World Memory

Hermetic philosophy had a major impact on the Alexandrian school of thought and helped to inspire some of the greatest minds and achievements of the ancient world. However, the golden age of Alexandria came to an end with the rise of intolerant Christianity under the reign of Cyril, and by the fifth century much of the Roman world entered the period that came later to be known as the dark ages. The scale of religious extremism and persecution led many scientists and philosophers to leave Alexandria and head for the newly emerging Arab Moslem world, taking their Hermetic knowledge with them. They were indeed the intellectual force behind centres such as Baghdad, with its famous ‘’House of Wisdom’’ that epitomised the great days of Islamic learning and scientific achievement.

With the Arab Moslem world in turn becoming increasingly intolerant, Hermetic thinkers and philosophers had to search once again for another refuge.  By the fifteenth century many of them left to the tolerant city of Florence in Northern Italy, where they inspired its great cultural flowering.  In 1460, an Egyptian monk brought fourteen Hermetic treatises to the New Platonic Academy that was established by the ruler of Florence  at that time, the scholar Cosimo de Medici instantly realised that  these texts were much older than Plato and Moses and ordered their immediate translation. This was done by the Greek Scholar Marsillio Ficino and his translation had a profound influence on major intellectual figures of this period including all the artists that we came to associate with the Italian renaissance.  As in Alexandria thousand year earlier, the renaissance viewed science, art, literature and religion as part of a united whole to be studied together and all aspects of human life were open for investigation.  With the arrival of printing, Ficino’s Hermetica found its way into the rest of Europe, signalling the end of the dark ages.

The other side of the renaissance was to found itself north of the Alps, mainly in Germany, hence it is commonly referred to as the northern renaissance. It was not heavily based on Ficino’s translation of the Hermetica but more on Medieval Arab scholars' understanding of the Hermetic texts particularly its connection with alchemy and the art of healing. The main proponent of this tradition was Paracelsus, the sixteenth century German philosopher and physician who was declared the legitimate heir of the Egyptian Hermes.  Also,  the power of allegory in the alchemical  journey  of self transformation was to direct the great German artist Albrecht Durer to the symbolic power of the Egyptian language which led him to produce the renaissance picture-writing as a universal language of visual images that scholars everywhere could understand and read.

The true influence of Hermeticism on the German mind did not reach its peak however until the age of German Romanticism. Goethe was greatly affected by it and saw one’s inner self and the outer world as reciprocal aspects of one underlying nature.

The story for England was somewhat different; it was initially influenced by the Italian renaissance which spread rapidly in its royal courts. Historians argue that Thomas Moor’s Utopia was inspired by Hermetic humanism particularly its emphasis on the idea of religious freedom.  The availability of the Hermetic text in Elizabethan England kindled the desire for learning and had its impact on major English figures such as Shakespeare, Francis Bacon and the mathematician philosopher John Dee who was the first to translate the complete works of the Alexandrian Euclid’s into English and whose library rivalled that of Oxford and Cambridge.

The age of the Elizabethan court was one of enlightened humanism which had its influence on the development of the new continent of America. Emerson, commonly referred to as the prophet of American idealism, realised that the seeds of future thought were to be found in ancient wisdom. He believed that life force was a force for good, shaped by man’s positive attitude, creative mind and his capacity to love, learn and heal.

Emerson’s concept was to find resonance later in Nietzsche’s ’Freigeist’ which he discussed in his famous work Beyond Good and Evil. It is the free spirit of the man who goes onwards along the path of wisdom in order to better himself and society.

Similar influence was exerted on the American philosopher physician William James who saw that humanity’s crisis lies mainly in its unhealthy thought and that in order for the world to heal, man has to address his diseased mind.  His philosophy is called the ‘’mind-cure movement’, and it states that diversity is the default state of human experience and human satisfaction cannot be achieved unless the self managed to live in harmony with its different mosaic parts.  In other words, to be ‘true to oneself’,’ the individual has to learn to perform this inner marriage function. The same thing was interestingly echoed in the Jungian thought whose school of psychoanalysis is referred to as the "alchemy of the soul". It states that the balanced/harmonised soul cannot be achieved except through the union of the conscious and the unconscious chaotic parts of the self.

All of this goes to show the influence of this philosophy on major intellectual figures throughout history, an influence that continued into our modern and postmodern times manifesting in the work of many individual literary and artistic figures, including Umberto Eco, Louis Borges and Fernando Pessoa, and artists such as Max Ernst, Rene Magritte and Rebecca Horn. It also inspired one of the greatest works for children of all times, the Harry Potter series. 

Many elements of the Hermetic tradition were taken over by several spiritual movements of our times and were also behind much of the popular spiritual and self–therapy literature that pervade our markets today. All are geared towards tapping into the hidden potential of one’s self and the nurturing of this potential towards self- improvement and betterment.

The appeal of the Hermetic philosophy in our times stems from our disillusionment with what we see as a growing reductionist view of science, added to our rejection of a parallel wave towards religious extremism that threatens all the humanistic values that we stand for. Hermeticism offers on the other hand the possibility of union through diversity. It can therefore be considered as Umberto Eco says, a reconciliatory third way identifying the various gods of different cultures with one another thus making what we consider foreign a comprehensible expression of what we regard as familiar.