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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



Wisdom's Book: The Sophia Anthology by Arthur Versluis (Paragon House) The esoteric underpinnings of German pietism has often been obscured in general historical discussions of the history of Christianity. Slowly this bias against the living streams of Christ Consciousness are being removed and scholars are uncovering these important threads of the mystical and moral aspects Sophia tradition of Jacob Boehme. Wisdom's Book: The Sophia Anthology presents works by Bohme, John Pordage, Jane Leade, Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin, Franz von Baader, and others with a short synopsis of their life and works followed by selections of their writings. Like Versluis’s previous books Theosophia and Wisdom's Children, reveals just the tip of a vast network of piety and insight into the human heart that has not been properly appreciated in English language histories. The analogy gives a nice sampling of the continuation of acknowledgement of Sophia tradition of prayer and reflection through post-reformation mystical traditions. It's a good selection of material. Theosophia and Wisdom's Children manage describing the organizations, histories, and biographies better than in this anthology. Still this analogy stands well alone as an introduction to Sophia teachings as revealing aspects of protestant mysticism. The selections of actual writings are reprehensive of the best in the Sophia tradition and the flavor of each writer gives an idea of how these writing still inspire. In many way Wisdom's Book: The Sophia Anthology examples both as an academic introduction to the wisdom tradition and as inspirational writing, a fertile grounds for mediation and contemplation.

Wisdom's Children: A Christian Esoteric Tradition by Arthur Versluis (SUNY Series in Western Esoteric Traditions: State University of New York Press) The first book in English to provide an in-depth introduction to the Christian theosophic tradition that began with Jacob Bohme, Wisdom's Children brings us into a startling new world of experiential spirituality that is in fact the Christian equivalent of Sufism and Kabbalism. With biographic introductions to major theosophers and detailed discussions of theosophic authors such as John Pordage, Jane Leade, Dionysius Freher, and Johann Gichtel - as well as a survey of their major theosophic cosmological and metaphysical teachings - this book is an indispensable guide to the hidden history of Protestantism and its ramifications today. Thought mainly to be the domain of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, Protestant mysticism has been marginalized for too long. Arthur Versluis takes us back 300 years and shows us that beneath its stern veneer, there has been, and still is, a vital current of the imagination and mystical understanding in and around mainstream Protestantism. Jane Leade, Johann Gichtel, Boehme, Freher, are all brought to life. The chapters on German theosophy, folk magic, and qabala in colonial Pennsylvania alone are worth the cover price. Theosophia: Hidden Dimensions of Christianity by Arthur Versluis (Lindisfarne Books) traces the long-hidden esoteric stream of Christian gnostic theosophy and reveals the "chivalric" religion of the Holy Spirit at the very heart of Christianity. It shows that the three major branches of Christianity bear within them esoteric traditions that are interrelated. Theosophia is a deeply affirmative book and introduces completely unexpected aspects of the Christian tradition. Whereas mainstream Christianity seems "anti-nature," Christian theosophy affirms a profound "nature mysticism"; whereas it seems anti-erotic, Christian theosophy affirms a powerful religious eroticism; and where mainstream Christianity is portrayed as rigidly patriarchal, Christian theosophy affirms a mysticism based on the divine Sophia - the feminine personification of wisdom.

The Eternal Hermes: From Greek God to Alchemical Magus by Antoine Faivre, translated by Joscelyn Godwin (Phanes Press) is the fascinating mercurial messenger of the gods, eloquent revealer of hidden wisdom and guardian of occult knowledge, and has played a central role in the development of esotericism in the West. The enigmatic Hermes Trismegistus legendary author of ancient Gnostic writings was the father of the Hermetic tradition. Drawing upon rare books and manuscripts, this highly illustrated work explores the question of where Hermes Trismegistus came from how he came to be a patron of the esoteric traditions and how the figure of Hermes has remained lively and inspiring to our own day.

The Eternal Hermes is a small volume collection of essays that the foremost European scholar of Western Esoteric tradition that focus on what qualifies as Hermetic thought and esoteric thought. Faivre brings out the notion of the Hermes figure in history as a prophetic revealer of wisdom, and also a trickster and deceiver such as in contemporary antihero in films like Mad Max.. The Eternal Hermes includes art plates of representations of Hermes in different paintings and pictorial representations. He also addresses the Hermeticism as one of the main sources in Western Culture for occult thought. Antoine Faivre’s studies show that historically the tradition has had many typical features, many distinct from Gnosticism and Sophia gnosis to which it has been compared and, in the past, often confused. The possible origins of unique characteristics of a scientific ethos can be found in hermetic dialogues as well as a sort of proto-process theology.

Brian Copenhaver's Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius in a New English Translation, With Notes and Introduction (Cambridge University Press) and Garth Fowden's (a research fellow at the Center for Greek and Roman Antiquity of the National Hellenic Research Foundation in Athens, and the author of Empire to Commonwealth: Consequences of Monotheism in Late Antiquity) classic The Egyptian Hermes (Princeton University Press) also contribute for a cross-disciplinary look at the figure of Hermes in ancient theosophy and in Greco-Egyptian religious culture. Hermetica is regarded as an ancient theology, parallel to the revealed wisdom of the Bible, Hermetic philosophy supported Biblical revelation and culminated in the Platonic philosophical tradition. Sage, scientist, and sorcerer, Hermes Trismegistus was the culture-hero of Hellenistic and Roman Egypt. A human (according to some) who had lived about the time of Moses, but now indisputably a god, he was credited with the authorship of numerous books on magic and the supernatural, alchemy, astrology, theology, and philosophy. Until the early seventeenth century, few doubted the attribution. Even when unmasked, Hermes remained a byword for the arcane. Historians of ancient philosophy have puzzled much over the origins of his mystical teachings; but this is the first investigation of the Hermetic milieu by a social historian. Starting from the complex fusions and tensions that molded Graeco- Egyptian culture, and in particular Hermeticism, during the centuries after Alexander, Garth Fowden goes on to argue that the technical and philosophical Hermetica, apparently so different, might be seen as aspects of a single "way of Hermes." This assumption that philosophy and religion, even cult, bring one eventually to the same goal was typically late antique, and guaranteed the Hermetica a far-flung readership, even among Christians. The focus and conclusion of this study is an assault on the problem of the social milieu of Hermeticism. Since the early 1600's most academics regarded the spirituality oriented "philosophical Hermetica" as the products of Greek philosophy and Gnostic Christianity with no Egyptian religious content. In this influential and often referenced book, Garth Fowden establishes these works as a blend of Greek and authentic Egyptian sources in a classic "east meets west" scenario. Hence the title The Egyptian Hermes. Leaving aside the disputes of the learned, what I found most interesting about this book is Fowden's attempt to understand the mindset and social and religious environment of the anonymous 2nd and 3rd century creators of the Hermetica. For instance, even though I am trained in physics and chemistry, I now begin to understand why a first century Greek-Egyptian could find astrology, alchemy and magic to be sensible pursuits. I was also intrigued to find these so-called pagans sought a transcendent union with the single god who created the cosmos, which includes the other gods. These and other unexpected mixtures of pagan and typically Christian beliefs serve to illustrate the broad range of religious and philosophical ideas in the Roman Empire during the time that Christianity was becoming established. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of religion or philosophy, not just to students of Hermetic philosophy.

Be warned, however, that this book is not an easy read. Fowden is an academic writing for academics. Specialized terms are often not explained and the writing style is complicated rather than lucid. Keep your (unabridged) dictionary handy. He also sometimes indulges in that annoying academic habit of not translating quotes from languages other than English. If you are willing to put in the effort, this book will be richly rewarding.
Hermetica, new translation of its mystical texts is the only English version based on reliable sources. translation of the Greek 'Corpus Hermeticum' and the Latin 'Asclepius' has been specifically undertaken for English-speakers. However, the real benefits of the translation are the excellent introduction and in excess of 260 pages of notes on the text making significant references to previous translations such as those of Zielinski, Reitzenstein, Festugiere, Mahe and Fowden, Copenhaver's Hermetica will be a fascinating journey for all those interested in Egypto-Hellenistic philosophy or for those searching for an alternative to the rigid orthodoxy of some other religious systems. However, there is little here for those who seek to become a spell-casting magus - this is Hermeticism, rather than populist Hermeticism! In the thanksgiving at the end of Asclepius, the spells which were present in the Papyrus Mimaut and also in Nag Hammadi Codex VI.6 are omitted. These central texts of Hermeticism are learned, philosophical treatises as opposed to popular, occultist writings - "a blend of theology, cosmology, anthropology, ethics, soteriology and eschatology."

Most readers will probably find some degree of confusion within the Corpus Hermeticum. Different authors of the various treatises appear to have taken part in Peripatetic-Platonic-Stoic debate within the surviving texts. Much of the previous criticism however has focussed on the Egyptian - Hellenic argument; Hermes Trismegistus being a syncretic fusion of the Greek messenger of the gods with the Egyptian Thoth (pr. something akin to T-HO-TI). Just to be confusing, the character 'Tat' is also a variant of Thoth is some of the Corpus' texts. Linked with this Peripatetic-Platonic debate is the Corpus' attitude towards dualism which should be a distinguishing feature between Hermeticism and early Gnostic Christianity - but sometimes isn't all that clear-cut. Further complications arise through Copenhaver's extensive references to the Chaldean Oracles.

The texts open with POIMANDRES, 'the shepherd man' (poimen aner) although some still search for a Coptic root. The nature of 'true reality' (see Plato's 'Timaeus') establishes itself as the central focus in the very first line of CH I. It is Mind which will free the soul from the fleshy darkness of its bodily incarceration. The texts then move on to the universal discourse between Hermes and Tat opening up a Stoic - Peripatetic debate on whether there is a void or non-entity without the Cosmos. A third alternative is presented: that the surrounding space both encircles and moves the Cosmos.

The most Peripatetic of texts according to Zielinski is CH IV in which activity is clearly seen as positive and passivity as negative. There are some indications of common authorship between I and VII although a number of Western translators have found evidence of strong Judaic influences in VII. CH VII also introduces the metaphor of the 'chiton' (vestment, cloak, shawl) as a symbol of the body that fed through into the writings of Philo, Plotinus and the Valentinian Gnostics - this must be shed for the soul's ascent. The tenth discourse introduces another image of the chiton. Unlike the chiton of CH VIII, this garment must be acquired to rise and to take on a demonic cloak. With a good mind the soul can pass on to something greater, but to nothing lesser.

Within the 17 Greek treatises the Stoic concept of 'sumpatheia' (the organic unity of the Cosmos) is only mentioned specifically once in CH VIII although its influence can be elsewhere. Scott suggested that one of the latest of the extant logoi was XIII, the diexodikos logos, on account of its dependence on CH I and XI. This is essentially concerned with 'palingenesia' which Buchsel sees as the Stoic opposite of ekpurosis - the great conflagration into which the currently existing Cosmos would disappear only to be restored under apokatastasis.

The historical development of translations of the texts has given them rather illogical numberings. In theory CH IX should take place immediately after the Latin Asclepius - as the latter is a translation of the 'perfect discourse', the 'teleios logos' rendered by Lactantius as the 'Sermo perfectus'. It is an exposition of the discourse on sensation which clearly rejects the Platonic position in favour of a more Stoic interpretation. Thanks to Adrien Turnebus' translation in 1554 there is no Corpus Hermeticum XV (Ficino's translation ended at XIV).

Mind only appears as interlocutor in CH XI and I. CH XI is also distinctive in that aion (eternity) appears 27 times within the text and only 3 times elsewhere. Aion was the supreme deity of Westernized Mithraism and is connected with Zrvan Akarana, Saturnus and Kronos, with Orpheism, in philosophical terms with the Stoic heimarmene (which appear elsewhere in the Corpus), perhaps even with the Phoenician Ba'al Shamin, and - in astro-magical texts - with the 'holy Agathos Daimon'. There is also the Aion of the Chaldean Oracles, which - according to Lewy - is 'not only a divinity, but also a noetic hypostasis'. Here, as in CH XIV, there is only one maker. This is a direct rebuttal of the Gnostic position and, internally, of the position outlined by XIII and I.

Asclepius (or Imhotep in the original Egyptian) is most likely a collection of fragments from other texts. The Hermetic praise of human dignity stops distinctly short of the physical and sexual aspects of the human condition. Asclepius is far more apocalyptic and laden within divine retribution than the Corpus. Copenhaver finds references to the Egyptian apocalyptic story of Potter's Oracle in his predecessors' translations centered around a Khnum, a ram-headed creator-god. But the message in Asclepius is clear, Egypt - this 'image of heaven' - will forget its Hermetic ways and "will be filled completely with tombs and corpses" and "the reverent will be thought mad".

We should all try to learn something from Hermetica, for beneath the complexities is an important point of view that our traditional religions obscure and our sciences operationalize: Then he said to me: "Keep all in mind that you wish to learn, and I will teach you." Saying this, he changed his appearance and everything was immediately opened to me... (Corpus Hermeticum I)
In this bold approach to late antiquity, Garth Fowden shows in his Empire to Commonwealth: Consequences of Monotheism in Late Antiquity (Princeton University Press) how, from the second-century peak of Rome's prosperity to the ninth-century onset of the Islamic Empire's decline, powerful beliefs in One God were used to justify and strengthen "world empires." But tensions between orthodoxy and heresy that were inherent in monotheism broke the unitary empires of Byzantium and Baghdad into the looser, more pluralistic commonwealths of Eastern Christendom and Islam. With rare breadth of vision, Fowden traces this transition from empire to commonwealth, and in the process exposes the sources of major cultural contours that still play a determining role in Europe and southwest Asia. In this bold approach to late antiquity, Garth Fowden shows how, from the second-century peak of Rome's prosperity to the ninth-century onset of the Islamic Empire's decline, powerful beliefs in One God were used to justify and strengthen "world empires." But tensions between orthodoxy and heresy that were inherent in monotheism broke the unitary empires of Byzantium and Baghdad into the looser, more pluralistic commonwealths of Eastern Christendom and Islam. With rare breadth of vision, Fowden traces this transition from empire to commonwealth, and in the process exposes the sources of major cultural contours that still play a determining role in Europe and southwest Asia.

Styles in historiography come and go. For the classical Greek historians, history was partly the clever strategies of great generals, partly the well-cadenced speeches that should have been made, some descriptions of strange cultures, some geography. For the medieval chroniclers, history was melodrama: great battles, duels between heroes, treacherous murders. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Enlightenment, history was the progressive improvement of forms of government. For a while in the 1980s, history was a counterpoint between the psychology of the Chosen Figure and a description of his social milieu. Ideas about the forces controlling history also change. Caesar was certain that Roman military strategy and tactics brought about the conquest of Gaul. Josephus probably really believed what he repeatedly wrote, that God determines the details of history as reward and punishment for people's actions. Most readers today probably believe that history is determined by material facts, mainly economic facts. Probably this is another aspect of our Enlightenment heritage.

Fowden has returned to two older ideas, that a history book should have a thesis, and that beliefs have a powerful influence on history. In Empire to Commonwealth, his main thesis is that universalist, monotheistic religions helped bring about world conquest in late antiquity, and that their opposite had the opposite effect. Who are the monotheistic universalists? For example, the Byzantine Christians and the Muslims. Who are not? The Achaemenids, the particularist Jews.

On the way, he discusses several other interesting questions in the history of ideas. The question of whether only the saintly are the chosen of God, or whether the highest levels of religion are open even to sinners by virtue of their chosen position, was an important question in early Christianity. Fowden could have pointed out that the Jews were arguing the same question at about the same time.

Fowden has great knowledge of cultures which even people well educated in the Western tradition know little about, e. g., the ancient Iranian religions and the monophysite Christianity of medieval Ethiopia. As in all good histories, there are also diversions along the way, discussions of the moral one-upmanship among the Romans and Iranians in respecting the chastity of each other's harems, and of the amazement caused by a royal progress of the Black Christian king of Aksum among the oppressed Christians of neighboring lands. And who but Fowden knows about the synod of monophysite Christians called in 1965 by the Emperor of Ethiopia and the Metropolitan of Aksum.

Fowden knows how to write. The history of late antiquity, especially outside of Europe and Asia Minor, is a weak spot in the education of most of us. It's also pleasant to return to the historiography of ideas sometimes. The book is also well-printed and well bound, and includes high-quality photographs of both artistic and historical significance. I'm glad I read it, and feel it is well worth reading again.

The Hermetic Book of Nature: An American Revolution in Consciousness by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Arthur Versluis (Studies in Religion and Literature: Grail Publishing)

Shakespeare the Magus by Arthur Versluis (Studies in Religion and Literature: Grail Publishing)

The Mysteries of Love by Arthur Versluis (Studies in Religion and Literature: Grail Publishing)

Gnosis & Literature by Arthur Versluis (Studies in Religion and Literature: Grail Publishing)

Song of the Cosmos: An Introduction to Traditional Cosmology by Arthur Versluis (Prism Press, Ltd.)

The Elements of Native American Traditions by Arthur Versluis (Harper Collins UK) an introduction to Native American traditions, from the Eskimo and the continental tribes of America to the Aztecs and Mayas of Mexico and Incas of South America, includes discussions of Native American views of nature, spirits and ancestors, ceremonies and rituals, medicine and sacred sites and symbols, plus many of the teachings and prophecies of well-known visionaries such as Black Elk.

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