Ancient Egyptian Wisdom
There is a legendary Egyptian mystic called Hermes Trismegistus who coined the aphorism: as above so below and as within so without. This pearl of ancient wisdom formulates a universal truth: all worlds are essentially identical, and the microscopic atom is structured in the very same way as the telescopic solar system.
Of course, Hermes Trismegistus observed this truth long before the age of microscopes or telescopes. He didn’t need special equipment to conclude that all cosmoses – all whole and harmonious worlds – were in essence identical. Simple observation taught him that a cell, an organ, the human body and a family were all comprised of members kept in orbit by the pull of a magnetic core.
His finding was not only intriguing but also practical: each world could learn about its inner workings by observing the worlds outside.
Hermetic Wisdom in a Medieval City
Let us compare, for example, a human to a city. A human body is made of cells grouped into organs merged by tissues supported by bones and connected through circulation. A city is made of citizens grouped into families merged by houses supported by bricks and connected through community. As without so within: the human mirrors a city and the city mirrors a human.
But the ancients didn’t suffice in drawing intellectual comparisons. They strove to conduct their lives in harmony with their understanding. Accordingly, we find ancient cities built in the Hermetic spirit of unity. Unlike the modern metropolis that dauntingly towers above the cosmos of man and annihilates him, the ancient city seeks to magnify man’s inner workings and mirror them in idyllic harmony.
I witnessed this in the fairytale town of Freiburg in Germany. Crossing the city wall, I crossed through time into a medieval world of gabled houses and cobbled streets. Streamlets ran through narrow lanes like arteries through a body. They once used to water livestock and extinguish fires, and now tempered the sun-baked sidewalks with the cooling sound of running water.
Pebble mosaics adorned Freiburg’s sidewalks at irregular intervals. They designated the guild—or family, or organ—to which each store belonged. If you stumbled across the mosaic of a pretzel, it meant you stood before a bakery; a diamond indicated a jeweler; a cow indicated a butcher; a coffee cup indicated a café (an obviously modern guild) and so forth.
I followed one of the streamlets from the gateway towards the central square, like a blood-cell circulating through an artery. I was walking single-file through the narrowest alley, when I was suddenly thrust into a vast open space teeming with merchants, buyers, tourists and passers by, all hustling and bustling beneath the gothic spires of its cathedral.
This was the unmistakable heart of Freiburg, the gathering point of its circulation and confluence of its social interaction.
While the cathedral bustled from without, it was remarkably serene from within. Sunlight filtered through stained glass to illumine its dark interiors. I pulled out my binoculars and examined the window nearest to me. Starting at its tip, I slowly scrolled down and recognized the deposition of a king, then the anointment of two sovereigns, then the Pentecost, and then… what’s this? A pretzel!
I lowered my binoculars to take an unhindered look, as if they might be betraying my vision. But the pretzel was still there, boldly stained in white over red and blue at the base of this Biblical window. I looked to the neighboring window and saw a diamond emblem, then a cow emblem, and realized these were no misprints: all stained glass windows had guild emblems at their bases, the very same symbols I had seen paved along the city’s sidewalks.
The baker’s guild had financed Freiburg’s Pentecost window. Its beneficence was credited by stamping its emblem on the window’s base. All subsequent generations of bakers could smile in satisfaction each time they entered Freiburg cathedral, proud to have formed an irreplaceable brick in the grand scheme of their town.
Applying Ancient Hermetic Principles
Freiburg wasn’t a unique town. Most ancient communities perceived that their inhabitants were cells, grouped together to form family units or tissues, clustered together to form guilds or organs, all in support of a central temple or heart. Most recognized that the whole couldn’t exist separate from the part, and that healthy inhabitants would collectively make a healthy town.
Nine hundred years after the founding of Freiburg and five thousand years after the life of Hermes Trismegistus, our age has brought with it innumerable technological advances. We can verify the Hermetic adage on a vastly smaller or larger scale than the ancients ever could. We know that an atom is comprised of electrons encircling the magnetic core of a proton; that a cell is comprised of plasma encased in membrane encircling a core; and that our earth is a member of the solar system that encircles the sun.
But to know and to do are very different things, and the ancients’ ignorance of atoms and galaxies didn’t hinder their ability to harmonize between their world and the world above. And while our age indeed dwarfs them in technological advancement, it has yet to apply the original Hermetic truth of their ancient philosopher: that the micro-cosmos man sees better, not by looking through microscopes or telescopes, but by perceiving without what exists within.