Is Man evil in the Way of Hermes?
When reading the Hermetic texts, one can get the vibe that Man – or humanity – is evil, but when the Hermetic texts use terms like “evil” it is more as a way of saying “material and not God” rather than being actually malevolent. In this article we explore the “evilness” of Man in the Hermetic texts.
In the Hermetic texts Hermes does not say that Man is bad, it’s just that Man is part of the material world and descended from God, the pure Good. Therefore Man is not the pure Good that is God. And if you are not Good, then you are “evil”.
Stobaeus Fragment 11.2.48:
What is God? Unchanging good.
What is Man? Changing evil.
Compare maxim 19 above (which is just that God is good and humanity is evil), with CH X.12:
“The cosmos is the first; but man is the second living being after the cosmos. He is the first among creatures that die, but like other living beings he has a soul. Still, he is not only not good, but in as much as he is mortal he is corrupt. Now, the cosmos is not good inCH X.12
as much as it can be moved, but not corrupt as it is immortal; while man is corrupt as he both can be moved and is mortal.“
When the Hermetic texts talk about “good” and “evil”, for the most part, they’re not talking about some sort of moral good or evil, but rather, a philosophical good or evil. Moral good/evil proceeds from the philosophical good/evil, but the two shouldn’t be conflated.
CH VI starts off with a great description of what is philosophical Good:
“The good, Asclepius, is in nothing except in god alone, or rather god himself is always the good. If this is so, the good must be the substance of all motion and generation (for nothing is abandoned by it), but this substance has an energy about it that stays at rest, that has no lack and no excess, that is perfectly complete, a source of supply, present in the beginning of all things. When I say that what supplies everything is good, I also mean that it is wholly and always good.
Yet this good belongs [ ] to nothing else except to god alone. God lacks for nothing, to become evil in longing to possess it. Nothing that exists can be lost to him, to cause him grief in losing it (for grief is a part of vice). Nothing is stronger than God, to make an adversary of him (nor does he have a companion to give him injury); (nothing is more beautiful,) to cause desire in him; nothing is unheeding of him, to make him angry; and nothing is wiser, to make him jealous.“
In other words, that which is philosophically good is perfect, without need, without lack, without excess, without being able to be affected by anyone or anything. That which is philosophically evil is just not philosophically good; because only God is philosophically good, anything that is not God is therefore philosophically evil.
SH11 and CHX are therefore not really moral statements in how wicked and sinful humanity is. But Man is a “thing” that has imperfections and excesses and is susceptible to being moved/influenced by external things. Because we are able to be changed from moment to moment, we never truly stay in any one state for long. And therefore we cannot be (pure, unchanging) Good.
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