A Very Long Journey


A Jewish historian, Artapanus, living in Alexandria under the Ptolemy, more than 2300 years ago, affirmed that Moses and Hermes Trismegistus were one and the same person. This provocative thesis is obviously controversial. But from the point of view of cultures quietly assuming their « symbiosis » (such as the one prevailing in the vibrant Alexandria of this time), this idea has the merit of being a pungent symptom.

Whether or not he was in fact Moses, the man named Hermes Trismegistus was a remarkable character. Almost two thousand years before Blaise Pascal, Hermes struck a famous formula, quoted in the Asclepius: « God, – a spiritual circle whose center is everywhere, and the circumference nowhere. »

His Poimandrès is also moving by his scope of vision, and the prophetic power of his intuitions. Here are the first lines.

« I was thinking about beings one day; my thoughts hovered in the heights, and all my body sensations were numb as in the heavy sleep that follows satiety, excess or fatigue. It seemed to me that an immense being, without defined limits, called me by name and said to me: What do you want to hear and see, what do you want to learn and know?

– Who are you, I answered?

– I am, he said, Poimandrès, the sovereign intelligence. I know what you want, and everywhere I am with you.

– I want, I replied, to be educated about beings, to understand their nature and to know God.

– Receive in your mind everything you want to know, » he said to me, « I will instruct you.

At these words, he changed his appearance, and immediately everything was discovered to me in a moment, and I saw an indefinable spectacle. »

There is something divine in Hermes, just like in Moses. Why hide it? Today, there are few men of this calibre. Does this make the world more difficult to live in? Less open to wisdom? This can be believed if we stick to Plato’s description of the philosopher.

« This is why the philosopher’s thought is the only winged one; for those higher realities to which he is constantly applied by memory to the extent of his forces, it is to these very realities that God owes his divinity. However, it is by straightforwardly using such means of remembrance that a man who is always perfectly initiated to perfect initiations, becomes, alone, really perfect. But as he departs from what is the object of human concern and applies to what is divine, the crowd shows him that he is disturbed in spirit; but he is possessed of a God, and the crowd does not suspect it! »i

Today, as in the past, the opinion of the crowd often prevails over that of the wise man. But the latter does not care. He is « possessed ».

There is nothing better, in order to understand an era, than to look at the forms of “possession”, of « disturbance », the ways of « delirium », which it condemns or recognizes.

In Poimandrès Hermes gives crucial indications in this regard on the concerns of his time. He describes his own transport in an immortal body, and the ecstasy of his soul.

In the Symposium, Plato recounts the dive of purified souls into the ocean of divine beauty. In the Epinomis, he explains how the soul can be united with God, then living through Him, rather than by herself.

It is difficult not to be struck by the incredible distance between the experience of these ancient thinkers and that of most intellectuals and other publicists at the beginning of the 21st century.

Few, it seems, can still get the faintest idea of what the experience of ecstasy was really like for Moses, for Hermes, or for Socrates.

« Modern thinkers » have almost completely severed the links with these multi-millennial experiments. We see in the media professionals of the sacredness, spokesmen for faith X, religion Y or spirituality Z, parading on stages, pulpits, platforms, or screens, proclaiming themselves guardians of divine laws, imposing sermons and homilies, launching anathema or fatwas.

The modern domain of the « sacred » forms a noisy, blurred, confused scene.This confusion hides a more substantial opacity. The untouched, unsuspected mystery still lies in the depths, much deeper than the spiritual night that surrounds us on all sides. Marsilio Ficino, one of the Renaissance thinkers who best resisted modern desiccation, then in genesis, described an interesting phenomenon, the path of the mind captured by the object of his research:

« By ardently loving this light, even if it is obscurely perceived, these intelligences are completely engulfed in its heat, and once they are engulfed, which is the hallmark of love, they are transformed into light. Strengthened by this light, they very easily become by love the very light they previously tried to follow with their eyes.»ii

Ficino, who seems to have experienced the thing for himself, believes that there are nine possible degrees of contemplation of God. Three are related to his goodness, three are related to his wisdom, and three are related to his power. But these approaches are not equivalent.

“We fear the power of God, we seek his wisdom, we love his goodness. Only the love of his goodness transforms the soul into God.”iii

Why all these ways, then, if there is only one effective? The symbolism of the number 9 is to be taken into account. Virgil used it, too. « The Styx, interposing itself nine times, locks them in. »iv

Ficino quotes Hesiod, Virgil, Ovid, Hermes Trismegistus, Plato. In the middle of the Renaissance, he dreams of the golden age, during which the mysteries had been contemplated.

The intelligence of men is bound and weak. To dream today of a new golden age is to believe once again in a possible leap, a huge leap, from this weakness, towards the vision of the high mysteries, or even their understanding.

The testimony of the great elders on this subject is invaluable. They say the leap is possible. They suggest that this experience is always open to anyone who undertakes this journey with determination. We must rely on the general strengths of universal symbiosis to help us through the difficult stages that await the Argonauts of life. Orpheus warns: « It is impossible to force the gates of the kingdom of Pluto; inside lives the people of dreams.»v

But these doors can be opened, as if by magic. How? Orpheus entrusts his method: « Daughters of Mnemosyne and Jupiter, O famous and illustrious Muses, goddesses who will generate all the arts, nourish the spirit, inspire right thoughts, wisely rule the souls of men and have taught them divine sacrifices; Clio, Euterpe, Thalie, Melpomene, Terpsichore, Erato, Polymnia, Urania and Calliope, come with your august mother; come to us and be favourable to us, bring us the Almighty Glory and Wisdom.»vi

For those who would have a sensitivity to immanence, Orpheus proposes to invoke the « universal substance »:

« I invoke Pan, the universal substance of the world, of the sky, of the deep sea, of the earth of various forms and of the imperishable flame. These are just scattered members of Pan. Pan at the feet of goats, wandering god, master of storms, who drives the stars and whose voice represents the eternal concerts of the world, god loved by herdsmen and pastors who love the clear fountains, fast god who inhabits the hills, friend of sound, dear god of nymphs, god who generates all things, procreative power of the universe.»vii

For those who prefer to put themselves under the shadow of the Law, Orpheus also has a sign:

« I invoke the divine Law, the genius of men and immortals; the heavenly goddess, governing the stars, the common sign of all things, the foundation of nature, the sea and the earth. A constant Goddess, keeping the eternal laws of heaven and faithfully carrying out her immense revolutions; you who grant mortals the benefits of a prudent life and govern all that breathes; you whose wise counsel directs all things according to equity, goddess always favourable to the just, but overwhelming the wicked with severe punishments, sweet goddess who distributes goods with delicious largess, remember us and speak our name with friendship.»viii

The journey has only just begun. It has no end. Any vessel will do, to the one who knows the bearings, even fuzzily. Only imagination and hope are likely to be in short supply. And courage.

i Phaedrus, 249, c-d

iiMarsilio Ficino, Th. Plat. 18,8

iiiIbid.

iv Georg. IV, 480

v Argonaut., 1142

vi Argonaut., 1142

vii Orpheus, Hymns, X

viii Hymns, LXI

Flying Without Wings


Minding one’s own mind is a difficult art. One must juggle with the uncontrolled power of ideas, the tyranny of imagination, the empire of reason, the excesses of imitation, and the probable (in-)adequacy of the mind to reality.

One must also consider the conformation of the soul’s desire to her true end. The soul is basically a mystery to herself. How could she unravel mysteries far from her attainment, when she is evidently unable to understand herself, or to escape the grip of her drifting imagination?

The myth, it seems, may be for the soul an alternative path of research. It is one way to escape the tyranny of the déjà vu and its consequences. A way to set her free, while giving in to her vertigo.

Here is an example.

In the Timaeus, Plato describes the power that the soul exerts over the body, and in the Phaedrus, he deals with the soul liberated from the body.

On the one hand, the soul is in charge of the body into which it has descended. On the other hand, the soul freed from the body travels through the heavens and governs the world. So doing, she binds herself to celestial souls.

Her liberation is accompanied by frankly enigmatic phenomena:

« Where does it come from that the names of mortal and also immortal are given to the living, that is what we must try to say. Every soul takes care of everything that is devoid of a soul and, on the other hand, circulates throughout the whole universe, presenting herself there sometimes in one form and sometimes in another. However, when she is perfect and has her wings, it is in the heights that she walks, it is the whole world that she administers. »i

The soul « has her wings » and is called to administer the « whole world ». What does that mean?

By commenting on this passage, Marsilio Ficino brings it closer to another text by Plato which states in a rather obscure way:

« The need for intelligence and the soul united to intelligence exceeds all necessity. »ii

This comment requires an explanation.

When the soul is liberated, that is, when she leaves the body, she takes advantage of this freedom to unite herself « necessarily » to the intelligence. Why « necessarily »? Because in the spiritual world there is a law of attraction that is analogous to the law of universal attraction in the physical universe. This law is the law of the love that the free soul « necessarily » feels for the (divine) intelligence.

When she unites with the ‘intelligence’, the soul becomes « winged ». She can do anything, including « administering the whole world ».

This explanation doesn’t explain much, actually.

Why is the « perfect » soul, « winged », called to « administer the whole world »?

In reality, the mystery is thickening. The Platonic myth only opens doors to other, more obscure questions.

Two thousand years after Plato, Marsilio Ficino proposed an interpretation of these difficult questions:

“All reasonable souls possess an upper part, spiritual, an intermediate part, rational, a lower part, vital. Intermediate power is a property of the soul. Spiritual power is a ray of higher intelligence projected on the soul, and in turn reflected on the higher intelligence. The vital power is also an act of the soul reflecting on the body and then repercussions on the soul, just as sunlight in the cloud is, according to its own quality, a light, but as it emanates from the sun, is ray, and as it fills the cloud, is whiteness.”iii

The thicker the mystery gets, the more images multiply!

Ray, light and whiteness represent different states of intelligence mixing with the mind (the ray becomes light), and of spirit mixing with the world and matter (light becomes whiteness).

We may also understand that the « ray » is a metaphor of the (divine) intelligence, that the « light » is a metaphor of the power of the (human) spirit, and that whiteness is a metaphor of the vital power of the soul. These images (ray, light, whiteness) have a general scope, – which applies to the world as well as to the mind.

So is the myth.

The myth is like a « light », generated by a « ray » striking the mind, and generating « whiteness » in it (i.e. revelation).

The « ray », the “light”, the “whiteness” are images, metaphors, for the Word (Logos), the Myth (Mythos), and Reason (Logos, again), as various degrees of illumination.

Is this explanation enlightening enough?

If not, you will have to learn to fly, without wings, radar and GPS, in the nights and fogs of the world.

i Phaedrus 246 b,c

iiPlato. Epinomis 982 b

iiiMarsilio Ficino Platonic Theology, 13,4