Category: Neoplatonism > Works of Hermes (“Hermetica”)
This piece, That the greatest evil among humans is ignorance about the god, is a harangue or diatribe directed at humanity collectively. The literary form of the diatribe was also used by other philosophers, such as the Cynics.
In terms of doctrinal content, The Greatest Evil builds up a contrast between the body, which envelops the soul in ignorance, and the true knowledge which requires a mode of understanding beyond the corporeal senses. This was a fairly mainstream idea; compare, e.g., The Speech of Anchises from Vergil’s Aeneid (with the exegesis of Servius), or Pseudo-Boëthius, On Topics. Note that despite the title, the god is not mentioned, except perhaps indirectly as “the one who wishes to be seen”.
The poetic circumlocutions for the body at the end of section 2 recall texts of Philosophy in Questions & Answers such as the sayings of Secundus.
That the greatest evil among humans is ignorance about the god.
(1) Where are you being swept, o humans, intoxicated, you that have drunk the teaching of ignorance unmixed, which you are unable to tolerate, and are already vomiting up? Stop – sober up! Look up, with the eyes of your heart; and if not all of you are able, at least those who are able, (look)! For the evil of ignorance is flooding the entire Earth, and it ruins the soul that is shut up in the body, not permitting it to land one the shore of salvation (or ‘rescue’).
(2) So, do not sink down in that great flood, but use the ebb, you who are able to reach the shore of salvation! Land there and seek a guide to lead you to the gates of knowledge, where the brilliant light is, which is pure of darkness, where no one is intoxicated, but all are sober, and with their heart, they look on him who wishes to be seen. For he cannot be heard, cannot be spoken of, and cannot be seen with the eyes, but only with the intellect and the heart.
First, you have to tear off the tunic you are wearing: the robe of ignorance, the support of evil/vice, the chain of destruction, the adark enclosure, the living death, the perceptible corpse, the portable grave, the inhabited robber, the one who hates because of those they love, and envies because of those they hate.
(3) Such is the hostile tunic you have put on, which drags you down towards it so that you cannot look up and will not, once you have seen the beauty of truth and the good that lies in it (in you?), hate (the body’s) evil, understand its treachery which it has plotted against you by making the apparent senses of perception imperceptive. It has blocked them up with much matter and filled them with filthy pleasure, so that you may not hear what you ought to hear, and may not see what you ought to see.
3 Greek text (ed. Nock–Festugière)
Ὅτι μέγιστον κακὸν ἐν ἀνθρώποις ἡ περὶ τοῦ θεοῦ ἀγνωσία.
(1) Ποῖ φέρεσθε, ὦ ἄνθρωποι, μεθύοντες, τὸν τῆς ἀγνω- σίας ἄκρατον λόγον ἐκπιόντες, ὃν οὐδὲ φέρειν δύνασθε, ἀλλ‘ ἤδη αὐτὸν καὶ ἐμεῖτε; στῆτε νήψαντες· ἀναβλέψατε τοῖς ὀφθαλμοῖς τῆς καρδίας· καὶ εἰ μὴ πάντες δύνασθε, οἵ γε καὶ δυνάμενοι· ἡ γὰρ τῆς ἀγνωσίας κακία ἐπικλύζει πᾶσαν τὴν γῆν καὶ συμφθείρει τὴν ἐν τῷ σώματι κατακεκλεισμένην ψυχήν, μὴ ἐῶσα ἐνορμίζεσθαι τοῖς τῆς σωτηρίας λιμέσι.
(2) μὴ συγκατενεχθῆτε τοιγαροῦν τῷ πολλῷ ῥεύματι, ἀναρροίᾳ δὲ χρησάμενοι, οἱ δυνάμενοι λαβέσθαι τοῦ τῆς σωτηρίας λιμένος, ἐνορμισάμενοι τούτῳ, ζητήσατε χειραγωγὸν τὸν ὁδηγήσοντα ὑμᾶς ἐπὶ τὰς τῆς γνώσεως θύρας, ὅπου ἐστὶ τὸ λαμπρὸν φῶς, τὸ καθαρὸν σκότους, ὅπου οὐδὲ εἷς μεθύει, ἀλλὰ πάντες νήφουσιν, ἀφορῶντες τῇ καρδίᾳ εἰς τὸν ὁραθῆναι θέλοντα· οὐ γάρ ἐστιν ἀκουστός, οὐδὲ λεκτός, οὐδὲ ὁρατὸς ὀφθαλμοῖς, ἀλλὰ νῷ καὶ καρδίᾳ.
πρῶτον δὲ δεῖ σε περιρρήξασθαι ὃν φορεῖς χιτῶνα, τὸ τῆς ἀγνωσίας ὕφασμα, τὸ τῆς κακίας στήριγμα, τὸν τῆς φθορᾶς δεσμόν, τὸν σκοτεινὸν περίβολον, τὸν ζῶντα θάνατον, τὸν αἰσθητὸν νεκρόν, τὸν περιφόρητον τάφον, τὸν ἔνοικον λῃστήν, τὸν δι‘ ὧν φιλεῖ μισοῦντα καὶ δι‘ ὧν μισεῖ φθονοῦντα.
(3) τοιοῦτός ἐστιν ὃν ἐνεδύσω ἐχθρὸν χιτῶνα, ἄγχων σε κάτω πρὸς αὐτὸν, ἵνα μὴ ἀναβλέψας καὶ θεασάμενος τὸ κάλλος τῆς ἀληθείας καὶ τὸ ἐγκείμενον ἀγαθόν, μισήσῃς τὴν τούτου κακίαν, νοήσας αὐτοῦ τὴν ἐπιβουλήν, ἣν ἐπεβούλευσέ σοι, τὰ δοκοῦντα [καὶ μὴ νομιζόμενα] αἰσθητήρια ἀναίσθητα ποιῶν, τῇ πολλῇ ὕλῃ αὐτὰ ἀποφράξας καὶ μυσαρᾶς ἡδονῆς ἐμπλήσας, ἵνα μήτε ἀκούῃς περὶ ὧν ἀκούειν σε δεῖ, μήτε βλέπῃς περὶ ὧν βλέπειν σε δεῖ.