The Hermeneutical Card Definition Repertoire: The Chariot as Socrates’s Defense of Love’s Madness (via Plato’s Phaedrus)

 

If we suppose that designers of the tarot needed to further moralize about choices regarding love, it only makes sense that the seventh Major Arcanum of the Chariot might follow the sixth known as “The Lovers.” Plato’s Dialogues —including the Phaedrus—would have been a favorite among intellectuals, philosophers, and rhetoricians in both the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance, and certainly would be oft quoted. It might not be surprising that more than one card made references to love—or love’s madness, or foibles—since love has always been one of the great infatuations of human life. It does not deter the student of morality from the rungs of the ladder of attainment towards salvation, for rather even the great theological virtues prescribe love as the “greatest of these.”

 

So without further ado, please read the following excellent translation* and see if “love’s madness” fits into your repertoire of meanings for the Chariot (VII) in your tarot deck…

 

The Chariot (VII), from the Tarot de Marseille

 

“Socrates: It’s said that those who fall in love become insane. So what? Great blessings come from madness, if sent as a gift from the gods. There’s the madness of prophets; and the madness that grips participants of Dionysian rituals when their souls seem to leave their bodies and commune with the divine; there’s the madness of poets whose writings are inspired by the gods—without this inspiration no amount of poetic craft can achieve the same effect, as talented young writers relying completely on acquired skills discover soon enough; last, there’s the madness of love—a gift from the gods that brings us the greatest happiness. But to understand how this gift works, we need to consider the nature of the soul.”

Fable of the chariot soul (Plato’s Phaedrus 244a-249c)

“First, it’s immoral. Second, its forms is like a chariot with two winged horses. In their souls both the charioteer and the horses are noble. But for human souls, one of the two horses is a bit of a nag and difficult to control. Also, the steeds of the gods never lose their wings, but those of human souls do. And when this happens the chariot goes into free fall, landing on a body that it occupies and turns into a living being.

“An obvious question is why a soul’s horses would lose their wings. It is the desire of every soul’s character to join the chariots of the gods in heaven and stand on the edge of the universe and look beyond to behold every truth in its pure essence, without shape or color, and grasped only by the mind.

“Souls that reach this place, and hold their spot, rotate with the universe and after a complete revolution they have seen every truth there is to know. Then these charioteers stable their steeds and live forever in the realm of the gods.

“But most human souls do not fare so well. A few reach the edge of the universe and gaze upon truth for a time, but constantly have to look away to manage their horses, the unruly of his two steeds lurching and rearing and straining at the bit to be given his head. Other charioteers have had to struggle with their ill-bred steed from the start; time after time and with the greatest effort their rise to the edge of the universe, then fall away, each time catching only a brief glimpse of a slice of truth. The rest of the charioteers, who are the majority, are unable to manage even this much. Their team of horses is completely out of control. Charioteers collide, flattering or breaking of horses’ wings. During this melee these charioteers shout back and forth, asking whether any of them has seen truth. Those who have reached the edge of the universe then fallen away tell of the little they have seen. This passes from the lips of one charioteer to the next, a spreading rumor that is constantly distorted in the retelling. Putting together these bits and pieces, each charioteer weaves his own erroneous view of reality until their horses have finally lost their wings and, one by one, chariots begin dropping out of the race and fall back to earth.

“Souls that grasp all of the truth remain with the gods, but the rest must suffer reincarnation as humans to assume lives fitting the degree of truth they have understood. (1) The wisest become philosophers, artists, musicians, and lovers of beauty. (2) Next in wisdom become rulers. (3) Following these are the politicians and businessmen. (4) The fourth class becomes athletes and physicians. (5) The fifth become prophets. (6) The sixth become poets. (7) The seventh become craftsmen and farmers. (8) The eighth are destined to be sophists and demagogues. (9) And those with the dimmest view of reality are reincarnated as tyrants.

“When each soul has finished its first life, it leaves its body to be judged. Those who have lived justly go to heaven; those who have been evil go to hell. The sentence for each is a thousand years. At the end of this time they return to the place of judgment to be reincarnated, free to choose whatever sort of life they want, including those of beasts.

“This process is repeated for ten thousand years. Then each soul is given new wings and attempts its ascent to heaven to grasp eternal truth. The only exception to this rule is philosophers. If three times in succession a soul chooses reincarnation as a philosopher, at the end of three thousand years it gets its wings early and makes flight to heaven.”

The Recollection of Beauty and Love’s Madness (249c-256c)

“Which brings us to love’s madness. During a reincarnation, objects on earth will remind a soul of whatever portion of eternal truth it captured on its attempted ascent to heaven. It is most difficult to recall the ideas of justice or temperance, for they are not things per se, but conditions. The easiest to recall is beauty, for it’s seen directly with the eyes, which is our sharpest sense.

“It is with this recollection of beauty that causes love’s madness. For a soul with only a brief and unclear perception of eternal beauty during its ascent to heaven, the madness takes the form of a crazed sexual urge. But souls that recollect eternal beauty clearly sense they are gazing upon something divine. Were they not afraid of embarrassing themselves in front of others, they would immediately worship a beautiful person as though he or she were a god. When in this state the soul pulsates, as if its lost wings were suddenly sprouting new feathers. This is the joy of a soul sensing it’s own divinity. If this soul is separated from the beautiful person, it pines during the day and into a sleepless night, the pain ceasing only when the loved one is again within view. Caught up in this madness, a man will neglect his family and his affairs in order to be close to beauty.”

 

 

 

* Quincy, Keith (trans.). Plato Unmasked: The Diologues Made New. (Spokane, WA: Eastern Washington University Press, 2003). pp 361-362.

 

 

 

 

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