Philhellenism and the Egyptian Other: Wouter Hanegraaff on Reading the Hermetica

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In this special episode we explore how the Corpus Hermeticum has been read in modern scholarship, beginning with Reitzenstein’s seminal Poimandres in 1904 and up to Festugière’s perhaps even more seminal Révélation d’Hermès Trismegiste, published from 1944-1954 and beyond, up to the current generation of scholars re-writing the history of Hermetism at the moment. The context brought out by Hanegraaff is that of the Humboldt-Universitätssystem, with its emphasis on Bildung through exposure to ‘the glory that was Greece’; among the problems with previous readings of the Hermetica nurtured in this university-context have been not only a cartoonish philhellenism and belief in Greek cultural purity, but also fears and discourses around ‘decline and fall’ scenarios and attempts to fit Christian primacy into new moulds as historical scholarship advanced in the course of the twentieth century.

Various attempts have been made by various scholars to try to figure out what to make of the Hermetica within these mental constructs: Was this philosophy (and thus Greek)? Or was it perhaps (irrational) Oriental religion? The scholarly back-and-forth makes for a great story, well-told by Prof Hanegraaff.

Interview Bio

Wouter J. Hanegraaff is Professor of History of Hermetic Philosophy and related currents at the University of Amsterdam. From 2005 to 2013 he was President of the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE), and in 2006 he was elected member of the Royal Dutch Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW). Since the mid-1990s, Hanegraaff has been active at the forefront of the academic study of  History of Hermetic Philosophy and related currents, also known as “Western Esotericism”.

Check out Wouter’s profile here, and his Creative Reading blog and Western Culture and Counter-culture project are both worth checking out.

Works Discussed in this Episode:

A cursus of major scholarship on the Hermetica in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries:

  • Richard Reitzenstein. Poimandres: Studien zur griechisch-agyptischen und fruhchristlichen Literatur. Teubner, Leipzig, 1904.
  • Thaddeus Zielinski. Hermes und die Hermetik. Archiv für Religionswissenschaft, 8-9: pp. 322-72; , 1905-1906.
  • G.R.S. Mead. Thrice-Greatest Hermes: Studies in Hellenistic Philosophy and Gnosis. Theosophical Publishing Society, London, 1906.
  • Walter Scott. Hermetica. Shambhala, Boston, 1993 [originally published 1925].
  • Josef Kroll. Die Lehren des Hermes Trismegistos. Aschendorsche Verlagsbuch-handlung, Münster, 1928.
  • A.-J. Festugière. La révélation d’Hermes Trismegiste. J. Gabalda, Paris, 1944- 1954. 4 vols.
  • 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.
  • Idem. Hermès en Haute-Égypte: le fragment du discours parfait at les dénitions Hermétiques arméniennes (NH VI, 8.8a) . Number 7 in Bibliotèque Copte de Nag Hammadi, Textes. Les Presses de l’Université Laval, Québec, 1982.
  • Garth Fowden. The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1986.
  • Thomas McAllister Scott. Egyptian Elements in Hermetic Literature. Thesis, Harvard Divinity School, 1987.
  • Anna van den Kerchove. La voie d’Hermès: Pratiques rituelles et traités hermétiques. Brill, Leiden, 2012.
  • Christian H. Bull. The Tradition of Hermes Trismegistus: The Egyptian Priestly Figure as a Teacher of Hellenized Wisdom. Brill, Leiden, 2018.

Other Works Discussed:

  • E. R. Dodds. The Parmenides of Plato and the Neoplatonic One. CQ , 22, 1928.
  • Idem. The Greeks and the Irrational. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1968.
  • Oswald Spengler. Der Untergang des Abendlandes: Gestalt und Werklichkeit. C.H. Beck, München, 1918.
  • Idem. Der Untergang des Abandlandes: Welhistorische Perpectiven. C.H. Beck, München, 1922.
  • Johan Joachim Winckelmann, ‘edle Einfalt und stille Größe’: Gedanken über die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke in der Malerey und Bildhauerkunst. Walthersche Buchhandlung, Dresden & Leipzig, 1756, p. 21.