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3 Definitions of True Will in Thelema

3 Definitions of True Will in Thelema

by IAO131

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 somethingwhether it is a ritual, or have sex with someone, or eat an applethen 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.

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8 thoughts on “3 Definitions of True Will in Thelema

  1. 93! Love this article! I think I’m guilty of blending definitions 2 & 3. My understanding of true will as divine purpose is heavily reliant on how I view divinity. I see divinity as the All/No-thing that I am one algorithm or perhaps line of code within. My line of code was developed over centuries of combined codes from my ancestors. This code is ultimately who I was born as, however, once I was born, well, to put it frankly, shit went South. Through interactions with others, circumstances of nature, etc., viruses crept in, then a few spam ads, and things became corrupted. Regardless of who I felt that I was, media and society told me who I should be. Eventually, it became difficult to tell the difference. To me, discovering my True Will, is pulling the nursing babe from the breast. It is identifying and stripping away all of the old habits that never suited me to begin with and finding my foundation in order to rebuild on steadier ground.

  2. 93. I would have made plenty of laudatory, thoughtful and constructive remarks on this cool post, if I was not presently in Zug, Switzerland, on the occasion of the feast of the times, and, therefore, in the grip of a frightful laziness.

    Have a winter full of LLLLL y’all.


  3. I agree with you about the cliche of saying “they’re the same,” however I think one can construct a sort of Russian Doll relationship between the three.

    Core Doll – Divine Life Purpose

    Crowley at various points seems to fairly clearly indicate that he believes the True Will is chosen by the quasi divine being that we are beyond incarnation. I’m actually writing a bit about that at present. In particular this comes out through his discussion of his belief about his immediate previous incarnation, etc. Whether it is “chosen” in the sense of a true personal choice, or appointed by some order of things imperceptible to us is less clear. The Golden Dawn conception of the universe clearly favored that idea, and Crowley seems to have had some acceptance of it in the teens and 20s. It hardly made sense to go on Strike in December 1916 if he did not believe that some agency other than himself was responsible for his course, and that also shows in his language regarding his incarnation as Eliphaz Levi.

    So setting aside the question of “why” the sempiternal being we are chose a given Will, it follows that it did.

    I’m personally convinced that Crowley’s own understanding of this changed over time, moving away from the Golden Dawn model of a sort of celestial hierarchy of adepts and moving towards a more personalized conception, but if figuring out what Crowley meant in the first place is hard, trying to figure out when and how his thinking evolves is even more difficult, not least because he loved the idea that he’d always been completely consistent.

    Second Layer – Full Expression of Nature

    Because we don’t incarnate with the full knowledge of what we are and what our purpose is, we have to learn that through exploring our Nature. Presumably we were incarnated with the skills we need (if not in the case of the December 1916 strike, all the resources) and if we discern what sort of thing we are, we can discern the inmost Russian Doll. If we find that we were born onto the stage in a cape and a mask, set next to a piano, we can conclude our role is the Phantom. On the other hand if we are next to a fresh grave with a skull we may be Hamlet. We use our nature to investigate our cause, with the assumption that we did not set ourselves up for failure. Put differently if our skill is to paint, and we are tone deaf, we probably did not set ourselves up to be a flutist.

    Third Layer – Intentional Acts

    Once we have investigated the First Layer, through the second, the Third follows. Each of our acts is brought into line with that first, core, layer. If we are Hamlet we do not stab Caesar. If we are Romeo we do not try to go murder Duncan. The Painter paints, the Writer writes, and so on. The least of acts must flow from our nature (the Second Layer) and support our purpose (the Core).

    This isn’t simply an attempt to patch together a reconciliation of three different ideas. My reading convinces me that this is close to, if not perfectly representative of, Crowley’s actual world view.

    This breakdown is tremendously useful and illuminating because Crowley himself never really broke these concepts down, but with the curse of expertise, assumed that one would intuit the particular meaning in any given context. That’s a hard case to prove, though I’m now inclined to try it.

    1. I like this idea, and I think you hit it pretty much dead-on. I have lately found the idea of True Will as a useful fiction, just like so many of our models and conceptions about… well, everything. But here, I think you did an awesome job of building a model that flows really well.

      It strikes me that it lines up with the Kabbalistic soul-parts, with maybe a little distinction in #1. I see it like this:

      Russian Doll # 0 is the Yechidah, the Star within us all itself. Beyond this level is En Sof and questions of Will become pretty much moot. Our Yechidah is kind of like a door to Omnipotence; pure, divine, unfettered Will.

      Russian Doll # 1is the Chiah, the life-force and fits nicely with the divine life purpose version. Our Will on this level is why we exist at all as incarnate beings. Life-force is how.

      Russian Doll # 2 then is our Neschamah and here is our HGA… The fullest expression of our nature. The more we develop, the clearer this gets to our Ruach… which is where Russian Doll # 3 comes in. That nature is best expressed in our individual, intentional willed choices.

      From their one could say that our intuitions & desires inform our choices, so that’s how our nephesch is part of it.

  4. I enjoyed the article. If I may offer a 4th definition more syncretic than distinct: Crowley often wrote of his interest/ admiration of the Tao Te Ching. In at least one of his writings- it may be Magic Without Tears, I’m unable to check just now- he describes the operation/ attainment of one’s True Will as being symptomatically very much like flowing with the Tao, wherein, were one to attain this state, one would begin to find that one’s life generally became easier; less frustrations & obstacles and more happy accidents and beneficial synchronicities. Now, to my mind, this very much sounds like the vedantic idea that we are all unique manifestations of Brahman- experiencing existence through a unique lens of perception. Crowley’s writings tell us he was – for a time – an avid student of both Vedanta and Taoism. And so an argument can be made that at least one of his conceptions of the True Will was this snycretic notion of being a unique manifestation of Brahman, (“Every man and woman is a star,” after all) and the key to attainment, at least of one kind – call it harmony?- was to discover one’s central aspect as that unique manifestation and to adhere to it in order to fulfill one’s current divine incarnation. If we are all unique manifestations of the divine, experiencing ourselves and each other, the only wrong one could commit would to try to be something other than one’s own True Will.
    (I imagine knowledge and conversation of one’s holy guardian angel would be an effective way of checking if one were still on the path, as it were.)
    Anyway, if you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading.

  5. I find myself mostly aligning with the third definition, being skeptical of the objective existence of any entity or phenomenon that could hand out wills to people. It comes from my fundamental nature.

    That said, I think the first definition is useful sometimes. Words can mean different things in different contexts, and I think that’s at least part of what is going on here.

  6. It can be broken down using

    “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”

    As a formula.

    1. “Do” : conscious action of one’s intentional will

    2. “What THOU wilt” : knowledge of your divine purpose through spiritual attainment

    3. “Shall be the whole of the law” : Love is the law. Love: The perfect union of opposites and in this case, the union of one’s intentional will and divine purpose. The “full expression of our nature” as IAO131 states.

    Great article.

    1. Question that has always itched at me: How does one know what the Divine purpose is? Assuming that it is a separate thing from our individual wills, (which is an assumption we’re making in this discussion, but isn’t necessarily so,) how do we know what it is? Can we know what it is? It would seem to me that, in order to join with the divine, one would need some notion of what the divine actually is. We have various myths and hypotheses, and most of us operate from one or the other of those as a foundation for our spiritual journey. It’s easy to wave this off with statements about faith, or many roads to the mountain top, or whatever – not interested in that. If there is a Divine Purpose – if it actually exists – then there should be a way to know it, (“know” in this case being a kind of trade-out for “experience”.) But, if it exists, and it is a separate thing from our own, individual wills, how would we even know if we’d achieved any type of union? The initial parameters of the issue seem to resolve to a paradox. Perhaps Paradox is the point? Like Zen koans? Anyway, just a question I’ve been kicking around in my own meditations for ages now. Any thoughts?

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