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 twenty-ninth definition, part VIII, number 1 of 7:
All (beings) cannot possibly exceed their own capacity. Nature is everyone of the beings of this (world); there is a law which is in heaven above destiny, and there is a destiny which has come into being according to a just necessity; there is a law which has come into being according to the necessity of humans, there is a god who has come into being according to human opinion.
At this point in the Definitions, we’re a little more than halfway done, and we have only three sets of definitions left. However, nearly all of these are lengthy, and the sets themselves have more definitions within them than the previous sets. We’re just now getting to the real meat of philosophy; everything before was basically setting up the groundwork for the philosophical and theological structures we’ll be building in these sets.
First, “all beings cannot possibly exceed their own capacity”. We’re not given a definition or context for this phrase, but from the other definitions, we know enough to explain this. First, all beings that are not God are finite (based on I.4); they are not infinite, unending, immovable, or the like, since these are only things that belong to God. Something that is finite has an end; it is defined, or set in by boundaries. The maximum extent of these boundaries can be called something’s capacity. Further, we know that when a being is created from body and soul, these obtain “quality and quantity as well as good and evil” (VII.4); these things can be measured, sensed, described, and defined in many ways. However, because they can be defined and measured, there will always be things that they are not; these things are outside the being’s capacity. So, because I’m six feet tall, I am not taller than my own height, so I cannot be seven feet tall; my shirt is red, and so it cannot be any color but red; and so forth. Anything that can be sensed can only be sensed in a particular time, location, and condition; it cannot be sensed elsewhere or elsewhen, since those lie outside the thing’s capacity.
A common word used to replace “capacity” when used like this is “fate”, and Hermes Trismegistus talks a little about fate in the Corpus Hermeticum (chapter XII, part 7):
Her. But all men are subject to Fate, and genesis and change, for these are the beginning and the end of Fate. And though all men do suffer fated things, those led by reason (those whom we said the Mind doth guide) do not endure like suffering with the rest; but, since they’ve freed themselves from viciousness, not being bad, they do not suffer bad.
Thus, everything that exists has a certain way of existing up to a certain point, whether it be in quantity or quality or good or evil; these things cannot act outside or beyond that point, because then it would “exceed their own capacity”. It makes sense, after all; I cannot be immortal, because I only have an approximate lifespan. I can lengthen or shorten that lifespan depending on my life choices, but it’s certain that I will eventually run through my lifespan and eventually die, because it is in my nature to die, being a mortal human being.
What is nature, though? “Nature is everyone of the beings of this world”, so it basically sounds like the microcosm of the sensible world in relation to the macrocosm of the intelligible world. Nature is the whole of increase and decrease, the four elements, sense and vision, and all the bodies here. Nature is the restrictions, capacities, and abilities that we have. Nature is, in effect, everything that sensibly exists and each of their qualities along with it. Alternatively, however, a footnote provided by Jean-Pierre Mahé in the text suggests that this same statement might be translated another way, which I prefer: “every being in this (world) has a nature”. Thus, our natures are our own capacities and tendencies; it is in the nature for the wolf to hunt and form packs, for the tiger to hunt and remain solitary, for the deer to graze and run, and for all animals to be born, live, and die. In effect, our natures are our design, the Idea of ourselves and the things we are. It might be said that nature is, in a way, our fate or destiny.
Of course, though, destiny isn’t the only force we have to deal with, nor is it the greatest force. “There is a law which is in heaven above destiny” suggests that there are things that even destiny itself must bow down to. After all, the destiny of something exists so long as that thing itself exists or can exist. And, even if all ideas were formed in the beginning of time, they were still formed by something else, and thus preceded by something else: God (III.4). Things work according to the divine plan of the Nous, which in turn creates destiny, which then acts on heaven, which then acts on the world (cf. the bit about astral demons affecting human actions in VII.5) and, thus, on Man and all other entities. In effect, destiny is brought into existence because without it there could be no design or form for things that exist. Destiny is “a just necessity”, providing for and supporting forms, species, and ideas just as souls are “a necessary movement” to provide for and support bodies of all kinds. Destiny is a law in its own way; certainly not the highest one, but not the lowest one, either.
Of those other laws, one has “come into being according to the necessity of humans”. This could be interpreted in several ways on its own, but the context for this is provided by the next statement: “there is a god who has come into being according to human opinion”. Thus, as humans work and live and exist down in the world, there are certain needs that we have that we also fulfill. Of those, there are human laws, such as prohibitions on stealing or usury or land management or equal pay. These are laws that humans need that other beings or realms don’t need; it doesn’t make sense to talk about food and drug regulation in a realm where there is no matter to constitute food or drugs, and it likewise doesn’t make sense to discuss same-sex marriage laws for species that have no capability for abstract social connections, much less marriage benefits and contracts. These are not laws of the Most High, but they’re needed by us all the same to help us live our lives down here.
Likewise, to help us live our lives, we also have invented gods for ourselves: “there is a god who has come into being according to human opinion”. This smacks of Voltaire’s famous quote, “si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer”, or “if God did not exist, we would have to invent him”. What this definition is saying is that, much as we have set up laws and regulations for ourselves in our endeavor to be human, we have also set up religions and gods for ourselves for the same endeavor. Whether it be the gods of Olympus or Meru or the various Buddhafields or Yggdrasil, or whether it be the physical world itself, we have these opinions and conceptions of divinity that we rely on to help us understand and make sense of the world. I wrote about some of these different views about materialists and spiritualists a ways back, and some people (notably the atheists in the crowd) essentially make the material, physical world their God, their All, their Whole. They may not worship, pay reverence, or make offerings to the world, but it fills the same role that YHVH would have for an Abrahamist, or moksha or paranirvana to a Dharmist.
Everything in creation, whether it be in the intelligible or the sensible worlds, is needed; nothing is out of place, and everything has a purpose. However, there are purposes, whole destinies, that individual things are not meant to fulfill; whether it’s a certain quality or quantity or characteristic, or a use or experience, there are things that other things cannot be. This is okay; these are needed just as much as anything else. Further, everything even down to the nitty-gritty of human transactions have needs and laws; much as the law of destiny governs all beings and were set up by God to manage the affairs of the world, the laws of humanity govern all human interactions and were set up by Man to manage the affairs of the human world. Of these, we have developed notions of divinity and whole gods and religions to help us manage our understanding of God and the world.
But note that, even though the text distinguishes the gods of human invention from the God of Hermes Trismegistus, there is no word on which is right or wrong. It may be that these different opinions and notions of divinity may reflect true Divinity, depending on how they arise. It’s much like reasonable speech, Logos, as Hermes explains to Tat in the Corpus Hermeticum (chapter XII, part 13):
Tat. Why, father mine!—do not the other lives make use of speech (logos)?
Her. Nay, son; but use of voice; speech is far different from voice. For speech is general among all men, while voice doth differ in each class of living thing.
Tat. But with men also, father mine, according to each race, speech differs.
Her. Yea, son, but man is one; so also speech is one and is interpreted, and it is found the same in Egypt, and in Persia, and in Greece.
Logos is not restricted to any one language, or to any language at all; Logos is reason derived from silent understanding and knowledge of God. Reasonable speech is speech with Logos imbued in it by Nous; it doesn’t matter what language it’s spoken in, since the reason itself is universal to all languages. It’s like communicating a mathematical problem; you can solve it through geometry, infinitesimal calculus, or even a memory-bounded Turing machine, but the mathematical problem itself and the answer will be the same. Reason is abstract, much as ideas are; speech is manifest, and helps to manifest ideas to others. Thus, reasonable speech “is found the same in Egypt, and in Persia, and in Greece”, because it all reflects the same reason. Similarly, it may be that the gods of Egypt and of Persia and of Greece, while appearing different, all reflect the same God, just as their languages can reflect the same Logos. More on that later.