There is a premise in esoteric philosophy that envelopes the entire field of Hermetic theory: the “Descent of Spirit into Matter.” This key concept underlies the principle of spiritual “adaptation” (as described in the Emerald Tablet) that links the “above” to the “below,” mediating between the most subtle regions (the Divine) and the grossest (the Mundane) through a series of gradually reifying “emanations.” It is usually couched in religious terms (the Soul, for one), but it may be nothing more than the ineffable nature of the physical Universe as we (don’t yet) know it. Spinoza seems to have been onto something with pantheism, although his language retained much of the flavor of conventional theology. The idea of an “immanent” (indwelling), impersonal, spiritual presence or “god-force” that resides in all things, whether animate or inanimate, squares nicely with that of the Hermetic Qabalists who held that elemental energy emanates from Above – a boundless expanse of primordial “nothingness,” yet charged with potential similar to that across the positive and negative poles of a car battery, an incipient state of “becoming” which Aleister Crowley said “must be comprehended as necessarily possessing a phase of manifestation.” This numinous force invests matter in various proportions according to its degree of evolution “on the planes.” For convenience, this energy was categorized according to the four primal elements of Empedocles: Fire, Water, Air and Earth, with each one having a “world” to itself and contributing a different mode of expression to the mix: assertive, accommodating, calculating or pragmatic, respectively.
In The Book of Thoth, Crowley frequently emphasized the point that this energy originates in a very pure form and then slowly sheds its pristine simplicity as it becomes enmeshed in material existence. Of the 9 of Disks, which is very near the bottom of the entire chain of elemental evolution, he said: “As a general remark, one may say that the multiplication of a symbol of Energy tends to degrade its essential meaning, as well as to complicate it.” This can be seen throughout the minor cards of the Thoth deck, with the Aces as the latent or embryonic “root” of the energy, the Twos as the most dynamic of the lot and the Tens as the most lethargic. Each card in the series represents a step down in vigor and singularity of purpose as the energy ramifies and coarsens.
The best way I have found to augment my understanding of these ideas is through application of the esoteric number theory of Pythagoras, with its geometric symbolism: the Point (Ace), the Line (2), the Plane or Triangle (3), the Square (and, by projection, the Cube) (4), the Pentagon, obliquely symbolic of Time and Motion as demonstrative of the pentahedron (5), the Hexagon (6), the Heptagon (7), the Octagon (8), the Nonagon (9), the Decagon (10) and their associated polyhedral solids. However, in practical terms this model tends to decline in utility after the Four; the Qabalistic Tree of Life as used in Western Hermeticism takes a more mystical, less dryly academic approach that treats the gradual elaboration (Crowley’s “multiplication and complication”) of the Monad as an organic process, evolving from static quiescence through several stages of active transformation and returning to rest “on a lower arc” (that is, at a more prosaic level of existence). In this sense it becomes very easy to see the Aces as bursting with potential energy and the Tens nearing exhaustion as the “last gasp” of the elemental force, which – when interpreted within the context of the different elements – creates highly nuanced layers of meaning. The titles assigned to the minor cards by the Golden Dawn and later modified by Crowley made a reasonably valid stab at capturing these subtleties, as long as they are taken with a grain of salt. (I’m still trying to wrap my head around the idea of “shortened force” in the 8 of Swords; it seems to mean either a disciplined economy of force to fit the circumstances (“Don’t overreact!”), or an inability to act directly like the blindfolded and bound woman in Waite’s version (“Proceed with caution and don’t overthink, just follow your heart.”) I might have named it “Lord of Stymied Force” in keeping with the image, and Crowley did in fact re-title it “Interference.”