Episode 102: Professor Christian Wildberg on Emending the Corpus Hermeticum

Professor Christian Wildberg was conducting a reading-group looking at the Corpus Hermeticum when he noticed something about CH II: in a spot where the text was obviously corrupt, it was possible to get quite a good text simply by removing what was clearly an interpolated scholium, or marginal note (see Wildberg 2013). Running with this method, he has had results across the board, and is preparing a new edition and translation of the Corpus Hermeticum based on simply separating the interpolated marginal notes from the main body of the text.

In this interview we discuss the method, the project, and so forth, and then move on to discuss the Hermetic writings more generally. Professor Wildberg’s reading of the theoretical Hermetica is independent, and questions some commonly-held scholarly beliefs about the texts.

  • He sees the ideas in the Corpus Hermeticum  not as a rehash of Greek philosophy, although they use Greek terminology which is familiar to readers of philosophy from the Hellenistic onward; something quite different and distinctive is going on in these texts. The ‘philosophical’ terms used have very different meanings in the Hermetic texts than they do in the school-traditions.
  • Professor Wildberg’s reading of the texts does not necessitate a late-antique dating; he finds it plausible that these texts might have been composed in the Hellenistic period in a way somewhat cognate to the origin of the Septuagint Bible – Egyptian priests seeking to render their ideas relevant in Greek, the dominant language of the day.
    We discuss the distinctive solar theology of the Hermetica, which Wildberg sees as something distinctly Hermetic, and probably with roots in Egyptian religion (rather than, for example, in the ideas of Plato’s Republic or other commonly-considered sources).
  • Who is the mysterious commentator whose marginal notes ended up being incorporated into our text? Assuming he is a he, and that he is a single he and not a number of different readers, we can say that, A: he is interested in practical astrology and faults the C.H. texts for not containing astrological material, and B: he has read the Book of Genesis. Aside from this, it’s hard to say what we might make of this person, but we confidently predict that scholars will opine on the matter freely once the new edition is out and we can see this scholiast in his native habitat, viz., the margins of the text.

Interview Bio:

Christian Wildberg is Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Classics at the University of Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh, where he actually has an office in a building called ‘the Cathedral of Learning’. A historian of ancient philosophical and scientific ideas and the way they shaped and continue to shape our Western intellectual tradition, he has written on Late Platonism in many manifestations, but also material more traditionally ‘classical’.

He is the co-editor of two monograph series, Philosophia Antiqua (Brill) and Studien und Texte zu Antike und Christentum (STAC, Mohr-Siebeck), and of the journal APEIRON, for the history of science and philosophy. He is currently working on a new critical edition of the Corpus Hermeticum, which is the focus of this interview.

Works Cited in this Episode:

Primary:

CH II, III, and the Poimandres can all be found in the usual places (see Episode 100 for basic bibliography).

Secondary:

  • Walter Scott. Hermetica. The Ancient Greek and Latin Writings which Contain Religious or Philosophic Teachings Ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus, volumes I-IV. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1924-1936.
  • Adrien Turnebus published the first Greek edition of the Corpus Hermeticum in 1554.
  • Wildberg 2013, 2019 (see below)

Recommended Reading:

  • A.-J. Festugière. La révélation d’Hermes Trismegiste. J. Gabalda, Paris, 1944-1954. 4 vols.
  • A.D. Nock and A.-J. Festugière, editors. Corpus Hermeticum. Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 1947.
  • Garth Fowden. The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1986.
  • K. McNamee. Annotations in Greek and Latin Texts from Egypt. American Society of Papyrologists, New Haven, CT, 2007.
  • Jørgen Podemann Sørensen. The Egyptian Background of the ἱερὸς λόγος. In Apocryphon Severine, Festschrift Søren Giversen, page 215–225. Aarhus University Press, Aarhus, 1993.
  • Christian Wildberg. Corpus Hermeticum, Tractate III: the Genesis of a Genesis. In Lance Jenott and Sarit Kattan Gribetz, editors, Jewish and Christian Cosmogony in Late Antiquity, pages 139–64. Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen, 2013.
  • Idem. The General Discourses of Hermes Trismegistus. In Christian Brockmann, Daniel Deckers, Lutz Koch, and Stefano Valente, editors, Handschriften- und Textforschung heute. Zur Überlieferung der griechischen Literatur. Festschrift für Dieter Harlfinger aus Anlass seines 70. Geburtstages, number 30 in Serta Graeca, pages 137–46. Reichert, Wiesbaden, 2014.
  • Idem. Astral Discourse in the Philosophical Hermetica (Corpus Hermeticum). In A.C. Bowen and F. Rochberg, editors, Hellenistic Astronomy. The Science and Its Context, pages 510–32. Brill, Leiden, 2019.

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