After Temperance, the Devil: The Great Work is never done

Tarot is riddled with alchemical symbolism. Particularly in decks influenced by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn or other high forms of high magic (Etteila, Papus, etc.), we find that the Tarot deck is a series of symbolic, allegorical depictions of the same spiritual, magical, and psychological forces at play in the Great Work of alchemy. The four suits of the Minor Arcana are the four elements. The Fool is prima materia, ready to be shaped by the process of alchemical transformation. The Lovers are the alchemical wedding between the Red King and the White King. The list goes on.

Art from the Thoth deck.

One image in particular, however, has always struck me as rather odd. That would be Temperance, or, in the Thoth system, Art. This card depicts the transmutation of opposites (sulphur and mercury, the Red King and the White King, the couple from the Lovers card) into something altogether new. It’s alchemical transformation achieved, the creation of the philosopher’s stone. Fire and water are united, heaven and earth conjoin, spirit and matter are made one—and something altogether new comes out of it. Whether that new thing is the philosopher’s stone, metallic gold, spiritual enlightenment, or the bisexed Rebis, it is the end result of the alchemical process. When we reach Temperance, we have achieved our alchemical goals.

And yet it’s only the fourteenth card in the Tarot deck.

What’s more, after Temperance, we have the Devil. Temperance is a moment of perfect union, perfect enlightenment and balance—and you would think that there would be nothing to follow after that. Instead, we get the Devil, a card of selfishness and base desire. This seems… Well, odd. Materialism and id hardly look like the ideal follow-up to a card that represents the pinnacle of alchemical achievement. On the contrary, the themes of the Devil are completely in conflict with the harmony and enlightenment we achieve in Temperance. One card illuminates the nature of divine perfection, and then the other immediately drags us back down into the muck.

So what’s happening here?

The Devil from the Thoth deck.

I think there’s actually quite a powerful message here: Enlightenment is not a final state. We can do the inner work of transformation, be it through meditation, ritual, or laboratory work dissolving things in acid. And as we do this work, we continue to refine ourselves, striving toward enlightenment, perfection, or whatever-exactly-you-want-to-call-it. Alchemical work is, among other things, the process of refining our own souls and making ourselves better. Even in the more literal, lead-into-gold alchemical project, there’s an understanding that the Great Work can only be achieved if the alchemist is simultaneously refining their own soul: Material perfection in the metals must be reflected by spiritual perfection in the metalworker. Alchemy makes us better, and the completion of the Great Work necessarily involves a revelation of transcendence.

Anyone who does spiritual work and really commits to the path will have that sort of experience. All the illusions fall away and the true nature of the universe (or yourself, the Gods, etc.) is laid bare before you. You understand everything perfectly. You are whole, and wise, and full of divine love and understanding for the entire universe. Those moments of perfect transcendence are beautiful and powerful, and for many of us, they’re why we’re in this game to begin with.

But because we are human, those moments can’t last forever.

There’s a book I see sometimes in the “Spirituality” section of bookstores, which I do intend to get around to reading one of these days. Its title is After the Ecstasy, the Laundry. This is, to my mind, the most perfect encapsulation of a fundamental truth about enlightenment and spiritual revelation: It must necessarily be positioned in the context of an ordinary, mundane life. Unless you’re an anchorite living in solitude on top of a distant mountain, you have a regular life to live, with all the concomitant obligations and complications. You have to pay rent. You have relationships with friends, family members, lovers, colleagues, enemies, and strangers. You inhabit a body that needs to be cared for. And all of these things necessarily, inexorably root us in the material world, so that as long as we are alive, we cannot escape the messes and complications of real life.

“Enlightenment” is a loaded word, and when people talk about it, they tend to think of it as a final state: It’s something you reach, and then once you get there, you’re enlightened, and your work is all done. But that’s really not how spiritual life goes for any of us (except maybe the Buddha). Most of the time, what we’re reaching for is not a permanent state of enlightenment, but rather a fleeting state of transcendence. For a moment, just a moment, we feel liberated and at one with God, the universe, or whatever spiritual thing it is we’re trying to commune with. For a moment, we feel complete, and perfect, and without flaws.

But that can only ever be a moment, because we have to keep living our regular lives. We can’t go to the bank, clean the bathroom, and fight with our coworkers in a constant state of rapturous divine bliss. Rather, we experience divine bliss, and then we return to the world (hopefully a little better for the experience). Transcendence is a feeling of unity and completion, but life requires that we not constantly see everything as one. Interpersonal relationships require that there be such a thing as “you” and “me”. The physical needs of your body require that you conceive of it as something distinct and separate from the external world. And so on. Life requires that we engage with it, and engaging with it disrupts the perfect stillness of transcendence. Transcendent moments cannot last.

This means that there’s not really any such thing as achieving enlightenment. Sure, you may have a transcendent religious experience. Or you may do a ton of work in therapy and finally get over the emotional blockages that have been holding you back in your life. But then life goes on. New emotional blockages form in place of the old ones, you get angry or hurt or confused, you make friends or lose friends, you experience a crisis of faith. That’s all healthy, and normal, and part of the process.

This, to me, is what the sequence of Temperance and the Devil represents. Temperance is the achievement of perfection; the Devil is the disruption of that perfection that must necessarily come. As long as we’re alive, our lives and our psyches are in constant motion, and that motion means that we cannot remain perfectly in balance. We are constantly falling out of balance, and then seeking to return to the center.

In this sense, Temperance—the Great Work—is not a one-time thing. It’s not the end goal, where you unlock Level 14 Enlightenment™ and then you never have to put any effort into life again. It’s something that we strive for, and that we occasionally reach, but that we must not cling to. Rather, we reach it, and then we allow ourselves to return to the imperfections of ordinary life, whereupon we strive once more to return to that experience of transcendence. It’s something cyclical, not something linear, and the disruption of transcendence is as much a part of the process as the transcendence itself.

Rather than expecting us to complete the Great Work and then be perfect forever, Tarot encourages us to to embrace the imperfection of the human condition. We may catch a glimpse of perfection, and that’s certainly a thing to strive for; but when the Devil knocks us back down and we find unenlightenment creeping back in, we haven’t failed. We’re just moving forward to the next stage of the process, allowing the project of the Great Work to begin anew.

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