Arthur Versluis – The Question of Platonism & Hermeticism
‘Zeustempel Von Nemea’, painting by Joseph Anton Schneiderfranken, a.k.a. Bo Yin Ra.
Today’s sharing from the Blue House of Via-HYGEIA, is another treat and an homage to professor Arthur Versluis, whose rich bibliography’s impact upon our coming of age and early adult life was providential. He is a discoverer and a prophet of a sort-sharply foreseeing many problems and crisis our chaotic and compassionless age is plagued-sharing his findings in a generous manner. Our Via-HYGEIA’s classical library is graced with many of his volumes that all nurtured exciting research and personal growth. So, we are grateful in these final hours of 2022 and the excerpt we have chosen IS professor Versluis at his BEST. Enjoy ! Below excerpt is chapter 3 from the ground breaking and influential, ‘Theosophia, hidden dimensions of Christianity’, Lindisfarne Press, 1994.
FROM THE BEGINNING Christians have had an ambivalent relationship with Platonism and Hermeticism, those two orphan children adopted by Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, and carried along on their historical caravans. They have sometimes been regarded as hidden treasures, sometimes as nuisances, and sometimes, even, as outright dangers—or at least, as orphaned delinquents.
Certainly one can find many confirmed Aristotelians in Islam and in Christianity who regarded our orphans as undesirables. Be this as it may, however, the historical affiliations we will discuss here are inescapable—for Christianity’s theology owes as much of its metaphysics (which includes and transcends cosmology) to Platonism as its cosmology owes to Hermeticism.1
Platonism may be said to begin with Plato’s students and successors, but in reality it belongs to a long tradition that stretches from the ancient Greek Orphic mysteries and the initiatory traditions of Pythagoras (hence relatively early in Greek civilization and considerably before Plato) right into the Christian era with such Neoplatonic authors as Plotinus, Iamblichus, and Proclus. Hermetism inherits some of this Platonic tradition, and also reflects mystery traditions that hark back to ancient Egyptian religion. In essence, Platonism—rooted in Plato’s “dialogues”—and Hermetism, embodied in the Hermetic dialogues of the Corpus Hermeticum, represent a consigning to paper of principal initiatory symbols and concepts so that, even if one did not have access to a living spiritual teacher, one could still participate vicariously in a written dialogue like Plato’s Timaeus or the Corpus Hermeticum’s Poemandres.
Let us begin with Platonism. In itself, Platonism is neither a religion nor any more “otherworldly” than the religions it has existed alongside. While any religion necessarily has an “otherworldly” character, inasmuch as it recognizes that its “kingdom is not of this world,” Platonism is essentially a constellation of parables, myths, and poetic images designed to continue the initiatory mystery traditions that Plato crystallized in his dialogues. But because Plato used poetic forms and allusions to convey visionary truth, he necessarily ran the risk of being misconstrued, taken literally. Thus when Plato’s Socrates suggests that this world is like shadows flickering on a wall, some might believe he was being “otherworldly” and “dualist.”
But those who use such terms pejoratively, and who take Plato’s images and analogies literally, fail to recognize that Platonism expresses spiritual truths through these poetic parables, and that “otherworldliness” and “dualism” are entirely valid ways of expressing truth. Certainly Taoists who use the imagery of yin and yang cannot therefore be accused of being dualists, for Taoism consists in recognizing and transcending this dualism—as did Manichaeism, for instance.2
So too with Platonism. In this human world, our souls can be compared to a good and a bad horse, and can rise or descend, as Plato suggested in Phaedrus. To say this is not to deny the unity, beauty, truth, and goodness of life for those who ascend closer to the Divine. To speak of the “other world” is to affirm the transcendent, archetypal realm of which this world is but a transient reflection. It is not “escapism” but metaphysical realism.
But Platonism on its own, wherever it finds a home, though it recapitulates the essence of perennial metaphysics, does not offer a religious path in itself; it requires a religious ambience within which its metaphysics can be realized. This is why Platonism is taken into Islam, Christianity, and at times Judaism, again and again, and sparks within those traditions the fullest flowering of their metaphysical possibilities. We often forget that Platonism originally existed in the ambience of the Greek mystery religions, and that those mysteries were continued particularly within Christianity and even to a lesser extent in Islam—religions which were, as a result, especially receptive to Platonism’s pollinating effect.
It is amusing to consider how at times Platonism had this effect under the name of Aristotelianism—as when for instance, under the name of the Theology of Aristotle we find circulated in medieval Islam Proclus’ commentary on the Enneads of Plotinus, not exactly the most Aristotelian of texts! Such historical ruses—of which there were many in Christianity as well—allowed Platonism to survive the historicist, literalist, and fundamentalist attacks of those more usually aligned with Aristotelian thought. For look! the Platonist mystics and visionaries could say, Aristotle himself taught the visionary ascent to the Divine. The remarkably influential works attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite are also in this category—for they too bear the unmistakable stamp of Platonic influence.
This story of Platonism’s survival in Judeo-Christianity and Islam is at heart the same story that we see played out in the life and death of Socrates—the story of the opposition between historicist, literalist fundamentalists on the one hand and visionaries on the other. Indeed, one could well argue that the life and death of Christ himself reveal this same opposition between those with eyes to see and ears to hear, and those without, between those who think that the kingdom of God is of this world, and those who recognize that “my kingdom is not of this world”—an assertion whose real significance has not been fully recognized by historicist Christians and Muslims. Certainly the history of Christianity and of Islam is replete with Platonist visionaries martyred by spiritually blind literalists.3
One can see precisely how Platonism’s influence continued on in Christianity in the work of Johannes Tauler, for instance. Tauler (c. 1300–1361,) a disciple of Meister Eckhart represents quite clearly the enigmatic and at times tenuous position of visionary Platonist spirituality within Christianity. Tauler himself was not brought up on charges of heresy, but like his master who died facing charges of heresy he was certainly subject to criticism. Yet at the same time, one can hardly deny that like Eckhart, Tauler is one of the most developed flowers of the Christian faith.
One sees in Tauler’s sermons just how Platonism traditionally was carried along in the Christian caravan through time; for Tauler’s sermons show how Plato and the Neoplatonists were regarded as precursors of the Johannine Christian mystery itself. Tauler writes: “This ground of the soul was already known by the pagan philosophers. As they searched its depth, the knowledge of it caused them to think poorly of transitory things. Such great masters as Proclus and Plato gave a lucid account of it, in order to guide those who could not find the way by themselves. Saint Augustine says that Plato had already fully foreseen the first part of Saint John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word,” up to “there was a man sent from God.” . . . . This understanding, my Beloved, arose from their inmost ground, for which they lived and which they cherished. Is it not shameful and a great scandal that we poor latecomers, we Christians, aided by grace, the Faith, and the sacraments, should be running about like blind hens, ignorant of our own self and of the depth within us?”4
The outward forms of religion, including vigils and other practices, are in no way so essential as this inward realization, which Tauler, like Augustine, recognized in Platonism. Rather, the forms of religion conduce to and are illumined by this inward realization. Religious forms enhance and support spiritual illumination.
Indeed, Tauler recognized in Platonism the “one thing needful” in the Christian mystery. In another sermon, he said: A pagan master, Proclus, has this to say on the subject: “As long as man is occupied with images inferior to himself, and as long as he does not go beyond them, it is unlikely that he will ever reach this depth. It will appear an illusion to really believe that this ground exists within us; we doubt that it can actually exist in us.” “‘Therefore,” he continues, “if you wish to experience its existence, you must abandon all multiplicity and concentrate your attention on this one thing with the eyes of your intellect; and if you wish to rise higher, you must put aside all rational methods, for reason is now beneath you, and then you may become united with the One.” And he calls this state a divine darkness: still, silent, at rest, and above all sense perception. Beloved, it is a disgraceful thing that a pagan philosopher understood and attained this truth, while we are so far from both.’5
Tauler’s re-emphasis of this last point—the disgrace of Christians who do not even seek this transcendence when it is the central mystery of life and has been attained by such pagans as Plato and Proclus—underscores the kind of function Platonism has traditionally served in both Christianity and Islam as a reminder of what Christ truly meant when he said “The kingdom of God is within us.”
Here—and precisely here—at the meeting point of Platonism, Neoplatonism, St. Dionysius the Areopagite, and Tauler’s German mysticism—is the absolute heart of Tauler’s message. It is certainly no coincidence that Tauler happens to bring up the “pagan philosophers” at exactly those points in his sermons where he wishes to focus on and exhort his listeners to the spiritual center of the Christian mystery.
Thus, when at the end of yet another sermon, Tauler says, “Now we should rise with all our might into our highest nature,” and when he anagogically interprets how Abraham left his ass (the natural human) at the base of the mountain and ascended to transcendence, he finally focuses on the heart and mind in the “secret place, the Holy of Holies,” and concludes with the affirmation of none other than Proclus: “When a man enters here,” says Proclus, “he is unaware of anything that may happen to him, be it poverty, sickness, or suffering of any kind.”6 Here the Christian “secret place, the Holy of Holies” atop the mountain is identified with Proclus, by no means a Christian!
Conventionally, modern scholars try to separate Dionysian, Neoplatonic, and Platonic “influences” in German mysticism, as if these had been separate in the spirituality of men and women like Tauler and Hadewijch. But this kind of analysis misses the point, for Tauler’s theosophy itself is incorporative, integral, and focused on the “one thing needful,” so that what matters for him in his sources is not their “pagan-ness,” but the extent to which they urge one toward inward spiritual realization. To this incorporative, inclusive spiritual understanding, the spirituality of Islamic theosophers would certainly not be alien—here too, had Tauler known of the work of a Suhrawardi or a Ruzabehan Baqli, he would have said “how disgraceful that these Muslims ascend to the inward Truth, and we Christians do not.”
All this represents an approach to understanding from the inside, as it were—an approach in which we try to enter into another’s understanding. This act, which is an act of love, Henry Corbin called “phenomenological,” for it requires that we at least in some degree experience what our authors experienced. Indeed, our gnostic authors insist time and again upon the transcendence of natural reason and upon the necessity of ascending inwardly into the supreme unitive understanding of the heart that is the ground of being, which is not divisive and categorical but unitive and all-embracing, and encompassed finally within the word “love.”
If the significance of Platonism in Christian theosophical metaphysics is rather clear, the place of Hermeticism on the other hand is altogether a different matter. From very early on, arguably in the Gospels themselves, one finds in Christianity much evidence of Platonism’s presence, which is intimately tied to the presence of the Mysteries whose roots go back very far into antiquity.7 Moreover, Platonism’s importance in the spirituality of theosophers like Tauler is self-evident. But since Hermeticism has always been a secret or hidden tradition by its very nature, it is by no means easy to assess its place in Christian theosophy.8
Mostly, this ambiguity regarding Hermeticism derives from its having a primarily cosmological significance. The word “Hermeticism” comes from the Greek god Hermes, who was the messenger between the gods and human beings, denoting of course exactly the cosmological realm, and in particular the “intermediate” or subtle realm of the soul “between” the spirit and the physical.
The same symbolism is incorporated in the “pillars of Hermes,” which likewise span the distance between heaven and earth. It is not surprising, then, that the mysteries of Hermeticism belong essentially to the soul’s realm, and to the soul’s purification, transmutation, and ultimate illumination. Hermeticism leads from darkness to light, precisely the implication of that apocryphal early Christian book, The Shepherd of Hermas.
Hermeticism thus ultimately leads toward metaphysical realization. For this reason, such visionary works as The Shepherd of Hermas suggest a more than cosmological meaning for the figure of Hermes or Hermas, the revealer. Indeed, in The Shepherd of Hermas various spiritual visions are described that urge us as readers toward realizing a life of the spirit. Hermeticism, like the mysterious discipline of alchemy is, in the phrase of Titus Burckhardt, essentially a “science of the cosmos” and a “science of the soul,” but at the same time it does lead toward the great illumination that is metaphysical and not merely cosmological.
So, when we look at the collection of texts now available under the heading of the Corpus Hermeticum, which are generally held to have been written by Greeks who had studied in Egypt during the third century A.D., we see a group of documents revealing a range of individual master-to-disciple revelations or illuminations. In this collection, Hermetists have in common primarily their attitude toward the spiritual search and illumination, but these are seen not as concerned with sacred scripture but as having to do with spiritual dialogue, and with the individual encountering the angelic. There is no trace in the Corpus Hermeticum of the institutional, or even of ritual practices; like the Platonic dialogues, they are concerned with the spiritual encounters of individuals, with spiritual experience.
Given the non-institutional character of the Corpus Hermeticum and its initiatory mode carried on either through a master-disciple conversation or through the recounting of an individual revelation—combined with a despising of the ignorant masses and of more ignorant times to come—one is not surprised to find that there is little written trace of Hermeticism per se in Christianity from the third to the eleventh centuries A.D., when we find the Byzantine Platonist Michael Psellus working from a collection of Hermetic texts, or to the fifteenth century in the Latin West, when Marsilio Ficino first published his edition of the Poemandres and other Hermetic works. Hermetism is an inherently esoteric phenomenon, whose adherents are ever able to recreate or rediscover the tradition anew. As such, the Corpus Hermeticum continued in Europe under various forms.
In other words, Hermeticism—which is another manifestation of theosophy— did not cease to exist during these long centuries. Though admittedly only a few manuscripts remain showing the transmission of Hermeticism during this time, we must recognize that one would be unlikely to find much material evidence of a tradition that by its nature is hidden, initiatory, and able to reconstitute itself through an ahistorical continuity. It is certainly not necessary for the authors of The Shepherd of Hermas, the Poemandres, the medieval poem Pearl, and La Vita Nuova or The Dream of Poliphilo to have known one another’s works in order to have demonstrated very much the same scenario in their own.
All of these “Hermetic” works have their genesis in a common attitude, in an approach to spiritual revelation, of which the Poemandres is perhaps the best example: “Once on a time, when I had begun to think about the things that are, and my thoughts had soared high aloft, while my bodily senses had been put under restraint by sleep,—yet not such sleep as that of men weighed down by fullness of food, or by bodily weariness,—methought there came to me a Being of vast and boundless magnitude, who called me by my name, and said to me, “What do you wish to hear and see, and to learn and come to know by thought?” “Who are you?” I said. “I,” he said, “am Poemandres, the Mind of the Sovereignty.” . . .When he had thus spoken, forthwith all things changed in an aspect before me, and were opened out in a moment. And I beheld a boundless view; all was changed into a light, a mild and joyous light”.9
Here, as in the other works we have mentioned, we see a visionary experience in a realm that is different to ordinary sleep and whose closest analogue is dreaming. This is the world that Henry Corbin called the “active imagination.” In it we see a visionary encounter, a dialectic in the world of light.
This approach to visionary spirituality is closely allied with Platonism. Hence it is not accidental that those who have done most to bring the Corpus Hermeticum to light in Eastern and Western Christianity were Platonists. Both Platonism and Hermeticism have occupied a common spiritual ground historically—their province being above all the individual visionary encounter with the Divine, which we can trace from Plato onward. Indeed, if this were all there were to Hermeticism, we would have little more to say.
But Hermeticism is also cosmological. The Poemandres itself goes on to speak at length about the nature of the cosmos; about the “things that are;” about the primordial fire and the waters; about the appearance of the Logos; about the “seven administrators,” and the seven planets; about the constitution of human beings as spiritual beings; and much else besides.10 It is here in the cosmology that we find the focus of the Corpus Hermeticum as a whole: the nature and destiny of humanity and of the cosmos.
This Hermetic cosmology, which embraces herbal, alchemical, and astrological knowledge, includes an understanding of how the seven planets represent qualities (like bitterness, sweetness, heat, and cold) that are found in all created things— from trees and rocks to plants, animals, and, of course, the human being.
Unfolding this wisdom, Hermeticism proceeds from the analogies between the microcosm and the macrocosm, and is predicated on the realization that qualities present in the human soul are also present in the world around us, even as they are present in the heavens themselves, in the form of planets and stars. Hence in Hermeticism there is an approach to sacred cosmology that appears in such Renaissance authors as Henry Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus, Valentin Weigel, Jacob Böhme, and Johann Georg Gichtel. The latter two writers above all offer a religious interpretation of alchemical symbolism, but they are certainly at the same time carrying on an approach that is generally Hermetic in nature. The authors we have mentioned are perhaps the best known—particularly Paracelsus and his spagyric medicine—yet there are many others too whose manuscripts remain untranslated or unpublished who were also undoubtedly part of this “hidden” Hermetic-cosmological understanding, traces of which can even be seen in the very buildings and cathedrals of Europe.11
Thus one can speak of a “Christian Hermeticism” and of a “Christian alchemy,” just as one can speak of “Islamic Hermeticism” and “Islamic alchemy.”
Hermeticism, like Platonism, represents a kind of independent visionary spirituality that can be incorporated into the Judeo-Christian or Islamic traditions. In its cosmological emphasis, Hermeticism includes the discipline of the alchemical transmutation of the soul, using the symbolism of metals, smelting, and transformation as well as certain images like the King and Queen; the rebus, or androgyne; and various animals like the lion and the pelican. This cosmological transmutation, however, is fully consummated only within the religious sphere, which completes it with metaphysical or spiritual realization. This is why these disciplines of the soul have been carried along especially within the religious caravans of Islam and Christianity.
We cannot now enter into the complex morass of opinions regarding such topics as the masons (or freemasons) and their relation to Hermeticism, nor for that matter into a detailed discussion of alchemy and its rather cloudy relationship to traditional Christianity—although we will discuss alchemy’s significance for our theosophers as regards their relationship to nature. Essentially, alchemy’s consummation may be seen in works of Christian alchemists like Thomas Vaughan—whose works manifest a profoundly reverential attitude toward Christianity—and in devoutly Muslim alchemists like Jabir. Admittedly, in some alchemical texts we find few if any religious traces, so that alchemy then seems a discipline of its own that can be quite separate from the religious traditions in which it subsists.12
On the whole, however, Platonism and Hermeticism require a religious ambience in which to be realized, a tradition to carry them along and to support them. Our task here is to recognize what Hermeticism and Platonism represent within Christianity: namely, individual spiritual insight into the nature of our cosmos, and into our own spiritual destiny and meaning. Such insights are timeless and recur because they are intrinsic to the human condition itself; and the path to their realization is the alchemical path of the soul’s transmutation and illumination. In this sense, then, Platonism and Hermeticism are peerless examples of and sources for the ahistorical continuity that is at the heart of theosophy, to which we now turn in its recent European manifestations
1. Here we are using the word “Hermeticism” to include the entire Hermetic tradition, including Renaissance Hermeticism. See Antoine Faivre, “Ancient and Medieval Sources of Modern Esoteric Movements” in Modern Esoteric Spirituality, ed. A. Faivre and J. Needleman (New York: Crossroad, 1992), p.3.
2. One grows tired of clichés regarding Manichaeism: undoubtedly the Manichaean emphasis on the Light’s revelation is not “pessimism” or, ultimately, dualist, but rather is a profoundly optimistic and unified vision of spiritual revelation.
3. Two instructive cases: that of Ramon Lull, anathematized by one pope, and restored by the next, and that of Giordano Bruno, martyred by the Inquisition. Both were certainly visionary Platonists, and both devotees of the religious eros.
4. Johannes Tauler, Predigten, ed. G. Hofmann (Eiseideln: Johannes, 1979), II.338–339. See also Johannes
Tauler, Sermons, trans. M. Schrader (New York: Paulist Press, 1985), sermon 44, p. 149.
5. Tauler, Predigten, op. cit., I.201; see also Tauler, Sermons, op. cit., sermon 29, p. 105.
6. Tauler, Predigten, op. cit., II.458–59; see also Tauler, Sermons, op. cit., sermon 59, p. 168.
7. In my book The Egyptian Mysteries (London: Routledge, 1988), I discussed the indebtedness of Greco- Roman and Christian traditions to the Egyptian mysteries.
8. See Titus Burckhardt, Alchemy: Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul, trans. W. Stoddart (Baltimore: Penguin, 1971). The term “metaphysical” refers to the realm of the spirit; the term “cosmological” refers to the realm of the soul, including the psychic and physical worlds.
9. Hermetica: The Ancient Greek and Latin Writings, trans. W. Scott (Boston: Shambhala, 1985 ed.), 1.115.
10. Ibid., 1.115 ff.
11. The writings of Fulcanelli come to mind most immediately, but many writers, including Keith Critchlow, John Michell, and David Fideler have delineated the geomantic symbolism of Greek, Roman, Islamic, and Christian buildings, all of which reflect sacred proportions, and are constructed as mesocosms. See David Fideler, Jesus Christ, Sun of God (Wheaton: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993).
12. This was precisely why Julius Evola, a fierce despiser of Christianity, could write a book on alchemy in the West. See Julius Evola, La Tradizione Ermetica (Roma: Edizione Mediterranee, 1971).