“Ars Longa, Vita Brevis”

Hippocrates was a physician who made this the opening statement in a medical text. The lines which follow: “The physician must not only be prepared to do what is right himself, but also to make the patient, the attendants, and externals cooperate.” Thus in plainer language “it takes a long time to acquire and perfect one’s expertise and one has but a short time in which to do it.” It can be interpreted as “art lasts forever, but artists die and are forgotten” (in this use sometimes rendered in the Greek order as “Life is short, Art eternal”), but most commonly it refers to how time limits our accomplishments in life. The late-medieval author Chaucer (c. 1343–1400) observed “The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne” (“The life so short, the craft so long to learn”, the first line of the Parlement of Foules). The first-century CE rabbi Tarfon is quoted as saying “The day is short, the labor vast, the workers lazy, the reward great, the Master urgent.”  (Quoted from the Wikipedia article, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ars_longa,_vita_brevis.)

Like most people, when I began learning the tarot in the early ’70s I read almost exclusively for myself and was in no hurry to do otherwise. I wasn’t seeking accurate predictions, I just wanted to learn how the system works and also to bring the cards to bear on the same avenues of psychological exploration I was using natal astrology for at that time. My main focus was esoteric rather than popular, so I wasn’t keen on building a public practice. I read occasionally for others, and even more rarely for pay, keeping a low profile most of the time and not expecting great things in that direction.

I went away from my esoteric pursuits for a few years, and when I returned I found that self-reading no longer offered me much in the way of meaningful character analysis. I discovered that tarot is more useful for gaining situational awareness and developmental insight about actions and events than for facilitating psychological self-understanding. In short, the predictive use of the cards – at least in examining emerging probabilities and tendencies within my sitter’s future – became of primary importance to me. I was slowly backing away from New Age self-help paradigms after having thoroughly embraced them in my 20’s, and gravitating toward older, more traditional methods of interpretation in all my divinatory practices. I became more results-oriented and less metaphysically besotted.

Two seminal events brought me to this realization: encountering traditional astrology at the feet of a master on the Aeclectic Tarot forum and subsequently adopting John Frawley’s horary system, and discovering Joseph Maxwell’s challenging book The Tarot, with its inspired numerological basis. A third motivator was taking up the art of geomancy as propounded by Henry Cornelius Agrippa, Stephen Skinner, Israel Regardie and John Michael Greer. At a later time I found my way to the Lenormand cards, again with capable on-line mentoring from Andy Boroveshengra and Mary K. Greer. Lenormand excels at analytical rather than intuitive interpretation since creative free-association from the imagery is of little practical value. I brought almost 40 years of tarot reading to the table, and jumped right in at the deep end with the Grand Tableau. The logical straightforwardness of the reading technique was enormously appealing to me.

Modern tarot writers encourage novice card-readers to pull one card a day as a way to learn the cards and to practice self-reading. This is fine as far as it goes, but there can be a tendency to impart too much literal significance to these meager pulls, resulting in disappointment and impatience when “instant proficiency” doesn’t  occur and nothing works out as predicted. Some readers keep this up for years, dutifully recording everything in a journal. I tried off-and-on for a while, but I ultimately found single-card draws to be uninspiring and largely sterile. There is no sense of movement or direction in them, making them more a statement of present reality (I use the term “daily tone”) than a tool for unlocking even the near-term future.

Maybe I also expect too much from them, but I have more productive ways to spend my limited time with the cards. When reading, no one card should have to (nor can it effectively) operate in a vacuum; the tarot as reformulated by the 19th-century occult revivalists is an intricately interactive philosophical device that, when properly understood and applied, leaves no loose ends to trim off or tuck back in. It is infinitely flexible, adaptable and subtle, and resists all attempts to reduce it to mental pabulum. As Aleister Crowley said, the cards are “living beings,” with all the complexity and relational nuance that implies; “making the externals cooperate” is the Artist’s goal. The Thoth deck, and in particular Crowley’s companion book, is a lifetime study, and I’m convinced more than one incarnation is necessary to thoroughly master the latter. Life may be fleeting, but the Art endures!

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