49 Days of Definitions: Part V, Definition 1

This post is part of a series, “49 Days of Definitions”, discussing and explaining my thoughts and meditations on a set of aphorisms explaining crucial parts of Hermetic philosophy.  These aphorisms, collectively titled the “Definitions from Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius”, lay out the basics of Hermetic philosophy, the place of Man in the Cosmos, and all that stuff.  It’s one of the first texts I studied as a Hermetic magician, and definitely what I would consider to be a foundational text.  The Definitions consist of 49 short aphorisms broken down into ten sets, each of which is packed with knowledge both subtle and obvious, and each of which can be explained or expounded upon.  While I don’t propose to offer the be-all end-all word on these Words, these might afford some people interested in the Definitions some food for thought, one aphorism per day.

Today, let’s discuss the eighteenth definition, part V, number 1 of 3:

(Reasonable) speech is the servant of Nous.  For what Nous wants, speech in turn interprets.  Nous sees everything, and eyes all corporeal (things).  And yet Nous does not become an observer for the eyes, but the eyes for Nous.

The last set of definitions investigated the different types of living beings, and most significant among them is Man.  Man has a body, so Man is a living being.  Further, Man has soul and spirit, enabling Man to grow and move of its own accord.  Because it increases and decreases according to the element of earth within its body, Man can die, so it is mortal and not immortal.  We know that living beings with body, soul, and spirit also have voice, but Man has this in addition to Nous.  This distinction from IV.1 is important, and the clarification between living beings with voice with Nous and living beings with voice without Nous now becomes apparent.

For one, “reasonable speech is the servant of Nous”.  Thus, Nous as God or Nous as possessed by Man enables any living being or entity or non-entity to be reasonable; Man is, after all, a reasonable entity (I.1, IV.1).  Now we find that speech, which is made possible by voice that animals and Man possess, serves Nous, and above all reasonable speech.  This is made a little more clear in the Greek word logos, meaning many things, but among them speech, reason, discourse, order, logic, science, knowing, and many other things.  The concept of logos is pretty complex and has been used in many traditions and philosophies, but suffice to say that here it refers to the power of languge and utterance.

However, not all utterance is reasonable.  Animals, for instance, utter many different kinds of sounds and patterns of sounds in a way that modern biologists and zoologists would classify as language, but this is a pretty far cry from how humans communicate using their utterances.  We can get by using grunts and cries, it’s true, but that’s still a marked change from the language used to describe, say, Hermetic philosophy.  It’s by this sort of high-minded “reasonable” speech that Man makes use of when he uses Nous, since reasonable speech serves Nous and not Man.  This also implies that all reasonable speech, used everywhere and by any human, also serves Nous; after all, Nous is with each member and entity belong to Man, which connects all of us to the Nous itself that is God.

Continuing the definition, this makes sense: “what Nous wants, speech in turn interprets”.  Thus, whatever Nous desires to happen, this is made clear and reasonable (and, thus, intelligible in a way unique to humanity) by the power of reasonable speech, by the power of logos.  The idea of reasonable speech, or what we might call the Word, is what enables Nous to act.  Consider the first words of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”.  Word and Mind go together very tightly.  The relationship between Nous and Logos was clarified by Hermes in the Corpus Hermeticum (chapter 9, part 1):

Now sense and thought do seem to differ, in that the former has to do with matter, the latter has to do with substance. But unto me both seem to be at-one and not to differ—in men I mean. In other lives sense is at-oned with nature, but in men thought. 

Now mind doth differ just as much from thought as God doth from divinity. For that divinity by God doth come to be, and by mind thought, the sister of the word (logos) and instruments of one another. For neither doth the word (logos) find utterance without thought, nor is thought manifested without word.

When “speech in turn interprets” what Nous desires, this allows Nous to make its intelligibility known to those who can reason.  Man reasons due to the presence of Nous within Man.  Thus, Nous can communicate with Man through Logos, and vice versa.  However, this is often done by means of Logos itself, since Nous contacting Nous doesn’t really work, since Nous is Nous.  Reasonable speech is what bridges the gap between intelligibility and sensibility; it’s what allows things from outside heaven without body to communicate and interact with things inside heaven with body.  All things are part of God, but it’s impossible to sense what is not sensible.  Speech allows such a thing to happen; speech is an important intrinsic mechanic that allows the different parts of God to work in harmony with each other.  Voice is a sensible thing; reason is an intelligible thing.  Combining both to obtain reasonable speech allows both to interact, and allows the intelligible to become sensible.

The next part of the definition essentially makes a comparison to drive this point home using sight and observation.  Consider that “Nous sees everything”; after all, “God is Nous” (I.4), “nothing is uninhabited by God” (III.1), and “every move of soul is perceived by Nous” (II.2).  Thus, all things both in heaven and out of heaven are seen by Nous, or God.  However, the eyes that living beings have can only see that which is “corporeal”, i.e. sensible since sensible things possess bodies of some sort.  The set of observable things is greater than and includes the set of visible things; for instance, Nous can perceive soul, which is invisible (I.3), but living beings cannot see soul.  This is made extra powerful by the fact that light is what reveals visible things (II.6), and the eyes react to light in order to witness or observe a visible thing; however, being visible requires something to be sensible, and that which is only intelligible cannot be seen, i.e. the bodiless and intelligible God.  Thus, in this sense, Nooic observation is to corporeal sight what reasonable speech is to utterance: that which involves Nous is broader and more transcendent, and that which serves to aid Nous.

However, the definition clarifies that “Nous does not become an observer for the eyes, but the eyes for Nous”.  What this means is that Nous does not exist to observe for the sake of the eyes; Nous and observation are not the result of seeing.  Intead, seeing is a means by which the Nous observes.  The eyes serve the Nous; the Nous does not serve the eyes.  In another sense, this also means that the eyes cannot see the Nous or by means of the Nous, but the Nous can see both eyes and by the means of the eyes.  Hermes said as much in the Corpus Hermeticum (chapter 7, part 2):

No ear can hear Him, nor can eye see Him, nor tongue speak of Him, but [only] mind and heart.

What this means for speech is that Nous uses speech to further the aims and desires of the Nous; Nous can use logos itself, the concept behind speech, as well speak as any word.  However, those who speak cannot do the same to Nous: those who speak cannot speak Nous for their own benefit, nor can they directly speak of the Nous, nor can they speak pure logos itself, though it manifests in reasonable speech.  Reasonable speech comes about as a result of Nous, but Nous does not come about as a result of reasonable speech, just as observation of the intelligible does not come around from sight of the visible alone.  Consider what Hermes taught Asclepius regarding his own words in the Corpus (chapter 9, part 10):

My word (logos) doth go before [thee] to the truth. But mighty is the mind, and when it hath been led by word up to a certain point, it hath the power to come before [thee] to the truth.  And having thought o’er all these things, and found them consonant with those which have already been translated by the reason, it hath [e’en now] believed, and found its rest in that Fair Faith.  To those, then, who by God[’s good aid] do understand the things that have been said [by us] above, they’re credible; but unto those who understand them not, incredible.

There, Hermes has used his reasonable speech of logos to serve the Nous in bringing Asclepius forward to it.  However, the mind (Nous) is more powerful than words, and words serve the mind only up until a certain point, when the mind is able to act and work directly instead of by servants or media such as words.  The Nous works in the world by means of Logos, just as a wealthy landowner uses his servants to work outside or even within his land; however, only when the servants bring something to his attention and presence directly does the landowner work directly.  This requires the servants to work for the landowner, and not vice versa; the landowner speaks, and things are done.  Thus, the Nous employs Logos, and things are accomplished.  Hermes was indeed employed by the Nous, through the guide of Poemander, to spread the word to guide others to Nous (chapter 1, part 27):

Why shouldst thou then delay? Must it not be, since thou hast all received, that thou shouldst to the worthy point the way, in order that through thee the race of mortal kind may by [thy] God be saved?

The comparison with sight and eyes in this definition brings up another interesting thought to my mind here.  With sight, we have two components: the act of seeing (sight) and the faculty of seeing (the eye).  The two are very tightly coupled; the eye sees, because that’s what the eye does.  In a sense, the eye is embodied sight.  Similarly, there’s Nous and Logos, the Mind and Word; the Mind makes Word because that’s what the Mind does.  Thus, the Mind is a kind of divine Word, since it is what it does.  This brings to mind the phrase “I am what I am” from Exodus, the reply of God given to Moses when asked for the divine name: “EHYEH ASHER EHYEH” (aleph-heh-yod-heh aleph-shin-resh aleph-heh-yod-heh).  However, if we change the “Y” in the second “EHYEH” from a yod to a vav, we get “EHYEH ASHER EHWEH”.  As it turns out, there’s a grammatical relationship between “EHWEH” (aleph-heh-vav-heh) and “YAHWEH” (yod-heh-vav-heh), the Tetragrammaton, the ineffable name of God in the Torah; this holy name has a meaning something similar to “I make to be” or “I create”.  Thus, the hypothetical name “EHYEH ASHER EHWEH” can be interpreted as “I am what I do” (using the obscure Hebraic root heh-vav-heh).  Thus, the One who is what it is is also what it does; this is both faculty and act at once.  The Mind spoke the Word in the beginning to create, and since the faculty and the act are one because God is what God does, the Mind is the Word.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

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