Dear Prudence

As you might expect, tarot, given its figurative and symbolic trumps, ends up encapsulating a lot of the culture in early Renaissance Europe. And one of the things that tarot almost has is the Four Cardinal Virtues. These are four virtues that all others rest on, popularized originally by Plato and incorporated into the writings of many Christian scholars afterwards.

These virtues are Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance. And, as you can see, three of those are found in nearly every tarot deck. So what happened to Prudence? And if you want your tarot deck to include it now, what can you do?

The Virtues

So, four virtues, one missing — what are they, anyway? The basic idea is that if these four personality traits are cultivated, everything else that’s good and virtuous will follow. So, for example, Plato makes the point that bravery without prudence is just foolhardiness — and that what bravery really is, is just fortitude allowing one to act in times of hardship. Justice is, I think, clear-sightedness, fortitude is strength and endurance, and temperance is self-control. However, prudence is also both self-control and clear-sightedness. This isn’t a problem with the scheme, just in the way I relate to it. But — and this is a big speculative but — I sort of wonder if that’s why Prudence didn’t make it in. I can’t be the only person who thinks Prudence is sort of a catch-all covering most of the others. But I’m not a Renaissance scholar, so I can’t tell you with any degree of certainty if that was a thing in the popular culture of the time.

But what I can tell you from the writings of tarot scholars is that Prudence could be in the deck in a number of places, misnamed or disguised or something. And whether or not it’s really true that the designer of the early tarot trumps intended one of these cards to "really be Prudence," if you want the tarot to be a book with images for everything in the world, you’ll need to find a place to put Prudence. And one of these might work!


I’m leading with what I consider the strangest example, but it makes a great deal of sense within the Platonic/Aristotlean model. Plato also writes about the need for the mind and soul to govern two diametrically opposed forces: one that wishes to pursue virtue, and one that wishes to ignore it or to pursue vice. While of course one would want to go after virtue and ignore the other, one can’t. You have to control both, which means that ultimately we chart a middle course between the two, hopefully getting as close to virtue as possible, but understanding that there’s simply stuff our body needs and that our soul enjoys that we aren’t going to successfully do without.

And Plato uses the image of a charioteer to drive this point home. So it’s possible to read the Chariot as Prudence if you consider the two horses — or other creatures, depending on the deck — as the two impulses of the soul. This argument comes from the work of Jean-Michel David.

#The Hanged Man This is probably the one that makes the least sense, but it’s not totally off the wall. Court de Gebelin argued that the Hanged Man was originally meant to be portrayed right side up, and not be "hanged" at all, but simply standing with one foot raised, carefully considering their next step — and, therefore, was Prudence, the missing virtue.

You can kind of squint and see it, if you read the Hanged Man as the need for patience, which many of us do, right? The argument that the card was supposed to be inverted doesn’t make sense, but after Court de Gebelin, and in some cases before, many artists took this into account, either depicting the man as less troubled by his plight on purpose or, in some cases, inverting the card. THe Vieville tarot was made around 1650, long before Gebein’s essay, and does depict the Hanged Man card upside down — however, quite famously, a number of the Vieville’s trumps are flipped horizontally too, and most scholars tend to believe there was just an error in carving the blocks for the deck. You’d never know if most of the pips were flipped or inverted, right? But also, most of the cards are flipped horizontally, not vertically.

If you use the elemental schema or the mother letter assignments, the Hanged Man is the card of elemental water — so that could also allow the card to be thoughtful, reflective Prudence. Though, in the end, this is the least convincing, as I said above, partly because it’s so different from everything we know about The Traitor and also because Prudence requires not only careful thought but action. The prudent person not only thinks about when to act, they also act immediately when the time is right. The Hanged Man doesn’t look like that’s happening anytime soon.

This argument is in Court de Gebelin’s essay, which is available in translation in a few places, including David Vine’s Vintage Tarot Texts v1 and Donald Tyson’s Essential Tarot Writings. I recommend the former wholeheartedly, but I think it’s only available via import from Europe.

The Hermit

This is the first possibility I ran across myself, and I wonder if that’s why I tend to think this is probably the best bet, at least for pragmatic use — with one possibility to follow. I should say I tend to feel personally this is the best option in the trumps.

It also sort of makes sense, right? It’s a depiction of a wise old man, carrying a lantern, sometimes even though it’s clearly daylight. It seems to be about deliberative vision, and some decks titled this card the "Capuchin," tying it directly to monks, and we’d probably like to think they’re prudent enough.

This card is also associated with Virgo, and that’s the "reason" I have for preferring it over the other two (as opposed to an accident of when I encountered each idea, I mean).

8 of Disks

This is an odd one for sure, but in the line of tradition started by Crowley, the 8 of Disks is called "Prudence." If you consider the card as the careful practice necessary to master a skill, you can kind of see it, but as with the Hanged Man above, a prudent person also acts when the time is right. The 8 of Disks seems to say you have plenty of time for practice. In a sense it’s the lead up time to the prudent moment, I suppose — but then, all the minors are slices of time, we could say, as opposed to the metaphysical themes and building blocks of the world that the trumps represent.

Prudently Covering My Ass

I don’t actually have a "right answer" here. Prudence simply is not in a tarot deck. She appears in the Minchiate, and even in Etteilla’s version of the tarot, but not in any traditional tarot sets we have. Individual contemporary artists might make a card into Prudence, but if we don’t have that option we’re left with a few others. Either we designate a card to be Prudence like the attempts I’ve summed up here or we decide that it’s not in the deck at all. And why not?

Think of de Gebelin’s idea of Prudence as a person carefully weighing options, one foot in the air. Couldn’t we say that the image of Prudence is a person sitting at a table, looking at a series of cards that represents the options available? The act of reading itself is prudent. Perhaps we should be saying a prayer to Prudence as we begin to read, and expect them to take a seat at the table, rather than appear on the table itself.

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