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What is Thelema?

A Commentary on The Message of the Master Therion (Liber II)Nathan Bjorge, PhD

What is Thelema, the magical philosophy promulgated by the British modernist mystic, magician, and spiritual thinker Aleister Crowley (1875-1947)? One of Crowley’s clearest concise answers to this question is provided by the text entitled The Message of the Master Therion and designated Liber II, according to his scheme of organizing his writings, where each “book” (the word “Liber” means “book” in Latin) is assigned a number with a Qabalistic significance relevant to its contents. The “Master Therion” mentioned in the title is the personal magical motto of Aleister Crowley associated with the “grade,” or initiated perspective, represented by the second sephirah Chokmah upon the Qabalistic Tree of Life—hence this text’s designation as “Book Two.” Chokmah means “wisdom” and it corresponds to what ancient philosophy called the logos, a Greek term translatable as word, discourse, meaning, or signification. In Greco-Roman metaphysics, the logos designates the form of matter that gives shape and structure to the world. The world of forms is a supernatural, or at least non-material, aspect of being. The logos imparts form to matter, yet it is not itself reducible to matter. Modern philosophy has learned skepticism towards the traditional western metaphysical tendency towards dualism as an explanatory mechanism to account for the intelligibility of the world. Following the innovation of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, which put the nail in the coffin of traditional scientific metaphysics, and the “language turn” characterizing much of twentieth century philosophy, a contemporary equivalent to the concept of the logos can be usefully rethought in terms of the “transcendental horizon,” or formal structure underlying the shared social intelligibility of the lived experience of the world in terms of the historically prevailing matrix of language usages—recall that the word logos means word—that undergird the social-linguistic construction of human consensus reality. In this interpretation, the logos remains a virtual, “ideal” phenomenon, just not in a supernatural sense. The logos is hermeneutically transcendental, not metaphysically transcendent, like Martin Heidegger’s Being with a capital “B.” This means that symbolism in all its metaphorical valences provides the key to unlocking the mysteries of Being, or as Heidegger famously proposed, “language is the house of Being.” 2 The grade of Chokmah is called the Magus, the preeminent master of Magick, and their wisdom is to comprehend, critique, and constructively reformulate the prevailing logos of their historical context. In magical terms, the Magus is said to utter a Word that serves as a Logos Aeonis, or word of an aeon. In ancient Greek “aeon” means a span of time such as a historical age, and in Gnostic texts the term takes on the additional signification of a metaphysical emanation of the eternal. The magical spell of the Magus’s utterance evokes a “New Aeon,” thereby establishing a new set of co-ordinates for the horizon of Being of those subjects who metaphorically “hear” the Word. The Word of the Magus encapsulates a philosophy that critiques the status quo and opens a space for revolutionary alternatives. For Aleister Crowley, in contrast with the Magi that according to this interpretive stance could be said to have preceded him, the historical horizon addressed by the Word of the Master Therion is that of modern industrialized society and the private individual subjectivity this context creates and simultaneously alienates. Modern individuality both frees human beings from ideological limitations inherent to traditional pre-modern societies, while simultaneously generating new modes of distorted social relations that limit human potential. Once industrial development and the enlightenment have done their work and liberated the human spirit from what Karl Marx called “the idiocy of rural life,” the limits of modern experience must in turn be addressed and overcome. Due to the circumstances of recent history, the Christian-European colonial legacy preserves some of the most obvious limits to human flourishing in the New Aeon, especially on an ideological level. During Crowley’s life, the Christian British Empire ruled over much of the planet. It is for this reason that Crowley’s magical identity as a Magus is in Greek “To Mega Therion,” the Great Beast of the Book of Revelations whose number is 666, and whose advent signals the onset of the apocalypse. Crowley’s New Aeon is indeed conceived as the end times of the slavish and enslaving Christian morality which in its protestant-puritan mode serves as the historical progenitor of bourgeois liberalism, today the dominant ideology of globalized corporateconsumer mass culture. Along with the body of Crowley’s writings and the example of his personal biography (for better and worse) the primary vehicle for the message of the Master Therion is the visionaryprophetic text of The Book of the Law. Liber II: The Message of the Master Therion is structured around eight quotations from The Book of the Law and can therefore be considered a “species of 3 commentary” on that text, and an attempt at summarizing its most general import and significance for the widest possible audience in the shortest effective space. The Tunis or “short” Comment and Liber OZ serve a similar function, but whereas the short Comment only discusses how The Book of the Law should be interpreted, and Liber OZ focuses exclusively on the theme of liberty, only Liber II directly addresses the integral argument of the Book in terms of the central organizing concept of the magical Word it enunciates. Liber II begins with three citations that contextualize the ancient Greek word “Thelema,” meaning will or purpose, as the magical “Word” enunciated by the Master Therion. “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.” [AL I:40] “There is no law beyond Do what thou wilt.” [AL III:60] “The word of the Law is Θελημα.” [AL I:39] Crowley explains: “Θελημα—Thelema—means Will. The Key to this Message is this word—Will.” The concept of Will includes personal intention, but in the magical sense used in The Book of the Law it also preeminently designates an autonomous authenticity creatively synthesized out of the subject’s total life situation. The magical Will, with a capital “W,” is a life purpose unlimited by private desires in isolation from a broader social context of purposive action. The phase “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law” is paraphrased from the fantastical novel Gargantua by Francois Rabelais, the early modern humanist scholar and satirist of the pious Christian pruderies of his times. At the conclusion of the novel an Abbey of Thelema is built to commemorate the adventures of the titular character. Rabelais describes the rule of life of the “Thelemites” residing at the Abbey as follows: “All their life was regulated not by laws, statutes, or rules, but according to their free will and pleasure. They rose from bed when they pleased, and drank, ate, worked, and slept when the fancy seized them. Nobody woke them; nobody compelled them either to eat or to drink, or to do anything else whatever. So it was that Gargantua had established it. In their rules there was only one clause: DO WHAT YOU WILL because people who are free, well-born, well-bred, and easy in honest company have a natural spur and instinct which drives them to virtuous deeds and deflects them from vice; and this they called honour.” [Francois Rabelais (J.M. Cohen, trans.) Gargantua and Pantagruel (New York, NY: Penguin, 1955), pg. 159] This is the moral ideal of Thelema, carried over from Rabelais. Crowley’s literary allusion to the allegorical Abbey of Thelema and its sole rule of “do what thou wilt,” links his utterance of 4 the Word Thelema, and the philosophy and spirituality of the same name, to the larger project of the radical wing of the Enlightenment that developed out of the Renaissance humanist revival, and its critical stance towards the internal contradictions of Christian-colonial cultural hegemony. Crowley is associating the emancipatory aspect of his project to the genealogy of ideas represented by heretically heroic figures such as Rabelais, Giordano Bruno, Baruch Spinoza, Charles Darwin, Friedrich Nietzsche, and others. As a part of the lineage of the radical Enlightenment, when The Book of the Law claims that the magical Will should be “the whole of the Law,” and that beyond it “there is no law,” it does so in the context of what Nietzsche calls the Death of God, such that any appeal to metaphysics to establish normative rules or “law” has been overthrown. The use of the word “law” in The Book of the Law refers not only to the domain of ethics, but also to the whole range of modal value judgements that occur within practical experience. By identifying Will with Law, Thelema argues that in place of obedience to a supernatural order of being demanded by Christianity, the basis for normative value judgements should be concretely human and historical. The form of the law should directly express the needs of human beings and facilitate the creative fulfilment of their historical potential for Being. The Death of God brings about the decline of religion, and with it the revival of magic. Perhaps unexpectedly, the disruption of the social relations facilitated by traditional religion results in the disclosure of a more basic matrix of social practices that preceded Christian state religion, and always remained latent behind the façade of publicly professed faith. Therefore, Christianity is currently being replaced at the level of popular mass-cultural consensus with the reappearance of a pagan-secular magical spirituality, perhaps best characterized as a kind of techno-gnosticism. Suitably, the method of Thelema is Magick, a synthetic category including ceremonial ritual magic, as well as modes of mysticism and meditation conscientiously derived from the spirituality of traditional pre-modern religions, while also necessarily updated and recontextualized to meet the needs of modern practitioners. Liber II continues: “The first obvious meaning of this Law is confirmed by antithesis; ‘The word of Sin is Restriction.’ [AL I:41]” The word “sin” in Paul’s epistles refers to some endeavor missing the mark of its goal, like an archer shooting an arrow wide of its intended target. To say then that the “word” of sin is “Restriction” is to say that the Thelemic concept of missing the mark involves the restriction of 5 the magical Will, or that which inhibits the free development of a person’s creatively fulfilling potential for being. Thelema or Will is therefore that which facilitates and affirms human life. In the words of Friedrich Nietzsche, it is the Will to Power which is “strong for life.” Examples of the opposite of Restriction would be the “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” proclaimed to Thomas Jefferson, or the human flourishing Karl Marx declares to be the goal of revolutionary liberation, or the authentic temporality analyzed in Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, or the existential Freedom described by Jean-Paul Sartre. In contrast, Examples of restriction that miss the mark would include behaviors based on ignorance, bigotry, and addiction. In contrast, knowledge, wisdom, and power should be the goal of the Will. Knowledge should replace ignorance, wisdom overcome bigotry, and addiction give way to power, meaning not simply power over and against others, but to the capacity for personal growth and development situated within a wide horizon of social concerns. Liber II again cites The Book of the Law, “thou hast no right but to do thy will. Do that, and no other shall say nay. For pure will, unassuaged of purpose, delivered from the lust of result, is every way perfect.” [AL I:42-44] If God is dead, and human beings are the source of the divine Will to Power that affirms life, then Kantian autonomy defines the modern horizon of Being, and existential authenticity consists in being a self-legislated moral agent. Therefore, posed in a magical light, the answer to the question “qui bono”—“who has the right?”—the answer can only be that one “has no right but to do thy will.” For the sake of efficiency, therefore, the magical Will must be “pure,” unmixed with baser motives and distracting desires that would impede the magician’s self from flourishing inseparable from a world of others likewise freely flourishing. Later in Liber II Crowley has more to say about the unusual usage of the word “unassuaged.” In the meantime, he writes: “Take this carefully; it seems to imply a theory that if every man and every woman did his or her will—the true will—there would be no clashing. ‘Every man and every woman is a star,’ [AL I:3] and each star moves in an appointed path without interference. There is plenty of room for all; it is only disorder that creates confusion.” The symbolism of the self as a star in the heavens is linked in The Book of the Law to the image of “the company of heaven” [AL I:2] of the starry shape of Nuit, whose arched body forms the heavens in Egyptian mythology. The metaphor is that of the social self, even while the “social” is nothing but the amalgamated interaction of the diversely unique selves that constitute its atomic 6 units. The implication is that heaven is no longer to be conceived as a separate or “higher” reality distinct from the human world. We are within heaven: our world orbits through an infinite spacetime continuum in which “all things move, live, and have their being.” [Acts 17:28] Thelema is attempting to articulate the ideal of a mode of social cooperation emerging “bottom up” from the ferment of a creative anarchy of Being in which each of its diverse units finds its own authentic role to play in the unfolding narrative of the whole, in place of the project of traditional state religion, where a false harmony is imposed “top down” in obedience to an imagined organic hierarchical Great Chain of Being. The so called “true will” would then be the authentic impulse of each individual to participate in the course of life, or “orbit,” that optimizes their potential for Being-with-others in cooperative interdependence. Along these lines Crowley writes, “From these considerations it should be clear that ‘Do what thou wilt’ does not mean ‘Do what you like.’ It is the apotheosis of Freedom; but it is also the strictest possible bond. Do what thou wilt—then do nothing else. Let nothing deflect thee from that austere and holy task. Liberty is absolute to do thy will; but seek to do any other thing whatever, and instantly obstacles must arise. Every act that is not in definite course of that one orbit is erratic, an hinderance. Will must not be two, but one.” Will is refined desire; it is the wholesome expression of the authentic human drive for sensually social fulfillment that emerges from the distillation of the often inchoate impulses of emotional immediacy. It is “love under will” as distinguished from its opposite, described as the “lust of result.” From a Thelemic perspective lust is not in and of itself “bad,” it is merely inefficiently organized from the point of view of the psyche’s larger life purposes. Lust is libido, the basic affective energy of the psyche, knitting together its functions and investing them with meaning. That energy must be harnessed and enhanced, not replaced by false “love” that is bloodless, ascetic, and impersonal. In Freudian terms, the Will is the drive that organizes the libido, or what Freud calls the instincts associated with the reality principle vs. the pleasure principle. The former expresses the developmental drive of the self as a complex system of equilibrated impulses growing and learning from its experiences, in contrast to the later instinctual dynamic, which is the tendency towards narcissistic withdrawal from social complexity through addiction to psychological stasis. If mere desire seeks utility, then Will is the autonomous self-imposition of duty. The True Will is a 7 categorical imperative opposed to the whole unconscious psychological structure of inauthentic desires. Therefore, the true freedom of the will is expressed as a call to duty from the self to itself. Crowley continues: “Note further that this will is not only to be pure, that is, single, as explained above, but also ‘unassuaged of purpose.’ This strange phrase must give us pause. It may mean that any purpose in the will would damp it; clearly the ‘lust of result’ is a thing from which it must be delivered. But the phrase may also be interpreted as if it read ‘with purpose unassuaged’—i.e., with tireless energy.” According to Webster’s Dictionary “assuage” (from the Latin suavis, meaning sweet) has the following meanings: “(1) to lessen (pain, distress, etc.) (2) to calm (anger, etc.) (3) to satisfy or slake (thirst, etc.).” Taken together, the phrase “unassuaged of purpose” can therefore be read as describing the ideal of a Will that is undiminished in intensity, un-calmed in passion, and unslaked in effort. Crowley explains, “The conception is, therefore, of an eternal motion, infinite and unalterable. It is Nirvana, only dynamic instead of static—and this comes to the same thing in the end.” This insightful remark by the Master Therion equates the gnosis of the True Will with the Buddhist concept of enlightenment. Both ideas involve the transcendence of the limited sense of self associated with the immediately given experience of subjectivity, or what Freud called the “ego.” Buddhist transcendence can be usefully characterized as the extinction of desire through the comprehension that there is no self that underlies desire. In contrast, Thelema seeks the sublimation of desire through an expansive reorientation of the virtual phenomenon of the self, such that the jouissance of a transpersonally unique Will overwrites its limited pre-given identity as posited by society. However, this distinction, while relevant to practitioners in certain contexts, is also ultimately arbitrary, or as Crowley puts it, it “comes to the same thing in the end,” because for both traditions there is a kind of “death drive” that arises from the vacuum state induced through the transcendence of the immediate sense of self, and of its limited and limiting desires, which Buddhism knows as prajna or compassionate wisdom, and Thelema as the True Will whose formula is “love under will.” Crowley writes: “The obvious practical task of the magician is then to discover what his will really is, so that he may do it in this manner, and he can best accomplish this by the practices 8 of Liber Thisarb (see Equinox I. VII. 105) or such others as may from one time to another be appointed.” Liber Thisarb contains several examples of spiritual exercises that facilitate the exploration of the magical memory. This is the process of understanding the significance of one’s life story in the light of the gnosis of the True Will, which is to say, in terms of one’s optimal human potential for Being. The process Crowley has in mind is basically a kind of self-directed psychotherapy, where the practitioner reviews and clarifies their memory of the past in search of its deeper meaning. One thereby psychologically integrates the narrative of their life, redeeming it in terms of the psyche’s deepest and most creatively fulfilling drive for Will to Power over its own process of becoming. Furthermore, since the True Will is about what we can become, beyond our selfunderstanding what we have been, the gnosis offered by the practice of the magical method of Thelema is “proleptic,” a Greek word meaning what is hopeful or anticipatory. It is open to the liberative opportunity of the future. If modernity is an apocalypse where the past is buried, it also opens the door to a more fully human future where the metaphysical superstitions of faith are replaced with the practical wisdom and knowledge of the arts and sciences. Will is a drive to action, and therefore to know one’s True Will is simultaneously to accept the duty of doing that Will as an ongoing prerogative. Therefore, according to Liber II “Thou must (1) Find out what is thy Will. (2) Do that Will with (a) one-pointedness, (b) detachment, (c) peace. Then, and then only, art thou in harmony with the Movement of Things, thy will part of, and therefore equal to, the Will of God. And since the will is but the dynamic aspect of the self, and since two different selves could not possess identical wills; then, if thy will be God’s will, Thou art That.” Crowley’s use of the word “God” has pantheist associations in this passage. The philosophy of Baruch de Spinoza can serve as an adequate example of the kind of modern pantheism that Crowley is concerned with. Spinoza defines God as “absolutely infinite being” (Ethics I, Def. 6) From this it follows (or so Spinoza argues) that there is nothing but God, (Ethics I, Pr. 14) and therefore that “Whatever is, is in God, and nothing can be or be conceived without God.” (Ethics I, Pr. 15) Furthermore, Spinoza argues, “Extension is an attribute of God; […] God is an extended thing.” (Ethics II, Pr. 2) What is this thing that is extended in space and time that is 9 God other than nature? Therefore, God is nature, and nature is God, and the “infinite” is directly the physical universe, and not somewhere else in another world. Yet further, Spinoza insists that “Thought is an attribute of God; […] God is a thinking thing.” (Ethics II, Pr. 1) What is this thing he refers to that thinks and that by thinking is God if not human beings? Therefore, human beings are God in virtue of both their physical and mental attributes. What remains outstanding is for us to live in a divine way, in the light of the understanding of the intellect, in terms of our optimal potential for being. Spinoza’s early modern ideal was of the stoic sage of antiquity, while the technological conditions of our own late modernity further diversify the cultural possibilities for the expression of the True Will. Another way to think about Crowley’s “pantheist” line of argumentation might go as follows: if God is dead, then any encounter we may from time to time have of the “divine”— defined as an experience of “ultimate concern” that overrides our absorption in the mundane by disclosing the wellsprings of Being—does not derive from another world or a higher entity, but from our own deepest selves. Indeed, it is not even necessary to posit an abiding “self” (a concept the Buddhist tradition is especially critical of) underlying the ecstatic impulses of the magical Will. If the magically invoked ecstatic sense of self is a construct of the Will, and the Will is a virtual, ideal, psychological activity, a verb rather than a noun, then the divinely illuminated self that is built up through the process of practice is likewise a virtual phenomenon. Subjectivity is materially spiritual, and through their intentional practices the magician becomes a spiritual being organized as a coherent self. Aleister Crowley concludes the text of Liber II on an aspirational note: “There is but one other word to explain. Elsewhere it is written—surely for our great comfort—'Love is the law, love under will.’ [AL I:57] This is to be taken as meaning that while Will is the Law, the nature of that Will is Love. But this Love is as it were a by-product of that Will; it does not contradict or supersede that Will; and if apparent contradiction should arise in any crisis, it is the Will that will guide us aright.” Upon analysis, Thelema, the Word of the Law, is characterized as a Will that humanly and sensuously wills to live in love, both for itself and towards others. Crowley insists “the nature of […] Will is Love.” This is symbolized by the Qabalistic equivalence in Greek gematria of the words Thelema and Agape, or will and love, whose letters both sum to the number 93. The ancient Greek word agape explicitly signifies a communal love, shared for and with others. Agape is love 10 in solidarity with the larger human community. Although in a pre-modern context agape could be viewed as exclusive of other “lesser” modes of love, particularly what the Greeks called eros, or sexual love, in a modern Thelemic context agape should be conceived as normatively inclusive of diversely personalized modes of love, provided they are “under will,” with agape characterizing the social horizon informing and organizing the subject’s multiform desires. However, to say that love as agape is socially oriented is not to endorse the immediately prevailing norms of society, which are so frequently distorted by the alienation that characterizes modern experience. Indeed, if the love invoked by the Law of Thelema is said to be “under” or impelled by the True Will, then the implication is of a love compatible with the qualities of a freely creative, confident, self-critically virtuous, and richly cultured person. Such a criterion excludes certain originally Christian, and later liberal-bourgeois cultural expressions of sentiment falsely called love by their adherents, but which really emphasize servility, mawkishness, selfdebasement, and the worship of the vicarious suffering of others. Crowley explains, “Lo, while in The Book of the Law is much of Love, there is no word of Sentimentality. Hate itself is almost like Love! “As brothers fight ye!” [AL III:59] All the manly races of the world understand this. The Love of Liber Legis is always bold, virile, even orgiastic. There is delicacy, but it is the delicacy of strength. Mighty and terrible and glorious as it is, however, it is but the pennon upon the sacred lance of Will, the damascened inscription upon the swords of the Knight-monks of Thelema.” Crowley’s criticism of “Sentimentality,” with a capital “S,” is directed against the melodramatic and naively conservative social mores that characterized the culture of the Victorian Christian British Empire. This is the context within which he was raised and against which he subsequently rebelled. His Word was first uttered in this context, and it the hegemony of the British Empire, and of Christian colonial globalization, that he sought to disrupt, displace, and replace. Crowley’s infelicitous choice of the phrase “manly races” has dated and can be simply ignored. When he writes of the “bold, virile” and “orgiastic” character of magical Love, he gives the example of the knight-monk, a reference to the high medieval ideal of the knight who was both a religious mendicant and a warrior, combing the vocations of the questing man-at-arms and the wandering friar. The most famous historical example was the Knights Templar, who were reputed to have abandoned the Christian faith during their sojourn in the East, practicing pagan magic while worshiping an idol called Baphomet. Fictional though these politically motivated rumors 11 may have been, they retain a symbolic resonance for Thelemic Magick, where Baphomet holds a central place in Crowley’s theogony of God-forms. The ideal of the knight monk therefore evokes the spirit of magical aspiration of the Thelemic initiate embarked upon the mystical quest for their True and Holy Will.


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