In the ancient spiritual tradition of Hermeticism, the spirit and identity of ancient Greco-Egyptian mysticism have been maintained by the various hermetic texts that have survived the onslaught of history. What is the relationship between what we perceive as (hermetic) knowledge and the practical spiritual Way of Hermes?
If we engage in online discussions and learn as much hermetic knowledge as possible, does that mean our role in this life is fulfilled? Let’s say we studied hard and became fluent in Greek, Latin, Coptic, and Demotic, and memorized the whole Corpus Hermeticum, does that guarantee that after bodily dissolution we rise through the spheres and merge with the Divine?
Undoubtedly, effort spent to accumulate knowledge will undeniably have its share of benefits to ourselves and others in this world and hereafter. With this knowledge, one can advise people on what to do in the eyes of hermetic wisdom. But the main question is, is the acquisition of this knowledge transformative? Does it make one better or keep one the same?
There is a common saying in the mystical tradition of Sufism that goes, “A donkey laden with books, is still a donkey.” As tough as this sounds, it signifies the role of theoretical literature when the person has not been altered in any way from within.
In our digital age, we have “knowledge” literally at our fingertips. The Corpus Hermeticum can be found on a mobile phone or tablet, the same goes for many excellent academic studies of Hermeticism by reputable academic scholars like Bull, Wildberg, Copenhaver, and Hanegraaff. We are in fact blessed with abundance.
If this well-recorded, and well-documented material is in fact knowledge, then surely, we must not be lacking in this department in the modern world. So, what is missing then if it is not knowledge within our on- and offline communities? Why can’t we use the Way of Hermes to our advantage with the abundant knowledge at our disposal?
There is a story about how a long time ago a scholar of great renown was robbed by highway bandits, who took away all his positions. The scholar urged the robbers to take everything but leave the books he obtained as knowledge, as it was of no use to them. The bandit’s response was, “How can you claim that you obtained their knowledge when if we take them away from you, you are left devoid of knowledge?” The scholar took this as a sign that he needed to learn real knowledge, the knowledge that cannot be taken away.
The conventional knowledge we learn from books can shield us from countless destructive acts, e.g., alcohol, drugs, depravity, negative habits, etc. But the authority of this knowledge comes from outside and is external to us. When knowledge comes from inside and is internal, then it can bring absolute certainty, it will produce any doubt in the intellect.
“There are not many, indeed so few religious men or women in the world [mundo] that they can be counted. Thus it is that evil remains among the people through the lack of wisdom and knowledge of what really exists. For it is from the intelligence of divine reason, through which all things are constituted, that contempt for the vices of the whole world [mundi] is born, and this contempt is also their cure. But through continuing lack of experience and absence of knowledge, all the vices grow strong and do irreparable damage to the soul which, being infected by them, swells up as if from poison, except in the case of those whoHermes to Asclepius
have found the sovereign remedy: knowledge and intelligence.”
Take the example of basic arithmetic i.e., we know ten is greater than two, a simple fact that is impossible to refute and which is free from error. Let’s say a situation arises where a magician conjures up a trick to deceive you into thinking two is more than ten, your conviction will not waver because you are perfectly convinced of the truth.
Anything that could be considered worthy of knowledge must be free from all doubt. The certainty we developed over e.g. basic arithmetic comes not only from theory but countless daily experiences. This need for inner certainty can arouse in us a deep urge to pursue the knowledge of one’s primordial origin. When this urge is aroused in us it is like a herald of faith crying out:
“O you, born of the earth, who have given yourself over to drink and sleep, and to ignorance of God, be sober, cease being intoxicated, cease being beguiled by dull sleep. Realize why you came into being! Away! Up and away! Only a little is left of your life, and a long journey lies before you! All the theory and practice in which you are engrossed is eyeservice and fakery! If you do not wake up now when will you do so? And if you do not sever these material and sensible attachments now, then when will you sever them?”
This urge can make us research all the sources of knowledge that claim to pursue Truth. We can study theology, science, philosophy, and mysticism.
“This earthly part of the world [mundi] is maintained by knowledge and practice of the arts and sciences, without which God has willed that it would not be brought to perfection.”Hermes to Aslepius
The first three, theology, science, and philosophy, will not satisfy our urge for real knowledge and certainty. The only avenue remaining is mysticism. To receive knowledge in this area, however, one needs to experience and not merely accumulate information and theories.
“Now be entirely present, as far as your mind and ability are capable. For the knowledge of God is to be attained by a godlike concentration of consciousness. Such knowledge comes like a rushing river tumbling in flux from above to the depths beneath. By its headlong rush it outruns any effort we make as hearers, or even as teachers.”Hermes to Asclepius
A hermetic mystic is a unique product of an experiential teaching system that has no parallels with the educational theoretical systems used in the modern universities of the 21st century. A hermetic mystic is impossible to be produced at will by a defined process, as opposed to a university graduate whose only requirement is to pass the right courses to fulfill their degree to become a doctor, lawyer, or religious scholar.
The most distinctive characteristic of the hermetic mystic is something that can be attained, not by study, but rather by experience. It is like the difference between you knowing the definitions and causes and conditions of health and satiety and you being healthy and sated.
When we investigate the nature of hermetic mysticism through personal experience we can realize with the aid of direct perception that book or academic learning can be transformative to only a degree.
If book learning brought one closer to the divine, then surely academic scholars would be amongst the ones closest to the Divine. We know that this is not the case. Practical mystical experience is the most direct of ways to the divine.
Coming back to our earlier question, why are we so unable to use the Way of Hermes to our advantage with the abundant knowledge at our disposal?
Many pursue the accumulation of higher academic knowledge, some through institutions and others through individual teachers. So very often, the knowledge they accumulate regrettably fails to produce any transformative change within them.
To get closer to the Divine, we require real knowledge that is transformative. If what we are consuming does not have the ability to change us inwardly, from the words of our alchemical predecessors, from “lead to gold” then it is a lesser form of knowledge.
Hermes emphasizes the importance of this transformative, experiential knowledge and understanding in his beautiful prayer of thanksgiving:
“We render you thanks, most high and potent God, for it is only by your grace that we have come to the light of your knowledge.Asclepius
Holy and reverend is your name, the one name by which God alone is to be praised according to the religion of our fathers.
We do indeed thank you since you deign to give all beings your paternal care, your religion, and your love, and even sweeter, upon us you have bestowed these powers: perception, reason, and intelligence;
perception, that we may recognize you;
reason, that we may follow up our intuition, and
knowledge, that in knowing you we may find joy.
Having been saved by your divine power we rejoice because you have shown yourself to us in your totality. We rejoice because while we are still in these bodies, you deign to consecrate us for Eternity.
This is the only way human beings have of giving thanks: to acknowledge your majesty.
We have known you and the supreme light by conscious intelligence alone.
We understand you, O true life of life, O fertile womb of all that has come into being.
O eternal steadfastness, we have known you in your conception of the whole of abundant Nature.
In every prayer through which we reverence the Good of all good, we plead only for this: that you may wish us to continue to serve you in the love of your knowledge and that we may never be separated from this kind of life.”
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