Excellence Reporter: Robert, what is the meaning of life?
Robert M. Place: On the surface the question; “What is the meaning of life?” does not make sense. When we ask for the meaning of a word or a symbol, we are asking for the thing that the word or symbol is pointing to, outside of itself. But life is just itself. It is the thing words and symbols point to.
I think what we are really asking is; “What gives us satisfaction?” or “What makes life worth living.”
The best answer that I know of for these questions is one that I found in the Hermetica, the group of ancient philosophical texts attributed to Hermes Trismegistus. In the text called Asclepius, it says (as translated by Walter Scott):
“For since the world is God’s handiwork, he who maintains and heightens its beauty by his tendance is cooperating with the will of God, when he contributes the aid of his bodily strength, and by his care and labor day by day makes things assume that shape and aspect which God’s purpose has designed.”
In other words, the pleasure that we derive from beauty, and the satisfaction that we feel when we create something beautiful, are not the fulfillment of egotistical desires. They are the rewards that we earn when we are in harmony with our higher spiritual self.
Beauty can take many forms. It can be found in art, music, literature, science, scholarship, human interactions, or interactions with nature. Plato believed that Beauty was one of the essences of Virtue, his name for the highest spiritual reality, and the true goal of all human desire. For me, it has always been associated with art.
I have known that I was an artist since I was first able to pronounce the word. When it was time for me to earn a living, I was not interested in a career that earned the most money. I was interested in spending my time making art and finding out how I could support myself, and my family, while making art.
For many years I made my living as a silver smith, and this satisfied my need. But eventually the work became tedious and I knew that I had talents that were not being exercised. At that time, I had a dream in which I was back in school sitting at a desk in a classroom facing the chalkboard. But the teacher in this class was awe-inspiringly beautiful and wise. She was a goddess. I told her I was bored and asked her for a more challenging assignment, and she assured me she would send me something.
A short time later I had another dream in which I was told that I had an inheritance coming. I was told that it would come in a box from England, that it is called the Key, that is has great power, and I would know it when I saw it. The inheritance turned out to be the Tarot cards.
The Tarot became my obsession. I wanted to unlock the meaning in its symbols. I wanted to understand what the artists who first made these images were thinking. I wanted to be part of this centuries old conversation in pictures and symbols, and to contribute and further this conversation.
At this time, I have written numerous books on the history, symbolism, and use of the Tarot; I have taught these subjects on four continents, and I have created the most beautifully crafted decks that my talents would allow. And I am able to earn my living and support my family by doing this. This is what gives me satisfaction or meaning.
~Robert M. Place is an artist and author, who is best known as the designer and author of The Alchemical Tarot, and 11 other Tarot decks. He is the author of The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination, which Booklist has said may be the best book ever written on the subject. His Tarot work has been displayed at the Museo dei Tarocchi, in Riola, Italy, in the Craft and Folk Art Museum, in Los Angeles, and is included in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York. He has taught in the U.S., Italy, Australia, and Brazil. He and his work have appeared on The BBC, A&E, the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, and the Learning Channel.
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