Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

HERMES.
Hermes, or Ermes, Mercury Trismegistus, or Thaut, or Taut, or Thot.

We neglect reading the ancient book of Mercury Trismegistus, and we are not wrong in so doing. To philosophers it has appeared a sublime piece of jargon, and it is perhaps for this reason that they believed it the work of a great Platonist.

Nevertheless, in this theological chaos, how many things there are to astonish and subdue the human mind! God, whose triple essence is wisdom, power and bounty; God, forming the world by His thought, His word; God creating subaltern gods; God commanding these gods to direct the celestial orbs, and to preside over the world; the sun; the Son of God; man His image in thought; light, His principal work a divine essence — all these grand and lively images dazzle a subdued imagination.

It remains to be known whether this work, as much celebrated as little read, was the work of a Greek or of an Egyptian. St. Augustine hesitates not in believing that it is the work of an Egyptian, who pretended to be descended from the ancient Mercury, from the ancient Thaut, the first legislator of Egypt. It is true that St. Augustine knew no more of the Egyptian than of the Greek; but in his time it was necessary that we should not doubt that Hermes, from whom we received theology, was an Egyptian sage, probably anterior to the time of Alexander, and one of the priests whom Plato consulted.

It has always appeared to me that the theology of Plato in nothing resembled that of other Greeks, with the exception of Timæus, who had travelled in Egypt, as well as Pythagoras.

The Hermes Trismegistus that we possess is written in barbarous Greek, and in a foreign idiom. This is a proof that it is a translation in which the words have been followed more than the sense.

Joseph Scaliger, who assisted the lord of Candale, bishop of Aire, to translate the Hermes, or Mercury Trismegistus, doubts not that the original was Egyptian. Add to these reasons that it is not very probable that a Greek would have addressed himself so often to Thaut. It is not natural for us to address ourselves to strangers with so much warm-heartedness; at least, we see no example of it in antiquity.

The Egyptian Æsculpaius, who is made to speak in this book, and who is perhaps the author of it, wrote to Ammon, king of Egypt: “Take great care how you suffer the Greeks to translate the books of our Mercury, our Thaut, because they would disfigure them.” Certainly a Greek would not have spoken thus; there is therefore every appearance of this book being Egyptian.

There is another reflection to be made, which is, that the systems of Hermes and Plato were equally formed to extend themselves through all the Jewish schools, from the time of the Ptolemies. This doctrine made great progress in them; you see it completely displayed by the Jew Philo, a learned man after the manner of those times.

He copies entire passages from Mercury Trismegistus in his chapter on the formation of the world. “Firstly,” says he, “God made the world intelligible, the Heavens incorporeal, and the earth invisible; he afterwards created the incorporeal essence of water and spirit; and finally the essence of incorporeal light, the origin of the sun and of the stars.”

Such is the pure doctrine of Hermes. He adds that the word, or invisible and intellectual thought, is the image of God. Here is the creation of the world by the word, by thought, by the logos, very strongly expressed.

Afterwards follows the doctrine of Numbers, which descended from the Egyptians to the Jews. He calls reason the relation of God. The number of seven is the accomplishment of all things, “which is the reason,” says he, “that the lyre has only seven strings.”

In a word Philo possessed all the philosophy of his time.

We are therefore deceived, when we believe that the Jews, under the reign of Herod, were plunged in the same state of ignorance in which they were previously immersed. It is evident that St. Paul was well informed. It is only necessary to read the first chapter of St. John, which is so different from those of the others, to perceive that the author wrote precisely like Hermes and Plato. “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him, and without Him was not anything made. In Him was life; and the life was the light of man.” It is thus that St. Paul says: “God made the worlds by His Son.”

In the time of the apostles were seen whole societies of Christians who were only too learned, and thence substituted a fantastic philosophy for simplicity of faith. The Simons, Menanders, and Cerinthuses, taught precisely the doctrines of Hermes. Their Æons were only the subaltern gods, created by the great Being. All the first Christians, therefore, were not ignorant men, as it always has been asserted; since there were several of them who abused their literature; even in the Acts the governor Festus says to St. Paul: “Paul, thou art beside thyself; much learning doth make thee mad.”

Cerinthus dogmatized in the time of St. John the Evangelist. His errors were of a profound, refined, and metaphysical cast. The faults which he remarked in the construction of the world made him think — at least so says Dr. Dupin — that it was not the sovereign God who created it, but a virtue inferior to this first principle, which had not the knowledge of the sovereign God. This was wishing to correct even the system of Plato, and deceiving himself, both as a Christian and a philosopher; but at the same time it displayed a refined and well-exercised mind.

It is the same with the primitives called Quakers, of whom we have so much spoken. They have been taken for men who cannot see beyond their noses, and who make no use of their reason. However, there have been among them several who employed all the subtleties of logic. Enthusiasm is not always the companion of total ignorance, it is often that of erroneous information.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25