I'm reading Frances Yates' tantalizing "Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic tradition".
My biased synthesis of chapter 1.
1. Hermes Trismegistus
1. Recorso - The great forward movement of the Renaissance derived its vigour from loking at the past. Man's history was seen as a perpetual cycle of golden, brazen and iron ages and back. The word Renaissance itself meant that progress was only possible through revival.On the one hand, the classical humanist longed for the return of the golden age of civilization. On the other, the religious reformer wanted to recover the pure gold of the original gospel. Yet the focus on a golden age of magick was based on an error in dating.
2. 3rd century AD - The works which inspired de magii were not the source which inspired Plato but were really from the 3rd century AD. The alleged writings of Hermes Trismegistus were written by unknown authors in the Gnostic culture of early Christianity. Cicero wrote there were five meruries, the last one killed Argos and consequently fled to Egypt where he took the name of Thoth. A large body of Greek litterature developped under the name of Hermes Trismegistus. Some texts were philosophical, others magickal. The most famous works linked to this name, the Asclepius and the Corpus Hermeticum were probably written between 100 and 300 AD. Although cast in a pseudo-Egyptian framework they were not written by an Egyptian priest but by various unknown Greek authors. The main philosophy is Platonic and Stoic, with some Jewish and Persian influences.
3. Asclepius and Pimander - The Asclepius describes how Egyptians cast down the powers of the universe into statues of their gods. The Pimander, the first of the 15 boks in the Corpus Hermeticum, gives an account of the creation of the world. The Corpus itself was probably combined later on from several loose texts.
4. Failure of reason - The world in which these were written was the peaceful environment of the Pax Romana. Bureaucracy was very efficient and culture was based on the 7 liberal arts. Greek philosophy had stalled, maybe because it had never come around to an experimental verification of it hypotheses (a paradigm starting in the 17th century). The old Platonic, Stoic and Epicurean theories were being repeated without progress. So the scholar world turned to other methods of cognition. Reason had failed, so the Nous or intuition was cultivated.
5. Path to illumination - Philosophy had to be used as a path to reach an intuitive gnosis of the world and the divine. Hermetic treatises often took the form of a dialogue between a master and a disciple and culminated in the illumination of the adept. Illumination here is usually reached through contemplation of the cosmos as reflected in one's own Nous or Mens. This undercurent of Platonic and Stoic thought became a cult without temples nor liturgy: a philosophical religion.
6. Recorso bis - In the second century, just as in the Renaissance later on, people were convinced the earliest thinkers walked closer to the gods than their contemporary counterparts; hence the Pythagorean revival.
7. Egypt - Oriental cults were also considered more holy than the Greek. Above all, the Egyptian cult was revered. Pilgrimages to remote Egyptian temples were organised. The belief that Greek philosophers received their knowledge from and Egyptian source, predominant amongst Greek scholar in the first century AD, is reflected in the Asclepius.
8. Illusion - The hermetic writings fostered the illusion of the Renaissance magus that he had discovered in them an account of ancient Egyptian wisdom, recorded by a real person named Hermes Trismegistus. This huge historical error was to have enormous consequences.
9. Lactantius - The main authorities who accepted him as a real person were leading church fathers, mainly Lactantius in the 3rd century and Augustine in the 4th. Mentions in the (original Greek and lost version of ) Asclepius of 'the one true god' were quoted by Lactantius, who considered HT an admirable scholar and hereby used pagan wisdom to support Christianity. In the same book the Demiurge is named 'the son of god' which was read as a prophecy. Lactantius also cites the Sibylline oracles (really of Jewish origin, and manipulated by early Christians) to testify of the coming of Christ. Obviously, in order to work as a prophecy, these hermetic writings had to predate the coming of Christ.
10. Apuleius - The Latin translation of the Asclepius was attributed erroneously to Apuleius of Madaura, a highly educated scholar born in 123 AD in Carthage who saught salvation in the Egyptian occult lore. He is famous for his novel 'the golden ass' in which a man is transformed by witches into an ass, and after many sufferings has an epiphany in a dream of goddess Isis. He turns human again and becomes a priest of Isis in Egypt.
11. Augustine - Augustine on the other hand condemned HT in his De Civitate Dei. He refers to the Latin translation of the Asclepius where false idols are revered by the Egyptians. For Augustine, Apuleius was a Platonist, and Plato was impious because of his benign view on daemones. He criticizes the god-making passage in the Asclepius where daemones are cast magickally into Egyptian statues. Still, for Augustine too, HT was a prophet, albeit inspired by demons. In the Asclepius' description of the end of the Egyptian religion, augustine sees the end of idolatry and the start of Christianity.
12. The pious 16th century - Several pious hermeticists of the 16th century adopted the view that the idolatrous passages in Asclepius came from the alleged translator, Apuleius. Bruno took a bolder course in maintaining that that the ancient Egyptian religion was the only true one, obscured later on by the Jewish and Christian fallacy. The similarities between Genesis and Pimander urged hermeticists to try to date HT in relation to Moses.
13. Corpus Hermeticum - In 1460 a monk employed by Cosimo de Medici to collect manuscripts brought an incomplete Greek copy of the Corpus Hermeticum to Florence. Cosimo ordered his translator Ficino to stop at once working on Plato and translate this manuscript first. For the first time the complete works of Plato had been collected and were ready for translation, yet absolute priority was give to this collection of hermetic writings. Both Cosimo and Ficino knew the Latin Asclepius, which they believed to be much older than Plato. Renaissance's respect for the old as being closer to truth demanded that the Corpus Hermeticum should be translated before the Republic.
14. Pimander - Ficino gave the title 'Pimander' meaning 'divine mind' to the complete corpus. In his dedication he describes HT as an Egyptian priest, the nephew of Mercury, himself a nephew of Prometheus, a physicist contemporary of Moses. HT taught Orpheus, who taught Aglaophemus, who taught Pythagoras, who taught Philolaus, the teacher of Plato. In this genealogy of wisdom HT comes first. Further on, Ficino claims HT revealed arcane mysteries in his prophecies. Ficino tried his best to circumvent Augustine's condemnation and emphasized the views of Lactantius. Ficino ends his introduction by claiming that by reading Pimander, you could learn to rise above the deceptions of the senses and the clouds of fantasy, so the divine mind might flow into yours and illuminate; a view which was accepted throughout the Renaissance. The piety found in the Corpus Hermeticum confirmed the high opinion of HT by Lactantius and rehabilitated the Asclepius.
15. The Renaissance Magus - Ficino's Pimander had an enormous distribution. In contrast to the medieval sorcerer, the Renaissance magus was often highly respected as a philosopher, probably under the influence of the flood of Byzatine literature which made people realize how much early Christianity mingled with the occult. HT's literature wasn't the onnly one to be badly misdated: Zoroaster's 'Chaldean oracles', also considered a parangon of wisdom in the Renaissance, actually was written in the 2nd century AD.
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