Turns Out that Tarot is an Excellent Tool of Rhetoric



What is “rhetoric?” It’s a word that the college educated might bandy around quite a bit without really knowing what it means, what its history refers to, or what its hermeneutics might be. In contemporary use, rhetoric has gotten a bad rap—it is just as likely to be used pejoratively or to accuse someone as it is to be used by some pundits to shame or reduce their conversational opponents across the Sunday morning talk-show table. Further, in our age of social media commentary, online attack and disparagement culture, and apathetic disengagement with our electronic conversation partners, rhetoric is just as likely to be spurned, reduced, discarded, ignored, or forgotten in favor of “I’m right-and-nothing-else-matters” adamancy.


In our viciously partisan political landscape, the arts of rhetoric, debate, and persuasion, have been abandoned for tribal camp opinion, devotion, and vigilance. To our woe… At one time, the United States Senate was the most respected political body in the world, known for its compromise, eloquence, and progressivism. Now it is plainly known for its obstructionism. The premise and rules of republic debate has always been to allow the minority to eloquently persuade the majority towards its plight. But these days we try to prevent the minority from speaking through special rules, and we threaten authoritarianism with the “nuclear option” of eliminating the filibuster. Unswaying Strength is now the favored emulation of American politicians, to the discarded and passé honor that coöperation and progressive compromise once held.



Today, it appears more important to be able to convince the masses through deceit, insinuation, bluster, and feigned indignation, appealing to constituents’ sloth and greed,…than it is to try to rouse constituents to adhere to their better angels, to remember the golden rule about our neighbors, to propel human spirits to strive for greatness through example. Today, if people can’t achieve it through their iPhones, it is deemed a lost cause. Tricorder malfunction! Beam me up, Scottie!


Today’s rhetoric philosophy can be summed up by the new grammar of the super-reduced compound “because” clause…which becomes its own preposition. For example, “I idiotically voted for Trump because big guv’ment”; or “I ignorantly vote for trickle-down economics because jobs”; or “Donald Trump won the United States presidential election because racism.” This extremely contemporary grammatical slang has also been identified as the “because noun,” which is really more akin to abbreviated thought, and very much mimicked like a social media meme. It’s often used in a sarcastic or snarky way. However, grammarians and linguists have given the green light on the form…and we can likely expect the dictionary bigwigs to make a concessionary amendment to the rules of grammar anytime now…because millennials.


As you might imagine, this new grammar has been attributed to the sloth of a generation. And yet…its immediate comprehension by the American public truly says something about its resonance. It really does imitate political obstinacy and mulishness and online inflexibility and intransigence—something with which the American public has become perhaps too familiar,…again, to the disadvantage and loss of eloquent rhetoric.


political posters original by Shepard Fairey

We engage in visual rhetoric all the time, perhaps increasingly so in our highly visual and meme-heavy contemporary western culture. The original “Hope” poster created by street artist Shepard Fairey has been coöped thousands of times over…


Rhetoric held a much grander role throughout history. Socrates and Plato practiced it. Aristotle wrote about it extensively. It was revered by Erasmus and the Humanists who studied the ancients and various forms of Latin and Greek in order to become adepts of the talent of it.


A new book I’ve just picked up discusses how pervasive rhetoric was in the lives and the thoughts of European Christians in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The book is Rhetoric Beyond Words: Delight and Persuasion in the Arts of the Middle Ages, edited by Mary Carruthers (Cambridge University Press, 2010), she of historical research fame on the subject of Ars Memoria. It doesn’t take but a few sentences into Carruthers’s Introduction to the book before students of historical visual pedagoguery—and perhaps even tarot enthusiasts—can recognize the value of the studies Carruthers is introducing…the overlay and juxtaposition of various art forms, not unlike how tarot readers are both interpreters of visual art as much as they are pseudo-psychologists of human nature. We are as much adjudicators of art criticism as we are promoters of the virtues of living well and attaining higher goals.


This is rhetoric—the use of a variety of artistic and linguistic mediums collectively used to eloquently argue and persuade our audience towards the good. It is building one’s case through whatever medium most effectively targets one’s goals of effective communication in the pursuit of ethical life.


…Ethical life.


The trouble with contemporary rhetoric is perhaps a misinterpretation of this quote from Aristotle:


“…the faculty of discovering in any particular case all of the available means of persuasion.”


The problem is that “all of the available means of persuasion” to an unethical person can infringe into the realm of incendiary propaganda or using social media in order to obfuscate truths. Politicians, it seems, too often confuse Aristotle with Machiavelli’s The Prince, or with Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Perhaps this is the trouble with our modern technology—that it is a medium that is too tempting for our darker angels to abuse. Where does one cross the line from “persuasion” to disingenuous deceit…or even delusory misleading?


Carruthers invokes the writing of the first-century rhetorician Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (often identified in English translation as Quintilius). In his famous twelve-volume textbook on the theory and practice of rhetoric, Institutio Oratoria, Quintilius proposes that the artform of rhetoric is reliant on empathy: Those judging argumentation and debate might be led to think that a speaker’s cause is just and a good option, he says, “but it is our emotional appeals that make [those judges] also want it to be just and [the] better option. [The listener of the appeal] should no longer think that he is listening to a lament for somebody else’s troubles, but that he is hearing the feeling and the voice of the afflicted.”


Carruthers continues:


“In this way, the orator is a painter, for his words provide the ‘evidence’, the images ‘brought-before-the-eyes’ of imagination and reason which enables the judges to see feelingly the truth (not just the facts) of the situation they have been asked to analyze and decide. ‘Liveliness’—the quality so praised in ancient painting—is a rhetorical value as well as the foremost pictorial value. The orator paints a scene with words so vividly before the inner senses of the mind that the judges can witness the event in full themselves. Zeuxis was valued for being so lively a painter that birds came to eat his painted grapes. But it is not the lifelike mimesis alone, the fact of trompe l’oeil, that is significant. It is the effect which such vividness has on its audience; ‘what they want, they also believe’, they are persuaded. This is not a minor distinction to observe, for it involves the audience as agents together with the artist and the artifact in making a completed, whole work of art on each occasion that it is seen, read or performed. Seeing a painting is thus an occasion that can be rhetorically understood; its means is a mimesis but its goal is persuasion and belief.” (p. 5)


Carruthers can borrow her metaphors, analogies, and parallels for rhetoric from the realm of visual arts because in a historical context rhetoric was considered relevant to multiple arts and artforms: painting, illustration, sculpture, music, architecture, as well as speech-giving and writing—these last two being almost exclusively those forms to which we attribute rhetoric today.


Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard of Bingen’s liturgies and hymns were considered the height of rhetoric.


Reading passages in Carruthers writing, it is easy to make mental connections to the art of the tarot and of tarot reading…and this is precisely because the tarot—as a visual art medium—was a source and medium of rhetoric discourse in the Renaissance. It still is a source and medium of rhetorical discourse today because the visual impact has not changed at all, and the tarot is still, in its most useful form, used to make an emotional appeal in which we are better able to hear “the feeling and the voice of the afflicted.” There is an amplification, so to speak, for us to be better able to hear and pinpoint those things. What’s more, the discourse that is, or should be, engaged upon by the speaker (the reader) is a persuasion of the “audience” (the querent) to understand the best, most ethical, perhaps most moral, pathway forward in order to achieve right relationship with the world and her co-inhabitors of the world. In essence, what we are talking about here is virtue ethics, and the tarot is a guide towards those virtuous options…it is a medium towards determining how to achieve them.


We should not be surprised at this revelation; moral rhetoric was pervasive in the lives of people in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Art was part of that rhetoric of persuasion, and the invention of the printing press provided a means to propagate visual rhetoric to more and more people. My argument that the tarot was a visual form of rhetoric—what I often describe as visual pedagogy—comes from being able to hermeneutically attach historic images of the tarot to popular moral stories and tales meant to persuade audiences of virtuous living. Many of those moral stories and tales were related through a Christian lens, because that was the paradigm of the period and place. The tarot is no different in that respect. We can look at the tarot as a window into the moral rhetoric of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance…when the tarot was created.


The three interplaying elements necessary for rhetorical theory to successfully be structured are performer, composition, and audience. As I just noted above, these elements can brilliantly be illustrated by those subjects involved with the tarot: the “performer” is the reader, who eloquently relays information and moral pathways through interpretation of the cards. The “audience” is naturally the querent, or the person for whom the reading is being performed—the imbiber of the information and moral pedagogy. The third element—“composition”—is best illustrated by the tarot cards themselves; they are the expression and the medium through which the dialogue and interpretation are transmit. The cards are the idolization of those moral philosophies upon which learned rhetoric might expound.


Three of Pentacles/Coins, Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot

The Rider-Waite-Smith version of the Three of Pentacles is perhaps the best exemplar of the elements necessary for rhetorical argument: the performer or elocutor is the sculptor artisan; the composition is the blueprint plans and ultimately the elegant architectural structure; and the audience are those fellows who admire the work and come to better understanding of transcendence through the idealization of the masterpiece.


Carruthers is adamant in her insistence that a fourth element—performance—is a necessary part of the structure of rhetoric. For it is the object of performance to induce pleasure, and pleasure is foremost the best and most effective strategy of influence and persuasion bar none. “…[T]he performance of a work on any given occasion is also the moment of its coming into full being,” Carruthers writes. And what is a tarot reading if not a performance? What are your best card-reading experiences if not great performances and feats of heightened eloquence?





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Posted in Reading for Virtue, Tarot History, Tarot Philosophy, Virtue Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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