We find the text From Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius: Definitions in a text preserved in a sixth-century Armenian translation, but which in written form dates from the first century AD.
The Definitions consist of a large number of concise formulations, which touch the heart of every sincere seeking person. They are little jewels of typical Hermetic views, little arguments about themes that are dealt with in Hermetic texts like the Corpus Hermeticum and the Asclepius. Due to their concise, aphoristic form, such sayings can easily be remembered and provide food for further contemplation.
It is almost certain that these short formulations, almost like Zen-koans, were used for teaching purposes in Hermetic philosophy. The written record of these “koans” formed the oldest Hermetic literature, and these individual sayings found their way into various collections. An example from another source (Stobaeus) clearly conveys their didactic intent:
If you remember these statements, you will also easily remember what I have already discussed at length. They are summaries of that.
A somewhat more elaborate form of this genre can be found in the Definitions, in which the individual sayings are worked out in more detail. A Hermetic teacher could prepare his lessons and work out complete treatises using these individual short theses.
Sometimes you get the impression that these are fragments of the dialogues so beloved by the Hermetists, for example when it says: ‘Control yourself, Trismegistus!‘ or, “Certainly, dear Asclepius“; sentences that we also encounter in the Corpus Hermeticum.
The Definitions start with a very recognizable hermetic statement:
1. God: an intelligible world; world: a sensible God; man: a destructible world; God: an immovable world; heaven: a movable world; man: a reasonable world.
Then there are three worlds. Now the immovable world (is) God, and the reasonable world is man: for both of (these) units (are) one: God and man after the species.
God-cosmos-man is the well-known paradigm or starting point of Hermetic thought. As above, so below. Man here below, in his natural appearance, is the bearer of the ideal man, the Anthropos, and can therefore be one with God.
In the course of this condensed but instructive text, the more detailed composition of man is discussed. For example, in section 2 we read about the four elements of which man and the world are built. And in paragraphs 5 and 6, Hermes explains that man possesses two natures (mortal and immortal) and has three forms of being (noetic, soul, and material):
Just as the body leaves the womb when it is fully grown in it, so also the soul leaves the body when it has reached perfection. For as the body is not viable if it leaves the body in an immature state, so also the soul is imperfect and without a body if it leaves the body in an imperfect state. The perfection of the soul, however, is the knowledge of what unchangeably exists. As you will behave towards your soul when it is in your body, so it will behave towards you when it has left the body!
And, as if to exhort the hearer to right conduct, the following warning is sounded: Control yourself, Trismegistus!
In paragraph 7, the Definitions continue about the body and soul. Again a comparison is made about the womb:
As the body is miraculously formed in the womb, so also the soul in the body,
But please pay attention says Hermes:
The body comes out of the womb from the dark into the light, but the soul [comes] into the body from the light into the darkness.
The soul enters the body under compulsion; Nous enters the soul by choice. When the soul is outside the body, it has neither quality nor quantity; in the body, she gets them, as something incidental, as well as good and evil, because matter produces that.
In the 8th section, the definitions then deal with the possibilities and limitations of man: he can become a god, but he can also bring about his own downfall; a theme mentioned by the young Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, in his brilliant essay About human dignity:
All other creatures I have endowed with a certain nature and thereby confined them within fixed boundaries. You are not limited by any boundaries; u create your own boundaries according to your own will, to whose guidance I have entrusted you. I have set you in the midst of the world, that you may easily look from there to all things created.
Paragraph 8 closes in that sense with just as powerful a phrase as paragraph 6 ends with. The first sentence is an admonition to the body and its consciousness, the second is a call to the soul and its consciousness:
(a:) You have no power to become immortal, nor can the immortals die.”
(two:) «You can even become a god if you want to because you can. Therefore: will, understand, trust, and love, and you have become it!
Section 9 deals with the knowledge of God and the noetic world; paragraph 10 closes with some profound sayings, on the nature of the immortal Nous, and mortal matter.
The immortal beings agree with each other and the mortals envy each other […] because jealousy arises because one knows death in advance. The immortal does what he always does, but the mortal does what he has never done. Death, properly understood, is immortality, but misunderstood it is only death.
In Hermetic philosophy, there is no doubt whatsoever. Everything is as it is. There is an absolute coherence between the universe, man, and God because they consciously exist in each other. There is trust and altruistic love, as the world, and all beings, are bathed in unsurpassed divine loving light.
In this sense, Hermes concludes crystal clear:
Nous is in the soul, and nature is in the body. Nous is the maker of the soul, and the soul is that of the body. Nous is not (however) in every soul, but nature is in every material body.
That exhortation to penetrate to the pure level of the soul is therefore very important. Because:
Just as the body that has no eyes sees nothing, so a soul that has no Nous is blind.
Then we shall see with the eyes of Nous,
and to those who have Nous, everything is visible. He who contemplates himself with his Nous knows himself, and he who knows himself knows the All: the All is in man.