In his History of Hermetic Philosophy, Father Lenglet Dufrennois described the genesis of Hermetic ideas in a remote, fragmented and diverse Orient. He traces their origin back to Noah, and follows their trace to the Egyptians (with Thoth, son of Osiris, and Siphoas, the « second Thoth », known as « Hermes Trismegistus »), then to Moses, the Greeks, the Arabs (Avicenna), the Persians (Geber, who is considered to have been the first « chemist » in history).
In Europe, from the Middle Ages to modern times, many scholars, philosophers and theologians have dealt with these same questions: Morien, Roger Bacon, Albert le Grand, Arnaud de Villeneuve, Thomas d’Aquin, Alain de Lisle, Raymond Lulle, Pope John XXII, Jean de Meun, Jean de Rupescissa, Nicolas Flamel, Jean Cremer, Basile Valentin, Jacques Cœur, Bernard Trevisan, Thomas Northon, Cardinal Cusa, Tritme.
From the 16th century onwards, the hermetic tradition continued with Jean Aurelio Augurelli, Henri Corneille Agrippa, Paracelse, Georges Agricola, Denis Zacaïre, Edouard Felley, Jean-Baptiste Nazari, Thomas Erastus, Blaise de Vigenère, Michel Sendivogius.
This litany of names, eclectic and far from being exhaustive, has a kind of phatic, incantatory poetry.
Some of them are famous, and rightly so.
Albert the Great (1193-1280) was called a « magician ». Above all, he was a great philosopher and an even greater theologian: « Albertus fled Magnus in Magia, Major in Philosophia and Maximus in Theologia. »
But most of these names smell like library dust, and don’t mean much anymore.
Hermeticism has fallen, if not into complete oblivion, at least into discredit.
In 1854, Louis Figuier could write: « Was Alchemy the most insignia of the madness of men, his study would not yet be to be neglected. It is good to follow the activity of thought down to its strangest aberrations. »
At the beginning of the 3rd millennium, hermeticism remains a fertile ground for the anthropological study of the « secret » and its quest.
Seekers of occult truth used to carefully maintain the darkness of their science and intentions. It was necessary to remain impenetrable to the uninitiated. It was no secret that we wanted to keep the mystery alive. The light was suspicious, the shadow propitious.
« When philosophers speak frankly, I distrust their words; when they explained themselves in riddles, I think, » says Guy de Schroeder.
Arnaud de Villeneuve has much harsher words: « Hide this book in your womb, and do not put it in the hands of the ungodly, for it contains the secret of the secrets of all philosophers. This pearl should not be thrown to the swine, because it is a gift from God. »
The famous Roger Bacon had as a principle « that all the secrets of nature and art that we discovered should be kept hidden, without ever revealing them, because those to whom they would be communicated could abuse them, or for their own loss, or even to the detriment of society. »
Basile Valentin, in his Char de triomphe de l’antimoine, confides: « I have now spoken enough, I have taught our secret in such a clear and precise way, that to say a little more would be to want to sink into hell ».
The fundamental idea, the unique intuition, which has brought together for centuries all these shadow researchers, whether chemists, alchemists, philosophers, theologians, poets, is that there is a « wisdom of the world », which remains to be discovered.
This is a belief still shared by many « modern » people, even those who are most reluctant to think metaphysically.
It is the idea that there is a hidden, deep, difficult to understand, or even unspeakable order that keeps everything together.
If the world « holds together », it is because it has an inner « glue ».
What is this « glue »? What is this hidden « order »? Einstein also believed in the existence of an immanent order. God doesn’t play dice.
This internal order « holds together » the infinitely small and the largest cosmic units. Without this order, the world would not last a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a second. It would disintegrate from the very first moments of the Big Bang, physicists say.
Long before Einstein and modern physicists, Hermeticism said something similar, with the language and forms of another age: « Hermetic Philosophy is nothing other than the Knowledge of the General Soul of the World determinable in its generality and universality »i..
Alchemists have long searched, without apparent success, for the famous « philosopher’s stone ». This « stone » was only a metaphor, or a mirror in which one hoped to see the « wisdom of the world », its « General Soul », which is perhaps another name for the « glue » of the universe.
The philosopher’s stone is a metaphor for the laws of the world. « The stone of philosophers brings help to everyone in need; it strikes man of vain glory, hope and fear; it removes ambition, violence and excess desire; it softens the most severe adversityii « , writes the English alchemist Thomas Norton, towards the end of the 15th century.
Humanist program if ever there was one!
Shortly afterwards, Martin Luther himself gave his approval to « hermetic science » because it offered, he said, magnificent comparisons with the resurrection of the dead on the last day.
In any image, we can find the trace of a desire. To better speak to the people, Luther thought it would be useful to compare the resurrection to an alchemical operation. Hermeticism was still at that time, in all minds, the science of fundamental transmutations, and a vast reservoir of spiritual metaphors.
Today, alchemy is derided, as is the resurrection.
Did our times lose all intuition of the mystery, and the taste of the ultimate secrets?
The anthropology of the secret and the mysteries is linked by a thousand fibers to the litany of the millennia, it is linked to the history of terror and the hopes of the human soul.
We are living in a curious era, which has almost lost the intuition of the last ends, the desire for vision, the sense of excess, even hope.
Would Luther today look for a metaphor of the resurrection in black holes, in dark matter or in dark energy?
i M.I. Collesson. L’idée parfaite de la philosophie hermétique (Paris, 1631)
ii Thomas Norton. Crede mihi