When Stability Goes Stale: A Study of the Fours and the Binary Paradigm

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This essay is a merger of two earlier posts on the subject of the number Four, in metaphysics generally and in the tarot specifically. It draws heavily on the numerological writing of French tarot writer Joseph Maxwell in his difficult but fascinating book The Tarot, and to a lesser extent on the geometrical mysticism presented by J.E. Cirlot in the “Graphics” section of A Dictionary of Symbols. It compares quotes from the three seminal works on the modern esoteric tarot, the Golden Dawn’s Liber T by S.L. “MacGregor” Mathers and others; the Pictorial Key to the Tarot by Arthur Edward Waite and The Book of Thoth by Aleister Crowley with my own interpretive assumptions.

My understanding has always been that Four is one of the “good” numbers: it is the doubling of the binary (Two), which is the root of conciliation and harmony, as well as the source of the term foursquare, which means “standing squarely and solidly.” It is synonymous with stability and anything in a steady-state condition. Where and how, then, does its negative side emerge? Joseph Maxwell said, in his book The Tarot, that all even numbers are passive and seek only to maintain the calm equilibrium inherent in their inertia; odd numbers, on the other hand, are active and implicitly unbalanced, constantly striving to regain their focus. One is restrained and the other assertive. Even numbers are therefore largely quiescent and court stagnation, and the Fours are arguably the most indolent of all, comprising as they do the culmination (and attenuation) of the “First Quaternary” and needing the “nut-cracker” or “can-opener” of the Fives to “let out the stale air” and jump-start them on the next leg of their evolution.

Because of the association with concrete structures and foundations that is conveyed by their expression as the “cube,” the Fours are the quintessential example of this solidity. Four is also the number of “law-and-order,” and as such it has a strong connection to the idea of “justice,” as will be seem in the graphic display below. Its tarot embodiment is the Emperor and in Hermetic terms it imparts the fortunate emphasis of astrological Jupiter, the “Greater Benefic” (think four-leaf-clover). Its doubling (at least in historical decks and the Thoth Tarot) occurs in Justice, the eighth trump card, while its multiplication by Five, an emblem of the disruptive power of Mars, produces Judgement ( Key 20), which is often viewed as an implacable and unavoidable enforcement of Cosmic Law. Both Justice and Judgement would seem to fall within the adjudicatory purview of the Emperor (the harsher flip-side of which can be seen in the numerological link between the Chariot and the Tower), so the extension seems logical.

The minor Fours all carry at least a whiff of inertia. The 4 of Wands is sometimes characterized as a “celebration,” but on closer inspection it looks like the people in the image are just idly promenading and making no attempt to leave the comfort of the castle grounds even though there is an open portal beckoning them. The 4 of Cups is the epitome of ennui (at least in the RWS version) and portrays a surfeit of rather somber emotion; the obviously bored (or weary) man can barely raise his hand to the proffered cup, and seems to be saying “Oh, God, not another one!” The 4 of Swords is placid in the extreme and is usually seen as a period of recuperation after struggle. The 4 of Pentacles seems to display intense paranoia about financial security, as if any amount of coin would not be enough. The Fours in the Thoth deck carry a somewhat different connotation: the 4 of Wands is titled “Completion” and conveys the idea of slightly premature satisfaction with what has been achieved; the 4 of Cups is titled “Luxury” and implies a certain wanton abandon, prefiguring the “Satiety” of the 10 of Cups; the 4 of Swords is titled “Truce” and is indicative of the need to compromise; and the 4 of Disks is titled “Power” and signifies “constant authority and vigilance” (in Crowley’s words) and makes me think of “holding the fort” against a siege; the implication seems to not so much conservation and preservation as an alert watchfulness in matters of security.

I explored these associations in more detail in my Tarot 101 study material:

The number Four expresses stability that is the result of entrenched inertia rather than the dynamic tension that steadies the Two; it is the initial fulfillment of the promise of the Ace, and presages the final state of completion in the Ten. Pythagoras observed that the power of the Ten lies within the Four because summing the numbers from One to Four (1+2+3+4) produces Ten. Like its binary root, the Two, Four is a balanced number that strives to maintain discipline within a well-defined space. The trump card numbered IV, the Emperor, embodies the “law and order” aspect of its manifestation as well as authority and government. Four suggests the foundation and four walls of a house or a fortress, and as such is conservative and defensive in contrast to the outbound adventurousness of the Three, which defies boundaries. While this can feel comfortably settled and reliable, it can also create a “brick wall” to further progress that must eventually be surmounted (or bulldozed) via the radical corrective impulse of the Five. General principles include solidification, stability, momentary fulfillment of purpose, brief rest before renewed effort.

In my previous post, “Number Theory in Action,” I noted that:

“A Four followed by a Five implies that the complacency of the Four is due for a shake-up as the chaotic energy of the Five bears down on it. In that sense, the Five is a necessary corrective for the stagnation of an elemental force that has reached the limit of its first expansive urge and stalled there, resistant to further growth.”

Four represents consolidation but it can also be anal to the point of constipation, as can be construed from the Waite-Smith 4 of Pentacles card. It shows firmness that too easily hardens into rigidity. There is also a hint of avoidance about it, of staying within one’s “comfort zone” and letting the world slide by. The Pink Floyd song “Comfortably Numb” offers a perfect analogy.

The Minor Arcana: Four of Wands

Titles:

The Lord of Perfected Work (Mathers); Completion (Crowley)

Astrological Correspondence:

Venus in Aries, 20° — 30°

Commentary:

Golden Dawn “Liber T” (S.L. Mathers):

“Perfection, a completion of a thing built up with trouble and labour. Rest after labour. Subtlety, cleverness, beauty, mirth, success in completion. Reasoning faculty, conclusions drawn from previous knowledge. Unreadiness, unreliable, and unsteady, through over anxiety and hurriedness of action. Graceful in manners. At times insincere, etc.”

The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (A.E. Waite):

“(The divinatory meaning) are for once almost on the surface — country life, haven of refuge, a species of domestic harvest-home, repose, concord, harmony, prosperity, peace, and the perfected work of these. Reversed: The meaning remains unaltered; it is prosperity, increase, felicity, beauty, embellishment.”

The Book of Thoth (Aleister Crowley)

(General) “In practice, it means solidification, materialization. Things have become manifest. The essential point is that it expresses the Rule of Law. Four is a dead stop, a blind alley. An idea of a totally different Order is necessary to carry on the series.”

(Specific) “In the Wand suit, the card is called Completion. The manifestation promised has now taken place. This number must be very solid, because it is the actual dominating influence on all the following cards. it is the Lord of all manifested active Power. The original Will of the Two has been transmitted through the Three, and is now built up into a solid system:-Order, Law, Government. It is also referred to Venus in Aries, which indicates that one cannot establish one’s work without tact and gentleness. There is no intention to increase the scope of the original Will. But this limitation bears in itself the seeds of disorder.”

Discussion:

Somewhere along the line, the RWS version of this card acquired the keyword “celebration,” probably because the two people in the foreground look joyously festive and there seems to be a party going on behind them. Waite deviates substantially from the Golden Dawn interpretation, retaining only the idea of “perfected work, but nowhere does he mention “celebration.” It always looked to me like the bouquet-bearing couple aren’t headed out through the garlanded portal, which would imply advancement to the next stage, but will just promenade around the castle grounds, heading back where they came from. This would be in keeping with the idea of the Four as a “closed loop” that places safety ahead of risk. It is the enjoyment of the known rather than the stimulation of the unknown that is pictured. In my opinion, it portrays the successful completion of an enterprise more than an extended period of bliss, a time to clear the books and close up shop. The Thoth 4 of Wands makes no bones about its circular nature, in which the Ram and the Dove square off but neither has the upper hand. The advice of this card is “enjoy it while it lasts,” because the happiness shown here will be short-lived. It reminds me of a bubble that stays intact through surface tension; it doesn’t take much pressure (from outside or within) to “burst the bubble.” It may be high summer, but as Aristotle said: “One swallow does not a summer make, nor one fine day; similarly one day or brief time of happiness does not make a person entirely happy” (or, in more prosaic terms, “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch”).

“Metaphorical euphemisms” for this card are” The ‘enlightened self-interest’ card (aka the ‘bring home the bacon’ card),” and a brief list of additional keywords includes short-lived stability, a brief rest after vigorous effort

The Minor Arcana: Four of Cups

Titles:

The Lord of Blended Pleasure (Mathers); Luxury (Crowley)

Astrological Correspondence:

Moon in Cancer, 20° — 30°

Commentary:

Golden Dawn “Liber T” (S.L. Mathers):

“Success or pleasure, approaching their end. A stationary period in happiness which may or may not continue. It does not show marriage and love so much as the previous symbol. It is too passive a symbol to represent perfectly complete happiness. Swiftness, hunting and pursuing. Acquisition by contention; injustice sometimes. Some drawbacks to pleasure implied.”

The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (A.E. Waite):

“Weariness, disgust, aversion, imaginary vexations, as if the wine of this world had caused satiety only; another wine, as if a fairy gift, is now offered the wastrel, but he sees no consolation therein. This is also a card of blended pleasure. Reversed: Novelty, presage, new instruction, new relations.”

The Book of Thoth (Aleister Crowley)

“Here, the energy of this element, although ordered, balanced and (for the moment) stabilized, has lost the original purity of the conception. The card refers to the Moon in Cancer, which is her own house; but Cancer itself is so placed that this implies a certain weakness, an abandonment to desire. This tends to introduce the seeds of decay into the fruit of pleasure. For although the number Four is the manifestation and consolidation of the dyad, it is also secretly preparing catastrophe by emphasizing individuality.”

Discussion:

I’ve never had a crystal-clear understanding of exactly what “blended pleasure” is, unless it’s something along the lines of Swinburn’s “pleasure with pain for leaven,” which sounds more than a little masochistic. (I did take a stab at deciphering it not long ago here:

https://parsifalswheeldivination.com/2020/08/15/pleasure-with-pain-for-leaven-blended-satisfaction/.)

The Golden Dawn’s “success or pleasure approaching their end” is one idea I can comprehend because it partakes of the impermanence that is evident in all of the Fours, conveying the bitterness that comes with realizing that the party is almost over. Crowley’s title “Luxury” implies creeping decadence and the self-indulgent prelude to a gout attack stemming from a too-rich diet. Look carefully at the Thoth 4 of Cups and you will see that there is no water spilling over from one to the other, a trademark of the previous cards; it is ripe for stagnation. Pamela Colman Smith’s image successfully captures the boredom that a lack of emotional stimulation can induce, although I find Waite’s text a bit too florid for such an apathetic state of mind.

The “metaphorical euphemism” for this card is “The ‘one big yawn’ card,” and additional keywords include strong feelings, sociability, rich living, stable happiness

The Minor Arcana: Four of Swords

Titles:

The Lord of Rest from Strife (Mathers); Truce (Crowley)

Astrological Correspondence:

Jupiter in Libra, 20° — 30°

Commentary:

Golden Dawn “Liber T” (S.L. Mathers):

“Rest from sorrow, yet after and through it. Peace from and after War. Relaxation of anxiety. Quietness, rest, ease and plenty, yet after struggle. Goods of this life, abundance. Modified by the dignity as in the other cases.”

The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (A.E. Waite):

“Vigilance, retreat, solitude, hermit’s repose, exile, tomb and coffin. It is these last that have suggested the design. Reversed: Wise administration, circumspection, economy, avarice, precaution, testament.”

The Book of Thoth (Aleister Crowley)

“The card proclaims the idea of authority in the intellectual world. It is the establishment of dogma, and law concerning it. It represents a refuge from mental chaos, chosen in an arbitrary manner. It argues for convention. Here, too, is compromise. Minds too indolent or too cowardly to think out their own problems hail joyfully this policy of appeasement. As always, the Four is the term; as in this case there is no true justification for repose, its disturbance by the Five holds no promise of advance.”

Discussion:

This is often read simply as a card of rest as reflected in the supine figure on the sarcophagus, but it is important to note the Golden Dawn’s assumption that such peace only comes after (and through) struggle. It is a post-combat state that implies licking one’s wounds, so the RWS image seems a little too inert and antiseptic. The military provision of “R&R” (rest and rehabilitation) for battle-weary warriors is apropos. Crowley takes it further into the idea of truce, a momentary cessation of hostilities when adversaries in a battle hold their positions but must still remain vigilant for incursions while their leaders parley. I see it more as a card of watchful inactivity than one of absolute peace-and-quiet, and agree with Crowley’s observation that there is no justification for repose. Truces are made to be broken if and when talks break down. It also suggests ignoring or “turning a blind eye” to the plain facts of a situation, invoking the Stanley Kubrick movie title “Eyes Wide Shut.”

“Metaphorical euphemisms” for this card are “The ‘pause that refreshes’ card (aka the ‘lying down and avoiding’ card”); a summary of useful concepts and keywords includes relief from anxiety, rest from strife, recovery and restoration.

The Minor Arcana: Four of Pentacles

Titles:

The Lord of Earthly Power (Mathers); Power (Crowley)

Astrological Correspondence:

Sun in Capricorn, 20° — 30°. XXXVIII

Commentary:

Golden Dawn “Liber T” (S.L. Mathers):

“Assured material gain, success, rank, dominion, earthly power completed, but leading to nothing beyond. Prejudiced, covetous, suspicious, careful and orderly, but discontented. Little enterprise or originality. Altered by dignity as usual.”

The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (A.E. Waite):

“The surety of possessions, cleaving to that which one has, gift, legacy, inheritance. Reversed: Suspense, delay, opposition.”

The Book of Thoth (Aleister Crowley)

“The Four shows the establishment of the Universe in three dimensions. The generating idea is exhibited in its full material sense. The card is ruled by the Sun in Capricornus, the Sign in which he is reborn. The suggestion of the card is that of a fortress. This represents Law and Order, maintained by constant authority and vigilance.”

Discussion:

The immediate assumption upon first laying eyes on the RWS version of this card is that it shows barefaced greed. Like Scrooge McDuck in the old Disney cartoons, the man isn’t about to part with a single penny. Waite’s interpretation is far more generous and honorable, so this is a rare case where Smith’s image hews more closely to the Golden Dawn concepts of covetousness and material gain for its own sake than to Waite’s text. It seems he intended to describe the advantages of prudent ownership, not the ways of pernicious excess. As he often does, Crowley avoids the human side of the card and focuses on its numerical and elemental dimensions: the solidity of Earth finds its utmost expression in the image of a fortress, blending the pragmatic muscle of the Sun in Capricorn with the structural reliability of the number Four. There is both gravity and rock-ribbed self-reliance in this combination. The interesting thing is that the double gates of the fortress are both flung open, showing the way of escape from its restrictive confines. All it takes is the initiative which is conspicuously lacking in this card.

The “metaphorical euphemism” for this card is “The ‘I, Me, Mine’ card” and several additional keywords are steady accumulation, diligence, slow, plodding progress.

Here is an imaginative exercise I conducted to show the alignment of the first nine binary numbers (that is, those divisible by 2) and the first four non-binary numbers (the Nine is numerologically “hidden” in 18) with the principles of Judgement. I placed the first four binary numbers (2–8) at the corners of an inner square; the next four (10–16) at the corners of an intermediary square; the first four non-binary (and coincidentally “prime”) numbers at the corners of an outer square, with numbers 18 and 20 and the center of the array, then proceeded to examine their interrelationship. This is just a bit of creative number-play, a philosophical toy; I doubt there will be any practical use for it.

I’ve been involved in the esoteric arts since 1972, with a primary interest in tarot and astrology. See my previous work at www.parsifalswheeldivination.com.

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