Although there are many disagreements, virtually all Thelemites recognize the centrality of True Will to the system of Thelema. Doing your Will is the “whole of the Law”, there is “no law beyond” it, and you have “no right but to do” it. What is “it”? What exactly is the “Will” or True Will that we consider to be the center of Thelema?
Although I’ve written a fair amount on Thelema, it took me a while to realize that when people were speaking about “Will”, they were actually speaking about several different concepts, with different definitions usually discernible based on context. There is a great deal of equivocation with the term Will, specifically in the sense that it’s actually a fallacy, where multiple meanings of a word are used without differentiation between definitions.
It is important to state that these different definitions are not simply modern misinterpretations of Crowley. All of these definitions have their basis in the ways that Crowley wrote about Will in different contexts. Therefore the root of the problem, if we determine there is one, is in Crowley’s ambiguity in writing about Will throughout his life.
There are at least 3 distinct definitions of “True Will” used by people frequently which I believe are distinct definitions. They represent distinct views of what “Will” means and are contradictory to one another in various ways. Each has different implications about the nature of Will, such as whether it is unknowable by others, and what it means to know and do one’s Will.
Definition 1: True Will is my free, intentional choice
Of the 3 definitions of Will that people use frequently, the first is the idea that choosing something of your own free will—or “with intention” as occultists are likely to say—is the most basic act of True Will.
Colloquially, we see this when someone says something like “we have many beverages available, please choose whichever is your Will”, or “join us this evening if it is your Will”. In all likelihood, people are intending a meaning something like this Definition 1 of True Will being essentially your free choice. Another colloquial sense is when people consensually have sex, for example: By this definition, if you, fully aware and consenting, choose to do something—whether it is a ritual, or have sex with someone, or eat an apple—then that is an act of Will.
This usage is reinforced by Crowley’s own depiction of “Will” in various places. The strongest case, and most well-known, is probably Liber Oz. In this document, after quoting the book of the Law’s various lines about Will, it goes on to say things like:
“Man has the right to eat what he will… Man has the right to think what he will… Man has the right to love as he will.”
These lines from Liber Oz are generally seen as exhortations to free choice without restriction, that people are able to eat, drink, move, love however it is that they choose to do. In other words: it is a free, intentional choice that makes it an act of Will.
This idea is likely tied in with the idea of “magical Will” in the particular sense of a faculty of willpower and focus which is developed by the practices of Magick to ideally become more conscious, controlled, balanced, and one-pointed. The ideal of this is that all choices should be conscious and intentional. Crowley reinforces this view with his famously quoted and referenced line:
“Every intentional act is a Magickal act. By ‘intentional’ I mean ‘willed’.”Aleister Crowley, Magick in Theory & Practice, chapter 0: “Introduction and Theorems”
This has led to a modern use of the term Will or True Will by Thelemites where it is often equated with living intentionally. The very act of living with intention is to do one’s True Will by this definition.
Definition 2: True Will is your divine life purpose
The second definition of True Will is, when you boil it down, your God-given purpose in life. This is a sense that your True Will is your life-task, the thing that you were put on this Earth to do. As Crowley says in Magick Without Tears: “my True Will for which I came to earth”. This definition of True Will is almost like a certain heroic Destiny that is bestowed upon each person at birth. It is often “God-given” in the sense that it is understood to come as a divine revelation of sorts, often said to be revealed in Knowledge & Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel. One might argue the entire point of Magick in Thelema is to find the Will in this sense.
In this definition, True Will is not your choice at all. In fact you may not consciously enjoy your True Will but it doesn’t matter: that’s your Will and you have to adhere to it. We can see an example in the reception of The Book of the Law itself, where Crowley comments he was consciously against the ideas being expounded by Aiwass and then his resistance is addressed when Aiwass notes:
“I see thee hate the hand & the pen; but I am stronger”Liber AL II:11
Definition 2 of True Will as divine purpose has its basis in Crowley discussing his own True Will as a particular life mission. For example:
“…Baffled again and again, the fall with his horse supplied the one factor missing in his calculations. He had repeatedly escaped from death in manners almost miraculous. ‘Then I am some use after all!’ was his conclusion. ‘I am indeed SENT to do something.’ For whom? For the Universe; no partial good could possibly satisfy his equation. ‘I am, then, the ‘chosen Priest and Apostle of Infinite Space.’ Very good: and what is the message? What shall I teach men?’ And like the lightning from heaven fell upon him these words: ‘THE KNOWLEDGE AND CONVERSATION OF THE HOLY GUARDIAN ANGEL.’ Just that. No metaphysical stuff about the ‘higher self’; a thing that the very villagers of Pu Peng could understand. Avoid refinements; leave dialectic to the slaves of reason. His work must, then, be to preach that one method and result.”Aleister Crowley, Temple of Solomon the King, “The Babe”
Or another example of him being discouraged in his divinely appointed life task of establishing Thelema:
“My job—the establishment of the Law of Thelema—is a most discouraging job.”Aleister Crowley, Eight Lectures on Yoga, Yoga for Yahoos, “Second Lecture – Yama”
This leads to a certain interpretation of the commonly heard phrase that “you have to know and do your Will”. “Know” in the case means “know” your purpose, because then everything in your life must conform with accomplishing that purpose (and you have no right to do otherwise). Once you know your “appointed path”, everything else is a hindrance. It is the standard that you reference all things against.
“Each star moves in an appointed path without interference.”Aleister Crowley, Liber II: The Message of the Master Therion
When you ask “To what end?” to any action, it must somehow be able to be drawn back to that one purpose.
Crowley reinforces this view of True Will as divinely-given life purpose throughout his writings, including the general view expounded in the beginning of Magick in Theory & Practice, where he writes:
“The most common cause of failure in life is ignorance of one’s own True Will, or of the means to fulfill that Will. A man may fancy himself a painter, and waste his life trying to become one; or he may really be a painter, and yet fail to understand and to measure the difficulties peculiar to that career.”Aleister Crowley, Magick in Theory & Practice, chapter 0: “Introduction and Theorems”
Definition 3: True Will is the full expression of my true Nature
The third definition of True Will as used by Thelemites is essentially that it is an expression of your Nature. Going against or restricting some aspect of your “nature” is the “sin” of Thelema.
Of course this does not simply mean our “nature” in terms of our particular conscious likes and dislikes, but our fundamental or true nature. Definition 3 relies on the idea that we have layers of “false” self and that we need to uncover our true Nature and express that in order to do our Will.
This Nature is beyond argument – it is not a matter of choice whether something is our Nature or not, as it is given to us. This definition of True Will is often said to be “supra-rational” in the sense that it transcends Reason or our Ruach. Therefore, our conscious mind often gets in the way of the manifestation of Will, which is our natural Way of being. In this sense it is not about making the “right choice”, it is about knowing what is one’s Nature and expressing that. It is a deeper nature that can be uncovered through the path of attainment where one comes to conscious knowledge of your pure soul or Buddha-nature, one might say.
The most well-known text by Crowley that explicitly uses this definition would be his essay “Duty”:
“Explore the Nature and Powers of your own Being. This includes everything which is, or can be, for you: and you must accept everything exactly as it is in itself, as one of the factors which go to make up your True Self. This True Self thus ultimately includes all things soever; its discovery is Initiation (the travelling inwards) and as its Nature is to move continually, it must be understood not as static, but as dynamic, not as a Noun but as a Verb… Develop in due harmony and proportion every faculty which you possess. Contemplate your own Nature… Find the formula of this purpose, or “True Will,” in an expression as simple as possible… Do not repress or restrict any true instinct of your Nature; but devote all in perfection to the sole service of your one True Will.”Aleister Crowley, “Duty”
The idea is the ineffable expression of the motion of the Universe through your nature is your True Will. In this way, your Will might be typified by a “formula” or “word” but it can only be a tentative expression of the ineffable. In this definition, the Nature of the Will is To Go. A conscious sense of “purpose” actually hampers this Will. As Crowley writes:
“The True Will has no goal; its nature being To Go.”Aleister Crowley, Liber Reguli
We haven’t yet even mentioned the idea of “pure will”. However, I think it is safe to say that Definition 3 is closest in alignment to the idea of “pure will” as expounded in Liber AL and Crowley’s comments thereto.
For pure will, unassuaged of purpose, delivered from the lust of result, is every way perfect.Liber AL I:44
This definition is the one that a large portion of my own writings have largely relied on, from Fresh Fever from the Skies to others on Thelemic Union such as Top 10 Myths about True Will. The “formula” or “word” of your True Will in this definition is not your divine purpose in the sense of a goal, but simply an expression of your nature. Your True Will is the pure or optimal expression of your nature in this definition. Knowing your Will is knowing your own nature.
The first consideration is whether the fact that there are multiple definitions even presents a problem at all. The problem was already mentioned at the beginning of this article: people equivocate with this term constantly using it in different ways. My experience is that this is not intentional at all, like some kind of malicious attempt to slip under the radar by using a term in multiple ways, but rather the result of some unexamined assumptions. These assumptions, as we have seen, actually have their basis in Crowley’s writings so they are understandable. He certainly could be flexible when talking about concepts and True Will is no exception. However, in general, it surely would be beneficial to have clarity of thought around the central concept of one’s philosophy.
I can foresee a rebuttal that is essentially a cliché of sorts: something to the extent of “these definitions are actually all One!” However: My view is that these definitions are actually distinct in important ways. They are not interchangeable. Whichever definition you believe in actually changes what you focus on and emphasize. Ideas do not occur in isolation, they occur in certain formations or constellations. Certain ideas tend to go with certain other ones and not others.
For example, Definition 1 of True Will as free choice would imply a heavy emphasis on increasing awareness, issues of consensus, and discerning impediments to people’s ability to make free choices. Definition 2 of True Will as divine purpose would imply a heavy emphasis on “knowing God” i.e. having the spiritual attainment to know your life purpose as given by your Angel. It would possibly lead to a kind of emphasis on stoic indifference as an ideal insofar as one is inextricably married to one’s life purpose regardless of all troubles it brings. Definition 3 of True Will as expression of one’s nature would imply a heavy emphasis on knowing oneself and one’s inner or true Nature, learning to identify and detach from false nature, etc.
Further: These definitions are actually contradictory in some ways to one another. Definition 2 of True Will as divine purpose is not a “choice” at all, but a life-task imposed upon you from outside the ego. This is at direct variance with Definition 1 of True Will as free choice, whose defining characteristic is that it is a conscious, informed choice.
Definition 3 of True Will as expression of Nature is beyond conscious thought – Qabalistically we might say it is Chokmah in the Supernals whereas the conscious mind is the Ruach, below the Abyss. However, Definition 1 is basically the most conscious thought one can have: an unrestricted, intentional choice.
This also means that Definition 3 of True Will as expression of Nature is ineffable; it is not articulable without some form of degradation. Both Definition 1 (free choice) and Definition 2 (divine purpose) are articulable. People have no problem expressing their conscious choices to others, and divine purpose as we see in the example of Crowley (e.g. “teaching mankind K&C of HGA”) is potentially articulable as well.
In Definition 2 of True Will as divine purpose, the point of spiritual attainment is to commune with God (or your True Self or what-have-you) and have your purpose communicated to you. In Definition 3 of True Will as expression of Nature, the point of spiritual attainment is to clear away your false nature to come to know your true Nature so that you can express it fully.
I am sure there are other distinctions and implications that I have not mentioned, but the point I think is clear: these are actually distinct, at least somewhat contradictory definitions and we do ourselves a disservice by sloppily speaking of them as if they’re a unified concept.
As I mentioned before, my experience is that people blend these different definitions together without realizing it: I know I did for many years. The entire point of this article is not to suggest a final authoritative conclusion but to put a question mark upon this idea of True Will. In this article, I am not even stating whether one definition is true while other is false. My goal here is simply to bring to attention that there are multiple definitions, that they have their basis in Crowley’s writings, and to make the case that the distinctions are real and significant, not easily glossed over.
My sense is that simply separating these out and thinking of them as potentially distinct has its uses to help clarify for oneself one’s own beliefs about True Will.
Enjoying the articles? Support the Thelemic Union and help us keep our site running, ad-free, and hacker-free by pledging $1+ on Patreon:
Thelemic Union is open to all articles that are relevant to Thelema in some way. Send your submissions to thelemic[dot]union[at]gmail[dot]com