As a practical spiritual way, Hermetism was a characteristic product of the Greek-speaking milieu in Egypt. Hermetism, like Hellenistic and Roman Egypt itself, was also part of a wider Mediterranean whole, a world with its intellectual as well as its linguistic koine. The books of Hermes, both philosophical and technical, enjoyed wide dissemination in the Roman empire, while their doctrine typified and combined the Roman world's literary and religious orientalism, and its yearning for revealed knowledge.
Late antique writers, when quoting the authorities for such-and-such a statement or doctrine, often make no distinction between Hermes and the great sages. He belonged in the company of the universally recognized wise. Close analogies to, in particular, the technical Hermetica are to be found in the Greek writings ascribed to Zoroaster, Ostanes and Hystaspes, sages of Persia, and their Chaldaean cousins. The popularity of the eastern sages was, of course, nothing new. It had long been believed that Plato, Pythagoras and other wise men of the Greeks had traveled in the East and sat at the feet of its renowned teachers; and occasionally their visits were reciprocated, as by the 'Chaldaean' and the 'magi' who visited the Academy of Plato while its founder was still alive. Such contacts naturally multiplied in the wake of Alexander's armies. Oriental intellectuals like Manetho or the Babylonian priest Berossus were moved to describe their own religious traditions in the language of their new rulers; while among the Greeks there arose a demand for the ipissima verba of the oriental sages. Hence the books of the Persians, the Chaldaeans, and, of course, Hermes Trismegistus, adjusting in various degrees the wisdom of the East to the palate of the Greek. At the heart of all these genres lies the same cultural and intellectual compromise. Greco-Roman orientalism and the occidentalism of the Eastern elites both reflected a sense of intellectual incompleteness, and a consequent readiness to adjust cultural boundaries. Greeks were attracted by the numinousness of oriental religions and the antiquity of oriental cultures. What resulted was an unevenly and idiosyncratically homogenized culture, in which it was not uncommon for the same texts to circulate indifferently under the names of both Greek and oriental sages.
That oriental wisdom was often revealed wisdom was undoubtedly important. Most religions experience internal conflict over doctrinal authority; but Greco-Roman paganism had the additional problem of how to choose between, let alone reconcile, a primitive theology, that lacked even the external support afforded by institutional substructures and professional priesthoods, and a highly developed body of philosophical doctrine propagated by organized Schools. The traditional religion was an amorphous agglomeration of cults that had no discernible beginning in time and which, in the absence of any authoritative statement or source of doctrine, had to make do with the utterances of the poets. Those who required explanation or elaboration of the inherited wisdom could expect little help from the oracles, whose forte was guidance on practical matters-though Apollo might on occasion answer theological questions, and Porphyry was not alone among late antique thinkers in believing it was possible to extract philosophy from oracles. With the philosophers themselves the inquiring mind would fare little better, since no two of them could agree on anything, as was well known. And since not everybody was able to follow Lucian's Menippus down to Hades in pursuit of the truths which the poets, the laws and the philosophers were so sadly unable to illuminate, it was only a matter of time before somebody thought of combining the divine authority of the oracle with the systematic reasoning of the philosopher. Either a philosopher safely dead could be pronounced to have taught with divine authority-the solution chosen by the later followers of Pythagoras and Plato-or a completely new literature could be produced as a revelation o indisputable truth. Hence Hermetism, a typical specimen of revealed doctrine abundantly paralleled in, for example, the Jewish and Christian (especially the gnostic) traditions, but, as a comprehensive divine and literary explanation of God, the World, Humanity and the soul's destiny, unique in the pagan sphere. This neither Orpheus and Pythagoras nor the magi and Chaldaeans could provide, though quantitatively their influence may have been greater. Here we see the individuality of Egypt's contribution to the late pagan thought-world, an individuality bred admist the unusually intimate cultural interactions that had been stimulated by the settlement of Greeks in the narrow valley of the Nil.
Guaranteed then by the prestige of Trismegistus and of Egypt, the revelatory solution to the problem of authority had an undeniable attractiveness, not least for those, like Iamblichus, who hoped to rally the ranks of Christianity's opponents. Hermetism should primarily be judged, however, neither by its reputation of its patron, nor by the effectiveness in our eyes of its explanations of the spheres of being, nor, of course, by its ability-not great-to withstand Christian assault. At heart it was a spiritual way, the way of Hermetic gnosis-a means to an end immune from the scrutiny of philologist, philosopher and historian alike.
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Last modified: Mon Mar 04, 2002 / Jeremiah Genest