PIETY AND TRUE PHILOSOPHY
A DISCOURSE OF HERMES TO TAT
(From the Corpus Hermeticum)
Introduction by the Editors of
The Shrine of Wisdom
This discourse is sometimes placed at the beginning of the Teachings of Hermes: a position evidently given because of the fundamental character of the subject. Piety and philosophy are essential requisites for the perfect life, and without them man can never attain union with the Divine.
The philosophy which is here presented is not given in the ordinary systematic form, but makes use of the method of contrast by introducing a series of pairs of opposites, such as heaven and earth, God and man, good and evil, incorruption and corruption, the unchangeable and the changeable, in most of which the absolute is contrasted with the relative. The purpose of this method is clearly to emphasize the need for man to devote himself to piety and philosophy which ever seek the Divine, the real and the ideal.
The discourse is not addressed to the logical aspect of the mind, but to the simple perceptive power to which the truth of the statements is self-evident. Other discourses of Hermes expound the various aspects of the "Heads" introduced here, show the relation between the contrasted pairs, and reconcile any apparent contradictions.
Hermes I write this, O my Son, both for the love of man and piety to God. There can be no religion more true than to meditate on the things that are and to give thanks for them to Him Who made them, and this I will never cease to do.
Tat What then should a man do, O Father, to live wisely, if nothing here is true?
Hermes He must be pious, my Son, for he that is pious attaineth to the height of philosophy: and without philosophy it is impossible to attain the height of piety. He who learns the things that are, and how they are ordered and governed, and by whom and for what purpose, will give thanks to the Demiurgus, as to a good father, an excellent nurse, and a guardian who always can be trusted.
He that gives thanks will be pious, and he that is pious shall know where the truth is and what it is, and learning that he will grow more and more pious.
For never, my Son, can the soul which while in the body lifts itself up to know the True and Good fall back into the contrary; for when it once knows its Father it is filled with wondrous love, forgets all evils, and can no longer depart from the Good.
Let this, my Son, be the consummation of piety-to which if thou attain, thou shalt both live well and be blessed in thy death, for then thy soul will not be ignorant whither it should wing its flight again. This only, my Son, is the path that leads to truth, which our progenitors traveled and by which, having made their journey, they attained to the Good. It is a holy and divine path, yet difficult for the soul to travel while still in the body.
For first the soul must fight against its own lower nature, and after much strife it must ensure that the victory is gained by the one part; since there is a contest of the one against the two.* The one struggles to mount upward, but the two strive to drag it down. (* The "one" is the rational principle; the "two" the irascible and desiderative aspects of the irrational nature.)
Their victory is not alike, for the one hastens to the good, but the others towards evil: the one aspires to be free; the others are content with their slavery.
If the two be overcome they become quiet and are content to accept the one as their ruler: but if the one be overcome by the two it is led by them into punishment in the life here below.
This is, my Son, the guide in the path that leads Thither. Thou must first dominate thy body before thy end can be reached, and gain the victory in this life of conflict, and when thou hast overcome, return home.
And now, my Son, I will go through all the things that are by heads: understand thou what I say and remember what thou hearest.
All corporeal things are moved, only that which is incorporeal is immovable. Every body is subject to change, but not all bodies are dissolvable, some bodies only are dissolvable.
Not every living thing is mortal; not every living thing is immortal. That which can be dissolved can also be destroyed. That which always abides is unchangeable; that which is unchangeable is eternal. That which is continually being generated is continually being corrupted; but that which is created but once is never corrupted, nor does it become any other thing.
First God; second the Cosmos; third Man.
The Cosmos for Man's sake; and Man for God's.
The irrational nature of man is mortal, his rational nature is immortal. Every essence is immortal; every essence is unchangeable.
Every thing that exists is two-fold; nothing that exists is permanent. Not all things are moved by soul, but soul moves all that exists.* (* To "exist" is to stand out: that from which anything stands out is said to subsist.)
Every thing that suffers is sensible; every thing that is sensible suffers.
Every thing that suffers also enjoys and is a mortal creature, but that which enjoys and yet suffers not, is an eternal being.
Not every body is subject to disease; every body that is subject to disease is dissolvable. The mind (nous) is in God; the reasoning faculty is in man.
Reason is in the mind; the mind is above all suffering.
Nothing that is corporeal is real; all that is incorporeal is free from unreality.
Everything that becomes is changeable; but not everything that becomes need be dissolved. Nothing is good upon earth; nothing is bad in heaven.
God is good; man is bad.
Good is voluntary; evil is involuntary.
The Gods choose good, as good; man chooses bad imagining it to be good.
The Divine law is good; the good law is the law.
For the Cosmos time is revolving movement; for man time is duration.
Whatever is in heaven is unchangeable; whatever is upon earth is changeable.
Nothing in heaven is enslaved; nothing upon earth is free.
Nothing in heaven is unknowable; nothing upon earth is knowable.
The things upon earth do not consort with those in heaven.
All things in heaven are without blemish; all things on earth may be marred by blemishes.
The immortal is not mortal; the mortal is not immortal.
That which is sown does not invariably come forth; that which comes forth must invariably have been sown.
Corruptible bodies have two times: from sowing until birth, and from birth until death; but of an incorruptible body, the time is from coming into being alone.
Things subject to dissolution are increased and diminished.
Dissoluble matter is changed into contraries: corruption and generation; but incorruptible matter into itself, or things like to itself.
The birth of man is the beginning of his corruption; the corruption of man is the beginning of his generation.
That which ends, begins; that which begins, ends.
Of things that are, some are in essence, some in ideas, and some in activity or operation. Whatever things belong to operation are in bodies.
The immortal receives nothing from the mortal; the mortal receives from the immortal.
The mortal does not enter into the immortal; the immortal enters into the mortal.
Activities do not move upwards, but downwards.
The things on earth do not bestow benefits upon those in heaven; the things in heaven bestow benefits upon those on earth.
Heaven is the container of everlasting bodies; earth of perishable bodies.
Earth is irrational; heaven is rational.
Celestial things are subject to Providence; terrestrial things are subject to necessity.
Heaven is the first element; earth is the last element.
Providence is the Divine order; necessity is subservient to Providence. Fortune is the effect of that which is without apparent order.
What is God? The Good that nothing can change.
What is man? The bad that can be changed.
If thou perfectly rememberest these heads, thou wilt also remember those things which I have expounded unto thee more fully, for these are the summaries or syntheses of them.
Avoid, however, speaking of them to the multitude; not that I would deprive them of this knowledge, but that rather I would not have thee subject to the ridicule of the multitude.
For the like always attracts to itself the like, but the unlike never agrees with the unlike. Such discourses as these should have very few hearers, and probably even the few may not be worthy to hear them. They have some power peculiar to themselves, for they provoke the wicked to do more evil. Therefore it behoveth thee to protect the multitude from them, as not understanding their virtue and power.
Tat What dost thou mean, my Father?
Hermes This, my Son! Mankind is very prone to do evil, to be attracted to it, and to be delighted with it. Now if an impious man should learn that the world was once made, and that all things come and go according to Providence and necessity, and that necessity and fate rule over all things, will he not grow much worse than he is now; despising the world because it was made, attributing to fate the cause of all evil, and never ceasing from doing evil?
Therefore care should be taken of such kind of people, that, being in ignorance of these things, they may be less evil for fear of that which is unknown.