Hermetica – Key to Universal Knowledge

Translation of Joost R. Ritman’s response to the laudatio delivered by prof. dr. Maria A. Schenkeveld-van der Dussen, chairwoman of the Arts Department of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, on being awarded the Academy’s Silver Medal on 13 May 2002.

Honourable chairman, governors, and members of the Academy, ladies and gentlemen,

‘He who knows himself, knows the All’ says the legendary Hermes Trismegistus. ‘Nosce te ipsum – know thyself’ is also the motto over one of the entrance gates of a Greek temple at Delphi.

As the founder of the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica, the international centre of research on the sources of the Hermetica, ‘The Ritman Institute’ and the publishing house ‘In de Pelikaan’, I can assure you that for me the motto ‘He who knows himself, knows the All’ has been the impulse of my life work, for which today I gratefully receive the Silver Medal which you have so kindly awarded me on behalf of the Royal Netherlands Acadamy of Arts and Sciences.

We live in times of great social change and of deep social problems, times in which millions of people flee impending dangers of war, times in which shortages of food and water supplies are a major threat to our world and our natural resources are close to being exhausted. Standing on the brink of a threatening world conflict which draws a sharp divide between millions of people living in sickness and poverty and a relatively small group living in prosperity, the question is justified whether now is not the time to take renewed control and counter a pending global catastrophe.

According to Michele Ciliberto in his recently published study on Giordano Bruno, the rediscovery of the Hermetica beyond any doubt was one of the most important contributions to historical studies in Humanism and the Renaissance in the last fifty years.

The discovery in 1945 of the gnostic Library of Nag Hammadi, consisting of some 42 gnostic, Hermetic and early Christian texts, justifies a re-evaluation of the first four centuries CE. The find of the by now famous Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran in the same period has sharpened our insight into the pre-Christian Jewish communities from which we are told came Jesus the Nazarene. Add to these discoveries the earlier one in the Egyptian Fayum in 1930 of at least four Coptic texts attributed to Mani, the founder of the worldwide movement of Manichaeism, who called himself the apostle of Jesus, and we may conclude that the influence of gnosis – a third component next to religion and philosophy – on Western cultural history has been truly great. This conclusion, formulated by the Nestor of Gnosis, Professor Gilles Quispel, has determined the infrastructure and the path of my life.

It is not without reason when of the library of Alexandria was officially re-opened on 23 April, an initiative led by Mrs. S. Muhbarak, wife of Egyptian president Muhbarak, in collaboration with an international group of scholars and supported by the World Bank, the central theme was Thoth, the Egyptian deity who, it is said, as the precursor of Hermes Trismegistus expounded and put down in writing the initiation mysteries of Osiris, Isis and Horus.

When in 1985 the four main collecting areas of my library had been defined and the library was opened to the public, the axiom ‘Ad Fontes – Back to the Sources’ led me – in imitation of the Greek philosopher Plato and inspired by the foundation of the Florentine Academy by Marsilio Ficino in 1462 – to found an academy that would focus entirely on conducting research into the hidden relation God – Cosmos – Man; or in the words of the ancient Rosicrucians ‘Why mortal man is also called a microcosm’.

In 1985 Professor Quispel crossed my path and he introduced me to a circle of European scholars who have since given new impetus and direction to research in Hermetica, Gnosis and early Christendom.

The translations of the Hermetic Corpus Hermeticum and the Asclepius were carried out with great enthusiasm by Gilles Quispel and Roel van den Broek and were foundation texts on the list of publications of the publishing house ‘In de Pelikaan’, which by now contains some thirty titles, including conferences proceedings and exhibition catalogues. A new addition to the series will be a translation by Professor Roel van den Broek, now in progress, of the fragments of Stobaeus and the Hermetic Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus. The translation of the world-famous Mani Codex by Professor Hans van Oort and Gilles Quispel is also nearing completion.

The placing of the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica on the list coming under the Cultural Heritage Act on 25 November 1994 by then State Secretary, Mr. Aad Nuis, meant that part of our cultural heritage was rescued from dispersal. This decision also guaranteed the flourishing of the Europe-orientated Ritman Institute under the guidance of two eminent scholars, Dr. Carlos Gilly, head of the Institute, and prof. dr. F.A. Janssen, professor of Book History at the University of Amsterdam. the Ritman Institute is associated with a group of prominent researchers.

The Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica and its staff aim, first, to collect important founding texts relating to Hermetica, mysticism, alchemy, Rosicrucians and comparative religion, secondly, to make available these texts through historical research and the organization of international conferences, exhibitions, symposiums and other activities, and, thirdly, to publish the results of this research through its own publishing house ‘In de Pelikaan’. These three initiatives have been developed in the last forty years independently of each other, and can be seen as models of three central points of departure:

Ideality – Vitality – Reality

The power of the imagination, the pursuit of an ideal, the quest after the origin of life, to transform the dynamics freed by these forces and activities into an accessible scientific structure, the fulfilling (or making real) of an ideal has resulted, forty years after the founding of the library in 1957, in frequent exchanges with some 400 representatives of research institutes, spiritual movements and last but not least university libraries. Their combined efforts have led to a return of the Hermetica to the centre of scholarship, guaranteeing its continued significance.

Today we witness a renewal within the sciences and humanities. New disciplines for young scholars are being formed, e.g. through the foundation of university chairs such as that of the History of Hermetic Philosophy and related Currents at the University of Amsterdam and the chair for Christendom and Gnosis at the University of Nijmegen. Articles and books appear explaining the origin and the true meaning of the main Hermetic and gnostic texts. Studies that one by one return true meaning to the early origins of European cultural history.

Church power, scholarly power, political power, as appears from the chronicles written in blood, were never without dishonourable motives. One need only take a brief look at the long register of those convicted because they fought for freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of action. It is for this reason especially that I regard the award of the Silver Academy Medal by you as the governing body of the Royal Netherlands Society of Arts and Sciences as evidence of your defence of democratic liberties, for which the leaders of this country and its foremost representatives in this part of Europe have fought successfully for four hundred years.

In addition to this prize, the month of May presents to the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica the great enterprise of the organization of an exhibition in the Marciana Library on the San Marco square which is to be opened in Venice and which is entitled Magic, alchemy and science 15th – 18th centuries. The influence of Hermes Trismegistus. Next to BPH librarian Carlos Gilly some eight, mostly Italian, scholars have contributed to the accompanying 600-page catalogue in two volumes.

Central in the exhibition is the figure of Cardinal Bessarion, a correspondent of Marsilio Ficino, admired by the Florentine Academy and, as you all know, a fervent champion of Plato and a major benefactor of the Marciana Library, who donated some 1,000 manuscripts, among them the texts of the Corpus Hermeticum and the Asclepius with his own annotations.

Let me conclude this word of thanks with words of Hermes Trismegistus from the Tabula Smaragdina:

It is true!
It is certain!
It is the whole truth!
That which is below is equal to that which is above
and that which is above is equal to that which is below,
in order that the wonders of the One shall be accomplished.
As all things are accomplished out of the One,
through one mediatorship,
so they are all born out of the One by transmission.

This quotation refers to the continuity of every thinkable form of revelation, and can be summarized in the three-part:

Macrocosm – Cosmos – MicrocosmCreator – Creation – Manand thus: Being human – the little world – MicrocosmBeing in this world – inspired life – CosmosThe fathoming of the Creator in the universe – Macrocosm

It goes without saying that the study of the arcane (hidden) sciences at the classical schools of philosophy entailed a way of initiation followed by Plato, Pythagoras, Orpheus and many others and that these schools stipulated the condition of being fully human with respect to personality, soul and spirit. Thus we can also understand the Hermetic axiom that poses the development of a threefold intelligence, three steps of conscious observation joined to,

first, rational or sensory intelligence
secondly, emotional, inspired intelligence
through which, thirdly, spiritual intelligence will be developed

Hermetism, or Hermetic wisdom is universal knowledge based on rational, inspired and spiritual consciousness. Hermetism leads to direct observation and to a new ability where Rationality – Intuition – Spirituality enter into

1 the world of sensory perception, sensory intelligence
2 the world of the inner development of life on the basis of the soul, emotional intelligence
3 the world of spiritual intelligence placed in the covenant of the Creator – his Creation – and Man, spiritual intelligence

On this threefold basis Hermetica offers a new and at the same time age-old foundation for academic research in which modern man, emprisoned in the chaos that results from mainly sensory perception, is being offered a definition of life within which the organic arch-elements he lives in – fire, water, air, earth – can be investigated and understood in their pure meaning and form. It ought to be the recovery of human dignity that can give back to modern society new dimensions and new responsibilities with regard to life by:

– regarding and experiencing life in its original meaning in the power of Ideality
– freeing new energy with perseverance and driven by a holy fire, in the power of Vitality
– transforming the Word in living action, and serving man and his world, in the power of Reality.

Ladies and gentlemen, today’s special award forever places me on the solid ground of reality. It has once more confirmed me in my view that Hermetica can be applied as the key to universal knowledge, as the Source leading to the obtaining of Gnosis: knowledge of the One Self and the All-self, and in this way to get to know God the Creator from his works. It is my fervent wish that many researchers will soon strike out upon this path.

Thank you.

Joost R. Ritman