The figure of Hermes Trismegistus, the Thrice Great Hermes, looms large in the Western esoteric tradition. Born from the fusion of the Greek and Egyptian spiritual traditions, the writings attributed to this great sage had a decisive effect on the Renaissance. Marsilio Ficino, the great Renaissance philosopher and astrologer, was asked by his Medici patron to put aside all other work to translate the Corpus Hermeticum, series of treatises attributed to Hermes Trismegistus. The availability of the complete Corpus Hermeticum in Latin set off an explosion of interest in Hermetic philosophy and the three allied esoteric fields of astrology, alchemy and magic.
From the time of its first emergence in the great free trade zone of the Roman imperium, epitomized in the teeming city of Alexandria, filled as it was with Greeks, Jews, Egyptians and all of the myriad races and cultures of the Mediterranean, whenever the Zeitgeist, or Spirit of the Age, turns to Hermeticism there is a surface effulgence of art, literature and culture as well as a hidden flowering of the esoteric arts. This phenomenon was the hidden current in the Renaissance and we are experiencing a similar rebirth in our own age.
The summary of any philosophy or esoteric movement suffers an inevitable loss of meaning, but we can begin by seeing Hermeticism as a practical method of gnosis, i.e. direct knowledge of the Divine. The true nature of each of us is Divine and we can, through a process of purification, learning and initiation, come to have an actual experience of the One.
A key tenet of Hermeticism is the Unity of the Cosmos and the sympathy and interconnection of all things. Without this unity we could not accomplish the mystic union, but it also makes possible the spiritual connection, without which magic, astrology and alchemy could not function.
The Traditional View of Hermes Trismegistus
This extract is from Francis Barrett's The Magus:
HERMES Trismegistus, (who was the author of the divine Pymander and some other books,) lived some time before Moses. He received the name of Trismegistus, or Mercurius ter Maximus, i. e. thrice greatest Intelligencer, because he was the first intelligencer who communicated celestial and divine knowledge to mankind by writing.
He was reported to have been king of Egypt; without doubt he was an Egyptian; nay, if you believe the Jews, even their Moses; and for the justification of this they urge, 1st, His being well skilled in chemistry; nay, the first who communicated that art to the sons of men; 2dly, They urge the philosophic work, viz. of rendering gold medicinal, or, finally, of the art of making aurum potabile; and, thirdly, of teaching the Cabala, which they say was shewn him by God on Mount Sinai: for all this is confessed to be originally written in Hebrew, which he would not have done had he not been an Hebrew, but rather in his vernacular tongue.
But whether he was Moses or not 1, it is certain he was an Egyptian, even as Moses himself also was; and therefore for the age he lived in, we shall not fall short of the time if we conclude he flourished much about the time of Moses; and if he really was not the identical Moses, affirmed to be so by many, it is more than probable that he was king of Egypt; for being chief philosopher, he was, according to the Egyptian custom, initiated into the mysteries of priesthood, and from thence to the chief governor or king.
He was called Ter Maximus, as having a perfect knowledge of all things contained in the world (as his Aureus, or Golden Tractate, and his Divine Pymander shews) which things he divided into three kingdoms, viz. animal, vegetable, and mineral; in the knowledge and comprehension of which three he excelled and transmitted to posterity, in enigmas and symbols, the profound secrets of nature; likewise a true description of the Philosopher's Quintessence, or Universal Elixir, which he made as the receptacle of all celestial and terrestrial virtues. The Great Secret of the philosophers he discoursed on, which was found engraven upon a Smaragdine table, in the valley of Ebron.
Medievel Sun Johannes Functius, in his Chronology says, he lived in the time of Moses, twenty-one years before the law was given in the wilderness. Suidas seems to confirm it by saying, "Credo Mercurium Trismegistum sapientem Egyptium floruisse ante Pharaonem." But this of Suidas may be applied to several ages, for that Pharaoh was the general name of their kings; or possibly it might be intended before the name of Pharaoh was given to their kings, which, if so 1, he makes Trismegistus to exist 400 years before Moses, yea, before Abraham's descent into Egypt.
There is no doubt but that he possessed the great secret of the philosophic work; and if God ever appeared in man, he appeared in him, as is evident both from his books and his Pymander; in which works he has communicated the sum of the abyss, and the divine knowledge to all posterity; by which he has demonstrated himself to have been not only an inspired divine, but also a deep philosopher, obtaining his wisdom from God and heavenly things, and not from man.
Francis Barrett, The Magus, page 150-1.
Does the Date of the Writing of the Corpus Hermeticum Matter?
Medievel Trismegistus The modern received "wisdom" with regard to Hermetic philosophy, particularly as it was seen in the Renaissance is that while Renaissance humanism, which hearkened back to classical Latin rhetoric and literature, was historically rooted, Renaissance Hermeticism, "...the return to a pure golden age of magic, was based on a radical error in dating." Francis Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, (UChicago, 1964) at 1.
That the traditional dating of the Corpus Hermeticum as contemporaneous with Moses was in error had been discovered by Issac Casaubon in 1614 who noted various anachronisms and established by the style and vocabulary that they were not early Greek works. Yates, at 400. A date of the 2nd to 4th centuries A.D. is now generally accepted as the date of the earliest known versions of the Corpus Hermeticum. Casaubon's view that the Corpus Hermeticum was, "...made up partly from the writings of Plato and the Platonists and partly from Christian sacred books." is also the currently scholarly opinion of the origin of the Corpus. Finally since the Renaissance philosophers and mages accepted the Corpus only because it was ancient and its antiquity has been, "debunked" as Yates puts it, it has been asserted that the whole Hermetic phenomenon was built on a lie.
By examining Barrett's biography of Hermes Trismegistus we can see how this argument is flawed. Barrett's account shows that even in the traditional view that the dating of Trismegistus is not entirely clear. But, as Barrett notes, "there is no doubt but that he possessed the great secret of the philosophic work; and if God ever appeared in man, he appeared in him, as is evident both from his books and his Pymander." Francis Barrett, The Magus, page 150-1. The value of Hermeticism in the traditional view was not as a historical record, but as inspired Divine wisdom and a signpost on the mystic path to Divine union.
This points up the deeper problem that moderns must, of necessity, have with the Corpus. The Modern World View is an atheistic and materialistic one. "Rational" thought must a priori dismiss the possibility of the active intervention of the spiritual and the Divine in the Material World, which is, of course, the only true Reality. The true flaw of the Hermeticism is its affirmation that gnosis and mystic union are actually possible.
It is certainly useful to have an accurate historical perspective on the Corpus Hermeticum. We need not fall into the error of some more naive Masons who insist on the literal truth of Masonic ritual asserting that Solomon wore a white lambskin apron with compass and square at the building of the Temple. On the other hand, we need sufficient sophistication to be able to judge for ourselves the quality of knowledge on its own terms, without relying on its age or the authority of those who communicate it. The fact that the world's biggest fool says it's raining is no evidence that the sun is shining and we would be best advised to look out the window ourselves.
My experience is that, having followed the Hermetic preparatory studies of astrology and magic (alchemy no doubt also works, but I have not been inspired to study it) that Hermetic philosophy accurately describes Reality. Not only that, but I am convinced that Hermeticism is a Practical Path to Gnosis.