Monthly Archives: July 2014

The Consolation of Philosophy

What is philosophy, you ask?
They say it’s learning how to die.
But should you chance to flub that task,
Don’t fret: You’ll get another try —
And then a third, and so on, till
You get it right — you surely will!
It’s guaranteed, so don’t despair!
Philosophy is more than fair.
Her students may be plagued with doubt,
But not a one has yet flunked out.


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Filed under Philosophy, Poetry

Lehi’s people

What was the ethnic background of Lehi, the ancestor of the Nephite and Lamanite people in the Book of Mormon? Whether you regard Lehi as a historical figure or as a fictional character invented by Joseph Smith, there ought to be an answer to that question.


In one sense, the question is easy to answer. Alma 10:3 explicitly states that “Lehi, who came out of the land of Jerusalem, … was a descendant of Manasseh, who was the son of Joseph who was sold into Egypt by the hands of his brethren.”

From this we might assume that Lehi, a descendant of Manasseh who had nevertheless “dwelt at Jerusalem in all his days” (1 Nephi 1:4), was descended from those Manassites who, together with members of the tribes* of Ephraim and Simeon, fled from the Northern Kingdom to Jerusalem during the reign of Asa, as described in 2 Chronicles 15.

The strange thing, though, is that Lehi apparently didn’t know he was a descendant of Manasseh. He found this out only after he had left Jerusalem. Having obtained the brass plates from Laban, “Lehi, also found upon the plates of brass a genealogy of his fathers; wherefore he knew that he was a descendant of Joseph, yea, even that Joseph who was the son of Jacob, who was sold into Egypt . . . And thus my father, Lehi, did discover the genealogy of his fathers. And Laban was also a descendant of Joseph, wherefore he and his fathers had kept records” (1 Ne 5:14, 16).

So, leaving aside the actual facts of his ancestry, which were unknown to him, what did Lehi think he was? What ethnicity did he identify with culturally and in practice?

The most obvious guess would be that Lehi thought of himself as a member of the tribe of Judah — as a “Jew,” to use a somewhat anachronistic term. During the 300 or so years separating the time of Lehi from the immigration of his Manassite ancestors into Jerusalem, it seems likely that the Northern immigrants would have become completely assimilated into Judah and lost their distinct tribal identities. Certainly Manasseh was already considered a “lost tribe” by the time of Lehi.

However, there are certain suggestions in the early chapters of the book (prior to the discovery of Lehi’s Manassite ancestry) that Lehi and his family did not self-identify as Jews. Lehi’s son Nephi, referring to his rebellious brothers Laman and Lemuel, says that they “were like unto the Jews who were at Jerusalem, who sought to take away the life of my father” (1 Nephi 2:13). And in the next chapter, as Lehi explains the plan to obtain the brass plates, he says, “Laban hath a record of the Jews and also a genealogy of my forefathers, and they are engraven upon plates of brass” (1 Nephi 3:3). There is more than one way to interpret such passages, but in my opinion the most natural reading is one which implies a distinction between Lehi’s family on the one hand and “the Jews” on the other.


Another possibility which suggests itself is that Lehi was of Egyptian extraction and that, while he lived in Jerusalem and worshiped the Hebrew God, he did not know that he himself had Hebrew blood. It seems probable that some of the Israelites might have “gone native” while in Egypt and have been left behind by the Exodus — and this would have been especially natural for descendants of Ephraim and Manasseh, who were half-Egyptian by blood and could thus have “passed” more readily among the indigenous population.

When Nephi reports the discovery of their genealogy on the brass plates, he never mentions which tribe they belong to, saying simply “it sufficeth me to say that we are descendants of Joseph” (1 Nephi 6:2). Manasseh is only mentioned much later, in passing, by one of Nephi’s distant descendants. But while he displays a rather un-Israelite lack of interest in tribal affiliation, Nephi does make a point of mentioning that his ancestor was “that Joseph who was the son of Jacob, who was sold into Egypt” (1 Nephi 5:14). This emphasis is more consistent with an Egyptian discovering his Hebrew roots than with an Israelite learning that he belonged to a different tribe than he had supposed.

We also know that Lehi spoke and wrote Egyptian as well as Hebrew. Nephi says that his father’s language “consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians” (1 Nephi 1:2). A thousand years after Lehi, his descendants were still using both Egyptian and Hebrew, though in modified form (Mormon 9:32-33). Laban seems also to have had the learning of the Jews via the language of the Egyptians; his brass plates, which contained parts of the Old Testament, were written in Egyptian characters (see Mosiah 1:3-4).

Against this Egyptian hypothesis, though, we have the following words of Nephi to his brothers, spoken before they had obtained the brass plates and discovered their Josephite ancestry: “Moses . . . spake unto the waters of the Red Sea and they divided hither and thither, and our fathers came through . . . the Lord is able to deliver us, even as our fathers, and to destroy Laban, even as the Egyptians” (1 Nephi 4:2-3). It’s hard to reconcile such language with the hypothesis that Nephi was himself an Egyptian.


To summarize the data to be explained:

  • Prior to receiving the brass plates, Lehi apparently knew he was an Israelite but did not know to which tribe he belonged. In the Exodus story, the Hebrews, not the Egyptians, were his “fathers.”
  • However, he seems not to have considered himself a “Jew.” (Laban’s servant also speaks of “the Jews” as if he were not one of them.)
  • Although he did not know his own ancestry, he knew that his kinsman Laban knew. (Was their family history some kind of secret to which Laban was privy but Lehi was not? Why?)
  • Even after learning that he was of the tribe of Manasseh, Lehi seems not to have been interested in this specific tribal identity so much as in his status as a descendant of Joseph.
  • Egyptian was apparently the main language of both Lehi and Laban, although they also spoke Hebrew (see Mormon 9:33). The fact that Laban’s copy of the writings of Isaiah and other Hebrew prophets was an Egyptian translation is strong evidence that he was more comfortable with Egyptian than Hebrew.

My own best guess would be that Lehi was an Egyptian, but that there was an unsubstantiated family tradition that they were actually of Hebrew blood. (In this he would be similar to the many modern-day Mormons who believe, without direct genealogical evidence, that they are descendants of Ephraim.) What he read on the brass plates was not so much a revelation as a confirmation of what he had already suspected. Why this confirmation was a secret kept by Laban is anyone’s guess.


* WordPress’s PC spellchecker suggests that “the ethnic groups of Ephraim and Simeon” would be more sensitive.

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Filed under Book of Mormon

Evidence against free will?

What would count as evidence against free will?

I’ve said before that there can be no evidence for or against free will because it is a doctrine about the ontological status of things that don’t happen. A person with free will might very well do precisely the same things as a person without free will — the only difference being that the former could have done otherwise. But what “could have happened” is invisible to us; we can only observe what actually happens. Therefore, a person with free will and a person without free will are empirically indistinguishable. I’ve said before that this means all we can do is assume that we have free will (or not), and that it makes more practical sense to assume that we do. But what it would actually mean, if it were true, is that free will vs. determinism is a fake question, a distinction which makes no difference. If it is indeed true that the one belief is more practically useful than the other, then the two beliefs must be empirically distinguishable, at least in principle.


My argument that there can be no evidence for or against free will could also be used to argue that there can be no evidence for or against the proposition that nature is governed by laws. The sun rose in the east today, but could it have risen in the west instead? We believe that the sun and the earth move in accordance with fixed laws of gravity and that it is impossible for them to do otherwise — but isn’t it also possible that they are free, that they just happen to choose to behave in a uniform way but could just as easily choose otherwise? G. K. Chesterton somewhere discusses the possibility that every single day God freely chooses to tell the sun (or rather the earth) to “do it again.” Have we no empirical grounds for favoring Kepler/Newton/Einstein over Chesterton? After all, we only observe what happens, not what could have happened.

I’ve been conflating absolute proof with mere evidence. There can be no conclusive disproof of Chesterton’s “do it again” hypothesis, but we can and do have evidence against it. Suppose an astronomer predicts precisely where and when the sun will rise tomorrow. If the sun and earth are bound by the laws the astronomer thinks they are bound by, what is the probability of the prediction coming true? 1. If they could behave otherwise, what is the probability of the prediction coming true? Unknown, but necessarily less than 1. You can do the Bayesian math and see that, whatever prior probability we assign to the Chesterton hypothesis, it should be revised downward if the astronomer’s prediction comes true. Therefore, every successful prediction is evidence that things could not have happened otherwise. (How strong that evidence is cannot be calculated, though.)


When it comes to human behavior, things are less straightforward, since no one claims to be able to predict it. Determinists say it is predictable in theory but, due to the fantastic complexity of the human brain, not in practice. Indeterminists say it in not predictable even in principle. The two theories do not therefore make distinct predictions.

However, if someone were to make a detailed and accurate prediction of human behavior, comparable to the predictions of astronomers, that would be evidence for determinism and against free will. The more specific the prediction, the stronger the evidence (though, again, we cannot assess exactly how strong).

Prophecies like those featured in Greek tragedy would be relatively weak evidence against free will. One gets the impression that Oedipus and his parents were free to do many different things, but that some unseen power was seeing to it that, whatever they chose to do, the final result would be the same. (It could be compared to a chess master’s prediction that, whatever his novice opponent may choose to do, the master will still win in the end.) Much stronger evidence can be found in the Gospels, where Jesus says to Peter, “Before the cock crow twice, thou shalt deny me thrice” — and then, despite knowing the prophecy and being unwilling to do any such thing, Peter proceeds to fulfill it. If the story is true, it offers strong evidence against free will, since specific details of Peter’s behavior (which Peter, apparently erroneously, believed were under his control) were successfully predicted. No wonder the poor devil “went out and wept bitterly” at this revelation that he was, despite appearances, a robot!


What, then, would count as evidence for free will? Well, any failed prediction of human behavior. Granted, that seems like a very strange thing to say. If I am unsuccessful in predicting the behavior of a given system, that doesn’t mean the system isn’t governed by rules — it just means it isn’t governed by the particular rules I thought it was governed by. But, logically, that is evidence (very weak evidence) that it isn’t rule-governed at all — just as the fact that I wasn’t born on February 12 is evidence that I wasn’t born in February at all.


The problem is that none of this evidence is at all quantifiable, so it remains impossible to say whether, on balance, there is more evidence for free will or against it. In the end, then, there’s still nothing to do but to make an assumption one way or the other.


Filed under Philosophy

Title suggestions for Gregory Clark’s next book

UC Davis economics professor Gregory Clark is the author of A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World (2009) and The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility (2014).

For his next book, I offer the following title suggestions absolutely free of charge:

  • The Old Man and the See: The Graying of America’s Catholic Population
  • Green Hells of Africa: How Environmentalism Fuels Third-World Violence
  • Islands in the Steam: A Study of 19th-Century Amish Communities
  • A Moveable Beast: How Dog Domestication Went Global

Further suggestions are welcome in the comments.


Filed under Silliness

Life, or knowledge of good and evil: choose one

There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.

— Proverbs 14:12 (and 16:25)

The upshot of my discussion (qv) of Bruce Charlton’s argument against atheism is that, yes, it is very likely a pathological belief — but that we cannot therefore write it off as a delusion. It is pathological not because it misrepresents reality, but because (like most religions) it fails to provide the artificial motives which are necessary in order to induce human populations to reproduce themselves under modern conditions. Humans, like many zoo animals, don’t breed well “in captivity” (i.e., in an unnatural and evolutionarily novel environment), and most belief systems, including all known atheistic ones, fail to cure that problem.

Only a handful of belief systems (the most prominent being Mormonism) qualify as non-pathological under modern conditions. The problem is that, by ordinary standards of evidence, these belief systems just don’t seem to be true. For Dr. Charlton, Mormonism’s effectiveness as an antidote to the modern pathology of voluntary infertility is evidence for its truth. However, the pathology is not essentially about incorrect beliefs, but about the inadequacy of evolved motives to induce reproduction under evolutionarily novel conditions. If certain forms of theism can cure that pathology, this is not evidence that they are true, but only that they are expedient under modern conditions. (The pathology will correct itself in any case, either by evolutionary changes in human nature or by the collapse of modernity — most likely the latter. However, if we want to continue to be both modern and human — and we do — it would certainly be expedient to convert to Mormonism or something similar.)

So, we find ourselves in the dilemma described in Proverbs: The beliefs that seem right lead to death; the beliefs that will save us seem wrong. If we — not we individuals, but we cultures, we nations, kindreds, tongues, and peoples — choose to die for what we believe (or disbelieve), is that heroic or just stupid? The Christian answer is clear: If your eyes cause you to fall, pluck them out; better to enter into life blind than to perish outright.


The writer who addresses this dilemma most explicitly is Friedrich Nietzsche. I hadn’t read Beyond Good and Evil since I was a child, but a couple of days ago I felt a sudden urge to reread it (in Marianne Cowan’s English translation). By “coincidence,” I found that passage after passage tied into the train of thought triggered by Dr. Charlton’s post.

Here is section 4 of Beyond Good and Evil, which states the dilemma in the clearest possible terms:

The falseness of a given judgment does not constitute an objection against it, so far as we are concerned. It is perhaps in this respect that our new language sounds strangest. The real question is how far a judgment furthers and maintains life, preserves a given type, possibly cultivates and trains a given type. We are, in fact, fundamentally inclined to maintain that the falsest judgments (to which belong the synthetic a priori judgments) are the most indispensable to us, that man cannot live without accepting the logical fictions as valid, without measuring reality against the purely invented world of the absolute, the immutable, without constantly falsifying the world by means of numeration. That getting along without false judgments would amount to getting along without life, negating life. To admit untruth as a necessary condition of life: this implies, to be sure, a perilous resistance against customary value-feelings. A philosophy that risks it nonetheless, if it did nothing else, would by this alone have taken its stand beyond good and evil.

People will call this nihilism, but of course it is not. Nietzsche is not saying that nothing matters; he is saying that life matters — that it matters more than truth itself, and that any judgment, be it never so “true,” which stands in the way of life must be sacrificed. I myself have already taken a step down the Nietzschean path by choosing to accept the doctrine of free will — despite the fact that I know it to be logically self-contradictory — because it seems pragmatically necessary for life. Nietzsche forces us to face the uncomfortable fact that to think this way — to accept untrue or probably-untrue beliefs because they “further life” — is to “take a stand beyond good and evil.”

Essentially all modern Christians do this, and will generally admit to doing it if pressed. In the faith even of one who professes to “know beyond a shadow of a doubt” there lurks an element of Pascal’s Wager, of freely choosing beliefs which seem expedient rather than being compelled by adequate evidence. No Christian thinks of this as a Nietzschean move, or as being “beyond good and evil.” (Christians generally dislike Nietzsche, perhaps because he shines too bright a light on them.)

But this choosing to accept false beliefs is not a uniquely religious phenomenon. As Nietzsche says, everyone does it — because it is literally necessary for life — but some are more honest than others about it. Atheists are generally the least honest, Christians a great deal more so — but they still fall short of the unblinking, spade-calling candor of Nietzsche himself.


But perhaps one of our necessary, life-furthering delusions is the belief that no delusion is necessary or life-furthering. There is an obvious element of paradox in being so honest about our need for self-deception, in insisting on the important truth that truth is not the most important thing. Nietzsche’s paradoxical insistence that, while truth is of secondary importance, honesty is essential, is perhaps best understood in light of the above quotation. ” The real question” is not only “how far a judgment furthers and maintains life,” but also how far it “preserves a given type.” Nietzsche is not — though he seems at first glance to be — advocating a philosophy of “better a live dog than a dead lion.” “Type” — dog or lion — matters just as much as life, and as becomes clear later in Nietzsche’s book, the human type he wishes to preserve is one characterized by courage, and by the candor which comes with courage.

What tempts us to look at all philosophers half suspiciously and half mockingly is not so much that we recognize again and again how innocent they are, how often and how easily they make mistakes and lose their way, in short their childishness and childlike-ness — but rather that they are not sufficiently candid, though they make a great virtuous noisy to-do as soon as the problem of truthfulness is even remotely touched upon. Every one of them pretends that he has discovered and reached his opinions through the self-development of cold, pure, divinely untroubled dialectic (in distinction to the mystics of every rank who, more honest and fatuous, talk about “inspiration”), whereas, at bottom, . . . a heart’s desire, made abstract and refined, is defended by them with arguments sought after the fact. They are all of them lawyers (though wanting to be called anything but that), and for the most part quite sly defenders of their prejudices, which they christen “truths” — very far removed they are from the courageous conscience which admits precisely this; very remote from the courageous good taste which makes sure that others understand. (from Beyond Good and Evil, Section 5)

The problem is that the stance Nietzsche is advocating — embracing “life-furthering” beliefs rather than true ones, expedience rather than principle — is hardly one that we would normally associate with courage. The courageous stance is the one expressed by Arthur Hugh Clough: “It fortifies my soul to know / That, though I perish, Truth is so” — compared with which Nietzsche’s own position seems more like a craven selling-out.

Truth, however, is not the only principle for which one can courageously take a stand. As becomes clear in the next (i.e., the sixth) section of Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche’s courageous man exhibits fealty not to the impersonal “truth” but to his own personal “moral intentions.”

Gradually I have come to realize what every great philosophy up to now has been: the personal confession of its originator, a type of involuntary and unaware memoirs; also that the moral (or amoral) intentions of each philosophy constitute the protoplasm from which each entire plant has grown. Indeed, one will do well (and wisely), if one wishes to explain to himself how on earth the more remote metaphysical assertions of a philosopher ever arose, to ask each time: What sort of morality is this (is he) aiming at? . . . there is nothing impersonal whatever in a philosopher. And particularly his morality testifies decidedly and decisively as to who he is — that is, what order of rank the innermost desires of his nature occupy.

The courageous man, then, is one who wishes to live a particular kind of life and who orders his beliefs so as to further that goal — both in terms of staying alive and in terms of living by that particular morality.


This is ultimately unsatisfying, though. If there is no bedrock of objective truth — or if there is, but we choose to ignore it as irrelevant — then none of these supposedly “heroic” choices people are making really mean anything. A man’s chosen morality “testifies decidedly and decisively as to who he is,” says Nietzsche, making it sound terribly momentous — but without some fixed standard of real morality grounded in actual truth, “who he is” is just a bit of meaningless trivia; preferring morality A to morality B is no more significant than preferring chocolate over strawberry ice cream. There can be no real courage or heroism without something objective in which to ground it.

Even Nietzsche seems to see this at times. Much later in Beyond Good and Evil (section 39) he appears to backtrack from his earlier position and to stress the importance of truth — truth at all costs, even if knowing the truth should result in vice, misery, and death.

No one very easily takes a doctrine as true because it makes one happy or virtuous. . . . Happiness and virtue are not arguments. But we like to forget — even sensible thinkers do — that things making for unhappiness or for evil are not counter-arguments, either. Something might be true, even though it is harmful and dangerous in the greatest degree; it might in fact belong to the basic make-up of things that one should perish from its full recognition. Then the strength of a given thinker would be measured by the amount of “the truth” that he could stand.


Ultimately, the only humanly acceptable state of affairs is one in which we don’t need to make such trade-offs — one in which truth, life, virtue, and happiness are all mutually compatible. The only acceptable way in which to live is in the faith that that is indeed true: that the Good is a unitary thing which can be pursued in its entirety, without the need to permanently sacrifice one aspect of it to another.

Even that faith cannot obviate the need to make tough choices between truth and life, though, since they often seem to be incompatible. Do we embrace beliefs that seem true, in the faith that they will ultimately turn out to be life-sustaining as well; or do we choose beliefs that seem expedient, in the faith that they will turn out to be true?


Filed under Ethics, Philosophy

Why Waite switched Justice and Strength

I was recently browsing in a second-hand bookstore and happened upon Seventy-eight Degrees of Wisdom, Part I: The Major Arcana — a commentary on the symbolism of tarot cards by Rachel Pollack.

The book deals primarily with the popular Rider-Waite deck but makes frequent references to other versions of the tarot. One of Waite’s major innovations (which was also followed by other Golden Dawn-influenced tarotists) was to make Strength the 8th card and Justice the 11th, reversing the traditional Marseilles numbering of those two trumps. Pollack devotes some space to a discussion of Waite’s reasons for making the change, and of the relative merits of the two numbering systems — but never mentions what I feel quite sure was Waite’s real motive for switching Justice and Strength. Since it seems not many people know about this, I thought I might as well post on it.


One of the most basic assumptions most occultists make is that, given any two sufficiently interesting sets of the same cardinality, there must be a one-to-one correspondence between their respective members. There are four suits of tarot cards, for example, so these must correspond to the four classical elements, the four cardinal directions, the four seasons of the year, and any other interesting foursomes you care to think of. “Tables of correspondences” were a huge thing among Golden Dawn types.

Well, if the Fool card is lumped together with the 21 trumps, that makes a total of 22 “major arcana.” Since there also happen to be 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet (and since that alphabet has been given great mystical significance by the Kabbalists), a one-to-one correspondence between the cards and the letters can be assumed.

Since there are not too many sets of 22, and since correspondences are the heart of the occult, the Kabbalists broke up their 22-letter alphabet into three smaller and more “significant” numbers: 3 + 7 + 12. Seven of the Hebrew letters are considered “doubles” because each has two sounds (aspirated and unaspirated); of the remaining 15, three (aleph, mem, and shin) are designated “mothers” for reasons which are not clear to me, and the remaining 12 are “singles.”

An appendix to the Sepher Yetzirah lays out astrological correspondences for each of these subsets of the Hebrew alphabet. The three “mothers” correspond to the earth, made from water; the firmament or air; and the heavens, made from fire. (We think of “firmament” and “heavens” as synonyms now; in the past, the latter was a solid vault, and the former was the empty expanse between it and earth.) The seven astrological “planets” (i.e., those planets visible with the naked eye, excluding Earth, plus the Sun and the Moon) are assigned to the seven “doubles,” though which is assigned to which seems arbitrary. Finally, the 12 “singles” are mapped in a straightforward way to the 12 signs of the zodiac: he, the first of the doubles, corresponds to Aries, the first sign of the zodiac; vau, the second double, is Taurus; and so on.

The Golden Dawn attempted to add the tarot trumps (plus the Fool) to this schema, assigning each card astrological correspondences by way of the Hebrew alphabet.


Before looking at the actual mappings decided on by the Golden Dawn, it might be instructive to look at the traditional Marseilles-style tarot trumps (on which Waite’s were based) and see which astrological correspondences would make the most intuitive sense.

Trumps and Fool from the Jodorowsky-Camoin deck, a

Trumps and Fool from the Jodorowsky-Camoin deck, a “restored” Tarot de Marseille

Starting with the seven astrological planets, obviously the Sun maps to the Sun, and the Moon to the Moon. Venus should be the Lovers, and Mars should be the Chariot (called “Victory” in older Italian decks). The Hermit was originally called the “Old Man” or “Time” and so of course maps to Saturn. Mercury, patron of tricksters and thieves, fits well with the Magician (clearly depicted here as a juggler or mountebank, not a genuine wizard; however, Hermes was later associated with “real” magic as well). The Emperor, with his throne and eagle, suggests Jupiter.

As for the twelve signs of the zodiac, only a few have obvious matches. The Star card clearly depicts Aquarius, the water bearer; and the Moon (if not mapped to, well, the Moon) is obviously Cancer. (The crayfish on the card doesn’t look like a “crab” to us moderns but is consistent with traditional depictions of Cancer. Historically, it is probably intended to represent Cancer, which is ruled by the Moon.) Likewise, if the Sun were not the Sun, it would obviously be Gemini. The lion of Leo appears on the Strength card, and the scales of Libra on Justice. Although the traditional tarot Devil is not goat-like, tradition nevertheless associates the devil with that animal and thus with Capricorn. The Lovers card is already taken by Venus, but it also features an archer — Sagittarius. The House of God could also be Sagittarius, since one of its oldest names is the “Arrow” (a reference to the lightning bolt). The remaining signs suggest no obvious mappings. Neither do the three “mothers,” which are too vague and abstract to find any clear echoes in tarot symbolism.


So, what mappings did the Golden Dawn actually make? Well, the Hebrew letters had an established sequence, as did the tarot trumps (though there was some historical variation in the latter), so that didn’t give them too much leeway. Aleph and the Magician map to the number 1, beth and the Papess to 2, etc., giving the following correspondences:

  • 1. Magician = Aleph = Firmament / Air
  • 2. Papess = Beth = Moon
  • 3. Empress = Gimel = Mars
  • 4. Emperor = Daleth = Sun
  • 5. Pope = He = Aries
  • 6. Lovers = Vau = Taurus
  • 7. Chariot = Zayin = Gemini
  • 8. Justice = Heth = Cancer
  • 9. Hermit = Teth = Leo
  • 10. Wheel of Fortune = Yodh = Virgo
  • 11. Strength = Kaph = Venus
  • 12. Hanged Man = Lamedh = Libra
  • 13. Death = Mem = Earth / Water
  • 14. Temperance = Nun = Scorpio
  • 15. Devil = Samekh = Sagittarius
  • 16. House of God = Ayin = Capricorn
  • 17. Star = Pe = Mercury
  • 18. Moon = Tsade = Aquarius
  • 19. Sun = Qoph = Pisces
  • 20. Judgment = Resh = Saturn
  • 21. World = Shin = Heavens / Fire
  • 0. Fool = Tau = Jupiter

As you can see, this schema doesn’t work very well. It features none of the intuitive matches discussed in the previous section, though a handful of the mappings — shown in bold above — do at least make some kind of sense. The Sun has always been associated with kingship and so matches the Emperor. The Pope, with his shepherd’s staff, makes sense as the ram — the leader of a flock of sheep. The Taurus-Lovers match is a bit of a stretch, but at least Taurus is ruled by the planet Venus. Probably the most satisfying aspect of this admittedly unsatisfying schema is that the three “mothers” map to three obviously “special” trumps — the Magician, Death, and the World.

Overall, though, the above schema was not accepted by the Golden Dawn. Instead they opted to jettison the strongest Tarot-Kabbalah link — namely numerology — and to associate the first trump with the second letter, the second trump with the third letter, and so on, as follows:

  • 0. Fool = Aleph = Firmament / Air
  • 1. Magician = Beth = Moon
  • 2. Papess (renamed “High Priestess”) = Gimel = Mars
  • 3. Empress = Daleth = Sun
  • 4. Emperor = He = Aries
  • 5. Pope (renamed “Hierophant”) = Vau = Taurus
  • 6. Lovers = Zayin = Gemini
  • 7. Chariot = Heth = Cancer
  • 8. Justice = Teth = Leo
  • 9. Hermit = Yodh = Virgo
  • 10. Wheel of Fortune = Kaph = Venus
  • 11. Strength = Lamedh = Libra
  • 12. Hanged Man = Mem = Earth / Water
  • 13. Death = Nun = Scorpio
  • 14. Temperance = Samekh = Sagittarius
  • 15. Devil = Ayin = Capricorn*
  • 16. House of God (renamed “Tower”) = Pe = Mercury
  • 17. Star = Tsade = Aquarius*
  • 18. Moon = Qoph = Pisces
  • 19. Sun = Resh = Saturn
  • 20. Judgment = Shin = Heavens / Fire
  • 21. World = Tau = Jupiter

This yields somewhat better matches. Two of the trumps — the Devil and the Star — even have the intuitive matches we discussed, and the others in bold above are at least somewhat intelligible. The nothing-card of the Fool (not even a proper trump) makes sense as aleph and air. The Moon, as Hecate, is patroness of sorcery. Scorpio, the most sinister sign, fits well with Death. The angel of Judgment comes from the heavens. (One might also consider Pope-Taurus a hit, if the pun on “papal bull” counts for anything.)

Notice that not a single one of the “doubles,” with the possible exception of Magician-Moon, is a good fit. But fortunately, as I mentioned above, the order of the seven planets as given in the Sepher Yetzirah seems entirely arbitrary, and so can be safely modified without doing any obvious violence to the system. The Golden Dawn reordered the planets as follows:

  • 1. Magician = Beth = Moon Mercury
  • 2. Papess (renamed “High Priestess”) = Gimel = Mars Moon
  • 3. Empress = Daleth = Sun Venus
  • 10. Wheel of Fortune = Kaph = Venus Jupiter
  • 16. House of God (renamed “Tower”) = Pe = Mercury Mars
  • 19. Sun = Resh = Saturn Sun
  • 21. World = Tau = Jupiter Saturn

Virtually all of these mappings are defensible. The Magician is Mercury — i.e. Thoth or Hermes Trismegistus. The two female figures are mapped to the two female planets — the virginal Papess to Diana, and the married Empress to Venus. The House of God, depicting a lightning bolt, might more appropriately have been mapped to Jupiter, but Mars works as well because of the martial connotations of a tower. The Sun of course is the Sun. The Jupiter and Saturn mappings are not exactly obvious, but neither do they seem obviously wrong.

With the above changes made, all the “mothers” and “doubles” are acceptable. That leaves the “singles” — the 12 signs of the zodiac. These unfortunately have a well-established non-arbitrary order and cannot be rearranged at will as the planets were. The order of the trumps themselves is slightly more flexible, though; the Marseilles ordering, though standard now (or before Waite, anyway), is only one of several ordering schemes which were used in the early days of  tarot. The order of the cards representing the cardinal virtues of Fortitude (Strength), Temperance, and Justice was particularly variable; the earliest known ordering (given in Sermones de ludo cum aliis), has Temperance as VI, Fortitude as IX, and Justice as XX, which is entirely different from the Marseilles sequence. Therefore, when Waite decided to switch Strength and Justice so that the Lion and Scales would map to their corresponding zodiac signs, he was not entirely without precedent.

It would have been nice if the Moon could somehow have been mapped to Cancer, which the card so explicitly illustrates, but breaking up the established sequence of Star, Moon, Sun — which is invariable in all known historical orderings of the cards — would have represented a much more serious and disruptive break with tradition. Also, the Pisces-Chariot mapping which would result from such a change has no obvious merits. Therefore, Waite made no changes other than swapping Justice and Strength.


Having come up with this reasonably-good mapping, Waite reinforced it by tweaking the iconography of the tarot to illustrate the new correspondences.

“Major Arcana” (trumps and Fool) from the Rider-Waite-Smith deck

Notice in particular the following changes:

  • The “High Priestess” (Papess) is now depicted as Isis, with a lunar headdress, and with the Moon under her feet.
  • The Empress’s shield, which formerly bore the imperial eagle, is now (it pains me to say) heart-shaped and bears the astrological sign for Venus.
  • The Emperor has also lost his eagle and now sits on a throne decorated with rams’ heads (for Aries). (Surprisingly, the Marseilles tradition of having the Emperor’s body form the alchemical sign for Sulfur has also been abandoned. Junking such a neat “correspondence” seems out of character for Waite and the GD.)
  • The Lovers has been totally redone. Instead of one man choosing between two women, it now shows Adam and Eve — a twosome suggesting Gemini.
  • Temperance now features iris flowers — suggesting the rainbow goddess Iris and thus Sagittarius.
  • The Devil is now portrayed as more goat-like, so as to suggest Capricorn.
  • The Gemini imagery has been removed from the Sun card. (Oddly, no corresponding change was made to Moon card, which still shouts “Cancer!” despite officially representing Pisces.)


All in all, I can think of very little good to say about Waite’s innovations, nearly all of which stem from this ham-handed attempt to force “correspondences” between two systems that were never meant to correspond, rather than from the internal logic of the tarot. If he really wanted a deck of cards depicting astrological concepts, he could have just made one, instead of messing up the tarot in this ultimately unsuccessful attempt to turn it into an astrological cipher. (His even more innovative handling of the pip cards is likewise a disappointment, but that is perhaps a subject for another post.)


Filed under Tarot

A review of The White Book

I read The White Book, by the pseudonymous Robert S. Oculus III, about a year ago, when Laura Wood was promoting it on her blog (qv). Since then I’ve been working on and off on these comments and wondering whether or not to publish them. Well, here they are.


Oculus makes a distinction between white and White. The peoples of Europe are of course white in a racial or biological sense — that is, they belong to a shared ancestry group originating on that continent and characterized by orthognathism, relatively pale skin, etc. — but they are not to be considered ethnically White. Rather, they have more specific ethnic identities; they are Englishmen, Russians, Spaniards, Belgians, Latvians, and so on. Most white Americans, on the other hand, and just plain White — descended from one or more of the white European peoples, but no longer really a member of any of those ancestral groups. My ancestors came from England, Germany, and the Ukraine, but I am not an Englishman, a German, or a Ukrainian — just as a modern Englishman is not really an Angle, a Saxon, a Jute, a Celt, a Norman, or a Dane. He may be primarily descended from one of those peoples, of course, and may even be aware of and proud of that heritage — but in practice, he’s just English; and white Americans are just White. (The same is true to varying degrees in the other countries of the European diaspora, but in practice Oculus focuses on America, and so shall I.)

Although Oculus does not develop the point, something very similar is true of American blacks. Their ancestors belonged to specific African ethnic groups, but they themselves are no longer ethnically Hausa or Fula or Igbo or Yoruba or whatever; they’re just Black. These two ethnic groups — Black and White, African-American and European-American — are the main peoples that can be called simply “American.” (Of course various indigenous tribes also qualify, but these groups are much smaller. The White:Black:Navajo ratio is 672:129:1.) The others — Mexican-Americans, Chinese-Americans, etc. — still have clear ethnic ties to non-American groups, and their hyphenated names are appropriate; but Blacks and Whites are Americans in the same simple sense that an ethnic Frenchman (as opposed to, say, a French citizen of Maghrebi origin) is French.


Blacks in America generally self-identify as Black, participate in a Black culture which is openly and explicitly Black, may support the idea of “Black pride,” refer to other Blacks as their brothers and sisters, etc. — but White Americans do none of these things — generally can do none of these things without feeling like horrible people. The following passage from Oculus’s book drives home just how deeply rooted this aversion to White racial identity is:

Say it out loud: “I am a human being, but I am not just any human being. I am a white person. I am a member of the white race.”

Can’t do it, can you?

Do these words scare you? Do you feel like a bad person just for reading them? Do you think I am evil for writing them down, or even thinking them?

It’s okay if you do. You have been trained to feel that way. You have been trained not only to hate what you are, but to deny that you even exist.

This is absolutely true — and absolutely astonishing, when you think about it. Even I, who am generally quite open-minded about such things and pride myself on not being a slave to goodthink, feel somewhat uncomfortable quoting these words or even reading them — but why? What is there in them to be ashamed of? Do they say “white people are better than other people” or “I hate members of other races”? They are a simple assertion that there is such a thing as the white race and that I am a member of it. They ought by all rights to be received as an obvious and completely value-neutral statement of fact. Notice also how completely inoffensive they become if you replace every instance of “white” with “black.”

What is the explanation for this? Is it because we feel that the white race is uniquely evil, and that to acknowledge one’s membership in it is shameful? Or, conversely, perhaps it is because it is so good to be white — because the white peoples are among the most accomplished and “privileged” on the planet, and so to make a point of one’s whiteness is bad form, in the nature of gloating? Or perhaps the problem is simply that whites are a majority in America, so that when I say “I am White” rather than “I am American,” the people I am excluding from my in-group are more salient than those I am including; it sounds less like a statement of camaraderie (“Tom and Bob are my good buddies”) than like a mean-spirited rejection of others (“I’m friends with everyone here except Pete”). Of course, whites in white-minority areas like Los Angeles presumably aren’t supposed to identify as white either, so that can’t be the whole explanation.

At any rate, whatever the reason for the current state of affairs, Oculus wants to change it. The purpose of his book is to encourage capitalized-Whites (that is, all non-Europeans of European ancestry) to self-identify as such and to promote their interests as a people, just as most other peoples in the world do. He even proposes a “flag of the White race” (azure, a snowflake argent; certainly better than the current de facto White flag, which is — well, a white flag). This idea of a pan-White identity, including all the peoples of the European diaspora but excluding Europeans proper, seems forced and unrealistic to me. Non-European Whites as such are not a coherent ethnicity; a White American typically has far more in common with an Englishman or a Black American than with an Argentinian or an Afrikaner. White Americans represent an actual ethnicity (or perhaps a closely related cluster of ethnicities), and Oculus would have done better to focus on this more limited group. (As I’ve said, in practice he does focus on Americans; the pan-White stuff is superfluous and could easily be cut out.)


Perhaps in part because of his overly broad definition of “White,” Oculus struggles when it comes to describing what White culture is all about. He rejects the idea of America as a “proposition nation” defined solely by the abstract ideas laid out in the Constitution, insisting instead that any real nation must be firmly rooted in race and culture. But he then proceeds to define White culture in terms even more abstract than those he is criticizing. Whites care about order. They work hard. They respect rules. They don’t cut in line. They have a moral code. In other words, basically, “White” means “civilized.” I understand that Oculus is trying to instill a sense of White pride by focusing on objectively good things — but still, defining a culture in this way is outrageous. First of all, the idea that a culture can be defined at all, especially in terms of abstract principles, brings us right back to the “proposition nation” idea that Oculus is supposedly against. Culture is not simply an ideology; it has to be organic and particularistic. It can be, so to speak, motherhood and apple pie, (i.e. abstract principles plus historically contingent features), but just motherhood isn’t enough. A more serious problem is that the things Oculus identifies as “White” — order and fair play and so on — are universal goods to which every race and culture ought to aspire (though of course not every group will be equally successful in so doing). When Oculus identifies White culture simply with being civilized, his implied message to non-Whites is that not being civilized is an essential part of their culture — which they should presumably cherish and protect as much as Whites should theirs.

Oculus states repeatedly that he bears no hatred or hostility toward any other race, but he nevertheless does show contempt for blacks, sometimes in very crude and dehumanizing terms (using phrases like “dat ape-like thing dey does”). Now not everyone likes everyone else, and he certainly has a right to dislike black people if he wants, but it does undercut the main thrust of The White Book, which is to promote White identity and White pride as positive things and to distance them from the bigotry and racial hostility with which the popular mind associates them. I suppose Oculus’s failing in this regard is unsurprising. In the current political climate, with its extreme demonization of anything deemed “racist,” you need a very strong motive to write something as radioactive as The White Book — and negative feelings of anger and hostility tend to motivate more strongly than love and loyalty alone. It is nevertheless unfortunate, though, and one wishes that Oculus could have risen above whatever personal antipathies he may feel toward other races. (That such a thing is possible is demonstrated by the example of Steve Sailer, a “racialist” writer who obviously likes black people a great deal, and even more so by the late Lawrence Auster. Martin Luther King — as opposed to, say, Malcolm X — is a good example from the other side.)

Despite occasional slip-ups, Oculus does make an effort to show respect for all races and to distance himself from so-called white supremacism. It is perhaps this effort which motivates him to write, with the best of intentions, that there is no one “master race” because “each race is the master race in its ancestral environment” — which is, unfortunately, baloney. If the phrase “master race” has any meaning at all, we can hardly be expected to accept it as an accurate description of the current status of, say, the Native Americans in North America or the Aborigines in Australia. Remember, too, that Oculus has defined the White race to include only people who do not live in their ancestral environment — but he of course makes no appeal to White Americans to submit to their rightful “masters,” the Indians. All in all, Oculus’s whole treatment of the “master race” idea is awkward and unsatisfactory, and he would have been better off just leaving it alone. Racial loyalty does not require such a concept, not even a “nuanced” one, any more than family loyalty requires the idea of one “master family.” (As Oculus himself points out several times, a race just is a family, and love of race is love of family.)


Oculus’s treatment of the issue of racial segregation versus integration is also, I think, naïve. His basic position is that if freedom of association is restored — that is, if people are given the freedom to hire, do business with, and associate with whomever they choose — then the resegregation of America will happen naturally because that’s what most people of all races really want. Whites like to associate with other Whites, Blacks with other Blacks, Chinese with other Chinese, and so on; simply allow them to do so, and our problems will be solved.

But that’s obviously not true. Under the current system, no one is forcing Blacks to move into White neighborhoods (or Mexicans to move into America, Chinese to go to WASP schools, etc.), but they do it anyway — probably because White neighborhoods and countries and schools are so often the “good” neighborhoods and countries and schools.

The “freedom” Oculus is advocating is essentially the freedom of Whites to keep out Blacks (and others) who want to move in — so by definition it does not result in “what everyone wants.” In fact, freedom of association is not such a clear-cut concept. If A want to join B’s club (company, school, neighborhood, country, etc.) but B doesn’t want him to join, whose “freedom of association” should the law protect? I’d say B’s, because it’s his club, and I’m sure Oculus would agree — but we shouldn’t pretend that such a policy is giving A what he wants.

It’s a hard fact to face, but the truth is that segregation is good for Whites and integration is good for Blacks — and the law must support the one or the other. Either it supports segregation by saying I have a right to keep you out of my club even if you want to join, or it supports integration by saying you have a right to join even if I want to keep you out. No neutral policy is possible — and therefore, since Blacks who want to join White-run “clubs” vastly outnumber Whites who want to join Black-run clubs, no racially neutral policy is possible. Any policy adopted will be, de facto, either pro-White or pro-Black. Disparate impact of one kind or another is unavoidable. Now no one on either side wants to hear that. Having been indoctrinated into the idea that “racism” is the worst possible evil, no one wants to admit that their preferred policy amounts to favoring the interests of Race X over those of Race Y — but that is nevertheless the way it is, and honest people have to come to grips with it.


Closely related to the idea of segregation is that of the “ethnostate,” which Oculus supports. His main interest is naturally in pushing for the creation of a White ethnostate in America, but he welcomes other races to do the same.

I should make it clear that Oculus’s idea of an ethnostate is not that of a monoracial state where other races are not welcome. Rather, his model ethnostate is Israel — including several different racial and religious groups, but existing for the purpose of serving the interests of one of them. Non-Whites and non-Christians would be welcome in his imagined White ethnostate, but they would have to accept that the state’s policies would be calculated to favor White Christian interests over those of other races and religions — as opposed to the current policies of the United States, which, under the guise of an impossible “neutrality,” serve the interests of racial minorities and the irreligious at the expense of those of White Christians.

(By the way, the suggestion that other racial groups in America could form their own ethnostates only serves to underscore the fact that segregation is not “what everyone wants.” White Americans may well dream of an ethnostate that recreates Europe — or what Europe used to be — in the New World, but no American Black in his right mind would want to recreate Africa! Oculus even suggests that “a Latino ethnostate might arise” in North America — but we already have one, Mexico, and a full third of its citizens state that they would move to the U.S. if they could.)

Anyway, being sensitive to the needs of other American races to have countries of their own, Oculus does not propose converting the entire United States into a White ethnostate. Rather, he suggests that states or blocs of states might secede from the Union to form ethnostates of various characters; and his suggested White ethnostate is, incredibly — Dixie! — i.e., the most heavily Black part of the entire country. (And where’s the Black ethnostate supposed to be? New Hampshire?) If these ethnostates are meant to be patterned after Israel, this one will come already stocked with a generous population of angry “Palestinians.”


It’s easy to criticize Oculus’s various proposals, but more important than any of the solutions he proposes is the problem he recognizes. To repeat, “Say it out loud: ‘I am a human being, but I am not just any human being. I am a white person. I am a member of the white race.’ Can’t do it, can you?” So long as we can’t do that — so long as we feel vaguely “evil” for even reading those words — we have a serious problem. Your race is your extended family; loving your race is loving your family; disowning it, ditto. Determining what actions and policies should follow from those principles is a difficult business, but the principles themselves are irreproachable.

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Filed under America, Politics, Race