Category: Philosophical theories

Hermetica – Popular Platonism

Apocalyptic texts and related intellectual currents emerging between the 1st and the 3rd centuries AD, ultimately inspired by the Platonic doctrine on the distinction between the sensible and the intelligible realms and the human soul’s ability to attain redemption.

The modern term “popular Platonism” refers to intellectual trends, directly or indirectly inspired by Plato’s philosophy, that developed in the context of the Roman Empire; it is thought to have been targeted at people lacking the education of those studying in philosophical schools. Among these is a collection of apocalyptic texts of a redemptive orientation, which were attributed to the authorship of Hermes Trismegistus. The influence of Middle Platonism is manifest in the formation of these intellectual currents that reveal intense syncretic trends and a tendency towards the fusing of Platonic, Peripatetic, and Stoic ideas with the mythico-religious spirituality of the East.

The Hermetic treatises

The Corpus Hermeticum (= C.H.) is an extant collection of 17 relatively brief texts, whose composition is dated between the early first and the late third centuries AD. These works, all written in Greek, belong to a more extensive genre produced during the Imperial era, extensive fragments of which, some included in the C.H. and some not, have been preserved by Joannes Stobaeus (6th c.). The Latin translation of one such work, originally entitled Logos Teleios (= Perfect Discourse), has been preserved under the title Asclepius. This is the lengthiest extant work of Hermetic literature. Another treatise entitled Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius has also been preserved in an Armenian translation. The Nag Hammadi library (cf. Gnosticism and Plato) contained two, otherwise unattested, Hermetic works (N.H.C. VI, 6-7) as well as a Coptic translation of an extensive passage from the Asclepius (N.H.C. VI, 8 = Asc. 21-29). Both Christian and pagan authors (e.g. Lactantius, Iamblichus, Cyril, Zosimus) mention other similar texts, sometimes citing passages from them.

The majority of the works in the Hermetic collection are dialogues. Hermes Trismegistus is mentioned as their author. He is depicted teaching his son Tat or his student Asclepius.

Hermes Trismegistus is the Hellenistic amalgam of the Greek Hermes and the Egyptian Thoth, who is twice mentioned in Plato (Phdr. 274e; Phlb. 18b) as the inventor of writing. The commixture of these two divinities was facilitated by Hermes’ role as a messenger, interpreter and “guide of souls” (psychopompos); for apart from the tutelary deity of writing and apocryphal wisdom, Thoth was also guarantor of the balance between opposites, and was strongly associated with the underworld. In the Hermetic works, however, Hermes Trismegistus is not presented as a god: he is a wise man, whose knowledge is the product of divine revelation.

In Late Antiquity and the Renaissance, the texts in the Hermetic collection were considered authentic products of ancient Egyptian wisdom and were dated to Moses’ era. The first to successfully dispute their authenticity was the Swiss philologist Isaac Casaubon, who in the early 17th century demonstrated the influences of Hellenistic concepts on these texts, and proceeded to declare them spurious. Very few have since denied their dating to a time between the second and the third centuries AD. No Neoplatonic elements are to be found anywhere in the collection.

Hermetic teaching

Hermeticism was more of a redemptive religious teaching than a philosophical system. Several contradictions and inconsistencies can be detected in the 17 tracts of the Corpus Hermeticum. Apparently, their unnamed authors did not all embrace the same ideas. Certain works, like e.g. the General Sermon (= C.H. II) or the treatise bearing the subtitle Though Unmanifested God is Most Manifest (= C.H. V), reveal great familiarity with Platonic terminology and put forth arguments that could be considered philosophical. Other works clearly belong to the genre of apocalyptic literature. The disparagement of the body and matter features prominently in some places, while in other it is carefully concealed, or even altogether absent. Common to all the works in the collection, however, is the acceptance of a primal divine Intellect, which gives birth to a second Intellect that creates the universe. Although the metaphysics in the Hermetic collection is, by and large, monistic, some works exhibit clear signs of a suppressed dualism. The oppositions between the sensible and the intelligible, Being and becoming, body and soul, and matter and God or the Good reappear, ultimately hailing from Plato’s dialogues. The same is true of the creative Intellect, which originates more from the Demiurge of Plato’s Timaeus than the Hebrew Yahweh. Another manifest source of influence on the C.H. is magic, especially the Egyptian tradition, with its emphasis on the autonomous power of the written and spoken word.

The first and foremost tract in the collection, entitled Poemandres (= C.H. I), is a record of the revelation afforded by Poemandres (= shepherd of men) to Hermes Trismegistus, who constitutes an aspect of the universal Intellect. This text shows clear signs of Gnostic influence. Through a personal mystical experience vividly described in the first pages of the work, Hermes comes into contact with the entire process of the universe’s creation, and thus succeeds in knowing his real self, the self that will return to the embrace of God following the death of his visible form, moral character, and the soul’s mortal elements.

It is interesting that this cosmogony includes the Platonic-inspired distinction between the intelligible and the sensible world. Yet, although in Plato the Forms are eternal and uncreated, in the Poemandres the archetypes of the sensible world are born of the hermaphrodite first God. The archetypal Man, also androgynous (like the Orphic Phanes or some of the original humans of Aristophanes’ speech in Plato’s Symposium), is born in the image of the first God; he falls in love with his reflection on the wet surface of Nature, rushes towards it, embraces it and thus impregnates Nature, which leads to the birth of seven new humans, who correspond to the planetary spheres. These men are aware of their double begetting: in terms of the body they are made up of the four elements, while in terms of substance by soul and intellect, they are the products of life and light that define the first God. Then we have the birth of the animals and of the humans we are familiar with, who multiply through sexual intercourse; for in the meantime the two sexes have been distinguished.

Although the narrative’s logical structure leaves much to be desired, it is obvious that its aim is to allow “the man endowed with Nous” to recognize “that one’s self is immortal and that the cause of death is desire (erôs)” (C.H. I, §18). According to the Poemandres, the sought-after redemption is achieved through self-knowledge, i.e. by recognizing the archetypal Man, who is dormant within us so long as sensuality and eroticism reign supreme in our life. These notions show obvious affinity with certain Platonic views on pleasure, love, the importance of knowledge, and the immortality of the soul. Nonetheless, their divergence from authentic Platonic doctrine is also evident.

On a more theoretical context, the unknown author of the sixth treatise writes (C.H. VI, §5) – in two quite distinct English translations:

If thou canst God conceive, thou shalt conceive the Beautiful and Good, transcending light, made lighter than the Light by God. That Beauty is beyond compare; inimitate that Good, e’en as God is Himself. As, then, thou dost conceive of God, conceive the Beautiful and Good. For they cannot be joined with aught of other things that live, since they can never be divorced from God. Seek’st thou for God, thou seekest for the Beautiful. One is the path that leadeth unto It – Devotion joined with Gnosis (transl. by G.R.S. Mead).
If you can perceive God, you will perceive beauty, goodness (to agathon) and splendour, illumined by God. That beauty is incomparable and that goodness inimitable, as is God Himself. Thus insofar as you perceive God, you must perceive beauty and goodness. These are not shared by other living beings, as they are inseparable from God. If you seek after God, you also seek after beauty. There is one way leading to that beauty: devotion with knowledge (transl. by Salaman et al.).

The Forms of Beauty (kallos, to kalon) and Goodness (to agathon) recur in Plato’s dialogues (Symposium, Republic, Phaedrus), and exhibit features that are appropriate to divine nature: they are the eternal, immutable and imperishable forms of everything that is beautiful and good. Furthermore, there are grounds to believe that Plato considered these two supreme Forms as ultimately identical. Whereas Plato arrived at the superiority of these Forms because of his conviction that participation, by some means, in beauty and goodness is a prerequisite for existence, the unnamed author of the Hermetic treatise held that these pure forms exist only in God, and consequently there can be nothing beautiful and good in the world; “for the world”, he claims (§4) “is the sum total of evil, while God the unlimited goodness, or rather goodness the unlimited God”. This position reveals the deeply otherworldly interpretation given to various views of Platonic inspiration in the redemptive texts of Hermeticism.

Influence Hermetic

doctrine is mentioned in the works of some Neoplatonists (Iamblichus, Hermias, Proclus) as archaic and worthy of attention. Its influence on Neoplatonism was rather limited in comparison to that of the Chaldaean Oracles and Orphic literature.

Hermeticism was essentially unknown to the Byzantines and Western Medieval Europe. Yet when a manuscript containing the works of the C.H. emerged in Renaissance Florence, Marsilio Ficino was forced to take time away from his translation of Plato’s dialogues to compose a Latin rendition of the collection, which was completed in 1463. The Hermetic texts were held in high esteem, until Isaac Casaubon’s critique one and a half centuries later. Today, Hermetic literature is the subject of historical research, eliciting fewer feelings of religious piety.

Author: Spyridon Rangos
  • Copenhaver, B.P. Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius in a New English Translation with Notes and Introduction. Cambridge, 1992.
  • Fowden, G. The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind. Princeton, 1993.
  • Festugiere, A. La révelation d’Hermès Trismegiste, 4 τόμοι. Παρίσι, 1944-1954.
  • Festugiere, A., Nock, A.D. Hermès Trismegiste: Corpus Hermeticum, 4 τόμοι. Παρίσι, 1946-1954.
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