Episode 101: Brian Copenhaver on the Hermetica
[Apologies for a few internettish glitches in the interview: the thing as a whole is quite intelligible, but things go robotic-sounding from time to time]
We are delighted to discuss the ancient texts known as the Corpus Hermeticum, along with the other theoretical Hermetica surviving from antiquity, with Brian Copenhaver, whose work – especially his erudite 1992 translation of the Corpus into English – has done much to advance our understanding of these texts. Copenhaver reads the theoretical Hermetica as works which, while containing elements of philosophic thought and much else, can be characterised as fundamentally ‘devotional’. In a wide-ranging conversation, we discuss a number of matters related to the texts themselves and their transmission, the ideas contained therein, the literary forms through which these ideas are presented, and our role as scholars reading these texts.
Topics discussed include:
- Some thoughts on the history of modern scholarship of the theoretical Hermetica,
- The Corpus Hermeticum and other theoretical Hermetica, read as ‘popular devotional literature’, some of which has a theoretical component, as differentiated from the technical Hermetica of antiquity,
- Copenhaver’s non-unitary reading of the Corpus Hermeticum, as fractured along ideological lines relating to (the old problem of) kosmic pessimism vs kosmic optimism,
- Some of the physical factors which may have affected our manuscript traditions, for example in the fact that some of our Hermetica seem to lack a proper beginning or end, and
- How we should interpret the various ‘titles’ sported by certain texts in the MS traditions (including the mysterious title of C.H. I, ‘Poimandres’),
- The potential for and limitations on future breakthroughs in interpreting the theoretical Hermetica,
- Some musings on the significance of the Hermetic dialogue-form,
- And, as special bonus material, some back-and-forth about the term ‘esotericism’ and its usefulness (or otherwise) in describing what is going on in the Hermetica, and
- A killer discussion of the fate of the word ἄρρητος/η/ον in the later Latin tradition (via Arabic), where it is translated as occultus, with all kinds of interesting repercussions for the history of science in the early-modern period.
Brian P. Copenhaver is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and History at The University of California, Los Angeles. He has published on many a subject dear to the hearts of lovers of western esotericism, and, relevantly for this interview, did the first reliable translation of the Corpus Hermeticum into English.
He has recently published Magic and the Dignity of Man: Pico della Mirandola and his Oration in Modern Memory (HUP 2019), a major study of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s famous Oratio in itself and in its reception.
Works Cited in this Episode:
- The so-called ‘Mithrasliturgie’ (which few nowadays think is a liturgy to Mithras) is PGM IV.475-834. Find it in English at Hans Dieter Betz. The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, Including the Demotic Spells, volume 1. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 1996.
- St Paul II Cor. 12.2-4: ‘2. I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago … such an one caught up to the third heaven …. 4. How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter [ἤκουσεν ἄρρητα ῥήματα, ἅ οὐκ ἐξὸν ἀνθρώπῳ λαλήσαι].’
- Brian P. Copenhaver, editor. Hermetica. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1992.
- Idem. Magic in Western Culture: From Antiquity to the Enlightenment. Cambridge University Press, New York, NY, 2015.
- A.-J. Festugière. La révélation d’Hermès Trismégiste. Les Belles Lettres, Paris, second edition, 1981. 4 vols.
- Garth Fowden. The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1986.
- J.-P. Mahé. Hermès en Haute-Égypte: les textes hermétiques de Nag Hammadi et leurs parallèles grecs et latins. Number 3 in Bibliotèque Copte de Nag Hammadi, Textes. Les Presses de l’Université Laval, Québec, 1978.
- J.-P. Mahé. Hermès en Haute-Égypte: le fragment du discours parfait at les définitions Hermétiques arméniennes (NH VI, 8.8a). Number 7 in Bibliotèque Copte de Nag Hammadi, Textes. Les Presses de l’Université Laval, Québec, 1982.
- G.R.S. Mead. Thrice-Greatest Hermes: Studies in Hellenistic Philosophy and Gnosis. Theosophical Publishing Society, London, 1906.
- Richard Reitzenstein. Poimandres: Studien zur griechisch-ägyptischen und fruhchristlichen Literatur. Teubner, Leipzig, 1904.