Thrice Great Hermes

on June 28, 2011

It seems to be a general rule that every one of the historical sequence of visions I have been discussing in these entries is at its most dynamic during the final stage of its emergence — when it is not yet in a position of cultural dominance but serves as the chief center of opposition to things-as-they-are. That is when it draws the most fervent acolytes, entertains the most radical heresies, and generates the most breathtaking works of art and literature.

Since about 1976, for example, the holism vision has fulfilled that role, inspiring both environmentalists and computer hackers to defy the orthodoxies of the era of democracy-and-chaos. But holism is nearing the end of that phase and will soon lose its original purity and intensity as it moves into the mainstream and becomes the template for actual changes in the way our society operates.

The same pattern can be seen in the three inner experience-based visions that I reviewed in the previous entry. The spirit vision, for example, appears to have been at its peak of creative power during the Paleolithic, when it oversaw the birth of art and music and literature and everything else that makes us fully human. But by the Neolithic, the energy was moving elsewhere — first into the technological achievements associated with the domestication of plants and animals and then into the far-reaching social changes that accompanied the rise of civilization.

The primary focus would not swing back to inner experience until the era of profound philosophical and religious speculation that lasted from roughly 800 BC to 300 AD. The doings of the Hebrew prophets and the writing of the Old Testament largely fall within the peak period of that era, between about 550 and 300 BC. So do the rise of Zoroastrianism in Persia, of Buddhism in India, and of Confucianism and Taoism in China. All these philosophical and religious movements came about in reaction to the loss of faith in the old gods, and all attempted to rework the materials of the spirit vision in more credible terms.

The Greek philosophers probably went further than anyone else at that time in their attempts to find a rational basis for higher knowledge, typically regarding it as a set of innate ideas in the human mind that could be logically examined and brought into consciousness. But that approach lacked the more populist appeal of Biblical cosmology — with its inspired prophets, celestial messengers, and hallucinatory revelations — and as the revelation vision hardened into dogma, rational philosophy became a mere adjunct to religious faith.

That sort of dumbing-down appears to be commonplace, however. When a vision becomes socially dominant and is simplified for general consumption, many of its most dazzling speculations and most brilliant artistic and literary forays inevitably get set aside. But these unfulfilled promises are never entirely forgotten, and they often feed into later visions of the same type.

This can be seen clearly in the changes that were made to the reason vision during the Italian Renaissance. The mystical proto-version of that vision, which had flowered during the Middle Ages, had turned out to be something of a practical dead end — so rarefied and otherworldly as to be unable to fulfill the traditional shamanistic role of kicking the established order of things in the pants. Something more pragmatic was called for, and the essential catalyst turned out to be an infusion of late Classical thought.

The heyday of the Roman Empire, from about 100 to 300 AD, had provided a kind of intellectual halfway house between the rationalism of Greek philosophy and the religious supernaturalism of Christianity. Those centuries were marked by an explosion of magical and occult systems, which included Neo-Platonism, Gnosticism, and, most significantly, the Hermetic tradition.

Renaissance scholar Frances Yates has written extensively about the belief system of hermeticism and its impact on fifteenth century Italy. “The mighty intellectual effort of Greek philosophy was exhausted,” she explains in Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. “The world of the second century was, however, seeking intensively for knowledge of reality. … It turned to other ways of seeking an answer, intuitive, mystical, magical. … Philosophy was to be used, not as a dialectical exercise, but as a way of reaching intuitive knowledge of the divine and of the meaning of the world.”

She goes on to note that “the Hermetic treatises, which often take the form of dialogues between master and disciple, usually culminate in a kind of ecstasy in which the adept is satisfied that he has received an illumination and breaks out into hymns of praise. He seems to reach this illumination through contemplation of the world or the cosmos, or rather through contemplation of the cosmos as reflected in his own Nous or mens which separates out for him its divine meaning and gives him a spiritual mastery over it.”

Yates’ prose is fairly dense, but the crucial point is that hermeticism offered a radically new model of higher knowledge, one in which a deep philosophical understanding of both the world and one’s own inner nature could lead the initiate to break through into an enlightened state and become the master of cosmic truth.

An idea like that was obviously too dangerous for general consumption. Hermeticism may have persisted as an esoteric tradition during the Dark and Middle Ages, but the official position of the Catholic Church was that original sin had so corrupted both human nature and the world that it was not possible to arrive at higher truth by studying either. The only source of certainty was divine revelation — as interpreted, of course, by the proper ecclesiastical authorities.

Around the middle of the fifteenth century, however, there was an extraordinary reversal. The artists and thinkers of Renaissance Italy had already begun looking for a more secular approach to knowledge, one that would not be dependent on the increasingly corrupt Church — and at precisely the moment of their greatest need, the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 provided them with access to a sudden flood of classical writings.

Among the manuscripts that traveled west were the Hermetic treatises, and hermeticism — often interwoven with similar materials from the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah — turned out to provide exactly what they had been seeking.

The almost instantaneous result was an explosion of higher knowledge, unparallelled in almost 2000 years, which was followed over the next two centuries by an outpouring of works of genius that created the foundation of Western Civilization. Leonardo and Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Rembrandt all held in common the hermetic belief that deep study of the world and of one’s one nature was the path to enlightenment.

By the start of the 18th century, however, the reason vision was becoming the cultural norm, and its most creative phase was drawing to a close. Reason was being trivialized — reduced from a mode of philosophical mysticism to simple rationalism — and though the era may have regarded itself as the Age of Reason, for most people this meant little more than a distaste for superstition and slavish traditionalism.

The trivialization of the reason vision, however, was not merely a result of its popularization. It was also made inevitable by the rejection of the old view of the cosmos as founded upon eternal truths — which the philosopher might aspire to discover — and its replacement by the concept of a purely material universe governed by rigid mathematical laws.

The first hints of the scientific materialism vision can be traced back to the Middle Ages, but its characteristic attitudes emerged only in the middle 1600’s, with what was known as “the mechanical philosophy.” This was the notion that all natural phenomena could be explained in terms of the motion of tiny particles of matter hurtling blindly through space, without any need for resorting to non-material causes.

The reason vision, with its faith that knowledge of nature could lead to enlightenment, had helped to spark the development of modern science, but the philosophy of mechanistic materialism brought the unwelcome message that no amount of scientific knowledge could ever inform us about anything outside the material world.

Hermeticism did not abruptly vanish in the eighteenth century, but it increasingly took on a less occult and more rationalized form. One student of the period, Ernest Lee Tuveson, writes in The Avatars of Thrice Great Hermes of what he calls “the second round of hermeticism” and asserts that “we have completely failed to note how the basic elements of hermeticism came to terms with the new kind of world outlook. … Other forms of hermeticist faith, dropping most of the original mystical and magical paraphernalia, and accepting the Newtonian cosmogony, still retained the hermetist attitude towards nature, deity, man, and their interaction.”

This “coming to terms” of the reason vision with the new scientific outlook is clearly reflected in the Declaration of Independence, which starts by proclaiming the right of the American colonies to assume “the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.” The reference to the “Laws of Nature” is plainly meant to be taken hermetically and not mechanistically — but there is no longer anything even remotely mystical about it.

By the conclusion of the eighteenth century, the reason vision had reached much the same stage as the revelation vision in the Dark Ages or the spirit vision in the late Neolithic. It might still be invoked as a justification for revolution, but it was increasingly cut off from the stranger and more radical aspects of higher knowledge.

To reclaim the genuine tradition of inner experience a new approach was needed — and that was already present in the first stirrings of the chaos vision.


A listing of all my posts on higher knowledge can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

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