Ugh, Fine, I’ll Talk About Politics: Justice and the Emperor

Of the various odds and ends I’ve posted on this blog, three of my favorites are on the relationships between the Hierophant and Death, between the Lovers and Temperance, and between Strength and the Star, respectively. These posts all take a similar approach: looking at the astrological correspondences of the Major Arcana and exploring the connections between cards that sit opposite each other on the Zodiac. The Hierophant is Taurus and Death is Scorpio; they balance each other and have an intimate relationship that isn’t immediately apparent from their LWB meanings. Similarly, the lovers are Gemini and Temperance is Sagittarius, and Strength is Leo and the Star is Aquarius.

Today, let’s talk about the connection between the Emperor and Justice.

jacques-louis_david_-_the_emperor_napoleon_in_his_study_at_the_tuileries_-_google_art_project
In looking through old posts, I realized that I used to align pictures to the side. That’s cool; I’m bringing it back.

The Emperor is a complicated card that ruffles a lot of feathers for a lot of people. He is, first and foremost, about authority. He is powerful, and what’s more, he is defined by his power. At his best, he can be an inspirational leader, a born general and statesman. At his worst, he is a tyrant. In both cases, though, he has an unquestioned, absolutist authority. Whether he’s Charlemagne or Nero can vary (depending largely on his competence and moral character), but he is always in complete control.

Justice, on the other hand, is about, well, justice, although I’ve written before about the notion that Justice in Tarot can sometimes seem unjust. This card is, at least in my experience, primarily about impartiality (but a lot of people will talk about it in terms of balance, instead). Justice doesn’t care who you are or what your special circumstances may be. It is impassive and unmovable. This doesn’t really fit with a human conception of justice (with a lowercase J), where we often want to plead a special case and make an exception for ourselves. With Justice, there are no exceptions. You get what you get, both the positive and negative consequences of your actions, and while that may sometimes seem harsh or unfair, it is equitable.

So what’s the connection between these two cards? There’s a tension between them: The Emperor is an unchecked autocrat, who (by the definition of autocracy) is above the law. Meanwhile, Justice is the law, and is more specifically the rule of law that applies to everyone regardless of who they are or how special they consider themselves. We have a push-and-pull between two visions of power. The Emperor’s is inherently personal, along the lines of “I can treat you this way because I’m in charge”. Justice’s is inherently impersonal, a sort of “I can treat you this way because this is how I treat everyone”. They are both forms of authority, but one is vested in an individual and the other is vested in a lack of distinction between individuals.

When I was in college in France, I took a political philosophy course that deeply affected the way I thought about a lot of things. There was one day in particular where we discussed the difference between the left and the right in politics. The thing is, when you look at these political schools cross-culturally, it’s very difficult to pin down exactly what defines them. Different issues (religion, environment, LGBTQ+ rights, the degree of government intervention in the economy, etc.) all flip-flop between left and right in different countries. If you take an issue in the US and tell me “the right wing believes X and the left wing believes Y”, I can point to another government where the left wing believes X and the right wing believes Y, or where both left and right agree. So no specific issue or constellation of issues can tell us the difference between left and right.

My professor argued (and, after a lot of reflection, I tentatively came to agree with him) that the difference between left and right is a difference of core values. In his view, the right values order above all else, while the left values equality. Rightists are willing to accept inequality if it means staving off (real or imagined) anarchy, and leftists are willing to accept disorder for the sake of establishing a more equal society.

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Obviously, I’m generalizing here, and there’s a lot of nuance that I’m not getting into because I don’t want to write a book-length blog post, but I think the basic idea behind this is solid. Both order and equality are good things to value, and people on all ends of the political spectrum will at least give lip service to them. But when a political circumstance brings order and equality into conflict, a rightist will more readily sacrifice the latter, and a leftist will more readily sacrifice the former.*

In thinking about the relationship between the Emperor and Justice, I often return to this dichotomy. It’s an abstract theory, of course, so it doesn’t fit perfectly to the real world, but I think that if we talk about the ideal-type of what the political left and right are meant to represent, it’s an incredibly useful theoretical framework. I see the Emperor as the archetypal rightist, and Justice as the archetypal leftist. To me, they personify these fundamental values of order and equality.

And once again, I should emphasize that both order and equality are good things. They’re both necessary in this world, and I really don’t mean to pass judgment on the left and right with this post. I certainly have opinions about the left and right parties in various countries, and I have political leanings of my own, but I deeply believe that each end of the spectrum as understood in its most abstract, theoretical form espouses praiseworthy values.

I’ve written a couple times before (see here, here, and here in particular) about how I struggle to feel empathy for others and to invest myself in various political causes, despite acknowledging that those causes are objectively important and deserving of support. I think this is, in large part, because of how strongly I feel the influence of the Emperor.** The way to counter that, for myself, at least, is to work on embracing Justice.

I hadn’t originally intended this to be a political post, and I’m hesitant to continue down this track. I really try to keep politics off my blog, and I am certainly not going to go into any specific commentary on individual persons or policies. I have those discussions, but not here. However, I think that Tarot encompasses the entirety of human experience, and part of that experience is inescapably (gag) political. The Emperor and Justice, together, do a good job of expressing two of the most important underlying values that structure that political experience.*** These cards present differing visions of an ideal way to structure social and political life, and both visions can result in something very good or very bad. Taken together, they balance each other. A fully formed person needs the influence of both Justice and the Emperor. For someone like myself, this means seeking Justice out, but for someone else, it might mean coming to terms with the authoritative power of the Emperor.

The relationship between these two cards has implications beyond political life, as well. I ended up emphasizing the political slant in this post, but the tension here is fundamentally about the relationship between the power of the individual and the power of the impersonal. In a Tarot reading, that tension can apply to romantic relationships, work life, finances, or any of the other topics that come up most frequently for querents. I just weirdly ended up falling down the political rabbit-hole today.

I’m going to be out of town for the next two weeks, so I’ll be absent from the internet. I shall return in early July. Until then, I hope you enjoyed this post.


*Then there’s the question of liberals, who somehow float above the left-right spectrum, and of burn-it-all-to-the-ground far right movements, but we’ll set those aside for the moment. Political philosophy is sticky.

**The more astrologically inclined among you may also want to consider the abundant influence of Aries and Mars in my natal chart.

***There are other major values, too, which are not captured by these cards. The French “liberty, equality, fraternity” is an incredibly useful way to understand the core values that many people hold. If you refer to my first footnote, above, I would argue that liberty is the defining value of political liberals.

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4 thoughts on “Ugh, Fine, I’ll Talk About Politics: Justice and the Emperor

  1. Love how you compare these two cards. I think it is so true what you said about Justice being impartial. I have a tendency to see this card as the Karma card. You get what you’ve put out there. However, I’ve always wondered on how to approach talking about Karma to clients who don’t believe in it ? I believe you just gave me the answer ! Thank you ! Out of curiosity where did you go to school in France ? Best wishes

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    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed this post! In writing it, I was horribly nervous that it would come out incoherent or just plain bad.

      I went to a political science university called L’Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris. (Brevity is not a strength of the French, so they shorten its name to Sciences Po.)

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      1. Oh trust me I know… I live in France 😉 haha That’s really awesome ! I don’t think you need to worry about your writing, you are really good at it ! It’s a real gift. Looking forward to the next post ! Cheers

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