Hermeticism is a philosophical and spiritual tradition that has its roots in ancient Egypt and Greece. It places a significant emphasis on the nature of Man, as it believes that understanding human nature is the key to understanding the cosmos. We explore in this article if the hermetic texts describe a bipartite or tripartite perspective of Man.
The question if Man is bipartite or tripartite in the Hermetica seems like it has an easy answer, namely tripartite, as many people assume that the Hermetica Man consists of body, mind, and spirit. This “spirit” can either be Nous or a kind of life-giving breath.
Close textual analysis shows that the bipartite perspective might be the correct answer. Man in the Hermetica consists of body and soul. There is also talk about the (spiritual) heart, but that is associated with the soul.
Unlike many other philosophical and religious systems, which view man as composed of three parts (such as body, soul, and spirit), Hermeticism sees Man as consisting of only two parts: the material body and the spiritual soul. The body is seen as a physical vessel for the soul, which is the true essence of a person.
One of the key texts that outline the Hermetic view of man is the Corpus Hermeticum, a collection of writings attributed to the legendary figure of Hermes Trismegistus. In one of these texts, Book II.14, Hermes says:
“All others are incapable of containing the nature of the good because they are body
and soul and have no place that can contain the good.“
What about spirit?
In Hermeticism, “spirit” is mostly used in a way that basically fits right in as the element of “air” (e.g. CH I.5/9/17, CH V.1). There are some texts that use it in a different way (e.g. CH XIII.12-18), but in general, spirit (pneuma) is a part of this cosmos, even if the most rarefied thing that acts as a bridge between things corporeal and things incorporeal. For example in the statement in CH V.11:
“The matter composed of the finest particles is air, but [the finest of] air is soul, [the finest of] soul is mind, and [the finest of] mind is god.”CH V.11
Or CH X.13:
“A human soul is carried in this way: the mind is in the reason; the reason is in the soul; the soul is in the spirit; the spirit, passing through veins and arteries and blood, moves the living thing and, in a manner of speaking, bears it up.”CH X.13
The concept of “spirit” that we encounter in hermetic texts such as the Corpus Hermeticum is physical. “Spirit” is literally “breath”, so “spirit” is something that the body is composed of, just like the elements of earth, water, and fire, though it acts more like an intermediary between the soul and the rest of the body by means of the blood.
In Hermeticism soul is ontologically “higher” than spirit, as the soul is properly incorporeal, while the spirit is still at least a little corporeal. But spirit itself pervades and encircles all things that exist in this cosmos, holds them up, and propels them (CH III.2).
In CH I.17, CH IV.1, and CH X.12. CH III and parts of the Asclepius §16-17 we can also read about how spirit, being breath, is closely tied to the element of air, and has a quality that invigorates, moves, and stimulates motion in all things in the cosmos.
What about Nous?
The concept of Nous is also very important in the Hermetica, but it seems that Nous is something external. Nous has an effect on the soul, but it is not an intrinsic part of Man. That is why, for example, in CH IV Nous is a prize to gain. But there are more texts that show that Man consists of only body and soul and that Nous is something “inhuman”.
In CH I Poimandres says explicitly that not everyone has Nous. He answers the question:
22. ‘Do not all men have Nous?‘ I asked.
23. ‘As for those without Nous, the evil, the worthless, the envious, the greedy, murderers, the ungodly, I am very far from them…“
And in CH IV.3 it is stated:
“Therefore, O Tat, God has given the Word to all men to partake in, but not so with Nous. He was not jealous, for jealousy of any one does not originate from there, but is created in the souls of men who have no Nous.“
Tat – Then why, O father, has God not given to everyone a share of Nous?
Hermes – He willed, my son, to set it up as a prize before souls.
Spirit is not Nous. The two things are different and are never described in the same way. Nous is like a kind of divine understanding of things that one must receive in order to properly comprehend, recognize, and consider things in a way that leads us to the truth.
Everyone has mind, but CH X.23-24 makes a distinction between the “servile mind…sent below by justice” and the “good mind” which is what is the most important mind in the Hermetica. It is the mind/Nous that God sends to those who are capable of it.
Receiving the “good mind” (divine Nous) is what allows us (embodied souls) to connect with the divine and experience truth. In this sense, Nous is something inhuman in the sense that God is inhuman. Because of (His) Nous we humans can “perceive” divinity.
Eyes of Nous
What is meant when Hermes urges us to look with the “eyes of Nous” or the “eyes of the heart”? In CH X.5, Hermēs says that he and Tat are not yet strong enough to open their mind’s eyes and look on the incorruptible, incomprehensible beauty of the Good (translation Copenhaver).
Salaman translated the line Book X.5 a little differently:
Hermes: “May it indeed, my son. But as yet we are too weak in sight and are not strong enough to open the eyes of the mind (Nous) and to behold the beauty of that Supreme Good, incorruptible and incomprehensible.”CH X.5
The phrase “eyes of the heart” is said by Hermes in CH IV.11 and CH VII.1. For example in CHVII:
“Whither are you being carried, O men, drunk as you are, having swallowed neat, the word of ignorance, which you cannot keep down, but are already vomiting up? Stop, be sober. Look up with the eyes of the heart; and if all of you cannot, at least those who can.”CHVII.1
The ability to “see” the invisible Divine in the visible or sensory cosmos is by the seeing faculty of Nous. But how is this different from seeing with the eyes of the heart?
“This is the image of God, O Tat, that has been drawn for you, as far as it can be. If you observe it clearly and reflect upon it with the eyes of the heart, believe me, my son, you will find the way to higher things. In fact, the image itself will guide you. For sight of the image has a special quality of its own.“
God is the creator of all things and the creator may be known through their creations and creatures.
The eyes of the heart or the eye of Nous
It seems that seeing with the eyes of the heart/soul is a precursor to the ability (or gift) to see with the eye (singular!) of Nous. Do “eyes of the heart”, “eyes of the soul”, and “eyes of the mind”, all say the same thing, just in metaphorically different ways?
In CH VII.2 we read:
“All are sober and gaze with the heart towards one who wishes to be seen, who is neither heard nor spoken of, who is seen not with the eyes but with mind and heart“CH VII.2
In CH IV.4, we read that the heart is something distinct from mind/Nous as a proclamation made to the hearts to receive mind/Nous wouldn’t make sense if they are the same. It seems that there is a subtle difference between heart and mind/Nous as distinct “powers” of humanity.
The “eyes of soul/heart” and the “eyes of Nous” are both about non-physical spiritual perceptions. Maybe seeing with the “eyes of the heart” is a precursor to seeing with the “eye of Nous” as that is a noetic understanding.
The difference between the two eyes (soul and Nous) is maybe beautifully described in a poem by the great master Ibn Arabi:
“Listen, O dearly beloved!
I am the reality of the world, the center of the circumference,.
I am the parts and the whole.
I am the will established between Heaven and Earth,
I have created perception in you only in order to be the object of My Perception.
If then you perceive Me, you perceive yourself.
But you cannot perceive Me through yourself.
It is through My Eyes that you see Me and see yourself,
Through your eyes, you cannot see Me.“
Maybe the eyes of the heart make one see the divine in sensible reality. But seeing with the eye of Nous is seeing reality through the eyes of Supreme Reality Himself.
Hermeticism’s view of Man is bipartite, rather than tripartite, with the material body and the spiritual soul as the two essential components of human nature. This perspective is closely tied to the concept of the microcosm and macrocosm, which holds that everything in the universe is interconnected. The key texts of Hermeticism, such as the Corpus Hermeticum and the Asclepius, provide a deeper understanding of this perspective, and how it relates to the nature of Man.
Sources: This discussion on Reddit Copenhaver, B. P. (1992). Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius in a new English translation, with notes and introduction. Cambridge University Press. Salaman, C., Van Oyen, D., Wharton, W. D., & Mahé, J. P. (2000). The way of Hermes: New translations of the Corpus Hermeticum and the Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius. Inner Traditions. The Digital Ambler by Polyphanes Lautaro Roig Lanzillotta, The Discourse on the Eighth and the Ninth (NHC VI,6), the Prayer of Thanksgiving (NHC VI,7), and the Asclepius (NHC VI,8): Hermetic Texts in Nag Hammadi and their Bipartite View of Man, in Gnosis: Journal of Gnostic Studies 6 (2021) 49—78. https://brill.com/view/journals/gnos/6/1/article-p49_3.xml