Saturday, August 1, 2015

Plato's Chariot and the Tarot

The Allegory of the Chariot is one coming from Plato, and appears in the Dialogues (in Phaedrus) and later in the Republic, though it's thought to predate Plato, possibly having Egyptian or Mesopotamian origins. Basically, Plato regards the human soul as a kind of composite being, made up of three parts, and he uses the symbol of a chariot to show how they operate. There's a big division here between the higher and lower natures- Plato regarded our own world as flawed and imperfect, and believed an underlying, unseen and more perfect world existed also. Humanity is perhaps unique in that they can move between these two halves, and Plato regarded them as in opposition to each other, curiously. So let's look at the Chariot:
There are two horses, one white, the other black. Notice also that the horses seem to be looking in opposite directions. The chariot driver represents reason and consciousness- the "I", in essence. The white horse represents the pull towards higher, more spiritual things, while the black horse represents an opposing pull towards more earthly, mundane things, with their accompanying dullness of senses and appetites. When the chariot driver lets the black horse dominate (the chariot, according to Plato, is located in the air-from there it can ascend up to the heavens, or down to earth) the soul is given an earthly body, and there we are.
Regardless of which horse the charioteer listens to for direction, that same charioteer remains in control, calling the shots. If the charioteer relinquishes control to one of the horses, the effect is largely the same- the charioteer can either take command, or let the horses do their thing.
Where, you may be thinking, have I seen that image before? I'll use the Radiant Rider-Waite image here, as it's pretty close to Plato's description:
But there are a few differences. Here, the Chariot is pulled by sphinxes, not horses. Is that just to make it look all cool and metaphysical? Not entirely. Sphinxes are themselves composite beings. Here the sphinxes appear to be composed of two animals, man and lion, though interestingly the original sphinxes were composed of four animals, bearing the head of a man, the foreparts of a lion, the hindquarters of a bull, and the talons of an eagle. Each of these animals appears in a couple other places throughout the Majors, representing the four faculties of man as well as the four elements. To borrow a page from Eliphas Levi, we find the four animals represent the four aspects of working one's will:
Man- To Know (Air as the corresponding Element)
Bull- To Will (Earth as the corresponding Element)
Lion- To Dare (Fire as the corresponding Element)
Eagle- To Keep Silent (Water as the corresponding Element)

Back to Plato. He doesn't disparage the role of the black horse, nor that of the white horse. The white horse, left to its own devices, will simply fly upwards, regardless of whether the chariot comes along or not. The black horse will head down to earth, again regardless of whether the chariot comes along or not. It's up to the chariot driver to keep the two in check and moving in the same direction. Let's go back to the Chariot Tarot card for a moment. Looking at the driver, we see that there are no reins on this chariot- all he's holding is a wand, similar to those we see in the World Tarot card. The Magician holds a similar one, and in all three cases, the meaning is the same.
The wand here is a symbol of will- whereas the Magician exercises his will over the four Tarot suits, the charioteer exercises that same will and purpose over the two sphinxes, with their similar natures to the horses in Plato's example. Though energetic, the black horse can pull us down, distracting from what we're trying to do, and as a result, we lose focus and end up wasting energy on impulsive pursuits without a clear direction or focus. Likewise, if we let the white horse have free reign, the result can be restriction, direction without energy and ultimately, thought and ideas without action and manifestation. The key to this is not just will, but rather will that can balance out these opposing forces. Notice the sphinx in the Wheel of Fortune card- its appearance is similar to that of the two pulling the Chariot, but here the sphinx has a sword. The card indicates favorable change, but we see again the need for rational planning, expressed by the sword. In the Tarot the suit of Swords relates to thought and reason, and indicates here a need to plan- to respond to change to make it as advantageous as possible.
It should be clear from observation that we encounter both these black and white sides in everything- in ourselves, and likewise in the world around us. Wait for the perfect set of circumstances, and you'll be waiting a very, very long time. Try to construct and engineer the perfect conditions around you (or within, for that matter) and you'll be running yourself ragged trying to stay in the same spot! So the answer is in that wand- will. Use what you've got, and go for it! Will is a determining factor, and can bring conditions under one direction. Doing that means though you may encounter resistance, you'll still be moving. The World indicates a balance of these things- as the last card in the sequence of Major Arcana, it points to the experience and knowledge of being able to pull all these things together and keep them in balance.
Now, let's take a look at these black and white beasties in a different light. More often than not in the Tarot what we deal with is not good and evil, but rather protagonistic and antagonistic energy- what drives us towards a goal or higher calling, and what pulls us away from that. Self understanding and awareness is key to this, and from there, we can find a higher calling- a direction and purpose in life. Will, once again, is the force that drives us towards that goal and that end. Protagonistic energies and efforts bring us closer to that goal, whatever it may be. Antagonistic energies draw us away, into distractions. But these antagonistic energies are not necessarily bad; just misdirected. Going all the way back to Plato, he doesn't disregard the value of either horse. The energetic nature of the black horse needs simply to be redirected towards a goal, rather than left to its own devices.
Looking at this another way, we find the two horses representing two opposite but complementary principles- expansion and restriction. This too forms a consistent theme in the Tarot. The first place we see this dichotomy is in the High Priestess, sitting between her two pillars.
 It's no coincidence that the two pillars are black and white. The letters B and J refer to the Temple of Solomon, where they were named Boaz (Strength, in a rough translation) and Jachin (Established, in an equally rough translation). In other words, expansion (in the form of strength) and restriction and direction (in the form of established plans). The High Priestess appears early on to clue us in that we need both- the path is between them, not around one or the other. When these two are in balance, we can use both in proportion, and as needed.
Moving along, we see the same pairing in the Empress and Emperor, appearing just after the High Priestess. The Empress represents expansion and nurturing, while the Emperor represents guidance and restriction of that expansion. We need these two together, the Priestess reminds us. If we have just expansion, chaos results as that expansion goes every which way, lacking form, cohesion and direction. If we have just restriction, we have sterility and a crushing of that expansive principle. But put the two together, and we find expansion in accordance with a pattern, and direction- will, in other words.

This duality is also present in the Kabbalah, and is illustrated in the Tree of Life- it shows aspects of manifestation, once again in accordance with will. Here, the will comes from the Divine, and the world is thought to unfold according to a Divine plan. The two extremes on this Tree represent the Empress and Emperor, respectively- these two are likewise mirrored in the High Priestess' pillars. In the diagram, we have two pillars. The left hand pillar is called the Pillar of Severity- restriction and structure. The right hand pillar is the Pillar of Mercy- expansion and growth.
Way down at the bottom in the last circle there we have manifestation- notice that it falls between the two pillars- not on one or the other. The conclusion is that we need both, in proportion. Not all restriction, constantly fighting to keep that white horse in charge, and the black horse subservient- not only will that consume all our energy, but will get us nowhere. Nor is it constantly letting the black horse have free reign- that will drive the chariot all over the place, following every last whim and impulse, without any definite direction or larger goal. And likewise, it won't get us anywhere. So the long and short of it is this- we need that energy, and we need direction, if we're to go anywhere. Life is about balance- yet at the same time, we simply can't just accept whatever comes. Will drives us on, will serves as a road map and guiding star to bring us beyond where we are, and turn potential into actuality.
(images courtesy of the Radiant Waite Tarot)