Knowing Beyond Knowing: The Heart of Hermetic Tradition
by Peter Kingsley
At the center of the Hermetic tradition lies the need for a certain type of knowledge: gnosis, or knowledge of the divine. This is something entirely different from formal types of knowledge, which separate and distance us from what we think we know. Yet according tothe Hermetic teachings, this knowledge is not a “bonus” or extra that we can set our minds on if we want. Far from it: without that particular knowledge we are not men and women in any true sense. This knowledge has to do with the core of our existence, and that is why it is intensely intimate. That is also why the process of discovering it is so intensely disturbing, because it forces us toconfront the silent core of our being. This knowledge can never be defined in terms of formal knowledge. It is not possible to define the new in terms of the old, or something so intimate in the normal objective way. The Hermetic and Pythagorean traditions both relied heavily on teaching through hints: not because they wanted to mystify, but because that is the best that can be done. Those who areserious learn to follow the hints. Others overlook them; hence the problems that have arisen in understanding these traditions.
The Hermetic teachings – teachings ascribed to the divine prophet Hermes Trismegistus – were written down in Egypt by Greek-speaking people around two thousand years ago. Western scholarship has managed to dismiss them as second-rate philosophy, devoid of real value, filledwith inconsistencies and contradictions. Even those who are more sympathetic erect grand schemes of Hermetic “doctrine” – missing out the human dimension. In fact the Hermetic writings are inconsistent, and do contradict themselves. Sometimes the world is viewed as good, as penetrated by the presence of God and living proof of God’s existence. At other times it is seen as fundamentally flawed ordefective: as a place to turn away from and let go of in return for a fuller, more authentic existence.
If we look closely we see that the contradictions are meaningful. When new people were first introduced to a circle whose teachings were embodied in the Hermetic texts, they were encouraged to look for the divine in the world they were used to. But as their inner strength and experience grewthey were drawn to focus on the divine reality itself, and let go of attachments to a world increasingly seen as imperfect. In just the same way, at one stage teaching might be given out about the universe or about astrology which at a later stage would be dismissed as no longer relevant to the individual’s needs: as holding him or her back, trapping him in the love of knowledge for the sake ofknowledge when the time had come to be moving on – moving on to a knowing beyond the one we know of.
This process is clear from Hermetic writings. There is one place, for instance, where a pupil reminds his teacher of the way he head once promised to pass on to him the last remaining teaching “when you are ready to become a stranger to the world.” (1) The pupil goes on to declare: “Now I am ready,because I have become a man by strengthening myself against the illusion of the world.” The basic ideas of readiness and appropriateness are here – the esoteric principle that whatever is taught has too be adapted to the level of the understanding of the person concerned. And it must be remembered that, in the ancient Greek mysteries, transmission of knowledge was at a very preliminary stage: onlythe second of five levels, immediately after the initial stage of purification. It was a stage that was supposed to lead on as soon as possible to the third level – the level of immediate perception, where “there is nothing left to learn.” (2)
There are many other sides to the question of contradiction. Speaking theoretically one could say it is the only way of pointing to the divine, which is...