The Hermetic Teachings on Fate

The Hermetic Perfect Discourse (Logos Teleios), though originally penned in Greek, is best known today through its Latin translation, the Asclepius. The Greek version was relatively popular, as it was quoted by notable figures such as Lactantius and Stobaeus.

The Latin translation gained recognition among Augustine and later Latin authors, and from around the ninth century, it was preserved among the works attributed to Apuleius of Madaura. Additionally, an extensive excerpt in Coptic detailing the postmortem fate of the soul and the “Egyptian apocalypse” (chapters 21-29 in the Asclepius) was copied into the Nag Hammadi Codex VI.

The textual evidence shows considerable overlap between the Latin, Greek, and Coptic versions, indicating that the Coptic hews more closely to the Greek than the Latin, suggesting some instability in the text over time.

The Complexities of Fate in the Asclepius

One of the central themes in the Asclepius is the discussion of fate, a topic fraught with complexity due to several factors. There is no single “Hermetic doctrine of fate,” as Hermetic literature was produced by multiple authors from possibly various religious circles. The terminology of fate and necessity is often conflated and confused in ancient philosophical and mystical sources, and the Asclepius is no exception.

In chapter 16, Hermes poses the rhetorical question of why God cannot banish evil from the world. He provides a profound answer:

“It was a providential and circumspect thing (provisum cautumque est) – the utmost of rationality – on the part of the supreme God when he deigned to endow human minds with consciousness, learning, and understanding … Anyone who evades these things (i.e., evil and vice) on sight before getting wrapped up in them is someone who has been fortified by divine understanding and care (prudentia); for the foundation of learning depends on the highest good. Nevertheless, by spirit (spiritu) is everything in the world supplied and invigorated; like an instrument or a mechanism it is subject to the will of the supreme God (summi dei voluntati subiectus est) … By spirit (spiritu) are the forms in the world truly stirred and directed (gubernantur), each according to the nature allotted it by God. Now, hulē – that is, matter – is the receptacle of them all, while ⟨spirit⟩ stirs and concentrates them all, and God governs them, apportioning to all things in the world as much as each one needs. He fills them all with spirit, breathing it into each thing according to the quality of its nature.”

Asclepius 16

In this passage, Hermes elucidates that divine spiritus (πνεῦμα) permeates all things and orders them well, “as much as each one needs.” The term “spirit” or “spiritu” in Latin here corresponds to the Greek term Nous. This concept is intertwined with divine care (prudentia), which allows humans to avoid vice.

Prudentia sometimes translates the Greek concept of πρόνοια (“forethought, providence”) in early Latin philosophical literature. In Hermeticism, human reason (logos) is a divine gift, granting humanity a special place in the cosmos.

The Hermetic Concept of Nous

In Hermetic thought, Nous is often described as the divine intellect or mind. It is the highest aspect of (human) consciousness and can be seen as a direct link to the divine. Nous is the principle that enables humans to grasp eternal truths and divine realities, transcending the limitations of the material world.

It is through Nous that individuals can achieve gnosis, a deep, experiential knowledge of the divine, which is central to the Hermetic path. The divine Nous is also the creative force behind the cosmos, ordering and sustaining the universe according to divine wisdom.

Read more: Nous and the secret of the heart

The Interplay of Providence and Fate

Hermes suggests a nuanced relationship between providence and fate. We might assume a distinction between them, yet Hermes indicates they are aspects of one reality. He explains:

“Providence is the will of God (providentiam dei … voluntatem), and His will is a series of causes, and it is called Providence because His will is foresight [providentia] (et ex eo quidem quia voluntas providentia est, ⟨providentiam⟩) but Fate because it is also a series of causes, from which it results that the things which are according to Fate are also from Providence and likewise that the things which are according to Providence are from Fate. The a “divine will” (divina sententia) of the highest God is identical with providentia.”

This passage reveals that what we term providence is essentially the divine will, a series of causes seen as foresight. Fate, then, is the implementation of this will as a causal chain.

Intelligible and Sensible Deities

Further in the text, Hermes differentiates between intelligible gods, who are principles of all forms, and sensible gods, who are principles of substance.

Asclepius asks about the gods that are first principles (vel rerum capita vel initia primordiorum). Hermes begins by differentiating the intelligible and sensible deities, i.e., gods who are apprehensible by the mind, or by the physical senses. 

The intelligible gods are “principles of all the forms” (omnium specierum principes), while each sensible god is a “principle of substance” (princeps οὐσία〈ς〉) that rules over a particular domain of the sensible realm.

The head of these deities is the principle that rules heaven, Jupiter, whom Hermes denotes an “ousiarch” (οὐσιάρχης), an obscure term that here appears to connote something like “ruler of a particular substance”: the ousiarch of the sun is light, while the thirty-six decans have as their ousiarch a being called “Pantomorphon (omniform – παντόμορφος).

Hermes continues to elaborate on the ousiarchai:

“[T]he so-called seven spheres have the ousiarchai – that is, heads – called fortuna and heimarmenē, by which all things change according to the law of nature (lege naturae) and a completely fixed order that is in flux, owing to eternal motion (stabilitateque firmissima sempiterna agitatione variata).”

Asclepius 19

The Concept of Fate in Asclepius

John Lydus provides us with additional Greek fragments from the Perfect Discourse, which shed light on the Hermetic concept of Fate:

“The name of Chance and Fate is put forth in reference to birth. Hermes testifies to this in the so-called Perfect Discourse:
“The so-called seven spheres have a principle called Chance or Fate, which changes all things and does not permit them to remain in the same state. Fate is the fated activity (ἡ δὲ εἱμαρμένη ἐστὶ καὶ ἡ εἱμαρτὴ ἐνέργεια) or God himself or the order arrayed after it, joined with Necessity and spread throughout all things in heaven and on earth. Fate gives birth to the very principles of things, and Necessity compels their end results. Order and law follow in turn, such that there exists nothing unordered.”

Walter Scott argued that Lydus has likely extracted and corrupted the Greek from several passages of the Perfect Discourse, making it a composite rather than a direct Greek source of our Latin text. Nonetheless, the Greek definition of Fate as the “fated activity” or “God himself” aligns closely with Hermes’s teachings in the Asclepius.

The Mechanism of Fate and Human Interaction

In chapters 38-40, Hermes shifts focus to the relationship between fate and individual human beings. He describes the role of terrestrial gods and their interaction with humanity:

“And do not think that the effects achieved by the terrestrial gods are by chance (fortuitos), dear Asclepius. The celestial gods inhabit the highest reaches of heaven, each in the rank it inherits, occupying and taking charge of it; while our (terrestrial gods) offer help as if they were family – truly caring about details (singillatim quaedam curantes), predicting the future in lots and divination, providentially caring for matters (quaedam providentes) and helping out human beings, each in his own way.”

Asclepius 38

Hermes emphasizes that the workings of terrestrial gods are not by chance (fortuitos), probably a translation of the Greek τύχῃ, underscoring a divine order that extends through the cosmos via these gods and their interaction with humans through idols.

The Necessity and Order of Fate

In chapter 39, Hermes responds to Asclepius’s query about the role of fate:

“So, what part of logos (rationis) does heimarmenē or fate inhabit, dear Trismegistus? Do the celestial gods rule over the wholes (catholicorum), and the terrestrial inhabit particulars (singula)?”
“What we dub heimarmenē, dear Asclepius, is the necessity that manages all things, which are always bound to one another by the links of a chain. So it is either the causal agent (effectrix) of things or the highest god, or it is the second god who is created by that (first) god, or the system of all celestial and terrestrial things, as fixed by the divine laws. Thus, both heimarmenē and necessity are bound together, sequentially, by a sort of bond; heimarmenē, first, brings forth the beginnings of all things, (and) necessity then brings into effect the results that depend on her beginning them. Order results – the interweaving and temporal arrangement of everything that has to happen (dispositio temporis rerum perficiendarum). In fact, nothing is separate from the system of order. This world is perfect, in every respect! Indeed, this world is conveyed with order, and the entirety of it is established from order.

Asclepius 39

Hermes speaks to the harmony and systematic nature of divine will manifesting as heimarmenē, necessity, and order, where these forces collectively ensure the orderly, logical (logos) function of the cosmos.

The passage can appear confusing because it seems to equate Fate (heimarmenē) with all kinds of abstract things: the highest god, the second god, the “system of all things,” or “necessity”. 

Heimarmenē can be seen as “the causal agent (effectrix) of things” or equated with necessity. In ch. 19, Fate is the personal deity of change according to nature’s rules as ordained by the planets; but in ch. 39, it looks like a mere abstraction.

The equation of fate with both the “unyielding necessity and blind luck” produced by the seven planets recalls the description of fate administered by the ousiarchs in ch. 19, or the spiritus (nous) effecting the “will of the supreme God” in ch. 16 – Fate contrasted with a supreme Providence. In ch. 39, what heimarmenē/necessitas creates is conditions under which chance (fortuna) can coexist in the cosmos with “order” (disciplina). 

In Chapter 40 we get the description of fate in its essence or substance (οὐσία), as Hermes proposes a tripartition of causal forces:

Therefore, these three – heimarmenē, necessity, and order – are, one could venture to say, without any doubt at all effects (effecta) of the will of God (maxime dei nutu), who governs the world with his law and divine reason (qui mundum gubernat sua lege et ratione divina). So, from these things, God has turned them entirely away from willing or not willing anything. They are not moved by anger nor are they turned by praise; rather, they serve the constraint (necessitati) of the eternal, rational order (rationis aeternae) that is eternity – inevitable, immovable, indestructible.
First then is heimarmenē, which, having been thrown like seed, begets the “posterity” of all future events. Next comes necessity, the force that constrains everything to creation. Third, order maintains the weaving of these things which heimarmenē and necessity arrange. And so this is eternity, which does not ever begin or cease to exist, (and) which spins round with perpetual motion under the fixed law of its unchanging cycle, always rising and falling in succession throughout its parts, so that as the times change, it rises and falls in the same parts. The circularity in turn amounts to a pattern of turning, so that everything is pushed together and you are not able to know of the beginning of the turning – if there is one – since everything appears to always precede and follow itself! However, accident and chance (eventus … vel fors) are also mixed into all worldly things.

Asclepius 40

There is a great deal embedded in this dense passage; “heimarmenē, necessity, and order” are “effects (effecta) of the will of God,” and their relationship to divine “law,” “order,” and finally to “accident and chance.” Interesting, is that “What is up to us” does not appear to be an important question that the Asclepius is trying to answer in a detailed manner. This fits the deterministic view of the Hermetica.

Conclusion

The Asclepius offers a nuanced exploration of fate, integrating providence, divine will, and human responsibility within the framework of a divinely ordered cosmos.

Hermes’s teachings in the Asclepius reflect the intricate interplay between fate and divine providence, highlighting humanity’s unique role and the influence of both celestial and terrestrial deities on our lives.

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Learn the ancient Way of Hermes in our online course. The Way of Hermes, also called Hermeticism, celebrates life and light. The purpose of this joyful spiritual path is to heal the soul from negativity, to free it from negative influences such as fear and aggression, and to open our eyes to the beauty of existence.

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