Continued from part one.

Nicolas Conver, The Hermit, 1760

Let’s see what the old man’s main features are in the Hermit card: 1) beard; 2) long hair; 3) dressed in a long cloak; 4) holding a stick; 5) brandishing a lamp. Since antiquity, the first four features of this description were used to characterize the philosophers of the Cynic school.[1] In this way, the neglected hair, long beard, stick, and cloak define the portrait of the Cynics in an epigram of the Latin poet Martial:

Yonder person, Cosmus, whom you often see in the recesses of the temple of our Pallas, and on the threshold of the new temple,—- an old man with a stick and a wallet; whose hair bristles white and dirty, and over whose breast a filthy beard descends; whom a wax-coloured cloak, sole partner of his bare bed, covers; and to whom the crowd that encounters him gives food forced from them by his importunity,—-him, I say, you take for a Cynic, out you are deceived by a false appearance; he is no Cynic, Cosmus. What then?—-a dog.[2]

The long cloak and the stick became the main attire of the Cynics, who certainly followed the example of the most famous of them: Diogenes the Cynic. Laërtius writes that Diogenes “was the first, say some, to fold his cloak because he was obliged to sleep in it as well”[3] and that “he did not lean upon a staff until he grew infirm; but afterwards, he would carry it everywhere.”[4] This outfit eventually became legendary, as shown in a poem by Cercidas of Megalopolis, dedicated to the death of Diogenes:

Not so he who aforetime was a citizen of Sinope,
That famous one who carried a staff, doubled his cloak, and lived in the open air.[5]

Likewise, the fifth singularity of the portrait — the lamp — points to the Cynic par excellence. Diogenes is frequently represented as a lamp-bearer because of a famous anecdote narrated by Laërtius, which stands as a sole short sentence: “He lit a lamp in broad daylight and said, as he went about, ‘I am looking for a man.’”[6] We will come back to that sentence later. For now, it’s noteworthy to observe that the image of the ninth trump of the Tarot of Marseille seems to reflect the portrait of Diogenes the Cynic.

Beyond his physical appearance, the Hermit also resembles this historical character by his way of life. The Cynics, indeed, adhered to asceticism rigorously, not unlike St. Anthony and Christian hermits in general. Laertius sums up this aspect of the doctrine of the Cynics:

They also hold that we should live frugally, eating food for nourishment only and wearing a single garment. Wealth and fame and high birth they despise. Some at all events are vegetarians and drink cold water only and are content with any kind of shelter or tubs, like Diogenes, who used to say that it was the privilege of the gods to need nothing and of god-like men to want but little.[7]

Both by his appearance and his way of life, the character of the Hermit of the Tarot of Marseille resembles a Cynic philosopher – Diogenes, in particular, the most emblematic of them all.

However, in other tarot decks of the 15th century, there is no such similarity. In two famous illuminated decks, the so-called Charles VI tarot and the Colleoni-Baglioni, the cards corresponding to the Hermit depict a bearded old man holding not a lamp, but an hourglass and, in both cases, the character’s sumptuous costume is very different from an ascetic’s cloak.

Anonymous, Time, c. 1450-1480


Anonymous, Time, c. 1475

In all likelihood, these two images represent the allegory of time, a frequent motif in the art of the Renaissance, notably in the illustrations of Petrarch’s Triumphs. Thus, the ninth trump of the Tarot of Marseille discontinues this tradition. The old man remains, but his identity has changed. The unexpected appearance of a philosopher from antiquity, in lieu of a traditional figure from the Florentine literary tradition, raises the suspicion of an intervention by Marsilio Ficino. Thus, I looked into his works for what he writes about Diogenes and the Cynics.

References to the Cynics are not numerous in Ficino’s works. He makes brief mentions about their ascetic way of life, which he views favourably. However, on several occasions, he emphasizes an aspect of their doctrine that he sees as a serious limitation. He expresses this opinion clearly and briefly in the Life of Plato, which he published as an introduction to the complete works of the Athenian philosopher.

To Diogenes the Cynic who maintained that he certainly saw mortal things but ideas not at all, Plato said, “What a marvel! For you have eyes with which these mortal things are seen, and you use them, but you do not use the mind by which alone ideas are discerned”. [8]

This passage is a paraphrase of a brief exchange between Diogenes the Cynic and Plato, as told by Laërtius in his Lives:

As Plato was conversing about Ideas and using the nouns “tablehood” and “cuphood,” he said, “Table and cup I see; but your tablehood and cuphood, Plato, I can nowise see.” “That’s readily accounted for,” said Plato, “for you have the eyes to see the visible table and cup; but not the understanding by which ideal tablehood and cuphood are discerned.”[9]

This episode should be interpreted in the context of the philosophical debate that raged in Athens between the heirs of Socrates. The great philosopher had left no writings behind, but many interpreters of his philosophy. Plato is the most famous, but not the only one. Diogenes the Cynic, although not a disciple of Plato’s, was a follower of Antisthenes (the first Cynic, according to Laërtius), who followed the teachings of Socrates. Because of his extremely simple lifestyle, his disdain for propriety, and his fierce independence, Socrates frequently was considered the inspiration for Cynicism. Thus, while Plato featured his master Socrates in his dialogues talking about the Ideas, the Cynics, claiming to be heirs of Socrates’, were making fun of Plato and of his nebulous Ideas. As they couldn’t see such Ideas, they didn’t believe they existed.

Ficino naturally stands by Plato in this debate. In the first chapter of the first book of his Platonic Theology, he describes a sort of ladder of realities, and the degrees at which he places different philosophers, according to their ability to understand these realities (which correspond to the degrees of being already discussed in Episode 5), starting at the lowest level: 1) the physical body; 2) the active power of the body; 3) the rational soul; 4) the intelligible world of Ideas; 5) God.[10] Ficino affirms that Plato is the only guide capable of leading men to the supreme degree. The Cynics, however, are relegated three levels lower, for not having pushed their investigation further than the second level of reality. Because they could not perceive forms beyond living bodies, Ideas cannot have any reality in their eyes. Therefore, for Ficino, the Cynics represent the very type of philosophers who are blind to Ideas and, for that reason, are unable to lift their souls toward divine realities.

Was the Hermit of the Tarot of Marseille meant to illustrate Ficino’s views on the Cynics? Could it have some kind of relationship with the vision of the Ideas? We shall see in episode 21.

[1] See Pierre Courcelle, « La figure du philosophe d’après les écrivains latins de l’Antiquité », Journal des savants (1980), p. 85-101.

[2] Martial, Epigrams, IV, 53. English translation: http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/martial_epigrams_book04.htm.

[3] Diogenes Laërtius, Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers,VI, 22. English translation: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0258%3Abook%3D6%3Achapter%3D2

[4] Laërtius, Lives, VI, 23.

[5] Laërtius, Lives, VI, 76.

[6] Laërtius, Lives, VI, 41.

[7] Laërtius, Lives, VI, 105.

[8] Ficino, Opera omnia, cit., p. 768, erroneously paginated 742. English translation: Marsilio Ficino, The Letters of Marsilio Ficino, vol. III, transl. by members of the School of Economic Science, London, Shepheard-Walwyn, 1981, p. 42.

[9] Laërtius, Lives, VI, 53.

[10] Ficino, Platonic Theology, I, 1, cit., I, pp. 14-17.

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