Seven Philosophical Readings: A Response to Benebell Wen

Benebell Wen, Tarot author extraordinaire and creator of the Spirit Keeper’s Tarot, made a blog post and video today with prompts for seven philosophy-themed Tarot readings. Naturally, this was something I simply could not pass up—philosophy and Tarot! Two of my favorite things, together in one place! So below are my #7philosophicalreadings.

The way Benebell structured this exercise, you pick a significator for yourself and shuffle the deck, then look through the deck until you find the significator. The card behind (i.e. on top of) the significator is the answer to your question. I vacillated as to which card I would use for my significator, as my old one hasn’t fit for a while now and I’ve not yet settled on a new one. (I suspect I’ll end up with the King of Cups, since I’m on such a kick with universal love and whatnot.) For today, I chose the Hierophant. This is my life card, for those who play that particular numerology game, and I have a long-standing relationship with it. It also represents me as a philosopher: Staunch, old-fashioned, and convinced that the old ways of understanding things are better than all this newfangled analytic nonsense.

For these readings, I’ll be using the Thoth deck (no reversals). I’ve really been feeling it for the past couple of weeks, and I haven’t wanted to read with anything else, despite having quite a diverse Tarot collection.

1: A runaway trolley is racing down the tracks toward five people who won’t be able to move out of the way in time. There’s a side track with one single person. You can pull a lever to divert the train onto the side track, preventing the death of five, though it will kill the one.

Do you pull the lever to divert the trolley from killing five, but then it would kill one, or do you take no action, leave the trolley on its natural course, and kill five?

For this, I drew the Magus. This is a card of swift, decisive action, and it tells me that no matter how much I hem and haw about the thought experiment in the abstract, there would be no hesitation if I were actually in this situation. I would pull the lever, and kill one person to save the five. (Interesting! This is not the prediction I would have made; I’d much more have expected myself to be incapable of pulling the lever. Isn’t Tarot fun?)

2: What difficult truth about the human condition are you ignoring?

I drew the Ace of Cups. No surprises there. Anyone who’s followed this blog for a long time knows that the Suit of Cups is the one I struggle most with. I’m a thinky, intellectual person, and it’s much harder for me to give myself permission to feel. In particular, something I’ve been digging in and working on in therapy lately is the importance of compassion and the way I often express feelings of anger as a mask for deeper grief. The Ace of Cups is a fundamental truth about humanity and compassion: At bottom, people are good. We care about each other. We want to love each other. And it’s important to allow oneself to feel that love and compassion as fully as possible.

3: What does it mean to live a good life?

I swear, I shuffled thoroughly. For this question, I drew the Magus again. In the context of this question, I interpret it not so much as dealing with decisiveness and action (as in question #1), but with being true to oneself. The Magus is the beginning of the Fool’s journey. He’s the one who shapes the Fool’s sense of self, gives him a direction, and helps him identify what’s important to him and who he wants to be. He is the formation of ego—not in the pejorative sense, but in the sense of knowing that there is a thing that is “me”. The Magus is where we begin to have reflective self-awareness, and this self-actualization is what it means (for me) to live a good life. If I may borrow a pretentious quote from Hamlet, “This above all: to thine own self be true. And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.”*

4: Where does your self-worth come from?

For this, I drew the Princess of Disks. This is an interestingly practical card for me. As much of a head-oriented person I am, my self-worth stems from my deeds, not my thoughts. What makes me feel like a good, valuable person at the end of the day is having done good things, having gone out in the world and made it a better place through my actions. The Princess is a smaller-scale card than, say, the Knight or the Queen; she’s not about saving the world, but just about making a small, incremental difference by being a good person in her own sphere and brightening the lives of those around her. When I was growing up, my mother taught me to do one good deed per day, and I stand by that wisdom.

5: What had existed before our universe was created?

This one puzzles me, I admit. I was really hoping for something obvious, like the Fool or Death. Hell, I could even have made the Eight of Wands work, if I tilted my head and squinted hard enough.

What I will say about the Prince of Swords is that he’s a thinker and a dreamer. He’s all plan and no action, coming up with new ideas night and day without ever bothering to implement them. What existed before our universe, then, was the idea of the universe—the dream of what the universe would be. There’s a philosophical stance (currently out of vogue) called metaphysical idealism, which is, roughly speaking, the idea that the only things that really exist are minds. The physical world, per se, doesn’t exist; it’s a product of our collective imagination, and it exists only insofar as we all think it does. A famous philosopher named George Berkeley is most quotable for having said “To be is to be perceived.” On this view of things, minds are real, and matter is a sort of emergent illusion generated by the activity of minds.

So what existed before the universe? Mind. Thought. If we want to go Platonic with it, the Forms. Whatever we want to call it, the raw mental stuff that provides the blueprint for the physical world.

6: Are you ethically obligated to improve yourself?

Yes. Yes, yes, yes, a thousand times yes. The Death card is all about becoming something (someone) new. It’s a slow, ongoing process that never really ends, but in this context, it is constant self-examination and the attempt to become a better version of oneself. Do the work. Shed your skin and emerge better and brighter than you were before. Only the dead don’t change.

7: What is divinity?

Well. Fuck.

I sat and stared at this card for a while, because it’s a gruesome and unpleasant card and I don’t generally associate it with my feelings about the divine. I was really hoping for, like, the Empress or the Star. Ah, well. The Tarot is a capricious master.

What is divinity? Divinity is that which frees us from our bonds. It is the thing hiding behind the veil of the universe that allows us to be more than just hairless apes roaming around a cold bit of rock floating in an empty universe. It is that which uplifts us in our lowest moments and reminds us that there is something greater to life, something mysterious and beautiful. Crucially with the Eight of Swords, this energy resides within us. Divinity doesn’t reach down and save us from the outside; it’s the inborn dignity we all have, the capacity to extend beyond ourselves and become something greater. There is no part of us that is not of the Gods.

*In context, this quote is actually very complicated and messy and kind of means the exact opposite of what it says. But if you strip away the context, it’s a lovely sentiment.

4 thoughts on “Seven Philosophical Readings: A Response to Benebell Wen

  1. Haha. “I swear, I shuffled thoroughly.” Yeah I had that problem, too! And it was also a Major.

    I love these responses and the readings your Thoth deck gave. You know what’s interesting about Question 7– so you probably figured out that the more popular phrasing of that question in classical Western philosophy is, “Is there a God?” I changed it to Divinity for my particular audience knowing that the word “God” can often throw people off.

    So if we revert back to the “Is there a God?” question, the Eight of Swords yields a pretty interesting answering, doesn’t it? Maybe even hearkening to the concept of divine hiddenness? Or even a nihilistic view? =P But whatevs. I love your answer and your reading of the Eight of Swords!

    Anyway, thanks for playing! This was awesome! I loved reading this. You’re hilarious.


    1. I absolutely love that interpretation! You’re right; retooling question 7 as “Is there a God?” makes the card much easier to interpret, and provides quite an interesting answer. Thank you for starting this tag! I had a lot of fun participating in it.


  2. Your comment about ‘only the dead don’t change’ makes me think of another Shakespeare quote: “Nothing of him that doth fade, But doth suffer a sea-change Into something rich and strange.” Death is a transformation and even on the base physical plane, the dead change into a proliferation of new life that we can’t predict. 8 swords is one of my favourite cards in a way, if one knows there is an element of self-delusion about one’s captive thinking, it can liberate the thoughts… I really enjoyed this article, I am going to go play with those questions myself! Thanks!


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