Overweening Generalist

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Hermes Will Always Return: Kircher and Vico

God of orators, poets, thieves, witty chatterers, inventors, an intermediary for humans in their dealings with other gods and goddesses, and a trickster himself: this is Hermes, probably a later version of Thoth, but once we get into origins here, it's a hermetic thing: that is to say: tricky and possibly unreliable. But Hermes - also the messenger, the god of email and letters and phone calls - who will help you ease into the afterlife, who straddles and then erases boundaries and protects travelers into unknown lands? He will always be with us.

The great American seer and weirdo extraordinaire Edgar Cayce asserted that Hermes built Atlantis and the Egyptian pyramids. More than anything else here, I note Cayce's ingenium.

Hermes is well-known to our Islamic brothers and sisters too, only he's Idries (or Idris) to them. Ibn Arabi, most Estimable, wrote that Idries traveled to incredibly large cities outside of Earth, and these cities had vastly superior technology. When a muslim invented something, he may have subsumed something from the atmosphere brought there by Idries.

Hermes is mentioned in the Qur'an, 19:56-57: "mention, in the Book, Idris, that he was truthful, a prophet. We took him up to a high place." Indeed, it was thought that Idris traveled from Egypt to outer space and heaven, to the same place Adam was, and this was where the Black Stone originated. Adam was 380 years older than Idris. The Prophet Mohammed was descended from Idris. Mohammed also traveled to outer space. (It's difficult when I read this stuff to not think of our postmodern comic book superheroes as existing in a long line of archetypal figures such as Hermes...and Mohammed? Ahh...but The Prophet...this is surely a different story, peace be upon him...)

For the Arabs: three Hermes-figures. One that was a civilizing hero who wrote in hieroglyphics. Then there was one that was initiated by Pythagoras. A third taught alchemy. There were some sufis who thought they were all the same guy...

Idris seems to be identified in The Bible as Enoch. See Genesis 5: 18-24. Supposedly the consonants in "Enoch" spell out the Hebrew "initiator" or "opener of the third eye." Supposedly? Hermes the boundary dissolver and messenger god somehow gets into the Old Testament? Hey, I guess it's in the job description.

Cicero noticed there seemed to be at least five different Hermes, mostly Greeks and Romans, around the time of Julius Caesar, but this incredible genius everyone talked about, "Hermes Trismegistus," seemed to be a different cat.

"Hermes Trismegistus" made an enormous splash in Western thought, especially when 15th CE philosopher/mage Marsilio Ficino was given a patronage/cool gig under the Medicis. "Hermes Thrice-Blessed" was probably a contemporary of Moses, but Hermes went from physics and math to the primo level of telling us, armed with the most righteous wisdom the attributes of God, about demons, how souls transform and travel. You know, the meaty stuff. Orpheus followed Hermes, then Philolaus, who was the teacher of...Plato? Wait...what about Socrates? Nevermind for now: we have quite a succession now, eh? Of course Plato's ideas heavily influenced Jesus and Christianity. Indeed, Jesus was a Mage himself, in that grand succession starting with Hermes. This succession of wisdom-givers was  ultimately seductive to the many minds who desire intellectual harmony.

To say the least.

I think the idea that there was a prisca theologia, or "one true theology" that has become garbled in different religions over time, a series of books that held a skeleton key that would unite all religions and show how they were all saying the same thing, originating in God, down to Moses and Hermes, down to Plato and Jesus...must have seemed like it had not only unparalleled delights for the intellect, but could possibly stem the tides of blood from religious wars.

                                                 Hermes Thrice-Blessed, imitating 
                                                  Kobe Bryant?

The Corpus Hermeticum was written by Hermes Trismegistus, roughly at the time of Moses. And it had...EVERYTHING in it! For Hermes Thrice-Great had handed down the secrets of magick to humans: astrology, alchemy, the whole nine. His works were a thrilling wind, blowing many-a-mind.

The fantastic philologist Isaac Casaubon, just before he died in 1614, showed via rigorous textual analysis, that the books attributed to "Hermes Trismegistus" were written no later than the 2nd or 3rd century CE! Possibly some of the Corpus was written in the first century after Jesus. But it's one thing to have awesome philological and overall scholarly chops and quite another to be given a sufficient hearing in the face of so many intellectuals awestruck with the heady, buzzlike effects of reading in the Corpus Hermeticum.

Casaubon suggested that these books were written by various Greek-educated NeoPlatonists and maybe a few Epicureans. They combined ideas from the great buffet of religious ideas floating around the Roman Empire circa 120-300 CE. It seems probable that the ideas in the Corpus were also hot in Hellenic Egypt, but are nowheres near as old as Moses and definitely much later than Alexander's death. Ideas borrowed from Zoroastrianism, even Kabbalah. If you prepared your mind well enough you could turn base metals into gold, find the Philosopher's Stone and the key to immortality, develop superhuman talents, and other desiderata.

Much of this is known already to readers of the scholar Frances Yates, so I apologize if I bored you.

Kircher (1602-1680) and Hermes
One of my favorite intellectuals in history is Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit who was interested in everything, and if you clicked on the link you noticed Paula Findlen's subtitle, "The Last Man Who Knew Everything." He was most highly esteemed as a scholar, producing countless books, some over 1000 pages long and gorgeously illustrated. In his time he was also the butt of many jokes, as those who followed the new ways of thinking spearheaded by Galileo and Descartes, thought Kircher a crank, and Kircher was even "punked" for his delusions that he could read Egyptian hieroglyphics. Kircher is operating in 17th century Rome, while throughout Europe new-fangled epistemological bombs were exploding every few years. Kircher, within his own lifetime, went from being "current" to declasse, so fast were ideas changing about how to assess the veracity of claims of "truth" or "knowledge" or "science." Casaubon's debunking of the antiquity of the Corpus Hermeticum when Kircher was circa 12 years old, was available; even though his superiors at times frowned on Kircher's intricate, elaborated details of how "magic" worked according to Hermes - Kircher always issued disclaimers that this was not the true catholic religion, so beware of this evil stuff - he certainly seemed wildly enthralled by what Hermes had to say.

                                                   Athanasius Kircher, whose name
                                                    means "eternal church." 

Kircher is, to me, a marvelous and hilarious figure, immensely learned and yet silly, and finally a general biography for the lay reader has come out: A Man of Misconceptions: The Life of an Eccentric in an Age of Change, by John Glassie. What a marvelous book. Glassie has Kircher nailed in a way that I had suspected from my readings of him by more specialized scholars such as the aforementioned Findlen, Ingrid D. Rowland's marvelous work The Ecstatic Journey: Athanasius Kircher in Baroque Rome, incredible books such as John Edward Fletcher's A Study of the Life and Works of Athanasius Kircher, 'Germanus Incredibilis', Joscelyn Godwin's 2009 Athanasius Kircher's Theater of the World (which, if I came into a surprise inheritance, would be one of the first books I'd buy; for now: keep re-checking it out from the library), and the book emanating from Stanford University's extensive Kircher archives, The Great Art of Knowing: The Baroque Encyclopedia of Athanasius Kircher.

Rowland's book gives more than enough goods about Kircher's researches and how he held many ideas that went against Church doctrine, and so had to find ways to put his ideas in codes. But he was wrong about most things. Which: never matter: that's the sociology of knowledge: most of his ideas were "right" or interesting enough to galvanize minds. Kircher was self-aggrandizing while claiming to be extraordinarily humble; the stories he tells about how he evaded threats in his youth (with the help of his Faith and prayers to Mary, etc) seem heavily influenced by Homer and other Hero tales.

                                          Kircher's museum. In reality it was nowheres
                                          near this spacious...which hints at the man 
                                          himself: be careful when you read Kircher!

With Kircher you get something like Aristotle mixed with High Weirdness Crank, a forerunner to Flann O'Brien's de Selby character as filtered through the mind of Robert Anton Wilson. (Just have a look at Kircher's learned and wildly baroque ideas about geology and how mountains are filled with water, the role of volcanoes, how water enters the inner Earth near Sweden and comes back out near the South Pole, etc...)

Despite his weirdness and ego, he was truly learned and had the most fantastic imagination, and I'm glad Glassie's book is getting good reviews. More people who love the history of this period, or even the sociology of knowledge or the history of ideas, should find Kircher a delight. Despite the learned flights of imagination presented as "science," for the glory of the Church and Rome and humanity, he's an amazing thinker, fecund beyond belief. Even the ideas that turned out to be wrong - most of them - are so imaginative, speculative and marvelous in vision that the students of metaphor have a field day every time they pick up Kircher.

Anyway, as for Hermes: Kircher loved those books. If he'd heard they'd been debunked, he didn't care. One of Kircher's best-sellers explained China to Europeans for the first time. Kircher had never been to China (or Egypt), but that never stopped him from writing 1000 pages about it. One of the things we learn is that the Chinese knew Hermes too, but they called him "Confucius."

At the same time, I believe Kircher was earnest. He thought the heliocentric model was correct. And he knew about Galileo's troubles with the Authorities (Kircher's bosses). Kircher did not understand the "new" scientific method of doubt, testing, getting someone else to see if they can replicate your experiments, etc. But Kircher also knew what happened to another Wild Thinker, Bruno. Kircher wrote to a friend that he was a Copernican, but "We must always maintain that the white I see, I shall believe to be black...if the hierarchical Church so stipulates." (Glassie, p.101) Because Kircher lived under this aspect of "You must not see what the Church would not like you to see," I can never be completely sure what Kircher really thought about some of the ideas he promulgated.

Here's an interview Glassie gave to NPR about his Kircher book.

I first encountered Kircher in the Museum of Jurassic Technology, and I confess I thought it was all a put-on. I thought David Wilson had made up Kircher, just as he made up the Cameroonian Stink Ant.

Vico and Hermes
Vico was born in 1668 and says the idea that all the world's wisdom came out of Egypt fit into his proto-anthropological idea of "the conceit of nations." Vico was overweening in his awareness, via his astounding breadth of reading, of what we would call today "ethnocentrism." He knew of Casaubon's finding and honored it. In discussing the effect of Roman scholars' belief in Egyptian ancient wisdom as ultimate source (on how Hermes influenced Diodorus Siculus and even Plato), Vico writes, "In sum, all these observations about the vanity of the ancient Egyptians' profound wisdom are confirmed by the case of the forgery Pimander, which was long palmed off as Hermetic doctrine. For Isaac Casaubon exposed the work as containing no doctrine older than the Platonists, whose language it borrows." - New Science, number 47.

Vico goes on to make a classic philosophically anthropological thought: "The Egyptians' mistaken belief in their own great antiquity sprang from the indeterminacy of the human mind, a property which often causes people to exaggerate immeasurably the magnitude of the unknown."

And yet Vico draws heavily from what he ascribes as an Egyptian idea of historical cycles, see section 432 of New Science. Also...the it turns out the Egyptians had quite the antiquity, so Vico was sorta wrong. But he's right about the "indeterminacy of the human mind," isn't he? This is Vico: right even when he's wrong. (And sometimes just plain wrong. But always: edifying and fun to read.)

Back to Vico's reading of Hermes: the first nations were founded by a severe poetry that became the Laws of the Ruling Class, or "heroes." The first bards sang out these laws. Much later they were written down. Thus it is with all nations, anywhen. But Hermes supposedly handed down writing, and then the laws were known. For Vico's origins of knowledge and poetic archetypes, this gets things backwards. As he writes, "How were dynasties founded within Egypt before the arrival of Hermes Trismegistus? As if letters were essential to laws! As if Spartan laws weren't legal when a law of Lycurgus himself prohibited the knowledge of letters!" (#66-67)

So how does Vico negotiate "Hermes Trismegistus"? He cites a "golden passage" from Iamblichus in which it is asserted that every invention necessary for civil life is attributed to Hermes Trismegistus. "Thus, Hermes could not have been an individual rich in esoteric wisdom who was later consecrated as a god. Instead, he must have been a poetic archetype of the earliest Egyptian sages who, being wise in vernacular wisdom, founded first the families and then the peoples who eventually made up the great nation." (#68)

And yet Vico, living in Naples, still had his own problems with the Catholic Church. But for that sometime later.

Vico's peculiar form of rationality notwithstanding, the trickster and god of messages survives. And people still believe in the influence of planets on their personal fortunes; people still use magical thinking...even well-educated and "rational" people. The Hermes archetype lives on within us.

I assert that Hermes resides in this entire blogpost; Authorities may justly kill him off, but he never dies. That's not the way the Gods and Goddesses roll, folks. Where do poets and inventors get their ideas?


Eric Wagner said...

Where do they get their ideas? Cleveland.

Terrific post.

One day I would like to understand the step from Bruno to Vico. (If only Bob had finished The Tribe's Tail.) Yates' books have helped me understand the world of John Dee, Bruno, etc. I would like to understand the links from those worlds to the world which generated Vico.

Eric Wagner said...

Thanks also for the Ibn 'Arabi link.

michael said...

One of the most interesting aspects of Vico as a thinker, to me, was that he was relatively isolated; his vertical and horizontal intellectual network was not what we would find for near-contemporaries like Descartes or Spinoza. Leibniz seems the opposite of Vico in this: he traveled extensively and ingratiated himself to royalty. While Vico had a network, it was fairly mute, and I highly suspect this was because his network were heretics, and feared the Church.

If you read The New Science, he's constantly mentioning books and thinkers now quite obscure; in his Autobio he's candid about his early admiration for Descartes ("Renato"); later Vico realized that the Cartesian view of "reality" was far too rationalistic, so much of his thought was animated toward an anti-Cartesian view of history, ideas, language, philosophy. In so doing this he invents a proto-sociology and anthropology while attempting to put the "human sciences" on par with what another great Weirdo had done for the Natural Sciences, that Weirdo being Newton.

Bruno gets burned badly in early 1600; Vico dies in 1744, sad and vastly unappreciated. In one tributary in the sociology of knowledge (for example, Alvin Gouldner's work), there's a lot about the politics of universities and the Academy and the prevention of certain able person from "rising." The best examples would be Jews, women, people of color, and people quite brilliant but with difficult temperament, odd ideas, or an irascibility. I think Vico was probably "weird" to his colleagues, but not too weird to rise further than he was allowed to; I do think he was suspected as a non-believer, even though he covered it up pretty well in his Magnum Opus.

This should all be taken as speculation on my part, based on my best, most recent attempts to piece together Vico's situation.

Lately I've found it very interesting to compare and contrast the lives and thought of Spinoza and Vico. Spinoza's family was hounded out of anti-Jewish Portugal, and he ended up in Amsterdam, probably the most tolerant area of Europe at the time...but he STILL got harassed for his beliefs! By fellow Jews! And he had his own way around the Judeo-Xtian trap: God is in Everything/Everything is God. A smart move, and one Vico would've been in peril with had he promulgated it in Naples. But Vico never left Naples.

There's a burgeoning Vico scholarship now and I have done a piss-poor job of keeping up; for all I know this "problem" I'm riffing on here has been solved but I haven't heard it yet. At any rate, I'd love to see someone translate any and all of Vico's letters into English. I think that might yield some interesting insights.

To the meat of your Bruno-to-Vico query: Vico was powerfully actuated by Renato and Newton. And Newton, as we all know, was both the great materialist/mathematician (Einstein was blown away by what a gigantic contribution Newton had made) AND a total freak: unpleasant, maybe one friend his whole life (Halley), probably somewhere on the Asperger's----Autism spectrum, and he loved the Corpus Hermeticum, alchemy, trying to apply numerology to the Bible, etc.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

One more example of Hermes serving as the messenger of the gods that will interest sombunall of your readers is when Paris is minding his own business out in the country and Hermes shows up with the news that Paris must decide who gets the Golden Apple of Eris -- Aphrodite, Juno or Athena. This was certainly a world-changing news bulletin, particularly for folks who lived in Troy.

michael said...

@ Cleveland Okie: Yes! Hermes's saddling Paris with the Decision not affected everyone in Troy, but also the other Greeks, and the readers of Illuminatus!

Anyone have a line on the story of infant Hermes, half-brother of Apollo, climbing out of his crib to find Apollo's cattle, reversing their hooves and his own sandals, then going back home to sleep? Apollo is pissed and puzzled, but figures out Hermes was the culprit, so he took Hermes to Olympus to see what Zeus Daddy has to say. Zeus has a sense of humor and seems to sorta admire the prank. Hermes offers Apollo the lyre he made out of tortoise shells, and all was forgiven.

Reversing the hooves seems to stand for "making things interesting" in everyday life by monkeywrenching, just to see what happens. That Apollo is pissed but forgives and Zeus thinks it's funny seems to say that, in Greek culture at that time, cattle raising is a serious venture, but also: having fun and dinkin' around is nothing to be sneezed at, either. Kids who prank perhaps show initiative, which is probably good for oikonomia?