Hermeticism: The Awful Truth

Discovering the Extent of the Problem

I learned the word Hermeticism recently.

Here’s an extended simile of what my experience was like in doing a deep dive on this word.

Imagine that your drain keeps backing up. You take a look, and discover a root. You have to find at what point the roots are coming into the pipe, so you do the roto-rooter thing. It turns out that the roots are running through the pipe all the way down to the street and across the street and into the vacant lot, where there is a huge tree.

And oh, look, it’s already pulled down the neighbor’s house!

That’s what it was like. (Oh, no! It’s in my George MacDonald pipe too!)

What Methought I Knew

I’ve listened to a number of James Lindsay podcasts, and he talks a lot about Hegel. In discussing what exactly went wrong with the train wreck that is modern education and politics, James has to dive deep into quite a few unpleasant philosophers, among them Herbert Marcuse, Jaques Derrida, Paolo Friere, and the postmodernists. And Hegel.

I had heard James describe before how Hegel saw the world. Hegel had this idea that progress is reached by opposite things colliding and out of them comes a new synthesis, and then that synthesis has to collide with its opposite and so on until perfection is reached. This process is called the dialectic. Marx took these ideas and applied them to society, where there has to be conflict and revolution, but then the new society that emerges isn’t perfect yet and so there has to be another revolution and so on until everything is perfect and/or everyone is dead.

Obviously I am simplifying a lot. James can talk about this stuff for an hour and he is simplifying too, not because these ideas are themselves complicated but because Hegel produced a huge dump of words, and he came up with terminology that tried to combine his ideas with Christian concepts so that they would be accepted in his era. Anyway, the word dialectic is still used by postmodern writers like Kimberle Crenshaw, and it is a clue that they think constant revolution is the way to bring about utopia.

So, I was familiar with Hegel through the podcasts of Lindsay, and I was also familiar enough with Gnostic thought to at least recognize it when it goes by, as it so often does. For one thing, you kind of have to learn a little bit about Gnosticism if you are a serious Christian, because gnostic (or at least pre-gnostic: Platonic, mystery religion) ideas were very much in the air in New Testament times, and many of the letters of the New Testament were written to refute these ideas. Also, Gnosticism, particularly the mind/body duality, has had such an influence on our culture that it’s hard to miss. It’s present in New Age and neopagan thought, and it’s called out in Nancy Pearcey’s book Love Thy Body for the bad effects it has had on the way we conceive of personhood.

So that’s the background.

Several months ago, I was listening to Lindsay give a talk summarizing his recent research to a church group. He was talking about theologies: systems of thought that make metaphysical and cosmological claims, and come with moral imperatives. And he dashed off this summary, something like the following:

“You could have a theology where at first all that exists is God, but He doesn’t know Himself as God, so in order to know Himself he creates all these other beings, and they are all like pieces of God but they don’t know it, and their task is to become enlightened and realize that they, too, are God, and when they realize this, eventually they will all come back together, but now God is self-conscious because of the process of breaking He’s been through.”

And I’m thinking, Sounds like Pantheism, or maybe Gnosticism.

And James says, “That’s the Hermetic theology.”

And I’ve got a new word to research.

Kind of a Weird Name

So, why is it called Hermeticism? Does it have to do with hermits?

My first foray into Internet Hermeticism immediately showed that the school of thought was named for a guy named Hermes, as in this paragraph from wiki:

Hermeticism, or Hermetism, is a label used to designate a philosophical system that is primarily based on the purported teachings of Hermes Trismegistus (a legendary Hellenistic combination of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth).[1] These teachings are contained in the various writings attributed to Hermes (the Hermetica), which were produced over a period spanning many centuries (c. 300 BCE – 1200 CE), and may be very different in content and scope.[2]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hermeticism

One of my search hits, I can’t remember which one, said that Hermeticism is “often confused with Gnosticism.” O.K., so if it’s not Gnosticism, that means I know less than I thought and it’s all the more reason to research.

I also found avowedly Hermetic web sites like Hermetic World, whose “summary” is actually more of an attempt to draw you into their movement:

Hermeticism – The secret knowledge

Hermeticism is an ancient secret doctrine that dates back to early Egypt and its innermost knowledge has always been passed on only orally. In each generation there have been some faithful souls in different countries of the world who received the light, carefully cultivated it and did not allow it to be extinguished. Thanks to these strong hearts, these fearless spirits, truth has not been lost. It was always passed on from master to disciple, from adept to neophyte from mouth to ear. The terms “hermetically sealed”, “hermetically locked”, and so on, derive from this tradition and indicate that the general public does not have access to these teachings.

Hermeticism is a key that gives people the possibility to achieve everything they desire deep in their hearts, to develop a profound understanding of life, to become capable of decision making and responsibility; and to answer the question of meaning. Hermeticism offers a hidden key to unfolding.

Nobody can teach this knowledge to himself. Even in competent books like Kybalion, the teaching is only passed on in a veiled way. It always requires a master to pass on the wisdom to the able student. Today, as in the past, authentic mystery schools are a way to acquire this knowledge. The Hermetic Academy is one of these authentic schools.

https://www.hermetic-academy.com/hermeticism/

This is certainly the genuine article, but it is perhaps not the first place to go. I wanted to learn about the basic doctrines from a neutral source, simply and clearly described. I didn’t want to have to wade through a bunch of hand-waving to get there, at least not at first. Still, I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that Hermetic World tries to cast a mysterious, esoteric, yet somewhat self-help-y atmosphere on their first page. After all, it is a mystery religion.

Well, at least now I know why it’s called Hermeticism. It’s basically an accident of history, due to the name of the guy to whom the founding writings were attributed.

Time to move on to a book.

Moving On to a Book

I am fortunate to be descended from a scholar who has a large personal library, heavy on the theology.

I asked my dad.

Serendipitiously, he had just finished reading Michael J. McClymond’s two-volume history of Christian universalism (the doctrine that everyone is going to heaven), and he remembered that Hermeticism entered into the discussion. He was happy to lend it to me. You can see all the places I’ve marked with tabs. Those are just the ones where Hermeticism is directly mentioned. I hope you now understand my dilemma.

In McClymond’s Appendix A: Gnosis and Western Esotericism: Definitions and Lineages, I found at last the succinct, neutral summary I was looking for:

[“Hermetism”] as used by academics refers to persons, texts, ideas, and practices that are directly linked to the Corpus Hermeticum, a relatively small body of texts that appeared most likely in Egypt during the second or third centuries CE. … “Hermeticism” is often used in a wider way to refer to the general style of thinking that one finds in the Corpus Hermeticum and other works of ancient gnosis, alchemy, Kabbalah, and so forth. “Hermeticism” sometimes functions as a synonym for “esotericism.” The adjective “Hermetic” is ambiguous, since it can refer either to “Hermetism” or “Hermeticism.”

McClymond, p. 1072

O.K.

So it isn’t that different from Gnosticism after all.

“Esoteric,” by the way, means an emphasis on hidden or mystical knowledge that is not available to everyone and/or cannot be reduced to words and propositions. “Exoteric” refers to the style of theology that puts emphasis on knowledge that is public in the sense that it is written down somewhere, asserts something concrete, can be debated, etc.

Even though I have literally just found an actual definition of the word that is clear enough to put into a blog post, in the time it took me to find this definition I feel that I have already gotten a pretty good sense of what this philosophy is like. Perhaps it helps that it has pervaded many, many aspects of our culture, so I have encountered it many times before, as no doubt have you.

I began to peruse the tabs in the volumes above and read the sections there, in all their awful glory.

Yep, James Lindsay in fact did a pretty good job of explaining the core metaphysic of Hermeticism. Of course, this philosophy brings a lot of things with it that he didn’t get into. If we and all beings in the universe are all made of the same spiritual stuff as God Himself, it follows that alchemy should work (getting spiritual results with physical processes and the other way round). It follows that astrology should work (everything is connected, and the stars and men and the gods not only all influence each other, but when you get down to it are actually the same thing). It follows that reincarnation should be a thing (the body is just a shell or an illusion that is occupied by the spirit, the spark of God). It follows that there are many paths to God, since we are all manifestations of God and will all eventually return to Him/It. It follows that the body is not that important (in some versions of this philosophy, matter is actually evil). Therefore we should be able to physically heal ourselves with our minds. Our personhood should be unconnected to (some might say unfettered by) our body, such that we can be born in the wrong body, or we can change our sex or our species if we want to. There might also be bodies that don’t have souls yet (such as unborn babies), and so it would be no wrong to destroy them. Also, since matter is not really a real thing, it follows that Jesus was not really incarnated in a real human body and that He only appeared to do things like sleep, eat, suffer, and die. Also, since we are all parts of God like He is, He is not really one with God in any sense that is unique, but just more of an example of a really enlightened person who realized just how one with God He was.

I imagine that about twenty pop culture bells have gone off in your mind as you read that preceding paragraph. You might also have been reminded of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints, which teaches that we were all pre-existent souls literally fathered by God out of some sort of spiritual matter before we came to earth to be born.

So, What the Heck Is It?

Hermeticism is not just one thing. It’s a whole human tradition of thought. It had a lot of streams flowing into it, like Plato, first-century mystery religions, Gnosticism, and early attempts to reconcile Christianity with these things. It has a lot of streams flowing out of it, like many Christian mystics of varying degrees of Christian-ness; Origen; Bohme; Hegel; medieval and Renaissance alchemy; the Romantic literary movement; Mormonism; New Age thinking; identity politics; transhumanism; Shirley McLaine; The Secret, and the movie Phenomenon.

Not all of these thinkers hold to the exact same set of doctrines. In a big philosophical movement like this, almost every serious thinker is going to have his or her own specific formulation that differs from everyone else’s in ways that seem really important to people on the inside of the system. So anyone who is an insider or who has made it their life’s work to research any of the things I mention above (and many others besides) could come along and point out errors or overgeneralizations in this article and make me look like I don’t know anything. That’s partly because it’s a huge historical phenomenon and I actually don’t know much of all there is to know. It’s also partly because these mystery religions delight in making things complicated. They love to add rituals and symbols and secret names and to discover new additional deities that are personifications of abstract ideas like Wisdom. It’s supposed to be esoteric. That’s part of the fun.

Another reason it’s difficult to describe Hermeticism accurately is that when all is one, it is really difficult to talk about anything. In this view of the world, when you get right down to it there is no distinction between spirit and matter, creator and creature, man and woman, conscious and inanimate, and the list goes on. I called it Hermeticism at the beginning of this paragraph, but I was tempted to write Hermeticism/Gnosticism, or perhaps Hermeticism/Gnosticism/alchemy/mystery religions/the New Age/Pantheism/postmodernism. If you’ve ever read any New Age writers, you’ll notice that they tend to write important terms with slashes like that (“Sophia/the divine feminine”). That’s because it’s all one. They don’t want you to forget that. They don’t want to forget it. Even if these ideas do not go very well with the human mind, and they tend to break it if you keep trying to think them.

In a sense, Hermeticism and all these other related movements are very diverse and not the same at all. In another sense, it’s all … the same … crap.

Quote about another scary thing: Drugs

Drug use, at least in its early stages, feels spiritual — there is a sense of getting to the heart of things, of transcending the petty and mundane irritations of ordinary life, of entering something large and beautiful and peaceful. There is a sense of being insiders in a world to which square, conventional people are excluded. Drugs heighten interior perceptions, open windows and doors to what seems like transcendence.

And so the first thing that parents must understand about drugs is that there is almost always a spiritual element in adolescent drug-taking. We can never comprehend it if we view it simply as a matter of … rebelling against parental or societal standards. …

Only by firmly establishing this appreciation and understanding of spirituality as a context is it credible to then assert that drugs are fraudulent spirituality. Initially, they provide the illusion that matters of soul, meaning, love, destiny, beauty, and cosmic connections are being dealt with, but they always, sometimes soon and sometimes late but always, turn out to be the cruelest of illusions.

Like Dew Your Youth: Growing Up with Your Teenager, by Eugene H. Peterson, pp. 92, 94

One More Quote from Live Not By Lies

Accepting suffering is the beginning of our liberation. Suffering can be a source of great strength. It gives us the power to resist. It is a gift from God that invites us to change. To start a revolution against oppression. But for me, the oppressor was no longer the totalitarian communist regime. It’s not even the progressive liberal state. Meeting these hidden heroes [of the Czechoslovakian underground] started a revolution against the greatest totalitarian ruler of all: myself.

Documentary filmmaker Timo Krizka, quoted in Live Not By Lies by Rod Dreher, p. 211

More Quotes About Suffering

Taking up your cross and carrying it is always going to be uncomfortable. We can say clearly that this current ideology of comfort is anti-Christian in its very essence. But we should point out the fact that the church, not once, ever called its followers to look for suffering, and even made it clear that they are warned not to do that. But if a person finds himself in a situation where he’s suffering, then he should bear it with courage.

Father Kirill Kaleda, quoted in Live Not by Lies by Rod Dreher, pp. 194 – 195

Quote: “Your suffering is like a seal”

Suffering is a part of every human’s life. We don’t know why we suffer. But your suffering is like a seal. If you put that seal on your actions, interestingly enough, people start to wonder about your truth — that maybe you are right about God. In one sense, it’s a mystery, because the Evil One wants to persuade us that there is a life without suffering. First you have to live through it, and then you try to pass on the value of suffering, because suffering has a value.

Maria Komaromi, quoted in Live Not by Lies by Rod Dreher, pp. 186 – 187

Quote about something scary: Adolescence

Adolescence is a time of expanding spirituality; parents must never underestimate its authenticity or its intensity. But adolescent spirituality is not wise, it is not well formed, it is not mature. We accept the witness of our adolescents to the emphatic presence and necessity of spirituality at the center of our lives, but we do not to look to adolescents to guide us in matters of spirituality. It is essential to distinguish between the two elements. We are completely attentive to the witness of their lives; but we are detached and discerning regarding whatever they have to say on the matter. Like the canary to the miners, they are a signal that we notice, not a model that we imitate.

Like Dew Your Youth: Growing Up with Your Teenager, by Eugene H. Peterson, p. 89

Dorothy Sayers on Sacrificing for your Work

To feel sacrifice consciously as self-sacrifice argues a failure in love. When a job is undertaken from necessity, or from a grim sense of disagreeable duty, the worker is self-consciously aware of the toils and pains he undergoes, and will say: “I have made such and such sacrifices for this.”

But when the job is a labor of love, the sacrifices will present themselves to the worker — strange as it may seem — in the guise of enjoyment.

Moralists, looking on at this, will always judge that the former kind of sacrifice is more admirable than the latter, because the moralist, whatever he may pretend, has far more respect for pride than for love.

I do not mean that there is no nobility in doing unpleasant things from a sense of duty, but only that there is more nobility in doing them gladly out of sheer love of the job. The Puritan thinks otherwise; he is inclined to say, “Of course, So-and-So works very hard and has given up a good deal for such-and-such a cause, but there’s no merit in that — he enjoys it.” The merit, of course, lies precisely in the enjoyment, and the nobility of So-and-So consists in the very fact that he is the kind of person to whom the doing of that piece of work is delightful.

Dorothy Sayers, The Mind of the Maker, pp. 134 – 135

Bonus Book Excerpt

This excerpt is from my upcoming book, The Great Snake. If you don’t like spoilers, feel free to skip today’s post.

Background: Many years ago, shortly after Jai had gotten married, Jai’s mother died after giving birth to a baby girl, Klee. Jai took Klee and raised her as his own daughter. His wife, Amal, was jealous of the baby and never liked her. When Klee was a teenager, she ran away from home. The fallout from this blew up Jai’s marriage, and he is now camping out in an abandoned house that used to belong to his father, Endu. While there, he gets a visit from the tribal shaman, Ikash, his little brother.

As soon as he was strong enough to walk around and visit relatives, Ikash went to see his brother.

This required going to his father’s old house, because that was where Jai was staying. Ikash had been inside Endu’s house plenty of times during the four years since the founding of the village, but it had by no means become a second home to him. He had never felt he understood the inner workings of the family his father had built with young Dira, who was only a year older than Ikash himself. All he knew about their family was that it felt different. Different from the one he had grown up in. And so the house had never been exactly homelike.

But now, it was completely alien.

Endu’s house was a cavernous rectangle. The door, set in the middle, gave on to a great central hall. On either end of this were smaller rooms where the family slept. This time, when Ikash entered the central hall, he found it completely filled with the dark, fragrant bulk of drying wood planks. The planks were stacked in hollow boxes with aisles in between. They rose nearly to the ceiling and gave the place a completely different feel. One’s view was blocked, making the place seem even bigger.

His dog, Frost, was at his side. She scrabbled her toenails on the wooden floor and then began to sniff around, cautiously, as if in a new place. Ikash put a calming hand on her back and muttered a command to stay with him.

He called out for his brother.

Instead of echoing, the words seemed to be eaten by the stacked wood.

It was evening and Ikash had it on good authority that Jai was here, bedding down for the night. He must be in one of the side rooms. Ikash picked an aisle at random and began advancing towards the side of the house where Endu had usually slept. He almost felt as if he ought to have a weapon with him, as if he was stepping into an ambush. That, of course, was ridiculous.

He came into sight of the end of the aisle. There he could see the wall, and the door to Endu’s old bedroom. Jai was sitting with his back against the doorframe. He had a stone fire-basin on the floor in front of him, and he was warming his feet at the fire. His big skinny brown dog lay at his side. The fire cast a long shadow from Jai’s sharp nose and lit up a section of the wall around him.

A few steps from the end of the aisle, the firelight fell on Ikash and Frost. Jai squinted, said sharply, “Father? Is that you?” and scrambled to his feet.

“It’s me, brother.”

“Oh, God,” said Jai, visibly relieved. “Of course. It’s Ikash.” He invited his brother to sit down. Then he apologized for his mistake. “I thought for a second you were his ghost. You looked so much like him.”

“I don’t look like Father.”

“You do, though, now that you’ve gotten so skinny. I thought you might be his spirit.”

“I’m not, but thanks for the compliment.”

“I’m sorry I don’t have anything to offer you,” said Jai. “I don’t keep food in this house generally. I had supper at the central fire.”

“I thought that might be the case, and I brought something.”

Ikash had with him a small satchel containing cakes that his wife had made using cornmeal, cattail-root starch, and last year’s dried berries. He brought them out and shared them with his brother, his brother’s dog, and his own dog.

He noted with surprise that this brought tears to Jai’s eyes, but he didn’t say anything. He too had been brought to tears, once upon a time, by the simple fact of someone cooking something special for him.

They sat in silence for a long time. Ikash kept waiting for Jai to speak, but he didn’t. He seemed too preoccupied to wish his younger brother a good recovery, if indeed he was even aware that his brother had been sick.

At last the shaman said, “How do you like this house, brother?”

Jai had a small, narrow face topped with his father’s long almond-shaped eyes. He now turned the face toward his brother and those eyes gave out their trademark flat stare that might have been hostile or incredulous.

“No, of course I don’t like this house. This isn’t a house at all. It’s a goddam warehouse. I am living here because I can’t live in my own house any more. I am homeless. That’s how I like it.”

He snorted.

Ikash drew a breath, but his brother wasn’t finished.

“And I am living here because, as I think you know, I was kicked out of my own house by your wife’s sister and her goddam family. I’ve been replaced by my mother-in-law. That’s how things are going. And you know what the chief is like, you know the way he is about his daughters. I doubt he’d let me back into that house if I wanted to.”

“Do you want to?”

“Yes.” The syllable was bitter, but it nearly broke at the end.

“Tell me more,” said the shaman.

Jai spoke for several minutes about his wife. He was clearly angry with her, mostly for being so angry with him. He was also very lonely. Endu’s house was spooky and unhappy, a far worse place to sleep than sleeping outdoors during a hunt.

Ikash nodded. He had felt the menace as he was walking through the drying wood stacks. He did not wonder that his brother had expected to see a ghost. Jai had the dog with him, that was the saving grace, but even he didn’t want to live here forever.

Ikash said, “What if you were to reconcile with my wife’s older sister?”

Jai stopped dead in his ranting and his long dark eyes looked sideways.

“Is that even possible?”

“Perhaps,” said the shaman. He had not spoken with Amal and knew little about her mental state.

“She insists that I not blame her for our sister leaving. But I have to. She mistreated Klee horribly. I didn’t think it meant so much at the time – she never beat her – but I was wrong. Girls are more sensitive, brother. All it takes to drive them away is words. Now I can’t believe that I let Amal turn her against me. I wish I had put a stop to it at once.”

“How would you have done that, brother?”

“I … don’t know.”

Silence descended as both brothers slowly realized that if Jai had tried to put a stop to it, it would only have brought on this very situation several years earlier.

“I’ve been a terrible father,” said Jai.

“You are not finished being a father.”

“To Klee.”

“You gave her a home, kept her fed and clothed, kept her alive as she grew. Now she is grown and gone. Married. As she would have done in any case.”

“That is true, brother.”

“Do you remember when we were young and we wanted to get out and explore?”

Jai got a fierce, faraway look and said nothing. After a moment he said, “Are you saying that I haven’t failed her?”

“Perhaps not as completely as she thinks.”

“But she hates Amal and me.”

“But she is alive and whole.”

“You are right,” said Jai. “Let her hate us if it makes her happy. I am still her brother.”

“She hates me, too,” said Ikash helpfully.

“And you hate our father.”

“No, brother, I don’t.”

“Well, you think he is dangerous, and a bad man.”

“In many ways, he is.”

“He was a great father,” said Jai. “I still don’t know how his house got so sad and ghosty. I can’t understand it.” He shook his head silently for a few moments, and then said, “Brother … I feel as if …” And then with a very fierce look, “Do not mock me.”

“I won’t.”

“I feel as if,” said Jai, stroking the dog and not meeting his brother’s eye, “As if, were I to … truly let Klee go … I’d be failing our mother. Again.”

And Ikash took a sharp breath as if he had been stabbed, but did not reply.

This was too big a matter for words, so the two of them sat in silence a time.

“But she is grown,” said Jai then. “Not dead, but grown. Do you really think I can reconcile with my wife?”

“Maybe it is possible,” said the shaman carefully. “I think … I think it might be necessary that the two of you stop talking about Klee. I know that … I realize what that … means to you. But you may need to do it if you want to reconcile with your wife. Perhaps you can sort of … start over.”

Jai’s face softened. “Start over,” he murmured. “If she agrees to start over …, would you do some sort of ceremony for us?”

“I’d be honored.”

His intercession did not make all come right immediately. But Jai began to make overtures towards reconciling with Amal. In the early summer, Ikash did a reconciliation ceremony for his brother and sister-in-law that involved smoke and sacrifices. Everyone was as happy as if it were a wedding. At that time, it had been exactly a year since Klee found out the truth about her parentage.

Not long after this, the tribe performed on Endu’s house what might be described as an extreme form of spring cleaning. The seasoned wood was removed and re-stacked in a dry outdoor location, with a temporary cattail roof overhead to protect it from rains. The house itself was then dismantled. Some of the timber was salvaged, but most of it, the “ghosty” part, was burned. Ikash performed a purifying ceremony over the land where the house had been. The newly seasoned timber was then used to make a tribal meeting hall. The remnants of Endu’s house were used in a remodeling project that Jai and Amal were undertaking.