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2.3.4 Hermeticism

The Hermetic interpretation of human nature is the product of Pagan thoughts older that Christianity. The similarity with Paul’s account of the divine scheme of salvation is striking even if it is not certain that Paul was influenced by the Hermetist doctrine, or if he knew anything about it. However this doctrine was part of the environment at that time. Hermeticism and Gnosticism explained the dual nature of man. They also taught that a lower and evil god called the Demiurgos created the material world. In this way the Supreme God was assumed not to be responsible for the material or physical world, which was regarded as evil. Contrarily to the Hermetics, the Gnostics also had the concept of a divine redeemer who descended on earth to save mankind, the offspring of the fallen divinity, which is sometime called Sophia. This redeemer was called Saviour (Soter), or Christus, a concept similar to the historical Jesus. The act of salvation was not achieved, as the literalist Christians said, through the crucifixion of Jesus, but through the secret Gnosis that Christ had communicated to a chosen few.

The Hermetic philosophy

The Hermetic Philosophy of the 15th and 16th centuries was based on what became known as “creative imagination” leading from a “lower” or “inner” world of non-rational and unconscious strivings to a principle of Unity. This principle of Unity was thought to be able to unify human concerns and reorient them towards a new sense of the possible and the real. As a result, the scope of the rational mind, fused in a Gnostic manner to the divine mind, would be practically infinite leading to man’s eternal freedom. In the 15th century, Florence welcomed Plato’s philosophy in the same way that it was received in Alexandra in the 2d century where the Hermetics operated. Neoplatonist philosophers were also read, as in had been done before by the Gnostics of the 2d and 3d centuries. Plato’s philosophy of a formal and intelligible world where all terrestrial and material things find their perfection, their “Forms”, and their “Ideas” was in direct contradiction with the Christian beliefs. For Plato, in the intelligible or real world there are no corruption and no change. This world exists in parallel with our “material” world of ordinary perceptions. Our world is only a shadow of the real world, and those who realise this become dissatisfied and become philosophers looking, among other things, for an understanding of what is Eternity. There is only one more step to see the need for gnosis as knowledge-of-the-eternal. According to Plato’s philosophy, Creative Imagination allows the Real World to exist and it has the power to inspire the soul. Those learned people who had encountered magical and alchemical literature knew this principle of correspondence. For them the “higher world” is like the “lower world” in which we live, so that the “inner” world, enlightened by the penetrating gnosis, can perceive, transform, and enter the “higher” world.

The Florentine Renaissance Platonist, and unwitting Gnostic, was dreaming of a divinised world, harmonious, and true. In this world Man could take his place again among the celestial and walk towards God, to return to the One that is the source from which the power derives and Jesus Christ had opened the way for us.

The Hermetica

The Hermetica is a collection of revelations attributed to Hermes Trismegistos, the thrice-great Hermes, the Greek title for the ancient Egyptian god of Wisdom, Thoth. The origin of these revelations is not known and could include different influences: Egyptian, Greek, Chaldean, Iranian and Jewish. It has not yet been possible to date them but they probably are from 100 to 300 AD but they include earlier traditions. These Hermetic writings are very important to understand the way Christianity and its doctrine grew in the first centuries AD.

Pico della Mirandola (1463-94) and the Dignity of Man

Giovanni Pico, Count of Mirandola was one of the first Renaissance philosophers to see the possibilities offered by the Greek culture brought to Florence. At the time of Lorenzo de Medici, Lorenzo the Magnificent, he added his vast knowledge of Hebrew Cabala as well as Arabic algebra, geometry, astrology, medicine and astronomy to the Greek philosophy. Pico della Mirandola was one of the most erudite men of his time. At 24 he wrote about 900 theses and invited all the European intellectuals to come to Florence to discuss them with him. The meeting never took place but the Pope, Innocent VIII, declared in a Bull dated August 4, 1487 that 13 of these theses were heretical. Pico defended himself with success. The theses were not heretical but they certainly were too modern for the time. The dignity of Man, for Pico della Mirandola, consisted in the knowledge of his spiritual origins, his knowledge of the divine, and his freedom to determine by himself whether he is a brute or God. His hermetic program aimed to regenerate the world. For him the Hermetic Man did not depend on graces transmitted by the Church but, rather, he is a “mortal god”. This is, of course, a Gnostic conception of Man. Gnostics writings can be better understood from a Heretic point of view. While the heretics do not need a Redeemer since the revelation is guaranteed only to the elect initiates, the Christian Gnostics saw Jesus Christ offering a Gnostic redemption to all those few who had “”ears to hear”. Christian Gnostics are “Hermetics”, with Hermes replaced by Christ, or better, the “Living Jesus” of Gnostic revelation. Within this magical conception of the universe, within all things there is the essence of a universal power known also as “spirit” or most refined substance. In this concept matter cannot enter spirit but spirit can enter matter. The magician (magus) will be devoted to raise the earth (matter) to heaven (spirit), the method to do this lies within Gnosis, or knowledge of man as he is and can be since he has access to the divine world.

Giordano Bruno

The concept of the never-ending series of relatively valid formulae, expressed in mathematical and geometrical configurations, can be seen in the cosmological theories of the Italian Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) especially in his concept of the Infinite Universe. Bruno was a Hermetist and his concepts were primarily religious and not analytical. For him, the mind of God expresses itself in the cosmos and can be approached by mathematical and geometrical diagrams. Bruno’s universe is a living and infinite universe because what is eternity to God, infinitude is to the matter and infinity is the only possible expression of eternity. In addition matter cannot be bound because it has not form (the forms, the ideas which are the source of material shapes exist in the intelligible world). For Bruno, Wisdom, Truth, and Unity are one and the same, and God is the essence by which everything has its being. He sees access to this knowledge in Gnostic terms: “He who has found this Unity has discovered the indispensable key for the true contemplation of Nature”. The primal being is the unity, and the unity is the universe. That meant that everything is God but that they are relative appearances within as it was the Divine Being. Bruno had, in a way, thrown the Gnostic dualism (matter and spirit, God and the world, light and darkness) into a new world, imperceptible to sense. In it, all things are moving and changing, all things proceed and return, and all is relative in the divine and infinite universe. From the Hermetic point of view, “knowledge”, if gained by analysis of matter only, can only be a “copy” or approximation of the Whole. This is, in pure Gnostic terms, the limited knowledge of the Demiurge. To believe that this knowledge is the knowledge of the “All” is fatal, and man will find himself living under the tyranny of his own abstractions. Bruno went as far as possible in the development of Gnostic philosophical cosmology.

He also represents the high point of the Hermetic Gnosis contribution to mainstream history. After Bruno was burned alive in 1660 for his ideas, Gnosis went underground. The “Invisible College” of “Rosicrucians” in the 17th century Germany repeated in mythological and alchemical terms what had already been said before in the 15th and 16th centuries. Freemasonry in the 17th and 18th century borrowed Hermetic features, for instance in their Temples or “lodges” seen as centre of Gnostic initiation into a “brotherhood of Light”.

A Universe Drained of God

Giordano Bruno’s universe is divine, living, and infinite; its source is the divine intelligible world that eternally projects itself into the divinised matter. The living “form” of God, the essential idea of the universe, can be seen through abstract figures which, when installed in the memory, enable the mind to see the true nature of the infinite universe. These are the origins of “Deism”, a creed that believes that there is a God, “a great architect”, a designer, and a mechanics. God has put the whole celestial machine in motion before sitting back to watch the result. This view of God as a “Creator” is close to the early Gnostic’s view of the Demiurge “whose word is Law”. In the deist’s view, God is seen as rational and rationality is held to be the proper road to understanding Man and his creator. But since the universe runs itself and Man is a passive observer of it imitating the mechanics of the universe, is there any real need for God? Belief in God is only a matter of taste or of aesthetics. Natural religion is the reaction of some theologians to the threats of a cosmology that has no need for God. According to these people, God can be deduced from observing nature and, as such, is a corollary of Deism. The universe must have a designer, that is God, and the theologians believe that they are saved from the abyss of atheism. God is good because nature is “beautiful”.