Drive Theory and the Suits of Tarot

by Barbara Moore

Anthony Louis’ Tarot Beyond the Basics is filled with really fascinating ideas, techniques, and practices. His application of drive theory to the four suits was particularly intriguing. Here’s what he says:

Psychologists love to invent theories about what motivates people. For Empedocles, the two basic drives existence are Love and Strife, which in astrology are embodied by the planets Venus and Mars respectively. Freud expressed a similar idea when he reduced human motivation to the two basic urges: libido (sex) and thanatos (the death instinct). Jung became fascinated with the four humors, based on the four elements, and came up with four fundamental personality types. Each psychologist has his or her own way of slicing the pie.

In tarot, the idea of viewing the four suits as four basic human drives is helpful in appreciating the significance of the cards. This understanding is rooted in ideas about the four elements and the four primary qualities. By way of review, “hot” and “cold” are active qualities that bring together things that are, respectively, alike or different. “Wet” and “dry” are passive qualities that indicate whether something conforms, respectively, to an outer structure or an inner ideal form. The drives represented by the four suits are morally neutral. Hence, philosophers linked each drive to a cardinal virtue. We might summarize them as follows:

Fire/Wands: the urge to create something new, expand our horizons, express our will, and infuse life into our plans and intentions. Wands do best to act with fortitude, displaying strength of purpose and courage in the face of adversity.

Water/Cups: the urge to mercy, to enjoy pleasure, to experience a sense of unity with others. Cups do best to at with temperance, displaying moderation and self-restraint in feelings and imagination.

Air/Swords: the urge to penetrate and to analyze dispassionately, to separate into distinct parts and perceive the connections between things. Swords do best to act with justice, displaying fairness in disputes and reasonableness when thoughts trouble their mind.

Earth/Pentacles: the urge to make tangible and enduring, to survive and provide security and sustenance. Pentacles do best to act with prudence, displaying discretion in practical affairs and good judgment in managing fiscal and physical health.


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