Hermetic Teachings in the 12th Century

The thinkers of Latin Europe in the 12th century knew about Greek philosophy from certain late Latin commentators, but they had very few translations of original Greek texts.  The Platonists of the circle of Thierry de Chartres made considerable use of part of Chalcidius’ translation of the Timaeus, but there was not much else by Plato, that was available to them in Latin, until the end of the century.[1]  One ‘great sage’ from the Greek past, however, was available, in a work known as the Latin Asclepius.  This supposedly ancient authority was Hermes, the paragon of wisdom achieved through experience and experiment.  (In fact, like other original Hermetic writings, it was composed considerably later than the works of Plato, but it was still a bequest from the classical world.)

The Latin Asclepius seems to have become popular in the West in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, judging from the number of manuscripts remaining.[2]  It was used in Hermann’s De Essentiis, and by Thierry de Chartres and Alain de Lille, and was one of the sources of inspiration for the Cosmographia of Bernardus Silvestris.[3]  Its importance probably lay in the fact that it was the only book available in Latin at that time, dealing specifically with religion, which had no connection with the Judaeo-Christian tradition.  It advocated a basic, un-dogmatic, universal religion, which needed no scriptures, no sacraments and very little ritual.  This work could well have been known to the Amalricians: it would be interesting to see what encouragement it could have provided for them.

God in all things

Hermes sees the creation as a descent from the One to the many:

“Have I not told you this before, that all things are one, and the One is all things, seeing that all things were in the Creator before he created them all?  And rightly has it been said of him that he is all things, for all things are parts of him.”[4]

The Latin words used in this last clause are: “cuius membra sunt omnia.”  All things are limbs (members) of the One.  Amaury de Beynes might have seen this as a universal, philosophical and pantheist counterpart to the particular, scriptural and illuminist doctrine – which, as we know, was important to him – that all Christians are members (limbs) of the body of Christ.

The Asclepius believes that there are three primal, or creative, principles: the One, Matter and Spirit.  Matter nourishes all bodies and Spirit nourishes all souls.[5]  God’s Spirit is in the world as a world-soul, infusing all matter with spirit, according to its natural capacity:

“He whom we name God supreme, a god apprehensible by thought alone, is the ruler of that god perceptible by sense, who embraces within himself all substances and all Matter. […] Spirit, which is subject to the will of the supreme God and serves him as his instrument, is that by means of which are moved or directed all kinds of beings in the universe, each in accordance with the special character assigned to it by God.”[6]

A tentative identification of the world-soul (from Plato’s Timaeus) with the Spirit of God was also made by certain 12th-century Platonists like Thierry de Chartres, Guillaume de Conches and maybe Bernardus Silvestris.[7]

Man’s capacity for divine illumination

From the One to the many there is a great chain of being:

“all things are linked together, and connected one with another in a chain extending from the lowest to the highest.”[8]

Man occupies an extremely important position in the middle, part animal, part divine, capable of comprehending the whole, and able to associate himself with any part of it.[9]  Man is therefore an animal to be honoured and reverenced, because he can become like a god:

“the man who, in virtue of the mind in him, through which he is akin to the gods, has attached himself to them by pious devotion, becomes like to the gods.”[10]

He can, of course, just as easily go the other way and become like a demon.[11]

The spirit of God, which is present in all things according to their capacity, can be present in man as sensus.  This seems to denote sympathetic understanding, something which is sensed emotionally and makes sense rationally: I shall translate it as intelligence.  It is described as a divine gift that illumines the human mind.

“Gross matter (mundus) then is the nutriment of bodies, and spirit (spiritus) is the nutriment of souls.  But besides these, there is intelligence (sensus), which is a gift from heaven, and one with which mankind alone is blessed, – not indeed all men, but those few whose minds are of such quality as to be capable of receiving so great a boon.  By the light of intelligence (sensus), the human mind is illumined, as the world is illumined by the sun, – nay, in yet fuller measure.”[12]

This divine illumination is a never-failing light, so that

“such men’s minds are never again obstructed by the darkness of error.”[13]

Here is the illuminist’s certainty of his possession of the truth within, which is such a prominent feature of the Amalrician profile.  Later on, Hermes twice gives thanks for his own illumination.[14]

The rejection of impersonal, external ‘sacred things’

When Hermes has finished his discourse on divine things, they all go off to pray together, and Asclepius whispers to Tat that they might suggest making an offering of incense and perfumes.  Hermes rebukes him, saying that God wants nothing,

“who is himself all things, or rather, in whom all things are.”[15]

For those who believe that God is in everything and, most importantly, is present within every believer, some external rituals can seem materialist and redundant.  How can some objects be ‘holier’ than others?  For illuminists, the core of real religion is an interior, psychological experience.  The goal of their religion is a personal transformation.  It is not therefore surprising that they reject any attempt to substitute the easy, but empty, veneration of exterior holy objects, places or rituals, for the difficult, but rewarding, personal discipline of prayer, abnegation and contemplation.

Simple pantheism (all things are part of God) and basic illuminism (humans can, with the necessary preparation and study and through contemplative prayer, receive divine illumination) are presented, by the Asclepius, as being the foundations, the underlying truths, on which all religions are built.  Such notions would certainly have been understood, and appreciated, by the Amalricians.

They would not have been alone.  The appeal of the Asclepius as an authority on universal religion, rather than one connected to the Christian tradition, led to anonymous Hermetic works being written in the second half of the 12th century.  They were usually linked to the Platonists of Chartres and Paris, and to the Avicennist translators.  Two anonymous and connected examples will be considered here: The Book of Hermes on the Six Principles of Nature (Liber Hermetis de VI Rerum Principiis)[16] and The Seven Sevens (De Septem Septenis).[17]

The Hermetic books of Six Principles and Seven Sevens

The Book of Hermes on the Six Principles of Nature is interested in astrology (the constellations and the planets, and their effects on earth and on the human constitution), but it also considers the bigger metaphysical picture.  The author makes use of Guillaume de Conches and Hermann the translator,[18] lifting several passages from the work of the former; and he is very close to Bernardus Silvestris, using not just his ideas and phrases, but whole sentences that are word for word the same as his.[19]  (Bernardus Silvestris will be the subject of the piece which immediately follows this one.)  The Book of Six Principles identifies the figure of Natura (who could be called the heroine of the Cosmographia of Bernardus[20]) with a universal life-force, and simplifies the list of actors in Bernardus’ mythical drama to a divine trinity of Cause (the creator), Reason (the mind that put the world in order) and Nature, which is described as “a force which is both universal and particular”[21]:

“this quality of earthly things is called Nature, because this force is, at the same time, innate in all things, and at work in individual things.  It fashions species (in universis artifex) and operates in individuals (in singulis opifex).”[22]

This seems to be an attempt to reconcile 12th-century Platonism with both Christianity and the universal religion that is depicted in the Asclepius.  Cause would presumably be God the Father (the One in the Asclepius); Reason would be Christ, as the creative Word of God (Matter in the Asclepius); and Nature, the universal life-force would be the Holy Spirit, seen as a sort of world-soul present in everything (Spirit in the Asclepius).

The Seven Sevens (De Septem Septenis), written a little later in the century, is another anonymous book, which is often taken to be Hermetic, because it refers repeatedly to Hermes and Hermetic knowledge.  It studies the seven steps to learning, the seven liberal arts, the seven windows of the soul (2 eyes, 2 ears, 2 nostrils and 1 mouth), the seven faculties of the mind (like memory, imagination, reason et al.), the seven virtues (humility, patience etc.) and the seven types of contemplation (meditation, inspiration, revelation and so on).[23]  The unfinished seventh part, on the seven principles of nature, identifies Nature with the world-soul (or the will of God), and calls it “a universal and natural motion”,[24] which joins form to matter, and thus produces actual visible substance.  This created spirit, this natural and universal motion:

“is called nature by Mercury,[25] the world-soul by Plato, fate by others, and God’s ordering of the world by theologians.”[26]

It provides another example of the desire, in certain educated minds at the end of the 12th century, to harmonise Christian truths with what were considered to be universal truths.

It would be interesting to know how unorthodox this thinker was.  He is very careful not to give himself away, claiming that those who know God must not try to express the inexpressible.  Such a sentiment is certainly in the Hermetic tradition, as is his desire to reveal what he means, if only partially:

“Those who have the Spirit of God in themselves, who can hold on to him, and who can see him, because the eye by which God can be perceived has been illumined, they can feel his presence, – not as something else, or in some other form, – they feel him as he is.  This, however, cannot be thought about, because it is unthinkable; it cannot be spoken, because it is ineffable.  It is seen and felt, but not expressed.”[27]

This is a remarkably direct admission of personal mystical union with God.  In which tradition did he learn that?  Had he been trained by Cistercian mystics?  Was this Hermetic enthusiast in contact, perhaps, with the Hermetic mystical tradition attached to alchemy?  Whatever the answer may be, it shows that the Amalricians and the unknown group who produced the Journey of the Soul[28] were not the only Latin clerics to have been initiated into a clandestine illuminist tradition at this time.



[1] R.Klibansky (B.64) pp.22-27; Margaret Gibson (B.64) pp.183-9.
[2] Dannenfeldt, in Kristeller: Catalogus translationum et commentariorum (B.111) vol.1, p.145.
[3] Nock & Festugière (B.64) vol.2, pp.267-8.  For a look at the Cosmographia, see the next piece.
[4] Asclepius sect.2: transl. W.Scott (B.64) vol.1, p.289; ed. A.D.Nock (S.5) vol.2, pp.297-8.
[5] B.P.Copenhaver (B.64) pp.75-77.
[6] Asclepius sect.16-17: transl. Scott (B.64) vol.1, pp.315-7; ed. Nock (S.5) vol.2, p.315.
[7] For Thierry de Chartres, see De sex dierum operibus (S.63) p.193.  For Guillaume de Conches, see Glosulae super Boetium de Consolatione Philosophiae (S.31) p.75: “ille vigor naturalis est Spiritus sanctus […] qui benedicitur anima mundi.”  Guillaume later retracted this statement, but similar views are expressed in his In Timaeum and in his Philosophia.  The figure of Endelechia in Bernardus Silvestris: Cosmographia (S.6) book 1, chap.2, pp.13-14, is a possible example, but see the next piece.
[8] Asclepius sect.19: transl. Scott (B.64) vol.1, p.327; ed. Nock (S.5) vol.2, pp.319-320.
[9]  ibid. sect.6: transl. pp.295-7; ed. pp.301-2.
[10] ibid. sect.5: transl. p.295; ed. p.301.
[11] ibid. sect.5: transl. p.295; ed. p.301.
[12] ibid. sect.18: transl. p.321, – but altered, because W.Scott translates sensus as ‘mind’; ed. p.317. B. Copenhaver translates sensus as ‘consciousness’: (B.64) p.77.  The illumination is “in fuller measure,” because the world is only illumined by the sun for half the time, and left in the dark for half the time.
[13] ibid. sect.18: transl. p.321; ed. p.317.
[14] ibid. sect.32 + 41: transl. p.357 and pp.375-7; ed. p.341 and pp.353-5.
[15] ibid. sect.41: transl. Copenhaver (B.64) p.92; ed. p.352.
[16] Liber Hermetis Mercurii Triplicis de Sex Rerum Principiis (S.52).
[17] De Septem Septenis (S.62).  It has been put, certainly erroneously, among the works of John of Salisbury.
[18] Hermann is sometimes called the Dalmatian, sometimes a native of Carinthia: F.Gabrielli (B.68) p.855; J.Kritzeck (B.68) pp.59-89.
[19] Mark Delp in P.Lucentini & M.Delp (B.64) p. 1 & pp.11-15.
[20] The Cosmographia will be studied in the next piece.
[21] T.Silverstein: Liber Hermetis… (B.64) pp.219-223; text: “Natura quoque vigor quedam est universalis et specialis” (S.52) sent.17 p.248.
[22] De Sex Rerum Principiis (S.52) ed. Silverstein, sent.375, p.282 ; ed. Lucentini, cap.17, p.187: “Hinc rerum temporalium qualitas appellatur natura, quia in universis vis innativa, in singulis operosa comprehenditur; in universis artifex, in singulis opifex comprobatur.”
[23] De Septem Septenis (S.62) sect.1: col.947-8; sect.2: 948-50; sect.3: 950-1; sect.4: 951-4; sect.5: 954-5; sect.6: 955-960.
[24] ibid. sect.7: col.961D: “Spiritus vero creatus, id est motus universalis et naturalis”.
[25] This is a reference to De VI Rerum Principiis: T.Gregory: The Platonic Inheritance… (B.58) p.69.
[26] De Septem Septenis (S.62) sect 7: col.961D-962A: “hic autem spiritus motus est naturalis et universalis. […] Hic igitur motus a Mercurio natura dicitur, a Platone anima mundi, a quibusdam fatum, a theologis divina dispositio appellatur.”
[27] ibid. sect.7: col.963C: “Qui ergo Spiritum Dei in se habent, et Deum habent et Deum vident, quia oculum illuminatum habent, quo Deus videri potest; et sentiunt non in alio vel secundum aliud quod ipse non est, sed ipsum in ipso quod est, quod praesens est.  Nec tamen id cogitari potest, quia incogitabile est, nec dici potest, quia ineffabile est; sed videtur et sentitur et non exprimitur.”
[28] This fascinating Latin Avicennist religious work is studied at the end of the section entitled THE LADDER OF ASCENSION.

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