Hegel is not a philosopher. He is no lover or seeker of wisdom — he believes he has found it. Hegel writes in the preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit, “To help bring philosophy closer to the form of Science, to the goal where it can lay aside the title of ‘love of knowing’ and be actual knowledge — that is what I have set before me” (Miller, 3; PC, 3). By the end of the Phenomenology, Hegel claims to have arrived at Absolute Knowledge, which he identifies with wisdom.
Hegel’s claim to have attained wisdom is completely contrary to the original Greek conception of philosophy as the love of wisdom, that is, the ongoing pursuit rather than the final possession of wisdom. His claim is, however, fully consistent with the ambitions of the Hermetic tradition, a current of thought that derives its name from the so-called Hermetica (or Corpus Hermeticum), a collection of Greek and Latin treatises and dialogues written in the first or second centuries A.D. and probably containing ideas that are far older. The legendary author of these works is Hermes Trismegistus (“Thrice-Greatest Hermes”). “Hermeticism” denotes a broad tradition of thought that grew out of the “writings of Hermes” and was expanded and developed through the infusion of various other traditions. Thus, alchemy, Kabbalism, Lullism, and the mysticism of Eckhart and Cusa — to name just a few examples — became intertwined with the Hermetic doctrines. (Indeed, Hermeticism is used by some authors simply to mean alchemy.) Hermeticism is also sometimes called theosophy, or esotericism; less precisely, it is often characterized as mysticism, or occultism.
It is the thesis of this book that Hegel is a Hermetic thinker. I shall show that there are striking correspondences between Hegelian philosophy and Hermetic theosophy, and that these correspondences are not accidental. Hegel was actively interested in Hermeticism, he was influenced by its exponents from boyhood on, and he allied himself with Hermetic movements and thinkers throughout his life. I do not argue merely that we can understand Hegel as a Hermetic thinker, just as we can understand him as a German or a Swabian or an idealist thinker. Instead, I argue that we must understand Hegel as a Hermetic thinker, if we are to truly understand him at all.
Hegel’s life and works offer ample evidence for this thesis.
There are references throughout Hegel’s published and unpublished writings to many of the leading figures and movements of the Hermetic tradition. These references are in large measure approving. This is particularly the case with Hegel’s treatment of Eckhart, Bruno, Paracelsus, and Boehme. Boehme is the most striking case. Hegel accords him considerable space in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy — more space, in fact, than he devotes to many significant mainstream thinkers in the philosophic tradition.
There are, furthermore, numerous Hermetic elements in Hegel’s writings. These include, in broad strokes, a Masonic subtext of “initiation mysticism” in the Phenomenology of Spirit; a Boehmean subtext to the Phenomenology’s famous preface; a Kabbalistic-Boehmean-Lullian influence on the Logic; alchemical-Paracelsian elements in the Philosophy of Nature; an influence of Kabbalistic and Joachimite millennialism on Hegel’s doctrine of Objective Spirit and theory of world history; alchemical and Rosicrucian images in the Philosophy of Right; an influence of the Hermetic tradition of pansophia on the system as a whole; an endorsement of the Hermetic belief in philosophia perennis; and the use of perennial Hermetic symbolic forms (such as the triangle, the circle, and the square) as structural, architectonic devices.
Hegel’s library included Hermetic writings by Agrippa, Boehme, Bruno, and Paracelsus. He read widely on Mesmerism, psychic phenomenal dowsing, precognition, and sorcery. He publicly associated himself with known occultists, like Franz von Baader. He structured his philosophy in a manner identical to the Hermetic use of ‘Correspondences!’ He relied on histories of thought that discussed Hermes Trismegistus, Pico della Mirandola, Robert Fludd, and Knorr von Rosenroth alongside Plato, Galileo, Descartes, and Newton. He stated in his lectures more than once that the term “speculative” means the same thing as “mystical.” He believed in an “Earth Spirit” and corresponded with colleagues about the nature of magic. He aligned himself, informally, with “Hermetic” societies such as the Freemasons and the Rosicrucians. Even Hegel’s doodles were Hermetic, as we shall see in chapter 3 when I discuss the mysterious “triangle diagram”.
The divisions of Hegel’s philosophy follow a pattern that is typical of many forms of mystical and Hermetic philosophy. The Phenomenology represents an initial stage of “purification” of raising the mind above the level of the sensory and the mundane, a preparation for the reception of wisdom. The Logic is equivalent to the Hermetic “ascent” to the level of pure form, of the eternal, of “Universal Mind” (Absolute Idea). The Philosophy of Nature describes an “emanation”’ or “othering’’ of Universal Mind in the form of the spatio-temporal world. Its categories accomplish a transfiguration of the natural: we come to see the world as a reflection of Universal Mind. The Philosophy of Spirit accomplishes a “return of created nature to the Divine by means of man, who can rise above the merely natural and “actualize” God in the world through concrete forms of life (e.g., the state and religion) and through speculative philosophy.
It is surely one of the great ironies of history that the Hermetic ideal of man as magus, achieving total knowledge and wielding Godlike powers to bring the world to perfection, was the prototype of the modern scientist. Yet, as Gerald Hanratty writes, “the widespread recourse to magical and alchemical techniques inspired a new confidence in man’s operational powers. In contrast with the passive and contemplative attitudes which generally prevail during earlier centuries, Renaissance alchemists and Magi asserted their dominion over all levels of being.” Hermeticism replaces the love of wisdom with the lust for power. As we shall see, Hegel’s system is the ultimate expression of this pursuit of mastery.
Whether or not Hegel can be understood as “Hermetic” depends on how Hermeticism is defined. In truth, Hermeticism is difficult to define rigorously. Its adherents all tend to share certain interests — often classed as “occult” or “esoteric” — which are held together merely by family resemblances. In part, my argument for Hegel’s Hermeticism depends on demonstrating that Hegel’s interests coincide with the curious mixture of interests typical of Hermeticists. These include alchemy, Kabbalism, Mesmerism, extrasensory perception, spiritualism, dowsing, eschatology, prisca theologia, philosophia perennis, Lullism, Paracelcism, Joachimism, Rosicrucianism, Masonry, Eckhartean mysticism, “correspondences” secret systems of symbolism, vitalism, and “cosmic sympathies:”
There is, however, one essential feature that I shall take as definitive of Hermeticism. Ernest Lee Tuveson, in his The Avatars of Thrice Greatest Hermes: An Approach to Romanticism suggests that Hermeticism constitutes a middle position between pantheism and the Judaeo-Christian conception of God. According to traditional Judaeo-Christian thought, God utterly transcends and is infinitely distant from creation. Furthermore, God is entirely self-sufficient and therefore did not have to create the world, and would have lost nothing if He had not created it. Thus the act of creation is essentially gratuitous and unmotivated. God creates out of sheer abundance, not out of need. This doctrine has proved dissatisfying and even disturbing to many, for it makes creation seem arbitrary and absurd. Pantheism, by contrast, so thoroughly involves the divine in the world that everything becomes God, even mud, hair, and dirt — which drains the divine of its exaltedness and sublimity. Thus, pantheism is equally dissatisfying.
Hermeticism is a middle position because it affirms both God’s transcendence of the world and his involvement in it. God is metaphysically distinct from the world, yet God needs the world to complete Himself. Thus the act of creation is not arbitrary or gratuitous, but necessary and rational. Consider these lines from the “Discourse of Hermes to Tat: The mixing bowl or the monad” (Corpus Hermeticum 4): “If you force me to say something still more daring, it is [God’s] essence to be pregnant with all things and to make them. As it is impossible for anything to be produced without a maker, so also is it impossible for this maker [not] to exist always unless he is always making everything…. He is himself the things that are and those that are not.” Consider also Corpus Hermeticum 10: “God’s activity is will, and his essence is to will all things to be.” Finally, consider Corpus Hermeticum 14: “For the two are all there is, what comes to be and what makes it, and it is impossible to separate the one from the other. No maker can exist without something that comes to be:” Thus, according to Hermeticism, God requires creation in order to be God. This Hermetic account of creation is central to Hegel’s thought as well.
But there is more. Hermeticists not only hold that God requires creation, they make a specific creature, man, play a crucial role in God’s selfactualization. Hermeticism holds that man can know God, and that man’s knowledge of God is necessary for God’s own completion. Consider the words of Corpus Hermeticum 10: “For God does not ignore mankind; on the contrary, he recognizes him fully and wishes to be recognized. For mankind this is the only deliverance, the knowledge of God. It is ascent to Olympus.” Corpus Hermeticum 11 asks, “Who is more visible than God? This is why he made all things: so that through them all you might look on him.” As Garth Fowden notes, what God gains from creation is recognition: “Man’s contemplation of God is in some sense a two-way process. Not only does Man wish to know God, but God too desires to be known by the most glorious of His creations, Man:” In short, it is man’s end to achieve knowledge of God (or “the wisdom of God,” theosophy). In so doing, man realizes God’s own need to be recognized. Man’s knowledge of God becomes God’s knowledge of himself. Thus the need for which the cosmos is created is the need for selfknowledge, attained through recognition. Variations on this doctrine are to be found throughout the Hermetic tradition.
It is important to understand the significance of this doctrine in the history of ideas. On the standard Judaeo-Christian account of creation, the creation of the world and God’s command that mankind seek to know and love him seem arbitrary, because there is no reason why a perfect being should want or need anything. The great advantage of the Hermetic conception is that it tells us why the cosmos and the human desire to know God exist in the first place.
This Hermetic doctrine of the “circular” relationship between God and creation and the necessity of man for the completion of God is utterly original. It is not to be found in earlier philosophy. But it recurs again and again in the thought of Hermeticists, and it is the chief doctrinal identity between Hermeticism and Hegelian thought.
Hegel is often described as a mystic. Indeed, even he describes himself as one (see chapter 4). But mysticism is a broad concept that subsumes many radically different ideas. All forms of mysticism aim at some kind of knowledge of, experience of, or unity with the divine. If we ask what kind of mystic Hegel is, the answer is that he is a Hermeticist. Hermeticism is often confused with another form of mysticism, Gnosticism (particularly in recent Hegel scholarship). Gnosticism and Hermeticism both believe that a divine “spark” is implanted in man, and that man can come to know God. However, Gnosticism involves an absolutely negative account of creation. It does not regard creation as a part of God’s being, or as “completing” God. Nor does Gnosticism hold that God somehow needs man to know Him. Hermeticism is also very often confused with Neoplatonism. Like the Hermeticists, Plotinus holds that the cosmos is a circular process of emanation from and return to the One. Unlike the Hermeticists, Plotinus does not hold that the One is completed by man’s contemplation of it. (Centuries later, however, the Neoplatonism of Proclus and of the Renaissance was influenced by Hermeticism.)
Another parallel between Hermeticism and Hegel concerns the initiation process through which the intuitive portion of the intellect is trained to see the Reason inherent in the world. As Fowden notes, Hermetic initiation seems to fall into two parts, one dealing with self-knowledge, the other with knowledge of God. It can easily be shown, simply on a theoretical level, that these two are intimately wedded. To really know one’s self is to be able to give a complete speech about the conditions of one’s being, and this involves speaking about God and His entire cosmos. As Pico della Mirandola puts it, “he who knows himself knows all things in himself.” Also, in the Near East it was typical to portray God as hovering strangely between transcendence and immanence. The attainment of enlightenment involved somehow seeing the divine in oneself, indeed becoming divine.
We do not really know anything about the Hermes cult that may have employed the Hermetic texts as its sacred writings. We know little or nothing of their rites of initiation or how they lived. We can, however, say that Hermetic initiation differed from initiation into, for example, the Eleusinian mysteries in classical Greece. We also happen to know quite little about what happened at Eleusis, but it does seem to be the case that illumination there consisted in the participation in some kind of arresting experience which was intended to change the initiate permanently. We do not know what that experience was, but we do know that it could be had by young and old, rich and poor, educated and uneducated. This is not the case with Hermetic initiation. Salvation for the Hermeticists was, as we have seen, through gnosis, through understanding. This could be attained only through hard work, and then it could be attained only by some. Hermes is quoted in Corpus Hermeticum 16 as stating that his teaching “keeps the meaning of its words concealed,” hidden from the discernment of the unworthy.
However, it would be a mistake to treat the Hermetic initiation as purely intellectual. Enlightenment does not occur simply by learning a set of doctrines. One must not only know doctrine, but have the real-life experience of the truth of the doctrine. One must be led up to illumination carefully; one must actually explore the blind alleys that promise illumination but do not deliver. Only in this way will the true doctrine mean anything; only in this way will the initiate’s life actually change. Fowden writes that Hermetic initiation is envisaged as “a real experience, stretching all the capacities of those who embark upon it,” and he quotes Corpus Hermeticum 4, stating that “it is an extremely tortuous way, to abandon what one is used to and possesses now, and to retrace one’s steps towards the old primordial things.” We will see in chapter 4 that Hegel preserves both the intellectual and emotional moments of this Hermetic conception of initiation.
Enlightenment, for the authors of the Hermetica and for Hegel, is not just an intellectual event; it is expected to change the life of the enlightened one. Philosophy, for Hegel, is about living. In brief, the man who achieves Selbstbewusstsein is the man who becomes selbstbewusst: confident, self-actualized, no longer an ordinary human being. Klaus Vondung writes that “The Hermeticist does not need to escape from the world in order to save himself, he wants to gain knowledge of the world in order to expand his own self, and utilize this knowledge to penetrate into the self of God. Hermeticism is a positive Gnosis, as it were, devoted to the world. To know everything is to in some sense have control over everything. This is what I term the ideal of man as magus, and it is unique to the Hermetica. See, for example, Corpus Hermeticum 4: “All those who heeded the proclamation and immersed themselves in mind [nous] participated in knowledge and became perfect [or “complete,” teleioi] people because they received mind. But those who missed the point of the proclamation are people of reason [or “speech,” logikon] because they did not receive [the gift of] mind as well and do not know the purpose or the agents of their coming to nous. In other words, the men of complete self-understanding who know even the “purpose or the agents of their coming to be” are perfect human beings. If Hegel did not believe that man could literally become God, he certainly believed that the wise man is daimonic: a more-than-merely-human participant in the divine life.
In the Corpus Hermeticum we find a kind of “bridge position” between Egyptian occultism and the modern Hermeticism of Hegel and others. Instead of conceiving words as carrying literal occult power, words come to be seen as carrying a kind of existential empowerment. The ideal of Hermetic theosophy becomes the formulation of a “complete speech” (teleeis logos, “perfect discourse” or perhaps “Encyclopedic discourse,” which means, of course, “circular” discourse). When acquired, the complete speech, which concerns the whole of reality, will radically transform and empower the life of the enlightened one. So Hegel writes in a fragment preserved by Rosenkranz:
´Every individual is a blind link in the chain of absolute necessity, along which the world develops. Every individual can raise himself to domination over a great length of this chain only if he realizes the goal of this great necessity and, by virtue of this knowledge, learns to speak the magic words which evoke its shape. The knowledge of how to simultaneously absorb and elevate oneself beyond the total energy of suffering and antithesis that has dominated the world and all forms of its development for thousands of years — this knowledge can be gathered from philosophy alone,´
Another parallel between Hermeticism and Hegel is the analysis of the divine into a set of “modes” or “moments” Hermeticists do not rest content with the idea of an unknowable God. instead, they seek to penetrate the divine mystery. They hold that it is possible to know God in a piecemeal fashion, by coming to understand the different aspects of the divine. The best example is Kabbalism, both in its Jewish and Christian forms. Lull, Bruno, Paracelsus, Boehme, Oetinger, and many others in the Hermetic tradition hold this belief.
Another parallel between Hermeticism and Hegel is the doctrine of internal relations. For the Hermeticists, the cosmos is not a loosely connected, or to use Hegelian language, externally related set of particulars. Rather, everything in the cosmos is internally related, bound up with everything else. Even though the cosmos may be hierarchically arranged, there are forces that cut across and unify all the levels. Divine powers understood variously as “energy” or “light” pervade the whole. This principle is most clearly expressed in the so-called Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus, which begins with the famous lines “As above, so below.” This maxim became the central tenet of Western occultism, for it laid the basis for a doctrine of the unity of the cosmos through sympathies and correspondences between its various levels. The most important implication of this doctrine is the idea that man is the microcosm, in which the whole of the macrocosm is reflected. Self-knowledge, therefore, leads necessarily to knowledge of the whole.