Abraham, Thrice-Great Hermes, and Plato

In my last post I wondered aloud whether Nephi Sails the Ship of State. Since the Republic itself has a sequel, I hope it won’t be too much if I offer another Platonic reading of some of our Judeo-Christian scripture.

References to ‘intelligence’ and ‘intelligences’ in the D&C, Book of Abraham, and King Follett discourse have attracted and continue to attract a fair amount of attention. In the 19th and 20th centuries, not a few Mormons got themselves into trouble for attempting to explain what these esoteric terms mean. With its general paucity of information about pre-mortal existence, the Bible is not much help in answering the question.

Platonic tradition, on the other hand, whether of the Greco-Roman, Hermetic, Jewish, Gnostic, Christian, or Islamic variety, is quite rich in this area. For instance, in the writings of Plato himself, the soul is divided into different parts, the highest being the rational part (logistikon, logos) or mind/intellect (nous), and the soul is associated with the stars.

Souls are loosely associated with stars in the Myth of Er that concludes the Republic. After having chosen their next life and awaiting reincarnation from a take-off point in space (the Moon?), they are said to be transported in different directions into generation, like shooting stars. But what about the first incarnation? And where did the soul come from?

A stronger soul-star association is found in Plato’s Timaeus, sequel to the Republic, which begins with the tale of Atlantis and the claim that the city of Athens and the city of Sais in Egypt were both founded by the goddess Athena/Neith. An Egyptian priest tells this to Solon. Careful to specify that Athens was founded a full millennium before Sais, he compares the organization and learning of his city to that of Solon’s, noting that everything Athena taught the Greeks she also taught the Egyptians.

It’s not exactly clear how the beginning of the Timaeus relates to the rest of it which deals with creation. At any rate, following his formation of the world soul and the universe on the model of a divine pattern, the demiurge addresses his offspring, the young gods. He charges them with the formation of humans, animals, and plants, while he explains that he himself will provide the highest part of the human soul, to be located in the brain, with soul substance or seed also running down along the spinal column. The demiurge proceeds to stir up a batch of human mind in the same mixing bowl he used for the world soul, though the recipe isn’t quite the same. Once ready, he apportions the mixture so as for there to be one human soul to each star. Next he instructs the souls that if they prove just during their first, common incarnation he assigns them, they will return to their star; otherwise they will be reincarnated. The demiurge then sows them among the stars.

Writing sometime later, Philo takes the Timaeus and the Jewish creation account together. So the demiurge’s contribution to the human being occurs at Genesis 2:7, with the breath or spirit (pneuma) of life given by God to Adam functioning as the rational part of the soul, the mind/intellect.

Outside the context of Judaism and Christianity, it makes little sense for a Platonist to refer to the highest part of the soul as breath or spirit. Especially in Hermetic literature, the preferred term is mind/intellect. Though this term is found in the works of Plato and those of his more traditional Middle- and Neo-Platonic successors, it is not nearly as common as in the Hermetica.

Some of the Hermetic writings purport to have been originally composed in Egyptian and translated into Greek, badly. Even such Neo-Platonists as Iamblichus claimed that Egypt was the fount of Greek philosophy. In Christian hands, the Hermetica were read as Egyptian prophesies of divine truth. Throughout late antiquity and the Middle Ages, Hermes Trismegistus was believed to be a near contemporary of Moses and predecessor of Orpheus, Pythagoras, and Plato. Famously, when a Greek manuscript of the Corpus Hermeticum was rediscovered in 1460, Ficino was told to stop working on his Latin translation of Plato and devote his time to the writings of this much older Egyptian sage.

Together with the question of their native Egyptian heritage, the compositional date of the Hermetic literature has become a volatile issue in (post)modernity. In the early seventeenth century, Causabon argued that the Corpus Hermeticum was no older than Christianity let alone Plato. More recently, scholars like Walter Scott, Arthur Darby Nock, and A.-J. Festugière have also considered Hermes’ dialogues to be dependent on Plato’s. This was and probably still is the general academic consensus, at least among classicists.

From another perspective, however, that of Martin Bernal, for instance, who wrote Black Athena, and of afrocentric groups, the Corpus Hermeticum represents the philosophy that the Greeks appropriated from (black) Egyptians. Thus, to argue that these texts and the concepts contained in them are less Egyptian than Greek and were written/developed after Plato is to make a potentially racist statement, however unwitting.

Classicists and afrocentrists alike are foiled in the Book of Abraham, where it turns out that Platonic and Hermetic concepts of pre-mortal intelligences associated with the stars actually originated with the patriarchs. Abraham tells us that the Egyptians tried to “imitate” the patriarchal order (1:26). Not only does he have antediluvian records dealing with “the beginning of creation, and also of the planets, and of the stars” (1:31), Abraham learns about stars and intelligences first hand. God teaches him about them before he goes to Egypt so that he “may declare all these words” (3:15). Unfortunately, the text of the Book of Abraham breaks off before he arrives there, but in facsimile 3 we see him in Egypt “reasoning upon the principles of Astronomy.”

17 Replies to “Abraham, Thrice-Great Hermes, and Plato”

  1. Not that this really adds to your post here but after having read the Corpus Hermeticum I don’t think that there is a cogent argument to be made that contradicts those of Nock and Festugière–there is no way that the Cor. Herm. is independent of or anterior to Plato (and the Platonic off-shoot of Stoicism as well).

    Also, you didn’t mention that reading the Corp. Herm. is like reading Plato while taking psychotropic pharmaka–an effect which I prefer to think of having less to do with the awfulness of the Greek and the philosophy than with the intent of the author(s) to induce a hallucinogenic state in the audience so that they can properly commune with Thrice Great Hermes. I have a fond but bizarre memory of studying for a Corp. Herm. final exam in which I drifted in and out of sleep while reading through the Poimander, my mind continuing to read the whacked-out Greek even when my eyes closed. I think that I remember dreaming about ascending to the Harmony and hymning the Pater. Awesomeness. I have a few times achieved this (heightened) state of consciousness while reading Abraham, but the faux-King James Version English diminishes the (drug-like) experience. Does this help or hurt your argument? Probably the latter.

  2. Oh. I guess I planted myself squarely in the camp that doesn’t buy the afrocentric explanation for Corp. Herm. But I don’t think that that makes me a racist, at least I hope not. Of course the whole issue is even more confused by the obvious contamination (not in the pejorative sense) of the Corp. Herm. by the Heb. Bib/OT. Now that really makes for awkwardness when racism and cultural anteriority/superiority are thrown into the mix. Yikes!

  3. Thanks for this! I think you’re absolutely correct that the notion of pre-existence of the soul in Mormonism is somewhat dependent on Platonism, as it has come down through the ages (I suggested this, much less elegantly than you have, once upon a time: http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com/2006/10/mormonisms-greek-inheritance-pre-existence/). Of course, Platonism is not sui generis either, and belongs to its own historical moment, and cross cultural exchange certainly shaped his thought.

  4. oudenos,

    sounds like you’re well on your way along the hermetic path. once upon a time i used to attempt to visualize god on his throne there next to kolob. it kind of worked. but i have yet to ascend to the eighth and ninth.

    i admit that i have only read around in the first volume of black athena and skimmed through the other two volumes. if you’re like me, it is hard to begin to get a handle on the issue because so much has been written on it. hermetism is just a tiny part of bernal’s arguement, which includes the claim that egyptians colonized greece and that a good chunk of greek vocabulary is actually egyptian(!).

    one of bernal’s most outspoken critics has been mary lefkowitz, a classics professor of jewish descent. her recent book entitled history lesson: a race odyssey (new haven: yale 2008) provides a quick, if onesided, introduction to what’s at stake. in the book she writes more about her conflict with anthony martin, her coleague in the africana studies department at wellesley college. it’s pretty ugly to see the politics and personal disputes that can drive scholarship.

    i am not at all opposed to the idea of there being things native egyptian in the hermetic literature, or to the notion that the hermetica were written by hellenized egyptians. in fact, i think that is probably the case more often than not, especially in the technical hermetica. and i am in basic agreement with bernal when he says that hermetism “was the earliest of the three [the other two being gnosticism and neo-platonism] and had a critical influence on the formation of the other two movements.”

    but i’m with you. a date for the texts of the corpus hermeticum before plato is not convincing to me. i also tend to see the assertions of composition in the egyptian langauge–found in a few of the hermetica themselves and in iamblichus–to be wishful thinking. but what do i know? i’m no egyptologist.


    i remembered your glorious post and went back to it when writing this one. you convinced me to read givens’ new book on pre-existence.

    i agree. platonism did not spring fully formed from the head of zeus.

    givens begins with ancient near eastern traditions and he hints, none too subtley, throughout the book, that the idea of pre-existence is originally semitic. i can’t help but but wonder whether this has something to do with the book of abraham. given’s treatment is wonderful on the whole and staggeringly broad. still i feel that he may be showing joseph smith special treatment with references to “american prophets and churchmen working under native inspiration” (p.209) and to the book of abraham’s “stiking affinities with [ancient] semitic traditions” (p.216).

  5. Been so long … still remember someone claiming Cleopatra was Black because, after all, she was Egyptian … not realizing she was Greek.

    But it is too easy to go the other way and insist that everything is Greek.

    Nice to see someone taking another look at things.

  6. stephen m.,

    true, the backlash can be excessive.

    as far as hermetism goes, i think garth fowden’s book the egyptian hermes is well balanced.

  7. These are complex issues–read antebellum memorial poetry, and you’ll see plenty of souls as stars imagery.
    and human pre-existence is pretty easily derived from the pre-existence of Christ, as many Christians/sectarians did without going to Plato (and Origen offers another close reach). I treat pre-existence contextually in my chapter on the divine anthropology.

    all that said, I love neoplatonism and the hermeticists and don’t mean to bag on them. I just think we need to be careful about historical contexts in the antebellum intellectual world.

    I also enjoyed the image of the Poimander inducing psychotic dreams in the oudenos response.

  8. sam,

    i’ll have to check out your book when it becomes available. i’m kind of averse to poesis, though, so i’ll just take your word for it on antebellum memorial poetry.

    you have me a bit confused here. i thought you were of the opinion that js and company were in general high iq’s and fairly well read. now you seem to be doubting that he was/could have been familiar with things platonic/hermetic. you’re not a contrarian are you?

    to be clear, i don’t suggest that the pre-mortal intelligences associated with stars in mormonism are exclusively and directly traceable to plato. i don’t envision js with a copy of the timaeus at hand, saying, let’s splice this discussion of souls into the biblical reference to abraham’s posterity being as numerous as the stars.

    i leaned on hermetism in an attempt to show that there’s more to the book of abraham that impinges on racial issues than the curse of ham/canaan. speaking of which …

  9. p.s.

    you know that the young origen made a living teaching greek lit and may have studied with plotinus’ teacher, right?

  10. g.wesley, sorry. I am of the opinion that JSJ had a high IQ and a limber mind. My reservation is about requiring that JSJ acquire hermetic ideas from hermeticism directly, when a wide variety of such ideas were common fare in non-hermetic writings in the antebellum period. That he did not find the ideas in the Poimander doesn’t mean he wasn’t smart, just that he may not have been a traditional esoteric.

  11. SMB, I’m pretty sympathetic to that view how the problem with the “it’s all in the air” hypothesis is that it’s pretty difficult to falsify. Some see that as a strength of parallels whereas in an other sense it makes it pretty hard to make progress in figuring out actual influences.

    While Quinn did a bit of the “in the air” waving I was impressed that he also found explicit writings available to Joseph with pretty similar phraseologies. This is much better than the rough parallel approach as it provides a more direct influence and provides an actual point of contact in terms of explicit phrases.

  12. Thanks for the clarification, Sam.

    I think there is definitely something to be said for that. It would even be possible for the common fare to be generally unrecognized for what it is. Say, like Maimonides and the Arabic Plotinus (aka Theology of Aristotle), perhaps.

  13. I’d say this. Throughout the history of Christianity, those particularly interested in Platonism (and neoplatonism) tend to line up with Mormonism on a number of issues: pre-existence, deification, female goddess, theurgy, mysticism. I think that’s worth noting if we want to ask the question of how things got “into the air” and what among that which was in the air did JS like. There was a rich tradition of Christian Platonism from Clement and Origen all the way to JS.

  14. I am not advocating “in the air.” I’m talking about the fact that there are a wide variety of sources in exchange papers and books that are circulating, available, and quoted, that provide reasonable access to “metaphysical” ideas without requiring, e.g., that Smith be reading the Zohar or “Divine Pymander.” And if you want to put together the intellectual history, you have to consider those sources, among others. I don’t think finding something in Plato (or the Corpus Hermeticum) tells you much about antebellum metaphysical thought–these were not the Cambridge Platonists, however high their IQs and aggressive their curiosity. You have to put in the time to read memorial poetry and snippets from exchange papers and circulating natural science textbooks, and how quotes from Pope circulated. Doing this kind of intellectual history is much harder than studying the traditional learned esoterics. I never got the senes that Quinn really understood what was going on very well, though I believe he was very good at assembling bibliographical material.

  15. I don’t think people are arguing that Smith read those source but are saying instead that he drew upon neoplatonic ideas that he had access to. By the nineteenth century Platonism had become quite diffuse, and I think a case could be made that the sources you mention were likewise influenced by this broader Platonism.

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