Notes from The Golden Builders:
Alchemists, Rosicrucians, and the First Freemasons
By Tobias Churton

Part One, The Hermetic Philosophy
“megistos kai megistos theos megas”
The cult of Hemes was already established in the Greek world by the time Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 331 BC. Hermes’ Egyptian equivalent, the mega-god Thoth, was the supreme master of trickery, magic, writing, the realm of the dead, the moon, and medicine. The Graeco-Egyptian Thoth-Hermes was the very spirit of inventiveness. Fleet of foot and quick of mind, Hermes was the divine messenger. To be inspired by the powers of Hermes was to become Hermes. In this condition, one could write in his name.
Right around the 1st Century Ad, the thrice-greatest Hermes:
Hermes Trismegistos began to appear in a series of knowledge-tracts, operating as a kind of intellectual designer-label.
The authority of Hermes Trismegistos was employed to dignify two major classes of writing. First, a coterie of practical and theoretical lore relating to talismanic magic, astrology, astrological medicine and alchemy, and secondly, philosophical writings in dialogue form, concerned with the nature of God, man, and the cosmos. Those works ascribed to Hermes from AD 250-1050 constitute the philosophical Hermetica, the Corpus Hermeticum: the ancient teaching of Hermes Trismegistos presented as Revelation, experienced by the student’s identifying himself with father Hermes’ own experience, and so acquiring Gnosis or experiential knowledge of the spirit, making the student aware of his mind as living fact.
The Hermetic tradition was both moderate and flexible, offering a tolerant philosophical religion, a religion of the omnipresent mind, a purified perception of God, the cosmos, and the self, and much positive encouragement for the spiritual seeker, all of which the student could take anywhere. Much of the philosophy exposed in the tracts was “psychedelic” – or soul-expanding.
The earliest manuscripts of Hermetica were discovered in the Nag Hammadi library buried by ancient Christian Gnostics in Egypt the 4th Century. St John’s Gospel declared that Christ was the divine Logos – the creative mind, or word of God. Gnostics concluded that the Logos and the “Nous” or spirit mind, of Hermetic philosophy were similar in substance.

Principle message of the philosophical Hermetica:
-In order to be saved from the ebb, flow, flux, and corruption of material life, it is necessary to have perfectly pure vision. The state of mind of the pupil – the climax of spiritual growth is always accompanied by astonishingly increased powers of perception, breaking through from material to spiritual vision – to see a “sacramental vision” of the created order: the world manifests as visible experience which is the expression of far greater and more profound powers invisible to the organic eye but which are seizable by the enlightened eye of the mind – called the Nous, a Greek word which can mean either “mind” or “spirit”.
-There are no parables; there are repeated assertions of fundamental spiritual principles. There are no miracles; the cosmos is revealed as a continual miracle. There is no coercion, the student is free to choose the way of the flesh or the way of Nous. There is ultimately no master; the student must learn to become his own master. There is no end; it is eternal life – the life of the aeons – that springs from the source of “the All”(Pan)
The primary principle to understand is to “know thyself”
What is the essential nature of man?
Man is a great miracle…because he take in the nature of a god as if he were himself a god; he has familiarity with the demon-kind, knowing that he issues from the same origin; he despises this part of his nature which is but human because he puts his hope in the divinity of the other part. What a privileged blend makes up the nature of man – as intermediary, loving the beings who are below him and being loved by the beings who are above him. He takes the earth as his own, he blends himself with the elements by the speed of thought, by the sharpness of mind he descends to the depths of the sea….he is at the same time everything as he is everywhere. (Asclepius 6a ff)

Palingensia – a process that comes from recognizing, through an inner ascent experience, how far the passions of the world envelop the soul, like heavy coats of dens and dull material which hold the vision in darkness. These “coats’ or “passions” are called the “irrational torments of matter”. The passions keep man from Gnosis of his true identity.

The 12 causes of ignorance (agnosis):
Ignorance itself; grief; incontinence (obsession with sex); desire; injustice; covetousness; deceitfulness; envy; fraud; anger; rashness; malice. (Libellus XIII. 7bff.)

The Hermetic writings brought Gnosis to those pagans in search of a thoughtful and spiritual salvation from the world. For it was to Hermes, the texts informed the reader, that there had once come the giants of a mythical past, in their youth, for instruction and initiation into the authentic, pristine, cosmic philosophy. Their names were given as Tat, King Ammon, and Asklepios. The understanding reader was invited to join the august host of that spiritual elite who had, they were led to believe, benefited from the master’s authentic voice – the voice of the “authentic Nous mind” – for century on imagined century.

“What inner voyager could fail to be, at least in part, seduced by the voice of a conception so abstract and timeless as the omnipresent and omniscient Mind?”

The universal quality of the Corpus Hermeticum has allowed it to be used by both Christian and Muslim scholars to support their contentions.
The Hermetica asserts that God gave the Nous to man to enlighten him, but many forgo its light because they prefer the things of the body of sense to the subtle world of the unseen. The Hermetic writings set very high store on the idea of knowledge, of Gnosis. They are, after all, books of knowledge. The important thing is to know God, then all good and loving insights will follow and man will see himself as he really is, and how close to the source of All[Pan] he is. – The Gnosis of Hermetica is rooted in the most optimistic picture possible of human potential. One can almost describe its flavor as innocent; coming, as was believed, from a pristine past of unspoilt people:
If then you do not make yourself equal to God, you cannot apprehend God; for like is known by like. leap clear of all that is corporeal [ie: use your imagination], and make yourself grow to a like expanse with that greatness which is beyond all measure; rise above all time and become eternal; then you will apprehend God. Think that for you too nothing is impossible; deem that you too are immortal, and that you are able to grasp all things in your thought, to know every craft and every science; find your home in the haunts of every living creature; make yourself higher than all heights, and lower than all depths; bring yourself together in yourself all opposites of quality, heat and cold, dryness and fluidity; think that you are everywhere at once, on land, at sea, in heaven; think that you are not yet begotten, that you are in the womb, that you are young, that you are old, that you have died, that you are in the world beyond the grave; grasp in your thought all this at once, all times and places, all substances and qualities and magnitudes together; then you can apprehend God. But if you shut up your soul in your body [or fail to use your imagination], and abase yourself, and say ‘I know nothing, I can do nothing; I am afraid of earth and sea, I cannot mount to heaven; I know not what I was, nor what I shall be’, then, what have you to do with God? Your thought can grasp nothing beautiful and good, if you cleave to the body, and are evil.
For it is the height of evil not to know God; but to be capable of knowing God, and to wish and to hope to know him, is the road which leads straight to the Good; and it is an easy road to travel. Everywhere God will come to meet you, everywhere he will appear to you, at places and time at which you look not for it, in your waking hours and in your sleeping, when you are speaking and when you are silent; for there is nothing which God is not. Who is more manifest that God? For this purpose has he made all things, that through all things you may see him. This is God’s goodness, that he manifests himself through all things. Nothing is invisible, not even an incorporeal thing; Nous is seen in its thinking, and God in his working.
So far, thrice great one, [says Nous], I have shown you the truth. Think out all else in like manner for yourself, and you will not be misled. {Libellus XIii 20b-22b}

It is still unclear as to what part Hermetic ideas played in the development of Christian Gnosticism – and what part Christian Gnosticism played in the development of Hermeticism. There are similarities of idea – esp. as regards aesthetic pantheism and the need for Gnosis of God. But there is a marked difference of tone and pitch.

The ‘libelli’ of Hermes Tresmegistos are marked by a tranquil, genial tone of gravitas and contemplative ease, in contrast to the hurried, intense, obscure, riddle-drenched barrage of pedantic and hieratic restlessness characteristic of Gnostic Christian library material…just as well that Hermetists and Gnostic Christians seem to have kept their distance – the words of Hermes destined to traverse the thoughts of scholars in both east and west fro centuries to come, and though divorced from their original ‘sitz en leben’, continued to evoke a fantasy-land of cool philosophy and spiritual awakening…

Neoplatonism and the Hermetic Tradition
It was the fate of the Hermetic philosophical writings to be regarded as ancient authorities; a kind of litmus-test to what was authentic in philosophy. The origin of much of the western philosophical tradition was located in translation-houses based in Harran and Baghdad, preoccupied with scientific and magical knowledge; Neoplatonic philosophy provided the rational basis for much magical practice.
Plotinus – the chief progenitor of Neoplatonic philosophy
Hermes, the God who presides over learning, has for long been rightly regarded as common to all priests: he who presides over true knowledge [gnosis] about the gods is one and the same, whatever the circumstances. It was to him too that our ancestors dedicated the fruits of their wisdom, by placing all their own writings under his name. – Iamblichus (c.250-335)
Iamblichus claimed to have found his doctrine of passifying the demons of the soul (to neutralize the passions of the body) in the Hermetic books, where the liberation of the soul from the bonds of Fate (that is: the star demons), was many times decribed.

The late-antique Neoplatonists had some problems dealing with the demonology or vulgar magic [goetia] of some hermetic writings – due to the fact that magic in its purely intellectual phase bore within it essential gnostic characteristics….magic and gnosis were really inseparable.

Iamblichus developed the origins of theurgist belief – that man could be a free agent within a divine cosmos, that he could engage directly with cosmic powers, that he shared in the being of the primal man, called Phos [=Light], that he was ‘in potentia’ a being of light enclosed in a shell, and that man, like the gods which lived within him was endowed with immortality and the spark of gnosis, which if used properly could bring him out of a world of constraint and darkness into a world of freedom, love, light and truth. This optimistic picture was necessarily held discreetly, not least since it stood in head on collision with the Catholic Church’s concept of original sin and purgatorial redemption. Hermes was an uncomfortable guest at the church’s festive board.