any three numbers, whether cube or square, there is a mean, which is to the last term what the first term is to it; and again, when the mean is to the first term as the last term is to the mean-then the mean becoming first and last, and the first and last both becoming means, they will all of them of necessity come to be the same, and having become the same with one another will be all one. If the universal frame had been created a surface only and having no depth, a single mean would have sufficed to bind together itself and the other terms; but now, as the world must be solid, and solid bodies are always compacted not by one mean but by two, God placed water and air in the mean between fire and earth, and made them to have the same proportion so far as was possible (as fire is to air so is air to water, and as air is to water so is water to earth); and thus he bound and put together a visible and tangible heaven. And for these reasons, and out of such elements which are in number four, the body of the world was created, and it was harmonised by proportion, and therefore has the spirit of friendship; and having been reconciled to itself, it was indissoluble by the hand of any other than the framer.

Timaeus explains that the two major aspects of a physical body is that it is visible (able to be seen) that it is tangible (able to be touched).  These are provided by the elements of fire and earth, respectively, but here we come into a problem.  Any two properties can only ever be joined together by a third intermediate quality, so that the three become a harmony.  That would suggest there to be three elements, but interweaving mathematics into this proto-alchemical description of physical bodies, there need to be four in order for bodies to be a solid.  Remember that, in geometry, a single point is only ever a single point; two points define a line; three points define a form (a triangle); four points define a solid (a tetrahedron).  If each element is like a point, then if we only had three elements, we would all be living in Flatland, but since we’re three-dimensional beings, we need four elements.  Thus, we need two medians between fire and earth, which become air and water.  Fire is linked to water by the mean of air; air is linked to earth by the mean of water.  Thus, every individual body consists of these four elements which provide it with earthy tangibility and fiery visibility, linked together by the qualities bestowed upon them by air and water.  While Timaeus does not give what these qualities are, we can see in Agrippa (book II, chapter 7) that air gives bodies the ability to be heard and water the ability to be tasted or smelled (the two are similar in nature).  We can treat each of these qualities as an interplay between the soul and the body: fire allows other bodies to be perceived in a soulful way by the soul (only indirect contact), air to be perceived in a bodily way by the soul (indirect contact over a distance), water to be perceived in a soulful way by the body (indirect contact in close proximity), and earth to be perceived in a bodily way by the body (direct contact).

As for the soul, Timaeus backtracks a bit and goes on to explain that bodies were given souls, but that souls were made before the body.  After all, the body moves because of soul, so soul must rule over the body:

Whereas he made the soul in origin and excellence prior to and older than the body, to be the ruler and mistress, of whom the body was to be the subject. And he made her out of the following elements and on this wise: Out of the indivisible and unchangeable, and also out of that which is divisible and has to do with material bodies, he compounded a third and intermediate kind of essence, partaking of the nature of the same and of the other, and this compound he placed accordingly in a mean between the indivisible, and the divisible and material. He took the three elements of the same, the other, and the essence, and mingled them into one form, compressing by force the reluctant and unsociable nature of the other into the same. When he had mingled them with the essence and out of three made one, he again divided this whole into as many portions as was fitting, each portion being a compound of the same, the other, and the essence.

So we know that the soul is made in a different way than the body and with different materials.  Instead of using the four elements, Timaeus claims that the soul is made from two parts, the indivisible and the divisible, or “the nature of the same and of the other”.  Sameness and Difference, then, are the two qualities of the soul, but as we saw above, any two properties can only be joined by means of a third, and Timaeus gives us that as “the essence”, or Existence.  Sameness, Difference, and Existence are the qualities of the soul, which can be described as the quality that makes an object A the same as object B, that makes A different than B, and that makes A come to be at all.  Because the soul is not a body, the soul does not require a fourth substance, and is satisfied with only three properties, much as a triangle defined by three points forms the foundation for the tetrahedron with four.

From this, Timaeus describes the actual creation of the world in a weird and numerical way:

And he proceeded to divide [the creation] after this manner: First of all, he took away one part of the whole [1], and then he separated a second part which was double the first [2], and then he took away a third part which was half as much again as the second and three times as much as the first [3], and then he took a fourth part which was twice as much as the second [4], and a fifth part which was three times the third [9], and a sixth part which was eight times the first [8], and a seventh part which was twenty-seven times the first [27]. After this he filled up the double intervals [i.e. between 1, 2, 4, 8] and the triple [i.e. between 1, 3, 9, 27] cutting off yet other portions from the mixture and placing them in the intervals, so that in each interval there were two kinds of means, the one exceeding and exceeded by equal parts of its extremes [as for example 1, 4/3, 2, in which the mean 4/3 is one-third of 1 more than 1, and one-third of 2 less than 2], the other being that kind of mean which exceeds and is exceeded by an equal number. Where there were intervals of 3/2 and of 4/3 and of 9/8, made by the connecting terms in the former intervals, he filled up all the intervals of 4/3 with the interval of 9/8, leaving a fraction over; and the interval which this fraction expressed was in the ratio of 256 to 243. And thus the whole mixture out of which he cut these portions was all exhausted by him.


This entire compound he divided lengthways into two parts, which he joined to one another at the centre like the letter X, and bent them into a circular form, connecting them with themselves and each other at the point opposite to their original meeting-point; and, comprehending them in a uniform revolution upon the same axis, he made the one the outer and the other the inner circle. Now the motion of the outer circle he called the motion of the same, and the motion of the inner circle the motion of the other or diverse. The motion of the same he carried round by the side to the right, and the motion of the diverse diagonally to the left. And he gave dominion to the motion of the same and like, for that he left single and undivided; but the inner motion he divided in six places and made seven unequal circles having their intervals in ratios of two-and three, three of each, and bade the orbits proceed in a direction opposite to one another; and three [Sun, Mercury, Venus] he made to move with equal swiftness, and the remaining four [Moon, Saturn, Mars, Jupiter] to move with unequal swiftness to the three and to one another, but in due proportion.

Timaeus explains, using what is now famously known as Plato’s Lambda, how the universe itself was created according to a system of musical harmonies.  Suffice to say that the Demiurge took two “strips” of reality, one made from the even numbers in Plato’s Lambda and the other made from the odd numbers, and joined them together in the form of a giant Khi (Χ), bending them around into circles to form a sphere.  The outer circle is given the property of Sameness, while the inner one the property of Difference.  The inner circle of Difference, moreover, was divided into seven segments, each associated with the spheres of the seven planets who move at different rates.  The outer circle of Sameness, however, all move at the same rate; this then becomes the sphere of the fixed stars.  Linking the two heavens together is a connection at their nexus, which we can assume to be the nodes between the ecliptic (where the planets, Sun, and Moon move in the skies) and the celestial equator (where the stars all move along around the Earth).  The circle of the Same (the sphere of the fixed stars) is kept as one indivisible unit, much as the One itself is; the circle of the Different (the spheres of the planets) are divided, emphasizing their created nature and focus on manifestation and embodiment.

So why all the Platonic and Pythagorean claptrap?  Because, as fate would have it, all this from Timaeus reinforces the structure I have on the Tetractys of Life relating the elements and reagents:

Alchemical Tetractys

At the top, we have the Monad, the One, the Good, the uncreated creator of all things.  At the bottom, we find the four elements of Earth, Water, Air, and Fire.  Water, as we said before, is the mean between Earth and Air, and Air itself is the mean between Water and Fire.  These four elements create a physical body with the capacity to be seen, heard, smelled/tasted, and touched.  The body, moreover, is built upon the soul, which itself is composed of three qualities: Sameness, Difference, and Existence, which allow the soul to distinguish these things in the cosmos.  We see three reagents: Salt, Mercury, and Sulfur.  We can link these three reagents with the three properties of Difference, Existence, and Sameness, respectively, based on Plato’s Timaeus.  After all, in using Plato’s Lambda, we’ve already established that we’re using the same notions of “left” and “right” in terms of directions down and from the Monad, and the Demiurge (saith Timaeus) “he carried round [the motion of Sameness] by the side to the right, and the motion of the diverse diagonally to the left”.  This assigns Salt the property of Difference, and Sulfur the property of Sameness.  This gives Mercury the property of Existence, which links Sameness and Difference.

Admittedly, it’s at this point that I started freaking out, thinking back on other definitions of Salt and Mercury.  After all, isn’t Mercury traditionally assigned to be the cold and moist counterpart to hot and dry Sulfur?  Yes, but these two reagents alone require a basis to work upon, which is Salt, the materia upon which other forces can act.  Salt, much as Plato describes elsewhere in terms of the element Earth, can only ever be Salt; it can be acted upon, compounded, and transformed, but anything that exists will always be Salt, though in a different form than before.  Timaeus describes, further, that when the Demiurge made the soul, he “mingled [the three properties] into one form, compressing by force the reluctant and unsociable nature of [Difference] into [Sameness]”.  Difference is hard to mix in with anything, and in order to do it the Demiurge required something to blend it in with Sameness.  So, while Mercury and Sulfur might be opposite, they’re not opposite in the same way that Sulfur and Salt are.  The alchemical perspective here is a bit unclear, and the planetary associations of the Moon, Mercury, and the Sun seem to work better.  However, Salt is literally an “other”, unable to work in the same way as Sulfur or Mercury, but which can be worked with Sulfur by means of Mercury.

Confused?  I am, too, a little.  But basically, the Timaeus tells us that Mercury is what allows Sameness and Difference to co-exist since Mercury is what allows for Existence.  If everything were Sulfur/Sameness, everything would follow the active principle and would have no body; everything could only be visible and joined together in an infinite oneness.  If everything were Salt/Difference, everything would follow the passive principle and could not be seen; everything could only be touched and distinguished through spatial location.  In order for the soul to bridge the gap between space and awareness, it must relate to both in a manner that Sulfur can work and Salt can be acted upon.  Said another way, the three principles of Existence, Sameness, and Difference allow the soul to determine what actually exists, what is the same as itself, and what is different from itself.  The soul, not being a body, recognizes the body as the most different from itself, while the soul itself is made in the image of the Monad, and so is natively inclined towards making.  Thus, the Salt which is used in producing bodies is Difference, and Sulfur which produces bodies is Sameness.  This is how the principles of Salt, Mercury, and Sulfur work together to form the foundation of elemental substance.  This logic reassured me, since I had the momentary worry of freaking out that I had mis-constructed my Tetractys of Life by putting Salt and Mercury in the wrong spheres on the Tetractys.  Rereading Timaeus, however, and a few other alchemical texts, leads me to believe that this is alright and ties in alchemical theory with Pythagorean cosmology (which, admittedly, isn’t something that should probably not be done as whimsically as I’m doing here).

So Timaeus describes the Monad, the Tetrad of elements, and the Triad of reagents (albeit in an abstract manner).  What about the Dyad?  Timaeus talks a lot about the One, the Three, and the Four, but not much about a Two, at least not explicitly.  Implicitly, however, the whole discourse is about the relationship between the Creator and the Created, that which Is and that which Becomes, the Original and the Copy.  Continuing the very first quote up above, where Timaeus explains the difference between that which Is and that which Becomes:

And in speaking of the copy and the original we may assume that words are akin to the matter which they describe; when they relate to the lasting and permanent and intelligible, they ought to be lasting and unalterable, and, as far as their nature allows, irrefutable and immovable-nothing less. But when they express only the copy or likeness and not the eternal things themselves, they need only be likely and analogous to the real words. As being is to becoming, so is truth to belief.

In the beginning, there is only the Monad; we cannot yet call it the Creator because there is nothing Created.  We cannot truly call the Monad as existing, because there is nothing that is not existing; we obviously cannot call the Monad becoming, not just because it cannot become as created things become, but because nothing is becoming.  Before the Monad creates, there is only ever the Monad, and all dichotomies and distinctions and differences are moot.  Once the Monad creates, however, there is suddenly Creator and Created; as the Monad creates, it creates in its own likeness, providing Sameness; as it provides Sameness, it provides Light to see that which is the Same.  Thus, we have Monad producing Creating force producing Sameness producing Visibility, or Monad producing Light producing Sulfur producing Fire.  At the same time, however, the Monad has also produced the Created, which is different from the Monad; this Difference then provides Tangibility.  Thus, the Monad also gives forth the force of being Created or Darkness, which produces Difference or Salt, which produces Tangibility or Earth.  Sameness and Difference require the mean of Existence to facilitate further creation between the two, which is to say that Sulfur and Salt require the intermediary of Mercury.  Visibility and Tangibility require two intermediaries of Audibility and Taste to create a body, which is to say that Fire and Earth require the intermediaries of Air and Water.

In all this, we finally have a completion: Monad, Dyad, Triad, and Tetrad.  We can see that the Tetrad relates to bodies, and the Triad to souls.  The Monad, being the source, can be called God, pure Intellect, or Mind.  So where does that place the Dyad?  I claim that the Dyad relates to the spirit.  Just as the soul dwells within the body to animate it, the spirit dwells within the soul to…what?  Timaeus tells us:

The soul, interfused everywhere from the centre to the circumference of heaven, of which also she is the external envelopment, herself turning in herself, began a divine beginning of never ceasing and rational life enduring throughout all time. The body of heaven is visible, but the soul is invisible, and partakes of reason and harmony, and being made by the best of intellectual and everlasting natures, is the best of things created. And because she is composed of the same and of the other and of the essence, these three, and is divided and united in due proportion, and in her revolutions returns upon herself, the soul, when touching anything which has essence, whether dispersed in parts or undivided, is stirred through all her powers, to declare the sameness or difference of that thing and some other; and to what individuals are related, and by what affected, and in what way and how and when, both in the world of generation and in the world of immutable being.

And when reason, which works with equal truth, whether she be in the circle of the diverse or of the same—in voiceless silence holding her onward course in the sphere of the self-moved—when reason, I say, is hovering around the sensible world and when the circle of the diverse also moving truly imparts the intimations of sense to the whole soul, then arise opinions and beliefs sure and certain. But when reason is concerned with the rational, and the circle of the same moving smoothly declares it, then intelligence and knowledge are necessarily perfected. And if any one affirms that in which these two are found to be other than the soul, he will say the very opposite of the truth.

The body is moved by soul; the soul is moved by reason.  Reason deals with Sameness and Difference, but soul consists of these as well as Existence.  Reason exists on a higher level than soul does, which allows to reconcile directly the forces of Creating with Created without need for a mediator.  Reason is not Existence; reason is the relationship that reconciles Creator and Created, the intermediary between the Monad and the Triad.  Reason works outside the circles of Sameness and Difference, closer to God than the fixed stars themselves are.  Thus, the Dyad is reason, or spirit, that which moves the triadic soul as the soul moves the tetradic body.  These concepts are replete throughout nearly all later philosophical and occult works, even being repeated in Cornelius Agrippa’s Scale of Four almost verbatim.

While I had a few inklings about the concepts I wanted to explore on the Tetractys based on where I’ve already been and what I’ve already done, I admit that my reading list has not been exhausted like it should have been before I proposed to embark on making a new occult system.  Rereading the Timaeus should have been one of the first things I did, and here I am finally going over it and finding more ways to explain the system I’m developing in a way that I should have explored beforehand.  While the Tetractys of Life is, indeed, likely a thing that’s been made before, it probably was only done in florid 2500-year-old language without the help of Adobe Illustrator, so at least I can innovate in some way.  At this point, I’m finding more and more data and knowledge to back up my structures and plans for exploration, and I can’t say I’m displeased about that.  Fine-tuning and tweaking, especially to the paths, will still be needed, but I can rest certain that the overall structure is good to go.

49 Days of Definitions: Part X, Definition 7

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

Today, let’s discuss the forty-ninth and final definition, part X, number 7 of 7:

Therefore soul is an immortal essence, eternal, intellective, having, as an intellectual (thought), its reason endowed with Nous.  By understanding nature, it attracts to itself the intellect of (the planetary) harmony; then, once it is freed from this natural body, it remains alone with itself (and) is grieved, belonging only to itself in the intelligible world.  It rules on its reason.

After the last few definitions, which I feel were getting a little dramatic in how they were presenting the interaction between mortals on earth and immortals in heaven and how us who are Man should act, we wrap things up with this definition, which talks about the soul, which really is the centerpiece and focus of the entire Definitions.

First, we start of with a list of attributions of the soul, and here specifically that of Man.  It’s an essence, an underlying quality, which helps to define that which we are.  It is immortal; it does not die, nor is it born; while it may have been made by Nous (X.3), it was not generated in the same way bodies are (V.5).  The soul is eternal, which only confirms that it has always existed outside of time itself and experiences time only as much as God does or allows us to in our bodies; the soul truly is unbegotten, just as matter is (X.5).  It is intellective, able to think and reason with Nous, since that is what makes Man distinct from other creatures (IV.1, V.3).  Because of this, we can reason and understand the cosmos in a way that only God can, but it takes time, practice, skill, dedication, and perseverance to do so.  We can similarly choose to do none of those things and remain as, essentially, animals are; we can let our reason and minds stay catatonic and remain as animals do, or we can use reason just enough to get things done but in nowhere a complete way as we ought.

The way we understand things as we ought to is obtained by acting reasonably with the soul in the body (V.3).  This produces knowledge, true honest knowledge, which when obtained enough yields knowledge of everything: ourselves, all other things, and God itself (VII.5).  By understanding that which goes on around us, we understand everything as it works together: how bodies increase and decrease, by what means, and why they do this.  We understand the intelligible things that cannot be seen but we can still yet know, all the same.  However, we must continue to choose to do this, lest influences from the heavenly beings above sway us to do otherwise.  But even then, once we understand even a little bit of nature and the natural world, Man “attracts to itself the intellect of the planetary harmony”.  We begin to associate ourselves with the planets and other gods, and we begin to raise ourselves up into knowledge of systems far beyond that of the material plane of the earth.  As we attract ourselves to “the intellect of the planetary harmony”, we ascend into godhood, coming to know how all things work.  This is not the final stage of gnosis or perfection, but it’s certainly getting there.

After all, the soul stays in the body only as long as it needs to; then, once the soul reaches perfection, the soul leaves the body to die (VI.2, VI.3).  At this point, the soul is “freed from this natural body”, and, without a body, the soul becomes inert once more as it was beforehand.  Thus, it “remains alone with itself”, but it is also “grieved”.  After all, it has all the knowledge of the cosmos and of God at this point, yet it sheds its old skin, its old world, everything it had grown up knowing, and “grieves”.  This is an interesting point, since why should we grieve?  Sadness, after all, is an illness of the soul; without anything to expose itself to, how can the soul obtain anything?  After all, it remains “belonging only to itself in the intelligible world”.  It is without body, and it is now independent as a truly immortal being, a god, free from the sensible world in the infinity of God.  It rules, on its own and by its own, according to “its reason”, it’s Logos.

So why should there be grief?  All this work and perfection and godhood for…grief?  It doesn’t make much sense, I’ll agree, so there’s something missing, I’d think.  Jean-Pierre Mahé notes that the text is not only incomplete at this point, but that the rest of the text in several versions of the Definitions is spurious and an add-in from some other text dealing with astrological influences.  It’s kind of a let-down for the final definition, but let’s assume that the text is complete, and that this is the final and definitory definition of them all.  What follows is pretty much my interpretation, but this is going to be less logical and less based on the rest of the text than the other definitions.

The perfect soul, freed from the body,  rules on its reason in the intelligible world of God.  It, already possessing soul-Nous (VIII.4), has now also obtained divine Nous in its entirety, and thus becomes one with the knowledge of God and, thus, God.  By knowing all the beings, by knowing the self, by knowing Man, by knowing God, the soul becomes everywhere God is.  By ruling on its reason, which is now the Logos of the Nous, the soul acts according to the will of God without any external influence to sway it, and no unreasonable things to change its opinions or desires.  It belongs only to itself, but since itself is now effectively God, then it belongs to and exists within God perfectly in harmony.

The grief mentioned in this definition refers to it being separated from the material sensible world, which is odd when you consider the etymological root of “grief” to mean “weighty” in Latin.  The process of shedding the body for the soul may not be a very peaceful process, just as the process of birth for a human being is by no means easy or painless.  Perhaps, then, the grief of the soul is the final removal of its illnesses of sadness and joy, or the experiences it can no longer experience as a moving soul in a sensing and sensible body.  Yet, being joined in the knowledge of God, it already knows these things and experiences them intelligibly.  But it also knows that there are others that have not yet experienced this, and that they suffer in envy and jealousy and death when they don’t have to.  Why should they suffer?  God loves Man, after all, and Man loves God; if you saw a loved one in pain, you might also do what you could to relieve it.  As God, since that’s effectively what the soul is now, why wouldn’t you try to help out those who are suffering so that they wouldn’t need to suffer anymore?  If that’s what reason dictates, after all, why couldn’t you return to animate a new body, speak reasonably, act reasonably, lead others to act and speak reasonably, lead others to knowledge, and help perfect the souls of others that they too might be free?

Maybe this is an indication that the soul, ruling on its reason, may reason to return to the world; after all, since this soul is now God, we know that “God changes and turns into the form of man” for the sake of Man, so that others may become God as well.   In other words, to quote one of my favorite stories, perhaps the ending has not yet been written.

49 Days of Definitions: Part X, Definition 5

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

Today, let’s discuss the forty-seventh definition, part X, number 5 of 7:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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