Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition


Glenn Magee (2008)


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"God is God only so far as he knows himself. His self-knowledge is, further, a self-consciousness in man and man's knowledge of God, which proceeds to man's self-knowledge in God." -- Hegel, Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences (Revealed Religion, §564)


1. Hegel as Hermetic Thinker


Hegel is not a philosopher. He is no lover or seeker of wisdom -- he believes he has found it. Hegel writes in the preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit, "To help bring philosophy closer to the form of Science, to the goal where it can lay aside the title of 'love of knowing' and be actual knowledge -- that is what I have set before me" (Miller, 3; PC, 3). By the end of the Phenomenology, Hegel claims to have arrived at Absolute Knowledge, which he identifies with wisdom.


Hegel's claim to have attained wisdom is completely contrary to the original Greek conception of philosophy as the love of wisdom, that is, the ongoing pursuit rather than the final possession of wisdom. His claim is, however, fully consistent with the ambitions of the Hermetic tradition, a current of thought that derives its name from the so-called Hermetica (or Corpus Hermeticum), a collection of Greek and Latin treatises and dialogues written in the first or second centuries A.D. and probably containing ideas that are far older. The legendary author of these works is Hermes Trismegistus ("Thrice-Greatest Hermes"). "Hermeticism" denotes a broad tradition of thought that grew out of the "writings of Hermes" and was expanded and developed through the infusion of various other traditions. Thus, alchemy, Kabbalism, Lullism, and the mysticism of Eckhart and Cusa -- to name just a few examples -- became intertwined with the Hermetic doctrines. (Indeed, Hermeticism is used by some authors simply to mean alchemy.) Hermeticism is also sometimes called theosophy, or esotericism; less precisely, it is often characterized as mysticism, or occultism.


It is the thesis of this book that Hegel is a Hermetic thinker. I shall show that there are striking correspondences between Hegelian philosophy and Hermetic theosophy, and that these correspondences are not accidental. Hegel was actively interested in Hermeticism, he was influenced by its exponents from boyhood on, and he allied himself with Hermetic movements and thinkers throughout his life. I do not argue merely that we can understand Hegel as a Hermetic thinker, just as we can understand him as a German or a Swabian or an idealist thinker. Instead, I argue that we must understand Hegel as a Hermetic thinker, if we are to truly understand him at all.


Hegel's life and works offer ample evidence for this thesis.


There are references throughout Hegel's published and unpublished writings to many of the leading figures and movements of the Hermetic tradition. These references are in large measure approving. This is particularly the case with Hegel's treatment of Eckhart, Bruno, Paracelsus, and Böhme. Böhme is the most striking case. Hegel accords him considerable space in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy -- more space, in fact, than he devotes to many significant mainstream thinkers in the philosophic tradition.


There are, furthermore, numerous Hermetic elements in Hegel's writings. These include, in broad strokes, a Masonic subtext of "initiation mysticism" in the Phenomenology of Spirit; a Böhmean subtext to the Phenomenology's famous preface; a Kabbalistic-Böhmean-Lullian influence on the Logic; alchemical-Paracelsian elements in the Philosophy of Nature; an influence of Kabbalistic and Joachimite millennialism on Hegel’s doctrine of Objective Spirit and theory of world history; alchemical and Rosicrucian images in the Philosophy of Right; an influence of the Hermetic tradition of pansophia on the system as a whole; an endorsement of the Hermetic belief in philosophia perennis; and the use of perennial Hermetic symbolic forms (such as the triangle, the circle, and the square) as structural, architectonic devices.


Hegel's library included Hermetic writings by Agrippa, Böhme, Bruno, and Paracelsus. He read widely on Mesmerism, psychic phenomena, dowsing, precognition, and sorcery. He publicly associated himself with known occultists, like Franz von Baader. He structured his philosophy in a manner identical to the Hermetic use of 'Correspondences.' He relied on histories of thought that discussed Hermes Trismegistus, Pico della Mirandola, Robert Fludd, and Knorr von Rosenroth alongside Plato, Galileo, Descartes, and Newton. He stated in his lectures more than once that the term "speculative" means the same thing as "mystical." He believed in an "Earth Spirit" and corresponded with colleagues about the nature of magic. He aligned himself, informally, with "Hermetic" societies such as the Freemasons and the Rosicrucians. Even Hegel's doodles were Hermetic, as we shall see in chapter 3 when I discuss the mysterious "triangle diagram".


There are four major periods in Hegel's life during which he seems to have been strongly under the influence of Hermeticism, or to have actively pursued an interest in it. First, there is his boyhood in Stuttgart, from 1770 to 1788. As I shall discuss in detail in chapter 2, during this period Württemberg was a major centre of Hermetic interest, with much of the Pietist movement influenced by Böhmeanism and Rosicrucianism (Württemberg was the spiritual centre of the Rosicrucian movement). The leading exponents of Pietism, J. A. Bengel and, in particular, F. C. Oetinger were strongly influenced by German mysticism, Böhmean theosophy, and Kabbalism.


Most Hegel scholars have not thought it necessary to consider the intellectual milieu of his boyhood. Hegel is almost universally understood simply within the context of the German philosophical tradition -- as responding to Kant, Fichte, and Schelling. Needless to say, the influence of Kant, Fichte, and Schelling was important, but it was not the only influence on Hegel. Part of the reason other sources of influence are missed or ignored is that few scholars are familiar with the complexities of religious life in eighteenth-century Germany. Those who are familiar are almost always from disciplines other than philosophy, and almost always German. (The study of German Pietism is almost exclusively the province of German-speaking scholars.) The religious and intellectual life of Württemberg is, however, the obvious place to begin to understand Hegel's own intellectual origins, characteristic ideas, and aims.


Hegel has to be understood in terms of the theosophical Pietist tradition of Württemberg -- he cannot be seen simply as a critic of Kant. Indeed Hegel, as I will argue, was always a critic of Kant and never a wholehearted admirer precisely because he was "imprinted" early on by the tradition of pansophia, which was very much alive in Württemberg, and by Oetinger's ideal of the truth as the Whole (see chapter 2). He could not accept Kant's scepticism, nor could Schelling, and for identical reasons. Yet they both recognized the power of Kant's thought and laboured hard to move from his premises to their own conclusions, to circumvent his scepticism at all costs, in the name of the speculative ideal of their youth.


From 1793 to 1801 Hegel worked as a private tutor, first at Berne, then at Frankfurt. As I shall discuss in chapter 3, Hegel's biographer Karl Rosenkranz referred to this period as a "theosophical phase" in Hegel's development. During this time, Hegel appears to have become conversant with the works of Böhme, as well as Eckhart and Johannes Tauler. Also during this period Hegel became involved in Masonic circles.


In Jena (1801-7), Hegel's interest in theosophy continued. He lectured at length, and approvingly, on Böhme and Bruno. He composed several pieces, which have only come down to us in fragmentary form, employing Hermetic language and symbolism (see chapters 3 and 4). His lectures on the Philosophy of Nature during this time reflect an ongoing interest in alchemy. It is likely that Schelling, who had come to Jena sometime earlier, introduced Hegel to his circle of friends, which included a number of Romantics who were heavily interested in Hermeticism. Schelling himself was an avid reader of Böhme and Oetinger, and likely encouraged Hegel's interest.


The final "Hermetic" period of Hegel's life is his time in Berlin, from 1818 until his death on November 14, 1831. This is contrary to what one might expect. It might be assumed that Hegel's "Hermeticism" was merely an aberration of youth, which the "arch rationalist" moved away from as he matured. Surprisingly, precisely the reverse seems to be the case. In Berlin, Hegel developed a friendship with Franz von Baader, the premiere occultist and mystic of the day. Together they studied Meister Eckhart. The preface to Hegel's 1827 edition of the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences in Outline makes prominent mention of Böhme and Baader. His revised 1832 edition of the Science of Logic corrects a passage so as to include a reference to Böhme. His preface to the 1821 Philosophy of Right includes alchemical and Rosicrucian imagery. His 1831 Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion show the influence of the mystic Joachim of Fiore, as well as certain structural correspondences to the thought of Böhme. In sum, all the evidence indicates that in the last period of his life, Hegel's interest in the mystical and Hermetic traditions intensified, and that he became more bold about publicly aligning himself with Hermetic thinkers and movements.


The divisions of Hegel's philosophy follow a pattern that is typical of many forms of mystical and Hermetic philosophy. The Phenomenology represents an initial stage of "purification" of raising the mind above the level of the sensory and the mundane, a preparation for the reception of wisdom. The Logic is equivalent to the Hermetic "ascent" to the level of pure form, of the eternal, of "Universal Mind" (Absolute Idea). The Philosophy of Nature describes an "emanation" or "othering" of Universal Mind in the form of the spatio-temporal world. Its categories accomplish a transfiguration of the natural: we come to see the world as a reflection of Universal Mind. The Philosophy of Spirit accomplishes a "return" of created nature to the Divine by means of man, who can rise above the merely natural and "actualize" God in the world through concrete forms of life (e.g., the state and religion) and through speculative philosophy.


2. Scholarship on Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition


It is important to note that these claims would not have been particularly controversial in the decades after Hegel's death. In the 1840s, Schelling publicly accused Hegel of having simply borrowed much of his philosophy from Jakob Böhme. One of Hegel's disciples, Friedrich Theodor Vischer once asked,


 "Have you forgotten that the new philosophy came forth from the school of the old mystics, especially from Jacob Böhme?"


Another Hegelian, Hans Martensen, author of one of the first scholarly studies of Meister Eckhart, remarked that


"German mysticism is the first form in which German philosophy revealed itself in the history of thought"("philosophy" for Hegelians generally means Hegel's Philosophy).


Wilhelm Dilthey noted the same continuity between German mysticism and speculative philosophy.


Perhaps the most famous nineteenth-century study of Hermetic aspects in Hegel was Ferdinand Christian Bauer's Die christliche Gnosis (1835). Bauer's was one of the first works to attempt to define Gnosticism and to distinguish between its different forms. The term Gnostic is used very loosely even in our own time, and very often what would more properly be termed "Hermetic" is labelled "Gnostic" instead. (I will discuss the differences between the two in the next section.) After a lengthy discussion of Gnosticism in antiquity, Bauer argues that Jakob Böhme was a modern Gnostic, and that Schelling and Hegel can be seen as Böhme's intellectual heirs, and thus as Gnostics themselves. Die christliche Gnosis is about the closest thing to a book on Hegel and the Hermetic tradition that has yet been published, though, as I have said, Bauer's focus is on Gnosticism, not Hermeticism. In 1853, Ludwig Noack published a two-volume work, Die Christliche Mystik nach ihrem geschichtlichen Entwicklungsgange im Mittelalter und in der neueren Zeit dargestellt, in which he dealt with the Idealists as modern representatives of mysticism.


Later discussions of Hegel's connection to Hermeticism are often coupled with similar discussions of Schelling. This is the case with Ernst Benz's Mystical Sources of German Romantic Philosophy, a brief but indispensable text by the leading scholar in this highly specialized field. In 1938, a German scholar named Robert Schneider published Schellings und Hegels scbwäbische Geistesahnen in Würzburg. Most of the copies of Schneider's book were destroyed during the allied firebombing of Würzburg on March 16, 1945. Schneider was destroyed along with them. His book is a valuable study of the theosophical Pietism prevalent in Württemberg during Hegel and Schelling's youth.


Other works by German scholars dealing with the relationship of mysticism or Hermeticism to German Idealism and Hegel include Josef Bach's Meister Eckhart der Vater der Deutschen Spekulation. Ein Beitrag zu einer Geschichte der deutschen Theologie und Philosophie der mittleren Zeit (1864); Gottfried Fischer's Geschichte der Entdeckung der deutschen Mystiker, Eckhart, Tauler u. Seuse im 19. Jahrhundert (1931); Emanuel Hirsch's Die idealistische Philosophie und das Christentum (1926); Fritz Leese's Philosophie und Theologie im Spätidealismus, Forschungen zur Auseinandersetzung von Christentum und idealistischer Philosophie im 19. Jahrhundert (1919), and Von Jakob Böhme zu Schelling. Zur Metaphysik des Gottesproblems (1927); Wilhelm Lütgert's Die Religion des Deutschen Idealismus und ihr Ende (1923); and Heinrich Maier's Die Anfange der Philosophie des deutschen Idealismus (1930). There has also been a fair amount of Dutch literature on the topic, including G. J. P. J. Bolland's Schelling, Hegel, Fechner en de nieuwere theosophie (1910); J. d'Aulnis de Bourrouill's Het mystieke karakter van Hegel's logica; and H. W. Mook’s Hegeliaansch-theosofische opstellen (1913).


In French, Jacques d'Hondt's Hegel Secret (1968) is an extremely important study of Hegel's relationship to Hermetic secret societies such as the Masons, Illuminati, and Rosicrucians.


There is also an important body of English-language literature on Hegel and mysticism, beginning with George Plimpton Adams's The Mystical Element in Hegel's Early Theological Writings (1910). Frederick Copleston authored a useful article, "Hegel and the Rationalization of Mysticism" in 1971. Perhaps the most widely read English-speaking interpreter of Hegel, J. N. Findlay was himself a theosophist, and his interpretation of Hegel is attuned to its mystic-Hermetic aspects. In Findlay's Hegel: A Re-Examination (1958), he suggests tantalizingly that Hegel was a "nineteenth-century representative of some philosophia Germanica perennis." H. S. Harris's two-volume intellectual biography of Hegel, Hegel's Development (1972/1983), contains asides regarding Hegel's relationship to Eckhart, Böhme, Baader, and alchemy. Recently, Cyril O'Regan has published a massive and groundbreaking study of the mystical roots of Hegel's philosophy of religion, The Heterodox Hegel (1994).


Thus far, however, the most influential English-language account of Hegel’s Hermeticism is Eric Voegelin's. In his essay, "Response to Professor Altizer's 'A New History and a New but Ancient God'" Voegelin admits that


"For a long time I studiously avoided any serious criticism of Hegel in my published work, because I simply could not understand him."


The turning point came with Voegelin's study of Gnosticism, and the discovery that, "by his contemporaries Hegel was considered a Gnostic thinker." Voegelin goes on to claim that Hegel's thought "belongs to the continuous history of modern Hermeticism since the fifteenth century." Voegelin's principal statement on Hegel's Hermeticism is a savagely polemical essay, "On Hegel: A Study in Sorcery," referring to the Phenomenology of Spirit as a "grimoire" which "must be recognized as a work of magic -- indeed, it is one of the great magic performances."


Voegelin's claims are unique in that he does not simply claim that Hegel was influenced by the Hermetic tradition. He claims that Hegel was part of the Hermetic tradition and cannot be adequately understood apart from it. Unfortunately, however, Voegelin never adequately developed his thesis. He never spelled out, in detail, how Hegel is a Hermetic thinker. Voegelin has, however, encouraged other scholars to develop his thesis more systematically (and more soberly). David Walsh, for instance, has written an important doctoral dissertation entitled The Esoteric Origins of Modern Ideological Thought: Boehme and Hegel (1978), in which he makes strong claims about Hegel’s indebtedness to Böhme. Gerald Hanratty has also published an extensive two-part essay, entitled "Hegel and the Gnostic Tradition" (1984-87).


Yet for all this scholarly activity, there has never been a systematic, book-length study of Hegel as Hermetic thinker that takes into account not only his intellectual development but also the entirety of his mature system until the present book.


I consider this work not only a continuation of the tradition of scholarship I have sketched out above but also as a contribution to an ongoing project in the history of ideas pioneered by such writers as Voegelin, Frances Yates, Antoine Faivre, Richard Popkin, Allen Debus, Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs, Paul Oskar Kristeller, D. P. Walker, Stephen McKnight, and Allison Coudert (see bibliography). These scholars argue that Hermeticism has influenced such mainstream rationalist thinkers as Bacon, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, and Newton and has played a hitherto unappreciated role in the formation of the central ideas and ambitions of modern philosophy and science, particularly the modern project of the progressive scientific investigation and technological mastery of nature.


It is surely one of the great ironies of history that the Hermetic ideal of man as magus, achieving total knowledge and wielding Godlike powers to bring the world to perfection, was the prototype of the modern scientist. Yet, as Gerald Hanratty writes,


"the widespread recourse to magical and alchemical techniques inspired a new confidence in man's operational powers. In contrast with the passive and contemplative attitudes which generally prevail during earlier centuries, Renaissance alchemists and Magi asserted their dominion over all levels of being."


Hermeticism replaces the love of wisdom with the lust for power. As we shall see, Hegel's system is the ultimate expression of this pursuit of mastery.


3. What is Hermeticism?


Whether or not Hegel can be understood as "Hermetic" depends on how Hermeticism is defined. In truth, Hermeticism is difficult to define rigorously. Its adherents all tend to share certain interests -- often classed as "occult" or "esoteric" -- which are held together merely by family resemblances. In part, my argument for Hegel's Hermeticism depends on demonstrating that Hegel's interests coincide with the curious mixture of interests typical of Hermeticists. These include alchemy, Kabbalism, Mesmerism, extrasensory perception, spiritualism, dowsing, eschatology, prisca theologia, philosophia perennis, Lullism, Paracelcism, Joachimism, Rosicrucianism, Masonry, Eckhartean mysticism, "correspondences," secret systems of symbolism, vitalism, and "cosmic sympathies."


There is, however, one essential feature that I shall take as definitive of Hermeticism. Ernest Lee Tuveson, in his The Avatars of Thrice Greatest Hermes: An Approach to Romanticism suggests that Hermeticism constitutes a middle position between pantheism and the Judaeo-Christian conception of God. According to traditional Judaeo-Christian thought, God utterly transcends and is infinitely distant from creation. Furthermore, God is entirely self-sufficient and therefore did not have to create the world, and would have lost nothing if He had not created it. Thus the act of creation is essentially gratuitous and unmotivated. God creates out of sheer abundance, not out of need. This doctrine has proved dissatisfying and even disturbing to many, for it makes creation seem arbitrary and absurd. Pantheism, by contrast, so thoroughly involves the divine in the world that everything becomes God, even mud, hair, and dirt -- which drains the divine of its exaltedness and sublimity. Thus, pantheism is equally dissatisfying.


Hermeticism is a middle position because it affirms both God's transcendence of the world and his involvement in it. God is metaphysically distinct from the world, yet God needs the world to complete Himself. Thus the act of creation is not arbitrary or gratuitous, but necessary and rational. Consider these lines from the "Discourse of Hermes to Tat: The mixing bowl or the monad" (Corpus Hermeticum 4):


"If you force me to say something still more daring, it is [God's] essence to be pregnant with all things and to make them. As it is impossible for anything to be produced without a maker, so also is it impossible for this maker [not] to exist always unless he is always making everything.... He is himself the things that are and those that are not."


Consider also Corpus Hermeticum 10:


"God's activity is will, and his essence is to will all things to be."


Finally, consider Corpus Hermeticum 14:


"For the two are all there is, what comes to be and what makes it, and it is impossible to separate the one from the other. No maker can exist without something that comes to be."


Thus, according to Hermeticism, God requires creation in order to be God. This Hermetic account of creation is central to Hegel's thought as well.


But there is more. Hermeticists not only hold that God requires creation, they make a specific creature, man, play a crucial role in God's self-actualization. Hermeticism holds that man can know God, and that man’s knowledge of God is necessary for God's own completion. Consider the words of Corpus Hermeticum 10:


"For God does not ignore mankind; on the contrary, he recognizes him fully and wishes to be recognized. For mankind this is the only deliverance, the knowledge of God. It is ascent to Olympus."


Corpus Hermeticum 11 asks,


"Who is more visible than God? This is why he made all things: so that through them all you might look on him."


As Garth Fowden notes, what God gains from creation is recognition:


"Man’s contemplation of God is in some sense a two-way process. Not only does Man wish to know God, but God too desires to be known by the most glorious of His creations, Man."


In short, it is man's end to achieve knowledge of God (or "the wisdom of God," theosophy). In so doing, man realizes God's own need to be recognized. Man's knowledge of God becomes God's knowledge of himself. Thus the need for which the cosmos is created is the need for self-knowledge, attained through recognition. Variations on this doctrine are to be found throughout the Hermetic tradition.


It is important to understand the significance of this doctrine in the history of ideas. On the standard Judaeo-Christian account of creation, the creation of the world and God's command that mankind seek to know and love him seem arbitrary, because there is no reason why a perfect being should want or need anything. The great advantage of the Hermetic conception is that it tells us why the cosmos and the human desire to know God exist in the first place.


This Hermetic doctrine of the "circular" relationship between God and creation and the necessity of man for the completion of God is utterly original. It is not to be found in earlier philosophy. But it recurs again and again in the thought of Hermeticists, and it is the chief doctrinal identity between Hermeticism and Hegelian thought.


Hegel is often described as a mystic. Indeed, even he describes himself as one (see chapter 4). But mysticism is a broad concept that subsumes many radically different ideas. All forms of mysticism aim at some kind of knowledge of, experience of, or unity with the divine. If we ask what kind of mystic Hegel is, the answer is that he is a Hermeticist. Hermeticism is often confused with another form of mysticism, Gnosticism (particularly in recent Hegel scholarship). Gnosticism and Hermeticism both believe that a divine "spark" is implanted in man, and that man can come to know God. However, Gnosticism involves an absolutely negative account of creation. It does not regard creation as a part of God's being, or as "completing" God. Nor does Gnosticism hold that God somehow needs man to know Him. Hermeticism is also very often confused with Neoplatonism. Like the Hermeticists, Plotinus holds that the cosmos is a circular process of emanation from and return to the One. Unlike the Hermeticists, Plotinus does not hold that the One is completed by man's contemplation of it. (Centuries later, however, the Neoplatonism of Proclus and of the Renaissance was influenced by Hermeticism.)


Another parallel between Hermeticism and Hegel concerns the initiation process through which the intuitive portion of the intellect is trained to see the Reason inherent in the world. As Fowden notes, Hermetic initiation seems to fall into two parts, one dealing with self-knowledge, the other with knowledge of God. It can easily be shown, simply on a theoretical level, that these two are intimately wedded. To really know one's self is to be able to give a complete speech about the conditions of one's being, and this involves speaking about God and His entire cosmos. As Pico della Mirandola puts it, "he who knows himself knows all things in himself." Also, in the Near East it was typical to portray God as hovering strangely between transcendence and immanence. The attainment of enlightenment involved somehow seeing the divine in oneself, indeed becoming divine.


We do not really know anything about the Hermes cult that may have employed the Hermetic texts as its sacred writings. We know little or nothing of their rites of initiation or how they lived. We can, however, say that Hermetic initiation differed from initiation into, for example, the Eleusinian mysteries in classical Greece. We also happen to know quite little about what happened at Eleusis, but it does seem to be the case that illumination there consisted in the participation in some kind of arresting experience which was intended to change the initiate permanently. We do not know what that experience was, but we do know that it could be had by young and old, rich and poor, educated and uneducated. This is not the case with Hermetic initiation. Salvation for the Hermeticists was, as we have seen, through gnosis, through understanding. This could be attained only through hard work, and then it could be attained only by some. Hermes is quoted in Corpus Hermeticum 16 as stating that his teaching "keeps the meaning of its words concealed," hidden from the discernment of the unworthy.


However, it would be a mistake to treat the Hermetic initiation as purely intellectual. Enlightenment does not occur simply by learning a set of doctrines. One must not only know doctrine, but have the real-life experience of the truth of the doctrine. One must be led up to illumination carefully; one must actually explore the blind alleys that promise illumination but do not deliver. Only in this way will the true doctrine mean anything; only in this way will the initiate’s life actually change. Fowden writes that Hermetic initiation is envisaged as "a real experience, stretching all the capacities of those who embark upon it," and he quotes Corpus Hermeticum 4, stating that


"it is an extremely tortuous way, to abandon what one is used to and possesses now, and to retrace one’s steps towards the old primordial things."


We will see in chapter 4 that Hegel preserves both the intellectual and emotional moments of this Hermetic conception of initiation.


Enlightenment, for the authors of the Hermetica and for Hegel, is not just an intellectual event; it is expected to change the life of the enlightened one. Philosophy, for Hegel, is about living. In brief, the man who achieves Selbstbewusstsein is the man who becomes selbstbewusst: confident, self-actualized, no longer an ordinary human being. Klaus Vondung writes that


"The Hermeticist does not need to escape from the world in order to save himself, he wants to gain knowledge of the world in order to expand his own self, and utilize this knowledge to penetrate into the self of God. Hermeticism is a positive Gnosis, as it were, devoted to the world."


To know everything is to in some sense have control over everything. This is what I term the ideal of man as magus, and it is unique to the Hermetica. See, for example, Corpus Hermeticum 4:


"All those who heeded the proclamation and immersed themselves in mind [nous] participated in knowledge and became perfect [or 'complete,' teleioi] people because they received mind. But those who missed the point of the proclamation are people of reason [or 'speech,' logikon] because they did not receive [the gift of] mind as well and do not know the purpose or the agents of their coming to be."


In other words, the men of complete self-understanding who know even the "purpose or the agents of their coming to be" are perfect human beings. If Hegel did not believe that man could literally become God, he certainly believed that the wise man is daimonic: a more-than-merely-human participant in the divine life.


In the Corpus Hermeticum we find a kind of "bridge position" between Egyptian occultism and the modern Hermeticism of Hegel and others. Instead of conceiving words as carrying literal occult power, words come to be seen as carrying a kind of existential empowerment. The ideal of Hermetic theosophy becomes the formulation of a "complete speech" (teleeis logos, "perfect discourse" or perhaps "Encyclopaedic discourse," which means, of course, "circular" discourse). When acquired, the complete speech, which concerns the whole of reality, will radically transform and empower the life of the enlightened one. So Hegel writes in a fragment preserved by Rosenkranz:


"Every individual is a blind link in the chain of absolute necessity, along which the world develops. Every individual can raise himself to domination over a great length of this chain only if he realizes the goal of this great necessity and, by virtue of this knowledge, learns to speak the magic words which evoke its shape. The knowledge of how to simultaneously absorb and elevate oneself beyond the total energy of suffering and antithesis that has dominated the world and all forms of its development for thousands of years -- this knowledge can be gathered from philosophy alone."


Another parallel between Hermeticism and Hegel is the analysis of the divine into a set of "modes" or "moments." Hermeticists do not rest content with the idea of an unknowable God. Instead, they seek to penetrate the divine mystery. They hold that it is possible to know God in a piecemeal fashion, by coming to understand the different aspects of the divine. The best example is Kabbalism, both in its Jewish and Christian forms. Lull, Bruno, Paracelsus, Böhme, Oetinger, and many others in the Hermetic tradition hold this belief.


Another parallel between Hermeticism and Hegel is the doctrine of internal relations. For the Hermeticists, the cosmos is not a loosely connected, or to use Hegelian language, externally related set of particulars. Rather, everything in the cosmos is internally related, bound up with everything else. Even though the cosmos may be hierarchically arranged, there are forces that cut across and unify all the levels. Divine powers understood variously as "energy" or "light" pervade the whole. This principle is most clearly expressed in the so-called Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus, which begins with the famous lines "As above, so below." This maxim became the central tenet of Western occultism, for it laid the basis for a doctrine of the unity of the cosmos through sympathies and correspondences between its various levels. The most important implication of this doctrine is the idea that man is the microcosm, in which the whole of the macrocosm is reflected. Self-knowledge, therefore, leads necessarily to knowledge of the whole.


To summarize, the doctrines of the Hermetica that became enduring features of the Hermetic tradition can be enumerated as follows:


1. God requires creation in order to be God.


2. God is in some sense "completed" or has a need fulfilled through man’s contemplation of Him.


3. Illumination involves capturing the whole of reality in a complete, encyclopaedic speech.


4. Man can perfect himself through gnosis: he becomes empowered through the possession of the complete speech.


5. Man can know the aspects or "moments" of God.


6. An initial stage of purification in which the initiate is purged of false intellectual standpoints is required before the reception of the true doctrine.


7. The universe is an internally related whole pervaded by cosmic energies.


To make clear the parallels between these doctrines and Hegel's, here is a preview of what I will be arguing in the rest of this book:


1. Hegel holds that God's being involves "creation," the subject matter of his Philosophy of Nature. Nature is a moment of God's being.


2. Hegel holds that God is in some sense "completed" or actualized through the intellectual activity of mankind: "Philosophy" is the final stage in the actualization of Absolute Spirit. Hegel holds the "circular" conception of God and of the cosmos I referred to earlier, involving God "returning to Himself" and truly becoming God through man.


3. Hegel's philosophy is encyclopaedic: he aims to end philosophy, for all intents and purposes, by capturing the whole of reality in a complete, circular speech.


4. Hegel believes that we rise above nature and become masters of our own destiny through the profound gnosis provided by his system.


5. Hegel’s Logic is an attempt to know the aspects or "moments" of God as a system of ideas. In a famous passage of the Science of Logic, Hegel states that the Logic "is to be understood as the system of pure reason, as the realm of pure thought. This realm is truth as it is without veil and in its own absolute nature. It can therefore be said that this content is the exposition of God as He is in his eternal essence before the creation of nature and a finite Spirit" (Miller, 50; WL 1, 33-34).


6. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit represents, in the Hegelian system, an initial stage of purification in which the would-be philosopher is purged of false intellectual standpoints so that he might receive the true doctrine of Absolute Knowing (Logic-Nature-Spirit).


7. Hegel's account of nature rejects the philosophy of mechanism. He upholds what the followers of Bradley would later call a doctrine of "internal relations" as against the typical, modern mechanistic understanding of things in terms of "external relations."


4. Hegel: A Metaphysical View


Given the evidence for Hegel's place in the Hermetic tradition, it seems surprising that so few Hegel scholars acknowledge it. The topic is often dismissed as unimportant or uninteresting (it is neither). Usually, it is treated as relevant only to Hegel's youth (which is false). Surely one reason for this attitude is disciplinary specialization. Few scholars of the history of philosophy ever study Hermetic thinkers. Another reason is the recent tendency among influential Hegel scholars to argue that it is wrong-headed to treat Hegel as having any serious interest in metaphysics or theology at all, let alone the sort of exotic metaphysics and theology that we find in Hermeticism. This is the so-called "non-metaphysical reading" of Hegel. As Cyril O'Regan has pointed out, it goes hand in hand with an "anti-theological" reading. For instance, David Kolb writes,


"I want most of all to preclude the idea that Hegel provides a cosmology including the discovery of a wondrous new superentity, a cosmic self or a world soul or a supermind."


But this is exactly what Hegel does.


The phrase "non-metaphysical reading" seems to have originated with Klaus Hartmann who, in his influential 1972 article "Hegel: A Non-Metaphysical View," identified Hegel's system as a "hermeneutic of categories." Other well-known proponents of Hartmann's approach include Kenley Royce Dove, William Maker, Terry Pinkard, and Richard Dien Winfield.


The non-metaphysical/anti-theological reading relies on ignoring or explaining away the many frankly metaphysical, cosmological, theological, and theosophical passages in Hegel's writings and lectures. Thus the non-metaphysical reading is less an interpretation of Hegel than a revision. Its advocates sometimes admit this -- Hartmann, for instance -- but more often than not they offer their "reading" in opposition to other interpretations of what Hegel meant. It is, furthermore, no accident that the same authors finish out their "interpretation" by tacking a left-wing politics onto Hegel, for they are, in fact, the intellectual heirs of the nineteenth-century "Young Hegelians" who also gave non-metaphysical, anti-theological "interpretations" of Hegel. The non-metaphysical reading is simply Hegel shorn of everything offensive to the modern, secular, liberal mind. This does not, however, imply that I am offering an alternative "right Hegelian" reading of Hegel. I am simply reading Hegel. In so doing, I hope to contribute to the "nonpartisan, historical and textual analysis" of Hegel's thought called for by Louis Dupré.


Such a reading, I am convinced, places Hegel's philosophy squarely in the tradition of classical metaphysics. In this view, I am in accord with the broadly "ontotheological" interpretation of Hegel offered by Martin Heidegger, who coined the term, and by such scholars as Walter Jaeschke, Emil Fackenheim, Cyril O'Regan, Malcolm Clark, Albert Chapelle, Claude Bruaire, and Iwan Iljin. "Ontotheology" refers to the equation of Being, God, and logos. Hegel's account of the Absolute is structurally identical to Aristotle's account of Being as Substance (ousia): it is the most real, independent, and self-sufficient thing that is. Hegel identifies the Absolute with God, and does so both in his public statements (his books and lectures) and in his private notes -- and with a straight face, without winking at us. Hegel does not offer the categories of his Logic as mere "hermeneutic devices" but as eternal forms, moments or aspects of the Divine Mind (Absolute Idea). He treats nature as "expressing" the divine ideas in imperfect form. He speaks of a "World Soul" and uses it to explain how dowsing and animal magnetism work. He structures his entire philosophy around the Christian Trinity, and claims that with Christianity the "principle" of speculative philosophy was revealed to mankind. He tells us -- again with a straight face -- that the state is God on earth.


I see no reason not to take Hegel at his word on any of this. I am interested only in what Hegel thought, not in what he ought to have thought. To be sure, Hegel's appropriation of classical metaphysics and Christianity is transformative; Hegel is no ordinary believer. But his metaphysical and religious commitments are not exoteric. He believes that his Absolute and World Soul, and so forth, are real beings; they are just not real in the sense in which traditional, pious "picture-thinking" conceives of them. If Hegel departs from the metaphysical tradition in anything, it is in dispensing with its false modesty. Hegel does not claim to be merely searching for truth. He claims that he has found it.


5. The Plan of This Book


In this book I will be concerned to do two things:


1) To demonstrate the influence of the Hermetic tradition on Hegel -- by way of remarks made in his texts and lectures, works he is known to have had access to, and individuals he is known to have corresponded with or met.


2) To situate Hegel's thought within the Hermetic tradition; to show that Hegel self-consciously appropriated and aligned himself with Hermeticism; to show that Hegel's thought can best be understood as Hermetic. This is the most radical element of my thesis.


What will emerge from my discussion is, I hope, a radically new picture of Hegel's thought. It will no longer be possible to treat him as an "arch rationalist" as many still do, let alone to read him in a non-metaphysical or anti-theological manner.


Chapter 1 is devoted to an overview of the Hermetic tradition up until the seventeenth century, dealing mainly with Germany. Chapter 2 starts with the early seventeenth century and covers up to and including Hegel's youth. I will be concerned in chapter 2 mainly with the intellectual milieu Hegel was born into. Chapter 3 is central to my account. It presents an overall interpretation of Hegel's thought in light of his Hermetic connections. Chapters 4 through 7 cover Hegel's major writings.


In these chapters, I will not be concerned to present an "intellectual biography" of Hegel. Such a work has already been written by H. S. Harris, and I do not intend to try to surpass it. The study is text-centred, although I have sketched -- in important details about Hegel's life throughout. In terms of my treatment of Hegel's intellectual development, I have not made fine distinctions between "stages" in his thinking. Developmental readings which speak of "early" and "late" periods in a thinker's life very often stem from an inability to see the underlying identity or common tie between texts which are superficially different (e.g., in their use of different philosophical vocabularies). In the case of great thinkers -- like Plato, Aristotle, and Hegel -- I think that there is very little development. Great minds do not, for the most part, change (though in chapter 7 I will discuss one important way in which I believe Hegel did change his mind, and his allegiances). The different works produced by great philosophers over a lifetime are usually variations on a theme, or themes. To borrow Hegel's language, one must learn to see the identity in difference.


Kabbalism and Gnosticism, Hegel




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© Glenn Magee 2008


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