A portrait of Marsilio Ficino in the 1771 edition of Giovanni Corsi’s Life of Marsilio Ficino.

If the Tarot of Marseille cards really are pedagogic enigmas meant to teach Marsilio Ficino’s Christian Platonism, then the Florentine philosopher’s writings might help us decipher them. Could the study of Ficino’s works lead to the discovery of the Chariot card’s hidden meaning?

WARNING: During the Renaissance, the soul was considered not just an object of faith or belief, but also an object of science. Dealing with this theme, Marsilio Ficino is endeavoring to shed light on one of the most difficult scientific questions of his time. The way he studies it, however, is much different from that of a 21st century scientist. For this reason, the reader might find this episode difficult to understand. I would advise, in such a case, to skip the obscure passages and just retain the main idea, that Ficino considered the human soul a complicated mechanism, of which the Chariot card seems to be exposing a schema.

Ficino deals with Plato’s image of the chariot of the soul in Chapter 7 of his commentary on the Phaedrus.[1] The chapter is itself divided into seven points. Seven is the number assigned to the Chariot card. Fortuitous coincidence? Probably not, as each of the seven points happens to find its reflection in the card, so that the seventh trump appears to be a faithful visual expression of the ideas exposed in Chapter 7 of Ficino’s commentary on the Phaedrus. The first point is dedicated to the Idea of the Soul, the second to the Principles of Being, and points three through seven highlight the different parts of the vehicle (the Charioteer, the Horses, the Wings, the Wheels and the Chariot).

1) The Idea of the Soul. In this first point, Ficino explains that the description of the chariot in the Phaedrus is a representation of the idea of the soul, with its inner shape, the disposition of its powers and, somehow, its figure. For Ficino, as for Plato, the soul has a complex nature, with various parts and functions. Likewise, as we shall see, the Chariot of the Tarot of Marseille appears to be a rather elaborate diagram of the human soul, with various inner functions and mechanisms.

2) The Principles of Being. For Ficino, the objective here, before determining the functions of the soul, is to outline the system to which the soul belongs. Ficino names six “principles of being”: Unity, Essence, Movement, Rest, the Same, and the Other. Derived from Plato’s theory of the Ideas, they do not appear as such in the Phaedrus, and Ficino provides no explanation about them in his commentary. However, we know what they meant to him because he provides a detailed interpretation of them in his treatise on the immortality of the soul, the Platonic Theology.[2] The six principles make up the soul’s system; that is, the soul itself and the worlds with which it interacts. Ficino identifies four worlds that are like successive strata between shapeless matter and God. The higher these worlds, the less material they are and the more durable their existence. Starting from the bottom up, there is the corporeal world, where perishable bodies reign; the animated world, where mortal life reigns; the intellectual world, where immortal thoughts reign; and finally the pinnacle: the intelligible world, where eternal Ideas reign.[3] Above all else is God, coinciding with the principle of Unity. The intelligible world corresponds to the Essence, while all other worlds derive from the other principles, blended in proportions specific to each. The soul, being composed of a medium balance of the principles, is the link between worlds.[4]

These divisions of being appear in the Chariot card. The inferior half represents the inferior worlds. At the bottom, the ground scattered with tufts of grass is the physical world, still hardly distinguishable from chaos. Above, the horses walking and the chariot’s body with its wheels in movement represents the animated world. The upper half represents the superior worlds. The space occupied by the charioteer is that of the intellectual world, in which one thinks. Above it, the canopy is the image of the heaven of Ideas, the model world that takes its origins from the red bulge at the middle top of the card – a symbol of Unity that stands for God. The upper rim of the chariot’s body is not the only structuring axis of the composition. The vertical median line that passes through the red bulge at the top divides the composition into two remarkably symmetrical halves. The best horse occupies the charioteer’s right side, while the worst is on his left. This reflects another important division of the universe in Ficino’s thought: that of being and non-being, which determines two distinct modes of knowing — the rational and the irrational.[5] On the charioteer’s right-hand side is the world of being, accessible to the rational, logical mode of thinking. On his left-hand side is the world of non-being, accessible to the irrational mode, through sensations, feelings and imagination.

Ficino’s four worlds with the divisions of the soul in the Chariot card.

Ficino’s four worlds with the divisions of the soul in the Chariot card.

3) The Charioteer. Here, Ficino first writes: “The charioteer is the intellect and coincides with the Essence.” Therefore, it represents the function of the soul by which it is linked to the superior world of the intelligible realities. Then Ficino details the figure further. The charioteer’s head is “the power that unites him to the universe’s principle that rules over the intellect, and coincides with Unity.” According to Ficino, the highest part of the soul, which he sometimes calls the “crown of the soul,” has the power to unite with the simple Unity — namely to God.[6] However, a few lines further, he affirms the necessity to return to that head, “for it is double.” In doing so, he initiates its division. He then adds: “On one side, it is indeed united to the principle, but on the other side, it is united to the intelligible world.” This head of the charioteer thus represents the part of the soul that connects, on one side, to God, and on the other to the intelligible world. Finally, Ficino completes the division of the head when he indicates that “the charioteer’s two heads are like two poles of a sphere.” The Florentine does not specify what these poles mean to him. To elucidate this mystery, we need to turn to other Ficino writings. In a letter dealing with the nature of the soul, he proposed the idea that the soul has two faces, one turned toward the eternal realities, the other toward the perishable materiality of the physical world:

We all agreed that the reasonable soul is set on a horizon; that is, the line dividing the eternal and temporal, because it has a nature midway between the two. Being in the middle, this nature is not only capable of rational power and action, which lead up to the eternal, but also of energies and activities that descend to the temporal. Since these divergent tendencies spring from opposing natures, we see the soul turning at one moment to the eternal and at another to the temporal, and so we understand rightly that it partakes of the nature of both. […] Because of this, the soul seems to have, as Janus, a double face, one of gold and one of silver.[7]

For Ficino, the human soul thus possesses a double face, with a rational side that tends toward the eternal realities, and an irrational one leaning toward the worldly.

The details of the charioteer’s head that Ficino added to Plato’s image thus represent three characteristics of the soul: its capacity to unite with God (unique head), its relationship with the intelligible world (double head), and its intermediary nature between the eternal and the temporal (double face).

These characteristics can clearly be identified in the Chariot card. The crowned top of the head is an allusion to the crown of the soul (apex), through which the union with God realizes. Under that crown, the charioteer’s head represents the intellect capable of interacting with the intelligible world. Stemming from that head, the masks worn as armor shoulder plates show the diverging tendencies of the soul. The rational one considers eternal realities, while the other aims at the temporal world.

The faces of the soul in the Chariot card.

The faces of the soul in the Chariot card.

4) The Horses. For Ficino, the intellectual faculties represented by the charioteer need powers to propel them. The horses represent these powers. As does Plato, Ficino distinguishes the best horse from the worst. He sees in the first the rational power of the soul, while the second represents “imagination united to the physical world, that is the vital power,” which should be understood as the force of desire aiming at reproduction (and sexuality). Ficino points out that the worst horse is not in itself bad or nasty. The two powers are called “horses” because of desire and movement. They are the moving powers of the human soul, one being rational while the other, the vital or reproductive instinct, is irrational. Actually, for Ficino, the division between a sensible and an intelligible world has its correspondence in these powers of the soul. Being linked to both worlds at the same time, the soul is pulled apart by its antagonistic desires. This idea underlies Ficino’s description of the two horses. The worst one pulls the soul toward the physical world; the better lifts it up toward the divine. As we have seen, Ficino insists on the link that binds the horses together, to the point of making them inseparable. Such a yoking perfectly illustrates the Platonic conception according to which the soul is a whole that is at the same time divided and indivisible. For Ficino, the Phaedrus’ horses are not a mere image of antagonistic psychological tendencies in the soul, but a schema of the soul as a link between the eternal and the temporal, the corporeal and the incorporeal. The worst power of the soul thus appears to be no less necessary than the best one for its accomplishment.

The Chariot card reflects these ideas precisely, with its opposing horses — one being straight and well-formed, the other twisted and misshapen — united together from the waist down as if they were conjoined twins.

5) The Wings. The wings are the image of the soul’s capacity of ascending to God. Plato had attributed wings to his chariot to convey the ability of divine souls to rise up to superior realities. By contrast, human souls had lost their wings after their fall and incarnation into earthly bodies. In his commentary on the Phaedrus, Ficino tells about this distinction between divine and human souls in a strange manner, using an untranslatable pun:

But the wing is the upward-drawing power: Through this power, the divine souls are said to be winged in the sense of being “on the wing,” for they are always uplifted. But our souls are said to be “under-winged” because they can at least be uplifted.[8]

“Under-winged” is an approximate translation of Ficino’s pun. Indeed, he uses the Latin word alatus, meaning “winged,” to qualify divine souls. However, for human souls, he adds to it the prefix sub (“under”) to coin the neologism subalatus. Absent from all Latin lexicons, this term must characterize what is “under-winged”; that is, incompletely winged. But as Ficino specifies that human souls can “at least be uplifted,” we understand that he is playing with the similarity of his neologism with the Latin word sublatus, meaning “elevated.” For Ficino, thus, the fact that human souls are not completely winged does not forbid them to be elevated. In his Christian perspective, man cannot lift himself up to God with his own forces only. He always needs God’s help because faith is a gift from God. Human souls are less-winged than divine ones because they cannot rise by themselves to supra-celestial heights. Only when the souls, stripped of all pride and striving for God, see divine Grace coming to them can they finalize their ascent toward Him.

In the Chariot card, it may seem surprising that neither the vehicle, nor the charioteer is equipped with wings. In reality, this absence is perfectly coherent with Ficino’s affirmation that human souls are not winged by themselves. In the Tarot of Marseille, the elevating wings appear in the Temperance card, whose close relationship with the Chariot we shall discuss in another episode.

6) The Wheels. In the Phaedrus, Plato had not even mentioned the wheels of his chariot of the soul. In his commentary, Ficino only writes a single enigmatic sentence about them: “The two wheels are the soul’s turning back to itself and its conversion again to higher things.”[9] What does he mean? To understand, we must turn to the text that inspired it, a poem by the Latin Christian philosopher Boethius (c. 480–524 AD). In a hymn addressed to “the Father of all things,” very reminiscent of Plato’s Phaedrus and Timaeus, Boethius featured two circles as figures of the double movement of the soul — to itself and around the divine Mind — before evoking chariots as images of souls returning to God.

You, binding soul together in its threefold nature midst,

Soul that moves all things, then divide it into harmonious parts;

Soul thus divided has its motion gathered

Into two circles, moves to return to itself, and the Mind deep within

Encircles, and makes the heaven turn, in likeness to itself.

You then bring forth, with the same bases, lesser giving souls,

And giving them light chariots fitting their heavenly nature,

Broadcast them in the heavens and on earth, and by your bounteous law

Make them, turned towards you, with returning fire come back.[10]

Ficino’s wheels bear the same idea as Boethius’ circles, that the movement of the human soul toward its Creator is a two-phase process: first, a return to itself, then a return to God. How does Ficino understand these conversion processes? The explanation lies in Ficino’s letter on the nature of the soul, which we already discussed in this episode.[11] In it, he writes that “nothing befits the man more than discourse on the soul,” before quoting the famous oracle inscribed in the forecourt of the temple of Apollo at Delphi: “Know thyself.”[12] This Greek maxim has never ceased to be quoted and commented on since Antiquity, even by Christian scholars of the medieval period. Ficino understands it as an exhortation to contemplate the soul. Describing the double nature of the soul, he invites the reader to discover its complexities and to use it appropriately. With this instrument, one can exert both a capacity of judgment (rational way) and desire (irrational way). It allows one either to rise toward eternal realities or lean toward the worldly. Knowing oneself, for Ficino, consists of contemplating one’s soul to use it in the best way, to ascend to God rather than to fall into a restless quest for material goods. The first conversion consists of contemplating one’s soul, which, in a second step, allows for the second conversion: the return to God.

In the Chariot card, one cannot but notice the presence of two wheels, one on each side of the vehicle’s body, obviously corresponding to Ficino’s description.

To be continued in part two.

[1] Cf. Marsilio Ficino, Commentaries on Plato. Vol. 1. Phaedrus and Ion, cit., p. 66-70. For a detailed analysis of the Ficinian conception of the chariot of the soul, see my «L’image du char dans le commentaire de Marsile Ficin au Phèdre de Platon. Le véhicule de l’âme comme instrument du retour à Dieu», Revue des Sciences philosophiques et théologiques 94 (2010), p. 249-285. See also Anna Corrias, «Imagination and Memory in Marsilio Ficino’s Theory of the Vehicles of the Soul», The International Journal of the Platonic Tradition 6 (2012), p. 81-114.

[2] Marsilio Ficino, Platonic Theology, transl. Michael J. B. Allen, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2001-2006, XVII, 2, 4-10, volume 6, p. 12-21.

[3] Ideas, here, should be understood in the Christian Platonic sense, i.e. not as products of human ingenuity, but as perfect models offered by the Divine Intelligence.

[4] Marsilio Ficino, Commentaries on Plato. Vol. 1. Phaedrus and Ion, cit., p. 92-97.

[5] See Guido Giglioni, «The Matter of the Imagination: The Renaissance Debate over Icastic and Fantastic Imitation», Camenae, 8 (2010), p. 1-21, especially p. 1-5.

[6] On the crown of the soul, see M. J. B. Allen, « The Soul as a Rhapsode: Marsilio Ficino’s interpretation of Plato’s Ion », in Humanity and Divinity in Renaissance and Reformation, ed. John W. O’Malley et al., Leiden, Brill, 1993, p. 125-148, here 133-135, reprinted in Plato’s Third Eye. Studies in Marsilio Ficino’s Metaphysics and its sources, Aldershot, Variorum, 1995.

[7] Latin text: Marsilio Ficino, Epistolarum Familiarium, I, 107 (ed. Sebastiano Gentile, Florence, Olschki, 1990, p. 186-187). English translation: The Letters of Marsilio Ficino, vol. 1, translations by the School of Economic Science, London, Shepheard-Walwyn, 2001 (1975), p. 160-161, slightly modified.

[8] Ficino, Commentaries on Plato. Vol. 1. Phaedrus and Ion, cit., p. 69. English translation M. J. B. Allen slightly modified.

[9] Ibidem.

[10] Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, III, IX, 13-21. English translation: S. J. Tester, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1978 (1913), p. 273.

[11] See note 7.

[12] English translation: The Letters of Marsilio Ficino, vol. 1, cit., p. 160.

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