Was the Way of Hermes in antiquity purely theoretical?

In some circles there is the belief that the Way of Hermes, or Hermeticism, was a purely theoretical philosophy. But Hermeticism was never purely theoretical. That’s an interpretation some, much later and basically modern, philosophers and academics believed, but it’s clear from the texts themselves that this wasn’t the case.

It would be hard to believe that all the ritual, all the spiritual elevation, all the ecstatic outbursts, all the deep mystical metaphor and revelations was just there as merely a literary device. Which would basically make all the Hermetic texts a giant ploy by Hellenistic philosophers to downgrade philosophy into something they themselves would have disagreed with.

And all this for the sake of making the masses somewhat quasi-philosophical by making it more spooky, and turning the philosophers themselves into charlatans. Which is about as uncharitable an interpretation of Hermeticism as one can make.

Father Festugiere

But this is, indeed, what the great scholar Festugiere basically believed! For all his great translation, his interpretations of Hermetic texts fell short of what came about after him. It is difficult to see how Festugière could justify his view of Hermeticism as a purely philosophical system, in light of the above points, namely the deep mysticism, the rituals, the astrology, Hellenistic philosophers badmouthing themselves etc.

Festugiere was convinced that “a little jar from Egypt” (referring to the Nag Hammadi texts) wouldn’t come close to touching his theories. But then the unknown text “The Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth” was found and it completely overturned Festugiere’s theories..

The editor of the new Brazilian edition of the Corpus Hermeticum outlines a long history of Catholic scholars viewing Hermeticism either as “too pagan”, therefore unworthy of study, or as the last source of pre-Christian wisdom in the prisca theologia, therefore making Hermes Trismegistus an important prophet, alongside figures like Pytagoras and Plato, that sort of “informed” Christianity.

Unfortunately Festugière falls in the first group. He had significant selection bias in what parts of the Hermetica he would focus on. Festugière thought that the “rational” Greek parts of the Hermetic texts were worthy of academic study, but that all the Egyptian parts – mostly the magical texts – were irrational and not worthy of serious study.

Américo Sommerman, the editor of the Brazilian edition of the Corpus Hermeticum, says Festugière wanted to outright vilify Hermeticism, but that might be too harsh a view.

Luckily, people who are interested in the Way of Hermes have the benefit of several more decades of research and discovery that Festugiere didn’t have.He didn’t have the Nag Hammadi texts at his disposal like we do, nor some of the more recent thoughts of e.g. Hanegraaff, Bull, Fowden, etc. Also, Festugiere himself was a Dominican monk and his big focus was on Neoplatonism, not Hermeticism per se except in how it related to Neoplatonism, especially that of Proclus.

It’s only in comparatively recent times that the distinction between theoretical/philosophical “Greek” Hermetica and technical/practical “Egyptian” Hermetica has begun to be softened. Prior to that, any serious study of the technical/practical stuff (such as it was) was relegated to noting how superstitious and absurd it was, rather than taking it seriously on its own terms as a complete whole in tandem with the theoretical/philosophical stuff.

For Festugiere, seeing Hermeticism as a purely philosophical system without a practical side was his point. Not because of the abundance of technical/practical stuff but in spite of it. Unfortunately the practical “irrational” stuff is still seen as academically and scholastically toxic by many out there.

Consider Copenhaver’s stance, from his own introduction in his book Hermetica:

To find theoretical Hermetic writings in Egypt, in Coptic and alongside the wildest efflorescences of the Gnostic imagination was a stunning challenge to the older view, whose major champion was Father Festugiere, that the Hermetica could be entirely understood in a post-Platonic Greek context.

(page xliv)

A major effect of Mahe’s work on this text and the Nag Hammadi Hermetica is to confirm the views of other scholars, many of them Egyptologists, that Father Festugiere was wrong to dismiss the Egyptian elements in the Greek and Latin treatises as mere ornament.

(page xlv)

Although on some occasions Festugiere muffled his depreciation of the religious motives of the Hermetic authors, he generally regarded their works as expressions of a rather vague and contradictory piety without real roots in Egypt, an eclectic spirituality planted in the intellectual commonplaces of the Greek-speaking world of late antiquity.

It was natural that scholars who came after Father Festugiere found reasons to differ – on large matters and small – with the monumental deposit of Hermetic studies that he bequeathed to them, and it goes without saying that all subsequent work on the Hermetica bears the stamp of his enormous learning and deep insight.

We may be taking for granted how acceptable merging the practical or – magical – stuff with the philosophical/theological stuff might be, given the most recent few generations of scholars and scholarship. We are, after all, interested in not just reading about the practical stuff, but implementing it.

Practitioners of the Way of Hermes necessarily have a different scope than academics who focus solely on academia do. Festugiere was, after all, an academic, more than anything else (at least when it came to Hermeticism), and one who judged Hermeticism more along the lines of Christianity’s criteria than against Hermeticism itself on its own terms.

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