A dialogue concerning Hermeticism and William Blake

Originally written for a class many years ago. I’m publishing it because I was reminded of the subject and it has an angle that I haven’t seen mentioned much. It’s also got a fantastic pun regarding Judeo-Platonism that I’m sure the world needed. – Baeo Maltinsky

Who are you?

We’re an esoteric tradition of unclear paternity. Those in antiquity and the early Christians thought us the progeny of a semi-Divine Egyptian priest contemporary with Moses, while modern scholars say we’re a digest of 2nd century Hellenistic thought (1, 27). We don’t much like long introductions, so you can just call us by our purported father’s appellation: Hermes. Who are you?

It’s not important. Could you tell me more about yourself Hermes? That is, just what are you about?

Ah, well then, let us begin with by disclosing our epithet. Hermes is truncated from Hermes Trismegistus (Hermes the  Thrice Great). It is usually assumed that the ternary aspect refers to the three kinds of wisdom we hold. The wisdom of the sun (alchemy), the stars (astrology), and the divine (theurgy). There is a general trend among us of a kind of unity and order of the All. It is closely akin to the Stoic concept of logos, and bears a resemblance to Newtonian assumptions about the uniformity of nature (this is not a coincidence, Newton was a follower of my teachings)(1, 2-3). We’d describe it as a kind of cosmic poetry. “That which is Below corresponds to that which is Above, and that which is Above corresponds to that which is Below, to accomplish the miracle of the One Thing”. That is, events at all levels of reality are analogous. They ‘rhyme’(2, 321).
In Hermeticism, materialism and infatuation with the physical world are the greatest evils. Rejection of the immortal is the most sins. Nous (reason and knowledge) comes from God (i.e., good). Demons are Nature’s way of tempting man(3, 32-33).

My apologies for interrupting, but that all sounds very Christian.

We do get along well with Christianity, though we want to emphasize our relationship is purely Platonic.

Very funny.

Levity aside, you do bring up an interesting point. Early Christianity had some obvious philosophical affinities towards the sort of Neoplatonic thought that was popular in the Mediterranean at the time. As a result, early Christian writers like Saint Augustine wrote heavily about the connection, giving their faith an intellectual base. Hermeticism, while clearly a distinct tradition, was reconciled with Christianity in a similar way (4, 148). In fact, one could say that many ideas in the Christian intellectual tradition are genetically Hermetic in character. For example, the prisca theologica is a concept appropriated by medieval Christians that speaks of a common theme underlying all religion and theology imbued in ancient man by God(1, 14-18).

That’s really just another form of the pan-monism we told you about before. It really ends up touching everything. In the solar wisdom (alchemy), this idea ends up instigating a lot of early scientific practice. Newton himself was very interested in the practice, producing translation of some Hermetic texts(5, 1).

“May God us keep From Single vision & Newtons sleep”

So you’re a Blakean?

I didn’t say that. What issue do you take with Blake?

Our tools and symbols bear some striking similarities, but to read Blake is to look into a broken mirror through a tinted lens. The normative values and fundamental worldview differ. He uses the craft of Heaven for the ends of Hell. Just look at his process! He attributed an almost ritual significance to his method of ‘creation’ (if you can call it that). There is a common solvent used in alchemy known as aqua fortis (literally “fortified water”, i.e. nitric acid). Blake used it as the agent to dissolve his plates when making them. In the alchemical tradition, it is a wonderful solvent for all but the most prized of metals (gold and platinum). Blake, through his subtractive processes, left only the text and artwork of his plates, removing the ‘imperfect metal’, and leaving behind the higher substance. (9, 1)

This is not a well-tolerated approach in the Hermetic tradition. God’s power is a generative power. To do good is to create. Blake’s method of ‘creation’, being subtractive, is sterile and demonic. Allow us to speak through a disciple, the traditionalist Julius Evola:

We can refer refer to what in hermeticism are called Corrosive Waters, in the special sense of substances capable of artificially provoking the dissociation of the human composition. The texts, nevertheless, either advise against the use of these waters and “violent Fires”, or they recommend the utmost precaution because, they say, they burn rather than wash; they dissolve bodies but cannot save spirits; they work not with the ‘slow fire of nature’ but with the ‘impatient haste that proceeds from the Devil.’ Their action is abrupt and discontinuous–so the difficulty of keeping them active in the changing state is all the greater.(6, 122)

We understand Blake’s folly all too well, and we know the damage that it can bring. Evola continues:

The principle in question, then, has a double meaning. It is Death and Life. It has the double power of solve and of coagula: it is the “Philosophical Basilisk,’ like a bolt of lightning burning all ‘imperfect metal’.(6, 124)

Blake himself accepts this not only as a possible risk, but a desirable outcomes. He speaks fondly of those that write “with corroding fires”, and invites the energies of hell. Demons bring forth “adultery, murder, violence to one’s father, sacrilege, ungodliness, strangling, suicide from a cliff and all such other demonic actions”, and he calls this “Eternal Delight”.

Surely there is some agreement though. You speak of the unity and oneness of reality, surely Blake’s monism appeals to you. He writes that:

Man has no Body distinct from his 

Soul. For that called Body is a por-

tion of Soul discerned by the five senses,

the chief inlets of Soul in this age.(1, 7)

You misunderstand the nature of the unity we talk about. Man was created as united being, but soon fell in love with Nature, and became subject to her limitations. Mortal in body but immortal in spirit, man became a “double” thing. He lost “the Word” and became a physical thing inclined towards evil. To focus on the material is to abandon God. Blake’s praise of the physical “Energy” and embrace of the destructive fires of hell are the highest forms of heresy.

It seems I am a heretic, and should go walk among friendlier company. Should you ever be inclined towards the fires, they are never far.

Goodbye, Demon. Before you go though, I ask, what do you take from this exchange?

Though you might disagree, your words are just another lick of the fire that enlightens substance and mind alike.

  1. Yates, F., Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. Routledge, London, 1964. Print.
  1.  Scully, Nicki. Alchemical Healing: A Guide to Spiritual, Physical, and Transformational Medicine. Rochester, VT: Bear &, 2003. Print.
  1. Salaman, Clement, and Hermes. The Way of Hermes: Translations of The Corpus Hermeticum and the Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2000. Print.
  1. O’connell, Robert J. St. Augustine’s Confessions: The Odyssey of Soul. Fordham Univ Press, 1989.
  1. Dobbs, B. J. “Newton’s Commentary on the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus.” Merkel, I and Debus AG Hermeticism and the Renaissance. Folger, Washington (1988).
  1. Evola, Julius. The Hermetic Tradition: Symbols and Teachings of the Royal Art. Inner Traditions International, 1995.
  1. Blake, William. The marriage of heaven and hell. Vol. 321. Oxford University Press, 1975.
  1. Keynes, Geoffrey, ed. The Letters of William Blake: With Related Documents. Clarendon Press, 1980.

9. Fallon, David. “That Angel Who Rides on the Whirlwind”: William Blake’s Oriental Apotheosis of William Pitt.” Eighteenth-Century Life 31.2 (2007): 1-28.

Citation(s) Needed: Receding Gums, Bright Colors, and Bloody Urine

This was the end of my short run writing the science column for my high school newspaper. This is the first time I started to find a style I really liked. It’s not exactly credible but it seems plausible enough and I’m happy with how it reads. Sorta like a sillier Cecil Adams, I think. Maybe someday if I have the time I’ll try to revive it but without the excuse of a student newspaper I can’t really justify the sloppy scholarship.

Pretend you’re a primitive monkey. You’re jumping through the trees one fine afternoon, just generally living that primate life. You come across a fruit tree! Oh joy of joys! Sugar, hoorah! Cheap, easy calories, and all for your-simian-self. However, you pause for a second. Weren’t your ancestors mostly nocturnal, ground dwelling scavengers? That is, they spent most of their lives in the dark, in environs where one doesn’t need such bourgeois luxuries like “color vision”. While this was a practical biological budgeting decision for your ancestors, it presents a problem for you. You don’t want to eat fruit that hasn’t fully ripened, but you can’t easily tell ripe fruit from unripe fruit without going by its color.

Fortunately, evolution has got your back. A couple gene duplication events at some point very early in primate evolution when combined with some time, and a whole lot of luck was all it took to give you color vision that’s the envy of the animal kingdom. You’ve got cone cells that’ll let you see in RED, BLUE, GREEN, and well, actually, that’s about it. Varying levels of those 3 colors form everything else. That’s not to say there isn’t some degree of variation among humans. Human females, for example, tend to be much better at discerning colors than human males. There is some evidence to suggest that 2-3% of women can actually see in 4 different colors ( tetrachromacy, as it’s called).

The development of color vision ends up having some bizarre effects on primate biochemistry. The one I want to focus on starts with the reduction in the need for endogenous antioxidants (compounds produced by the body to deal with oxidative damage, among other things). Let’s look at Vitamin C (ascorbic acid). Most mammals can produce ascorbic acid on their own (at a slight metabolic cost), but primates just can’t. Fruits are generally very high in Vitamin C, and because of our excellent color vision, it was wasteful to continue producing ascorbate. This does have a drawback. Take primates away from plants, and you get scurvy (ascorbate actually means “without scurvy”).

This wouldn’t be so bad, except it seems like there was another side effect. Uric acid, a minor component of urine used by the body to dispose of excess nitrogen, also acts as a potent antioxidant, and is naturally produced by the body. In other mammals, the enzyme uricase exists to oxidize it to allantoin, but higher primates can’t do that. Why? Well, some of the things done by endogenous ascorbate just can’t be replaced by dietary ascorbate. So, the body comes up with a way to boost levels of urates to compensate. As a result, primates tend to have higher levels of uric acid. Urates tend to be pretty insoluble in water, so they form crystals. When this happens in our joints, we get gout (effectively unique to primates). When this happens in our bladders, we get kidney stones. So if you ever start urinating blood, just blame it on your fruit crazed monkey ancestors.

Citation(s) Needed: Expiration Dates

This is the second issue of my short-lived run as a science writer for my high school newspaper. I think it’s an improvement over the first one. It flows a bit better, has a little more detail, and I tried to inject a little more humor (or at least, snark). It’s definitely a bit weak compared to what came after, though. It’s a bit all over the place and doesn’t have a unifying theme or original thesis to tie it together and justify its existence. – Baeo Maltinsky

The world is ending! Y’know, eventually. I mean, it’s probably ending, right?  The matter of the ultimate fate of the universe is the domain of cosmology. As a field dominated by confusing jargon, untestable predictions, and hand-wavey black boxes, cosmology hasn’t come to a consensus about just what’s going to happen, but here are a few possible outcomes.

The first idea has its roots in 19th century thermodynamics. According to the second law, entropy in the universe is bound to increase. On net, the universe will become less capable of doing useful work as it approaches complete thermodynamic equilibrium. Star formation will cease, and life will become impossible. Supposedly stable atoms like protium decay over such  long periods. Atoms just don’t last forever. Even black holes will evaporate over time due to Hawking radiation. This has been called the heat death of the universe, and is likely an unavoidable consequence if the universe functions as a closed thermodynamic system (this is another one of those definite maybes). Of course, this will take a VERY long time. Estimates say we have between 10^12 and 10^14 years (between 100 and 10,000 times the current age of the universe).

The second idea is similar to the first, but accounts for the fact that the universe is expanding, and at an ever accelerating rate due to a mysterious force called “dark energy”. What is dark energy? Why, it’s the thing that makes the universe expand (good job, cosmologists)! Given that the universe is constantly expanding in this case, it may never reach total equilibrium. It will, however, become extremely cold. Asymptotically close to absolute zero cold (-273°C/0 Kelvin). As matter and energy become more spread out, the average temperature of space will inevitably fall. You can call this the “big freeze”.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. The Poincare Recurrence Theorem tells us that the universe will return to its initial state after mind-bendingly long periods of time. I’d quote you a figure, but it is literally the largest period of time ever discussed in a published physics article, and would require bizarre notation to even display. If you want a more unconventional take on the end of the universe I’d recommend Asimov’s short story “The Last Question”.

Citation(s) Needed: Multivitamins

This was originally written for the science column of my school’s newspaper. It was my first shot and I hadn’t quite figured out how to present it (I feel the subsequent articles are better). The title comes from me not being given enough space to include a bibliography, but it also justifies me not actually fact-checking anything I said. I’m pretty sure nothing I said is blatantly wrong, but take it with a couple shakers of salt.  – Baeo Maltinsky

You may have heard that current multivitamins don’t do much to help healthy non-deficient people. This is technically true, but not the most complete account of it. The evidence tells us that health outcomes are not improved, and are possibly even slightly worsened by taking multivitamins. The research available has some methodological problems, but it’s indicative of something.

Is that it then? Are multivitamins just useless? I don’t think so. Not necessarily at least. Referring back to the original sentences, let’s take a look at the two qualifiers I used. The first one, “current”, is quite important. Most of the multivitamins studied contain excessive quantities of some nutrients, even approaching toxic levels. Vitamin E, for example, is known to be toxic at daily dosages of 400 mg, yet it’s not uncommon for multivitamins to contain that much. It’s not as if it’s impossible for a supplement to improve health outcomes. The anticarcinogenic effects of selenium supplementation are well documented. It could very well be the case that modern formulations are just so awful as to cover-up the good with the bad.

The other point that deserves mention is the idea that your typical westerner isn’t deficient. Now, as a rule of thumb, the official requirement of a nutrient is a low-end estimate (Vitamin D being a good example, but that’s a story for another time). With this is mind, the official daily allowance of potassium is 4700 mg. To get that from diet, one would need to eat a dozen bananas a day. Practically everyone is deficient, and that’s just one nutrient. Proper supplementation could help to alleviate this.

This issue deserves a more nuanced discussion, but our time is short. The simple fact of the matter is that, with the situation today, it probably isn’t worth it to take a normal store bought multivitamin. As we learn more about nutrition, this could change, but I’d recommend sticking to specific supplements for now.

Misunderstanding the Flynn Effect


The main point that the article seems to be trying to get across is that because IQ scores have risen over time, IQ can’t be genetic in origin. Yes, scores on a g-loaded test rose. Environmental  improvements are almost certainly the cause of this. However, no one claims that IQ is a purely genetic phenomenon, that wouldn’t make sense. Of course environment effects IQ! If we lived in a world where half of all babies had their heads beaten with hammers, I would expect that the average raw performance on IQ tests would be a good deal lower and much more a result of environment than other factors.  The claim is that the variance observed in IQ in modern societies is largely heritable (read: a product of genetic and epigenetic variation). The heritability of IQ (or rather, the variance of IQ attributable to genotype) is still extremely high.

I also don’t really buy the explanations they suggest for the Flynn Effect. Are they really trying to say that schooling is responsible for the improvements? That just doesn’t make sense. Had the Flynn effect been observed before compulsory education showing up, then there might have been something to it. Practice effects have long been known to exist in IQ testing. If you give a Raven’s style pencil-and-paper IQ test to someone who’s never had any sort of test before, then taking their score at face value might be misleading. Of course, that’s not what the article was looking at. They’re looking at young adults in the 1960s. Nearly all of those kids would have had plenty of experience with tests.

They also suggest the increasing demand for abstract thinking as a driver of the Flynn effect. This argument sort of reminds of Steven Johnson’s novel-but-unconvincing idea that rising IQs are a result of the growing complexity of popular culture. These sorts of arguments are a bit better, and there may very well be something to them. Honestly, I don’t know. That being said, it’s not like this reason is anymore convincing than others that have been proposed. Lead levels (known to be associated with childhood IQ drops) in the environment have fallen. Infections in childhood can stunt brain development, so improvements in healthcare for infants, as revealed by the much reduced infant mortality rate, are another possible source of this rise. People may also just be better nourished. There’s lots of stuff at work that the article doesn’t give the proper attention to.

And finally there’s the IQ-doesn’t-matter thing. That’s just empirically not true. It predicts tons of useful stuff.