The library’s collections
A brief introduction to the library’s principal collecting areas
The Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica brings together manuscripts and printed works in the field of the Hermetic tradition, more specifically the ‘Christian-Hermetic’ tradition. Following the ‘ad fontes’ principle, The Ritman Library tries to collect the earliest examples of works falling within its collecting interest, that is to say: manuscripts or first and early editions, without, however, ignoring subsequent written and printed sources. To date, the library holds more than 23,000 volumes: ca. 4,500 manuscripts and printed books before 1800, ca. 17,000 books (primary and secondary sources) printed after 1900, unique archival collections and a collection of prints and engravings.
The term ‘Christian-Hermetic’ serves as a reminder that the Hermetic works were read and commented on in a Christian context, first of all by the Church Fathers, notably Augustine and Lactantius. After a long period of neglect, the Hermetic treatises now known as the Corpus Hermeticum were re-discovered in the Renaissance when philosophers like Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola sought to harmonize (Neo)platonism, Pythagoreanism, and other philosophies regarded as part of a prisca theologia, with the prevailing Christian doctrines. The other well-known Hermetic text, the Asclepius, had continued to circulate in the Latin West in the Middle Ages and had a notable impact on the so-called ‘Renaissance of the 12th century’.
In the middle of the previous century, in December 1945, a farmer called Mohammed Ali Samman found a jar containing old papyri in the vicinity of Nag Hammadi, Egypt. He had no idea of the importance of his discovery; part of the material was used to kindle the fire at home. Thirteen manuscripts, however, escaped this fate and eventually ended up in the Coptic Museum in Cairo, where they are still to be found. Today they are known as the ‘Nag Hammadi codices’. These codices are to be considered an important reference to the specialisation field of the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica. They contain 52 texts of considerable variety – they are gnostic, early Christian, Hermetic, Platonic, Jewish in background – typical for Alexandrian philosophy. The Hermetic and gnostic texts explore the question of God, cosmos and man and their mutual relationship: he who knows God and the cosmos, knows himself. The reciprocity between God and man but also the ascent to God are likewise characteristic themes, both in gnostic-Hermetic and in mystical literature. What all these currents have in common is that they claim to offer insight into the coherence of everything and introduce the reader to a reality existing behind the visible world and lead him to an intuitive knowledge of God and a direct, personal experience of God via an intense awareness of the cosmos and self-knowledge.
The ‘Way of Gnosis’ or the ‘Way of Hermes’ leads to this ultimate goal: the experience of divine reality, which cannot be learnt, but can only be personally experienced (gnosis).
Therefore, if one has knowledge, he is from above.
If he is called, he hears, he answers, and he turns to him who is calling him, and ascends to him.
And he knows, in what manner he is called.
Having knowledge, he does the will of the one who called him, he wishes to be pleasing to him, he receives rest.
Each one’s name comes to him.
He who is to have knowledge in this manner knows where he comes from and knows where he is going.
(From: The Gospel of Truth by the gnostic Valentinus, ca. 130-ca. 160, one of the texts found at Nag Hammadi)