Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Guillaume de la Perrière's Morosophie

Among the more interesting early emblem books are two by Guillaume de la Perrière: the 1544 Theatre des Bons Engins and the 1553 Morosophie. A few of the more notable emblems from the latter book, those with revealing comparisons and contrasts to the moral allegory of the trump cycle, will be mentioned here.

The first seven emblems relate the seven Ages of Man with the seven planets. The unsteady toddler is paired with the Moon (wearing Fortune's sail); the studious child with Mercury; the horny adolescent youth with Venus; the strong young man with the Sun; the successful mature man with Mars; the wise old man with Jupiter; and the decrepit old man with Saturn. The 8th emblem shows Death, completing the life cycle. "Now I can rightly fear the attack of the threatening Parcae [Fates], and a swift hour finishes my uncertain days. What then? Fortune has no way to harm ashes once interred, and all envy departs from the grave." The image illustrates the accompanying French epigram, which says that all must die, because of a universal Law of Nature, and advises us to take comfort that Envy and Fortune will not trouble us after death.

The final two emblems are also intended to clearly suggest an overall cycle. Emblem #99 is a variation on the sceptre and the spade theme: "What is Libitina [Death] doing? What is she weighing in her double scales? Will a miserly hand make an honest measure? She equates poor men and kings, and sceptres with mattocks: those whom Chance parts, Death makes into comrades." Emblem #100 shows a humanist triumph of Talent over Death. "Talent, dear Reader, triumphs over death, whose car is pulled by the talented Bee. It crawls nowhere upon the ground, for it has life perennial; it does not allow its authors to die the death." Although Talent itself dies with its owner, Talent's immortal child is Fame, indicated by the crown of laurel leaves. This idea explains the design of the Florentine decks where Fama trades places with the World.

Between the Ages of Man beginning and Triumph of Death conclusion, there are a number of emblems that can be related to Tarot in one way or another. Perhaps the most obvious is emblem #31, depicting the Cynic Diogenes and alluding to the story of his search for a genuine Man. This connects directly with the series of posts regarding the Hermit/Time card, and the moral message that the lantern-bearing Hermit carries. "This Cynic philosopher sees many 'men' so-called, but he sees no man in his morals and mindset. Without a clever mind (however mighty his body) he will not be worthy of a true man’s name."

A nice warning about the folly of debunking Tarot pseudo-history is embodied in emblem #43: "He who tries to uproot an ancient oak is a silly fool: she perishes, and he harms himself with empty labour. He who tries to lead the people away from long-established error does so amid the greatest danger to himself."

As with most collections of aphorisms, some seem to be in conflict with others from the same work. An odd moral to emblem #61 appears to advocate vacillation and cowardice as practical: "As the crab turns in any direction with equal dexterity as fear forces it, so it will prove useful to turn even our habits upside down if the situation demands or allows it." Emblem #72, however, seems to advise the steadfast fortitude in the face of fearsome forces: "If a dense rain falls from wet Auster into the sea, it does not cause it to swell, nor does the water rise; thus: although Fortune should thunder against him with mighty tempests, this will have no effect on a brave and great-souled man."

Emblem #68 seems to combine the medieval De Casibus idea of the prince by virtue of Fortune with the Machiavellian prince by virtue of Virtue. "As the wide world is made of fire and water, without which the whole inert mass would perish, so, unless Fortune is joined by famous Virtue, human empire collapses utterly." The middle trumps show a triumph of Fortune, the prince's rise, reversal, and fall, and in the TdM sequence each of the three movements is itself triumphed over by an appropriate virtue.

Francis Bacon begins his essay "Of Fortune" with a comment reminiscent of the Chariot triumphing over Fortune in the Florentine orderings.

It cannot be denied, but outward accidents conduce much to fortune; favor, opportunity, death of others, occasion fitting virtue. But chiefly, the mould of a man’s fortune is in his own hands. Faber quisque fortunæ suæ [Every one is the architect of his own fortune], saith the poet. And the most frequent of external causes is, that the folly of one man is the fortune of another. For no man prospers so suddenly as by others’ errors. Serpens nisi serpentem comederit non fit draco [A serpent must have eaten another serpent before he can become a dragon]. Overt and apparent virtues bring forth praise; but there be secret and hidden virtues that bring forth fortune; certain deliveries of a man’s self, which have no name.

"The poet" is apparently Appius Claudius Caecus, (the blind, c. 340 BC-273 BC), and the line was quoted by Sallust in his "Speech to Caesar on the State". Which brings us to emblem #78. "As a sculptor is able to make an image out of any piece of wood, for his trained hand works this way, so a man, if wise enough, can mould his own fortune, and twist all things to the benefit of his own life."

Although many writers have attempted to force the Tarot trumps to fit into a preconceived pattern derived from some other work, (cf. epic fail), if we first understand the trump cycle in its own right then we can find a great many related works of moral allegory in the Stoic-Christian tradition. As long as these parallels are not mistaken for the trump cycle itself, they may elaborate on the meaning of the trumps without doing violence to them. Emblem books provide a rich source of such literary and pictorial cognates.


  1. Lovely commentary on the Morosophie. There are so many emblem books - this one is rather charming and different. Have you found any others that have a narrative arc like this? (I'm pretty ignorant of the genre).

    I liked you beating yourself up with -
    "He who tries to uproot an ancient oak is a silly fool: she perishes, and he harms himself with empty labour. He who tries to lead the people away from long-established error does so amid the greatest danger to himself."

    But do you really find debunking to be dangerous?


  2. For number 43, I was thinking there is a fable or myth where someone dies from trying to uproot a large tree, which falls and crushes him. I just can't remember it. Do you know?

  3. Hi, Ross,

    It reminds me vaguely of Milo of Croton, one of the figures in the Costa Trionfi.

    As the primary example of debunking being dangerous, I would cite Bob O'Neill's hate-mail campaign against me back in 2003. He authored multiple emails with numerous false accusations, (including the suppression of his essays on Dante and Tarot and plagiarizing the same, none of which actually happened), broadcast to over four dozen Tarot authors, publishers, and enthusiasts. In addition to false statements and misleading characterizations of my views, he accused me of participation in several specific, probably criminal acts, and also conspiracy in the commission of those acts, which would appear to constitute a felony crime in itself. This was apparently all in response to my review of his book, which I had put online shortly before this attack.

    That was a serious defamatory episode of which I have quite personal knowledge. I'd much rather spar with (jk) in the open than deal with treacherous scum like O'Neill who backstab in secret.

    Another example would be that of John Gilbert, like O'Neill a very prominent figure in the Tarot Community for decades. He took offense at Jim Revak (and others) for questioning and attempting to investigate the activities of Tarot certification by the ATA. He had been creating various sock-puppet personae and using them for nefarious "administrative" purposes, and he even used one of them to attack Revak on TarotL. Eventually, people like Mary Greer, who already knew he was a dirtbag, came forward and he was taken down a peg or two. (I believe that he has since reestablished his position as a leader of the Tarot community.)

    Admittedly, Revak and the others were doing a different kind of debunking, but the ethics of the matter are similar. So yeah, I think that offending prominent Tarotists can be dangerous.

    Best regards,

  4. Ah thanks - I forgot about your O'Neill harrassment. Yes - he seemed to have a breakdown or something in 2001 - just as I joined TarotL. I don't remember you saying anything on the list about it though.

    The John Gilbert case reminds me of a recent episode in Dead Sea Scrolls studies - Raphael Golb, the 49 year old son of Norman Gold, controversial DDS scholar, created internet aliases and impersonated others in order to attack them and in particlar Lawrence Schiffman.


    I don't know what has happened since, I learned about it on the ANE-2 list -

    I'm not sure if you can see that unless you are subscribed.

    Indeed, if it were your review of O'Neill's book that got his knickers in a knot, then it IS dangerous to debunk even something so harmless as a tarotist!


  5. Ah yes, Milo of Croton, that's who I was thinking of.

    Not quite an exact match though.