Sometime in late 1999, I was working at a Blockbuster in Colorado. I had just move there from New Orleans to attend graduate school at the University of Denver. The big movie that was coming out on video was The Matrix (1999). I wasn’t a huge fan of Keanu Reeves, so I hadn’t seen it. But all of the other employees insisted that once it was out on video I had to see it. They explained to me how philosophical it was and it was right up my alley. I would LOVE it! I did, in fact, love the film and I still use it today in my Philosophy of Religion course that I teach. The first time I watched it I saw it as a classic Gnostic story of the illusory world being stripped away to reveal a darker reality run by an insane God, or Architect as later revealed in The Matrix series (though I can’t recommend the sequels). Once the deception is stripped away, the protagonist has to decide how to act on this devastating new knowledge about the world.
Cartesian “minds in a vat” as portrayed in The Matrix
The Matrix is not the only modern telling of this story, we can also see this theme less violently played out in The Truman Show (1998) and Pleasantville (1998). Both of these films are subtler in their approach. The characters don’t find themselves literally existing as Descartes’ brains-in-a-vat, as they do in The Matrix. Rather, they see their world slowly starting to change as they become more aware of reality. The Truman Show, like The Matrix, is more of a nightmare. Truman lives his entire life in a bubble. He’s the first baby to be adopted by a corporation and he’s lived his entire life, unknowingly, on a TV show. All of the people in his life are actors. But the illusion can’t realistically be sustained and the audience follows him on his painful path to discovery. Pleasantville takes a more cinematically poetic touch. As the characters become more aware of reality, the black and white film begins to add color into their lives. Sometimes at a tremendous cost. But once a character start to see the varied colors in life, they can no longer go back to their old ways. The color adds pain, but it also adds beauty and nuance to their otherwise black and white bleak lives.
I’m not sure what was going on in Hollywood at the time that allowed these three films to bubble up from the collective unconscious in the late nineties, but they remain some of my favorite films from the 20th century.
Just as an aside, if Morgan Freeman is Hollywood’s go-to God, then Ed Harris is its Demiurge (The Truman Show, Snowpiercer).
In the Hermetic tradition, there are seven principles that govern the Universe. The First Principle of Hermeticism is Mentalism. This is the idea that the Universe and all things in it are Mental constructs of the The All. That means, you, me, the chair I’m sitting in, peanut butter, novelty mugs, galaxies, and atoms are living in the mind of the Divine Creator. The universe is mental and unfolds in accordance to the laws inherent in its construct. That is to say, the Divine set up some rules which must be obeyed by all things in the universe. These are strictly physical laws, not laws governing morality. The three authors of the Kybalion (1912), who refer to themselves as the Three Initiates, rather testily point out that we ought not make inane arguments regarding whether or not God can create a rock so big that even God can’t lift it. The All of the Hermeitc tradition doesn’t stoop to such silly things. The Universe is ordered and The All doesn’t break the laws that hold Its Universe together.
So, what does that mean for us? In the Corpus Hermeticum, human beings were initially Souls or Spirit Force that are lesser beings than God, but like God in form. We began in God’s mind and we’re granted a mind of our own in which we all have the power of creating infinite worlds of our own. Like The All, our Soul is Immortal, it will never be snuffed out. Our Souls were then sent to Earth to live out temporary lives where we could grow and develop into more worthy beings. Eventually the body dies, but the Spirit continues and is reborn. We have two forms, our physical Earthly form, which changes with each incarnation, and our Spirit form which is our unchanging Soul.
The All sent us some of Its Servants to help us reach our full potential and to open the possibility for us to join the ranks of the Higher Beings. In Egyptian mythology, we know these Servants of The All as Isis, Osiris, Horace, Thoth, Nut, Ra and so forth. Thoth was our greatest champion who gave us things like writing, science, philosophy, engineering, astrology, and alchemy. If we could use it, Thoth gave it to us. It is said that Thoth wrote the Corpus Hermeticum, possibly during an incarnation as a human. The Greeks got a hold of this idea around the 3rd century C.E. and combined Thoth with their god, Hermes, hence why we attribute the Corpus Hermeticum to Hermes Trismegistus. His name is used interchangeably with Thoth as they are assumed to be one and the same.
We are then, Spiritual Beings having a human experience. We are each on a path of discovery and enlightenment. Obviously, we’re not all aware of this or life would be quite different on Earth. We suffer amnesia when we are born into this life. This is due to the lessons we’re here to learn. It’s hard to learn anything new if we carry all the baggage of our former lives with us. This amnesia helps us to get out of our own way so that we can develop our Souls further. With each life, we pull back a little more of the Material World to reveal more of our Spiritual nature. Or at least that is the goal.
St. Irenaeus – Christian Bishop and Martyr, Enemy of Gnostics
One of the ancient theodicies (a theory that explains how Evil can exist if God is all good, all powerful, and all knowing) was developed by Doctor of the Church, St. Irenaeus, in the 2nd century. Without getting too deeply into it, he believed that Evil occurred as a means for soul-making. We encounter horrors and challenges in our lives to create greater Souls who are worthy of God.
So, we encounter Evil and hardship, not as a means for punishment or even to demonstrate our Free Will to choose between Evil or Good (St. Irenaeus would disagree, he was no friend of the Gnostics or Hermetists), but rather as a means to grow, develop and improve our Souls. What we tend to classify as Evil is an illusion according to Hermetic philosophy. Good and Evil are dualistic concepts that express opposites. In Hermetic philosophy, there is no duality. All opposites are the same and differ only in degree. This is known as the Fourth Principle of Polarity in the Kybalion, which I will get into much more depth later.
In each life time, there exist the potential for humans to pull back the veil and come to understand the second half of our nature, which is Spirit. The Gnostics believed that we were purposely being deceived by an insane god known as the Demiurge. The Demiurge employed the services of Archons to help keep the deception going and keep us ignorant of our Reality. The All sent Aeons to help us break through the illusion. This is evident in the films The Matrix and The Truman Show. Both give us a Demiurge (The Architect / Ed Harris), Archons (The Agents, Cypher / actors who deceive Truman) and Aeons (Neo, Trinity, Morpheus / outsiders who try to help Truman escape).
Hermetic philosophy tells us something a little different. The deception doesn’t come from any outside force, it comes from our inability to look within and find The All/God/Divine/Creator there. This is demonstrated in the film Pleasantville. The false, pleasant but uninteresting, black and white world is peeled away when the characters make internal discoveries about themselves and their world. Nothing forces them out of the illusion except their own self-reflection.
The Principle of Mentalism tells us that to understand our Universe and to understand The All, we must look within ourselves. We are reflections of The All, who exists as Mind. We are able to know the Divine and be like the Divine by virtue of mastering our own Mind. This is why the Hermeticist says, if you wish to understand the workings of the Mind of God and the Universe, Know Thy Self.