This 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. '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 Hermetism, 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 Hermetism 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 Hermetism 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 Peripataetic 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 which 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 I and XI. 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 Westernised 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 I and XIII.
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 centred 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 real truth.
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)