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The Gnostic Society Library

Thrice-Greatest Hermes - Volume 2

by G.R.S. Mead



What “yesterday’s sermon,” which Hermes addressed to Asclepius, may have been, we have no means of deciding. The similarity of the phrase with the opening words of C. H., ix. (x.) is noticeable, and points, perhaps, to a collection of Sermons to Asclepius and Tat strung together in some chronological order, as delivered day by day. If this be the fact, however, we must assume that such introductions were prefixed by the editor of that collection.

“The Key of Thrice-greatest Hermes” must have been considered one of the most remarkable documents of the school, for, as we have already mentioned in the case of “The Cup” treatise, the apocryphal “Books of Moses” plagiarize the title. 4

That it was an important treatise may also be seen from the fact that Stobæus reproduces no less than five extracts from it under the title, “From the [Sermons] of Hermes to Tat,” or simply “Of Hermes.” Strangely enough in two cases (xxxix. 8 and xl. 3) Stobæus makes

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the persons of the dialogue Asclepius and Tat; this, however, must be a mistake, for it contradicts his own headings, it contradicts the nature of the sermon, it contradicts the supposed introduction of the editor of the collection from whom the redactor of our Corpus has taken his text, and it contradicts Chalcidius, who quotes from our treatise as a treatise of Hermes. 1

Nevertheless, in spite of the importance of the treatise, it purports to be an epitome, 2 an abridgment of the “General Sermons” (οἱ γενικοὶ λόγοι) 3 addressed to Tat.

The sermon itself, however, has by no means the appearance of being an abridgment; on the contrary, it is one of the most complete and fundamental expositions that we have.

I would, therefore, suggest that the general reference in the words, “as we have shown in treating of the rest” (§ 1), and the precise reference to “The General Sermons,” in § 7, have originated this wording of the introduction with the editor of the collection of Asclepius and Tat Sermons which I have previously supposed. It is a gloss of the editor and no part of the original text.

If this argument holds good, “The Key,” instead of

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being an epitome, is a further teaching that presupposes a prior instruction already given in “The General Sermons,” and so stands out as a more intimate exposition of the inward doctrine of the higher grades of the school.

Reitzenstein (p. 461) would have it that the doctrine of Sermons, ix. (x.) and x. (xi.), is a mediate one between the dualism of vi. (vii.) and the pronounced pantheistic mysticism of v. (vi.) and xi. (xii.); but I should fancy that these labels, even if they are correctly attached, would not represent such overwhelming contradictions to the Trismegistic doctors as they appear to do to their modern critics. There were different points of view; there were different grades of instruction; every doctrine had more truth in it at the proper time and in the right place. In any case this sermon is one of the most beautiful tractates preserved to us.


1. Our treatise begins with the statement that the universe and all therein is due to the Energy or Effective Working of God—that is to say, His Will. This Will is immutable and constant—the Law of the universe.

How subtly these philosophers in their most intimate circles used these terms may be seen from the Gnostic Doctor, Basilides, who writes:

“Naught was,—neither matter, nor substance, nor voidness of substance, nor simplicity, nor impossibility of composition, nor inconceptibility, nor imperceptibility, neither man, nor angel [Hermeticè, daimon], nor God; in fine, neither anything at all for which man has ever found a name, nor any operation which falls within the range either of his perception or conception.

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“Such, or rather far more removed from the power of man’s comprehension, was the state of Non-Being, when the Deity beyond Being, without thinking, or feeling, or determining, or choosing, or being compelled, or desiring, willed to create universality.”

“When I use the term will,” writes Basilides, “I do so merely to suggest the idea of an operation transcending all volition, thought, or sensible action.” 1

2. God’s Energy, or Self-realization, is, then, His Will (θέλησις); His Essence (οὐσία) or Substance is “to will the being of all things”; in brief, He is the Very Subsistence (ὕπαρξις) of all—a term which subsequently came into great prominence in the later Platonic philosophy.

3. In § 3 we have a clear distinction drawn between the transcendent idea of God as Creator or Willer, and the ordinary conception of God as Maker or Fabricator or Demiurge—a distinction that meets us in almost every Gnostic system. In our treatise, however, there is no setting of the one idea over against the other in any sense of antagonism. It is only stated that the self-operation of Deity transcends all such limited conceptions as that of a Maker or Fabricator.


4. The distinctive feature of God as the Good, or the Desirable, the Supreme Consummation, is “that He should be known” (τὸ γνωρίζεσθαι); in other words, the science of all sciences is the Gnosis of God.

5. The Vision Glorious, the One Sight, is next spoken of under the simile of the shining of a Ray of the Light

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and Life of the Spiritual Sun into the mind. This consummation of Ecstasis, 1 we are told, was a transcending of the limitations of body, and was a faculty possessed by the forebears (πρόγονοι) of the “race” into which Hermes and now Tat are being born; these ancestors are mentioned under symbolic Greek names, evidently a substitute for Egyptian ones, for the reference is clearly to the priesthood of some past civilization of the Nile Land. At the same time, it can be referred to certain grades of super-men, regarded as gods, who had reached to certain stages of celestial dignity. 2

To this idea of ancient Masters of the Gnosis in Egypt, Lactantius refers as follows:

“And so it appears that he [Cronus] was not born from Heaven (which is impossible), but from that man who was called Uranus; and that this is so, Trismegistus bears witness, when, in stating that there have been very few in whom the perfect science has been found, he mentioned in their number Uranus, Cronus, and Hermes his kinsfolk.” 3

Lactantius seems to be somewhat under the fascination of the theory of Euhemerus, and has no credence in the Heaven-born, in spite of the Christ Birth. We, however, learn from him that he knew of a statement by Hermes in this connection in which, besides Uranus and Cronus, an ancient Hermes was mentioned. Now in our treatise this is not the case, and Tat and not Hermes is the speaker; whereas in P. S. A., xxxvii., where Hermes speaks of his progenitor Hermes, no

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mention is made of Uranus and Cronus. Therefore Lactantius refers to a lost treatise of Hermes.


6. The nature of Ecstasy is then further explained; it is the fruit of meditation or contemplation, the consummation of the Theoretic Life.

“The Gnosis of the Good is holy silence and a giving holiday (καταργία) to every sense.”

The Holy Silence reminds us of the Sigē of the Christian Gnostics; here, however, instead of the Mother-Æon of Cosmos, it is used in the sense of the pure mother-nature of the little cosmos of man, the divine womb that brings to birth the true man.

With this may be compared C. H., xiii. (xiv.) 2:

“Wisdom conceived by mind in silence, such is the matter and the womb from out which man is born, and the true Good the seed.”

It is hardly necessary to add that this is the Yoga of the Upaniṣhads. Indeed, the first part of § 6 might be taken word for word from those sublime treatises of Vaidik theosophy, and shows how identical is the thought of those who have first-hand experience of the higher consciousness.

“For it is possible, my son, that a man’s soul should be made like to God (ἀποθεωθῆναι), e’en while it still is in a body, if it doth contemplate the Beauty of the Good.”

This is the “deification” (ἀποθέωσις), or “apotheōsis” of a man; he becomes like unto God, in that he becomes a god. The Beauty of the Good is the Cosmic Order; and the mode of this meditation was to bring the soul into sympathy with the Cosmic Soul.


7. The secret of this divine operation (or theurgy) is based upon the fact that the soul can be transformed

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into every likeness. The Great Likeness of God is the Cosmic Order, the making oneself into this Likeness is the supreme transformation or transfiguration of the soul.

The separated or individual soul is in perpetual pilgrimage, revolving on the wheel of transformation. This doctrine was shared in by many other faiths, and it was also Egyptian.

In this connection we may refer instructively to Hippolytus’ quotations from the Naassene Document (§ 3 S.):

“And they 1 say that the soul is very difficult to discover, and hard to understand; for it never remains of the same appearance, or form, or in the same state, so that we can describe it by a general type, or comprehend it by an essential quality.”

On this Hippolytus comments:

“These variegated metamorphoses they 2 have laid down in the Gospel superscribed ‘According to the Egyptians.’”

The Gospel according to the Egyptians is lost, with the exception of a few fragments. We, however, here learn that it described the metamorphoses of the soul. It was a Gospel having its origin in Egypt and suited to Egyptian modes of thought. It follows, therefore, that the doctrine of the soul’s transformation was Egyptian. 3

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The Hermetic doctrine of the evolution of the soul, by means of multitudinous transformations, is characterised by certain main moments, for in the course of it it passes through definite stages of existence designated as animal, human, daimonic, and god-like; there being, further, two grades of being within the choir of gods—the errant and inerrant. The final stage is the most perfect glory (δόξα) or power of the soul.

With all of this there is a strikingly exact parallel of ideas in the Pauline Letters.

“But some one will say: How do the dead rise, and with what body do they come [? back]?

“Thou foolish one! That which thou sowest is not made quick unless it die.

“And that which thou sowest—’tis not the body that shall be thou sowest, but a naked grain of wheat or of one of the other seeds. 1

“’Tis God that gives to it 2 a body as he will,—yea to every one of the seeds its proper body.

“Not every flesh is the same flesh; but there is one of men, another flesh of beasts, another flesh of birds, and another of fishes.

“There are also bodies celestial, as well as bodies terrestrial. But the glory of the celestial [bodies] is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another.

“[And of the former] the glory of the sun is one, and the glory of the moon is another, and [yet] another is the glory of the stars; for star differeth from star in glory.

“So also is the resurrection of the dead.” 3

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And by “resurrection of the dead,” I believe that Paul meant what all the instructed of the time meant—namely, the “reaching the first step of deathlessness,” as Hermes has it in our treatise. The death or vice of the soul is ignorance, the virtue or life of the soul is Gnosis.

“For he who knows, he good and pious is, and still while on the earth, divine.”


8. With § 8, however, we are confronted with what appears to be a great difficulty. Hermes here seems to teach distinctly that a vicious (that is, an ignorant) soul, one who has not attained to Gnosis, goes back to attachment to animal bodies, while in §§ 19 ff., he at great length denies that a human soul can possibly do so. Is there any solution of this apparently complete self-contradiction in one and the same treatise?

Far as I am from desiring to play the apologist for any scripture, I am prevented from appending an impatient “No” to this query, for the following considerations:

In the first place, Hermes in § 8 is speaking of the vicious or ignorant soul, while in § 19 he is speaking not only of the “human” soul, but of the human soul that hath the Good Mind (§ 23); whereas the ignorant soul “doth not have Mind, and, therefore, such an one should not be called a man” (§ 24). Here, then, we have a fundamental distinction in souls incarnated into the “body of a man” (§ 8); they are of two classes.

The doctrine of § 8 applies to one class, the doctrine of § 19 to another.

Metempsychosis, in the sense of continued revolution on the wheel of life and death, is only for him who “persisteth in his vice”—that is to say, is

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still ignorant. Gnosis thus means the freedom from saṁsāra, to use a common Brāhmanical and Buddhistic term.

The ignorant soul does not see the Light, being “blinded by the body’s passions, and tossed about”; this is the “turmoil” of which Plato speaks in the Timæus.

And here I must refer the reader to “Plato Concerning Metempsychosis,” in the “Prolegomena,” a chapter which I have written mainly in elucidation of the problems raised by our treatise.


9. So much, then, for the soul which persisteth in its vice or ignorance; but the virtue of the soul is Gnosis.

“For he who knows, he good and pious is, and still while on the earth, divine.”

This is precisely the same idea as that of the Jīvanmukta in Indian theosophy—namely, the man who has reached Mukti or Liberation while still living in the body.

Hermes thus proceeds to distinguish Gnosis, the end of human science, from sense or opinion. Gnosis is the apotheosis of the mind, its immediate perception of the things-that-are—namely, the Intelligible Cosmos.

11. The Sensible or Hylic Cosmos is then explained, and also the nature of man, and his relationship to the Cosmos and God.


13. The vehicles of man’s “Soul” are then categorized (ψυχὴ δὲ ἀνθρώπου ὀχεῖται τὸν τρόπον τοῦτον), the Soul being here used in the sense of the Self, and as distinguished from the “soul” in the category. They are

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as follows, one within the other, in the sense of being respectively more intimate to the true nature of man:

Mind (νοῦς); reason (λόγος); soul (ψυχή); spirit (πνεῦμα); body (σῶμα).

The remarkable similarity of this category with the psychology of the Upaniṣhads cannot fail to strike the student of those mother-treatises of Vaidik theosophy. Thus we read in the Kaṭhopaniṣhad, I. iii. 10, 11:

“Beyond the senses are the rudiments 1; beyond the rudiments impulsive mind; beyond the mind, the reason; beyond the reason, the Great Self.

“Beyond the Great, the Increate 2; beyond the Increate, the Man 3; beyond the Man, not any thing; That is the goal; That is the final end.”

The analogy is striking. Body = gross elements; spirit = subtle elements; soul = impulsive mind (manas); reason = reason (buddhi 4); Mind = the Great (Mahat); Source (ἀχρή) = the Increate; the One and Only (τὸ ἕν καὶ μόνον) = the Man.

These so-called “vehicles,” “envelopes,” or “sheaths” (koshas), are elsewhere given in the Upaniṣhads as: anna-maya-kosha—that is, the kosha composed of, or resulting from, food (body); prāṇa-maya-k., of life (spirit); mano-maya-k., of impulse (soul); vijñāna-maya-k., of discrimination (reason); ānanda-maya-k., of bliss (Mind).

“Spirit” is thus seen to correspond to life (prāna); it is that which “bestows upon the living creature motion, and, as it were, doth bear it” (i.e. support it) “in a way” (§ 13). It is not Life, but individualized

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life, and in the Aupaniṣhad literature is differentiated into five modes, which may be almost translated as etheric currents or modes of motion in the body. 1

The quotation from Proclus in “Plato Concerning Metempsychosis,” will have sufficiently shown that this “life” is of the same nature as the animal life. It is that principle of soul which man shares with the animals.


And here we may refer to Jamblichus (De Myst., viii. 6), when referring to the “Hermaic writings” he says:

“Man has two souls, as these writings say. The one is from the first Mind, and partakes also of the power of the Creator, while the other, the soul under constraint, comes from the revolution of the celestial [spheres]; into the latter the former, the soul that is the seer of God, 2 insinuates itself at a later period.

“This being so, the soul that descends into us from the worlds [or spheres] keeps time with the circuit of these worlds, while the soul from the Mind existing in us in an intelligible fashion is free from the whirl of genesis; by this the bonds of Destiny are burst asunder; by this the Path up to the Gods whom mind alone can see is brought to birth; by such a life as this is that Great Art Divine, which leads us up to That beyond the spheres of genesis, brought to its consummation.”

Hermes in our treatise is, however, more precise as to the so-called “vehicles” or “souls,” for he writes (§ 17):

“Mind taketh, then, the soul for, as it were, an

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envelope. And soul itself being, too, a thing divine, 1 doth use the spirit as its envelope, while spirit doth pervade the living creature.” 2


The Supreme Principle of all, the One and Only One, who “standeth perpetually” (§ 14), is the Intelligible Logos (ἡ νοητὴ στάσις, cf. § 11), the ὁ ἑστὼς of the Christianized Gnosis, as seen especially in the Simonian Great Announcement. He is the Cause of the perpetual motion of the Hylic Cosmos. Compare this with the following passage of Numenius:

“Now there are two modes of life, the first of the First and the second of the Second God. For it is evident that the First God should be standing (ἑστὼς), and the Second, on the contrary, moved. The First, then, is occupied about things intelligible, and the Second about things intelligible and sensible.

“Marvel not that I say this; for thou shalt hear what is still more marvellous. For I say that it is not the motion that appertains to the Second, but the rest that pertains to the First, which is the innate ‘motion’ from which both their cosmic order and their eternal community and their preservation [or salvation] is poured forth on things universal.” 3

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15. In § 15 the Gnosis is again declared to be the only Path of Salvation or Safety. 1 It is the Way Up to the Mount, 2 the Olympian Path.

The term Eleusis was also interpreted as Anabasis, or the Way Up. 3 Compare the Jewish commentator in the Naassene Document (§ 27):

“First is the Mystery called ‘Eleusis’ and ‘Anaktoreion’—Eleusis because we come from Above, 4 streaming down from Adamas, 5 . . . and Anaktoreion from ‘Returning Above.’”


16. The next main doctrine touched on is one of immense importance, for it gives us the inner teaching which illuminates the “dark saying” in the “Pœmandres” (§ 24), when treating of the Way Up (ἄνοδος):

“And thou surrenderest thy way of life unto the daimon.”

For in our treatise Hermes tells us that at death:

“The mind stript of its wrappings, and naturally divine, taking unto itself a fiery body, doth traverse every space, after abandoning the soul unto its judgment and whatever chastisement it hath deserved.”

The key to this is the sentence (§ 21):

“When mind becomes a daimon, the law requires that it should take a fiery body to execute the services of God.”

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At death, the mind, of its own nature, perforce becomes a “servant of God,” a Therapeut 1; the man is his own judge and his own chastizer.

The “fire of hell” is then but the reflection of the light of the mind; it is the burning remorse of a mind that now sees the inevitable results of every selfish action—thought, word, and deed; that each of these comes inevitably back on the sender forth of it.

The soul, thus, lives out (and that too in the most realistic fashion, it realizes the actuality of the law in all its most minute details) the inevitable consequences of its past vicious deeds in body.

Here we have the hint of a psychology and of an inner teaching that persuades us there was a profound wisdom at the back of the intermediate instruction of these schools.

Compare this most reasonable theory of after-death “illumination” with the crudities of the eternal torment idea of popular religion with which we are so familiar, and reflect on what a “falling off” there has been from the Gnosis of the early days.

And what is the “fiery body” of the mind but the ray-like or starry vehicle of the man, the αὐγοειδὲς ἢ ἀστροειδὲς of Philoponus? 2

This is the true “Astral Body” of a man, and not the “watery vesture” which is referred to under the term in modern nomenclature.

This is the true Body of Purification, that burns up all impurities, and in the light of the conflagration burns into man the memory of the Gnosis.

The soul is thus “chastised by its own self”; and if Hermes had taught us nothing else, he would have amply deserved the gratitude of humanity, and the title

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of Thrice-greatest. Yet is “Hermes” no single man, but a mind illuminated by the Mind.


21. So then “the impious soul, scourged with its own sins, is plunged in murders, outrage, blasphemy, in violence of all kinds, and all the other things whereby mankind is wronged.”

This is the “scourge” by which the Christ drives the unworthy out of His Temple. It does not mean that the soul is driven into doing these things, but that it is made to realize or suffer them—the consequences of its prior misdeeds. Whatever wrong it has done to its fellows, such it suffers, in the realization of its true nature, whereby the Light of Gnosis brings into amazing contrast the darkness or ignorance of its past actions. 1


22. And so Hermes explains the nature of “the dispensation of the universe”—the interlinking of the grades of being from God downwards the intercourse or communion of souls.

God, Cosmos and Man are grades of being. Each is a sun, as it were, in their operations, or powers or rays. God’s rays are His energies or self-realizing operations; those of Cosmos are the natures of things, those of Man are the arts and sciences.

This communion or intercourse of higher with lower natures is to be realized on the side of man by the consummation of the sacred marriage, whereby man becomes a god, and finally God.

He only is blessed who is filled with God—that is to

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say, the true Gnostic who has received the consecration of the Fullness or Plērōma. 1

Whereas the soul that is empty of God is deprived of that Fullness, cut off from it, and so empty of the Mind. This is the state of Emptiness (κένωμα) or Insufficiency (ὑστέρημα).

24. Such souls, says Hermes, should not be called men. For a true man is not only equal to a god, but even higher than the gods. Such a man we should, in Christian nomenclature, call a Christ—one animated or illuminated by the Mind or Spirit of God.


158:4 R. 182, 3; 190, 2.

159:1 Chalcid., Comment. in Timæum (ed. Fabric.), p. 350.

159:2 Compare also the introduction to C. H., xvi. (see R. 191, 1); and also Ex. i. 16 and Comment.

159:3 Cf. § 7, below; C. H., xiii. (xiv.) 1; and Exs. ix. 1 and xviii. 1. The title must be so translated, I think, in spite of the fact that in the introductory words of the above treatise the term is immediately followed by the antithesis “rebirth” (παλιγγενεσία), as though the Sermons were on birth or genesis (γένεσις),—which, as we know from the Naassene Document, was the subject of the Lesser Mysteries, whereas Rebirth was that of the Greater. Everard gives “in the general speeches”; Parthey, “in communibus”; Ménard, “dans les discours généraux”; Chambers, “in the Generalities.”

161:1 Hipp., Philos., vii. 21 (ed. D. and S., p. 358); F. F. F., pp. 257, 258.

162:1 Cf. § 25, where ecstasis is explained as an extension of consciousness,—a certain “greatness” (μέγεθος).

162:2 See the “Chart of Orphic Cosmogony,” facing p. 87 of my Orpheus (London, 1896), where Uranus and Cronus are referred to the two lower of the three Noëtic “planes” transcending the Sensible Universe.

162:3 Div. Institt., i. 11 (ed. Fritz., i. 29, 30).

164:1 The quotation is from the text of the Hellenistic Commentator, who is referring to the Chaldæans.

164:2 The Gnostics Hippolytus calls the Naassenes.

164:3 Reitzenstein (p. 22, 2) says that it was in error that the Greeks stated the Egyptians believed in metempsychosis; in this I believe that Reitzenstein is himself in error. The Egyptians at any rate demonstrably believed in soul metamorphosis; and when we find people who lived in Egypt teaching this metamorphosis in connection with metempsychosis, it is but natural to conclude that the Greeks, who were in touch with the living tradition of Egypt, knew more about the matter than modern scepticism.

165:1 The “grain of mustard seed”—“wheat” if a good body comes therefrom, “tares” if an imperfect growth results.

165:2 Sc. the soul as grain.

165:3 1 Cor. xv. 35-42.

168:1 The subtler elements.

168:2 Avyakta, undifferentiated cosmic substance.

168:3 Purusha, the True Man.

168:4 The manas and buddhi of the Upaniṣhads are not to be confounded with these terms as at present employed in modern Theosophical literature.

169:1 Cf. K. K., 44, 45, Comment.

169:2 Cf. C. H., ix. (x.) 3: “The daimon who’s illumined by God’s Light.”

170:1 That is, being logos, as from the Creator or Second Mind.

170:2 Cf. Exx. iv. 2; xv. 2; xix. 3; and Frag. xviii.

170:3 Quoted by Eusebius, Præp. Evang., XI. xviii. 20, 21 (539 B), ed. Dindorf (Leipzig, 1867), ii. 41. We do not know Numenius’ date, but it was probably about the first half of the first century A.D. Though Numenius is almost invariably designated as a Pythagorean, he was rather a universalist, for his object was not only to trace the doctrines of Plato up to Pythagoras, but to show that they were not at variance with the doctrines and mysteries of the Brāhmans, Jews, Magi and Egyptians.

171:1 Cf. the passage from Jamblichus quoted above.

171:2 Cf. C. H., xiii. (xiv.) 1: “The Passing o’er the Mount.”

171:3 Cf. C. H., i. 24.

171:4 Eleusis meaning Coming, Advent.

171:5 The Man or Mind.

172:1 Cf. 23: “The mind in service.”

172:2 See my Orpheus, pp. 292 ff.

173:1 With this compare the function of the Mind on the soul in incarnation, as described in C. H., xii. (xiii.) 4.

174:1 Cf. John i. 16: “Of His Fullness have we all received.”

Next: XI. (XII.) Mind Unto Hermes