“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…”