As Above, So Below pt. I


“That which is Below corresponds to that which is Above, and that which is Above, corresponds to that which is Below”
-The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus

This formula is the bedrock for hermetic philosophy, and thus by extension of the western mystery traditions. Similar concepts are present in other mystical traditions, such as tantric yoga and the often misunderstood art of alchemy. The relation expressed here is that between macrocosm and the microcosm, which is to say the holistic and discrete scales of reality. This post is the first in a series seeking to explore the nature and implications of Hermes’ widely influential maxim.

Taken on its face, the aforementioned formula entails a reflection of structure between different levels of reality. As an illustration of this, consider the influence exerted on the organization and operation (i.e., metabolism) of biological systems by the second law of thermodynamics. The reasoning here, essentially, is that when a larger system or entity is composed of constituent parts, the qualities of aforementioned constituents will be expressed in the resultant system. While such an abstract proposition may seem plausible enough, it is not explicit enough to be of much use. Thus, an exploration into the terms used is called for.

Notice if you will, that in the original text the words ‘Above’ and ‘Below’ are capitalized in the manner of proper nouns. It is thus apparent that we are here considering two unique entities or types of entities. The importance of this distinction is best demonstrated through an example.

Consider a human body; composed of diverse tissues, organs and cell types, all of which share functional relationships with the body’s other constituents in order to compose the whole. Now, in contrast to this, imagine an intestinal parasite which has infected the aforementioned body’s intestine. Clearly, such a parasite would share functional relationships with a multitude of the body’s parts, nevertheless it is a discrete entity of its own, and does not contribute in any way to the emergence and operation of what we normally consider a human body. There are thus two discrete entities in this case, a fact crucial when trying to decipher the manner in which they correspond to the universe as a whole.

However, though the host body and parasite are discrete entities, they both belong to the ‘type’ commonly referred to as ‘biological organisms’. A type of entity cannot contain the division of Above and Below within it, its constituents necessarily sharing a sufficient number of qualities among themselves as to be grouped together. Both also mirror the laws governing the universe on the macrocosmic scale in their composition and operation, interacting with their environment but at the same time operating as a holistic entity. It follows thus that the nature of their correspondence to the macrocosm will be analogous.

We may thus term the relation of the two aforementioned entities as being ‘horizontal’ in contrast to the ‘vertical’ relation between Above and Below. Which is to say, they are essentially the same type of phenomena (in our example, both entities are living organisms). It may be said, for the sake of illustration, that the ‘type’ of biological organisms are Below the ‘type’ of ecosystems and Above the ‘type’ of organic chemical reacitons. By rigorously determining the similarities in the operation between such systems, the reader may come to be completely convinced of the truth and utility of Hermes’ venerable formulation.

But what of nature of the terms ‘Above’ and ‘Below’ themselves? It must be noted that such terms are always relative, at least for practical purposes. Science is currently engaged in penetrating both the nature of subatomic matter and the universe on the most inclusive scale conceivable. For every Above we select, there is a Below, and vice versa. The direction from which we begin our analysis, whether we designate the universe at large or its fundamental particles the ‘Above’ or ‘Below’, is therefore irrelevant.

The Universe of Ptolemy

The formula can thus be said to express a continuous and unbroken chain of correspondences between systems at every level of existence. In addition to the western mystery tradition and other esoteric philosophies, this concept’s influence can be seen in secular philosophy, exoteric religion and mysticism, science, art and poetry throughout human history. Such an understanding of reality is the realm of the poet who looks into the discrete and sees infinity, as did Blake when he examined the veins in a common leaf. No less present here is the scientist who formulates a new law, encompassing a whole class of phenomena under a universal law which extends throughout all existence.

This post will continue in pt. II as the implications of Hermes’ formula for human consciousness are examined.


~ by ethmgallagher on May 27, 2009.

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