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The Gnostic Society Library

Thrice-Greatest Hermes - Volume 2

by G.R.S. Mead

p. 429



And the soul’s vice is ignorance. For that the soul who hath no knowledge of the things that are, or knowledge of their nature, or of Good, is blinded by the body’s passions and tossed about.

“This wretched soul, not knowing what she is, becomes the slave of bodies of strange form in sorry plight, bearing the body as a load; not as the ruler, but the ruled.”—C. H., x. (xi.) 8. 1

For the better understanding of this passage, we may appropriately refresh the memory of our readers with the Platonic doctrine of the transmigration of souls, as given in the Phædrus, 248 ff., using for this purpose the best translation we have in English, namely, that of Stewart, 2 as a basis, but often departing from it for greater clearness.


“This is the life of the Gods. Of the other Souls, whosoever followeth God best, and is being made most like unto Him, keepeth the Head 3 of her Charioteer

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lifted up into the Space without the firmament; so she is carried round with the circuit thereof, yet being [still] troubled with the Horses, 1 and hardly beholding the Things-which-are; so she is now lifted up, now sinketh down, and because of the compulsion of the Horses, seeth some of the Things-which-are, and some she seeth not.

“And the rest of the Souls, you must know, follow all striving after that which is above, but unable [to reach it], and so are carried round together and sink below it, 2 trampling upon one another, and running against one another, and pressing on for to outstrip one another, with mighty great sound of tumult and sweat.

“And here by reason of the unskilfulness 3 of the Charioteers, many Souls are maimed, and many have many feathers [of their wings] broken; and all, greatly travailing, depart without initiation in the Sight of That-which-is, and departing betake them to the food of Opinion.

“Now this is why there is so great anxiety to see the Space where is the Plain of Truth,—both because the pasture suited to the Best Part of the Soul groweth in the Meadow there, and the power of wing, whereby the Soul is lightly carried up, is nourished by it, and that the law of Adrasteia is that whatsoever Soul by following after God hath seen somewhat of the true things, shall be without affliction till its next journey round; and if she can always do this, 4 she shall be without hurt alway.

p. 431

“But when through incapacity to follow [God] she doth not see, and, overtaken by some evil chance, filled with forgetfulness and wickedness, she is weighed down, and, being weighed down, she sheds the feathers of her wings and falls on to the Earth,—then is the law not to plant her 1 in her first birth in a beast’s nature; but to implant the Soul that hath seen most into the seed of one who shall become a Wisdom-lover, or a lover of the Beautiful, or a man who truly loves the Muses; the Soul that hath seen second best, into the seed of one who shall become a king that loveth law, and is a warrior and a true ruler; the Soul that hath seen third, unto the seed of one who shall become busied in civic duties, or in some stewardship, or in affairs; the one that hath seen fourth, into the seed of one who shall be a hardship-loving master of the body’s discipline or skilled in healing of the body; the Soul that hath seen fifth, into that which shall have a life connected with the oracles or mystic rites some way; 2 unto the sixth a life poetic shall be joined, or that of some one or of another of the tribe of copiers; unto the seventh, the life of workman or of husbandman; unto the eighth, that of a sophist or a demagogue; unto the ninth, that of a tyrant.

“In all these lives, whoever lives them righteously obtains a better fate; he who unrighteously, a worse.

“Now to the selfsame state from which each Soul hath come, she cometh not again for some ten thousand years. For sooner than this period no Soul [re-]gains

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its wings, except the Soul of him who has loved wisdom naturally or contrary to nature. 1

“Such Souls in the third period of a thousand years, if they have chosen thrice this life successively, thus getting themselves wings, depart in the three thousandth year. 2

“But the other Souls, when they have ended their first life, are brought to judgment; and being judged, some go to places of correction below the Earth and pay the penalty, while others are rewarded by being raised unto a certain space in Heaven where they live on in a condition appropriate unto the life they lived in a man’s form.

“But in the thousandth year both classes come to the lottery of lives, and each doth make choice of its second life, whatever it may choose. 3

“And now is it that a Soul that once had had a man’s life doth pass into a brute’s life, 4 and from a

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brute, he who was once a man, passes again into a man; for that indeed the Soul that never hath seen truth, will never come into this configuration. 1

“For we must understand ‘man,’ in the sense of form, as one proceeding from many sensations and collected into a unit by means of ratiocination. 2 But this 3 is recollection (ἀνάμνησις) of those things which our Soul once did see when she journeyed with God, 4 and looked beyond the things we now call things that are, by raising her face 5 to That-which-really-is.

“Wherefore of right, alone the understanding of the Wisdom-lover hath got wings; for he is ever engaged upon those things in memory as far as he can be, on being engaged at which, as being a God, he is divine.

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“The man then who doth make a right use of memories such as these, ever being made perfect in perfect perfectionings, alone becometh really Perfect. 1

“But in as much as he eschews the things that men strive after, and is engaged in the Divine [alone], he is admonished by the many as though he were beside himself, 2 for they cannot perceive he is inspired by God.”


Let us now turn to the genuine disciples of the master for further light on this tenet, and first of all to Plotinus.

The most sympathetic notice of this tenet in Plotinus is to be found in Jules Simon’s Histoire de l’École d’Alexandrie (Paris, 1845), i. 588 ff., based for the most part on En., I. i. 12; II. ix. 6; IV. iii. 9; V. ii. 2; and on Ficinus’ Commentary (p. 508 of Creuzer’s edition).

After citing some “ironical” passages from Plotinus (in which the philosopher disguised the real doctrine which in his day still pertained to the teachings of a higher initiation), Jules Simon goes on to say:

“Even though admitting that this doctrine of metempsychosis is taken literally by Plotinus, we should still have to ask for him as for Plato, whether the human soul really inhabits the body of an animal, and whether it is not reborn only into a human body which reflects the nature of a certain animal by the character of its passions.

“The commentators of the Alexandrian school sometimes interpreted Plato in this sense. Thus, according

p. 435

to Proclus, Plato in the Phædrus condemns the wicked to live as brutes and not to become them, κατίεναι εἰς βιὸν θήρειον, καὶ οὐκ εἰς σῶμα θήρειον (Proc., Comm. Tim., p. 329). Chalcidius gives the same interpretation, for he distinguishes between the doctrines of Plato and those of Pythagoras and Empedocles, qui non naturam modō feram, sed etiam formas1 Hermes (Comm. of Chalcidius on Timæus; ed. Fabric., p. 350) declares in unmistakable terms that a human soul can never return to the body of an animal, and that the will of the Gods for ever preserves it from such disgrace.” 2


Again, Proclus in his Commentaries on the Timæus, writes very definitely with reference to the following passage of Plato:

“And if he still in these conditions did not cease from vice, he would keep on changing into some brutish nature according as he acted in a way resembling the expression in genesis of such a mode of vicious living.” 3

For he says:

“With reference to this descent of souls into irrational animals, it is usual for men to enquire how it is meant.

“And some think that what are called brute-like lives are certain resemblances of men to brutes, for that it is not possible for the rational essence to become the soul of a brute.

“Others allow that even this [human soul] may be

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immediately degraded to reason-less creatures, for that all souls are of one and the same species, so that they may become wolves and panthers and ichneumons.

“But the true reason (logos) asserts that though the human soul may be degraded to brutes, it is [only] to brutes which possess the life suited to such a purpose, while the degraded soul is as it were vehicled on this [life], and bound to it sympathetically.

“And this has been demonstrated by us at great length in our lectures on the Phædrus, and that this is the only way in which such de-gradation can take place. If, however, it is necessary to remind you that this meaning (logos) is that of Plato, it must be added that in the Republic 1 he says that the soul of Thersites assumed an ape [life], but not an ape’s body, and in the Phædrus 2 that [the soul] descends into a brutish life, and not into a brutish body, for the mode of life goes with its appropriate soul. And in the passage [from the Timæus] he says that it changes into a brute-like nature; for the brutish nature is not the body but the life [principle] of the brute.” 3


429:1 See commentary thereon.

429:2 Stewart (J. A.), The Myths of Plato (London, 1905), pp. 313 ff.; cf. also Jowett (Oxford, 1892), i. 454 ff.; and Taylor (London, 1804), iii. 325 ff.

429:3 Cf. C. H., x. (xi.) 11: “Since Cosmos is a sphere—that is to say, a head.”

430:1 Cf. 246 B: “For ’tis a Yoke of Horses that the Charioteer of Man’s Soul driveth, and, moreover, of his Horses the one is well favoured and good and of good stock, the other of the contrary and contrary.”

430:2 Lit., under water.

430:3 Lit., evil—that is, ignorance.

430:4 Viz., behold the truth.

431:1 Sc. as a germ or seed.

431:2 It is low down in the scale, indeed, that Plato places the soothsayers and hierophants; he is, however, “ironical,” for he places poets even lower down, and still lower sophists and tyrants, all in keeping with his well-known views about these people as known in his own time.

432:1 ἢ παιδεραστήσαντος μετὰ φιλοσοφίας—Stewart, “Of loved his comrade in the bonds of wisdom”; Jowett, “or a lover who is not devoid of philosophy”; Taylor, “or together with philosophy has loved beautiful forms.” I fancy that Plato has used this graphic expression simply to designate a man who has not true union with wisdom, but is seeking for union though ignorantly.

432:2 “The numbers three and ten are called perfect; because the former is the first complete number, and the latter in a certain respect the whole of number; the consequent series of numbers being only a repetition of the numbers which this contains. Hence, as 10 multiplied into itself produces 100, a plane number, and this again multiplied by 10 produces 1000, a solid number; and as 1000 multiplied by 3 forms 3000, and 1000 by 10, 10,000; on this account Plato employs these numbers as symbols of the purgation of the soul, and her restitution to her proper perfection and felicity. I say, as symbols; for we must not suppose that this is accomplished in just so many years, but that the soul’s restitution takes place in a perfect manner.”—Taylor, op. cit., iii. 325.

432:3 Cf. the “Vision of Er.”

432:4 “We must not understand by this that the soul of a man becomes the soul of a brute; but that by way of punishment it is bound to the soul of a brute, or carried in it, just as dæmons used to reside in our souls. Hence all the energies of the rational soul are perfectly impeded, and its intellectual eye beholds naught but the dark and tumultuous phantasms of a brutal life.”—Taylor, loc. cit.

433:1 Viz., the form of a man; it is, however, also an astrological term.

433:2 There seems to be no agreement among translators as to the meaning of this sentence: δεῖ γὰρ ἄνθρωπον ξυνιέναι καὶ εἶδος λεγόμενον, ἐκ πολλῶν ἰὸν αἰσθήσεων εἰς ἕν λογισμῷ ξυναιρούμενον. Stewart translates: “Man must needs understand the Specific Form which proceedeth from the perceiving of many things, and is made one by Thought;” Jowett: “For a man must have intelligence of universals, and be able to proceed from the many particulars of sense to one conception of reason;” Taylor: “Indeed it is necessary to understand man, denominated according to species, as a being proceeding from the information of many senses, to a perception contracted into one reasoning power.”

433:3 Sc. collecting into one.

433:4 That is to say, revolved in the Cosmos Order.

433:5 Cf. C. H., i. 14: “So [Man] . . . bent his face downwards through the Harmony.”

434:1 All these are technical terms of the Mysteries.

434:2 Cf. C. H., ix. (x.) 4: “For this cause they who Gnostic are please not the many nor the many them. They are thought mad and laughed at.”

435:1 Who not only made the soul go into an animal nature but into animal forms.

435:2 The last sentence of C. H., x. (xi.) being quoted textually by Chalcidius.

435:3 Tim., 42 C.

436:1 Lib. X. 620 C.

436:2 Phædr., 249 B.

436:3 Comment, in Plat. Tim., 329 D; ed. Schneider (Warsaw, 1847), pp. 800, 801. With all of this the views of Basilides (F. F. F., 275 ff.) may be most instructively compared.

Next: XIV. The Vision of Er