The Hermetica as Ancient Science
OVERVIEW OF STUDY
At some point in studying philosophical, theological or occult literature one is likely to ask What is the practical application of all these ideas?
This study explores this question in relation to the Corpus Hermeticum. It asks where it’s real value lies. Is this value to be found in its being a survival of late classical paganism, a persistent "alternative religion" or is it the fruit of a widespread and long lasting delusion? Further to this, consideration is given to the connection between the numerous practical hermetic texts on alchemy, astrology and magic and their relation to the philosophically lofty Corpus Hermeticum.
Many nineteenth and early twentieth century scholars are dismissive of the practical hermetica . Yet, as this study seeks to demonstrate there was a long standing tradition of learned involvement, even practical involvement, in both the philosophical Corpus Hermeticum and the numerous practical hermetic texts - being those on alchemy, astrology and magic. Taken collectively, both the philosophical and the practical texts suggest the existence of an hermetic praxis.
Paradigm shifts occur from culture to culture, age to age and from era to era. Indeed, the scorn shown by modern scholarship for the occult interests of the practical hermetica may simply be the result of such a shift between a past culture and our own, a past era or age and our own. Only a few courageous souls (and they only recently) have argued that there is a connection between the Corpus Hermeticum, and the practical hermetica.
Yet, if there is a connection between the practical hermetica and the philosophical Corpus something more than a "paradigm shift" may be involved. A praxis may be nothing more than a collection of behaviours aimed at achieving a given end. It may be deluded or wise. But a praxis guided by a consistent theoria, while still capable of being misguided, lays claim to being a science, at least in the pre - 17th century sense of the word. Such a science would expect to demonstrate and explain tangible effects.
Viewed in this way, one can more easily understand Kepler’s interest in astrology and Newton’s interest in alchemy. The suggestion that Hermeticism had both a theoria (the Corpus Hermeticum) and a praxis (the practical hermetica) also suggests that the Hermetic Philosophy (as found in the Corpus Hermeticum) was productive of tangible effects.
This study seeks to illustrate that there are certain ideas presented philosophically and religiously in the Corpus Hermeticum which are applied practically in the texts that make up what we may call the practical hermetica. That there is a clear and undeniable link between the philosophical and the practical and that scholars, such as Garth Fowden, are correct in their viewpoint. This being so, it becomes clear that that Hermeticism was far more than an alternative religion or philosophy. It was and is a science in the old sense.
The oldest hermetic documents we know of are among the astrological hermetica. Some of these are dated to the 3rd century BC. Alchemical and magical hermetica are next. A number of these being from the first couple of centuries BC. Others are early AD. The Corpus Hermeticum, in the form we have it today, dates from the 3rd or 4th century AD. Fowden’s argument that the Corpus Hermeticum has ancient Egyptian roots is noted. In particular, the study examines the philosophical Corpus as an attempt at constructing a religious science or a scientific religion. Indeed, the practical hermetica were viewed as the highest sciences in Late Antiquity and by the Arabs throughout the Middle Ages.
There are some very interesting suggestions which come from this speculation. If we view Hermeticism as having been shaped even in part by contemporary science, we must further ask if it is unique in this respect? May not other religions (existing and yet to come) be viewed as also having been shaped in a similar manner? May not their seeming redundancy be due to changes in science and technology rather than to any change in the essence of Man?
The Hermetica as Ancient Science identifies five Principia Hermetica which I believe are found in both the philosophical Corpus Hermeticum and in the practical hermetica. The presence of the five principles in both sets of literature suggest that they have the relation to each other of theoria and praxis and ought to be studied together as a unit. To do so, it is suggested, is to discover the tangible benefit promised by Hermeticism, rather than, as is usually the case, participating in merely theoretical and doctrinal speculation.
TEXTS CITED IN THE MAIN BODY OF THE STUDY:
(This only lists the principle texts referred to and is not exhaustive)
Dr J. Everard, The Divine Pymander, London, 1650
Walter Scott, Hermetica, London 1968
Brian Copenhaver, Hermetica, Cambridge, 1992
Robert Zoller, translation, Liber Hermetis Trismegisti, New Library Electronic Edition 2000
Jean Rhys Bram, Ancient Astrology Theory and Practice: the Mathesis of Firmicus Maternus, Park Ridge, 1975
Lee Stavenhagen, A Testament of Alchemy: being the Revelations of Morienus to Khalid ibn Yazid, University of New England Press, Hanover. New Hampshire, 1974
Thomas Taylor, translation, Iamblichus, On the Mysteries of the Egyptians, Chaldaeans and Assyrians, Prometheus Trust, Frome, 1999
David Pingree, ed. PicatrixThe Latin Version, London, 1986
Garth Fowden, The Egyptian Hermes, Princeton, 1986
E. J. Holmyard, Alchemy, New York, 1990
Plato, Timaeus, Prometheus Trust, Frome, 1998
Dodds, translation, Proclus, Elements of Theology, Oxford, 1963
Bible (King James Version), Vulgate
The Conjurer’s Magazine, October 1792, "The Universal Wisdom of Peter John Faber."
Martinus Rulandus, A Lexicon of Alchemy, (1612)
H. C. Agrippa, De Occulta Philosophia in Agrippa von Nettesheim, Opera, Vol I, George Olms, New York, 1970