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 fifteenth definition, part III, number 4 of 4:
God is the good (which is) previous to all the intelligible (beings); God is the father of the intelligible; heaven is the maker of the body. The magnitude of the light of the sun is earth and sea; the magnitude of heaven (is) the world; the magnitude of the world is God.
From the last few definitions in this section, we know that the Definitions provide a Hermetic panentheistic view of the universe: God is both immanent in creation and transcendent of it, existing both as part of all things that exist and outside existence entirely. Further, all of creation isn’t one solid thing; there are different parts to creation, namely heaven, the world, and humanity. Humanity exists only in part of the world; the world exists only in part of heaven; heaven exists only in part of God. Thus, God is in all things that we can possibly know, but also exists outside it as well in a place of weird non-existence-yet-not-not-existing (it’s hard to talk about things that we don’t have words for, after all).
The current definition talks a little more about God and it’s relationship with heaven, the world, and man. God is “the good”, specifying him as something that is or is part of the Nous (II.1), as well as likening him to the light of sense (II.6). More importantly, God is “the good which is previous to all the intelligible beings”. In other words, God is the thing that came first before anything else that has ever existed, might exist, can exist, or doesn’t exist; God has always been. “God is the father of the intelligible”, so not only did God come first before all other things, but God also created all other things; things that are sensible (heaven, the world, Man, etc.) are a subset of things that are intelligible (things higher than heaven but still part of God).
In addition to being intelligible and coming from God, “heaven is the maker of the body”, so anything that’s sensible or has a body comes from heaven. Just as heaven itself comes from God, so too do bodies also come from God, but bodies only exist in and under heaven. Thus, heaven plays a microcosmic role in comparison to the macrocosmic God; heaven provides sensibility just as God provides intelligibility. Thus, bodies don’t exist outside heaven because there’s nothing to make them, support them, or provide for them outside of heaven; beyond heaven, there is no sensibility, but only intelligibility. This is basically saying that “the planes are discrete and not continuous” when it comes to certain characteristics of intelligible entities, in that sensibility cannot be taken out of the sensible realms into realms where sensibility isn’t actually a thing.
The next part of the definition waxes on a bit about comparisons, starting from small things and going to big things, but it talks about “magnitude”. Magnitude, or greatness, was previously discussed in definition II.2, when it discussed that “heaven is as much as both the earth and the sea”, yet in II.3, we know that “heaven is larger than everything…for it extends beyond [the sun and the Earth]”. So, clearly, physical size isn’t really being used as a grounds for comparison, especially since things without bodies (the strictly intelligible) don’t have any notion of “size”. Spiritual fullness, complexity-while-being-one-ness, goodness, intelligibility, or other characteristics might be the grounds for comparison, but there’s little to go on here except a vague notion of “greatness”.
“The magnitude of the light of the sun is earth and sea”: thus, that which we receive from the heavens (being represented as a whole by “light of the sun”) is the greatness of the physical Earth we live on and all the humanity on it. In a sense, the greatness that comes down here is that which remains down here; what comes down here is the totality of things that come from above. “The magnitude of heaven is the world”: here, “heaven” is linked back to the previous comparison by referring to “the light of the sun”, which fills the heavens. Just as the “earth and sea” is less than “the light of the sun”, so too is the world less than heaven; however, just as the Earth consists of the totality of everything that comes from above it, so too does the general world (which includes both the Earth as well as the sun) receive the influences of things higher than itself. Thus, all of the world is the sum total of all the influences it receives from heaven. “The magnitude of the world is God”: this is where we get an interesting reversal of the sequence, when read in the same way as the others. Here, God is certainly more than the world, and we know that there’s a lot more going on in creation than just the world (there’s also heaven, and the things part of God that are not part of heaven); thus, we can’t simply say that God is the sum total of all the influences it receives from the world, since the world is what receives influences from God, and to say that God is influenced by the thing it’s influencing implies that the world is equal with God, which contradicts many of our definitions. Thus, we need to revise our interpretation a bit.
The first comparison likens the “magnitude of the light of the sun” to Earth, or “earth and sea”. We haven’t really encountered “light of the sun” yet in the Definitions, though we have encountered “light”, which we know makes things visible and known (II.6). We can take “light of the sun” to mean “visible light”, since the Sun is a visible body and not something merely intelligible. Thus, if we take the comparison to really be more of a strict equality, we can say that visible (“light of the sun”) supports and enables the existence of things that become visible in light (“earth and sea”), as well as vice versa; they support each other. Similarly, that the “magnitude of heaven is the world” indicates that heaven supports and enables the existence of the world, and vice versa; although things exist outside of the world in heaven, heaven as a whole cannot exist without the world, nor can the world exist without heaven. Finally, this means the same thing for the world and God: God enables and supports the existence of the world, and the world supports and enables the existence of God.
This last bit is counterintuitive, perhaps, but isn’t as contradictory as our first attempt at understanding this. What this means is that the world is a necessary part of God; although God is bigger and outside the world, the part of God that is the world and in the world is what enables the other things as well. Everything is permeated with divine essence, in other words, but everything is also therefore intrinsically connected by it as well. If the magnitude of the world is God, and the magnitude of heaven is the world, then that also means that God’s existence enables and is enabled by that of heaven as much as it is by the existence of the world. Everything that exists is not only part of the Whole, the All, or the One, but everything that exists is necessary for the existence of everything else in the Whole. Just because something exists outside another thing (uninhabited land outside inhabited land, heavenly places outside the worldly places, God outside heaven, etc.) doesn’t mean it’s independent of the rest, because that would make God “disjointed” in a sense that would break the interconnectedness of everything within God; if something exists independent of something else, then it would also have to be independent of everything including God, which contradicts definition III.1 (“nothing is uninhabited by God”). Everything is connected by and through the connection to God.