HERMETICISM. Hermeticism was a philosophical movement that arose in Alexandria around the first century c.e. Influenced by Platonism, Gnosticism, Egyptian thought, and probably both Jewish and early Christian thought, Hermeticism represented a syncretistic response to foreign domination, appropriating and transforming philosophical ideas in a manner congenial to native Egyptians. The most influential texts for the Renaissance, the Hermetic Corpus, purported to be conversations between Hermes Trismegistus (Thrice-Great Hermes), an ancient Egyptian priest, and various interlocutors, particularly Pimander (the demiurge), Hermes' son Tat (a Romanized form of the Greek Thoth and the Egyptian Theuth), and Asclepius (to the Romans, Aesculapius). These texts proposed a theurgical (god-influencing), mystical, and magical philosophy similar to Neoplatonism. Many early thinkers believed Hermes to be approximately contemporary with Moses; most importantly, Lactantius (c. 240–320), Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–211 or 215), and Augustine (354–430) granted his antiquity, though the latter considered him "amicably disposed towards [the] mockeries of the demons" (City of God VIII, 23). The Greek texts, long lost, were rediscovered in 1460 in Macedonia, whence they were transported to Cosimo de' Medici in Florence, who in 1463 commissioned Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499) to translate them, interrupting the latter's work on Plato. Ficino too accepted Hermes' claims, and later thinkers generally followed his opinion; many considered Hermes the fountainhead of pagan learning, even claiming that all learning derived ultimately either from the tradition of Moses or from that of Hermes.
Renaissance Hermeticism had its heyday in the sixteenth century, when references to "the divine Hermes" became commonplace, often marking anti-Aristotelian and otherwise counter-mainstream philosophies. One early exemplar was Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494), who drew on both Hermeticism and Cabala and argued that the two might bring about a renovation of learning.
An essential doctrine for Renaissance Hermeticism was the idea of the microcosm, which suggested that between universe and man existed a powerful analogy, such that each could be interpreted in light of the other. This bore fruit in alchemy, in which transmutation of base metals into gold within a universelike crucible effected a parallel transmutation of the alchemist's soul. Thus the name of Hermes became a banner for occult and mystical philosophies.
Hermeticism clearly encouraged the Renaissance interest in Egypt, which influenced speculations on language and linguistic philosophy, particularly in the seventeenth century, when the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher (1601–1680) published voluminous works on hieroglyphs. More generally, Hermes served as an inspiration and justification for radical explorations of nature and divinity, notably by Paracelsus (1493–1541), Giordano Bruno (1548–1600), and John Dee (1527–1608).
The English scholar Dame Frances Yates famously proposed that the Hermetic revival also encouraged the success of the scientific revolution, arguing that Egyptian sun worship promoted Copernican heliocentrism, and that theurgy encouraged emphasis on "man as operator" upon nature. While scholars now agree that Yates overstated somewhat, the "Yates Thesis" has merit; a notable example is the immediate acceptance of William Harvey's 1628 presentation of the circulation of the blood by the English physician and mystic Robert Fludd (1574–1637), who believed that this demonstrated the microcosm because the heart was like the sun, with blood circulating like the planets.
Despite the 1614 proof of the late origin of the Hermetic texts by the French scholar Isaac Casaubon (1559–1614), Hermeticism continued to influence thinkers as late as the Enlightenment, although this effect shifted largely (as seen in the cases of Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry) into the political sphere.
See also Alchemy ; Cabala ; Freemasonry ; Magic ; Occult Philosophy ; Paracelsus ; Rosicrucianism.
Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius in a New English Translation with Notes and Introduction. Translated by Brian P. Copenhaver. Cambridge, U.K., 1992. The most useful of many translations.
Faivre, Antoine. The Eternal Hermes: From Greek God to Alchemical Magus. Translated by Joscelyn Godwin. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1995. Translation of six separate articles in French, covering a wide range of historical, philosophical, and bibliographical material.
Fowden, Garth. The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind. Rev. ed. Princeton, 1993. Brilliant study of the Hermetic texts in their original context.
Yates, Frances A. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. London, 1964. The most important and influential of Yates's many works.
Christopher I. Lehrich
"Hermeticism." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 12, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/hermeticism
"Hermeticism." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/hermeticism
Hermeticism and the Corpus became immensely influential in the Renaissance when most of the texts were translated in Italy. The Corpus was correctly dated by Isaac Casaubon in 1614, and the texts rapidly waned in influence.
"Hermeticism." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 12, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/hermeticism
"Hermeticism." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/hermeticism