Last Thursday, The Embassy of the Free Mind (Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica) hosted an event with Prof. Dr. Wouter Hanegraaff about his new book, Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination: Altered States of Knowledge in Late Antiquity (Cambridge University Press 2022). In this talk, Hanegraaff shared that, in all of his time studying the Hermetica, he felt that there was something that he was missing. With his new book, Hanegraaff proceeds to lay out his findings regarding this 'missing piece.' This short summary will provide a glimpse into this discovery. Hanegraaff explained that the Hermetic texts are actually very different from what most people think they are. They are not concerned with philosophy, in his opinion, but with spirituality. This spiritual literature is not on the same level as 'rational' philosophic discussion, but is concerned with talking about one's spiritual path. Hanegraaff is convinced that these texts reflect real people and their activities, but this has sadly 'flown under the radar' of most people who study the texts. Additionally, external sources are silent about these private groups of practitioners. Hermetic texts deal with techniques that alter consciousness to higher states of being so that the practitioner can encounter entities which help the person learn spiritual 'lessons,' in what Hanegraaff terms 'altered states of knowledge.' The highest state is known as 'gnosis,' (knowledge) but this term should not be used as an indicator that this 'knowledge' is 'Gnostic' (as it pertains to a particular dualistic viewpoint about the world) in its essence. (More on this later.) Interestingly, Hanegraaff notes that the way in which the Hermetic literature has been imagined or perceived over the years depends greatly on the perspectives of the scholars themselves. In his opinion, these perspectives have not always been entirely accurate, but he is doing his best to perceive the texts with this 'missing' aspect taken into consideration. What is this 'missing' part? In brief, Hanegraaff explains that his project, admittedly an ambitious one, is to change the narrative about the Hermetica. To begin, Hanegraaff wants to argue against the influence of 'the love of all things Greek' to the detriment and minimization of the Egyptian influence that plays a large role in the texts. Unfortunately, the perception that Egypt was a backwards, dangerous, and irrational land in 'the Orient' has persisted, and this attitude has led to the actual significance and relevance of the Egyptian material being largely ignored. As Hanegraaff explains, there are two fundamentals to consider when looking at the Hermetic texts. The first is 'Radical Nonduality'. As mentioned above, the Hermetica have been largely accepted as being 'Gnostic' in nature by scholars. Gnostic texts are dualistic, indicating a tension that humans feel on earth, as if they are 'trapped' in this world and the imperfect body. However, when one examines the messages from the Hermetic texts, it becomes clear that the texts talk about 'gnosis' but this understanding is not 'gnostic', as the Hermetica speak of a concept of unity and a universal Light. The second fundamental is 'Embodiment.' The Hermetica say that the physical body and matter are beautiful realities, not a prison from which one should escape. For example, there is no 'Fall of Man' into sin in the Hermetica. This was a Biblical narrative that was projected onto Hermetic texts. On the contrary, humans should embody the good, the beautiful and the true into matter. As Hanegraaf explains, the Hermetic texts offer us a world-affirming, positive viewpoint. The Path of Hermes is the journey to find the spiritual light, and to find our way back to the crystal clarity that we once had before being born into a human body. Of course, Hanegraaff says much more about this journey in his book that can't be included here. To my delight, Wouter has agreed to an interview for the podcast in the new year. I look forward to reading his book and to an interesting discussion about it in a few months' time.
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