In the age of Modernity, the world was composed of human beings, of their will to power, and of a shapeless mound of resources available for the taking. Conversely, in pre-modern forms of culture and society, non-humans figured as the protagonists of another way of understanding reality. The mythic outlook of pre-modern societies saw the world as centered around a strange, ungovernable yet deep alliance between humans and non-humans. An alliance that transcended the boundaries of species, as well as of time and space, life and death. In this two-part lecture, Federico Campagna considers the conceptual structure of myth and its relevance for the contemporary attempt to include once again non-humans within the landscape of the world.
A moment of crisis (from the Greek krinein, to decide) calls for a re-evaluation of our fixed ideas. The extent of this re-evaluation depends on the intensity of the crisis. At times, small reforms are sufficient to face the challenge at hand. It is enough to adjust a few of our expectations, habits, or beliefs, and everything around us returns stable. Other times, however, simple reform will not do. Small adjustments need to make room to a total revolution: it becomes necessary to reinvent everything, down to the most fundamental level of our imagination.
In genuine tragedy
it’s not the fine hero that finally dies, it seems,
but, from constant wear and tear, night after night, the old stage set itself,
giving way at the seams.1Joseph Brodsky, “Lullaby of Cape Cod,” V, in A Part of Speech, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1997.
Few moments are as traumatic as these situations of revolutionary reinvention of reality. They remain memorable for those who undergo them, and they come to define the new stage in the life of an individual—or, in the case of a collective subject, of an entire civilisation.
By observing the contemporary planetary context, it appears that we are approaching one of those traumatic moments in history. Environmental challenges, technological development, unsustainable economic distribution, major geopolitical shifts, and widespread cultural transformations seem to point to the fact that the civilisation of Westernised Modernity, after two centuries of planetary hegemony, is drawing to the “Late” stage of its historical arc. Together with the end of this civilisation, also the ideas that underpinned its dominion are nearing their traumatic resolution.
It is possible to detect, at least in the cultural milieus, a growing awareness of the critical task of learning how to detach ourselves from the ideas that shackle us to our contemporary—and fast vanishing—vision of reality. This is especially noticeable in our relationship with a two-faced notion, which has long stood at the heart of our current idea of reality: the notion of the “human” and “non-human.” The possibilities that are open to a human fundamentally depend on what is meant by the term “human.” And what can be done to a non-human—i.e., the range of the human potency towards the realm of “objects”—depends on the nature of the link between the two sides of this dyadic notion.
Numerous contemporary thinkers are problematising the extent to which we can talk of “humans” and “non-humans,” while attempting to re-conceptualise the very “stuff” of which all beings are made.
For the time being, contemporary attempts at reimagining the fabric of the universe remain confined for the most part to the realm of academic speculation. But as the historical crises of our time increasingly deploy their power, it is predictable that these shifts in our fundamental imagination of reality will soon become widespread at all the levels in our societies.
As we embark on this titanic endeavour, it might be useful for us to seek inspiration among other people, often from a time before our own, who went through similar moments of crisis and who responded to the trauma of having to reimagine the World by exerting the full range of their creative abilities.
In this respect, few moments in history have been as inspiring—and to a certain extent, as similar to our own time—than the age of Late Antiquity in the south-eastern part of the Mediterranean region.
In this text, I will focus on one of the most astonishing cosmological creations of that time: the “way of Hermes,” or, as it is commonly known today, the doctrine of Hermetism. Though its audacious cosmology, Hermetism demonstrated how it is possible to rethink at the same time what it means to be human, what can count as non-human, and how a reinvention of these notions can emancipate life from the limits of convention and from the grip of apocalyptic terror.
The age of Late Antiquity engulfed the broad Mediterranean region between the second and the eighth century AD. Despite its historical distance from us, it was a time that shared several aspects with our own age of Late Modernity.
Late Antiquity was an age of pandemics, to the extent that some historians have suggested dating it between two major pandemic outbreaks—the Antonine plague in AD 160s (which killed between five and ten million people) and the Justinian plague in the sixth century AD. It was a time of climate change and, consequently, of disruption in the agricultural systems of the regions surrounding the Mediterranean world. A growing stream of migrants moved from the impoverished white North to the prosperous brown South, and the inability of the Roman empire to integrate them (as it had done for centuries), brought this “movement of people” (Völkerwanderung) to develop into what later historians would describe as the “barbaric invasions.” Meanwhile, the political situation within the Roman Empire was utter chaos. Numerous pretenders to the throne mushroomed in the provinces and marched their armies against their rivals, dragging once-pacified territories into protracted civil wars. Although fleeting at the top, the State exerted its control over its subjects with utmost brutality, producing the earliest known example of a totalitarian society. In all this, the upper classes of the empire, who had profited immensely from its political instability, had become virtually autonomous from the state. They had virtually separated from the rest of the empire, creating instead a galaxy of parallel states within its ailing body. Economic crises were hitting the rest of the population hard, with a two-tier currency system that caused the common currency used by the working classes to devalue almost to nothing.
The Roman Empire, whose values and institutions had been hailed as eternal, was on the verge of collapse. Even though, in the end, only its western part disintegrated in a swarm of barbaric kingdoms, the feeling of an impending apocalypse became widespread from West to East, among both the old pagans and the new Christian intelligentsia. This feeling was accompanied by a mutation in the way Mediterranean people experienced the world around them and their existence as embodied creatures. Droves of people began to leave the cities and headed to uninhabited islands, caves, and deserts—thus giving life to the first ascetic and monastic communities. The world appeared so hostile, if not downright evil, that no wise person would have wanted to remain trapped inside it. Far from being a form of escapism, running away from the world and from its history—in space, in time, in spirit—became a necessity for survival. An even more widespread transformation befell the relationship between Mediterranean people and their own bodies. Considered by Pagan Antiquity as the place where the gods reveal themselves, in Late Antiquity the body was the object of an increasing suspicion. The flesh was a trap, a cage, a mark of our damnation, and the proof of the evil that is innate to the world. To escape the ongoing disintegration of the world of Antiquity, as it seems, it was necessary to liberate oneself from the material stuff that composed its universe.
The Mediterranean people of Late Antiquity, especially those living in the Middle East and North Africa, responded to this distressing situation through an explosion of new ideas about the fundamental structure of reality and the place of humans within it. New religious and philosophical movements emerged under syncretic forms, mixing and reinventing traditions from all corners of the wide Mediterranean world. Manicheism integrated Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Buddhism; Gnosticism combined Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and Christianity; Neoplatonism updated ancient Greek philosophy by mixing it with Chaldean astrology and magic; the cult of Cybele and Attis dived deep into archaic forms of sacrificial practice; etcetera…
Among these new cultus and philosophies, one in particular offered something of great value at the time: liberation from fear—firstly from the fear of death—for those undergoing the traumatic experience of living through the collapse of a civilisation. This liberation was presented as the chief benefit of the teachings of a mythological prophet, known as Hermes the Thrice Great—the syncretic combination of the Greek divinity Hermes, the Egyptian god Thoth, and the Jewish Lord whom the angels praise as ‘”Holy! Holy! Holy!”.
The way of Hermes, like all philosophies of antiquity, was not just an abstract, academic affair. It was a total way of life, spanning from the grand design of a universal cosmology to the minute details of a person’s everyday life. It was conveyed through all kinds of creative means, from high-level philosophy to folk practices in magic and medicine, and it adopted as its preferred medium the language of mythology.
Hermetic teachings abound with weird and wonderful figures, who shape Hermetic cosmology, theology, and anthropology as a sprawling and a-systematic mythic narration. In adopting the mythic register, Hermetic teachers exposed themselves to the contempt of the intellectuals of their time. At least since the time of Plato, mythology was widely considered as a degraded form of Logos, and it had long fallen into discredit as a medium to develop an intellectual discourse. Why, then, were the followers of Hermes adopting it as the language of their own teachings?
The reason, perhaps, lies in the fact that mythology is the only language to be capable of speaking simultaneously about the visible and the invisible. In the words of the late Neoplatonist thinker Saturninius Secundus Salutius, from his book On the Gods and the World:
Since all existing things rejoice in that which is like them and reject that which is unlike, the stories about the Gods ought to be like the Gods, so that they may both be worthy of [revealing] the divine essence.
Now the myths represent the Gods themselves and the goodness of the Gods—subject always to the distinction of the speakable and the unspeakable, the revealed and the unrevealed, that which is clear and that which is hidden: since […] the myths state the existence of Gods to all, but who and what they are only to those who can understand.
They also represent the activities of the Gods. For one may call the world a myth, in which bodies and things are visible, but souls and minds hidden.
Besides, to wish to teach the whole truth about the Gods to all produces contempt in the foolish, because they cannot understand, and lack of zeal in the good, whereas to conceal the truth by myths prevents the contempt of the foolish, and compels the good to practice philosophy.
But why have they put in the myths stories of adultery, robbery, father-binding, and all the other absurdity? Is not that perhaps a thing worthy of admiration, done so that by means of the visible absurdity the soul may immediately feel that the words are veils and believe the truth to be a mystery?2Sallustius, “By Sallustius, On the Gods and Ordered Creation,” trans. Gilbert Murrary in Paganism and Christianity, 100-425 C.E.: A sourcebook, ed. Ramsay MacMullen and Eugene N. Lane (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 274–275.
Through the use of the mythic language, the followers of Hermes Trismegistus depicted the world as a place which is not limited by what we can see or say about it, while at the same time suggesting a general epistemological attitude towards reality. Life, the world, and our own minds should be understood and experienced as indissoluble mixes of words and silence. It is not by coincidence that the teachings of Hermes were divulged in strict esoteric forms.
Due to this esoteric setting, however, only a very small amount of the Hermetic writings has survived through the centuries to reach us. Most of what we know today about their philosophy can be find in the short collection known as Corpus Hermeticum while the folk practices related to Hermetism are still mainly the domain of scholarly research on so-called Technical Hermetica.
Summarising the Hermetic cosmology is no easy feat, considering the a-systematic nature of their texts and the complex structure of their mythology. Perhaps it is easiest to explain it by adopting some elements of our contemporary technologies as useful metaphors.
We could then say that, for Hermes Trismegistus, the visible universe is to be understood substantially as the dream-like product of God’s Mind, which encompasses everything that we hold as “real” and “understandable.” God’s Mind resembles a software program running inside a computer. The physical reality of the world, as we see it around ourselves, is what appears on the computer’s screen. The whole universe, with all its objects and creatures, is the continuous flow of images passing through the screen of the computer’s hardware, which amounts to God’s true Essence.
Like the characters of a video game, worldly creatures exist autonomously only within their own narrative, while in fact they depend entirely on the software (God’s Mind) for their existence. Yet, God’s Mind does not exhaust all that there is in a computer. More than anything, the hardware is a necessary condition for any program to run. And God’s Essence can be compared to such hardware, which is both the precondition for the narratives that take place on the screen, and it is made of a substance which is incomparable to theirs. Hence the inability of God’s creatures to grasp the nature of God’s Essence: the creatures of the world remain oblivious to the true nature of God, like the characters inside a video game could not fathom the different form of existence of the hardware. Indeed, most of them don’t even realize that they are simply the outcome of software, like how in our own dreams we often remain oblivious to the fact that we’re dreaming.
According to the teachings of Hermes Trismegistus, there is only one program in this cosmic computer which is capable of this level of self-reflection: the human. Humans are that part of God’s Mind which is designed to look back at its own workings and to wonder about the invisible architecture that sustains reality. The Hermetic definition of the human is not metaphysical (e.g., human is any member a specific species) but instead it is functional (i.e., human is anyone who performs the function of God’s self-consciousness and aids God’s lucid dreaming). Any creature can potentially be a human or cease to be a human at any time, depending on their epistemological attitude towards the reality of the world and their status within it.
The similitude between the cosmology of Hermes Trismegistus and contemporary computer technology, however, ends here. Unlike a computer’s hardware, the bedrock that keeps the Hermetic world running is not made of perishable materials. God’s Essence is eternal, and it bestows the same quality on everything that exists within their Mind. The dream-like creatures of this world might seem mortal to each other, impaired as they are in their understanding by their condition as dreams, while in truth they share the same eternity as the Mind that dreamed them.
This entire cosmos […] is a plenitude of life….There is nothing in the cosmos that does not live, neither in the whole of it nor in its parts. For there never was any dead thing in the cosmos, nor is there, nor will there be….How then, my child, can there be dead things in God, in the image of all, in the plenitude of life? […] Nothing is corruptible or destroyed—terms that disturb human beings. Life is not birth but awareness, and change is forgetting, not death. Since this is so, all are immortal—matter, life, spirit, soul, mind—of which every living thing is constituted.3“Corpus Hermeticum, XII, 15-17,” in Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius, ed. and trans. Brian. P. Copenhaver (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 46–47.
Thus, for Hermes, the universe and all its creatures are fundamentally eternal. More than that: they are (we all are, human and non-human) made of the same divine substance as God. If we wish to understand God, we just need to observe what each living thing is in their innermost depth—and conversely, if we wish to understand what living things fundamentally are, we need to look up beyond the cosmos, to the very Essence of God.
One striking aspect of Hermetic theology (and consequently, of its cosmology and anthropology) is the clear and repeated assertion that God, in their Essence, is androgynous. God, their powers, their dreams, and all their creatures are fundamentally androgynous. It is only inside this dream, which we call the “world,” that we appear to each other as male and female. In truth, we are at the same time male and female—as we are at the same time hidden and revealed, real and unreal, dream-like and eternal, and so on.
This paradoxical condition of being at the same time “this” and “not-this”—against the law of non-contradiction—is well expressed by the famous Hermetical motto (in the Emerald Tablets): “as above, so below.”
A network of universal sympathies and correspondences binds together the whole cosmos, from God to the most minute speck of dust. Hence, the Hermetic use of arts such as alchemy and astrology to investigate the reciprocal influences that exist between the different planes of reality.
Two aspects of Hermes’ doctrine might be especially relevant to our current predicament, as we live through the end-of-the-world form of Late Modernity.
Firstly, as we begin to question our fundamental ideas about reality—What is the world? What are we?—we should note that, according to the Hermetic doctrine, such questioning is not merely the expression of human intellectual curiosity. Indeed, these are the questions that God is asking Themselves through Their creatures, and to which They attempt to respond through the medium of mythic language. Ultimately, mythology is the language of God’s autofiction, since it is the best suited to tackle problems that are at the same time theoretical and existential, abstract and very concrete.
Secondly, the teachings of Hermes Trismegistus can provide a stable and peaceful place, from which it is possible to depart towards a creative exploration of reality. Since we are made of the same substance of everything and thus of the eternal substance of God, we can face the turbulence of the world from the perspective of someone who is taking part in a game or in a dream. The world is “real” and our mortality and fragility are indisputable “facts,” only to the extent to which there are such things as “reality” and “facts” in a game. In truth, Hermes says, we are immortal, unconsumable, eternally permanent, and not separated by what surrounds us. The empathy that we feel when we deal with so-called “non-human” beings is not a symptom of sentimentalism or the mark of the shared grief of mortality, but the expression of our awareness that we are one boundless Being, unrestricted by any categories, whether political, ethnic, or of species. Any worldly power that might wish to discipline us through threats of death and annihilation is to be treated as foolish and delusional: there is no such power of destruction in the whole cosmos, since everything is as imperishable as God Themselves.
From this place of metaphysical peace, the adepts of Hermes Trismegistus traveled through the perilous times of Late Antiquity, survived esoterically though the darkest days of the Middle Ages, before surfacing again as the protagonists of the Italian Renaissance. Their doctrines—alternately reviled by the many yet always revered by a few—continue to exist today, though under cover of silence. Wherever and whoever the Hermetic teachers might be today, we can still count on them.
FEDERICO CAMPAGNA is an Italian philosopher based in London. He is the author of Prophetic Culture (Bloomsbury, 2021), Technic and Magic (Bloomsbury, 2018), and The Last Night (Zero Books, 2013). He works as a lecturer in philosophy at KABK in the Hague, and as a director inbio the radical publishing house Verso Books.
image by Rain Wu