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Tarot card The Hermit and the ‘Aleister Crowley’ of the Philosophers

Een standbeeld van de Filosoof Diogenes van Sinope en Tarotkaart De Kluizenaar uit het Rider-Waite-Smith deck.

Tarot card ‘The Hermit’ used to be my ‘favorite’ tarotcard when I was young and started learning the Tarot. I imagined that – when I was old – I would live in a super cute little house in the woods/on the moors/on a mountain and that everyone would see me as a lovely old and wise woman. I would help all people and provide them with (good) advice.

Unfortunately, as the years have gone by, I’ve turned more into a Swamp Witch than into a sage and I don’t have a cute little house in the mountains either. But that’s not what this post is about. It’s about Tarot card The Hermit and the comparison with the Greek Philosopher Diogenes. It is Antoine Court de Gebéllin who makes this comparison in his description of this Tarot card (see his essay on the Tarot that appeared in volume 8 of his book ‘Le Monde Primitif’). And it’s super interesting!

The Hermit of Antoine Court de Gébellin

Number IX represents a worthy philosopher in a long coat, a hood on his shoulders: he goes bent on his stick, bearing a lantern in his left hand. It is the Sage who seeks justice and virtue.

One thus imagines, based on this Egyptian painting, the story of Diogenes who with lantern in hand seeks a man in full midday. The witty remarks, know-all epigrams, are of any century: and Diogenes was the man who enacted this scene.

Card makers made of this a wise hermit. It is rather well conceived: philosophers live in voluntary retirement from those who are not cleansed from the frivolity of the times. Heraclitus passed for insane in the eyes of his dear Concitoyens: in the East, moreover, to deliver oneself to speculative or hermetic sciences, is almost the only option. The Egyptian hermits cannot approach in this respect those of the Indians, and in temples of Siam: they all were or are like as many Druids.

Antoine Court de Gébellin
Tarotcard The Hermit by Antoine Court de Gébellin
Tarotcard the Hermit from Gébellin’s ‘Le Monde Primitif’

Gebéllin thus describes the hermit as  “a sage who seeks justice and virtue“. Apparently, Diogenes was such a person. But who was Diogenes, and what does Gebéllin mean by “witty remarks” and “know-all epigrams”? I searched for more information about this philosopher and indeed, afterwards I could understand better why Gébellin made this comparison.

Diogenes of Sinope

Diogenes was born in 412 BC in Sinope, a town on the Black Sea in modern-day Turkey. He came from a well to do family: his father was a mintmaster  and he himself was in the process of following in his father’s footsteps. But both Diogenes and his father were banished from Sinope after a money defacing scandal. According to Diogenes, he had committed this crime because he had received a message from the gods in a vision to devaluate the coins and thus demonstrate that nature is stronger or more important than ‘civilization’. Diogenes ended up in Athens and had set himself the goal of making people see how ridiculous and useless their bureaucratic rules and social conventions were. In Athens he joined the philosophical  school of Antisthenes, a philosopher who, as a pupil of Socrates , founded his own school and became especially popular with the ‘poorer’ part of the population because of the simplicity of both his lifestyle and his teachings. In short, these teachings consisted of living closer to nature and thinking for yourself what is ‘good’ instead of being ‘bound’ to imposed cultural norms and values. Man should live ‘freely’ and not as a ‘slave’ to conventions. This doctrine later became known as ‘Cynicism’.

Diogenes, however, did exaggerate the whole thing a little bit; He stripped himself of all his possessions and slept in a large old wine jar. He went to great lengths to shock and provoke people. He urinated on the street (sometimes against people), farted loudly in crowded places and masturbated in public. This quickly earned him the nickname ‘the dog’. He hung out in the city and observed the hustle and bustle and the ‘useless’ activities of people. He did a lot of “crazy” things with the aim of making people see how hypocritical they were. For example, he begged at statues. When asked why he did this, he answered: ‘because then I can practice being rejected‘. He also had the habit of walking backwards or deliberately walking against a stream of people.

He liked to walk around town in broad daylight with a lit lantern and pretend to be looking for something. When asked what he was looking for, his answer was ‘I’m looking for a (honest/real) human’.

Painting of Diogenes looking for a human by Wilhelm Tischbein (18th century)
Painting of Diogenes looking for a human by Wilhelm Tischbein (18th century)

But what Diogenes liked most was to make fun of the ‘serious’ philosophers in their posh academies, especially fellow townsman Plato. The story goes that Plato had created a definition of ‘man’: ‘Man is a bipedal without feathers‘. Diogenes then grabbed a chicken, pulled out the feathers and took it to the academy with the words: ‘Behold Plato’s Man !’ Plato, of course, was irritated and insulted and from that moment on he referred to Digonenes as a ‘Socrates who has gone mad’

Painting of Diogenes mocking Plato with chicken by Georg Weitsch 1797
Painting of Diogenes bringing the chicken to Plato’s Academy 0 Georg Weitsch 1797

Diogenes has also gone down in history as the only person who survived to insult Alexander the Great; According to the story, Alexander the Great was curious about the wacky philosopher. He sought him out to challenge him. Alexander asked Diogenes what he wanted and that he could have anything he wished for. To this, Diogenes replied that if he could have anything, he would like Alexander to step aside because he was blocking the sun….. Instead of getting angry, Alexander the Great laughed. He replied, “If I were not Alexander, I would like to be Diogenes.” Diogenes then said, “If I were not Diogenes, I would also want to be Diogenes

Painting of Alexander the great visiting Diogenes - Gaetano Gandolfi 18th century
Painting of Alexander the great visiting Diogenes – Gaetano Gandolfi 18th century

Diogenes died in 365 BC. The consensus is that Diogenes had not “gone mad” but was very intelligent. His apparent rashness was a mask behind which a profound knowledge of (human) nature was concealed, and with his outspoken lifestyle he addressed the ills of his time in a provocative way. I think he was a bit like the  ‘the Aleister Crowley’ of philosophers. Even the inscription on his tombstone was ‘funny’, as it was a request to Charon (the ferryman of the underworld):

Even if your terrifying boat is loaded with the dead, take the dog Diogenes on board. I have no baggage, only an oil bottle, a knapsack, my shabby cloak and the obolel with which the dead pay for their passage. As much as I possessed in my life, I carry with me to the underworld, nothing I have left in the world

Cynics, dogs, lanterns and ‘less is more’

Diogenes preferred to criticize the world while living like an outcast, rather than adapt and be part of a society dulled by money. Although he was not very popular with a large part of his contemporaries, people did have a fascination – and respect – for him and the number of followers of ‘Cynicism’ grew over time.

Cynics were called ‘dogs’ and started using this as a name of honour; They undertook ludicrous actions from barking at ‘capitalists’ and/or ‘mindless’ people to sniffing toes of bypassers. In this way, the Dog is a symbol of ‘free’ life; Better to be a stray dog that lives in freedom than a caged or bridled ‘luxury’ animal. The lantern was the symbol of the search for wisdom, integrity and authenticity, something that, according to cynics, is difficult to find in man…

Painting of Diogenes living in the winebarrel surrounded by dogs - Leon Gerome 1860
Painting of Diogenes living in the winebarrel surrounded by dogs – Léon Gérome 1860

Originally, Cynicism culturally and socially critical and also focused on freedom, equality and simplicity. Cynics turned against greed and against the ‘what’s in it for me’ mentality. The Cynics were also the very first to “worry” about the damage caused by the large-scale production and consumption of goods and its impact on the environment and the well-being of the people of the earth. They were actually the ‘Extinction Rebellion‘ of Antiquity 🙂

Over the centuries, the word ‘cynical’ has acquired a ‘negative’ image. ‘Cynical’ people are seen as negative people that undermine society. If you do a simple search with ‘Cynical + company’, you will see 100 articles from Human Resources departments giving advice on how to eradicate the ‘toxic’ and ‘threatening’ cynicism in the workplace because cynical employees are a serious threat to the ‘working environment’

Article from 'management today' 2020
Article from ‘management today’ 2020

And of course this is true: within the corporate culture – where everyone wants to work their way up and where everything is focused on the profits that can be distributed to the shareholders – cynics are a disruptive factor; They are like Diogenes, that is, they are not impressed by a job title, they are naturally suspicious of the “good intentions” of the management, they cannot be pressured by threats of dismissal, and they cannot be “bribed” by offering them a raise. Cynics are intrinsically motivated and therefore cannot be ‘controlled’. Moreover, they tend to speak out about (everyone’s) misconduct and to ignore imposed bureaucratic rules when these are ‘useless’ or ‘meaningless’.

I do see Diogenes in the Hermit of the Tarot. And perhaps in the Fool I can see the young Diogenes. However, we’re certain Waite does NOT see it that way; He literally writes in his ‘Pictorial Key’ on p. 52 :

Tarotcard the hermit from the Rider-waite-smith deck

“I have said that this is a card of attainment, and to extend this conception the figure is seen holding up his beacon on an eminence. Therefore the Hermit is not, as court de gebelin explained, a wise man in search of truth and justice; nor is he, as a later explanation proposes, an especial example of experience”

Arthur Edward Waite

Finally, in honor of the Cynics and Diogenes, I would like to share a short text attributed to the Greek writer Lucian of Samosata (125 – 180 AD) who wrote a satirical dialogue in which a Cynist addresses a “rich greedy guy”:

The god is like a good host: He places before us a variety of many kinds of dishes so that we have what is appropriate for us—some things for the healthy, some for the sick, some for the strong, some for the weak—not so that we all may use everything, but so that each of us might use for ourselves what falls in our domain and, of those items, what we happen to need most.

“Whereas you,” the Cynic continues, addressing his interlocuter, 

are exactly like a person who grabs everything out of greed and lack of restraint. You think it’s fine to use it all, including goods from all over and not just what you have close to hand. You don’t think your own land and sea are enough in themselves but import your pleasures from the corners of the globe and always prefer what is foreign to what is produced locally, what is costly to what is inexpensive, and what’s hard to procure to what’s easily acquired … The many costly goods you think conducive to your happiness, over which you exult, only come to be yours through misery and suffering. That gold you pray so hard to get your hands on, the silver, the expensive houses, the finely tailored clothing, and all the accoutrements that go along with these things: How much do they cost in trouble? How much in human labor and danger, or rather, in human blood, death, and destruction? Many people are lost at sea for the sake of these things and the people who go in search for or manufacture them suffer terribly

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