7 Hermetic Questions for… Sam Block (polyphanes)

There has been a growing interest in Hermeticism in recent years. Anyone who searches online for ‘Hermes Trismegistus’, ‘Hermeticm’, or ‘Hermetica’ will find hundreds of interesting websites, articles, Youtube videos, and dozens of excellent books.

The academic world has also rediscovered Hermeticism and for those with the money, expensive scholarly books have been published with not only new translations but also groundbreaking research into the Egyptian roots of Hermeticism. 

Sam Block, known by his pen name “polyphanes”, is famous in esoteric circles through his popular and influential blog The Digital Ambler [link]. Sam is a ceremonial magician in the Western Hermetic tradition and is considered by many of his peers to be an expert on geomancy and astrology, divination, Renaissance European ceremonial magic, Hellenistic Egyptian magic, and spirituality from the Ptolemaic and Roman Imperial periods, and is also an initiated priest in the Afro-Cuban orisha religion of Lukumí. So, the perfect first person to interview for our new section “7 Hermetic Questions’.

“Dear Sam, we are very happy that you want to do this interview. Of course, we are very curious why you are interested in an ancient spiritual tradition like Hermeticism. Can you tell us more about that?”

I mean, I’ve always been interested in “alternative spiritualities” and the occult generally, even from childhood.  It was easy for me to get involved in this form of neopaganism or that grimoiric research, but it wasn’t until after I graduated college (over a decade ago now) that I finally started with my own actual spiritual development and practices. 

Between various experiences and adventures with divination, astrology, conjuration, paranormal investigations, mediumship, and the like, it eventually all cemented to me that there’s actually something to this, you know?  Like, it’s not just me having an extended flight of fancy, but spirits are real, magic is real, gods are real.  Knowing this, not just as a matter of faith but of direct experience, the only reasonable thing to ask oneself is “Now what?”.

For me, my answer to that question lies in Hermeticism.  This isn’t to say that I try to make Hermeticism my “grand unified theory of everything” (I find attempts to combine various practices into a single thing to be as noble as they are folly), but that I find Hermeticism to be a good means of my own spiritual advancement that builds on the development provided by all sorts of other practices, a good structure that gives me guidance in a helpful framing of ethics, morality, purpose, and view that come together for me in a way that I see validated time and again. 

I have a lot of fingers in a lot of pots, to be sure, and I keep them all separate according to their traditions and contexts, but Hermeticism is something I build on to weave the experiences of these various practices (just not the practices themselves) into something that I find to be beautiful beyond reckoning. 

As far as anything written or spoken in our world can be true, there’s truth in the Hermetic texts, laid bare for anyone to pick up, try out, and make use of.  There’s nothing encoded or encrypted, nothing requiring a hidden key to decipher; it just takes open eyes and an open heart to open the mind to them, and they are every bit as fresh and relevant to us today as they were to people two thousand years ago.

7 Hermetic Questions for…

“Below you will find seven questions based on sections from the hermetic text Asclepius, also known as the Perfect Discourse. We are very curious about your personal views on the timeless wisdom of Hermes and maybe how it relates to our modern world.”

“That universal being which contains all and is all, moves the soul and the world, and all that nature contains. In the manifold unity of universal life the innumerable individualities distinguished by their variations are nevertheless united in such a way that the whole is one and all proceeds from unity.”

Question 1: How do you view this statement about the One of – and in – All?

That’s from the Kingsford and Maitland translation of the Asclepius §2, I think.  It’s not my favorite translation of the Hermetic texts, since their translation diverges pretty wildly at points from others (even their contemporaries like Mead), although it’s a common one to point to, at least for the Korē Kosmou.  Copenhaver’s translation is perhaps a bit easier to follow:

Therefore, this is the whole—as you remember—because it is all and consists of all. Soul and matter, embraced by nature, are so stirred by the varied multiform quality of all images that, in the discontinuity of their qualities, the forms are known to be infinite, yet they are united to this end: that the whole might seem to be one and that all might seem to be from one.

Or Salaman’s translation:

This therefore is the all, as you remember; it is the essence of the all and it is the all. The soul and the cosmos being embraced by Nature are set in movement by her with such diversity of quality, evident in all images, that countless forms are known to exist by the contrast of their qualities. Yet these forms are also united so that all things appear as one whole and from the one.

Reading different translations of the same text side-by-side is a trick I often like using and recommending to people.  There is no translation without interpretation, after all, and every translator brings their own perspectives (and sometimes errors) to the table, which is fine if we can appreciate them appropriately enough.  Seeing the translation of Kingsford and Maitland reminds me first and foremost of that important part of my own studies!

In any case, though, as for the content of the quote itself: there’s this delightful tension that Hermeticism (as any monist tradition of thinking) faces and tries to resolve: if all things are One, or if all things that exist are to be considered as All One Thing, then what gives with all these differences, all these breaks and discontinuities and incongruities? 

Hermēs precedes this bit to Asklēpios by noting that all is one and one is all, establishing God not just as the All but as the source of the All, describing God like a body whose limbs are itself the All.  In a way, it kinda anticipates the opening lines of the Emerald Tablet:

that which is above is like that which is below, and that which is below is like to that which is above, to accomplish the wonders of a single reality; as all things were from one, by mediation of a single one, so all things were born from this one reality by a single process of adaptation.” 

Everything that exists has its role and function, not just existing alongside each other but collaboratively with each other, not just in a state of “being” but of “interbeing” and “cobeing”, and all of that takes place both within God and as God which is the real “one thing”.

“‘Thus, O Asclepius, Man is a great miracle, a being to be adored and honoured. He passes into the nature of God as though he were God. He understands the race of daemons as he knows that he originates from the same source. He views with contempt that part of nature in himself which is human since he has put his entire trust in the divinity of the other part.”

Asclepius 6

Question 2: Do you also think that man is a (divine) miracle and why?

This is from one of the most beautiful passages in the Asclepius, if not in all of the classical Hermetic texts.  Like lots of classical models of understanding, everything has an order and a station: bugs crawl on the land, fish swim in the ocean, planets wander in the sky, and so forth.  Everything has its own nature, a singular nature, a nature that determines its function and role and place in the cosmos—everything, that is, except for humanity, which is uniquely dual-natured, being both immortal as well as mortal, divine as well as mundane, celestial as well as terrestrial. 

We have the capacity and capability to not just participate in any order but to transcend all orders.  There is nothing we cannot reach, nothing we cannot interact with, nothing we cannot treat with or upon.  Because (according to the Hermetic texts) we are made in the likeness of God and have been given a share of all the powers of the cosmos, we have a unique ability beyond anything else that exists to do wonderful things. 

As such, given that we can do anything and everything and go anywhere and everywhere in a way that nothing else can or could, given that our nature is to transcend all nature, I would indeed think that humanity is itself a wonder—a miracle.

You started this question with the opening lines of AH 6, so let me end this question with the closing lines of the same paragraph:

Everything is permitted him: heaven itself seems not too high, for he measures it in his clever thinking as if it were nearby. No misty air dims the concentration of his thought; no thick earth obstructs his work; no abysmal deep of water blocks his lofty view. He is everything, and he is everywhere.

“How much happier is the nature of a man when it is tempered by self-control! He is united to the gods through a common divinity. He inwardly despises that part of himself by which he is earth-bound. All other beings, to whom he knows he is necessary through divine dispensation, he binds to himself in a knot of love. He raises his sight to heaven while he takes care of the earth. Thus he is in the fortunate middle position: he loves those things that are below him and is beloved by the beings above.”

Asclepius 6

Question 3: How do you view the role of man as ‘middle manager’ of the world? And how do you possibly put that into practice?

Ah, continuing with the middle part from the quote you started with and the one I ended with!

I dislike the notion of thinking of us as “middle managers”, and I think we deserve more credit than that.  We’re not just functionaries in a chain of delegation from on high to on low; we’re not just observing and instructing in an indirect way.  Rather than being “middle managers” whose job is to coordinate and lead, I think of us as being “in the middle of things”, actively involved at all levels with the direct implementation and improvement of things. 

Because we’re “in the middle of things”, we have access to everything from all realms and domains in a way that nothing else can; we are not merely celestial nor merely terrestrial, but can combine and interweave celestial and terrestrial things at once in a way that things that are only celestial or are only terrestrial cannot.  Said another way, we are the medium for things to come to completion and perfection in the cosmos.

As for me putting that notion into practice, it starts with me seeing what I’m in the middle of.  What am I, and what am I in relation to the things around me?  What am I doing, and how does that affect the things around me?  Where am I going, and what comes with me or gets left behind?  When I start to consider these things, it helps me with the process of “know thyself”, which helps me look at all things together with me and myself together with all things. 

Seeing all that helps the pieces fall into place, or rather helps me fall into place with all these things.  The All, after all, is One; everything that exists does so in this grand symphony that is greater than the sum of its parts, in which I have my own part to play that builds on those of others and vice versa. 

After all, if I as a human am in the middle of everything, then so too is everyone else; we’re all in this together, and so it’s on us to collaborate with everyone (and everything) around us to get what we want and to get done what we need to.

“Not all men, O Asclepius, have attained true understanding, but through a rash impulse and without the true insight of reason most, pursuing an illusion, are deceived. This begets evil in minds and transforms the nature of the best living creature into that of a wild beast and makes it behave like a savage monster.”

Asclepius 7

Question 4: How do you view this insight that our focus on appearances is bad and makes us behave like animals?

We see similar notions to this in texts like books four and twelve of the Corpus Hermeticum.  The idea here follows from before: because humans can partake in or transcend all natures, we can also become alike to any particular nature. 

While Hermēs would have us go “upward”, some people naturally would go “downward”, towards a “lower nature”; rather than becoming (and surpassing) celestial natures, some people prefer to join themselves with and become more like terrestrial entities.  After all, for as much as humanity is immortal (in the soul), we’re still also mortal (in the body), and those who focus more on the body than the soul will naturally make the body their model for being and becoming. 

After all, we’re naturally inclined to believe and follow our sense perceptions of the world around us, the concrete things we can see and touch and taste; it takes work to go past that to perceive things beyond the sensory world around us, and not everyone wants to pursue that (or believes that there’s anything there to pursue), to take the next step beyond the merely concrete into more ephemeral things, to dig deeper into reality than just what their eyes or ears show them.

One of my favorite sayings from my godfather is that we should be thinking with our heads, not our hearts; we should let reason and rationality guide us, not our passions and cravings.  By following our heads rather than our hearts, we can intentionally act rather than impulsively react. 

That latter is the risk we run in becoming like “a wild beast”, behaving like a “savage monster”: to not be in control of our own actions because we let our animal, terrestrial, mortal bodies act of their own accord for its own satisfaction rather than participating in the grander scheme of things in a way that goes beyond us.

“Now I will speak to you as a prophet: after us there will be no one who has that simple love, which is the nature of philosophy. This consists in frequent contemplation and reverent worship by which alone the divinity may be known. Many destroy philosophy by their multifarious reasoning.”

Asclepius 12

“Those men who come after us will be deceived by cunning sophists and turned aside from true, pure and holy philosophy. To worship the Supreme Being with single mind and heart and to reverence what has been made of his substance, to render thanks to the divine will, which alone is infinitely full of the Good: this is a philosophy that has not been dishonoured by the perverse curiosity of the mind.”

Asclepius 14

Question 5: How do you view this criticism that religion, philosophy, spirituality or worldview is made unnecessarily complicated by many people?

I like drawing a distinction between complexity and complication.  Some things are just naturally complex, having a lot of moving parts or being naturally subtle in a way that defies a simple, apparent, or otherwise intuitive understanding that would be more appropriate to a simpler system. 

However, there is always a simplest possible approach to any given system, no matter that system’s inherent simplicity or complexity; when you go beyond that “simplest possible approach”, that’s where you introduce complication, which is the making of things to be more complex than they are or needs to be.

In these sections of the Asclepius, Hermēs rails against those who would make things complicated for us in our modes of spirituality and mysticism.  Hermēs clings to the literal etymology of the word “philosophy” as “love of wisdom” and, for Hermēs, that “love of wisdom” consists of nothing more than to love, know, praise, and adore Divinity. 

All the ink and paper used up throughout all these Hermetic texts is all to that one, single, simple end; if you can do that, then it doesn’t really matter how many crystalline spheres there are in the heavens, how many strata of souls there are in the sublunar atmosphere, or the like. 

Hermēs teaches about all these things to get us to a point of simplicity, helping us ground ourselves and focus ourselves by building on these essentially trivial matters to the one thing that really matters, and if you can manage that one thing of importance, then you’re fine. 

It’s those who would not just expand on all these other matters but make them the central focus rather than a support that not just introduce complication into our work but mislead us away from the core of it all entirely, making the question of “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” to be more important than “how can we reach and become God”.

In section 13 of the Asclepius (sandwiched between these two quotes you give), Hermēs highlights a few things that some of these “cunning sophists” use to complicate and deceive us: arithmetic, music, geometry.  There are absolutely proper uses of these things, to be sure, but they are ultimately and properly only means to an end, not ends in and of themselves. 

Just like how some people who make the body to be an end rather than a means end up deceiving themselves to become savage beasts, this is another kind of deception that leads us into another kind of savagery, more mental than bestial but no less wayward and errant. 

For Hermēs, God is the only proper end and goal for us to reach; anything that stops anywhere else stops short, and if you think that anything else but God is your destination, then you’ve fallen short yourself.

“The dark will indeed be preferred to the light, and death thought better than life. No one will have any regard for heaven and a spiritual person will be deemed mad, and a materialist, wise. An angry man will be considered strong and the most evil regarded as good. ‘All the teaching about the soul that I have explained to you is that the soul is born immortal or expects to attain immortality. This teaching will not only be laughed at, but considered an illusion. It will be held as a capital offense, believe me, for a man to have given himself over to reverence of the divine mind.”

Asclepius 25

Question 6: How do you view this prediction? Does it describe our current times?

I’ve never been big on apocalyptic revelations, personally.  They tend to be either extrapolations from incomplete data (see XKCD 605 for a good example of this: https://xkcd.com/605/), records of what are essentially hallucinogenic visions projected out into the world around us when they should only really reflect the world within us, or a “nothing new under the sun” criticism applied to some indistinct future as a means to chastise people today.

The infamous and bleak “Prophecy of Hermēs Trismegistos” (as sections 24—28 from the Asclepius are sometimes called) is in that third category for me.  To me, it applies as much to today as it does to yesterday, last year, and all the days and years leading up to today; it equally applies as much to today as it does to tomorrow, next year, and all the days and years leading away from today. 

To me, the word “apocalypse” is ultimately a personal and subjective matter, not (as is often portrayed) some sort of external and objective one; everyone, after all, has their own world to live in, and it’s up to everyone to maintain the well-ordering of their own worlds as part of the well-ordering of the world around us.

Plus, like, let’s be honest: mystics have never been well-regarded by either the populace at large or by the institutions of government and rulership that handle the populace.  For those who pursue a mystic life, that’s always been the case; righteousness has always been persecuted and punished, truth has always been cloaked and killed, the world has always been ending—and yet, mystics and mysticism, Hermetic and otherwise, continues, as does the world itself. 

As I read it, the real criticism that Hermēs gives is against our own willingness as individuals to forsake truth and wisdom, destroying our own individual worlds and lives in the process, giving ourselves as individuals over to deceit and error.  It’s on us to live our lives in a way that defies this prophecy, to go beyond our mere nature of bestial disbelief and depraved survival and transcend it.

“The world is good, O Trismegistus?”
“It is good, Asclepius, as I will teach you. For just as God husbands and distributes to all individuals and classes all the good things which are in the world [mundo], senses, soul and life, so the world [mundus] apportions and provides all those things which seem good to mortals: the succession of births in due season, the germination, growth and ripening of the fruits of the earth and similar things. Throughout all this God, abiding above the vault of the highest heaven, is everywhere observing all that is around.”

Asclepius 27

Question 7: Do you also see the world as inherently good and filled with goodness?

I think the words “good” and “evil” are awful terms to use in a context like this, frankly; there is so much baggage hanging on them from literal millennia of competing and conflicting schools of thought that it takes a book just to get a clear sense of either term, especially when each school of thought (Hermeticism included) uses these terms differently or with different framing. 

It takes so much contextualization and explanation about what “good” or “goodness” even is before using them in discussion; we just can’t take these terms for granted, and I strongly encourage people to not begin discussions with them or use them as starting points.  If I were to have students, I’d make them wash their mouths out with soap every time they tried to use these terms in a philosophical context until I could be sure they had a grasp of what they were actually saying or asking.

To touch on this bit of dialogue from the Asclepius, however: recently, I learned a proverb from one of the sacred bodies of myth and lore we have in orisha religion that I think can touch on this.  The proverb in question goes something like this: “God is never sick and never sad; we’ll never hear of the death of God unless liars lie“.  As with any of these proverbs, there are plenty of applications and uses, but the big takeaway for me is that all things in this cosmos come from God, and so all things exist because of God and by the order and ordering of God. 

There is nothing in the cosmos that is fundamentally flawed or intrinsically infirm that would render anything (or, for that matter, everything) sick or sad, because it all has an origin in God.  We cannot even say that suffering is an intrinsic thing that exists on its own, because all suffering goes hand-in-hand with all pleasure, just as much as all corruption and generation, all decay and growth, all death and birth. 

All of it is life, all part of a package deal, all one thing in one system—All One.  All the various multiformed things out there in their endless variation is not an indication of some fundamentally flawed creator, but rather an expression of the beauty and vibrancy inherent in all creation, even if we ourselves cannot behold such on its own terms. 

All the things that exist around us could only be intrinsically sick, sad, destitute, or decrepit if their origin was also the same, but we don’t see that happening; all things never truly die, but only transform, meaning that all things are in a constant state of life in one way or another.  The cosmos would die only if God could die, and that’s not going to happen — except when liars lie about it, of course.

“Thanks again for doing this interview. Your answers show how Hermeticism may be an ancient spiritual system, but can still have relevance in our modern times. Is there anything else you want to add to the interview, maybe something we forgot to ask that you think is important to mention regarding Hermeticism?”

Goodness, there’s always so much to talk about when it comes to this! Plus, all these questions were based on quotes from the Asclepius, which is a great and comprehensive Hermetic text but far from the only one in the rich and expansive library of Hermeticism; there are so many more topics, so many more texts out there that I encourage everyone to check out! 

Still, I think you hit a lot of the major points of the motivation behind Hermeticism, though, and that’s as good a place as any for anyone to start with. There are always things anyone can learn from these texts, even if Hermeticism isn’t the right path or approach for them, and starting from the basics is what we should all do. Thank you for the interview!

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