Most of us have heard of the term “hermetically sealed.” It’s a reference to a scientific procedure that seals a vessel’s contents from the outside environment. Beyond that, most of us non-academics rarely hear any reference to the person with whom that scientific procedure is associated. Mainly because we’re not 100% certain that person is actually a person.
And yet, an individual most commonly referred to as Hermes Trismegistus is credited by some to be the single most important influencer in human history. Even though there was no one single person named Hermes Trismegistus, he is identified throughout human civilization by many different names, ranging from the Prophet Idris in Islam to the Egyptian god Thoth.
I’m not sure what conclusions it is safe to draw from this. There are theories ranging from ancient aliens to archangels as to what this through-line of a personage might be. I am the farthest thing from an academic on the subject. But it’s worth spending a little time digging through the weeds if you’re curious to look into it for yourself. It’s quite fascinating how far-reaching the influence of this “individual” has been on human civilization.
Of course, there are many conclusions we can draw as to why so many different civilizations have identified a specific individual with cross references to how he is named by other cultures built into their own scriptures about him. It’s almost like the different cultures together draw a map of the travels of this “person” through history, dspensing wisdom and knowledge to each culture as he goes like an epochal Johnny Appleseed.
Is it necessary to believe it or not? I don’t think whether it’s true really matters. We could argue ad infinitum about whether or not a person, or being, now referred to as Hermes Trismegistus could actually exist, or we could look at what’s attributed to him. That’s actually where the value is anyway. And if he existed, he wouldn’t want you to be arguing about who he was as much as he’d want you to just learn from what has been shared.
This approach is useful elsewhere as well. We don’t always have to argue about the origin stories to take value from something. Good advice is good advice, regardless of its source. There’s no point in debating origins. Turn your attention to the advice itself.
One of the more prominent documents attributed to Hermes Trismegistus is called the Corpus Heremeticum. It was written over a 1,500-year period. Definitely not the work of a single human being, obviously, but rather a compendium of aggregate knowledge that found itself collected into a manila folder tabbed “Hermes.” Again, however, the true source of that knowledge is pointless to debate, a curiosity though it may be. Even tabbing the folder “Hermes” is a misrepresentation of the many names given for him.
In my lane as a minister of a multifaith tradition, I have perused the Corpus Heremeticum. It’s a heavy lift.
I am not a scholar of this work. I advise that my mostly uneducated viewpoint should be taken with a grain of salt. I present it, nonetheless, as food for thought. The second line of the Corpus Hermeticum struck me most prominently. Everything else I managed to read afterward seemed to reside on the shoulders of that short preamble: “For there can be no religion more true or just, than to know the things that are; and to acknowledge thanks for all things, to him that made them, which thing I shall not cease continually to do.”
The rest can get a little mucky to understand. But it’s still worth reading as it has become an informant to mainstream culture in so many ways. That’s an exploration for another time.
Returning to the quote, the most fascinating part to me is the phrase “to know the things that are.” The word “are” is particularly definitive here because it is stating a belief that there is indeed an objective reality out there worth pursuing, a universal truth that exists with or without our belief. For example, black holes and other anomalies in space are whatever they truly are, whether we are accurately seeing, perceiving or reporting them. A black hole’s nature is a thing which is.
Hermes’ second sentence of the Corpus Hermeticum affirms the existence of truth, aka “the things that are.” It places importance on seeking the truth and living in pursuit of it. It is humble in the sense that it’s not claiming it knows exactly what the Ultimate Reality is, but that It exists as an objective truth whether we’ve figured It out or not. Whatever is real is real, whether we believe in it or not, or whether we even have the capacity to perceive it or not. If there is a God, then It likely does not need our belief in It to exist.
It’s the pursuit of knowing that Hermes is saying we should never cease. He believed it should be like a religion to us, this relentless pursuit of understanding. And when we look at the world’s religions, that’s exactly what we see — thousands of different attempts to cognize and understand the things that are.
That thought encompasses an entire life practice, really. Its foundation is a belief in the pursuit of truth and to be constantly grateful for the beauty of this Earth. If we do nothing more than those, only good shall come of it.
Eons of wisdom from multiple cultures, in fields ranging from astrology to philosophy, alchemy and the divine sciences, emanating from a single two-pronged practice: the pursuit of truth and gratitude.
In our fast-food, short-attention-span culture, these are very useful bits of advice, well-packaged, cleanly branded and with a marketing plan so ingenious, it has wormed its way into the very fibers of our civilization.
Now we just have to follow the advice to benefit from it.
Look for truth in your life. It’s very difficult to find lies, despite their prevalence. Lies are very good at hiding themselves with smoke screens, distractions and deflections. Truth never hides itself or tries to dissemble its rationale for existing. It waits for you to notice it. Or to notice its absence and then look for it.
When we make it our mission to look for truth, it’s easier to find than it is to protect ourselves from lies. Looking for truth expands upon our ability to perceive it over time. It takes some of the burden off of our worry over the misinformation that exists everywhere, be it intentional or accidental. Worry less about lies, and celebrate truth wherever you find it. That will become your predominant experience over time.
Find reliable fact-checkers. Question the factual authenticity of various news outlets, and gravitate toward those that go farther than you yourself might do to verify information. Subscribe to media outlets that perform rigorous fact-checking. They are not unicorns. They do exist, and we should place more of our trust (and subscription dollars) in them.
In a very real sense, that activity becomes a prayer for truth. It acts as a signal to the universe that truth shall be your experience, and a promise to maintain humility in the face of unknowing.
It’s interesting that a quote about objective truth would be attributed to an individual whose existence we might question. But where have we heard that before?
Wil Darcangelo, M.Div., is the minister at First Parish UU Church of Fitchburg and First Church of Christ Unitarian in Lancaster, and producer of The UU Virtual Church of Fitchburg and Lancaster on YouTube. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @wildarcangelo. His blog, Hopeful Thinking, can be found at www.hopefulthinkingworld.blogspot.com.