This piece, with the unambiguous title That no beings are destroyed, but they erroneously say that changes are destructions and deaths, is a short speech of metaphysical argument in a dialogic framework; based on the other Hermetica, we can assume that the teacher is Hermes, the student Tat.
The topic named in the title is a staple of Greek philosophy. Because something cannot come to be out of nothing, so the usual argument goes, and something cannot become nothing, origination and destruction are only apparent, and the underlying entities are eternal.
Here, the idea is grounded in a different argument, and the unreality of death is derived from the common conception of the gods as immortal living beings. The creator and the cosmos – both commonly called ‘the god’ by philosophers, and here disambiguated as ‘the first god’ and ‘the second god’* – are both immortal, and consequently, so are the parts of the cosmos. Humanity is given the highest position among these parts, especially near to the gods.
(*This does not mean there are only two gods. The Hermetica generally take for granted that there are also gods in the cosmos.)
That no beings are destroyed, but they erroneously say that changes are destructions and deaths.
(1) Now we must speak about soul and body, o my child, firstly in what manner the soul is immortal; secondly, from where the actuality of the composition and dissolution of the body comes. For death does not concern them, but is either a (mere) concept (derived) from the word ‘immortal’, or an empty thing, or death (thanatos) is only said instead of immortal (athanatos) through loss of the first letter. For death has to do with destruction, but none of the things in the cosmos are destroyed. For if the cosmos is a second god and an immortal living being, it is impossible for some part of this immortal living being to die; and all things in the cosmos are parts of the cosmos, but especially the human being, the rational living being.
(2) For the god who is truly the first of all is eternal, unoriginated and the demiurge (‘creator’) of the universe; but the second, who is in the image of him, originated by him, maintained, sustained and immortalized by him as by an eternal father, is something everliving, that is, immortal. For the everliving differs from the eternal, because the one (i.e., the eternal) has not originated from another; and even if it was originated, it was from itself; so it has never originated, but is being originated eternally (or ‘exists eternally’). For (the first god) is the eternal being from which the universe is eternal (in a loose sense), but the Father is eternal himself from himself; but the cosmos was made eternal (in a loose sense) and immortal by the Father.
(3) And there was as much matter taken aside by(?) the [missing words] of himself [missing words], the Father created the body of the universe and shaped it in spherical bulk, and he bestowed this property to it, that (the matter) is itself immortal, and its materiality is eternal.
And further, the Father implanted the properties of the forms in the sphere, as if enclosing them in a cave,* because he wanted to adorn the entity after him with every property; and he invested all body with immortality, so that not even matter, which tends to disperse from its composition, would be dissolved into its own disorderliness. For when matter was incorporeal, o my child, it was without order. Even here, (matter) possesses the (disorderliness) confined to the lesser properties, the property of growth and the property of diminution, which humans call death.
(*An allusion to Plato’s allegory of the cave.)
(4) (Even) this (relative) disorder arises (only) among terrestrial living beings. For the bodies of the celestials (i.e., the stars) have one order, which they were allotted from the Father in the beginning; and this is maintained indissoluble through the (periodic) return of each (star). Whereas the restoration of the composition of terrestrial bodies [comes about from dissolution?], and this dissolution returns the bodies into the indissolubles, that is, the immortal (bodies).* And in this manner, a removal from perception comes about, but not a destruction of the bodies.
(5) The third living being,* the human, which comes to be in the image of the cosmos, possesses intellect, by the will of the Father and unlike the other terrestrial living beings; and it not only has an affinity (sympátheia) with the second god, but also a conception of the first; for it perceives the former as a body, but grasps a conception of the latter as of an incorporeal and an intellect, the Good.
(*After the first and second god; the celestial beings are not being counted.)
—So this living being is not destroyed?
—Be silent, o my child, and consider what god, what the cosmos, what an immortal living being is, and what a dissoluble living being is; and consider that the cosmos is from the god and in the god, and the human being is from the cosmos and in the cosmos, and the gods is the beginning, the encompassing and the composition (‘structure, stability’) of all.
3 Greek text (ed. Nock–Festugière)
(1) Περὶ ψυχῆς καὶ σώματος, ὦ παῖ, νῦν λεκτέον, τρόπῳ μὲν ποίῳ ἀθάνατος ἡ ψυχή, ἐνέργεια δὲ ποταπή ἐστι συστάσεως σώματος καὶ διαλύσεως. περὶ οὐδὲν γὰρ αὐτῶν ὁ θάνατος, ἀλλὰ νόημά ἐστιν ἀθανάτου προσηγορίας, ἢ κενὸν ἔργον ἢ κατὰ στέρησιν τοῦ πρώτου γράμματος λεγόμενος θάνατος ἀντὶ τοῦ ἀθάνατος. ὁ γὰρ θάνατος ἀπωλείας ἐστίν· οὐδὲν δὲ τῶν ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ ἀπόλλυται. εἰ γὰρ δεύτερος θεὸς ὁ κόσμος καὶ ζῷον ἀθάνατον, ἀδύνατόν ἐστι τοῦ ἀθανάτου ζῴου μέρος τι ἀποθανεῖν· πάντα δὲ τὰ ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ μέρη ἐστὶ τοῦ κόσμου, μάλιστα δὲ ὁ ἄνθρωπος, τὸ λογικὸν ζῷον.
(2) πρῶτος γὰρ πάντων ὄντως καὶ ἀΐδιος καὶ ἀγέννητος καὶ δημιουργὸς τῶν ὅλων θεός· δεύτερος δὲ ὁ κατ‘ εἰκόνα αὐτοῦ ὑπ‘ αὐτοῦ γενόμενος καὶ ὑπ‘ αὐτοῦ συνεχόμενος καὶ τρεφόμενος καὶ ἀθανατιζόμενος, ὡς ὑπὸ ἀϊδίου πατρός, ἀείζωον ὡς ἀθάνατος. τὸ γὰρ ἀείζωον τοῦ ἀϊδίου διαφέρει. ὁ μὲν γὰρ ὑπὸ ἑτέρου οὐκ ἐγένετο· εἰ δὲ καὶ ἐγένετο, ὑφ‘ ἑαυτοῦ· οὔποτε <δὲ> ἐγένετο, ἀλλὰ ἀεὶ γίνεται· † τὸ γὰρ ἀΐδιον οὗ ἀΐδιόν ἐστι τὸ πᾶν, † ὁ δὲ πατὴρ αὐτὸς ἑαυτοῦ ἀΐδιος· ὁ δὲ κόσμος ὑπὸ τοῦ πατρὸς † ἀΐδιος † καὶ ἀθάνατος γέγονε,
(3) καὶ ὅσον ἦν τῆς ὕλης ἀποκείμενον τῷ ἑαυτοῦ … τὸ πᾶν ὁ πατὴρ σωματοποιήσας καὶ ὀγκώσας ἐποίησε σφαιροειδές, τοῦτο αὐτῷ τὸ ποιὸν περιθείς, οὖσαν καὶ αὐτὴν ἀθάνατον, καὶ ἔχουσαν ἀΐδιον τὴν ὑλότητα. πλέον δέ, τῶν ἰδεῶν τὰ ποιὰ ὁ πατὴρ ἐγκατασπείρας τῇ σφαίρᾳ ὥσπερ ἐν ἄντρῳ κατέκλεισε, πάσῃ ποιότητι κοσμῆσαι βουλόμενος τὸ μετ‘ αὐτοῦ ποιόν, τῇ δὲ ἀθανασίᾳ περιβαλὼν τὸ πᾶν σῶμα, ἵνα μὴ ὕλη καὶ τῆς τούτου συστάσεως θελήσασα ἀποστῆναι διαλυθῇ εἰς τὴν ἑαυτῆς ἀταξίαν· ὅτε γὰρ ἦν ἀσώματος ἡ ὕλη, ὦ τέκνον, ἄτακτος ἦν· ἔχει δὲ καὶ ἐνθάδε † τὴν περὶ τὰ ἄλλα μικρὰ ποιὰ εἰλουμένην † τὸ τῆς αὐξήσεως καὶ τὸ τῆς μειώσεως, ὃν θάνατον οἱ ἄνθρωποι καλοῦσιν.
(4) αὕτη δὲ ἡ ἀταξία περὶ τὰ ἐπίγεια ζῷα γίνεται· τῶν γὰρ οὐρανίων τὰ σώματα μίαν τάξιν ἔχει, ἣν εἴληχεν ἀπὸ τοῦ πατρὸς τὴν ἀρχήν· τηρεῖται δὲ αὕτη ὑπὸ τῆς ἑκάστου ἀποκαταστάσεως ἀδιάλυτος· ἡ δὲ ἀποκατάστασις τῶν ἐπιγείων σωμάτων συστάσεως …, ἡ δὲ διάλυσις αὕτη ἀποκαθίσταται εἰς τὰ ἀδιάλυτα σώματα, τουτέστι τὰ ἀθάνατα· καὶ οὕτω στέρησις γίνεται τῆς αἰσθήσεως, οὐκ ἀπώλεια τῶν σωμάτων.
(5) τὸ δὲ τρίτον ζῷον, ὁ ἄνθρωπος, κατ‘ εἰκόνα τοῦ κόσμου γενόμενος, νοῦν κατὰ βούλησιν τοῦ πατρὸς ἔχων παρὰ τὰ ἄλλα ἐπίγεια ζῷα, οὐ μόνον πρὸς τὸν δεύτερον θεὸν συμπάθειαν ἔχων, ἀλλὰ καὶ ἔννοιαν τοῦ πρώτου· τοῦ μὲν γὰρ αἴσθεται ὡς σώματος, τοῦ δὲ ἔννοιαν λαμβάνει ὡς ἀσωμάτου καὶ νοῦ, τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ.
—Τοῦτο οὖν οὐκ ἀπόλλυται τὸ ζῷον;
—Εὐφήμησον, ὦ τέκνον, καὶ νόησον τί θεός, τί κόσμος, τί ζῷον ἀθάνατον, τί ζῷον διαλυτόν, καὶ νόησον ὅτι ὁ μὲν κόσμος ὑπὸ τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ ἐν τῷ θεῷ, ὁ δὲ ἄνθρωπος ὑπὸ τοῦ κόσμου καὶ ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ, ἀρχὴ δὲ καὶ περιοχὴ καὶ σύστασις πάντων ὁ θεός.