We often talk about the historical visual tarot as an immersive, repetitive manual or prescription for moral and ethical living. The general community widely played card games and gambled, and the visual images on the tarot were therefore an ever-present re-affirmation of moral prescriptions towards social norms of religious uprightness (and community living). The Virtues depicted were the tools through which Prudence could be rightly obtained in moral decision making. Other images depicted examples of where those virtues could be found: in the nobility (the Empress, the Emperor), the Church (the Papesse, the Pope), or through fable and storytelling examples (Hercules at the Crossroads, Alexander the Great in his empiric escapades). But what were some other forms of social moral instruction that existed during the Middle Ages?
Professor (Emeritus) Edwin D. Craun, of Washington and Lee University, examines the linguistic rhetorical form of excusatio in the Middle Ages, used mostly by the class of religious seeking pastoral instruction and examples as a form of discerning moral livelihood in the lives of their parishioners. The particular form can be found and described in the two most prominent encyclopedic resources of the thirteenth century—the Summa de vitiis and De lingua—and Craun describes the formulaic outline of excusatio texts as follows…
(1.) The author or narrative protagonist (the pastoral writer) frames the subject (the excuse-maker) as having deviated from the moral pathway. Examples of deviation might include such things as not paying a full tithe or an unsanctified (extramarital) instance of fornication.
(2.) The subject of the offense or deviation then protests his or her deviation or action as not sinful by reason of misattributed moral standards, a misunderstanding of what is moral, or by attributing their action to “natural or common social forces.”
(3.) Finally, the author or narrative protagonist invalidates the subject’s excuses with counter-reasoning and argues that what the subject has acted on is a sort of evil that was freely chosen by the subject. The excuse is therefore invalidated (by the pastoral authority) and therefore provides a moral compass and a means for ethical reflection. 1
Generally in these historical tracts, “[t]he excusers question the moral rules [and standards] that priests voice on behalf of the [whole of] Christian communities, contesting them in terms, for example, of human need and inclinations or their inconvenience, while the [pastoral] writers contest the excusers’ ethical reasoning and the moral rules [that] they substitute.” 2
It is a classic excuse… “We admit that [an act] was bad but don’t accept full, or even any, responsibility.” Paraphrasing the Biblical Adam speaking to God: “You who gave me the woman provided me with the occasion for sinning.” Adam’s excuse thus becomes sin in itself, a branch or extension of original sin.
The theory behind this type of rhetoric, Craun suggests, is that repeated and reaffirming reasoning not only provided an ingraining of moral and ethical standards—establishing norms and cogency in a philosophical field that could entail a lot of plasticity—but that guilt and shame might have ultimately affected the ridiculed excuse-bearers in light of their own sins…a sort of secondary form of moral instruction through social coercion. Craun even claims that primary sin can be connected to the excuse-maker, and provides the philosophy as presented by previous rhetoricians:
“The voice of those who excuse their own sin emerges, according to the first pastoral writers on excusatio, in the postlapsarian exchanges between God and Adam:
“‘And he said to him: And who hath told thee that thou wast naked, but that thou hast eaten of the tree whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldn't not eat? And Adam said: The woman, whom thou gravest to me to be my companion, gave me of the tree, and I did eat’. (Gen 3:11-12)
“In Peter of Waltham’s chapter on excusatio (1190s), this Ur-excuse for sin involves turning violently or wrenching the agency—and so the responsibility and the guilt—for the vicious action unto God as Creator. It is a classic excuse… ‘We admit that [an act] was bad but don’t accept full, or even any, responsibility.’ Paraphras[ing] Adam, ‘You who gave me the woman provided me with the occasion for sinning.’ Adam’s excuse thus becomes sin in itself, a branch or extension of original sin. Since Adam is our progenitor, his excuse becomes the root of our human response to sin: we defend the evil which we have done.” 3
All this is to say that one cannot escape making correlations to our present-day scenario—our current national debacle of an election cycle—and the “subjects” who are making excuses for their unethical and immoral acts. It also becomes impossible not to try to conjecture on the differences in rhetorical process, and changes in pastoral authority, ethical and moral standards, and developments in social-public coercion to standards of social acceptability and decorum.
The most blatant and easily correlative example to be found among contemporary electable-official candidates is obviously Donald Trump. But the plethora of differences between Middle Age pastoral moral exegesis might reflect on Trump’s antics and how our contemporary, freedom-of-speech and “liberty”-defensible-privileged (or conditioned) society has in fact dealt with them are confounding to contemplate, to say the least.
Firstly, whereas in the Middle Ages the nobility-class was expected to serve as stewards of moral and ethical standards, the rich and famous of modern-day American are often given license outside of standard ethics. This is partly the fault of a meritocratic society that conditions the lower classes to believe that success, fame, high-living, and privilege are not only the rights of the lucrative class, but that such characteristics are reserved for them, and further that anyone has the potential to achieve lucrative status through hard work and ethics. When in truth, meritocracy is a fallacy in and of itself. The rich begin rich and the poor begin and stay poor. There are minimal exceptions, and yet, for some reason, the masses are more than willing to elevate the exceptions as their standard. But this is tangential…
Better to ask questions (that attempt to broach ethical reflection) than to define the absurdity of the American moral and ethical code. It’s simply too easy to state that the lucrative class—the class of privilege and fame—have been conditioned to believe that a different set of ethics and morality exists for themselves. The question is, when did materialism affect our communal-moral and ethical character within our societal paradigm? Did the American forefathers foresee liberty, justice, and freedom as the ability to stratify the population? Far from it. Yet…
Trump has been caught red-handed in a moral and ethical conundrum. And he has made ample excuses for himself and his actions. Looking at the second part of the formulaic Middle Age excusatio pastoral tracts, Trump has done a fabulous job of falling right into classic excuse tactics. In fact, he’s used almost every classic excuse recognizable. He did in fact admit to the sin (his smack-talk and sexualized discussion of assaulting vulnerable women), but then attributed it variously to “natural or common social forces”—namely, that guys simply always talk that way, as “locker room talk,” and that his words had no bearing on his real-life actions (which seems dubious considering the number of female accusers who have come forward to confirm his behavior). This also assumes that the public has misattributed a set of moral standards to the hot-miked conversation that was recorded. Ergo, if it is standard locker-room talk, then all men must be guilty. But how can all men be guilty? The presumption is that they can’t all be guilty. Ergo, female-degrading locker-room talk must be acceptable. The argument deflects guilt to a sub-category of other people (other men, in general), then circularly excuses them.
But Trump in his megalomaniacal psyche seemed not to be satisfied with any doubt of his moral character, even if categorized and dispersed among a larger sub-category (of whichever he still belongs). He therefore continued to deflect guilt (or attempted to deflect guilt) to other standard-bearers of unethical acts—he blamed his opponent’s husband’s historical acts of infidelity as being more egregiously unethical than his own, thereby somehow muting his own culpability.
Then, as if all men…and then a specific man…weren’t enough to assuage his guilt, Trump blamed the media of unethical standards for fomenting the hot-mike recording and pushing the story at an inopportune time, affecting his credibility and public fame (as if the ethical or moral compass of his own transgressions would somehow be different dependent on what precise moment in time or history that they were committed or revealed).
The other difference between the potential usefulness of excusatio tracts or writing from the Middle Ages compared to how we assess ethics and morality in our contemporary predicament, is that we do not seem to be aware of who the pastoral authority is. We don’t seem to know or have a clue who that standard-bearer is. Where is the moral authority who has challenged Trump successfully and publicly shamed him as a deviant moral transgressor? One can hardly say that the Christian community has had an effect on Trump’s excuses. Nor can one say it about the Republican party, which has tried in vain to “reel-in” its unpredictable candidate, or ignored his ineptitude and transgressions for personal benefit (agreeing to vote for an abhorrent person at the top of the Republican ticket in order to maintain a position of power in the congressional establishment, or to maintain oppression of minorities through the ultimate appointment of conservative judicial appointments to the Supreme Court).
Nor can one say it about the media, the potential arbiter of social coercion for what is publicly acceptable. Some might claim that we will have to wait for the final election results to be able to say whether the last and final moral authority of the “American people” is a strong enough authority to have reëstablished a code of ethics and morality in our landscape. Personally, I think people are worried about it, and whether even the vote will reëstablish a landscape of political decorum (a concern that the Republican candidate appears to be taunting and fomenting with his preemptory accusations of a “rigged,” corrupt, and ultimately invalid voting system).
Have we set new standards for what is essentially moral and ethical? Is the American standard truly conditional if a population is willing to overlook ethics and morality in a contest of popular fame? (I am asking this question using the “classical” sense of the term “fame,” not in the contemporary definition of paparazzi fame.)
The argument—I guess—is that neither the Republican nor the Democratic candidate has a standard or semblance of moral or ethical authority. But didn’t we have the choice of alternative candidates, some of who appeared to have a modicum of greater sensibility towards ethics and morality? How did we choose the lesser standard-bearers during that primary season?
There are other things to consider… Whereas the excusatio tracts were for a primary audience of the clerical (ecclesiastical) class as an instructional manual, and whereas they were not mass-produced, it would have been hard for them to have had much of an affect on mass populations, outside of their dissertation by the clerical class from the pulpit or in inter-personal pastoral care. (One benefit of mass publication with the invention of the printing press was that not only could information be spread far and wide, but also that mass populations could begin to determine for themselves—could interpret and debate among themselves—the words and arguments that were being written by moral authorities (thus criticism was born). Today, we not only have mass publishing and communication, but instantaneous communications, reflecting emotional rather than critical response and opinion, but which becomes debatable fodder and position-affirming stance. And there is so much volume of published communication that it becomes impossible to digest it all for reasonable reflection. Instead, we must pick-and-choose what we are conceivably able to consume of the data, and emotional tendencies lead us to preëvaluated communications that reäffirm our initial emotional prerogatives.
When we look at the images of the tarot, are we then going back in time to when there was a greater standardization of what was ethical and moral? It certainly seemed simpler—more cut-and-dry, more black-and-white—than it is today. We don’t hear much about the Virtues that were so revered during the period of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Do we need a revitalization of those virtues to set us on a more distinct path towards ethics? Some contemporary philosophers and academics have inferred or suggested as much.
While I advocate an understanding of the classical Virtues as a means to understanding our motivations, and even for deconstructing and comprehending why we are experiencing certain emotions, it is not necessarily true that the classic virtues have the ability to regulate human coöperation within established acceptable public service. Something more relevant is belied about human nature in the original purpose of excusatio tracts…the public shaming and public penitential purpose that they served to provide.
Public shaming was an important facet of life in Medieval times and was widespread throughout Europe. I discussed one form of public shaming in a previous blog post regarding the historical ritual of charivari. However, charivari must be considered a non-formalized representation of shaming punishments. As indicated in that blog post, local authorities and governments formalized shaming punishments by conscripting shaming duties with the introduction of the public pillory and other judicial acts of public shaming. The pillory also quickly devolved from its original inspiration as an inspirational tool for maintaining an agreeable Christian tradition context in small community towns and city-states. Instead, it quickly became “an instrument of stigmatization and exclusion rather than one of reconciliation or reintegration.” 4
And, what happened to individuals who continued to transgress outside of monetary fines, and public shaming? “It was and is crucial for the function of shaming punishments that the shamed person identifies themselves with the values and norms of the group. In this perspective, the rise of shaming punishments in western Europe during the Middle Ages was, notably, due to the development of the cities as units of identification, which people belonged to…apart from family ties.” 5 Today our national geographic boundaries do not resemble anything like the independent city-states of the Middle Ages. Public shaming only works in a society “if everyone agrees on the norms, and if the culprit identifies themselves with the norms of the group. This is, in fact, no longer the case in pluralistic societies with very heterogeneous norms and values.” 6 There are huge divides in our country concerning norms of acceptability of any number of actionable topics: adultery, abortion, marriage, gender-identification, etc., etc. Further, a judicial system hasn’t swayed or solidified opinion about any of them. Even further, the constitutional “freedoms” afforded our particular society give credence to multiplicitous opinions and multiple interpretations as completely valid.
Former presidential candidate, former Chair of the National Democratic Committee, and former Vermont Governor Howard Dean has been on record as defining politics and the election process as a substitute for war and the battlefield…
An even greater modern anomaly obfuscates shame even more—the internet and social media. Here is a platform where no constitutional judge intercedes, yet anyone can consider themselves judiciary…where people feel free to publicly shame others without any agreed upon community norms or standards. What’s more, the platform can become a forum for “one-upping” shame heaped upon others.
Former presidential candidate, former Chair of the National Democratic Committee, and former Vermont Governor Howard Dean has been on record as defining politics and the election process as a substitute for war and the battlefield:
“Politics is a substitute for war, and this war is over who gets to hold the most powerful office in the world. War by nature is never fair. So the loser feels cheated; the loser feels that they have let down their supporters, and that they should rightfully have won. But there is no reward for complaining.” 7
I have to admit that I was shocked by that metaphor when I first heard it. But in some ways—in a modern technological context—Dean may be correct. We shouldn’t forget that Dean was the first presidential candidate to have effectively used the internet as a successful, strategic campaigning tool used for voter motivation, mobilization, and fundraising. So Dean has a certain perspective of the internet and social media as a tool and a “weapon.” Enter Donald Trump who has executed over 15,000 tweets on his Twitter account since his presidential bid began, many of them accusatory and shaming against his opponents (in both the primary and general campaigns).
In this context, Trump doesn’t see himself as the individual being publicly shamed. Indeed, for whatever reason—whether class or economic stratification that he believes places himself outside of normal societal parameters of norms and standards, or the abused interpretations of American constitutional “freedoms” of speech that override the norms and standards of traditional cultural communities—Trump believes that the United States, as a whole, is a reflection of the internet’s endemic culture of shaming, as though the nation were one big platform of the comments section at the end of a Washington Post opinion piece. The unrestrained, uncensored crowds at his rallies seem to affirm this analogy, and it provides Trump with a modicum of immediate [visual] success and immediate personal satisfaction, as though the number of “likes” were his moral justification.
And, again, the benefits we learn from studying the tarot can inform us about the faults of a shaming culture. Any legitimate tarot reader knows that shaming or pointing out faults of a client is no way to make headway on the problem, nor is it any way to gain repeat customers. A tarot reading is most effective when the client is allowed to discover things for themselves. A tarot reader might enlighten the client as to why the client’s excuses aren’t healthy or empathetic towards others, or why excuses are preventing the client from facing tough choices, but the client really has to be the one to take those enlightening revelations to heart and come up with alternative pathways that might prove more effective towards satisfactory outcomes. Providing information about the Virtues in a pedagogical manner provides the client with a resource with which to choose an honorable path from among his or her many choices, but the client always has to be the one to point the way for his or her self.
Donald Trump has been given ample indication, from multiple communities, that his actions have been shameful. He has also had ample refutation of his excuses, which he repeatedly attributes towards “natural or common social forces.” And he has had a lifetime of opportunity to observe, interpret, and discern what virtuosity looks like in the world. But Donald Trump is in a virtual world of shame-warring, which he seems to be playing all by himself behind the screen of his personal smart phone and Twitter account. Trump is like an unsuccessful tarot client—he cannot seem to see the multiple paths available to him through the gift of choice; and when he does see multiple choices offered to him, he negligently—and consistently—chooses the wrong path again, and again, and again…
 “’It is a freletee of flesh’: Excuses for Sin, Pastoral Rhetoric, and Moral Agency” Craun, Edwin D., In the Garden of Evil: The Vices and Culture in the Middle Ages. (Richard Newhauser, ed.). (Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies: Toronto, ON: 2005) p. 171-172.
 Craun, p. 172.
 Craun, p. 173-174.
 “The Shame Game” Jörg Wettlaufen. RSA Journal, Volume CLXI No. 5564, Issue 4 2015 ISSN: 0958-0433. (p. 36-39.) p. 38.
PDF of journal available at:
 Wettlaufer, p. 38.
 Wettlaufer, p. 39.
 https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/06/08/what-howard-dean-thinks-bernie-sanders-should-do-next/ (last accessed 10-19-2016).