Note: This study guide is anomalous for three reasons: 1) It comes first in this series of study guides, whereas it actually pertains to Letter 21 in the book; 2) some of the material reflects my own point of view in a way that the other study guides do not; and 3) I’ve incorporated some material from P.D. Ouspensky into this study guide that would ordinarily be posted elsewhere. It is my hope that these breaches of protocol with regard to the Fool will inspire and facilitate beginning students to hit the ground running. If it does not– in the event that you find it off-putting for any reason –please proceed straight away to the Magician and return to this later (after Letter XX), if at all.
“[There is an] ‘alchemical marriage’ of prayer and meditation — of the sun and moon of the soul’s inner heaven—which takes place in the soul of the human being who is in the process of realising the Arcanum ‘The Fool’. . . the Arcanum of the union of revelation from above and human wisdom, whilst avoiding madness . . . the Arcanum of the formation of the ‘philosopher’s stone’, where the twofold certainty of revelation from above and human knowledge is concentrated. The foregoing are some glimpses that arise in the soul of one who meditates on the Card of the Arcanum ‘The Fool’, representing a man walking, in the clothes of a buffoon, holding a bag and supporting himself with a staff, which he does not use to chase away the dog attacking him. Other —and more profound — glimpses are kept in reserve for those who will deepen their meditation on this Arcanum further than is indicated here” (Meditations on the Tarot 621).
The Fool poses unique challenges for any interpreter of the Tarot. This is in part because it was originally unnumbered (and later numbered zero) and in part due to the difficulty of coordinating the sequence of the cards with the Hebrew alphabet which are thought to correspond with them. Our Anonymous Author indicates that is not appropriate to end our Journey into Christian Hermeticism with The Fool because it cannot function as a summary of the preceding meditations (590). He does not discuss the possibility of beginning his Meditations with The Fool–probably because, for his purposes, the obvious and, indeed, the only choice for Letter I (as we will see) is The Magician. As such, instead of placing it at the beginning or the end, he positions The Fool next to the last, in Letter XXI, indicating that this decision was made in honor of a group with whom he had studied many years before, in St. Petersburg. Thus, he writes:
“It was said [by this group] that [the letter Shin . . . the twenty-first letter of the Hebrew alphabet] is the letter of the Arcanum ‘The Fool’. And confidentially it was added that the esoteric name of the Arcanum ‘The Fool’ is AMOR (Love). Although the teaching and the experiences of this group of St. Petersburg esotericists lives now in the soul of the author of these Letters only as a general impulse received in his youth to penetrate the symbolism of the Tarot more deeply — indeed, until now he has not at all drawn upon this teaching for these Letters . . . there is however one exception, namely the one that I have cited above, i.e. that the Arcanum “The Fool” corresponds to the letter Shin and that consequently its number is twenty- one, and its esoteric name is Love.” (591).
But the positioning of the Fool in these Letters notwithstanding, there would seem to be a sense in which (even in these Meditations) the The Fool marks both the beginning and the end of our journey. In the opening quotation, above, our Anonymous Author speaks of a process of realization; and in the following quotation, he indicates that this is a realization of freedom and of transcendental consciousness:
Now, the Arcanum “The Fool” has a double meaning. Indeed, it can be understood in two different ways: as a model and as a warning at the same time. For on the one hand it teaches the freedom of transcendental consciousness elevated above the things of this world, and on the other hand it clearly presents a very impressive warning of the peril that this elevation comprises — lack of concern, inadequacy, irresponsibility and ridicule. . . in a word, madness. The Arcanum “The Fool” has in fact these two meanings. It teaches transcendental consciousness and it warns of its peril (603).
Leaving aside, for now, the perils involved (which are admittedly important and which will be discussed in considerable detail in our study of Letter VII on The Chariot) — and moving beyond that which is explicitly articulated in this letter –let us consider the possibility that this transcendental consciousness in which we participate is not, in the final analysis, something new; that is, it is not something that did not exist or did not in some way pertain to us prior to our physical birth (i.e. it is not something that accidentally or arbitrarily comes into being during the course of our life in this world). Rather, let us consider the possibility that this transcendental consciousness is implicit from the beginning and may, by the grace of God, be realized or re-cognized during the course of our earthly pilgrimage if we (too) are willing. Consider that this transcendental consciousness may be, quite literally, our eternal life (which also relates to the discussion of the Edenic layer of our souls in Letter VI).
Indeed, something like this is also strongly intimated by a number of scriptures which indicate that while we apparently come to Christ (or to the knowledge of Christ) at some point in time, it is also the case that we are, at a very fundamental level, created in him, in the beginning with God, having been chosen in him before the foundation of the world. Those scriptures which contrast our spiritual birth/inheritance with our natural genealogy are also worth considering in this regard (cf. Ephesians 2:10; 1:4; John 1:1; John 3:5-8; Romans 8:16ff).
T. S. Eliot alludes to this same process of realization or re-cognition when he writes:
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from . . .
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning . . .
~ selected lines from Little Gidding
The Fool, then, would seem to represent (at least in part) the transcendental consciousness of which, at the beginning of our journey, we are more or less oblivious, but which, by the grace of God, is realized or recognized during the course of our pilgrimage.
P. D. Ouspensky illustrates this quite nicely in his, Symbolism of the Tarot.
NOTE: As indicated above, while we will discuss Ouspensky’s understanding of The Fool in some detail (in this initial study guide), this is an anomaly–i.e. we will not typically discuss other tarot authors in the other study guides, but will relegate such discussion more popularly oriented posts and pages.
Symbolism of the Tarot
Ouspensky suggests that, at the beginning of his journey, The Fool is, indeed, oblivious:
Card 0. — “The Fool.”
“Man.” An ordinary man. A separate man. The uninitiate Lower consciousness. The end of a ray not knowing its relation to the centre.–
But The Fool carries with him the symbols of his true identity:
“What has he in the bag?” I inquired, not knowing why I asked. And after a longsilence [a] voice replied: “The four magic symbols, the sceptre, the cup, the sword and the pentacle. The fool always carries them, although he has long since forgotten what they mean. Nevertheless they belong to him, even though he does not know their use. The symbols have not lost their power, they retain it in themselves.”
Ouspensky goes on to describe these symbols– with reference (apparently) to the RWS portrayal of Temperance –in terms of a sacred book, a triangle, a point within the triangle, and a square which encloses them:
“All this, in the form of the four symbols, is in the bag of the Fool, who himself is a point in a triangle. Therefore a point without dimension contains an infinite square.”
“If we imagine twenty-one [numbered Tarot Trumps] disposed in the shape of a triangle, seven cards on each side, a point in the centre of the triangle represented by the zero card, and a square round the triangle (the square consisting of fifty-six cards, fourteen on each side), we shall have a representation of the relation between God, Man and the Universe, or the relation between the world of ideas, the consciousness of man and the physical world. The triangle is God (the Trinity) or the world of ideas, or the noumenal world. The point is man’s soul. The square is the visible, physical or phenomenal world. Potentially, the point is equal to the square, which means that all the visible world is contained in man’s consciousness, is created in man’s soul. And the soul itself is a point having no dimension in the world of the spirit, symbolized by the triangle. It is clear that such an idea could not have originated with ignorant people and clear also that the Tarot is something more than a pack of playing or fortune-telling cards.”
~ P. D. Ouspensky, “THE SYMBOLISM OF THE TAROT”
Here is Ouspensky’s formulation as illustrated by Cythia Giles:
Recalling our Anonymous Author’s closing remarks on page 621…
“Other —and more profound — glimpses are kept in reserve for those who will deepen their meditation on this Arcanum further than is indicated here.”
…it must also be stressed that this preliminary study guide has only scratched the surface– that there are also other and more profound insights to be found in Letter 21 –insights which we will attempt to explicate more fully later. For now, however, this must suffice. Let us simply conclude with a few quotations which, while appearing at the end of Letter 21 (and very near, in fact, to the end of the entire book), nevertheless offer a rather smooth transition into the subject matter of the first three letters–namely, the mysticism of The Magician in Letter I; the gnosis of The High Priestess in Letter II; and the sacred magic of The Empress in Letter III:
“Christian meditation . . . pursues the aim of deepening the two divine revelations: holy scripture and the creation, but it does so above all with a view to awakening a more complete consciousness and appreciation of Jesus Christ’s work of redemption.
“Meditation can thus serve as a means to attain diverse ends, but whatever its aim it is always the means to realisation of a more and more intense awakening of the whole consciousness (and not only of intelligence) with respect to particular facts, ideas, ideals and, lastly, the reality of the human terrestrial and spiritual condition in general. It is also the means of awakening consciousness with respect to revelations from above. To meditate is to deepen; it is to go to the heart of things.
“For this reason the practice of meditation entails the transformation of formal logic into organic logic and this latter into moral logic. The latter, in its turn, is developed by going beyond comprehension, by contemplation of things which surpass understanding: mysteries which — not being unknowable —allow of an infinite knowledge that one can understand and know ever more deeply, without end. Having attained this contemplation of things surpassing actual understanding, meditation becomes prayer— just as prayer which attains the state of contemplation without words becomes meditation” (621).