An interpretation of Corpus Hermeticum 2

by Jos Kunst (1992)

This is an unpublished fragment of a dissertation on the Corpus Hermeticum Jos Kunst was working on. Because of his untimely death, he has not been able to finish this work.

0. Introduction

0.0 The problem of historical distance

The more ancient the texts, the more, in studying them, it becomes important to strike the right balance between on the one hand preserving one's historical distance from them and thereby maintaining them in the right perspective, and appropriating them, reading things in(to) them, without which there would simply be no understanding them, on the other. Without the first we would be deluding ourselves into reading meanings into them that could never have been originally intended; without the second we just would not know what it is that we have to keep in its right historical perspective.

0.1 Reading the ancient texts

Today the Hermetica seem, whatever else one may truthfully say about them, to have become one of the quasi-universal rallying points of all and any religious crackpots abroad in the western world. In the past many figures distinguished by colourfulness and by a certain capacity for hardheaded thought (the crackpots of an earlier age?) have read them and invoked them in their own writings [1]; through these they have, in their turn, contributed to the frame of mind in which contemporary readers may again try to find inspiration, or even illumination, in them. Today's rosicrucianism, however, in my personal experience at least, is as drab as any stuck-in-the-rut christian church – and considerably less hardheaded.

Reading the texts in their best original version is, no doubt, indispensable, but not always an easy task, and it is not always helped by existing editions. This has to do with several obvious difficulties, but also with some that are, I think, somewhat less obvious. Let me first try to get some grip on a rather elusive problem that, at least as I see it, fundamentally concerns any modern reading of ancient texts. For me, it suddenly came to a head when recently I read the Corpus Hermeticum and related Hermetica for the first time in full.

There are reasons that might justify modern readers in thinking their own knowledge superior to that of ancient writers. For one very real thing, they know (parts of) the writers' future. Moreover, natural and other sciences may well have progressed considerably since the older writers wrote on their subjects; and lastly, most of us (rightly so, I think) reject the belief in some once vastly superior 'primal' knowledge gradually and inexorably being lost, so that the older the writer, the more access he may still have had to mythical and now irretrievably hidden sources of it.

On the other hand, I think it is simply sound strategy to class our authors (and their intended readers) as half-wits as a last resort only. If they do indeed seem to be saying useless or stupid things, we should begin by putting questions to ourselves. Are they really talking about what we take them to be talking about? That is, are we really clear about the possible variants in the meaning of the words they use? Might it not be the case that subsequent evolution of thought has rescinded certain once legitimate domains where their words found, or perhaps were trying to conquer, a meaning?

0.2 The Nock & Festugière edition

In reading the Hermetica I first used the Nock & Festugière text and translation. Everybody agrees that their work satisfies the highest standards of skill and learning. But I have often felt that, especially where Festugière's comments on the text are concerned, their edition at certain moments meets the simple standards of human integrity only in the more relaxed senses of that term. Texts should be edited, I think, in order to open them up for reading, not in this more or less underhanded intention of disparaging them and scaring away their potential readership. It is rather painfully obvious to the reader that these learned editors must often have felt tempted to think, say, not exactly highly of the ill-assorted bunch of texts they were giving the honour of a high-standard edition (cf., e.g., [...] ces textes [...] nous révèlent une manière de penser, ou plutôt une manière d'user de la pensée, (sic! – he must have had a theory on human thought. JK) analogue à une sorte de procédé magique, qui en imposait à certains esprits.[2]). I feel sorely tempted to answer him that equally obviously such magic-style rhetoric, if found in our treatises, deserves to be met with just as much, or just as little, sarcasm as, say, the equally magical wording of the beginning of the fourth Gospel, or even of the Nicean Credo itself. Something even more essential may be at stake here. For it is not, I think, anything like awe before 'sacred' texts that I feel to have been lacking here, but rather a sufficiently persistent effort toward some decent kind of historical understanding of the fact that not only they have been written down in the first place, but also, subsequently, time and again found interesting enough to be copied and kept alive for future generations. Even granted that, theologically and otherwise, these texts are the lowly mishmash that they are, I, for one, would still like to understand what it is in them that made people feel they were useful and perhaps even irreplaceable texts. Now one simple, and in principle quite satisfactory, answer could be provided by the consideration that, in fact, they are sacred mumbo-jumbo and nothing else – precisely because any sacred mumbo-jumbo one encounters in manuscript form must at least once have been felt to be exactly irreplaceable . However, if some somewhat less sterile (or more 'progressive', in the Lakatos sense of the word) answer could be found, it would certainly have to be preferred. And that is where we will presently be directing our efforts.

0.3 Some related aims

A number of other problems, or rather a constellation of them, for clearly they are interrelated, have provided additional motivation for the present inquiry. Why has mysticism in the West, or at least in its western public expressions, i.e. mysticism as a social institution, taken worldly literature for its home, why does it now live on within the belles lettres , and no longer (at least not in any unmuzzled form) in any officially religious institution? (Cf. R.C.Zaehner's choice of modern western mystics to be studied.) If I am not mistaken, no mystic who has tried to share his experiences by writing about them has been canonized, elevated to sainthood, by the church of Rome since the Counterreformation saints (St. John of the Cross, Theresa of Avila). I have the distinct impression that the church, in fact, deeply distrusts mystics, and moreover that, being what it is, it has every reason to do so. I would like to find at least the beginning of an explanation for the fact that so important a part of religious life has, at least for its public expressions, effectively been exiled from an institution like the church of Rome.

This has to do, I think, with the more general problem of the social workings of orthodoxy. It also leads me to what is my second item in need of illumination: the so called Mysteries of the Faith. I accept that I will never understand what they say: that is why they are mysteries. But I would like to understand why they are there; why people ('decent christians', we must assume) have given them the place they now occupy in their (and our) religious constructs. Taoism, buddhism and the like present us with numerous paradoxes, but in our confrontation with these paradoxes, koan riddles and the like, we feel that that is precisely what they are: even if we are unable to resolve them, they are still meant to push us (perhaps) one dialectical plane upward, or toward some hitherto untried viewpoint, or whatever. They provoke us; they are therefore, within their pedagogical framework, philosophically respectable items. The Trinity is not, nor is it meant to be.

Thirdly, and lastly, a practical problem of a scientifically unexceptionable kind: a terminological one. In reading my way into the field I am now trying to contribute to, I have been increasingly troubled by the (I feel tempted to think) too numerous, too often plainly spineless and sometimes even incoherent uses of the word 'gnostic' and, in its wake, of a number of other terms belonging to a relatively fixed constellation of keywords surrounding it. Now I know as well as my readers why Popper warned us against disputes on terminology. I am willing to concede that coining terms brings, by itself, no new knowledge. I also am well aware that, were I to engage in some propaganda activity for my own preferred use of the term, I would certainly be in for the most dismal of failures; in all probability, no consensus at all will ever be forthcoming on the subject. Nevertheless, one may legitimately try to clarify some precise concept of gnosticism, and give it a new name that both shows its relatedness and its distinctness from the current word (call it, e.g., '*gnosticism', or whatever); if, then, that concept proves both rich and precise enough, and, moreover, interestingly related to many or most current uses of the term, then it might in fact contribute to the fruitfulness of any eventually ensuing discussion.

1. CH2: its contents


1.0.0 Festugière on CH2

CH2, Corpus Hermeticum 2, the second treatise in the collection of the so-called "Philosophical Hermetica" (called thus in order to distinguish them from the more practically oriented magical, astrological and alchemical texts traditionally associated with the Egyptian Hermes; however, in more recent years historians have become aware that the gap between theoretical and practical Hermetica is perhaps somewhat less than absolute) has been published in the first volume of the Belles Lettres edition (cf. our references, under Nock & Festugière), on pages 29-41. There is a three page introduction-with-summary preceding the text (pp 29-31). In the introduction the editor is complaining about the text's "incoherence" and "difficulty". The incoherence is due to the fact that an (in his opinion) rather long-winded statement of a purely philosophical nature is linked to a conclusion of a theological and moral character. This link, in itself, creates difficulties of interpretation (which of the two constitutes the essay's real subject?); these difficulties are then compounded still by the density of the text's language (the editor feels compelled to add here: "language rather than thought") in its philosophical part. It is clear that, emotionally speaking, the text brings out the worst in its editor: he has for it nothing but irritation and contempt. In a footnote at the end of his introduction he quotes with evident relish an equally irritated and contemptuous colleague, who says (I quote the german text, followed by my translation of it): Das Raisonnement hängt noch so nicht zusammen; durch des Verfassers oder des verdorbenen Textes Schuld? Scharf zu denken scheint, sosehr er sich auch die Miene gibt, seine Sache nicht; er hatte, nach dem Sprichworte, die Glocken läuten gehört, wusste aber nicht, wo sie hiengen. (The reasoning is still not coherent; whether this be due to the author's fault or to his text's corrupted state, I cannot say. Rigorous thinking, however much he tries to ape it, does not seem to be something he is any good at; as the proverb says, he has heard the bells ringing, but he does not know where to find them.) I have quoted this little gem in full so that the reader may see for himself that what we have here is the ancient author himself cast in the crackpot's role. Now this in itself might be all right, in principle; there is no reason why the first centuries of the christian era should not have their fair share of crackpots, perhaps even on the contrary; but I, for one, feel unwilling to agree too easily that the present case is as uninteresting as its editor thinks. I will presently try to specify my position and provide some arguments for it.

1.1.0 The undisputed part of CH2's contents

Let us state at the outset that we do not dispute any of the items mentioned by Festugière in his summary of CH2's contents. They are the following.

  1. (CH2:1) Everything that is moved implies the existence of something else in which and by which it is moved. This other thing is, of necessity, both larger and stronger; moreover, it is of a nature contrary to that of the thing being moved.
  2. (CH2:2-6) Thus, the world, being itself a body in motion, is being moved in and by something incorporeal, and something incorporeal must be either divine or else the godhead itself.
  3. (CH2:6-8) Whatever causes something in it to move, must itself be motionless (with respect to it). An example is given: the sphere of the fixed stars does not move the way the planets do; its (revolving) motion is, with respect to the planets' more complex motions, a kind of motionlessness. That is how it can cause the planets' motion.
  4. (CH2:8-9) Next, the author stresses that it is always 'from within' that causes operate: he means by that that no inanimate object ever moves unless made to do so by something uncorporeal: soul, spirit, or whatever.
  5. (CH2:10-12) The place in which and by which motion occurs is not empty. Nothing in the universe is empty; everything contains at least air and spirit.
  6. (CH2:12) The place within which the universe itself moves, is something incorporeal. It is the divine mind (the nous).
  7. (CH2:12-14) The godhead itself is none of these things, instead, it causes all of them to exist.
  8. (CH2:14-16) Two names can be applied to the godhead. The first of them is: the good. Only the godhead deserves that name, for nothing else, taken separately, can be the good. This is because only the godhead gives everything and receives nothing.
  9. (CH2:17) The other name is that of the father, who brings everything into being. Man also should seek fatherhood.

1.1.1 The flow of causation

An important element (I think it is even the chief element) responsible for the impression of incoherence given by the text of CH2, is in the presence of our stage 4) in the text. Before as after it, the direction of what one could call "the flow of causation" is inward. Thus, in a diagram like the one given in Fig.1, the divine nous, being strong and motionless with respect to the sphere of the fixed stars, causes motion to occur in it; the sphere of the fixed stars, possibly combined with the mind-sphere, is strong and motionless with respect to the planetary spheres and thereby causes motion to occur in them; and they in their turn (possibly combined with one or both of the preceding spheres) are strong and stable with respect to the nether spheres, causing thereby events to occur in them, e.g. , on earth. And then, as if to suppress any doubt that all events ultimately emanate from the traditional place of spirit, soul and mind, viz. , from "within", the text suddenly states that flow of causation can only be outward, literally: hupo tôn entos eis to kat' ektos (NF I: p. 35 l. 6). Festugière passes over this difficulty without even devoting a footnote to it. Maybe he feels himself in 4) to be back on fairly familiar ground, which he definitely was not in the preceding passages where causation was still supposed to be flowing inward [3].

[The world according to CH2]

Fig. 1. The world according to CH2

1.1.2 The kind of causation involved

Whatever one's opinion on 4), the task of coming up with a good interpretation of what exactly may be meant by the inward flow of causation described in the text's preceding stages is obviously more important and perhaps hardly less thorny. Purely physical causation has been explicitly excluded in 4). It may be the case, pace Festugière who titles the first part of his summary Considérations sur le lieu physique, that it is not, or at least not purely or exclusively, of physical space that we are talking. In fact, there is a kind of causation I want to invoke that Festugière, for as far as I can see, never thought of, and that might solve our puzzle. I mean intentional causation (or *causation, if you want to be careful). I am not thinking of God performing actions in the world, because this would make the godhead an agent in the full sense of the word and therefore a person, and I think this hermetic text, like many others of its kind, refuses to conceive of the one godhead as a person. I want to invoke a kind of causation that is in no way mystical in itself, but that certainly can be put to mystical uses. It does in fact occur in the real world wherever there are humans in it, and it is essentially (also) non-physical in character. It has as its paradigm not a billiard ball put in motion by another billiard ball bumping into it, but, instead, the way any visible event, simply by occurring within my field of vision, *causes me to see it.

We now re-tell the story of 1.1.1. What I have in my head is a perception of the world. The world, in producing my perception of itself, an image of itself in my mind, proves itself to be stronger, stabler and bigger than my mind. What occurs in the nether spheres is their perception of the starry heavens. The starry heavens actually are being perceived by the nether spheres, and in that way produce everything that goes on in them, they are their perceived reality, and therefore stronger, stabler and bigger than they. The roamings of the planetary spheres are the perception in their sphere of what is, with respect to them, reality, viz., the sphere of the fixed stars (and that is, as argued at length in the text, stronger, stabler and larger than the planetary spheres; it in fact does not even move in the same sense as they); and, finally, the activity of the fixed stars is nothing else than precisely the (or their) direct contemplation of the divine nous, which constitutes the reality in which they move.

It is the only interpretation I can presently think of that compellingly fuses together, as the text does, place and cause, and the fact that, under it, the text's desription of the world comes out to be rather radically metaphor-based (or even plainly metaphorical) does not, I think, preclude its being psychologically and historically acceptable.

1 Cf., e.g., Frances Yates' famous book on Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

2 NF, tome 1, p VII.

3 It is true textual corruption there was also more severe – if, at least, this whole passage is not an insertion by a critical transcriber (such as everyone agrees the first sentence of CH2:14 to be). If that were in fact the case, two almost identical transition sentences (NF I: p. 35 l. 3 and NF I: p. 35 l. 16/7), of which the second in particular is, as it now stands, extremely awkward, might fuse into one, thereby resolving any awkwardness. We know, however, of no further arguments for excluding stage 4) from CH2's text. (The important Stobaeus source (5th century AD) already incorporates it.)