Refer my Blog page on Francis Yates and the Hermetic Tradition by Marjorie G. Jones.
It is perhaps not surprising I was drawn to this title, after reading the above-mentioned Yates bio. Yates gets a few mentions in this one. I will say I think the title is a bit of a misnomer, as it deals more with the concepts than the personage.
If Yates had to re-emphasise the influence of Hermeticism, this book takes that influence for granted and discusses the history of its effects on various thinkers.
This book touches on so many figures from the past, including Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, Cosimo de Medici, Giordano Bruno, Dr Dee, Fludd, Goethe, Mozart, Proust, Swedenborg, Steiner, Jung, etc. etc.
The Hermetic approach accepts the scientific fact that the majority of people's actions are caused by subconscious drives which they have no control over, nor ever will, dealing with a world most of them do not understand, nor ever will. But there is that word "majority", which gives Hermetic thinkers hope they are in the minority.
Then when I met my wife, she had also been reading in the area, although more in the Buddhist and Yoga direction.
I still have my copy of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, along with Timothy Leary's book based on it, The Psychedelic Experience, and Herman Hesse's The Journey to the East.
Yes, I am just another old Hippie!
Much other reading followed, like John C Lilly, but generally leading away from the occult, through mainstream religious philosophy towards a more scientific understanding of consciousness and the mind. I have books by Erich Harth (Windows on the Mind, 1982), Gregory Bateson (Mind And Nature 1979), and Douglas R Hofstadter (Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid 1979, and The Mind's I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul (co-edited with Daniel Dennett) 1981), which all took my thinking in an atheistic direction, pretty much where I am now. I have of course also read many, many more books than those I own. A profile I have somewhere says my reading includes "Evolution, Brain/consciousness, anything on the nature or reality of existence. We are all stardust, but how is it arranged?"
I have my own thoughts on the Hermetic preoccupation with some kind of extra-physical mental function which apprehends some kind of non-brain generated knowledge of the meaning of life, the universe and everything. Nobody seems to be able to admit there is just brain function, folks.
A few rhetorical questions:
Are we to believe that the touch of a surgeon's knife to a patient's brain evoking memories has anything to do with some god turning up just then to produce the sensations?
Are we to spend our lives preoccupied with the futile fantasy that the universe is going to prove amenable to our little incantations, prayers, spells and meditations, via a mechanism yet unknown, unmeasurable, and uncontrollable?
Are people ever going to abandon the fantasy that the human brain somehow inexplicably has properties not shared by ANY OTHER evolved species?
Why is everyone so preoccupied with meaning?
Could it be because the human brain is a meaning-producing organ, known to see animals in clouds, virgins on toast, and hear voices from waterfalls and surf?
Is anyone ever going to accept that there doesn't have to be a meaning behind everything, just because their brain wants to find one?
A question for those attempting to reconcile Hermetic thought with modern thinking:
Why should the scientific theories that gravity's reach is infinite, and that light experiences no time, be interpreted as some kind of proof of an interconnection of meaning in the universe?
Thoughts on some passages:
"Hermes, we remember, is the god of travellers, not of destinations or arrivals, and as the world is infinite, so too is the knowledge of it. In fact, with each new incremental advance of our knowledge, the world itself increases by so much."
Sounds deep. In my forties I came to the realisation that I would never reach enlightenment through knowledge; that is, there are more fields of knowledge than I can ever hope to deal with, let alone the knowledge within. I eased up on the voracious reading and futile thoughts attempting to understand everything, so that I could have a basis to decide what to do with my life. That decision still remains to be made, yet somehow nobody else has noticed as I married, found where to live, raised a family and had a career. It has not made any functional difference, except in the interior monologue of my own consciousness.
But is it deep? If the internet becomes larger by the addition of articles discussing the internet, is this a deep insight? Not really. The world is not increased by knowledge of it, else we could use knowledge as a building material and fuel.
p. 240 Notes
Here we see the kind of mystical thinking that can be applied to scientific theory. "Light is not seen. It is seeing" sounds very deep, but in saying we cannot see light Mr. Young is not ruling out knowledge of it. Nor is he ruling out knowledge gained without light, e.g. bombarding gold with alpha particles by Rutherford elucidated the nature of the atom. So he isn't really saying much except that an object cannot know itself, which is axiomatic, as far as I am concerned, and certainly applies to all computers and all brains.
p. 249 Notes
"For Augustine we should ignore the cosmos because contemplating it can lead our attention away from God. Science will tell us that it is pointless to look for God in the cosmos because He is not there. Hermeticism rejects both these positions."
He portrays the Hermeticists as wanting to have their cake and eat it. They want to study the cosmos to find a god and have scientific control over that god. Pretty ambitious if you ask me, considering they have got nowhere after 2000 years.
p. 117 following.
I was intrigued by the story of the pragmatic citizens of ancient Harran. This story was given as an example of "Arab" tolerance. When a (I thought, typically narrow-minded) ruler insisted they must have a religion, they made one up to order!
(Harran is a place I had not heard of, but which is very old, and near Göbekli Tepe,
a 10,000 year-old temple predating Egyptian ones by 5,000 years.)
It is said that in 830 A.D. the Caliph al-Ma'mum while passing through Harran during an expedition to Byzantium, asked the Harranians what religion they belonged to. They said, "We are Harranians," and made it clear that they were neither Muslims, Christians or Jews. The Caliph said that was not good enough, they had to be either Muslims, Jews, Christians or Sabians, as only these are lawfully "People of the Book" according to the Koran. The Caliph continued on his journey and said they when he got back, they better convert to one these or it would be lawful to shed the blood of idolaters. After consultations the anxious Harranians were advised by a Muslim jurist to say "We are Sabians". It was not enough, however, to merely choose a name, they also had to produce a sacred text and a prophet. For their prophets they chose Hermes Trismegistus and Agathodaimon, and as a sacred text, the Hermetic books. Thereby the Pagan "Sabians" were able to continue their faith undisturbed until in 1251, when Harran was destroyed by a Mongol invasion.