On the Hermetic Afterlife: A Cause for Theurgy

Where were we?  We’re in the middle of talking about what a “Hermetic afterlife” actually looks like and consists of, in terms of what the classical Hermetic texts have as teachings regarding what happens to us after we die beyond some vague notion of reincarnation or ascent.  There’s only a handful of texts that actually talk about this in any way, and what they have don’t always match up well between each other.  Last time, we talked about what this Hermetic model of the afterlife means for various kinds of necromantic works.  If you need a refresher on what we talked about last time, go read the last post!

Honestly, those past two posts along with this present one were originally just going to be all one post, alliteratively entitled “Ramifications and Repercussions” to talk about what the Hermetic model of the afterlife we’ve been discussing has to say so as to inform and explain various works, but it turns out that there’s just more out there than I anticipated.  (Which is also why this now six-post series is so many posts, instead of just one as I originally envisioned; c’est la vie.)  This last topic I want to address was also going to fit into the same idea as before, but considering how different it is from the religious rituals of funerals and ancestor veneration/elevation or from the magical rituals of various forms of necromancy, but—in addition to the last two posts reaching about 4000 words each—this topic really deserves a post of its own, which I think will act as a nice conclusion to the whole series.

So: why should the Hermeticist do theurgy?

“Theurgy” is a complicated term, and can easily be misunderstood.  I recall one time when I sent a mod message to the moderators of /r/Ptolemaicism, asking to share news about my Preces Templi ebook on their subreddit since I felt it was fairly appropriate for “a community of Greco-Egyptian polytheists interested in conversing about philosophy and their beliefs/practices” (according to their sidebar).  I introduced myself as “magician and researcher of the occult, especially in the fields of classical Hermeticism and Greco-Egyptian magical and ritual practices”, which…well, apparently was not received too well, since I got this reply back from the mods:

The use of the occult and Theurgical magic implies bending the gods to your whim for your aims, which is both Goetia and hubris.

Perhaps needless to say, I think their understanding of theurgy (and magic generally) is ridiculously off-base and shows a lack of historical awareness that’s as grievous as it is hilarious.  However, given the difficulty and wide range of understandings of what “theurgy” means to different people, whether from a scholarly perspective or not, I suppose I can’t blame them too much.

On this topic, I’ll follow the explanation of the excellent Martiana (of SARTRIX, both her WordPress archive and her newer Miraheze wiki) on this topic, given her own article on it:

Theurgy (gr. θεουργία theourgía, lat. theurgia), also called the theurgical art (gr. θεουργική τέχνη theourgikḗ tekhnē, lat. theurgica ars or discīplīna), is a term of ambiguous meaning, further obscured by frankly obscurantist scholarship. The two main senses are the following:

  1. A specific tradition of ritual practices, apparently originating with a group called the theurges or Chaldaeans (most famous for the Chaldaic Oracles), and later adopted by the Neoplatonists.
  2. Ritual in general, as theorized by the Neoplatonists, and especially Iamblichus. Later Neoplatonists largely use the term ‘hieratic (priestly) art’ for this, restricting ‘theurgy’ to the first meaning.

Through systematic mistranslation of ‘hieratic’ as ‘theurgy’, and pervasive conflation of both senses in the secondary literature, the subject has become extremely confused in modern times, although it is fairly transparent in the primary sources.

[…] It is, in fact, probably its nonspecificity on an etymological level that made Iamblichus adopt the term in the second, generic meaning, as a counterpart to theology: ‘practice relating to the gods’ as opposed to ‘discourse relating to the gods’.

So what would “theurgy” mean within the context of Hermeticism?  Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, I’ll quote both Christian Bull’s Tradition of Hermes Trismegistus:

We should first take notice that there is nothing called the “way of Hermes” in our sources; this is an abstraction created in scholarly literature, and the closest we come is when Iamblichus states that Hermes has led the way on the path of theurgy. The goal of theurgy is ascent and indeed we find in the Hermetica mention of a “way leading upwards,” which the souls must follow in order to reach God, the good, the beautiful or truth. The diversity of terms used makes it unlikely that the “way” here is a technical term; rather, it is a metaphor like “way of life”: if life is a journey, then sticking to one specific path implies determination and the promise of a safe arrival at the desired destination. (§4.1)

And another pair of quotes from Wouter Hanegraaff’s Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination:

Salvation required ceremonial practice, ritual theurgy or “the work of the gods,” as cultivated by Egyptian priests in the tradition of Hermes Trismegistus. (ch. 4)

In sum, theurgy was an integral practice of healing both body and soul. It worked through the ritual induction of altered states that made it possible for the gods to enter practitioners’ bodies and purify their souls, so that they might be as effective as possible in the task of channeling spiritual energies into the material world. The function of philosophy was to provide theoretical justification for this practice. (ch. 4)

Within a Hermetic context as I consider it, while there are many aspects of practice that feed into it, “theurgy” refers as a whole to the ritual practice of attaining “the way up” while alive.  That last qualification there is important, because while CH I suggests that “the way up” happens after we die and our souls make an ascent for the final time, we should bear in mind that CH I is only one of the three “beating hearts” that illustrate the mystic purpose and guidance of Hermeticism, the other two being CH XIII and Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth (NHC VII.6).  If I were to summarize these three texts and why they’re so important to Hermeticism:

  • CH I (together with CH VII as an expansion of CH I.27—28) lays the mythic foundation for Hermeticism, the establishment of the proper human ēthos (remember that discussion?) as being one of reverence, the establishment of Mind/nous as something divine that affords salvation, the cosmology of the planetary spheres with the eighth and ninth spheres beyond fate, and “the way up” describing the ascent of the soul from within the bounds of fate to beyond it
  • CH XIII describes a process of spiritual rebirth, a hylic exorcism and reformation of a person from a mere body of matter and torment to a divine body of holy powers that affords one Mind and divine awareness
  • NHC VII.6 describes a process of spiritual elevation whereby one ascends into the eighth and ninth spheres of the cosmos (those above the planets and, thus, above fate) while still in the body.

As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, all of these texts revolves around the same core idea, but each of them have things that the others don’t, and together reveal something fascinating: that we are not limited to making such an ascent to “the way up” after death, but can do so while alive.

For most people, living a life of reverence and respect for the Creator and the Creation is sufficient to just have a good live and to make such spiritual progress to attempt “the way up”, whether or not one does so in this life or over a series of lives, each time rising to a higher and higher soul-stratum until one graduates out of the dwelling-place of souls entirely.  However, by now after having fleshed out the Hermetic model of the afterlife so much, I think the risks of this should be apparent: this process is not guaranteed, because anything can happen from one life to the next.  Being human, we are all susceptible to the irrational tormentors of matter and/or the planetary energies that not only allow for us to be incarnate but which also set the stage for us to suffer while incarnate, which can easily mislead and waylay us while we’re alive, which means that, no matter how well we do from life to life, there’s always a chance that we might get “stuck” as we try to live our lives in a way that leads to an elevation to higher soul-strata or ascension beyond them.  On top of that, there’s also still the possibility  that we haven’t ruled out of us attempting “the way up” when we’re not ready, which could yield disastrous consequences if we’re unable to give up something we otherwise need to in order to keep rising.  Worse, every time we go through the process of reincarnation, we basically have to start over, and even if we’re blessed to live a privileged, cushy life, without the proper spiritual instruction (or without an extreme gift of metempsychotic memory), our souls may end up trying so hard or getting so far without it really mattering anyway; we might end up just living a good life one time just to live sloppily and fall back down to a worse life the next.  Without spiritual instruction and repeated lives of dedication and discipline and devotion, a soul being able to mature itself enough to make “the way up” on its own is extremely unlikely and difficult to attain, taking place only over the course of potentially endless lifetimes (if at all, otherwise caught up in an endless cycle of reincarnation).

This is why we have the instructions and teachings of Hermēs Trismegistos, passed on from Poimandrēs and through Tat, Asklēpios, and Ammōn so that, through Hermēs & co., “the human race might be saved by God”.  It is all for this goal, to “leave corruption behind and take a share in immortality”, that Hermēs began teaching the world the way of salvation and proper, right, righteous life so that we might enjoy true Life; it is these teachings that are the “words of wisdom” that his students “were nourished from the ambrosial water”.  Having access to these teachings and learning about what all this means for us helps us dramatically, even for those who are completely uninterested in ritual or religion and just want to live a simple, quiet life of contemplation and reverence for God; for them, attaining “the way up” is much easier, since they can transform their life from one without reverence (and thus with no chance of Mind) to one with reverence (and thus at least a good chance of Mind, if not the assurance of it).  However, even still, as evidenced by how many times Hermēs’ students got things wrong or even were mislead by their own enlightened perspectives, it’s clear that we can still screw things up for ourselves, which means that, while living a proper life is a good method to achieve “the way up”, it is not a foolproof method of doing so; there is still an error rate that risks so much.

This is where theurgy comes into the question, because it essentially guarantees “the way up” after death by attaining it before death.  In a way, this is the Hermetic approach to Eckhart Tolle’s quote about “the secret of life is to ‘die before you die’ —and find that there is no death”.  After all, consider CH XIII, which contains an account of the spiritual rebirth of Tat: in order to be reborn, you first must die.  In CH XIII’s case, the “death” of Tat consists first of his utter bewilderment that ends up closing off his senses in a state of delirium (CH XIII.6) and the chasing-out of the irrational tormentors of matter (CH XIII.8—9), which only then culminates in a rebirth of the body composed of the divine mercies of God which chased out the tormentors (CH XIII.8—9) and revealed a vision of the divine that fills Tat’s newborn perceptions (CH XIII.11—13).  In NHC VII.6, we read that Hermēs and Tat (we presume) are progressing to the eighth and ninth spheres because they have already “advanced to the seventh, since we are faithful and abide in your law”, meaning that they have already done the work of giving up to the planets the things appropriate to them so that they might ascend past them, which is what enables them to reach higher and to experience—while still possessing mortal, corporeal bodies—the same sights and visions and experience as any other soul that has attained and abides within those hyperplanetary spheres.

By engaging in works like this while alive, not only do we gain more insight as to how to live a good life all the more perfectly to the utmost degree, we also basically do the equivalent of a TSA PreCheck: instead of having to clear every single checkpoint on “the way up”, we can basically bypass them all entirely because we’ve already cleared them ahead of time.  While a soul making “the way up” after death for the first time has to do the work after death to get past each gate, a soul that is already familiar with “the way up” simply zips along it without any traffic or toll stops, having prepaid everything earlier.  It takes out the whole guesswork not only of figuring out which is the proper way to live, but also takes out all the doubt of attaining the salvific end described by Poimandrēs.  It keeps us from having to worry about whatever might come after death, and shows us the risk we take in not taking that path—and even should we choose further reincarnation, it would be far better to do so with the keys to the kingdom already in our pocket and the road to it still fresh in our memory.

In this, we get to see Hermeticism as not only a kind of mysticism, but also a kind of mystery religion alongside the likes of the Eleusinian Mysteries, the Orphic Mysteries, the Isaic Mysteries, or the like, all of which promised some sort of guaranteed blessed afterlife free from the sorrows or sighs of the gloom and shade that those who were not initiated into were (most likely) bound for.  This is exactly the same sort of promise that Hermetic theurgy promises: rather than risk a potentially-endless cycle of suffering that comes part and parcel with incarnation, we can instead be guaranteed a way to resolve it and achieve an existence higher, nobler, more beautiful, and more divine beyond anything else that exists or might exist.  Hermeticism, after all, isn’t just a mystic movement to rejoice rightly, rightfully, and righteously with Creation as a Creature of the Creator, but also a mystery path of salvation that grants us access to the highest heights of divinity itself.  In that light, having a model of death, dying, the afterlife, reincarnation, and all the rest that we’ve been talking about helps inform us as to why we should care at all about this mystery side of Hermeticism as opposed to just the mystical; it gives us a cause to engage in the theurgy of Hermeticism, these hieratic practices that enable us to be truly holy instead of just living a holy life.

About this time last year (funny how this focus on death and the dead comes around come Scorpio season!), I made a post detailing the overall attitude towards death and dying in the Hermetic texts, even reaching into later medieval-period words.  The overall focus in the Hermetic texts isn’t that we should fear death, which is no more than the dissolution of the body, because we are emphatically not our bodies; we are immortal souls that merely wear bodies for a time before moving on.  As a result, we should not fear death, and instead rejoice in life while taking care to live our lives properly.  What is more scant and scarce in the Hermetic texts, however, yet present in quiet whispers and overlooked traces like from AH 28 or SH 25—26, is what we should be fearful about concerning what is after death and what the risks are that we take in living our lives carelessly.  To be sure, there is no eternal punishment, no forsaking of the soul, no permanent loss of one’s way or self at all in Hermeticism as one might find in other spiritual traditions; as such, there’s no need to fear some sort of permadeath hell or whatever, and that’s not a point that the Hermetic texts try to make.  (At least, outside the context of AH 28; within that context, the bit about being tormented forever in a hell of the winds may itself not be truly forever, as when the whole cosmos is remade and “reset”, it may also be that such souls are also returned to a new cosmos for a new attempt.)  Rather, we have as many chances as we might need to do what we need to do, go where we need to go, know what we need to know, and become what we must be—but we have something of a fire under our feet to do so as effectively and efficiently, as quickly and speedily as possible.

To close, I’ll leave us with Hermēs Trismegistos’ own initial proclamation, his kerygma wherein he announced to the world for the first time:

People, earthborn men, you who have surrendered yourselves to drunkenness and sleep and ignorance of god, make yourselves sober and end your drunken sickness, for you are bewitched in unreasoning sleep.

Why have you surrendered yourselves to death, earthborn men, since you have the right to share in immortality? You who have journeyed with error, who have partnered with ignorance, think again: escape the shadowy light; leave corruption behind and take a share in immortality.

With that, this little exploration of what I can figure out and piece together regarding the model of the afterlife and reincarnation, the questions that it raises and which I cannot yet answer on my own, and how it impacts, informs, instructs, and inspires us towards our other spiritual practices that can and should go hand-in-hand with Hermeticism can now come to a close.  As I was joking about with my friends, as usual what was originally supposed to be just one post ballooned into quite a bit more, but I hope that this has been at least somewhat helpful for those interested in this otherwise gap-filled territory of Hermetic spirituality.  I’m sure there’s plenty more that could be improved upon with this sort of exploration; in addition to the unanswered questions I’ve left out in the open for others to tackle, there’s also plenty that we might be able to draw on from Hellenistic Egyptian or other eastern Mediterranean texts and traditions that might shed further light on what we have yet in the dark recesses of Hermetic textual lacunae.  Perhaps, with time, we might bring some of those as-yet hidden bits of knowledge into the light once more—resurrecting them or reincarnating them, one might even say.

And yes, this series of posts has its index already up in my Hermeticism Posts index page, along with all the other posts I’ve made about classical Hermeticism and the Hermetic texts, so feel free to check these posts (or any of my others) out later on if you want at your convenience.

On the Hermetic Afterlife: Initial Impressions, Questions, and the Role of a Daimōn

Where were we?  We’re in the middle of talking about what a “Hermetic afterlife” actually looks like and consists of, in terms of what the classical Hermetic texts have as teachings regarding what happens to us after we die beyond some vague notion of reincarnation or ascent.  There’s only a handful of texts that actually talk about this in any way, and what they have don’t always match up well between each other.  Last time, we brought up what those texts are and what the relevant excerpts are as evidence for such beliefs.  If you need a refresher on what we talked about last time, go read the last post!

So, with all that laid out, where does that leave us?  Besides the obvious answer of “with a mess”, we get a notion that reincarnation with some sort of promotion/demotion in terms of the soul’s “dignity” is what we seem to have, which is almost certainly not something unique to Hermeticism but rather a belief in reincarnation-friendly spiritual beliefs in a Hellenistic Egyptian (or otherwise eastern Mediterranean) context in the early Roman Imperial period—and that’s a whole research topic that I haven’t yet had the time, energy, or means to dive into.  While I’d like to do so at some point, or at least begin an investigation into whatever academic/scholarly literature as might exist on such a topic, if we limit ourselves to just what we can find in the Hermetic texts, then we end up with something like the following as a very broad synthesis:

  1. Between incarnations, there is a dwelling-place of souls in the realm of the atmosphere between the Earth and the sphere of the Moon.  There are different strata in such a realm, where more dignified souls abide in calmer and clearer airs higher up closer to the Moon and more ignoble souls abide in the darker, more turbulent airs lower down closer to the Earth.  The higher a stratum, the more peaceful and pleasant it is (or thought to be) to dwell within; the lower, the more painful and suffering it is (or thought to be).
  2. Because the dwelling-place of souls is in the cosmos and is (strictly speaking) lower than the Moon, it is subject to Fate as much as anything else on Earth (given how the planets are the “government called fate” in CH I.9 and how the planets are said to serve/effect fate in SH 12).  Thus, the souls that dwell here are subject to fate, although being incorporeal are not subject to fate in the way corporeal bodies are.  Rather, souls are subject to fate in becoming incarnate, where a soul is sent down from its dwelling-place into a body on Earth.
  3. When a soul is sent into a body from the dwelling-place of souls, it is given a body to inhabit according to two factors: the rank of its stratum that it was in, and the role that fate requires it to play.  Higher strata correspond to higher forms and manners of life, with lower strata corresponding to lower forms; the lowest strata of souls end up becoming incarnate into non-human animal bodies (whether or not those souls are necessarily of animals to begin with), and the highest strata into kings, rulers, and the like.  We might say that a soul’s stratum indicates what kind of body it will inhabit next according to its nature/dignity, while fate determines which specific body within that kind it will inhabit according to its role.
  4. When an ensouled body dies on Earth (which is as much a matter of fate as anything else), its soul generally travels back to the dwelling-place of souls, specifically to a stratum appropriate for it.  Depending on how it lived, it may return to the same stratum it had before incarnation (if it behaved in accordance with its own nature without regard for God or the Good), a higher one (if it excelled and behaved nobly in accordance with God more than its nature), or a lower one (if it behaved in abhorrent, awful ways worse than what its nature would normally indicate).
  5. However, some souls are able to reach beyond the dwelling-place and ascend even higher into the planetary spheres and thence higher into the stellar spheres beyond the reach of fate, and thence higher into the pure spheres of the divine.  Souls that do so are no longer bound to fate, and thus are not bound to incarnate again.
  6. The thing that directs a soul to a higher or lower place after death is reckoned as an avenging, tormenting, or judging daimōn, some sort of god that judges the dignity, nobility, and mindfulness of a given soul and how they behave in response to and in accordance with fate while incarnate.  The post-incarnate destiny of a soul depends directly upon the decision of this daimōn.

This is at best a vague outline, and it doesn’t answer a whole lot of questions we might have that would arise from the more centrally salvific Hermetic texts like CH I, CH XIII, or Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth.  Some of the biggest ones that arise to my mind are:

  1. At what point does a soul get to go the route of ascent through the spheres as opposed to being sent to a stratum in the dwelling-place of souls with all the rest of the souls?  Does this happen before a soul ever needs to head to its own stratum, or while the soul is already in its own stratum?
  2. In the ascent process of CH I, what happens if a soul is not able to give up a particular thing to a particular “gate”, i.e. the energy of the Moon to the sphere of the Moon?  Does it “tumble back down” into the dwelling-place of souls and re-enter the cycle of incarnation?  Does it get “stuck” in a particular sphere/at a particular gate until it is finally able to give up what needs giving up?
  3. Likewise, in the ascent process of CH I, what happens if a soul is not even able to give up its own temperament to the avenging daimōn?  Is this a prerequisite for giving up any of the planetary energies?  Does it not even get to a point of judgment, but immediately returns to a new body?
  4. How long do these transitions take between “states” of the soul?  What is the exact process by which a soul leaves the body and enters into its dwelling place?  What is the duration of time it takes for a soul to ascend through the spheres?
  5. Given the huge emphasis on obtaining nous and experiencing gnōsis throughout the Hermetic texts, how does that impact this process of reincarnation and facilitate our post-incarnate ascent?  We know what it’s like to achieve spiritual rebirth (from CH XIII) and how to access higher realms while incarnate (in Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth), but what about the “final ascent” (from CH I) itself?

Before touching on any of these questions, I want to address my biggest gripe first, one that I had mentioned earlier: that of a daimōn of judgment.  I admit that this is definitely my own interpretation of Hermeticism (not just the texts, but the whole system itself as we might glean from it) that’s speaking here, but I find the notion of some lower deity whose specific task is to judge us as humans to be…disagreeable (my more honest wording would be “odiously offensive”).  Like, I get it: lots of religions and spiritual traditions across the whole world posit some sort of entity that tackles this responsibility, and not least in Hellenistic or Mediterranean beliefs like Anubis in the Weighing of the Heart in Egyptian stuff or the guards before the spring of Memory in the Orphic ritual tablets or the like.  It’s not surprising in the least that we’d find a similar entity present in the beliefs described in the Hermetic texts, then, even if it’s only just a nod to the external, exoteric religiosity that formed the spiritual bedrock of such a system of mysticism as Hermeticism.  However, in general, I find the presence of such an entity in this belief to be fundamentally unnecessary, and instead acts as little more than a patronizing intrusion of moral enforcement.  Based on my overall understanding of Hermeticism, I don’t think there needs to be any external entity that has the job (or even the power) of determining our afterlife destiny; rather, we’re more than capable of doing that ourselves, for our own weal or our own woe.

Consider CH VII.  This is a short, fire-and-brimstone harangue of a street preacher, which is fundamentally an expansion of the initial call that Hermēs makes on the corner to passers-by in CH I.27—28, and calls out the “tunic” of incarnate ignorance and ignorant incarnation as being the source of our suffering (Copenhaver translation):

Such is the odious tunic you have put on. It strangles you and drags you down with it so that you will not hate its viciousness, not look up and see the fair vision of truth and the good that lies within, not understand the plot that it has plotted against you when it made insensible the organs of sense, made them inapparent and unrecognized for what they are, blocked up with a great load of matter and jammed full of loathsome pleasure, so that you do not hear what you must hear nor observe what you must observe.

CH VII doesn’t talk much about doctrine, theology, cosmology, or much at all: it just simply calls out the root of our problems (an addiction to corporeal “loathsome pleasure”) as it is.  We can contrast this with what Poimandrēs tells Hermēs about who lives good lives versus those who live bad ones in CH I.22—23 (Copenhaver translation):

I myself, the mind, am present to the blessed and good and pure and merciful—to the reverent—and my presence becomes a help; they quickly recognize everything, and they propitiate the father lovingly and give thanks, praising and singing hymns affectionately and in the order appropriate to him. Before giving up the body to its proper death, they loathe the senses for they see their effects. Or rather I, the mind, will not permit the effects of the body to strike and work their results on them. As gatekeeper, I will refuse entry to the evil and shameful effects, cutting off the anxieties that come from them.

But from these I remain distant—the thoughtless and evil and wicked and envious and greedy and violent and irreverent—giving way to the avenging demon who {wounds the evil person}, assailing him sensibly with the piercing fire and thus arming him the better for lawless deeds so that greater vengeance may befall him. Such a person does not cease longing after insatiable appetites, struggling in the darkness without satisfaction. {This} tortures him and makes the fire grow upon him all the more.

Note here that Copenhaver has “thoughtless”, but as Wouter Hanegraaff points out in his Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination, the literal phrase here is “those without mind” (tois de anoētois).  Poimandrēs establishes himself as Mind, and is with those who express a desire for the Good and act in accordance with such reverence; to those without reverence, Poimandrēs is absent.  Hanegraff notes that “all standard translations obscure the centrality of nous, again by tacitly reducing it to standard cognitive facilities such as sense”.  It is nous itself that saves a person, but what is this “avenging daimōn” that Poimandrēs references?  There’s no mention of it earlier in CH I, and the only other instance we seem to have of it in CH I is that this is the entity to whom one gives up their temperament (in the section immediately following this one).  I mentioned before that the Greek word for “avenging” here is timōros, which is fundamentally the same word as “torturer” (timōria) used in CH XIII.7 to describe the twelve irrational tormentors of the body, which are more like passions that arise from incarnation rather than being some affliction from an external entity.

Given the ultimate goodness of God and all, I’m not inclined to believe that God would make a cosmos with entities in it expressly for the purpose of torment and punishment.  As such, and noting the terminological similarity with the irrational tormentors of matter from CH XIII.7, my personal interpretation of the “avenging daimōn” in CH I.23 isn’t so much that this is some sort of personal Satan or anything but that it’s a personification/deification of the passions that drive us further into irrational suffering, the same thing as the “odious tunic” that strangles, drags, and drowns us.  It’s like getting stuck in a Chinese finger-trap: the more you pull, the tighter it squeezes, but the only way to be released from it is to just let it be and leave it alone instead of struggling to make a bad situation worse.  To that end, I’m not inclined to think that the “avenging daimōn” here is an actual entity to be feared, but is just a metaphor to describe us as our own bugbears, where we in our nous-lessness become our own worst punisher.

If we extend and broaden the logic above for reinterpreting the “avenging daimōn” as being the result of our own ignorance crashing down upon our heads, we can use this as a means to similarly reinterpret the “judging daimōn” of SH 7, AH 28, and (maybe, depending on your understanding of the Steward of Souls) SH 26.3.  While it would be more traditional and common to rely on the notion of an external entity to judge our souls, I claim that we can rely on a simpler model of the cosmos and our post-incarnate destinies that relies on the soul alone, something more in common with a Buddhist notion of karma, where effect follows cause.  In other words, consider CH VII’s metaphor of the “odious tunic” again: it “drags [us] down with it”, but to save ourselves, we have to rip it off.  If we combine this image with the notion of buoyancy and lightness—which fits with the description of the dwelling-place of souls being a series of strata in the atmosphere ranging from subtle at the top to dense at the bottom—then we can consider our indulgences in these tormentors to be as “weighty baggage” that literally weighs our souls down with the taint of corporeality.  Rather than some “judging daimōn” being presented with an account of our (mis)deeds and being directed to a particular soul-stratum in accordance with that, we can instead just say that the soul naturally rises to an appropriate stratum based on its “weight” from leaving the body.  Those souls that have more “weight” from their attachments and addictions to “loathsome pleasure” end up not being able to rise as high, and the more they indulge in them, the lower they end up rising, which makes them all the more liable to fall down even further.  On the other hand, souls that have less “weight” rise much higher, coming to rest at a much loftier soul-stratum, and when they are sent back down into a body, they don’t sink as far, either.

I think that this is a more natural explanation for how certain souls go higher or lower between incarnations without having to rely on some moralizing deity of judgment that exacts a toll from us, personally.  Like, I get it: having the presence of such a judging daimōn makes sense, because some notion of post-incarnation judgment as part of an afterlife transition process is a really common aspect of a lot of the spiritual traditions and religious beliefs that fed into Hermeticism or which influenced its development.  As far as I can tell, Hermeticism was never meant to supplant or replace such beliefs, but build upon them and accommodate them into a form of mysticism that yet went beyond them; as such, the existence of such entities in the Hermetic approach to mysticism and theurgy is probably just a given.  And yet, I feel like their presence is made redundant and seems like a moralistic holdover, with the fundamental process being easily explainable given the natures of the soul and body on their own—but, despite how I feel about it, and knowing that the philosophical language and concepts existed to have described such a system, the fact remains that the Hermetic texts don’t have such a system that relies on the “weight” of the soul itself, and instead rely on some sort of daimōn we encounter after life that keeps us in line in accordance with our actions as opposed to the effects of our actions themselves coming to fruition.  It’s not that I don’t think the various gods can’t inflict some sort of punishment or exact some sort of payment from the soul in general—we do that all the time in our dealings with them generally, after all.  Rather, it’s that I don’t think there’s some specific god whose sole purpose is to hold us to account when our actions—our addictions and our attachments—already do that.

Oh well.  This is, admittedly, my own personal gripe with the doctrines as put forth by the Hermetic texts, and I have to accept that they say what they say.  While my own personal interpretation renders the existence of such an avenging/judging daimōn as no more than a moralistic metaphor, I can’t speak for the interpretations of the authors of these texts or their contemporary audiences, who may well have understood these entities as being real unto themselves as described.  However, regardless of whether we take the existence of an avenging/judging daimōn as a given or as a metaphor, given how the underlying mechanism is effectively the same between the two options, what we’ve learned about the soul and how its actions in incarnate life affect itself after incarnation sheds a little bit of light on some of those questions I raised earlier.  With that fifth question (what is the role of nous and gnōsis in determining what happens to us after incarnation?), I think the answer is most readily clear: having nous and being able to experience gnōsis is either the reward of living virtuously or the result of it, but in either case, it is what sets someone on the path to nobility, dignity, and salvation.  If one lives in such a reverent and devoted way as to have nous, then they either attain salvation and release from fate and suffering, or they end up well-disposed as a soul (either in the dwelling-place itself or in one’s next incarnation) to continue living in such a reverent, devoted way and to make further progress towards such a goal.

At this point, in addition to airing my own grievances and griping about the presence and role of an avenging/judging daimōn, we’ve laid the groundwork for actually piecing together a coherent picture.  We’ll handle further exploration and explanation of some of those questions so-far unanswered next time.

A False Fork in Hermeticism: Different Approaches, Same End

Although I have my reservations about doing so, I don’t think that it’s all that weird to consider Hermeticism a kind of gnosticism in one sense or another.  I mean, literally speaking, one of the major pushes in the study and practice of Hermeticism is for gnōsis, the Greek word for “knowledge” meant technically in a Hermetic sense as a revelatory, non-discursive experience of divine truth—in other words, something that is capital-T True but which you can’t reason your way into thinking it and which you can’t be taught it or pick it up from anything or anyone else except God.  In that light, since Hermeticism encourages us towards achieving such experiences of gnōsis as a vehicle for spiritual development and perfection (not just a one-time deal, but something we strive for both repeatedly and continuously), one could very much call Hermeticists “gnostics”.  Doing so, however, neglects the actual use of the term gnosticism to refer to a wide-ranging series of religious movements that arose in the early Roman Empire in the eastern Mediterranean and the Levantine region, including such traditions and schools as Sethianism, Valentinianism, the Basilideans, Manichaeism, Mandaeism, and others (even modern gnostic churches like the Apostolic Johannite Church).

Still, it’s not for nothing that Hermeticism might be considered a kind of “historical gnosticism” with these other groups, given how we find Hermetic texts in the Nag Hammadi Codices (specifically NHC VII,6—8, including the Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth which radically shifted our modern understanding of Hermeticism) and how there’s so much shared terminology (and even shared doctrines at times) between the Hermetic texts and various gnostic texts.  Moreover, even though the ultimate origins of gnosticism are obscure at best, we know that many such gnostic traditions arose in Jewish or early Christian communities centered in and around northeastern Egypt and Roman Palestine, neighbors with the historical origin of Hermeticism in location, time, and culture.  Even if Hermeticism may not be considered a child of the overall parent of “gnosticism”, we can consider Hermeticism and gnosticism to be like siblings—but even if they grew up in the same “household” at about the same time, they certainly went their separate ways once they moved out from their parent’s place.

Of course, it’s incorrect to think of “gnosticism” as being just one thing.  As I mentioned above, there are a whole bunch of various schools, traditions, and sects that were all “gnostic” to one degree or another, but they’re a really varied bunch that don’t have a lot of common with each other beyond being somehow tied to the idea that gnōsis (true spiritual or mystical knowledge) is tied to to salvation or ascension in some way.  It’s perhaps better to talk of “gnosticisms” or “gnostic spiritualities” rather than “kinds of gnosticism”.  Still, there are a few commonalities, and perhaps the most well-known one is a kind of matter-spirit dualism, a logical (though extreme) extension of Plato’s allegory of the cave such that there is the physical cosmos that we’re born into presided over by a Demiurge (δημιουργός dēmiourgós “craftsman”) along with some number of archons (ἀρχός arkhós “leader”) who control this world, and a truly divine world which “really exists” beyond this one.  This doesn’t sound all that weird on the spectrum of religious beliefs, but it’s that all this that we experience as our worldly lives is a sham and a con, separated as we are from being “really real”, but we’re cruelly trapped in this fake world of matter by wicked and blind demiurge and archons.  (If you’ve ever seen the 1999 film The Matrix, then you’ve got the right idea.)  As a result, “gnostic beliefs” (as varied as they are) are often stereotyped as being extremely pessimistic and dour about the world around us, seeing it only as a prison and cage that it’s on our duty to escape while the evil powers of this world (who are in a divine cosmic war with the forces of actual goodness) callously treat us as little more than amusing playthings.

Which takes me back to Hermeticism and how “gnostic” it may be in substance.  Sure, there are Hermetic texts that seem in line with this sort of pessimistic dualism that basically spits on the world. Consider CH VII, a fire-and-brimstone harangue against people in their drunken stupor of “loathsome pleasure”, how the body is an “odious tunic” that “strangles you and drags you down with it so that you will not hate its visciousness, not look up and see the fair vision of truth and the good that lies within”.  Time and again throughout the Hermetic texts, we see similar pessimistic opinions that the cosmos is evil, that we’re trapped here, and so on, but perhaps most notably in CH VI.2—6:

…Since generation itself is subject to passion, things begotten are full of passions, but where there is passion, there is no good to be found, and, where the good is, there is not a single passion—there is no night where it is day and no day where it is night. Hence, the good cannot exist in generation; it exists only in the unbegotten. Participation in all things has been given in matter; so also has participation in the good been given. This is how the cosmos is good, in that it also makes all things; (thus,) it is good with respect to the making that it does. In all other respects, however, it is not good; it is subject to passion and subject to motion and a maker of things subject to passion.

With reference to humanity, one uses the term “good” in comparison to “evil.” Here below, the evil that is not excessive is the good, and the good is the least amount of evil here below. The good cannot be cleansed of vice here below, for the good is spoiled by evil here below and, once spoiled, it no longer remains good. Since it does not remain so, it becomes evil. The good is in god alone, then, or god himself is the good. Therefore…only the name of the good exists among mankind—never the fact. It cannot exist here. Material body, squeezed on all sides by vice, sufferings, pains, longings, angry feelings, delusions and mindless opinions, has no room for the good. …

… All the things that are subject to the sight of the eyes are as phantoms and shadowy illusions, but those not subject to it, especially the (essence) of the beautiful and the good. … As the eye cannot see god, neither can it see the beautiful and the good, for they are integral parts of god alone, properties of god, peculiar to him, inseparable, most beloved; either god loves them or they love god.

… Hence, those who remain in ignorance and do not travel the road of reverence dare to say that mankind is beautiful and good, but a human cannot see nor even dream of what the good might be. Mankind has been overrun by every evil, and he believes that evil is good; therefore, he uses evil the more insatiably and fears being deprived of it, striving with all his might not only to possess it but even to increase it. …

But, well…there are two things that complicate this.  For one (as I’ve written about before), the Hermetic texts use somewhat different notions of “good” and “evil” than we might be accustomed to conventionally, and these terms get used in different ways in different texts (viz. a philosophical way and a moral way).  For two (and this is the more important point I want to make), for as many pessimistic and dualistic texts there are in the Hermetic corpora, there are at least as many optimistic and monist texts that outright praise and revel in the cosmos, in creation, and the like.  Although CH VI and CH VII are super pessimistic, they’re preceded by CH V, is a shockingly upbeat optimistic one that rejoices in how divinity is present right here with us and is directly responsible for all things (and which I once turned into a sort of quasi hymn, the Praise of the Invisible and Visible God).  Likewise, other texts like CH XIV explicitly say that creation cannot be separate in any way from the creator and that there’s nothing shameful or evil about creation.  There’s this weird and strange mix of monism and dualism replete throughout the Hermetic texts as a whole, and it can seem really bewildering to the point of getting whiplash when going from one text to the next.  While there are certainly “gnostic” and dualistic perspectives, Hermeticism as a whole lends itself more to a monist sort of understanding of theology and cosmology, and even dour-dualist texts like CH VI or CH VII have weird monist bits in them, too.

As Christian Bull points out in The Tradition of Hermes Trismegistus (THT) and Wouter Hanegraaff in Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination (HSHI), classifying certain Hermetic texts as pessimistic/dualist (as in CH VI) or optimistic/monist (as in CH V) has been a thing for over a hundred years now. Such a classification has formed much of the basis for the academic study and discussion of Hermeticism in that time, including postulating how particular Hermetic lodges might have come to form around particular core doctrines, some upholding an “optimistic” view of divine monism and others a “pessimistic” view of matter-spirit dualism.  Indeed, it’s because some of these Hermetic texts that had such pessimistic-dualist perspectives that many scholars have considered Hermeticism a kind of (stereotypical) gnosticism, doing much research into the similarities, parallels, and influences between Hermetic texts and non-Hermetic gnostic ones.  Moreover, following the work of A.-J. Festugière, it was more-or-less cemented as a notion that we had “Greek/Hellenistic” texts that were the monist ones, while the dualistic ones were variously “orientalist” or even just “Egyptian”.  It wasn’t until the later work of J.P. Mahé and (especially) Garth Fowden’s The Egyptian Hermes (ET), building on the recovery of texts like the Nag Hammadi Codices or the the Armenian Definitions of Hermēs Trismegistos to Asklēpsios together with better research on texts like the Greek Magical Papyri, that a new perspective on the whole shebang was made.  Rather than seeing the extant Hermetic corpora as being a mish-mash of texts from different groups from different cultural backgrounds that were at doctrinal odds with each other, scholars like Mahé or Fowden developed a notion of a “way of Hermēs” that understood and went through each of the texts (or similar texts close enough to what survives) as part of a complete system, moving from one perspective to another in a process of spiritual advancement.

From Bull’s THT:

… Mahé came to consider the monistic treatises as the earliest stage of the way of immortality, where the disciple would initially be taught that the material world was good, so as to ease him or her into a more spiritual life. As the disciples progressed they would become stronger and have less and less use for the material world, and at that stage of spiritual maturity they would be instructed to despise the body and the material world, focusing exclusively on the spiritual existence. … Fowden tried to surpass the essentializing dichotomy between what is “authentically Egyptian” and “authentically Greek,” and instead described “modes of cultural interaction” in Greco-Roman Egypt. It was in such a mixed milieu, he proposed, that the followers of the way of Hermes progressed from monistic epistēmē to dualistic gnōsis, in groups resembling the Gnostics: “small, informal circles of the literate but not (usually) learned gathered round a holy teacher and given up to study, asceticism and pious fellowship.” Egyptian priests may have been involved with such groups, though Fowden remained tentative on this point…

If we turn to ET, here’s how Fowden characterizes such a “way” in his monism-to-dualism progression:

…the way of Hermes, as Hermes himself points out at the end of the Asclepius, was not for the mind alone; nor did the attainment of epistēmē or even gnōsis provide any automatic access to salvation. ‘The pious fight consists in knowing the divine and doing ill to no man’: the ethical virtues also had their part to play. The intending initiate must lead a life of piety, obedience and purity—that is, abstinence from the pleasures of this world. The Hermetists do not seem to have been austere ascetics, though the demands they made on themselves undoubtedly increased as they advanced towards spiritual perfection. Generally they held that, just as God formed Man and his environment, so Man in turn is obliged to perpetuate his own race…while the Perfect discourse goes so far as to praise sexual intercourse as not merely a necessity but a pleasure, and an image of God’s own creative act. But the tone changes in the more spiritual treatises, where the body may be described as a prison, and sex rejected as a curse. The virtues are here taken much more for granted, and at this stage it can even be pointed out, as in the key-passage quoted earlier from The Ogdoad reveals the Ennead, that pure morals and a clear conscience are not in themselves a sufficient preparation for gnōsis. The relative neglect of the ethical virtues in the more spiritual treatises derives from their authors’ assumption that their audience will already have made the crucial choice on which all else depends—the choice, that is, between the ‘material’ to and the ‘essential’ Man, the corporeal and the incorporeal, the mortal and the divine realms. For one cannot love both simultaneously.

While Bull affirms some of Fowden’s points in THT, he takes issue with Mahé’s and Fowden’s notion that such a “Hermetic way” was “progression from monism to dualism…[but] that the progress goes in the opposite direction: at the early stage the disciple is asked to alienate himself from his body and from the physical world, in order to free his soul from the bodily passions[; o]nly then will he be able to undergo the initiatory rite of rebirth, after which he is once again reintegrated with the world and goes on to praise the creator god.”  More fully, he explains:

…we have argued that the first stages of the Way of Hermes was characterized by a pedagogical dualism, in which the candidate was taught first to despise the material body as an obstacle to the essential inner human, and then to consider the material cosmos as devoid of truth. A number of Hermetica can with some certainty be related to these stages (CH I, II, IV, VI, X; SH II A–B, VI, XI). When the acolyte had become a stranger to the world, he (or she) could undergo the ritual of rebirth (CH XIII). In the course of this initiatory ritual the dark avengers of matter, representing astral fatality, were conclusively exorcized. In their place, ten divine powers were invoked to descend into the candidate, who now became “the one human, a god and son of God,” namely the androgynous primordial human of the Poimandres. The initiate had thus become ontologically equal to the demiurgic mind residing in the Ogdoad, the brother of the primordial human, who surrounds and suffuses the cosmos. He was now fully integrated with the cosmos: the dualism of the earlier stages has been resolved into a monism, a union with the All, celebrated in the hymn of the rebirth. Now deified, the initiate could proceed to go through a rite of visionary ascent (Disc.8–9), on the principle that “like can only be understood by like” (CH XI, 20). In this rite, the spiritual master, in the role of Hermes, guided the initiate…The reborn was thus brought into the Ogdoad, where he saw indescribable glories and heard silent hymnodies sung by the powers that reside there. This is the culmination of the Way of Hermes, and the visionary was now fully initiated and could join his spiritual brothers in silent hymn-singing, which united them with the powers in the Ogdoad until the day when they would leave the body for good. …

Later, Bull summarizes this as saying:

I would however argue that the reason for this contempt of the body is not so much the result of dualistic anti-cosmism, but rather what we may call pedagogical dualism. The disciple is supposed to gain knowledge of himself, and the Hermetica are in unison agreement that the authentic human being is not identical with the body but with the immaterial noetic essence of the soul. At the earliest stage of teaching the disciple therefore has to be trained to stop identifying himself with the body, and this is why the body is condemned. At a later stage, however, the body will be seen in a more nuanced light, as a necessary tool to fulfill one’s duties as a human in the cosmos.

Okay, so, these are a lot of words and a lot of really lengthy excerpts that have probably rendered most of my readers’ eyes dry, drowsy, and distressed.  The reason why I wanted to bring all this up is because, time and again in the Hermeticism channel in the Hermetic House of Life (HHoL) Discord server, I and a few other people keep referencing the “Fowden approach” or the “Bull approach” to Hermetic practice.  This really is all about the practice of Hermeticism at this point: given that so many of us are already familiar with the doctrines and opinions in the various classical Hermetic texts (and all the critiques thereof), there are likewise so many of us actually doing the labor involved to put these words to work, actually living our lives according to the lessons in the texts.  This is difficult even at the best of times, given that we do technically only have an incomplete picture of what Hermeticism is from the classical period, but it’s because of good modern scholarship that we have a lot of the gaps filled in for us from otherwise good sources coupled with excellent extrapolation.

Because of the constantly-shifting landscape of academia on top of how the texts themselves can admit multiple interpretations, this leads to different ways one might actually walk the “Way of Hermēs”. One such difference plays out between what we’ve been calling the “Fowden approach” or the “Bull approach”.  Based on the texts referenced above, we can summarize what these mean accordingly:

  • The Fowden approach (also evinced by scholars like Mahé) can be thought of as “optimistic monism → pessimistic dualism”.  One begins study and practice of the Way of Hermēs by celebrating the immanence of God within creation and understanding how all things are divinely one.  Over time, as one becomes spiritually mature and ready for it, they then begin to separate themselves from the world through increasingly austere practices and perspectives which culminate in the final ascent of the soul to God to totally leave this world behind.
  • The Bull approach (also evinced by authors like Z. Pleše or G. Shaw) can be thought of as “pessimistic dualism → optimistic monism”.  One begins study and practice of the Way of Hermēs through detestation and dejection of the body, beginning with austere practices so as to purify the soul’s indwelling connection with the body.  It’s only once the student has properly purified themselves of any addiction or attachment to reality that they can more fully engage with it as a unified whole, leading them to see creation for what it really is and to see the Creator within it with eyes unclouded.

Both the Fowden approach and Bull approach look pretty reasonable for orienting oneself in Hermeticism, offering some notion of structure within which one can develop their practices and focus their studies.  Thinking about how to apply the various Hermetic texts together as a combined “way” (as in a curriculum of study) has led to us in HHoL thinking and talking about Hermeticism in terms of these “approaches”, and which “direction” we should pursue or why we should do so.  Personally, if I had to choose between the Fowden approach and the Bull approach as being the proper way to the Way, I’d go with the Bull approach, as I find it not only better argued, but also more meaningful in how it really does let the beautiful monistic outlook of Hermeticism shine through.

Of course, to posit that the Way of Hermēs takes either approach is itself a kind of dualistic thinking, and that itself is a problem for Hermeticism.  As Hanegraaff playfully chides in HSHI:

It seems to me that one must go even one step further and recognize that the very distinction between dualism and monism is itself a reflection of dualistic thinking. From the perspective of divinity to which practitioners aspired, such oppositions would be meaningless—little more than evidence of our limited consciousness.

While Hanegraaff makes this point of nondualism so as to introduce a “third kind” of reality that cuts across the Platonically-inspired dualism of divine Being and cosmic Becoming, I think it also helps to to consider these two approaches as just being different stages of a holistic Way of Hermēs rather than being two incompatible things.   To that end, instead of merely going “monism → dualism” or “dualism → monism”, I’d take a broader combined approach and recontextualization of these things as “noninitiated monism → initiatory dualism → initiated monism”.  Hear me out about how this plays out:

  • Hermēs Trismegistos is shown teaching primarily Tat, Asklēpios, and Ammōn as his disciples (or at least the ones explicitly named as such).  However, in CH I, Hermēs is charged with nothing less than the salvation of the human race by becoming “guide to the worthy”.  To that end, he immediately proceeds preaching on the street to whomever might listen, and for those who “desired to be taught”, Hermēs taught them all—yet, in texts like SH 11 or CH XIII, there are also exhortations to secrecy, and in CH XVI, there’s a notion of development from earlier doctrines to later doctrines.  There’s also AH 9 that lays out that different people have different capacities for spirituality, none of which are necessarily better than another but which simply accord each one’s lot in life. Based on all this, my opinion is that all people can be taught and can follow the Way to one degree or another, but some people will (or are meant to) take on a more intensive practice than others.
  • At first, the Way of Hermēs opens up with a benign, simple monism for the noninitiated-but-still-curious.  The student begins to learn about the Creator and Creation, our place within it, and how to lead a good life.  For some people, this is all they need to worry about, a sort of “everyday spirituality for the everyman”.  For them, their union with the Divine is something that can be attained on “the way up” after one’s death; for them, all of life while lived is simply preparation for that final ascent while participating in their role in the cosmos.
  • For others, living a good life and letting that “final ascent” happen after death isn’t enough; rather, they seek to strive for making such an ascent while still alive, or to ensure that such an ascent is guaranteed beyond the shadow of a doubt.  When the noninitiated student is ready to take that “next step”, they then begin a process of  studying and practicing austerity to break them of any misleading identifications of themselves with the body and other wrong views that may have come along uninspected but unwanted in their earlier noninitiated monism.  This helps resolve any “addictions” or “attachments” to incarnation they might have which would prevent them from properly engaging in mindful embodiment.
  • Upon the fullness of their initiatory ordeals and the actual performance and completion of initiation (in whatever form it might have taken, as exemplified by texts like CH XIII or NHC VII,6), the initiate has reached a state of spiritual maturity (or, rather, in the terms of CH XIII, spiritual rebirth) that enables them to be mindfully embodied. This is the realization of a sort of radical nondualism that not just believes in the transcendent and immanent unity of Creator with Creation, but knows it and lives it.  Having completely understood themselves, they have fully joined themselves to God while being alive in the body, achieving their own ascent before the final ascent, not only guaranteeing the completion of such an ascent after they leave this life but dwelling in union even while alive.

In other words, if I were to reterm the Fowden approach and Bull approach as “stages”, the “Fowden stage” is that of a noninitiate becoming an initiate, while the “Bull stage” is that of an initiate becoming a master.  They’re not so much different approaches on the Way as they are the difference between a moderate “outer court” and intense “inner court”, and yet both courts still have monism as their focus (as is proper for a comprehensive view of Hermetic doctrines).  And that’s hardly even a separation, really; both are set on achieving gnōsis and on union with God through gnōsis (which is all the result of having nous “mind”, which can be achieved either through reverence alone or through initiatory experiences).  The difference lies in whether one achieves such a thing while in this life or after this life, and how far one wants to take one’s own spiritual and mystic practice.  In that, perhaps even the notion of these being “outer court” and “inner court” approaches is misleading; it might be better thought of as “entering the temple from the outside world” and “leaving the temple into the outside world” (not unlike how the students of Hermēs enter into the temple at the start of the AH, but then leave it at the end).

The only time dualism ever appears in this whole thing is as a transition, and it doesn’t really so much a doctrine of actual-dualism as it is a practice (or even an aesthetic) of seeming-dualism.  Such a practice is only for the sake of refining and perfecting an overall monism, because such a practice is meant to be contextualized by monism and understood within the boundaries of a monistic understanding of the cosmos.  The “dualism” here is as much a fleeting illusion as dualism is generally, but illusory as it is, it’s one that matters; yet, by that very same token, it might be misleading to call this “pedagogical dualism” (per Bull) a “stage” as such, because it’s more of a transition between stages.  One does not merely stay with this detestation of the body forever, but must eventually move past it once the lessons of doing so are fully integrated; otherwise, one becomes mislead (from a Hermetic point of view), a sort of “falling into a pessimistic abyss” where one forgets the lessons from the earlier noninitiated simple monism while being unable to reach the lessons of the latter initiated radical monism.  (Mind the gnostic gap!)

In that light, we’re never truly engaging with dualism as an end, but rather as a means to an end, starting with monism and ending with monism; heck, we probably shouldn’t even think of this as “dualism” so much as it is “responsible non-solipsistic monism”.  To say “Fowden approach” or “Bull approach” doesn’t really represent distinct ways of “doing Hermeticism” so much as it demonstrates the whole lifespan of a mystic aspirant to the union of God within a Hermetic framework in general, whether done all at once in life or done partly in life and partly after life.  The complexity here of how to understand the Hermetic corpora as a whole belies a simpler foundation that Hermeticism is still all just a way to develop and live a monist mysticism.  Whether one dwells as a noninitiate in the simple monism of pistis/epistēmē or as an initiate in the radical monism of gnōsis, it’s still fundamentally the same teaching, because we all eventually end up at the same destination;  even the “transition” between the two that involves an austere rejection of the body may not even need to be all that austere depending on one’s own inclination to embodiment and divinity.

Such a “Hermetic dualism” is just the first part of the alchemical phrase solve et coagula.  It’s the part where we split ourselves apart, take ourselves apart, and inspect ourselves, all to learn what makes us tick and where our faults lie.  It’s the difficult stage where we really come to “know thyself”, and as a result of doing that, we come to put ourselves back together better than before, improved and more capable of becoming and being more of what we truly are.  It reminds me of a lot of those alchemical diagrams describing the process of generation and differentiation, all ultimately coming from The One and all ultimately leading back to The One, just like in the Golden Chain of Homer:

Despite some of the historical and textual similarities between Hermeticism and some gnostic traditions, I would argue that it’s inappropriate to apply the label “gnosticism” to Hermeticism, if only to avoid some of the stereotypes that “gnosticism” has accrued.  As Hanegraaff demonstrates in HSHI, “very far from the gloomy dualism and pessimistic otherworldliness imagined by modern scholars obsessed by narratives of fall and decline, Hermetic spirituality was grounded in a strongly world-affirming perspective that fully embraced the positive values of life, fertility, and the pursuit of happiness”, and the whole spiritual discipline of Hermeticism was meant to reverently realize that at one level or another for each person who engaged with it.  It might be more rigorous for some, sure, but it’s easy to mistake the rigor of austerity and harshness for “pessimistic dualism”; after all, to an outsider who isn’t clued into the nuances of a difficult situation, what might look like abuse  and violence may instead be in actuality tough love and a forceful but necessary intervention.  And even then, such austerity and detestation of one’s body is not meant for everyone, and for those who do go for it, it requires careful preparation, contextualization, and orientation, all of which is centered in an optimistic, life-loving monism that was never denied from the get-go.

Although I like the benefits that saying “Fowden approach” or “Bull approach” provides in discussion, I admit that it’s as much sleight-of-hand as it is shorthand.  The only approach that matters on the Way is the one that leads to its ultimate End, and while different people might take slightly different paths or be at different stages along their paths, it’s all still one Way.

On Hermeticism as “Philosophy” (and why that word is misleading)

As a software engineer, I like drawing a distinction between something being complex and something being complicated. While I’m as much a fan of “simplicity is the highest form of elegance” as anyone else, sometimes you just can’t avoid things being difficult or nuanced. While there are some who distinguish complexity and complication as being the difference of a system with lots of moving parts or which have non-deterministic emergent properties vs. a system that is difficult while still remaining deterministic, I take a different approach inspired more by software design: complex systems are often complex due to the nature of the problem they aim to solve or task they aim to fulfill, while complicated systems are just badly-designed systems that could be done in a better, simpler way. While one may not be able to code a complex system in a simple way, one might still endeavor to do so as simply as possible; it’s when one doesn’t do what’s as simple as possible that one introduces complication into the system. In other words, the difference I like drawing between complexity and complication is that the former is not always avoidable due to something’s nature, but that the latter is always avoidable as a matter of conscious approach.

And in that light, I think there are a lot of people who want to make Hermeticism more complicated than it needs to be. To be sure, Hermeticism can be complex, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. And, most of the time when I see people complicate Hermeticism, they do so by calling it and thinking of it as a “philosophy”, with all the baggage that term brings about. To be fair, I totally get expecting and wanting Hermeticism to have all the answers to life, the universe, and everything, and to have a fully developed cosmology complete with diagrams and whatnot, and to be able to prescribe doctrine and dogma as finely-detailed as the Catechism of the Catholic Church with an accompanying Hermetic parallel to the Rituale Romanum/Missale Romanum/Pontificale Romanum/Caeremoniale Romanum in as much exalted elaboration. But it doesn’t, and it probably never did—and that’s totally okay!

The big issue I want to draw attention to here is in thinking of Hermeticism (as in the teachings of Hermēs Trismegistos as collected in the classical Hermetic texts) as a “philosophy”. To be sure, Hermēs Trismegistos does refer to what he teaches as “philosophy” at a number of points, as in CH XVI.2 (Copenhaver translation, and note the great punning going on between philo-sophia/logon psophos rendered in English as “philosophy”/”foolosophy”):

Therefore, my king, in so far as you have the power (who are all powerful), keep the discourse uninterpreted, lest mysteries of such greatness come to the Greeks, lest the extravagant, flaccid and (as it were) dandified Greek idiom extinguish something stately and concise, the energetic idiom of <Egyptian> usage. For the Greeks have empty speeches, O king, that are energetic only in what they demonstrate, and this is the philosophy (φιλοσοφία) of the Greeks, an inane foolosophy (λόγον ψόφος) of speeches. We, by contrast, use not speeches but sounds that are full of action.

Or in AH 12—14 (Copenhaver translation):

Hermēs: “[…] Speaking as a prophet, I will tell you that after us will remain none of that simple regard for philosophy found only in the continuing reflection and holy reverence by which one must recognize divinity. The many make philosophy obscure in the multiplicity of their reasoning.”

Asklēpios: “What is it that the many do to make philosophy incomprehensible? How do they obscure it in the multiplicity of their reasoning?”

Hermēs: “In this way, Asklēpios: by combining it through ingenious argument with various branches of study that are not comprehensible—arithmētikē and music and geometry. Pure philosophy that depends only on reverence for god should attend to these other matters only to wonder at the recurrence of the stars, how their measure stays constant in prescribed stations and in the orbit of their turning; it should learn the dimensions, qualities and quantities of the land, the depths of the sea, the power of fire and the nature and effects of all such things in order to commend, worship and wonder at the skill and mind of god. Knowing music is nothing more than being versed in the correct sequence of all things together as allotted by divine reason. By divine song, this sequencing or marshalling of each particular thing into a single whole through reason’s craftwork produces a certain concord—very sweet and very true.

“Accordingly, the people who will come after us, deceived by the ingenuity of sophists, will be estranged from the true, pure and holy philosophy. To adore the godhead with simple mind and soul and to honor his works, also to give thanks to god’s will (which alone is completely filled with good), this is a philosophy unprofaned by relentlessly curious thinking.”

Or in SH 2B.2—4 (Litwa translation):

Tat: “If there is no truth in this realm, what should one do, father, to live one’s life well?”

Hermēs: “Show devotion, my child! The one who shows devotion has reached the heights of philosophy. Without philosophy, it is impossible to reach the heights of devotion. The one who has learned the nature of reality, how it is ordered, by whom, and for what purpose, will offer thanks for all things to the Creator as to a good father, a kind provider, and a faithful administrator; and the one who gives thanks will show devotion.

“The one who shows devotion will know the place of truth and its nature. The more one learns, the more devout one will become. Never, my child, has an embodied soul that disburdened itself for the perception of him who is good and true been able to slip back to their opposites. The reason is that the soul who learns about its own Forefather holds fast to passionate love, forgets all its ills, and can no longer stand apart from the Good.

“Let this, my son, be the goal of devotion. Arriving at this goal, you will live well and die blessed, since your soul is not ignorant of where it should wing its upward flight. This alone, my child, is the way toward truth which our ancestors trod and having trod it, attained the Good. This way is venerable and smooth, though it is difficult for a soul to travel on it while still in the body.”

That’s basically all the references to “philosophy” I can find in the Hermetic texts proper. Of course, there are a bunch of Hermetic fragments and testimonia (Tertullian in Against the Valentinians and On the Soul, Lactantius in Divine Institutes, Zosimus in On the Letter Ōmega, etc.) that call Hermēs Trismegistos and his followers philosophers and the like, but as far as what Hermēs Trismegistos himself considers to be “philosophy”, the above is all we have extant on the notion. And what sort of thing do we see as “philosophy” in this context? Although the AH quote above might seem almost anti-intellectual in its description, the “philosophy” of Hermēs Trismegistos that he teaches is more of a way of life and of lived devotion, sincerity, and thanksgiving to God. In this sense, what Hermēs teaches and preaches is a kind of mystic spirituality more than anything else, and while it can take into account rational approaches to understanding the cosmos through mathematics and the like, that’s not the point of it all.

I forget where specifically I read it, but I dimly remember the ever-amazing Patrick Dunn (yes, the author of a number of great books on magic, divination, religion, and theurgy) talking about what philosophy (in the traditional, classically Western sense) generally is. In his words, philosophy needs to be an approach of knowing things that is coherent and systematic; there has to be a system behind a philosophy, where you start with premises, use a particular toolkit of reason, extrapolate conclusions from premises using that toolkit, look for inconsistencies, and the like. For instance, with the philosophy of Epicureanism, you can start from two basic premises (“atoms exist” and “people seek pleasure as a good”), and derive everything else from there, from the nature of the gods to the quality of virtue. Philosophies in this “strict” sense are systematic approaches to the investigation of knowledge through formal observation, rational deduction, and logical consistency.

Such philosophies require a sort of rigor and order, which Hermeticism according to the Hermetica, frankly, lacks. True, many such classical Western philosophies weren’t just about mathematics or logic or rhetoric, and often included elaborate discussions and dissertations on ethics, morality, virtue, divinity, and (most especially and most commonly) how to live a good, happy life. The thing is that they still had systematic approaches to arriving at conclusions from given axioms that avoided or otherwise resolved contradictions and errors in argument or judgment, and it’s this criterion that Hermeticism just doesn’t fulfill. When you take a look at what’s in the various Hermetic texts (truly, take your pick!), you come across countless variations, differences, and outright contradictions at times, even sometimes within the very same text. By and large, we don’t see a rigorous form of argumentation from hypotheses to conclusions; we rather see divine revelation and ecstatic outburst, spiritual exhortations and mystical directives. As I read it, that’s the actually juicy parts of the Hermetic texts; while there is an abundance of descriptions of the nature of things, the processes of reproduction or meterology, arguments to elaborate or describe the divine through metaphors of physics, and the like, all of these are secondary to the fundamentally spiritual and mystical impetus that drives Hermēs Trismegistos to teach what he teaches. And that’s just not what most people consider “philosophy” to be, by and large; for Hermēs, such philosophy renders what he teaches “incomprehensible”, while to most philosophers, what Hermēs teaches would just be irrational.

To be sure, to define what “philosophy” is or what the word means is a difficult thing, so much so that there’s a whole Wikipedia article just about the debate over doing so. However, when people generally encounter the word “philosophy”, there are certain connotations, suggestions, and ideas that come with the word—the word’s own “baggage”, as it were—that color the conversations in which we use it. It is only when we take the broadest possible view of what “philosophy” might connote, a literal “love of wisdom” and the vaguest notion of a “way of life” for such a love of wisdom, that we might call Hermeticism a philosophy, in the same way one might call Buddhism or Christianity a philosophy. And while that may well work for some people some of the time (Hermēs Trismegistos uses this very same sense in those Hermetic excerpts I mentioned above), when people call Hermeticism a “philosophy”, what they effectively try to do is put it into the same semantic field as we might find Stoicism or Platonism, and Hermeticism just doesn’t act the same way or produce the same things as what those do. And yet, to call Hermeticism a philosophy has always been super common, although the very meaning of what the word “philosophy” suggests has shifted over the past 2000 years to make things more difficult for everyone involved.

In his recent book (which is a supremely excellent tour de force for the study and practice of Hermeticism that I encourage anyone and everyone to check out) Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination: Altered States of Knowledge in Late Antiquity, Wouter J. Hanegraff spends a good amount of space in his introduction in figuring out what to call Hermeticism at all, and why he settles on it being a “spirituality”. Although “scholars have long been used to speaking of Hermetic philosophy“, Hanegraaff makes an excellent argument about why we should avoid thinking of Hermeticism in terms of “philosophy” at all”. Forgive the long quote, but it’s a fantastic argument that I really want people to grasp here:

The Hermetica are full of statements to the effect that true knowledge of ultimate realities “that cannot be thought” is is not just possible, but essential to human salvation and true felicity; and we will see that the pursuit of such “knowledge” is at the very heart of the ancient experiential practices that modern scholars refer to as “the Way of Hermes.” […] the true concern of the Hermetic writings is not with philosophy as commonly understood today.* What their authors meant by “knowledge” is something entirely different from the intellectual understanding achieved through mental activity—thinking–that our modern philosophical traditions have taught us to ­ understand by that word.

* Or, for that matter, as understood in antiquity. Socrates’ “love of wisdom,” as described by Plato, was likewise focused on an ultimate level of reality–the eternal forms or ideas–that could only be beheld directly in a trans-rational state of mania, divine madness…Philosophers are those who have recognized their own ignorance and desire to become wise: therefore Plato’s ideal philosopher, Socrates, is precisely not the man of wisdom…By contrast, the ideal Hermetic sage resembles Socrates’ teacher Diotima: a priestly visionary who no longer needs to aspire to knowledge because she knows the truth through direct experience.

A second reason not to speak of Hermetic “philosophy” has less to do with the exact content of that term than with its polemical function in common academic and even in everyday discourse. Specialists have always been aware that the texts they labeled as “philosophical” might as well be described as “religious,” “theological,” “mystical,” or “theosophical.” If they still preferred to speak of Hermetic philosophy, this was because it helped them draw a normative boundary. For them, the eminently serious and respectable pursuit of intellectual reflection about the nature of reality could have nothing in common with the so obviously disreputable and unserious business of magical or occult practice as reflected in many texts attributed to Hermes Trismegistus or associated with his name. The former type of activity deserved respect in their eyes, while the latter did not, and many scholars found it hard to imagine that one and the same text or author could be involved in both. Philosophers did not practice magic, for magicians were not thinking straight.

On a rather obvious level, this juxtaposition of respectable Hermetic philosophy against disreputable Hermetic practice seemed perfectly self-evident to academic armchair intellectuals trained to value thinking as a noble pursuit and dismiss “occult” practices as embarrassing nonsense. More specifically, it reflected the strong ideological allegiance of professional classicists to ancient Greece as the idealized home of rational thought, an attitude referred to as philhellenism or hellenophilia and intimately linked to the liberal neo-humanist perspectives of nineteenth-century German Kulturprotestantismus. This stance was accompanied by profound feelings of suspicion, hostility, and contempt for anything reminiscent of its traditional competitor, that is to say of Egypt, the symbolic center of pagan idolatry, the primitive heart of irrational darkness. That the Hermetica were Greek texts written in Egypt was an irritant to the scholarly imagination and made them an ideal arena of ideological contestation. […] In other words, anything philosophical in the Hermetica must be Greek by definition, for even the very language of the Egyptians prevents them from understanding rational thought. Zielinski’s “higher Hermetism” stood for Greek philosophy, while its “lower” counterpart stood for Egyptian magic; the former was worthy of attention, the latter was not.

[…] From the 1970s, the pro-Greek/anti-Egyptian ideology was gradually weakened and finally abandoned, due partly to the discovery of new Hermetic manuscripts in Coptic and other ancient languages and partly to a slow decline of philhellenic bias in the study of ancient religions more generally. […] these developments did not lead scholars to abandon the basic distinction between two types of Hermetica. Only the terminology was adapted somewhat: in the wake of Jean-Pierre Mahé’s seminal publications of the 1970s and 1980s, most scholars now refer to the astrological, magical, and alchemical materials ascribed to Hermes as “practical” or “technical” Hermetica. Their counterpart is usually still referred to as “theoretical” or “philosophical” even by scholars who are quick to point out that those adjectives are inadequate.

[…] The terminologies we choose will not just color and influence our interpretations, but often determine which other texts, practices, ideas, or traditions will be seen as most relevant for understanding what the Hermetica are all about. If we call them “philosophical” we will try to analyze their philosophy and compare them with other philosophical traditions, and if we call them “theoretical” we will be looking for theories and systematic speculation. In both cases, this will lead us to relativize, minimize, marginalize, or even wholly overlook dimensions that may be important or even central to the texts themselves but are hard to understand in terms of philosophical theories. By and large, as will be seen, this is exactly what happened in the study of the Hermetica. By speaking of “Hermetic spirituality,” I hope to highlight precisely those dimensions that philosophers (and, for that matter, theologians) have always found most difficult to handle but which are central to the study of religion: experiences and practices.

[…] If Hermetic spirituality was a type of privatized, experience-oriented religion, this has consequences for conventional ways of categorizing the materials. By and large, most of the texts that used to be called “philosophical” remain relevant, but their theoretical discussions about the exact nature of God, humanity, and the cosmos must be considered from the perspective of their function in a wider spiritual framework: they do not stand on themselves, as contributions to philosophical debate, but are meant to provide background information that spiritual practitioners need while navigating their journey of healing and salvation. As for the corpus that used to be called “technical,” we will see that it contains some texts that are of great importance to Hermetic spirituality, while many other texts concerned with practical astrology, magic, alchemy, or philosophy have little or no relevance to it.

I need to emphasize that my approach does not imply a mere reshuffling of the texts according to a somewhat different principle of division, replacing the traditional framework of “philosophical versus technical Hermetica” by one of “spiritual versus non-spiritual Hermetica.” […]

Honestly, Hanegraaff’s Hermetic Spirituality is a fantastic book for so many reasons, but this particular bit is really important for the framing of so much his study, and something I think a lot of people should bear in mind. To be sure, although the Hermetic texts call themselves “philosophy” and although then-contemporaries and other sources closer in time than us to the Hermetica call it likewise, there has been sufficient semantic drift (and scholarly baggage) involved that we cannot honestly call it a “philosophy” except how Hermēs Trismegistos himself loosely defines it (or may even be seen to redefine it). And that, likewise, only really applies to the teachings of the texts themselves, which (as Hanegraaff points out) are meant not to serve as some sort of scientific end in and of themselves, but rather for the ecstatic and spiritual advancement of a human soul towards its divine ends.

To be fair, to call Hermeticism “philosophy” is something super commonly seen, and while it’s not really a mistake per se, it is something we should probably reconsider as a matter of appropriately-descriptive terminology. But then you have books like the Kybalion that lament how “true philosophy” becomes marred by theology or superstition—which, let’s be honest, fills actual Hermetic texts abundantly—while never itself amounting to much more of the use of such a term than it has a right to (and arguably has even less than just referring to things as a “way of life”). And, again, this gets back to the difficulty of trying to offer a solid definition of “philosophy”: what we call the sciences of biology, geology, physics, and the like were once called natural philosophy, and then you have Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim’s summary composition of religion and magic as being an exploration of occult philosophy, but even then, these are all systematic approaches to learning about things and establishing their reality, which Hermeticism simply doesn’t do. However, when we refer to Hermeticism as a “philosophy”, the burden of that term insinuates that Hermeticism should (must!) do these things, provide detailed answers to how many layers of reality there are, explain experience from both physical and metaphysical perspectives, establish ontologies in addition to epistomologies, and the like. And it just doesn’t really do that.

So, if Hermeticism doesn’t do those things, what does it do? If calling Hermeticism a “philosophy” and suggesting that it behave like one a la Platonism is a matter of complication, then what’s the simpler approach that respects what Hermeticism actually is and does? In that light, the answer is straightforward, really: while Hanegraaff calls it a “spirituality” (in the sense of it being a tradition considered as being primarily religious rather than rational/scientific, with a focus on direct experience rather than doctrine or belief, and concerned more with the cultivation of private individual practice rather than membership of a social organization), I call it more of a “mysticism” (which effectively, albeit informally, approximates Hanegraaff’s terminological choice). Hermēs Trismegistos is focused less on establishing the reality of things that are and more on showing us how to experience them, focused less on establishing a contradiction-free approach to knowledge and more on laying a useful framework for the ascent of the soul. Hermeticism is not about knowledge in the sense of rational discourse (logos) or things learned or taught (epistēmē), but more about the direct experience of truth (gnōsis). As Hanegraaff points out, Hermēs Trismegistos is not aiming to be the philosopher and ponderer Socrates, but rather the priest and prophet Diotima.

Hermeticism is far from the easiest way of life to follow, sure. Despite Hermēs teaching that we only need but a “simple regard…found only in the continuing reflection and holy reverence by which one must recognize divinity”, this is still challenging due to the nuanced and careful subtleties involved of doing just that. However, by trying to insist that we should do this through making it “incomprehenseible…obscuring it in the multiplicity of reasoning” and “combining it through ingenious argument with various branches of study”, we end up turning something complex into something complicated—and Hermēs strongly tells us in no uncertain terms that we should not do that. We shouldn’t hope to find all the answers to everything in the Hermetic texts, because they don’t have such answers, and they never had such answers; Hermēs isn’t one who preaches “believe or perish”, but rather teaches “believe and come find out for yourself”. What Hermēs teaches in the Hermetic texts might well be a lot, but it’s all within a limited in scope and aim: that of salvation and ascent. All else that he teaches and talks about is meant to serve that specific goal and no other, and warns us against getting overly involved in such “relentlessly curious thinking” which would otherwise serve as nothing more than a distraction.