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A dialogue concerning Hermeticism and William Blake

This is the kind of self-indulgent mess that could only be written by a 16 year old. Originally written for a class many years ago. I’m publishing it because I was reminded of the subject and it has an angle that I haven’t seen mentioned much. It also has a truly fantastic pun regarding Judeo-Platonism that I’m sure the world needed. – Baeo Maltinsky


Who are you?

We’re an esoteric tradition of unclear paternity. Those in antiquity and the early Christians thought us the progeny of a semi-Divine Egyptian priest contemporary with Moses, while modern scholars say we’re a digest of 2nd century Hellenistic thought (1, 27). We don’t much like long introductions, so you can just call us by our purported father’s appellation: Hermes. Who are you?

It’s not important. Could you tell me more about yourself Hermes? That is, just what are you about?

Ah, well then, let us begin with by disclosing our epithet. Hermes is truncated from Hermes Trismegistus (Hermes the  Thrice Great). It is usually assumed that the ternary aspect refers to the three kinds of wisdom we hold. The wisdom of the sun (alchemy), the stars (astrology), and the divine (theurgy). There is a general trend among us of a kind of unity and order of the All. It is closely akin to the Stoic concept of logos, and bears a resemblance to Newtonian assumptions about the uniformity of nature (this is not a coincidence, Newton was a follower of my teachings)(1, 2-3). We’d describe it as a kind of cosmic poetry. “That which is Below corresponds to that which is Above, and that which is Above corresponds to that which is Below, to accomplish the miracle of the One Thing”. That is, events at all levels of reality are analogous. They ‘rhyme’(2, 321).
In Hermeticism, materialism and infatuation with the physical world are the greatest evils. Rejection of the immortal is the most sins. Nous (reason and knowledge) comes from God (i.e., good). Demons are Nature’s way of tempting man(3, 32-33).

My apologies for interrupting, but that all sounds very Christian.

We do get along well with Christianity, though we want to emphasize our relationship is purely Platonic.

Very funny.

Levity aside, you do bring up an interesting point. Early Christianity had some obvious philosophical affinities towards the sort of Neoplatonic thought that was popular in the Mediterranean at the time. As a result, early Christian writers like Saint Augustine wrote heavily about the connection, giving their faith an intellectual base. Hermeticism, while clearly a distinct tradition, was reconciled with Christianity in a similar way (4, 148). In fact, one could say that many ideas in the Christian intellectual tradition are genetically Hermetic in character. For example, the prisca theologica is a concept appropriated by medieval Christians that speaks of a common theme underlying all religion and theology imbued in ancient man by God(1, 14-18).

That’s really just another form of the pan-monism we told you about before. It really ends up touching everything. In the solar wisdom (alchemy), this idea ends up instigating a lot of early scientific practice. Newton himself was very interested in the practice, producing translation of some Hermetic texts(5, 1).

“May God us keep From Single vision & Newtons sleep”

So you’re a Blakean?

I didn’t say that. What issue do you take with Blake?

Our tools and symbols bear some striking similarities, but to read Blake is to look into a broken mirror through a tinted lens. The normative values and fundamental worldview differ. He uses the craft of Heaven for the ends of Hell. Just look at his process! He attributed an almost ritual significance to his method of ‘creation’ (if you can call it that). There is a common solvent used in alchemy known as aqua fortis (literally “fortified water”, i.e. nitric acid). Blake used it as the agent to dissolve his plates when making them. In the alchemical tradition, it is a wonderful solvent for all but the most prized of metals (gold and platinum). Blake, through his subtractive processes, left only the text and artwork of his plates, removing the ‘imperfect metal’, and leaving behind the higher substance. (9, 1)

This is not a well-tolerated approach in the Hermetic tradition. God’s power is a generative power. To do good is to create. Blake’s method of ‘creation’, being subtractive, is sterile and demonic. Allow us to speak through a disciple, the traditionalist Julius Evola:

We can refer refer to what in hermeticism are called Corrosive Waters, in the special sense of substances capable of artificially provoking the dissociation of the human composition. The texts, nevertheless, either advise against the use of these waters and “violent Fires”, or they recommend the utmost precaution because, they say, they burn rather than wash; they dissolve bodies but cannot save spirits; they work not with the ‘slow fire of nature’ but with the ‘impatient haste that proceeds from the Devil.’ Their action is abrupt and discontinuous–so the difficulty of keeping them active in the changing state is all the greater.(6, 122)

We understand Blake’s folly all too well, and we know the damage that it can bring. Evola continues:

The principle in question, then, has a double meaning. It is Death and Life. It has the double power of solve and of coagula: it is the “Philosophical Basilisk,’ like a bolt of lightning burning all ‘imperfect metal’.(6, 124)

Blake himself accepts this not only as a possible risk, but a desirable outcomes. He speaks fondly of those that write “with corroding fires”, and invites the energies of hell. Demons bring forth “adultery, murder, violence to one’s father, sacrilege, ungodliness, strangling, suicide from a cliff and all such other demonic actions”, and he calls this “Eternal Delight”.

Surely there is some agreement though. You speak of the unity and oneness of reality, surely Blake’s monism appeals to you. He writes that:

Man has no Body distinct from his 

Soul. For that called Body is a por-

tion of Soul discerned by the five senses,

the chief inlets of Soul in this age.(1, 7)

You misunderstand the nature of the unity we talk about. Man was created as united being, but soon fell in love with Nature, and became subject to her limitations. Mortal in body but immortal in spirit, man became a “double” thing. He lost “the Word” and became a physical thing inclined towards evil. To focus on the material is to abandon God. Blake’s praise of the physical “Energy” and embrace of the destructive fires of hell are the highest forms of heresy.

It seems I am a heretic, and should go walk among friendlier company. Should you ever be inclined towards the fires, they are never far.

Goodbye, Demon. Before you go though, I ask, what do you take from this exchange?

Though you might disagree, your words are just another lick of the fire that enlightens substance and mind alike.

  1. Yates, F., Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. Routledge, London, 1964. Print.
  1.  Scully, Nicki. Alchemical Healing: A Guide to Spiritual, Physical, and Transformational Medicine. Rochester, VT: Bear &, 2003. Print.
  1. Salaman, Clement, and Hermes. The Way of Hermes: Translations of The Corpus Hermeticum and the Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2000. Print.
  1. O’connell, Robert J. St. Augustine’s Confessions: The Odyssey of Soul. Fordham Univ Press, 1989.
  1. Dobbs, B. J. “Newton’s Commentary on the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus.” Merkel, I and Debus AG Hermeticism and the Renaissance. Folger, Washington (1988).
  1. Evola, Julius. The Hermetic Tradition: Symbols and Teachings of the Royal Art. Inner Traditions International, 1995.
  1. Blake, William. The marriage of heaven and hell. Vol. 321. Oxford University Press, 1975.
  1. Keynes, Geoffrey, ed. The Letters of William Blake: With Related Documents. Clarendon Press, 1980.

9. Fallon, David. “That Angel Who Rides on the Whirlwind”: William Blake’s Oriental Apotheosis of William Pitt.” Eighteenth-Century Life 31.2 (2007): 1-28.

Citation(s) Needed: Receding Gums, Bright Colors, and Bloody Urine

This was the end of my short run writing the science column for my high school newspaper. This is the first time I started to find a style I really liked. It’s not exactly credible but it seems plausible enough and I’m happy with how it reads. Sorta like a sillier Cecil Adams, I think. Maybe someday if I have the time I’ll try to revive it but without the excuse of a student newspaper I can’t really justify the sloppy scholarship.

Pretend you’re a primitive monkey. You’re jumping through the trees one fine afternoon, just generally living that primate life. You come across a fruit tree! Oh joy of joys! Sugar, hoorah! Cheap, easy calories, and all for your-simian-self. However, you pause for a second. Weren’t your ancestors mostly nocturnal, ground dwelling scavengers? That is, they spent most of their lives in the dark, in environs where one doesn’t need such bourgeois luxuries like “color vision”. While this was a practical biological budgeting decision for your ancestors, it presents a problem for you. You don’t want to eat fruit that hasn’t fully ripened, but you can’t easily tell ripe fruit from unripe fruit without going by its color.

Fortunately, evolution has got your back. A couple gene duplication events at some point very early in primate evolution when combined with some time, and a whole lot of luck was all it took to give you color vision that’s the envy of the animal kingdom. You’ve got cone cells that’ll let you see in RED, BLUE, GREEN, and well, actually, that’s about it. Varying levels of those 3 colors form everything else. That’s not to say there isn’t some degree of variation among humans. Human females, for example, tend to be much better at discerning colors than human males. There is some evidence to suggest that 2-3% of women can actually see in 4 different colors ( tetrachromacy, as it’s called).

The development of color vision ends up having some bizarre effects on primate biochemistry. The one I want to focus on starts with the reduction in the need for endogenous antioxidants (compounds produced by the body to deal with oxidative damage, among other things). Let’s look at Vitamin C (ascorbic acid). Most mammals can produce ascorbic acid on their own (at a slight metabolic cost), but primates just can’t. Fruits are generally very high in Vitamin C, and because of our excellent color vision, it was wasteful to continue producing ascorbate. This does have a drawback. Take primates away from plants, and you get scurvy (ascorbate actually means “without scurvy”).

This wouldn’t be so bad, except it seems like there was another side effect. Uric acid, a minor component of urine used by the body to dispose of excess nitrogen, also acts as a potent antioxidant, and is naturally produced by the body. In other mammals, the enzyme uricase exists to oxidize it to allantoin, but higher primates can’t do that. Why? Well, some of the things done by endogenous ascorbate just can’t be replaced by dietary ascorbate. So, the body comes up with a way to boost levels of urates to compensate. As a result, primates tend to have higher levels of uric acid. Urates tend to be pretty insoluble in water, so they form crystals. When this happens in our joints, we get gout (effectively unique to primates). When this happens in our bladders, we get kidney stones. So if you ever start urinating blood, just blame it on your fruit crazed monkey ancestors.