Monthly Archives: November 2021

Tarot Philosophy: Game of Thrones Tarot and Theater: Marcus Aurelius

“Only he who is capable of a genuine encounter with the other is capable of an authentic encounter with himself, and the converse is equally true…From this perspective, every spiritual exercise is a dialogue, insofar as it is an exercise of authentic presence, to oneself and to others.” ―Pierre Hadot

The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180) is an unusual figure in the history of ideas. His figure is so unique because he was not only a Roman Emperor, but also and a Stoic philosopher. Unlike his predecessors, he rejected the pleasures of wealth and power and lived a modest life inspired by the teachings of Stoicism. For him, being the emperor of Rome was utter mandatory job. In solitude, he wrote his “Meditations” for himself. His battle tent was a philosophical shelter, an inner citadel from the entire Roman world.

Marcus wrote almost every day, even in the frontline of battle when he returned to his modest tent. His innermost thoughts were written “for himself”; no doubt he would be surprised to find that 2000 years later these thoughts will be considered as one of the most important books which have survived from the late roman Stoicism.

He was in constant conflict: on the one hand, the fate of the Roman empire rested on his shoulders; on the other hand, he aspired to live a Stoic way of life away from trouble. He fluctuated between faith and skepticism. Therefore, he constantly had to overcome himself: “throw away your books; no longer distract yourself: it is not allowed.” he writes.

 Marcus is the definite illustration that Plato’s dream concerning the ruler-philosopher will never come true.

The Emperor card illustrates this duality which governed Marcus’ life. On the one hand, the emperor’s figure holds his wand in authority and control; on the other hand, we notice that he almost slips from his affluent chair. The emperor sits with his legs crossed as a sign for self-discipline but perhaps he conceals his inconvenience from his emperorship. 

The wand which is hoisted forward suggests that the emperor tends to solve issues by his assertive power. This power often finds its expression through the archetypal male phallus of dictatorship, military and war. However, we see that the commanding wand slants towards the emperor and not really forward. This could suggest that the emperor’s power is just a façade.  Power, leadership, and responsibility could be a mask for the philosopher sitting on the royal throne.

 In his “Meditations” Marcus is revealed as one of the most devoted pantheist of all Stoic philosophers. By pantheism I mean that Markus believed that the world is an absolute unity of all things. Everything in nature is harmonically connected in a causal chain emanating from the one, from god.  God or the one is found in all things and beings, He is the sole logos of the universe. Unlike Stoic philosophers who preceded him, Marcus does not believe that the one cares for each individual separately. He argues that only God actually exists in the world, he is everything, and no other. The universe is a living organism with a single sentient mind.

The Emperor card displays a similar viewpoint when its character holds the wand imitating the figure of the number one. In order to find a meaning for this imitation we can trace the emperor’s gaze. We will find that he is staring at the Cross attached to his wand’s top. Thus, the emperor’s imitation could imply that that all human beings are unified under the power of the Cross. The emperor is the ruler of the civilized human world; his gaze and gestures imply that the existence of humanity must be defined by the oneness of the cross.

Although the unity of the Cross is a powerful one, we find in the card a unity which governs it. This is the unity of the entire universe which is represented by the card’s number in the Tarot deck, the number four. We can see the number four as a symbol for the unity of the universal four elements. The card’s number lies above the emperor’s wand, thus the unity of all humans under the Cross is a mere manifestation of the unity of the universe. 

Marcus believes that God (or nature) is a perfect being while man is not. Man existence is determined by nature’s laws of causality.  Man must recognize that he is part of nature, a piece in an endless chain of casual determinations of God. Everything in this world is constantly changing and ultimately forgotten, even the glory of the Emperor. 

We find this temporality in the Tarot as well. We notice that the emperor holds his wand in a slight tilt to the right and not in stable grip. Thus, the card could imply that the unity of the four elements is superior to the emperor’s decrees. Man can’t hold his wand straight and firm without giving-up to the laws of nature. He is submitted to causality, to God’s nature.

Not only this submission has a physical aspect, but it has a psychological one as well. A closer examination of the emperor’s wand reveals that it looks very similar to the opium plant. A further observation reveals that perhaps the emperor inhales the scents of this wand-opium plant through his nose. 

The link to Markus is a written testimony by the learned doctor Aelius Galenus who was one of Markus’ contemporaries. According to Galenus, Marcus was an opium addict and consumed it on a daily basis. Thus, Markus and the emperor in the card know they are submitted to the laws of nature but tragically seek to escape from this dominance to an alternate world. In this world they can rule without any disquieting philosophical meditations.

The Stoic philosophers believed that all creatures are part of nature in such a way that they all operate according to a cyclical movement of a single living organism. According to their deterministic philosophy, all things are governed by the Logos, the rational force. The Logos is the guiding spirit of the world and there is no redundancy in it. Everything has a role in the Logos and its cycle is beyond the control of humans. Therefore they must surrender to the will of God and accept the fact that they can’t control the appearance of things. 

Although the universe is deterministic, people have the freedom to shape their approach to events. From all creatures, our nature is the closest to God because he has an intellect (Nous) which is emanating from God. Thus, we have a great mental strength and freedom to do God’s will. We are part of God’s nature and by doing our will we are actually doing God’s will. Being part of God’s nature, our mind is also eternal; the human mind will not disappear with the death of the body but will return to God, to the one unity. We see that the consolation of emperor Marcus Aurelius was that his soul will return to the one which it was originally emanated from in a harmonious and balanced cycle. Similarly, the Emperor in the Tarot finds his balance and consolation in the Temperance card.  

 The emperor and the temperance cards share the number four: the emperor is the fourth card, while the temperance is the fourteenth. In the Tarot, the number four symbolizes personal accomplishment. The temperance is the guardian angel of the emperor: without temperance, the emperor’s triumph is selfish and domineering: if we place the temperance card facing the emperor, it might heal him from his selfishness. The healing process starts when the emperor realizes that the world is not dominated by his material wealth but by the rule of an internal circulation and harmony. Everything will be poured back into the same jar it came from, even his wealth and kingdom. Acting according laws of nature is the emperor’s intellectual medicine. This is perhaps the harmony reached in silence after the “OM” mantra of mediation. We can even notice the shapes of the letters M (or E) which appear on the emperor’s neck. These initials could stand for Emperor Markus as well.

Without the emperor, temperance is immaterial and futile: the Emperor unveils the definitive material manifestation of the infinite matter to her. Being written in a biographic tone, Markus’ philosophy is not only intended to demonstrate how to be a better emperor, but also how Plato’s “Philosopher-King” is actually possible. 

We can’t really tell whether Marcus’ soul has reached the eternal sphere, but amazingly enough, his striking bronze statue is the only intact Pagan Roman statue left today. The statue shows the victorious Marcus riding his horse and one of its most interesting details is the fact that Markus is unarmed. In the Tarot the figure of the Emperor is not armed as well; one can assume that both of them wear their philosophical armor which is the core of their power. 

In the closing paragraph of his “Meditations”, Markus writes:

 “Man, you have been a citizen in this great state [the world]; what difference does it make to you whether for five years [or three]? for that which is conformable to the laws is just for all. Where is the hardship then, if no tyrant nor yet an unjust judge sends you away from the state, but nature, who brought you into it? The same as if a praetor who has employed an actor dismisses him from the stage —”But I have not finished the five acts, but only three of them.”—you say well, but in life the three acts are the whole drama; for what shall be a complete drama is determined by him who was once the cause of its composition, and now of its dissolution: but you are the cause of neither. Depart then satisfied, for he also who releases you is satisfied.” 

It is interesting to note that the number four of the Emperor card is the mean number of three and five, as if the figure in the card tries vainly to close the conceptual gap between mortality and immortality. 

Markus words remind us that life is eventually a stage and we can add that Tarot is agame played by two people on the reading stage. We can’t avoid mentioning Shakespeare’s famous lines from the pastoral comedy “As You Like” which curiously resemble the lines quoted from Markus: 

“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts…”

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11/12/2021 · 4:36 am

Tarot Philosophy: Levitate Like a Saint: Brueghel, Tarkowsky, St. Thomas Aquinas and Muhammad Ali

“Any fool with fast hands can take a tiger by the balls, but it takes a hero to keep on squeezing.” ― Stephen King

The Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Brueghel the Elder (c. 1525–1569) is one of the most influential artists in the history of western painting in general and painting in particular. Many of Brueghel’s paintings depict the Flemish village life which takes place in landscapes defined by early modern reality. Those paintings sometimes imply to events from the Bible or classical Mythology and generally speaking, faith and religion hover above all of them. Breughel is interested in depicting the special connection between sin and its embodiment in village life. The dramatic tension between faith and village life is achieved by the feeling that death and religion lurk, symbolically or explicitly, in every corner of our lives. 

The tension between these poles is present in the Tarot cards as well. We will study some details from two of Brueghel’s paintings and reveal similar ideas to those expressed in Tarot cards.

One of Breughel’s most impressive and terrifying paintings explicitly dealing with death is “The Triumph of Death” from 1562. The painting depicts the absolute reign of death over life. The people in the painting surrender unconditionally to death which in turn destroys any attempt from those people to attain an earthly meaning to their lives. Death’s representatives on earth are crushing life under their murderous spears and life has no hope for the future. Brueghel skillfully describes this theme on a variety of expressions: the king who lost his fortune, the beggar who lost her meager possessions, the religious believer who holds his cross in vain, the adventurer who unsuccessfully flees to the mountains, the educated man who reads his books in the midst of terror, the brave who vainly try to resist death, the musicians and artists – all of them, without exception, are doomed to surrender unequivocally to the triumph of death.

However, a detailed examination of the painting reveals that there is still hope for life. Hope is not shown explicitly in the painting but is implied by a movement toward new life made by one of the painting’s characters. The chance for a new life is embodied in the image of the fool who crawls under the table. It seems that the fool understands, contrary to the entire human inferno which surrounds him that he must do everything in his power to save his life. He crawls under the table in a quest for the unknown future and abandons his past which is represented by the dice and cards. The murderous skeletons gazes are not directed towards him so the probability of saving his life is greater than the risk of losing them. In fact, he is the only human character in the painting that has a real chance to survive the mayhem.

Placed side by side, the Tower and the Fool card show a resemblance to Breughel’s death (and survival) theme. The lightning which destroyed the tower of his old life triggered the fool to find a better future. Like Brueghel’s painting, our peaceful lives in the “tower of safety” are, following the appearance of death, heading towards a catastrophe. However, those who accept destruction as an opportunity for a new start can begin to march in those unknown paths like the fool. We can imagine the tower as a phallus after ejaculation and thus it may symbolize the debauchery before dying in Brueghel’s painting. We feel that only few of us are willing, like the fool, to forget their carnal past and without delay to break free to a new life. This is a break in consciousness which involves a significant change of all we knew until now. We have to “levitate” above our current reality and personal choices to the creation of a new reality.

Speaking about “levitation” we can mention the intuitive link to Christ levitating above the Sea of Galilee water. The linkage between levitation and spiritual powers revealed to man in the process of enlightenment appears in eastern religions as well. In Hinduism the Guru has the spiritual power to levitate above the ground during meditation and even during sleep. One of the miracles of Buddhism mentions Buddha levitating above the water with his legs crossed. But not only in the Eastern religions: throughout history, mystics, psychics and various theosophists claimed for some ability of levitation. The most famous philosopher whose name has been linked to the phenomenon of levitation is the medieval scholastic philosopher Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274). 

In 1272 Aquinas left the University of Paris in order to establish a new Dominican Order in Naples. As the head of the new order, Aquinas could manage it as he pleased. But a year later something happened to Aquinas in Naples: In the 6th December 1273 Aquinas seemed to levitate in the air while praying before the icon of the crucified Christ with tears running down his cheeks. According to Christian tradition, Jesus turned to Aquinas and said, “You wrote so beautifully about me. What is the prize you ask for your work?” and Aquinas replied, “I do not need anything but you, my lord.” 

After the levitation experience Aquinas stopped writing philosophy, he abandoned his daily routine and refused to dictate his teachings to his students. When his disciples begged him that he will begin to write philosophy again Aquinas replied, “I can’t, everything I have written seems like straw to me.” The supernatural experience of levitation has changed Aquinas forever; he could not be the man he was.

The association between levitation and Brueghel’s paintings becomes more significant through the work of Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky (1932–1986). His movie “Solaris” displays a particularly long-shot on Breughel’s work from 1565 “Hunters in the Snow”. Generally, we can say that Solaris is one of the most sophisticated science-fiction movies ever made. Solaris explores the possibilities of the human mind to create a new humanity as the film’s central theme is love as a force that disintegrates and integrates worlds. The disintegration of any rational explanation for love in our current logical world pushes the movie into the abyss of cosmological madness. The abyss is located in an endless vortex where the unfamiliar fourth dimension of love ends the journey in space. Memory, fantasy, collective delusions – Solaris is an immersion in a parallel universe, a paradoxical world where the present confronts the past, fantasy challenges reality, sleep meets death, and of course – gravity meets levitation. Tarkovsky’s movies float in the midst of these paradoxical realities and that’s what makes them so disturbing and profound.

The scene which presents a long-shot of “Hunters in the Snow” is called “Levitation”. It shows the loss of gravity in the room where the painting is hanged. But as we have seen, Tarkovsky’s movies offer a profounder kind of levitation which is performed between our imagination, dreams and reality. The painting depicts hunters and their dogs returning to their small village: the fierce winter is cold, the hunting loot is quite scant, the hunters stare quietly at the snowy ground, the dark dogs tremble, the naked tree branches are piercing like knives – all contribute to the hostile and gloomy atmosphere of the painting. However, in the background we see cheerful children skating, playing games, falling and frolicking. Thus, according to Brueghel the return to childhood always accompanies the impossible mixture of a hostile environment with a sense of playfulness and game. Our childhood memories are a paradoxical combination of hostility with sweetness: we return to our intimate childhood memories which are wrapped with layers of sweetness and tenderness but fear and hostility are integral components of those memories as well. Finally, we wake up from our dreams, drenched in sweat and for a few moments we levitate. We levitate because we are in the midst of dream and reality: on the one hand we can still feel the dream’s tenderness on the other hand we are trying to make sense of dread. The combination of sweetness with horror is the only truth we know, and we levitate spiritually. In fact, after a few moments, all that remains for us is a reflection. We dismiss the matter by telling ourselves that “This was just a dream” but the nature of this reflection, which always strives to an objective perspective is exactly what Tarkovsky seeks to refute. In his view, science strips reality from its true emotions and thus only his art (or Breughel’s) can conquer the exiting realms of emotion and imagination.

The Moon card of the Tarot depicts the ungraspable line between dream and reality, imagination and rational science. The moon is our cosmic mother: before we go to sleep, we ask her to keep us from harm coming in our dreams and also to give them their positive meaning. She is femininity who is endowed with deep intuition and has the ability to understand the deep meaning of our dreams. We notice the same mysterious and dreamlike atmosphere of Brueghel’s paintings in the card: the magical moon threatens to expose the secret thoughts from our deep water of the soul and she entices the dogs and the world around her to float into her lap. Like Tarkovsky, the card shows us that the understanding of our dreams cannot rely only on rational tools. The moon attracts the dogs to stare at her and forget their natural environment, the cancer is emerging from its safety rocks and the drops float in air against the laws of nature. Late at night, when imagination and dream begin their reign on our minds, we fly to the planet of Solaris, to the paintings of Brueghel, to the mind’s hidden alchemy.

The famous boxer Muhammad Ali (1942-2016) was known for his speed and amazing flexible body. One of his tricks was done as he turned his back to the public in the arena, pressed his heels together and then seemed to levitate a few inches above the ground. As he converted to Islam Ali claimed that Islam forbids cheating and explained that it was just an illusion. Ali had a remarkable ability to stand on the tip of his left thumb and then lean his weight on it so it looked as if he was levitating. One of Ali’s famous quotes is “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”. We can now conclude that after Ali converted to Islam his famous quote could be rephrased:  He levitated like a fool not to get stung by his being.

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