6 June 2011


Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince. The Forbidden Universe. Skyhorse Publishing, 2011.

Gary Lachman. The Quest for Hermes Trismegistus Floris Books, 2011.

The Forbidden Universe is divided into two parts: the first shows how Hermetic doctrines, for example, heliocentricity, the notion of an infinite universe, the circulation of spirit moving in the blood, above all the notion that Man was a miraculous creation, divine, and capable in principle of working wonders, derived from an Ancient Egyptian theological school based in Heliopolis.
The Corpus Hermeticum was a collection of documents brought to Italy from Macedonia by a monk named Leonardo de Pistoia, ten years after Byzantium fell to the Turks. It was translated by Marsilio Ficino in 1463, at the behest of Cosimo de’ Medici. It was the bombshell which started the Renaissance.

Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince are professional writers, not academics, so they haven’t the time to do much research into primary sources. The first part of the book is full of illuminating and some curious facts nonetheless. Did you know, for example, that Hamlet, written in the year Giordano Bruno was judicially murdered, can plausibly be read as an allegory of the conflict between the old world system and the new? Me neither. I shall never be able to watch the play in quite the same way again. The authors put into proper context, too, the trial of Galileo. He was correctly suspected by the Inquisition of being a follower of Bruno, but neither side thought it politic to mention this.

The authors show how central Hermeticism was, not only to the Renaissance, but to the rise of modern science itself. There have been flowerings of culture before and since the sixteenth century, but without Hermeticism modern science would have taken much longer to come into being, and perhaps wouldn’t have happened at all.

The second part of the book is much more controversial, and the authors’ position guarantees that their book will be ignored by popular science magazines and Richard Dawkins. The authors contend that Hermeticism is not only an important historical phenomenon, but is actually true.

How can they possibly defend such an archaic system of thought? you may well ask. In Ancient Egyptian teaching, reflected in the Hermetic texts, Atum spills his seed and generates worlds from his own substance, so all gods and creatures are aspects of Atum and of each other (and Atum is an aspect of them, too). Hence human beings are divine. Animals and plants and indeed minerals are divine too, of course, but only human beings can gain a knowledge – ‘gnosis’ – of their divinity. This is what they exist for, so that Atum can become conscious through them. It follows then, if the teachings of Hermes Trismegistus are right, that the universe is designed for their existence. If one believes the teaching to be true, one would believe in an infinity, or at any rate a very large number, of inhabitable worlds populated by intelligent life, just as Giordano Bruno did. In other words, one would believe that the universe was intelligently designed.

Intelligent Design is not a popular theory, either among biologists or the wider educated public, who have heard it dismissed on science programs on TV or have read the books of Richard Dawkins, the former Oxford Professor for the Public Understanding of Science. Dawkins presents it as Creationism dressed up to make it seem respectable – and who wants to be associated with Bible-thumping Christian fanatics who believe the world was created in seven days four thousand years ago?

Few realise that the original proponents of Intelligent Design were an atheist astrophysicist, Fred Hoyle, and a biochemist, Michael Behe, (not mentioned in Picknett and Prince’s book). Behe is a Roman Catholic in private life, but accepts ‘common descent’ - in other words, evolution – and natural selection, too, though not as a full explanation of it. For the general ignorance and misunderstanding of Intelligent Design Dawkins and the magazines New Scientist and Scientific American are largely to blame. Busy journalists writing for magazines might perhaps be forgiven for not doing in-depth research about every news story and article they cover, but the former Oxford Professor for the Public Understanding of Science has no such excuse. He has no business to be ignorant and personally, I don’t think he is. But the alternative is deliberate mendacity.

The authors go on to show that an increasing number of physicists have come to accept Intelligent Design, because the constants of the universe seem fixed to permit intelligent life to occur. “A put-up job,” was how Hoyle expressed it. String theory – and its development, M theory – seemed at this point to ride to the rescue of skeptics. It provided a more popular, skeptical view: we live in a multiverse, consisting of millions of universes, the majority being completely lifeless.

String theory needs at least 10 dimensions, so there is plenty of room for other universes to exist side by side our own without our even noticing it. This seems to remove the horrible necessity of believing in a deity. As Picknett and Prince put it:

“The multiverse is a concept that turns the virtually impossible into the almost inevitable.”

The trouble is, M theory has a very flimsy basis. When string theory was first developed in the late twentieth century, it was hailed as a twenty-first century theory that had been discovered in the twentieth. Unfortunately, as the authors point out, it has not lived up to its promise. Several hundred string theories were consistent with the known facts, and there was no known way of creating empirical tests to choose between them.

M theory, developed by, among others, Stephen Hawking, is an abstruse mathematical theory which attempts to find common features between all the many possible string theories. So far, it has not produced any testable results. One physicist, who had best remain anonymous, maintains that the “M” in M theory stands for “masturbation”, and, indeed, it does seem to be a bit of a “W” theory.

Despite the opinion of Professor Dawkins, it does seem that there’s a very good case for Intelligent Design. Does that mean that there has to be an Intelligent Designer? Picknett and Prince think so, but I’m not so sure. The theory of Formative Causation, developed by Rupert Sheldrake, is a possible alternative. According to this theory, all the laws and constants of the universe are habits, developed as the universe evolved. This theory could, if it turns out to be true, explain not only the anthropic principle, but also the predominance of matter over anti-matter, and the origin of life.

But whether you think that Atum thought it all out beforehand, or evolved to consciousness over billions of years, Picknett and Prince have made a good case for the continuing relevance of Hermeticism today.

In spite of the title, the reader will not get any more than a vague idea of what Hermeticism is from Gary Lachman’s book, and no understanding of why it held the greatest minds of Europe in its spell between the 1460s and the end of the seventeenth century. The Quest for Hermes Trismegistus meanders through an account of the thoughts of many occultists and writers, which, while interesting in itself, is only tangentially connected to the subject. Similarly, it is of mild interest that many of the Romantics, and the philosopher Hegel, were influenced by Hermeticism, but why was it of central importance to Copernicus, Bruno, Brahe, Kepler, Galileo, Harvey, Newton and Leibnitz? This we do not learn from Lachman’s book.

It is not that Lachman has failed to do his research. On the contrary, the book is diligently researched, with endnotes and an excellent bibliography. He has collected all the facts, and a few factoids, but interpretation, discrimination and insight are lacking. Perhaps this is because he also lacks, as it seems, a sense of history. For example, in order to explain the retreat of Hermeticism in the seventeenth century Lachman says:

“What was at work was a shift in human consciousness, and the visible sign of this was the rise of science.”

Not only is this the reverse of the truth (Hermeticism brought about the rise of science) but it mistakes an effect for a cause. The cause was the Inquisition in Catholic countries, and in Protestant ones what we would nowadays call Biblical fundamentalism, and a paranoid fear of magic and witches in society generally, and in the dour and unenlightened mind of James I of England in particular. It was James who asked Isaac Casaubon, a French Huguenot, to rebut an historical justification of the Catholic Church.

Rather weirdly, considering the Inquisition had recently had Giordano Bruno burnt at the stake as a heretic, and was busy silencing Galileo, the justification included Hermes Trismegistus as a pagan philosopher who prophesied the coming of Christ. Casaubon therefore attempted to rebut Hermeticism as well. He found the Greek of the Corpus Hermeticum very late, and no references to Hermes Trismegistus in classical Greek authors (Quelle surprise!) There were similarities with the New Testament: particularly the beginning of St John’s gospel, and Hermes also gives a sermon on the mount to his son Tat (Thoth). Casaubon therefore concluded that the teachings of Hermes Trismegistus were a pious fraud, an attempt by Christians to encourage their pagan compatriots to abandon pagan ways and find salvation in Christ.

Gary Lachman is right in saying that Casaubon’s findings dealt a blow to Hermeticism, and caused scholars and ‘scientists’ (the anachronistic term is mine, not Lachman’s) to become circumspect in expressing an enthusiasm for Hermes Trismegistus. However Lachman thinks that Casaubon’s conclusions are valid in the twenty-first century. Casaubon was an erudite scholar in his day, but his day was four hundred years ago. Egyptology and New Testament studies did not exist then. No modern scholar would accept Casaubon’s thesis. The consensus nowadays would be that the Corpus Hermeticum is a valid expression, in Greek, of Egyptian theology dating back to long before the Greek occupation of Egypt.

There are other factoids in Lachman’s book which it is the duty of any right-thinking person to stamp on, lest they become rampant, like horrible cockroaches.

Lachman claims that Copernicus was anal-erotic and fussy. There is absolutely no evidence for this.

He asserts that Giordano Bruno was a megalomaniac. Again, no evidence. (There is, however, evidence that Bruno was the greatest philosopher of the Renaissance.)

Lachman follows the journalist, novelist, popular science writer and serial rapist Arthur Koestler in saying Galileo was an egomaniac, and that the Roman Church leant over backwards to accommodate him. This is the reverse of the truth: it was Galileo who was circumspect, the Inquisition which was determined to silence him, because heliocentricity was a doctrine of Hermeticism, which was considered a heresy.

On the whole, therefore, I cannot recommend Gary Lachman’s book highly enough – or indeed at all. – Reviewed by Mark McCann

1 comment:

  1. A reviewer is, of course, entitled to his opinion, but he should really get his facts right before sending them out into the public. My book is not about hermeticism, of which there are dozens, even scores of books, but about Hermes Trismegistus, of which there are scant few. That is clear from the title, the introduction, and several places in the text itself. The reviewer failed to notice this, and his complaint is rather like saying that this chair is a bad table. Also, in his crusade against factoids, he should look at the inaccurate ones he himself provides. Arthur Koestler was not a "serial rapist." That is a thought cliche the reviewer picked up somewhere, most likely from David Cessarini's scurrilous "biography," and which the reviewer thought good to repeat. Had he read Michael Scammel's recent biography of Koestler, he would know there is no evidence for the claim. But more to the point, the ad hominem argument doesn't hold: Koestler is a serial rapist, hence what he says about Galileo must be false. The logic is numbing, and, in any case, Koestler was not alone in his account of Galileo's ego.(And that the reviewer links "serial rapist" with being a "journalist, novelist, and popular science writer" shows the worst kind of snobbery.) Again, I make it clear that for a time science and hermeticism were fellow travellers, just as hermeticism was a fellow traveller with Christianity, and Christianity was a fellow traveller with humanism. These points escaped the reviewer. I also argue that the shift in human consciousness I discuss (a la Jean Gebser) was seen in both science and hermeticism. Indeed, in the section on "Mechanical Marvels," I show how science was linked with magic and condemned with it during the rise of Protestantism. But it was certainly the work of the Cartesian Marin Mersenne that put the nails in HT's sarcophagus, a point, among many, missed by the reviewer. Again, at no point do I say that Casaubon's views are "valid in the 21st century" and I challenge the reviewer to show me where I do. I explicit state several times that Casaubon's views were challenged - even at the time - and that the most recent scholarship believes the Corpus Hermeticism has Egyptian roots - once again, the reviewer failed to notice this. My comments about Copernicus come from several valid sources, as do those regarding Bruno (Frances Yates, who started this whole business, for one). I could go on, but it is a lovely Saturday afternoon, and I have enough of my own work today to do, without having to correct that of others. I will say though, that my sense of history strikes me as a bit more reliable than the reviewer's, who seems to have taken it amiss that someone has written about some of his heroes in ways of which he doesn't approve. Had he absorbed some of the teachings of Hermes Trismegistus, on the multiple nature of knowledge, he would perhaps not be so eager to defend his own particular take on things against perspectives that offer a different view - as, of course, all "right thinking" people do.