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 twentieth definition, part V, number 3 of 3:
Who does not understand speech has no Nous, who talks without Nous says nothing: since he understands nothing, he has no Nous and he talks, for his talk is a crowd and a crowd has neither Nous nor (reasonable) speech. Speech endowed with Nous is a gift of God; speech without Nous is a finding of man. Nobody sees heaven and what (is) therein, but only man. Only man has Nous and speech.
This definition continues the theme from the prior one, which started the idea that there are two kinds of speech that Man is possible of making: speech-from-speech and speech-from-silence. Speech-from-speech is the use of voice for worldly ends from worldly purposes; it is not oriented towards the Nous, nor does it accomplish anything spiritual. In fact, speech-from-speech is “perdition”, the ruin of spirit and soul, because it keeps Man focused on and bound into the world. Speech-from-speech is sensibile speech for the sake of the sensible and produced to further the sensible in the sensible world. On the other hand, there’s speech-from-silence, which is the exact opposite; speech-from-silence comes from understanding of the intelligible God, which is Nous, which is given to Man through Man’s own Nous. This reasonable speech is produced through silence because in silence do we understand the intelligible by means of the Logos; this can be communicated to others through reasonable speech to bring others to Logos. However, only further silence and direct communion with Nous is possible once one can silently understand things; speech beyond this point is merely speech-from-speech. Only Man is capable of speech-from-silence, although he is also capable of speech-from-speech as animals are.
We know that Man has Nous (IV.1); this makes Man a “reasonable world” (I.1), and is alone among the living creatures with Nous (IV.2). However, this is talking in the abstract; in general, Man is reasonable. This new definition, however, states that not all have Nous: “who does not understand speech has no Nous, who talks without Nous says nothing”. So now we have a problem: there are people that don’t have the capability of reason, either through a lack of sensible understanding or intelligible understanding. If one does not understand speech (which, here, I would say is more properly meaning Logos), then one is unable to come to terms with the Nous, since the Logos is the means by which we approach the Nous. This is kind of a bad thing, since Nous is the only thing that distinguishes us among the living beings as Man; we become fully worldly without our connection to the intelligible Nous, which ends in perdition.
Thus, one who does not understand Logos has no Nous; one without Nous “says nothing”. This is meant in the sense that nothing reasonable is said; one does nothing divine, one does not serve Nous, one does not speak intelligibly about creation without Nous. Without Nous, one cannot have Logos; without Logos, one cannot have reason; without reason, one cannot have understanding. “Since he understands nothing, he has no Nous and he talks”; without understanding, one cannot have silence, so one talks without a divine purpose; one talks using speech-from-speech, which only serves to perpetuate itself. It, like fire, perpetuates while destroying the mortal; it builds up without providing for growth or fertility. Fire is the ruin of mortal beings, and speech-from-speech is the ruin of Man; the two have a strong parallel here.
Because speech-from-speech builds itself and spreads itself like fire, “[speech-from-speech] is a crowd and a crowd has neither Nous nor reasonable speech”. Now we know that not only do some humans lack Nous, but whole groups of people lack it, as well. If not a single person in a crowd has Nous, then the entire group is without it; they cannot bring Nous into themselves without there already being Nous, and without Nous, they cannot have reasonable speech or Logos, and so they continue talking amongst themselves, spreading speech-from-speech since it’s the only kind of speech they’re capable of. Crowds are driven by inertia or according to some outside force; much like the geomantic figure Populus, it is entirely passive, and is incapable of doing anything on its own for the larger scheme of things. Crowds can be extrapolated to mean the groups of the world that have no Nous, for if at least one person has no Nous, then we know that there are many people that also have no Nous. Hermes Trismegistus laments this in the Corpus Hermeticum (chapter IX, part 4):
The seeds of God, ’tis true, are few, but vast and fair, and good—virtue and self-control, devotion. Devotion is God-gnosis; and he who knoweth God, being filled with all good things, thinks godly thoughts and not thoughts like the many [think]. For this cause they who Gnostic are, please not the many, nor the many them. They are thought mad and laughed at; they’re hated and despised, and sometimes even put to death.
Things of the world bring death; death begets death, as all living beings that increase and decrease with worldly bodies must suffer. Thus, a crowd of people is only a thing of the world; if they despise those who understand, they not only lack Nous but are completely ignorant of it. If they kill those who understand, they only kill the bodies while the Nous of those killed goes to the Nous, while they themselves will die and remain in the world, accomplishing nothing except the continuation of the world for the sake of the world by the world. And all because of a lack of Nous, which results in speech-from-speech. It’s a vicious circle.
If reasonable speech is the servant of Nous, and if one is without Nous, one cannot serve Nous since one is incapable of reasonable speech with which to serve Nous. This forms a kind of chicken-and-egg problem; if one wants to serve Nous but has no Nous, and if Nous is required to serve Nous, where does one start? Nous is not an inherent part of humanity, though it is an inherent part of Man; there’s a distinction to be drawn here, that just as speech can be imbued with Logos or denied it, so too can someone be imbued with Nous or denied it. Thus, Nous has to come from somewhere, and “speech endowed with Nous is a gift of God”. The Nous decides whom the Nous should accept, and does so freely and gladly (it is a gift, after all). Once bestowed with the reasoning capacity, the animalian human becomes spiritual Man, which allows for reasonable speech and all the rest.
However, speech without Nous is a “finding of man”, no gift from God. Findings of humanity indicate things that are derived from or made by humanity for the purpose of humanity. It is entirely worldly, having come from the world, and thus is completely sensible. While the sensible world is not independent of or lacking intelligibility, without being at least aware of something insensible, nothing outside the sensible world can be known or understood. Basically, this is where atheism and materialism come under fire in Hermetic thought; if only that which is sensible is thought to be real, then anything insensible and only intelligible is thought to be unreal and without existence. Anything found by man, created by man, and given worldly sensible form is only ever going to remain in the world; it will never exceed it or go past it. Thus, speech without Nous does nothing reasonable or useful in terms of spiritual capacity, but it can go so far as denying the existence of intelligible things without sense.
Humanity needs Nous to become more than simply animal, and Nous gives itself to humanity so that they can become Man. However, Nous is only intelligible, and Man is sensible; the gap between the two is bridged by Logos, the Word, which manifests as reasonable speech in the world. Logos brings humanity to Reason to become Man, since upon being able to reason humanity receives Nous; upon becoming Man, one proceeds from Logos to Nous. All humanity is capable of Logos as they are; they may lack it or the use of it, but they are at least capable of it. Otherwise, speaking reasonably to one without Nous would accomplish nothing, and Hermes Trismegistus would never have taught others except to those who wouldn’t need it. Unlike the capability for Logos, however, one is without Nous until one receives it through the active use and reception of Logos. This is explained by Hermes to Tat in the Corpus Hermeticum (chapter IV, parts 2 through 6):
Her. So down [to Earth] He sent the Cosmos of this Frame Divine,—man, a life that cannot die, and yet a life that dies. And o’er [all other] lives and over Cosmos [too], did man excel by reason of the Reason (Logos) and the Mind. For contemplator of God’s works did man become; he marvelled and did strive to know their Author. Reason (Logos) indeed, O Tat, among all men hath He distributed, but Mind not yet; not that He grudgeth any, for grudging cometh not from Him, but hath its place below, within the souls of men who have no Mind.
Tat. Why then did God, O father, not on all bestow a share of Mind?
Her. He willed, my son, to have it set up in the midst for souls, just as it were a prize.
Tat. And where hath He had it set up?
Her. He tilled a mighty Cup with it, and sent it down, joining a Herald [to it], to whom He gave command to make this proclamation to the hearts of men: Baptize thyself with this Cup’s baptism, what heart can do so, thou that hast faith thou canst ascend to Him that hath sent down the Cup, thou that dost know for what thou didst come into being! As many then as understood the Herald’s tidings and doused themselves in Mind, became partakers in the Gnosis; and when they had “received the Mind” they were made “perfect men.” But they who do not understand the tidings,these, since they possess the aid of Reason [only] and not Mind, are ignorant wherefor they have come into being and whereby. The senses of such men are like irrational creatures’; and as their [whole] make-up is in their feelings and their impulses, they fail in all appreciation of those things which really are worth contemplation. These centre all their thought upon the pleasures of the body and its appetites, in the belief that for its sake man hath come into being. But they who have received some portion of God’s gift, these, Tat, if we judge by their deeds, have from Death’s bonds won their release; for they embrace in their own Mind all things, things on the earth, things in the heaven, and things above the heaven,—if there be aught. And having raised themselves so far they sight the Good; and having sighted It, they look upon their sojourn here as a mischance; and in disdain of all, both things in body and the bodiless, they speed their way unto that One and Only One. This is, O Tat, the Gnosis of the Mind, Vision of things Divine; God-knowledge is it, for the Cup is God’s.
Tat. Father, I, too, would be baptized.
Her. Unless thou first shalt hate thy Body, son, thou canst not love thy Self. But if thou lov’st thy Self thou shalt have Mind, and having Mind thou shalt share in the Gnosis.
Tat. Father, what dost thou mean?
Her. It is not possible, my son, to give thyself to both,—I mean to things that perish and to things divine. For seeing that existing things are twain, Body and Bodiless, in which the perishing and the divine are understood, the man who hath the will to choose is left the choice of one or other; for it can never be the twain should meet. And in those souls to whom the choice is left, the waning of the one causes the other’s growth to show itself.
Notice the distinction between chasing after the embodied and the bodiless; just as the body is sensible, so to is speech, and just as the bodiless is intelligible, so too is silence. Speech-from-speech is produced by the sensible for the sensible to produce the sensible. Speech-from-silence is produced by the intelligible for the intelligible to produce the intelligible. The two cannot mix. Speech-from-silence encourages one not only to understand, but to strive for Nous, which they then receive into themselves. Nous is a gift freely given, but humanity has to work to actually take hold of it. If we’re not ready for it, we won’t have it; if we strive for it, we’ll get it; if we are at one with our Nous, then we have already laid claim upon it.
So much for how one obtains Nous. The definition, and the whole section, ends with a final discussion on the Nous-able quality of Man: “nobody sees heaven and what is therein, but only man”. This means that, of all the creatures, only Man is able to see into heaven and to the places beyond it; only Man can see the immortal living creatures made of fire and air. Why? Because “only man has Nous and speech”. Man has both worldly, earthy, and earthly parts to him that give him life and death; however, he also has a divine, eternal, and reasonable part to him that gives him immortality and holiness. By means of this, Man is capable of seeing and understanding, of listening and keeping silent, of reasoning and knowing. Man, by virtue of having Nous and Logos, is capable of being God, just as God is Nous and Logos. Hermes explains this in the Corpus (chapter X, part 25):
For no one of the gods in heaven shall come down on the earth, o’er-stepping heaven’s limit; whereas man doth mount up to heaven and measure it; he knows what things of it are high, what things are low, and learns precisely all things else besides. And greater thing than all; without e’en quitting earth, he doth ascend above. So vast a sweep doth he possess of ecstasy.
For this cause can a man dare say that man on earth is god subject to death, while god in heaven is man from death immune.
Man is able to use his body for the sake of the Nous, instead of using his body for the sake of his body. We have that choice, of course: to be animal or to be divine. However, one path leads to endless worldliness and perdition, while the other leads to eternal holiness and salvation. The difference is a matter of speech: reasonable speech serves the Nous, while unreasonable speech serves the body. Logos is the combination of Nous and speech for us, and since we have both, only Man is capable of Logos. Other living creatures only have voice without Nous, and so understand nothing and are capable of only worldly things. Speech is the means by which Nous accomplishes its will, and is also the means by which we approach the Nous when we speak from silence and understanding of Reason and reasonable things. By these things, Man is unique in being able to look up into heaven and to find out things that are not only not earthy, but even not sensible; Man is unique in his capability of understanding the purely intelligible. And by that, Man is unique in his capability to not only have Nous but to become Nous. Man is unique in his capability to become God.