This is an extract from the closing chapter of my new book, The Quest for Hermes Trismegistus, about the influence of Hermeticism, and its mythical founder, on western thought. Here I reflect on some ways in which Romanticism and early modern poetry were informed by Hermetic ideas.
The most obvious link between Goethe and Hermeticism is his classic occult drama Faust, but Goethe was also deeply interested in the Rosicrucians, and his unfinished poem Die Geheimnisse (“The Mysteries”) is about the secret Brotherhood. Reading Johann Valentin Andreae’s Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz inspired Goethe to write his own Hermetic fable or Märchen, The Fairy Tale of the Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily. This in turn inspired Rudolf Steiner to develop his own form of Hermetic philosophy, first under the auspices of theosophy, then later through his own teaching, anthroposophy.
Steiner, who at the age of twenty-two was given the task of editing Goethe’s scientific writings, was also deeply influenced by the poet’s work on plant morphology, The Metamorphosis of Plants. Here Goethe spoke of what he called “active seeing,” a way of observing nature that saw it as living, developing, and purposeful, not as the “dead” mechanism of Marin Mersenne and Descartes. In nature Goethe recognized an animated whole that expressed itself in its innumerable creations and their perpetual transformation, a perception that the Hermeticist Marsilio Ficino or Robert Fludd would have shared. “Active seeing” is a way of participating with the thing observed, and not, as the new scientific method proposed, of remaining “detached” and “objective” toward it, which meant, in effect, to treat it as if it were “dead,” with no reality other than that which could be weighed and measured. As Goethe practised “active seeing,” he discovered that he could perceive what he called the Urpflanze, the archetypal plant from which all others derived, a kind of Platonic “blueprint” that, while not immediately visible to the untrained eye, can nevertheless be perceived through focussed attention to a plant throughout all its stages of development. The key here is that the observer’s consciousness enters into a kind of union with the plant or other object of observation. For Goethe it also happened when he viewed Strasbourg Cathedral during its construction; he could, without seeing the plans, tell before it was finished how the completed structure would look. That is, through his imagination, Goethe could, when practising “active seeing,” enter into the inner being of whatever he was observing, in the way that the philosopher Bergson argued “intuition” could. Here “imagination” is not understood in the reductive sense of “unreal” but in the sense given it by Hermetic thinkers such as Ficino and Suhrawardi, as a means of entering the Hūrqalyā, the Imaginal World or anima mundi that mediates between the world of pure abstraction (Plato’s Ideas) and physical reality (in Goethe’s case, a plant or a cathedral). Another area in which Goethe applied “active seeing” was in optics, and in his Theory of Colour he famously challengedNewton’s discoveries about light, which he argued were obtained through a kind of “torture” of natural phenomena. (Like William Blake, who also railed against him, Goethe was unaware ofNewton’s alchemical interests.)
Goethe’s “active seeing” and its concomitant recognition of a “living nature” was shared by the Naturphilosophie that developed in Germany in the last decade of the eighteenth century. Represented by the philosophers F.J.W. Schelling, Franz von Baader, and others, it argued for a Nature as a living whole, which it believed was the visible aspect of Spirit — or, more Hermetically, Mind. Because of this union between Nature and Spirit, Naturphilosophie saw the world as an expression of Spirit, and hence recognized it as a kind of text to be decoded through the principle of correspondence, which is a central theme of Hermeticism. As Antoine Faivre remarks, for Naturphilosophie, the world is full of “symbolic implications” suggesting “invisible processes,” that correlate with human feelings; hence “knowledge of Nature and knowledge of oneself go hand in hand,” clearly an Hermetic insight.
Naturphilosophie influenced the philosopher Hegel, whose Hermetic links were mentioned in the last chapter, and it was also an influence on the philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte, who, along with Goethe, was a strong influence on Rudolf Steiner. Again, against the new “scientific” view of a dead, mechanical nature, and the old religious view of a lowly, corrupt one, Naturphilosophie proposed a vital, animated, and intelligent Nature, that it regarded and experienced holistically. A later thinker to share in this Hermetic perception of a living, intelligent universe was the nineteenth century psychologist Gustav Fechner, whose ideas influenced those of William James (Chapter One). Fechner did solid, fundamental work in experimental psychology, but he was also a visionary who believed that man stood in the centre of the cosmos, between the soul of Nature and that of the stars, which he saw as angels — a deeply Hermetic view. Henri Bergson (Chapter Two) and Alfred North Whitehead, whose “process philosophy” presents a living, growing universe, also shared the Hermetic notion of panpsychism, the belief that mind, rather than a product of material forces operating solely in human brains, pervades the universe. In more recent years the panpsychic idea has been proposed by the philosopher of mind David Chalmers, and by now the notion of a living planet, James Lovelock’s Gaia, has become a part of our common culture.
Another Romantic poet that shared Naturphilosophie’s Hermetic view of a living cosmos and its belief in a unity between the spiritual and natural world was Friedrich von Hardenberg, better known under his pen-name of Novalis. Novalis is perhaps the most openly Hermetic of the Romantics, in that his fragmentary work is full of the kind of aphoristic remarks that the scholar Jean-Pierre Mahé argues is of the essence of the Hermetic teaching. As Clement Salaman writes “There are passages in Hermes which may be read in a few seconds and yet contemplated for life.” The same can be said for much of Novalis’ writings, which, like the Hermetic aphorisms, are meant to be pondered and meditated on as aids to spiritual insight. As the Romantic movement saw a shift in occult practice from the meticulous observance of ritual and ceremony to the power of the imagination, the figures of the poet or artist and the mage began to merge, a metamorphosis I chart in A Dark Muse. Novalis recognizes this in his Hermetic remark that “The genuine poet is all-knowing — he is an actual world in miniature.” This microcosmic/macrocosmic note is struck again when Novalis writes that “We will come to understand the world when we understand ourselves,” and again when he tells us that “Man is a sun and his senses are planets.”
Bees of the Invisible
Another of Novalis’ sayings leads us to a more modern Hermetic poet. “We dream of journeys through the cosmos,” Novalis wrote, and added: “isn’t the cosmos within ourselves? The depths of the spirit we know not. Toward the Interior goes the arcane way. In us, or nowhere, is the Eternal with its worlds, the past and future.” With its echoes of Pico della Mirandola and Giordano Bruno, this is a clear expression of the Hermetic idea that man must house within himself the entire universe. More than a century later, another poet writing in German, the Austrian Rainer Maria Rilke, himself echoed Novalis. In the Seventh of his Duino Elegies, Rilke wrote that “Nowhere can the world exist but within.” In response to what he saw as the “emptying” of the world of significance through the rise of the rationalistic reductive view, Rilke, like many other late-Romantic souls, turned inward. The old symbols of meaning — whether religious or classical — were no longer viable; as I’ve remarked in A Secret History of Consciousness, “like exhausted batteries, they could no longer hold a charge.” So Rilke recognized that his task — the task of the poet — was to save the visible, outer world from complete meaninglessness, by taking it into his own soul. The microcosm would save the macrocosm, by sheltering it within itself.
Rilke spelled out this idea in a remarkable letter to his Polish translator Witold von Hulewicz. Not only were the once potent religious and spiritual symbols no longer able to carry the force of the numinous, even the items of everyday life were now ersatz. Rilke speaks of “pseudo things” and “Dummy-Life” coming from America — the increasingly disposable manufactured junk rolling off countless production lines — and laments how, in the not too distant past, the articles of everyday life still retained a kind of soul, an interiority. “Even for our grandparents,” Rilke writes, “a “House”, a “Well”, a familiar tower, their very dress, their cloak, was infinitely more, infinitely more intimate…” With that intimacy gone, it is up to the poet, with his alchemical powers, to transmute the things of the earth into a new kind of existence. Hence, Rilke advises that the Angel of the Elegies — a symbol of transfigured being — will not be impressed by any supernatural display, but that we should rather offer him some mundane item, a jug, a rope, a bridge, provided it has been transfigured by our bringing it within. And what can this sheltering of things in our interior world mean but to transport them from the physical plane to that of the Imaginal World, to the soul of the Earth, where they will be protected from further decay?
It is through this process, Rilke told von Hulewicz, that we become what he called the “bees of the invisible.” In the Ninth Elegy Rilke asks: “Earth, isn’t this what you want, to arise within us invisible? To be wholly invisible someday?” Rilke called the task of accomplishing this Herzwerk, “heart work,” and in his letter he spells it out in detail. “Our task,’ he writes, ‘is to stamp this provisional, perishing earth into ourselves [my italics] so deeply, so painfully and passionately, that its being may rise again, ‘invisibly’ in us. We are the Bees of the Invisible.” We do not do this solely for ourselves, Rilke tells us, but as an effort on behalf of what he calls “the Whole.” “All the forms of the here and now,” he told von Hulewicz, “are not merely to be used in a time-limited way, but, so far as we can, instated within the superior significance in which we share…” That superior significance is not “a Beyond, whose shadow darkens the earth,” but a Whole into which transitory things are “everywhere plunging.” Rilke’s Whole, like the philosopher Jean Gebser’s ‘origin’ strikes me as not too dissimilar to the Hermetic “One, the All,” and it may be worth noting that Gebser began his explorations into the “structures of consciousness” through a study of Rilke’s poetry.
If Rilke’s Herzwerk seems less triumphant than either Pico or Bruno’s challenge to “become the universe,” or even less Romantic than Novalis, this shouldn’t be surprising. Rilke was writing at a time when Gebser’s “deficient mode of the mental-rational consciousness structure” had reached a kind of peak (or, perhaps more apt, a vale), and his call to “save the world” understandably has, if not an air of desperation, at least an elegiac tone. Rilke was writing at the time of “the decline of the West,” after the devastating catastrophe of the First World War, and in many ways his call to “save the world” is a salvage operation. Yet he gathers from it some remarkable prospects. Elsewhere I have commented on some similarities between Rilke’s call to recreate the Earth “invisibly” and some ideas of Rudolf Steiner. Having come back to this theme, I now see more similarities. Rilke writes that the work of converting the “visible and tangible into the invisible vibration…of our own nature…introduces new vibration-numbers into the vibration-spheres of the universe,” a thought that Pythagoras, one of the Hermetic prisca theologia, would not have argued with. Rilke goes on to say that “since the various materials in the cosmos are only the results of different rates of vibration” — an idea he shared with G.I. Gurdjieff– “we are preparing in this way, not only intensities of a spiritual kind, but — who knows? — new substances, metals, nebulae and stars.”
This is a remarkable reflection. By transforming the outer world into an inner invisible one, Rilke is saying that we may indeed be creating new worlds, not only interior ones, but “real,” physical, tangible ones. An astronomical analogy may make this clear. By drawing the things of the outer world into the “black hole” of our consciousness (which is invisible, as an astronomical black hole is because its gravity is so great that light cannot escape it), we may be creating, somewhere out in the universe, what some astronomers call a “white gusher,” the other end of a black hole, a kind of cosmic geyser, out of which all the matter sucked into a black hole emerges, but transformed into new matter, Rilke’s “metals, nebulae and stars.” Rilke, in effect, is saying that our mental acts, our consciousness, can create worlds, and this was an idea he shared with Steiner. One of the most baffling things Steiner said was that the future physical body of the Earth will be shaped by the thoughts of people living today, just as the Earth of the past was formed by the thoughts of earlier people (so the physical world we experience today — its clouds, mountains, lakes, and so on — has its roots, at least according to Steiner, in the consciousness of people in the past). In different ways, both Steiner and Rilke are saying the same thing: that consciousness, the mind, can create physical reality. This seems to take the Hermetic view of man as a microcosm a step further: not only can we house the cosmos in our minds, we can actually use our minds to create it. If nothing else, this puts a whole new meaning into the Hermetic notion that we are “caretakers” of the world.