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Its leading exponent was an Arab, Thalid ibn Qurra (836-911) who presided over a pagan Hermetic school in Baghdad, then a great Islamic center. These Greek texts were purchased by Cosimo di Medici, the Duke of Florence, in 1460. He had just founded a Platonic Academy and engaged Masilio Ficino, a scholar learned in Greek, to translate Platonic texts from Greek into Latin. According to the Poimandres, the most significant of the Hermetic texts, a hero by that name embarked on a spiritual quest in which he received revelations from the god whom Greeks called Hermes. This was the same deity, in the context of the texts, as the ancient Egyptian deity Thoth, god of wisdom. Both Cosimo and Ficino became very excited, convinced that they had a divinely-revealed text which was older than the Pentateuch.

A French classical scholar, Casaubon, shattered this theory at the beginning of the seventeenth century by proving that the Hermetic texts were written around the beginning of the Christian era. However, many who were inclined to mystical beliefs continued to believe that they were the texts of the “primordial revelation.” Hermetism underlay various early modern forms of esotericism such as Rosicrucianism and the mystical philosophy of Emmanuel Swedenborg. The latter was among those who preserved and enhanced the tradition which flourished during the nineteenth century in the esoteric writings of Eliphas Lévi and Papus.


We know very little about Gnosticism. The little known suggest that it was much like Hinduism or Buddhism in some respects. Whether or not there was an Indian component is open to speculation, since it is known that Buddhist missionaries were sent to Alexandria by Asoka, the Buddhist emperor of India, who flourished about the beginning of the Christian Era. There is some evidence that Indians visited Alexandria, and that there were commercial and intellectual contacts between the Indian and Hellenistic worlds. During the nineteenth century, European occultists such as Helena Blavatsky noted the parallels between Gnosticism and Hinduism and asserted that they were variants of the same religious tradition. This idea found its way into the Western esoteric tradition and continues today.

While Renaissance scholars had access to very few Gnostic materials, they did become acquainted with them, and also with heretics who had been accused of Gnosticism. The Gnostic writings were Jewish and Christian texts composed in Alexandria during the second century C. E. Early Christians were profoundly influenced by the Gnostics, who believed that this is a fallen world of suffering and evil. Both Gnosticism and Hermeticism are based on doctrines of divine emanations, the belief that God is a very remote, highly transcendent being who manifests himself through various dimensions, the lowest being our own physical cosmos. At death, according to the Gnostics, we pass on to higher levels of spiritual existence.

The last great classical philosopher was Plotinus, who flourished around 250 C. E. He was of the Neo Platonist School which emphasized mystical experience, emanations, and transcendental deity. While the writings

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