Neoplatonic Symbolism in the Tarot Suits

Platonic philosophy–  in its most basic form –teaches 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 this presentation of the Tarot suits– drawing heavily from Plotinus –offers practical insights into the most basic levels which are said to proceed or emanate (or otherwise descend) successively from the One:

  • The One (The Unmanifest Absolute)
  • The Divine Intelligence/Nous (The Manifest Absolute)
  • The World Soul or Animus Mundi (cf. The Celestial Realm*)
  • Fallen / Incarnate Souls (including the human mind/psyche)
  • The Material/Terrestrial World  (including the human body)

[* NOTE:  The association of The World Soul with the Celestial Realm is an over-simplification and misleading in some respects (see Enneads II.1.4,5; II.2.1).  Nevertheless, keep in mind the troupe of souls, following in the train of the gods, as portrayed in the myth of the soul in Plato’s Phaedrus.  The winged souls there described are not in the Intelligence, per se.  Rather, a glimpse of the Intelligible realm– the plane of truth –is that which they are seeking.  Nor, while following in the train of the gods are they fallen souls–however much at risk of falling they may be.  Finally, their circular trajectory, too, is consistent with the movement of the heavenly spheres.  They are above the terrestrial, to be sure, but below the level of NousAs such, it seems fair to say they are participating in the cosmic circuit that is said to be due to Soul and encompassed by Soul (Enneads II.2.1) ]

The One, for Plotinus, is said to be beyond being and nonbeing.**  As such, our reference to the ideal and the eternal is best applied to Nous.  But it is a HUGE mistake to imagine Nous to be a kind of static aggregate of universal concepts–i.e. mere abstractions…  That is not at all correct.  Nous for Plotinus is the locus of both our truth and our being.  In this Divine Intelligence– which invites comparison with the Christian Logos, the second person of the Trinity*** –eternity and mutual inclusiveness replace time, space, and separation (cf. Ennead V.9.10).  While, on one level, we may be tragically lost in time and space– totally preoccupied with very ignorant concerns –Plotinus is quite clear that our higher part remains.  Moreover, it is the realization of this higher part which constitutes our true vocation.  We need only to recollect our race and worth (cf. IV.8.8, V.1.1)In the process, we come to recognize and honor our eternal life.

[** NOTE:  The phrase, beyond being and nonbeing is etched in my mind for some reason (and also in the Wikipedia entry on Plotinus), but I cannot find it in The Enneads.  I do find where it is implied (III.6.6)  and where the One is said to be precedent to all Being (VI.9.3).]

[*** NOTE:  A similar understanding appears to have been held by St. Bonaventure, as indicated in the first few pages of The Cosmic Exemplarism of Bonaventure, by Leonard J. Bowman — The Journal of Religion, Vol. 55, No. 2 (Apr., 1975), pp. 181-198.]

With all of that in mind, then– and without disparaging or detracting in any way from other approaches to the Tarot suits (least of all the Kabbalistic approach of our anonymous Author)let us consider, for the moment, whether or not the Tarot suits (especially the Tarot Aces) might function as relatively simple, straight-forward reminders of the Forgotten Truth regarding the multiple layers of reality coming to bear on our lives, together with the riches of our truth and being in Christ–chosen/created in Him before the foundation of the world! (cf. Ephesians 1:4, 2:10; Colossians 1:15-17)

Batons/Wands     Element = Fire     Symbolizes: Spirit     (Creative Mind)

* Spirit (pneuma) / Divine Intelligence (cf. Nous or Logos) / Our Real Will / God’s Will / Truth & Being / Authentic Life / Pure Activity / Divine Presence / True Nature
* Spirit is our Transcendent Aspect / Our Eternal Life / The Source of Meaning and Purpose; Authentic Inspiration; and True Vocation / The Dynamic Ground of Creative Manifestation
* Spirit is reflected in and through the medium of the material world (including our apparent bodies and our material circumstances and resources).

Cups/Chalices            Element = Water       Symbolizes:  Heart

* Heart
/ Openness / Receptivity / Attunement / Intuition / Contemplation
* The Heart is our Transcending Aspect — the organ through which we become attuned to and are able to contemplate Spirit – i.e. our authentic life — and share it with the world at large.
* As our hearts open (in contemplation) we naturally turn away from a life of self-indulgent consumerism and towards our true vocation (whether that appears to be the life of a hermit or a healer; that of a poet, artist, or craftsman; or even that of a scientist, a priest, or a politician).

Swords/Blades    Element = Air            Symbolizes:  (Discursive) Mind

* Mind (psyche) / Ego / Analysis / Calculation / Instrumental Reasoning / Conceptual Frameworks (including the “ideas”, “beliefs” and “worldviews” that constitutes us as “separate selves”).

* Mind can be a hindrance or a help– an adversary or an ally –in our efforts to realize Spirit.

* On the one hand, “mind” is that aspect of ourselves that must be Transcended – that is, we must transcend the mind-made sense of self (i.e. the “arbitrary personality” or “separate individual”) which seems to obstruct the intuition of our unity with or connection to God, Nature, or Humanity as a whole.

* On the other hand, the practical operations of our mind begins to function better than ever once we realize that we are not what we think–once our egoic mind surrenders to the life of the Spirit . . . (the egoic/analytic mind makes “a wonderful servant, but a terrible master”, as is sometimes said).

* Transcending the ego does not mean fleeing our material existence–rather, from this point forward, we begin to relate properly to the material world for the very first time.

Coins/Pentacles       Element = Earth       Symbolizes:  The Material World

* The Material World includes: Matter / Material Bodies, Forms, and Resources / Material Circumstances / The World of Sensation / The Medium of Manifestation, Creation, and Incarnation

* For the “separate self” (e.g. the power-hungry individualist or self- indulgent consumer), the material world is understood primarily in terms of fear and desire—a tempting, tormenting battleground of appetites and inclinations especially designed for those who insist on playing the wheel of fortune (see the illustration on page 4).

* But for Spirit (and for the person/mind/psyche that is surrendered to Spirit), matter is a magical medium of artistic, poetic, religious, and political expression – ideal for those who fully and freely participate in “the respiration of eternity”—aka the One life, Divine (see the description of The Hanged Man and The Sun on page 5).

IMPORTANT:  The activity of Spirit cannot be grasped conceptually and cannot be used as a means to some merely personal/egoic end. It is nevertheless the case that the realization of Spirit does indeed constitute the true meaning and purpose of our lives and that such realization does have a practical impact on the apparent world.  Moreover, we become more attuned to Spirit, 1) as we learn to distinguish between “awareness”, as such, and the incessant “mental chatter” which tends to accompany most of our perceptions (i.e. the habitual, usually unconscious “self-talk” which continuously expresses and reinforces our personal fears, desires, judgments); 2) as we begin to practice breath awareness and inner-body awareness as an aid to meditation; and 3) as we begin to anchor lives in “aware presence” or “alert stillness” — the pristine, lucid Way of Truth and Life which leaves unnecessary mental commentary and distracted, ineffective action beneath itself. Honest and sustained self-observation is essential to this work—discursive thought or dialectic is merely preparatory (see the discussion of “concentration without effort” in Letter I of Meditations on the Tarot, page 8).

[Editor’s Note:  A draft of this material was first published in 2016 as A Metaphysical Reading of the Tarot Suits.  It was said at that time to be generally consistent with the work of our anonymous author.  And while that is probably a fair characterization, there are also differences between the two approaches (that have since become more apparent to me) which can be summarized as follows:  Our anonymous author offers a Kabbalistic interpretation of the Tarot suits and does not refer to the Aces, per se.  In contrast, the approach presented here is best characterized as Neoplatonic and treats the Tarot Aces as archetypes in their own right, the importance of which are roughly equivalent to that of the 22 Major Arcana This should not be construed as a criticism of our anonymous author–indeed, if anything, it is a reflection of my own limitations (my Neoplatonic comfort zone, on the one hand, together with my lingering ignorance of many aspects of Kabbalah and Kabbalistic Tarot, on the other).  Please take what you can use and leave the rest.]

–>  Christianity, Platonism, and the Tarot of Marseille

–> Plotinus in a Nutshell…