The Emerald Tablet with Commentary


True, true, without doubt, certain:

The below is as the above, and the above as the below, to perfect the wonders of the One.

The Hermetic maxim, so often repeated but so seldom analyzed and understood. What is the ‘above’ and what the ‘below’? How are they ‘as’ each other, and what is this One so full of wonders? Let us start at the end and work backwards.

The great Marcus Aurelius said that the universe was either fundamentally ruled by providence or atoms, but could not be both. By atoms he did not mean modern atomic theory, but the Democratean metaphysics adopted by the Epicureans. This precursor to material reductionism holds that the universe, and all the complexity and beauty we see in it, is but the random movement of irreducible particles tumbling through the void, pulled into and away from one another by a certain “heat” which causes a sway in their fall. By providence he was referring, in turn, to the Heraclitan cosmos of the Stoics: a universe created, sustained and guided by a divine and universal reason.

Both of these cosmologies (indeed all cosmologies and philosophies) must grapple with the apparent manifest multiplicity of beings and things we encounter in the world, and also the fact that these beings and things obey universal laws of activity, appear as “types” and orderly categories, arise out of the common substance of the universe, and suffer the same universal fate.

We are faced today with the same choice when looking out at the world. Either it is all a meaningless agitation of isolated parts randomly bouncing off one another, or it amounts to something. If it amounts to something, than no matter how small and insignificant we may feel ourselves, we are part of a whole whose exact shape and purpose is perhaps unknown to us, but is nevertheless real.

A providential universe, that is to say a meaningful universe, is one that posits an underlying connection between beings and things. We may be isolated in body, but as portions of the same all-pervading reason, which is not necessarily the same kind of reason as discursive logic, we form a unity. At the end of the near thousand-year evolution of the classical philosophical schools, the falsely called “neo” Platonists, the great synthesizers of the tradition, called this unity “the One”, and our experienced sensory reality “the Many”.

The One is God. The One is the Cosmos. The One is all that is, was, or could be. And the wonders of the One? All the beautiful, terrible and baffling products of creation. We live amidst those wonders. We are those wonders. But this passage speaks not just of the wonders of the One in praise. It tells us that the wonders of the One can be “perfected” and that this has something to do with the relation of the “below” and the “above”. What could this mean? Let us continue and see if the text elucidates.

And as all things came from the One, from the meditation of the One, so all things are born from this One by adaptation.

How are the many born of the One? The Emerald Tablet tells us that the relationship is, from the standpoint of the One, somewhat like a mental phenomenon. The One is engaged in something like meditation – it is turned inward and we are born of an activity that could best be described as a kind of contemplation. We are thoughts in the mind of God. We are dreams given substance. We are connected through universal reason because the world is the active working out of a conscious process. This means that reason is inherent in the world. We see this all around us. Plants turn towards the sun while lacking nervous systems. Insects chart and communicate routes to food without maps or measurement

How do things come into the world? They adapt. They adjust. They evolve. Creation is re-creation. Like a stream of thought, new things are created by re-arranging existing things in novel ways. As the working out of universal reason, living things are in a constant state of adaptation, which means they are also in a constant state of creation. This is itself the meditation of the One. The meditation of the One is not an even that occurs outside our world, it is occurring in our world. It is occurring in us. It is us.

Its father is the Sun, its mother the Moon; the Wind carries it in its belly; its nurse is the Earth.

If the One is the unity of all things, how is it fathered by the Sun and mothered by the Moon? Because while the One encompasses all things, it is also within all things, pervades all things. It may be transcendent in its totality, but it is also immanent in its activity.

As the Sun is the source of all life on Earth, the Sun also fathers the wonders and permutations of the One through the tidal fluctuations of the world, represented by the Moon. The blowing Wind – change, flux, adaptation, re-organization. The Earth nurtures us, but for what? Are we simply here, or are we growing into something?

It is the father of all the wonders of the whole world. Its power is perfect when it is transformed into Earth.

We are to perfect the One by transforming it into Earth. We are partners in this creation. Remember, as the tablet told us earlier, we are partners in creation for we too are the working out of the meditation of the One. Plato called the creator the “Demiurge”: the half-worker. This was the great devil for the early Gnostics, for how could they affirm an imperfect world? Yet how can we affirm a world without a place in it for our dreams, our aspirations, our imaginations, our creative impulses, that is to say, ourselves?

Separate the Earth from the Fire and the subtle from the gross, cautiously and judiciously.

How are we to accomplish this perfection of Earth? This adaptation of the wonders of the One? With care and judgement, using our minds and attention, we are to distinguish what is subtle – the essence of things, from what is gross – the form of things. We are to separate one from the other, liberating the dynamic force from the shell of matter.

It ascends from Earth to Heaven and then returns back to Earth, so that it receives the power of the upper and the lower. Thus you will possess the brightness of the whole world, and all darkness will flee you.

Freed from its shell, the essence of a substance reveals its heavenly purity and then is RETURNED to form. All creation is RE-formation. We imitate the One in its creation of the Many. In this way we are the image of the divine and we also recreate ourselves and take up our sacred task.

This passage and the one preceding form the practical instruction section of the text and will have to be further explored to be fully apprehended.

This is the force of all forces, for it overcomes all that is subtle and penetrates solid things.

Thus was the world created.

All creation is effected by something like this process, or some derivative of it. It is the power source of change.

From this, wondrous adaptations are effected, and the means are given here.

And thrice-Great Hermes is my name, because I possess the three parts of wisdom of the whole world.

What are these three parts of wisdom known by the God Hermes, or one speaking in his name? Perhaps an unanswerable mystery but if we are allowed to speculate we notice that two realms, Earth and the Heaven, are mentioned in this text, with Man as the intermediary force actively reshaping creation. The neo-Platonists held that between any two a third must exist as an intermediary, bridging the gap. Perhaps there is a wisdom of Earthly things, and of Heavenly things, and a wisdom for Men? If so, let us pray that all three are taught by the art alchemical, so that we too may attain unto them.

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