The Theology of the Hermetica and its influence on Giordano Bruno

© Kile Jones 2007

“Your reasoning is irrefutable, Trismegistus”[1]

 

            The pagan intellectual tradition comprised in the Hermetica is one of immense importance for the study of classical philosophy and theology.  Not only does the Hermetica give insight into the social environment of the early C.E. centuries of Alexandria but it specifically sheds light on the various philosophical and religious schools of the day, such as, Neo-Platonism, Gnosticism, Orphism, and Pythagoreanism.  The Hermetica, properly understood, is a 2nd and 3rd century C.E. compilation of pseudopigraphal dialogues between Hermes Trismegistus and his various listeners on Theology Proper, the nature of the cosmos, and the nature of the soul.[2]  Trismegistus (thrice-blessed), so the legend goes, was a pre-Mosaic, Egyptian priest who aided in the construction of the pyramids, who, up until the critical textual methods of the late Renaissance thinkers, was considered genuine.  Only through the eventual usage of modern historiographical methods have scholars of the Hermetic movement agreed that the Hermetica was most likely composed by numerous authors over various times, much like Homer’s Iliad.

            As was just mentioned, the Hermetica is of vast importance for understanding the pagan intellectual movement of the first couple of centuries after the advent of Christ.  This paper is going to cover the various historical and philosophical movements which aid in our understanding the theology of the Hermetica and its influence on Giordano Bruno’s thought.  If we are to understand the various medieval movements in Christendom, the continuation of the hermetic movement, or the introduction of Alchemy, Magic, and the Occult in Renaissance Europe, specifically culminated in Bruno’s thought, we must first understand their roots, which are seen clearly in the Hermetica.    

Historical Introduction

            The Hermetica was written at a time during significant historical milestones which must be taken into consideration in order to understand the thought contained within it.  Alexander had, through his various conquests, brought Greek learning into Egypt ushering in the famous Hellenistic age.  His general Ptolemy became his successor, ruling and forming the Egypt once ruled by the Pharaohs, turning the ancient land into a modern day Athens.  His Hellenization of Egypt left many Egyptians looking back upon their golden age, when Egypt had prospered and contributed the great religious and cultural distinctives we now look back at in wonder.  The Demotic Chronicle, for instance, contains anti-Greek sentiments while looking forward to an Egyptian ruler, one fragment notes: “They say ‘A man of Herakleopolis is the one who will rule after the foreigners and the Greeks.  Take joy, oh High Priest of Harsaphes!’”[3] 

The Herods, a few centuries later, developed the Jewish state within the Roman province of southern Israel.  Constructing a Jewish vassal-state within the Roman Empire was not an easy task.  Often times the Herods were at odds with the Romans and their bureaucratic political structure.  They likewise faced troubles from their own countrymen who saw them as Roman tyrants.  This was understandable, given that the first Herod, Herod the Great, ordered for the death of every Jewish male under the age of two in fear that the Messiah was amongst them.[4]  The Herods along with the Jewish state ended with the Great Revolt and the eventual destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in 73 C.E. 

 Priori, during, and subsequently after the destruction of Jerusalem, Christianity emerged as a strong historical movement with its own view of politics, social ethics, and spirituality.  The Hellenized form of Christianity is what was around in the Alexandria of the Hermetica; the Neo-platonic Theology Proper of Origen, the philosophical logos of Clement, and the science of Didymus.  These strands of thinking permeated the intellectual atmosphere of Alexandria and reveal the climate in which the Hermetica was composed.  Therefore as we understand the text of the Hermetica we must keep in mind these various intellectual circles and the possibility of their influence in the formation of this highly intellectualized Neo-Platonic paganism.

The Hermetica

            As was mentioned before, the Hermetica is a compilation of Neo-Platonic dialogues between Hermes Trisgemestus and various listeners, better understood as initiates.  Hermes spends most of his time on the nature of God, the character of the human soul and mind, and the intellectual ascendance that must be achieved in order for proper knowledge to come about.  Early on in the Hermetica we see what the prize is for the correct worshippers of God: “They rise up to the father in order and surrender themselves to the powers, and having become powers, they enter into god.  This is the final good for those who have received knowledge: to be made god.”[5]  This process of theosis (humans becoming god) is not simple in any sense of the term, on the contrary, it involves deep contemplation, spiritual direction from a learned sage, and magical incantations, to name only a few methods.  The Renaissance magicians would add to the various steps of achieving theosis, natural science.  Yet it was this idea which pushed scholars like Bruno to contemplate the implications of speculative philosophy, astrology, and magic.  The goal was that if one could properly understand the order of the cosmos and align themselves with the divine essence within the cosmos, one could ascend to some form of godhood. 

Panentheism

One common theological strand within the Hermetica is the common notion of panentheism (i.e. the world inside of god).  The cosmos, according to Hermes, are located inside of God; God is not identical with the world (pantheism), and not transcendent to the world (theism), but the world is part of God.  There are numerous instances of this theology:

Hermes tells Asclepius that “all things that exist are in god” and that “nature has been established in the divine.”[6]  Similarly, like God, the cosmos is eternal: “If the cosmos is a second god and an immortal living thing, it is impossible for any part of this immortal living thing to die.”[7]  Since the world is inside of God it is eternal and alive; according to Hermes there is a vitality and life-force throughout the cosmos that should be embraced and entered into.  These various forces that swirl through the material cosmos are occult forces, and through connecting with them one could look beyond the deception of the physical world and realize the divine unity of all things.

The Limitation of the Material

            Even though the material world is thought of as part of God there is nevertheless a hindering aspect of the material.  In good old fashion Neo-Platonic and Gnostic thought, the cosmos is bifurcated into two realms: the immaterial realm consists of mind, reason, intellect, good, spirit, angels, demons, and God, while the material realm consists of ignorance, confusion, brutality, evil, and fleshly passions.  In the Hermetica this point is made quite clear when Hermes tells Asclepius that

Only the name of the good exists among mankind-never the fact.  It cannot exist here.  Material body, squeezed on all sides by vice, sufferings, pains, longings, angry feelings, delusions and mindless opinions, has no room for the good.[8]    

  

 

            

 

Not far after this passage Hermes describes the physical body as “the garment of ignorance, the foundation of vice, the bonds of corruption, the dark cage, the living death.”[9]  Clearly the authors of the Hermetica had a dualism of mind over matter which contributed to their overall theology of God and his magical working in the world.  What this anti-material theology meant was that one had to rise above the ignorant thinking of the material world and ascend into true intellectual gnosis, which could only be achieved through the various methods described earlier.

Knowledge as Power and Salvation

            Since the world is both part of God and materially confining, the cure of such an epistemic confinement is knowledge: knowledge of the world, humankind, magic, leading to knowledge of the mind of God.  Hermes, in his famous ‘sacred discourse’, describes what humankind was created for: they were created to “contemplate heaven…the works of god and the working of nature…to know divine power.”[10]  This mystical and intellectual contemplation was at the same time the acquiring of knowledge about the universe and God.  There was, in Hermes mind, a book of knowledge written in nature which, when understood, yielded immeasurable knowledge; knowledge which in turn imparted power to secrets, magic, and divination.  The idea that knowledge of the world and its workings yielded power over the mind and nature lead many in the Renaissance to scientific inquiry and investigation.  One of the most prominent scholars, and the one to which we will now turn is Giordano Bruno.

            

Bruno’s Life and Influences

            Giordano Bruno was born in Nola, Italy in 1548, son to soldier in the Italian army.  Early in his life Bruno became fascinated with philosophy, theology, and the art of memory, for which, at the young age of fifteen, he committed himself to the Dominican Order.  After ordination as a Catholic priest, Bruno fled Italy with word of the inquisition and eventually abandoned the Dominican Order to become, at least for a short time, a Calvinist.  Shortly after this Bruno moved to Paris in order to avoid what he felt was the religious fanaticism of both Catholics and Protestants.  In Paris, Bruno lectured on philosophy and theology and became well known for his outstanding memory (to which some attributed it to magical powers).  During this time Bruno formulated his various beliefs on the infinity of universes, the magical powers in nature, and the immanent ontology of God.  In Venetia, while waiting for a position as professor, Bruno taught in house lectures to the Mocenigo family, who eventually finding distaste for him, turned him over to the inquisition for heresy.  Upon being transferred to Rome, Bruno was found guilty of heresy against the Church for which he was burned at the stake on February 17, 1600. 

Bruno’s Overarching Goal

            Giordano Bruno thought of himself as the new embodiment of the ancient Egyptian sages who followed the line of Hermes.  Bruno felt that he was the prototype of the new triumphant man, who, with Copernican astronomy in one hand, and hermetic knowledge in the other, dove into the hidden knowledge of the universe.  Bruno, who by our standards might be considered egotistical, spoke of himself as the one who has “given eyes to blind moles, and illuminated those who could not see their own image…he has loosened the mute tongues…he has strengthened the crippled limbs.”[11]  Bruno felt that he had arrived at the knowledge of the universe which elevates humanity into divinity; Frances Yates, one of the foremost scholars on Bruno, describes his self discovery:

Thus it is as man the great miracle, knowing himself to be of divine origin, that Bruno soars into the infinite to grasp and draw into himself the newly revealed reflection of infinite divinity in a vastly expanding universe.[12]  

 

Thus the overarching goal of Bruno was that humankind would, by understanding the nature and workings of the universe, realize their own divinity and rise above the restricting medieval rankings of God first, humanity second, and the cosmos third.  This agenda clearly harkens back to Hermes proclaiming that the greatest knowledge is to “be made god.”  How Bruno attempts to achieve this goal of illuminating humanity is by reminding them of God and their relationship to him.

Bruno’s Theology Proper

            To Bruno, God is not some transcendent entity who is distinct and separate from the world.  Bruno, in his famed Cause, Principle, and Unity, assumes the role of Teofilo, who through dialogue with his companions, imparts to them the proper way of thinking about God’s relationship to the world; while discussing God, Bruno, through the character of Teofilo, equates God with the ‘universal intellect’ and ‘world soul’:

                                                                                                                                             

 

The universal intellect is the innermost, most real and most proper faculty or potential part of the world soul.  It is that one and the same thing that fills everything, illuminates the universe and directs nature to produce her various species suitably.[13]

 

Similarly, Bruno describes God as the “intrinsic principle” of the cosmos which causes its movement.[14]  Clearly this theology resounds with the teachings of the Hermetica that “all things that exist are in god.”  Bruno believed that the cosmos were infinite, yet united as one, which led to the identity of God and the world.  Antonio Calcagno, speaking on Bruno’s metaphysics, has this to say:

Bruno’s logic of cause and effect is interesting in that he makes the relationship between God and the creation one of identity.  God and the universe are both infinite.  Ultimately, because of this relationship of identity, one can see why Bruno had to admit that God is all things and all things are God.[15] 

 

What Calcagno correctly realizes is that Bruno, due to his cosmology, had to associate God and the world as ontologically identical.  How this ties into Bruno’s Renaissance idealism is that if God and the world are identical, and we as humans are part of the world, then logically we are part of God, and thus divine.  Yet we do not always recognize our true nature, which is where Bruno’s anthropology comes in. 

Bruno’s Anthropology

            Even though humanity and divinity are identical there still remains an overall epistemological lack on the part of humanity.  Bruno saw this as due, at least in part, to the negative teachings of the medieval scholastics who put an insurmountable chasm between God (infinity) and humanity (finitude).  There was a sort of Dark Age when the wisdom of the Egyptians, the Neo-Platonists, and the Hermetics was lost in time; yet it was with the ushering in of the Age of Science and the radical advances in astronomy that the golden age would be brought back, and Bruno was its spokesman.  To Bruno, humans were to become super-humans through their ability to scientifically extract the meaning from the book of nature.  Bruno was very fond of Copernicus, even to the point of attributing to his messianic descriptions; for instance, Bruno refers to Copernicus as having a “divinely ordained appearance” which was to “precede the full sunrise of the ancient and true philosophy after its age long burial in the dark caverns of blind and envious ignorance.”[16]  Bruno thought of Copernicus as a John the Baptist character that would usher in the great day of awakening, when humanity became God by utilizing their full scientific and magical power.  Blossom Feinstein compares Bruno’s anthropology to “Alberti, Goethe, Wordsworth, Nietzsche, G.M. Hopkins, [and] D.H. Lawrence” because it emphasizes “the connectedness of God and man.”[17]  This ‘connectedness’ is where Bruno and other Renaissance magicians parted ways with orthodox Christianity by identifying God with the cosmos and the cosmos with humanity, and thus humanity with God. 

 

 

         

 

Bruno’s View of Knowledge

It is clear upon analyzing the thought of Bruno that he derives some of his theology and anthropology from the Hermetica.  His views on knowledge could be said to do the same thing.  For Bruno, knowledge is not some distant objective data to which we must mentally assent to, rather, it is that which, when understood correctly, yields incredible amounts of power and progress.  Humanity was not to simply be an epistemic on-looker, but to engage with the cosmos by diving into its rich and buried treasures, looking for profit.  Bruno thus finds himself as the ideal Renaissance man, who views the world as alive and open to discovery, humanity as the agent which must lay hold of cosmological knowledge, and God as that connecting force which binds us to nature and to himself.  Here is where Bruno engages with the Hermetic telos; humanity was to “contemplate heaven…the works of god and the working of nature…to know divine power” and if any maxim could be put forth which best describes Bruno’s program it would be this. 

Criticism of Bruno

            Although Bruno could easily be lumped together with some of the most ingenious minds of the Renaissance, it should likewise be told that there are sharp criticisms of Bruno’s worldview.  These criticisms are modern in origin and reveal the great amounts of changes which have taken place within the last centuries.  One criticism, which applies to the whole of Hermetic philosophy, is the assumption of anything metaphysical.  With the establishment of modern scientific method, the spiritual, or anything not empirically observable, cannot be counted as justified, scientific knowledge.  This is not to say that one cannot hold these views or provide for them rational arguments, but it is to say that what is by nature beyond the scope of observable data cannot be proven in the same way that other facts of experience are proven.  Here is where modern philosophy of science would part ways with the spiritually minded Renaissance scientists.  Bruno, for instance, although he contributed greatly to the study of memory, astronomy, and philosophy of science, cannot be considered a ‘scientists’ in the modern sense of the term.  Bruno’s Hermeticism, occultism, magic, theology, idealism, and various other philosophical speculations instantly place him in a periphery academic category; whether this is warranted or not is another paper altogether.

Contributions of Bruno

            As much as Bruno might be considered an oddity to our modernized conception of an academic, nonetheless, his great achievements towards freedom of speech, astronomy, and philosophy of science were of enormous impact and helped shift the history of science as we know it.  If we are to commend Bruno for anything, we must commend him for his belief in the freedom of speech.  H. James Birx has noted that “Bruno's iconoclastic ideas and unorthodox perspectives remain a symbol of creative thought and free inquiry”,[18] and even up to the present time Bruno is considered one of the great champions of the freedom of speech.  Not only did Bruno hold unorthodox views at the risk of Catholic inquisition, but what is most striking is that he spoke of them.  Bruno could not tolerate the epistemological choke-hold that Catholicism had put people into; he likewise could not stand the Aristotelian and scholastic intellectual aristocracy that was not open to new discovery and which shunned all forms of perceived dissent.[19]  This distaste for Catholic fundamentalism became a tradition of its own, with men like Hume and Voltaire as its champions.

            Not only did Bruno contribute to the eventual downfall of dogmatism with the arrival of free thought and toleration, he also supplied the necessary impetus for philosophy of science to take flight.  What Bruno is mainly noted for in philosophy is his theory of infinite universes.  “The whole of Bruno’s philosophy”, Dorothea Singer goes as far to say, “is based on his view of an infinite universe with an infinity of worlds”;[20] this may seem like an overtly strong reduction, but upon reading his works one finds this theory to be of central significance.  What Bruno gave philosophy of science was a daring cosmology that reinterpreted Copernican theory, adding onto it Lucretius’ arguments and Nicholas of Cusa’s metaphysics, which produced a new and dazzling system altogether.  Even if one disagrees with Bruno’s theories altogether, even still, that person must appreciate the pioneering work of Bruno which eventually opened up new avenues of thought and slowly decayed the iron wall of scholasticism. 

            Lastly, one of the great contributions, and the one to which this paper mainly focuses on, is Bruno’s influence on Hermeticism.  With the revival of Hermeticism and Occult philosophy, specifically by Henry Agrippa’s voluminous writings and Marsilio Ficino’s Latin translation of the Hermetica, Bruno was able to synthesize, formulate, and promote what may be considered a highly Hermetic worldview.[21]  Bruno’s insistence that humanity must rise to divinity, that God and the cosmos are ontologically connected, and that knowledge of one’s nature and the world produces psychic salvation, leave Bruno categorized as the epitome of a Hermetic Renaissance thinker.  Bruno, as this epitome, was able to synthesize ancient Hermetic philosophy, Neo-Platonism, Occult, and Renaissance science into an all encompassing hybrid worldview which proceeded to influence his intellectual progeny. 

Conclusion

            In conclusion, it has been shown how the theology of the Hermetica influenced Giordano Bruno, yet there is another part to this story.  The question now remains as towards the Hermetica and Bruno’s influence in contemporary Hermetic philosophies.  What can be noted here is the great weight that the Hermetica and Bruno’s works have had on intellectual history from the Renaissance to the contemporary philosophical landscape.  They continue the long tradition which urges humanity towards progress, both spiritual and scientific, with the hope that someday discovery will take us to the place we ultimately desire.  The erection of Bruno’s memorial statue in the same location where he was executed by the inquisition reminds us of more than his place in Renaissance history; it speaks of his continuing influence up to the present. 

           

 



[1] Spoken by Asclepius to Hermes Trismegistus, Copenhaver, Brian P., Hermetica, Cambridge University Press: New York, 1992, pg 11

[2] The classical scholar Isaac Casaubon (1559-1614) was the first popular scholar to date the text to 200-300 C.E.  Ever since, scholars have held to this dating period, including modern scholars like Francis Yates and Garth Fowden.

[3] Taken from Janet Johnson’s “The Demotic Chronicle as an Historical Source” found:

here (http://humanities.uchicago.edu/depts/nelc/facultypages/johnson/The_Demotic_Chronicle_as_an_Historical_Source.pdf)

[4] Matthew 2:16

[5] Copenhaver, Brian P., Hermetica, Cambridge University Press: New York, 1992, pg 6

 

[6] Ibid pg 29 and 14

[7] Ibid pg 25

[8] Ibid pg 22

[9] Ibid pg 24

[10] Ibid pg 13

[11] Bruno, Giordano, The Ash Wednesday Supper, 1548, pg 43-44

[12] Yates, Frances, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1964, pg 246

[13] Bruno, Giordano, Cause, Principle, and Unity, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1998, pg 37

[14] Bruno, Giordano, The Ash Wednesday Supper, 1548, pg 109

[15] Calcagno, Antonio, Giordano Bruno and the Logic of Coincidence, Peter Lang Publishing: New York, 1998, pg 165

[16] Bruno, Giordano, The Ash Wednesday Supper, 1548, pg 28

[17] Feinstein, Blossom, Hermeticism, in the Dictionary of the History of Ideas, found at:  virginia.edu (http://etext.virginia.edu/cgi-local/DHI/ot2wwwdhi?specfile=/texts/english/dhi/dhi.o2w&act=text&offset=8145754&query=sterne&tag=HERMETICISM)

[18] Birx, H. James, Giordano Bruno, Harbinger Journal, 1997

[19] Oddly enough, Bruno actually esteemed Thomas Aquinas, who for all intents and purposes was the epitome of an Aristotelian scholastic.  Maybe this is due to them both having Dominican backgrounds, yet even this seems unlikely, for Bruno came to a genuine distaste for Catholicism.  I guess only Bruno knows. 

[20] Singer, Dorothea, Giordano Bruno: His Life and Thoughts, Greenwood Press: New York, 1968, pg 50

[21] Agrippa and Ficino are only a few who influenced Bruno’s Hermetic worldview.  The authors of the Hermetica, Plotinus, Lucretius, Averroes, Nicholas of Cusa, and John Dee may also be counted in their number.