Plato, Plotinus, and the Great Chain of Being

Student of the Tarot have for some time now associated the Tarot with Kabbalah and the Tarot Suits with the four Kabbalistic worlds–especially since the heyday of The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in the late 19th and early 20th century.  However, for every person who really arrives at an intuitive understanding of the Kabbalistic framework, there are thousands of others who– while fascinated, to be sure, by the imagery and the lingo –are (when push comes to shove) just trying to fake it until they make it.   Indeed, the imagery is fascinating, as we will see– and the discourse captivating.  Moreover (as we will also see), symbolic imagery need not be understood, conceptually, in order for our exposure to it to be of benefit.  Nevertheless (and without discounting the value of kabbalistic studies–even for those who really don’t get it), I think most people will find a Neoplatonic framework much more intuitive and satisfying (the kind of framework that is implicit in A Metaphysical Reading of the Tarot Suits and The Soul’s Choice).

The best place to begin learning Plato, of course, is with the master himself–and with Plotinus and Augustine, as well!  In the meantime, however, perhaps these elementary outlines and diagrams will give beginning studens a temporary hook upon which to hang their working hypotheses about Plato, Plotinus, and Platonism in the middle ages.  The idea–  in its most basic form –is that the phenomenal world is in some sense a reflection of higher levels of reality which are in some sense ideal and eternal.  The number of levels and their characteristics vary, depending on the philosopher under consideration, but the outlines and diagrams below offer some insight into the most basic levels–which also track pretty well with the 4 Kabbalistic worlds.  NOTE:  These outlines and diagrams are a temporary expedient–they will be revised and/or replaced soon, so stay tuned! 🙂  

Plato @ 375 BC

The Good (Symbolized by the Sun)

The World of Ideas     (Universal Archetypes)

The Celestial World     (Pre-Existence of the Soul)

The Terrestrial World (Embodied/Fallen Souls)

For a more nuanced account of Plato’s divided line, see:
Uebersax, John S. (2014). “Plato’s Divided Line Analogy”. Online article:

Plotinus @ 250 AD

Six hundred years after Plato, Plotinus represented Platonic philosophy in a more systematic way, portraying the world as being the phenomenal end-point of a process of emanation from the World Soul which, in turn, proceeded from the Intelligence (Nous), which itself, is an emanation of the One:

       1. The One (First Principle)

2. The Intelligence (Divine Intelligence)

3. The Soul  (World Soul)

 Individual Souls Incarnate in Time & Space

Once again, the diagram is simply the first one I came across– very quickly –nothing special about it or the source from which it came (and to which it is linked).  More ambitious students should proceed to John Ubersax’s page for a more in-depth exploration of the primary texts:

There are also some good YouTube presentations by
Metaphysical Reflections on Plotinus and others on Tarot…

When time permits, I hope to post some of my favorite texts by Plato and Plotinus along with some original commentary.  In the meantime, the material on John Ubersax’s page seems first rate.

The Great Chain of Being

The following is a representation of The Great Chain of Being from Gornahoor.Net. It is based on similar medieval depictions which employ what are, for us, rather obscure, archaic terms. While most of these terms will probably not seem entirely new or strange, there are a couple that deserve special attention:

  1. Mens = mind Here referring to the Divine intelligence — cf. the Platonic nous or the New Testament logos or Word in and by which the world is created (see John 1:1 in the New Testament).
  2. Caelum Stellatum = the stars of heaven (which appeared to the ancients to be the outer sphere of the observable heavens).

In addition to the heavenly hierarchy of celestial beings & powers — and in addition to the “five” planets (besides earth, sun, and moon) – you should also recognize numbers 19-22: ignis, aer, aqua, & terra (i.e the four elements of antiquity which are associated with the four Tarot suits).

  1. Quick and Dirty Overview of Hermetic Philosophy
  2. The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus
  3. Plato, Plotinus, and the Great Chain of Being

–> Next Up:  6. Archetypical Psychology and Spirituality