Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.
The Life of Friedrich Nietzsche, Prophet of Thelema
Friedrich Nietzsche was a German philosopher, poet, and philologist who lived from 1844 to 1900. I will first give a brief biography of this great thinker and then his influence on Aleister Crowley and Thelema will be discussed.
Friedrich Nietzsche was born on October 15, 1844 in Roecken bei Luetzen near Leipzig in Germany. Around when Nietzsche was five, his father and brother both died within 6 months of each other. Nietzsche was born into a line of Lutheran ministers including his father and grandfather, and his immersion in Christianity continued when he was enrolled in a boarding school from age 14 to 19 which used to be a Cistercian monastery. Around this time, Nietzsche learned about Hoelderlin’s romantic poetry and Richard Wagner’s music, both of which would greatly influence his inner development.
When Nietzsche was 20 he enrolled in the University of Bonn as a student of theology and philology (the study of ancient and classical texts), although he switched to the University of Leipzig to pursue philology more closely. It was here that Nietzsche would come upon Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representationaccidentally in a bookstore, a book that would influence his thinking arguably more than any other.
When Nietzsche turned 23 he entered military service but suffered an injury which allowed him return to the University of Leipzig where he met Richard Wagner. Nietzsche initially had a powerful friendship with Wagner, calling his relationship with him his “greatest achievement,” and while he still would write about Wagner late into his life (inThe Case of Wagner and Nietzsche Contra Wagner and elsewhere) they eventually had somewhat of a falling out, including Nietzsche critiquing Wagner’s sentimentalism in his music. At age 24, Nietzsche was offered the position of a professor of classical philology at the University of Basel. At age 25 he served as a medical attendant during the Franco-Prussian War where he contracted diphtheria and dysentery and saw up close the traumatic effects that battle could induce.
Nietzsche published his first major work at age 27 (in 1871), entitled The Birth of Tragedy, which was highly praised by Wagner but harshly criticized by various scholars. In 1878, at age 33, Nietzsche published Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, Revised Edition which essentially ended his friendship with Wagner because of certain characterizations of him (called “the artist” in the book). In 1879, Nietzsche resigned his professorship at Basel because of health problems.
After this Nietzsche traveled around Europe include Nice, Sils-Maria, Leipzig, Turin, Genoa, Recoaro, Messina, Rapallo, Florence, Venice, and Rome. During this time he wrote many books including Daybreak in 1881, The Gay Science in 1882, Thus Spoke Zarathustra from 1883-1885, Beyond Good & Evil in 1886, The Genealogy of Morals in 1887, and several books in 1888 including The Case of Wagner, The Twilight of the Idols, The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, and Nietzsche Contra Wagner.
In 1889, Nietzsche famously had a mental breakdown when he witnessed a horse being whipped, threw his arms around the horse, and collapsed. During this time, he was considered insane although his letters reveal a strangely mystical insight, e.g. “Sing me a new song: the world is transfigured and all the heavens are joyous. [signed] The Crucified One” and “I go everywhere in my student coat, now and then slap someone on the back, and say: siamo contenti? Son dio, ho fatto questa caricatura [“Is everything OK? I am God, this farce is my creation.”]… [signed] Dionysus”…
Friedrich Nietzsche in Aleister Crowley’s writings
Friedrich Nietzsche is listed as a Gnostic Saint in Liber LII: Manifesto of OTO, which shows he had, at the very least, a profound influence on the thinking of Aleister Crowley. An assortment of references to Nietzsche by Crowley show that he was fairly well-read in Nietzsche’s thought, especially since translations of certain texts did not necessarily come out for a while.
Firstly, we can see that Aleister Crowley thought very highly of Nietzsche: he not only included as a Gnostic Saint in Liber XV but thought of him as a prophet of the Aeon of Horus. Crowley said of him:
“Nietzsche may be regarded as one of our prophets…”
—Magick Without Tears, ch.48
“Nietzsche was to me almost an avatar of Thoth, the god of wisdom…”
–“The Ordeal of Ida Pendragon” from The Equinox I:6
In general, Crowley sympathized with Nietzsche’s assessment of Christianity as ‘slave morality.’ He wrote, “I entirely agree with Nietzsche that Christianity is the formula of the servile state; true aristocracy and true democracy are equally its enemies. In my ideal state everyone is respected for what he is. There will always be slaves, and the slave is to be defined as he who acquiesces in being a slave” (Confessions, ch.60). He also writes:
“The Book [of the Law] announces a new dichotomy in human society; there is the master and there is the slave; the noble and the serf; the “lone wolf” and the herd. [The “Master” roughly denotes the able, the adventurous, welcoming responsibility. The “slave:” his motto is “Safety first,” with all that this implies. Race, birth, breeding etc. are important but not absolutely essential factors] (Nietzsche may be regarded as one of our prophets…)”
—Magick Without Tears, ch.48
“Area [or Common] Morality: This is the code of the “Slave-Gods,” very thoroughly analysed, pulverized, and de-loused by Nietzsche in Antichrist. It consists of all the meanest vices, especially envy, cowardice, cruelty and greed…”
—Magick Without Tears, ch.70
“Christianity has fallen, and so Christ has already become the ‘devil’ to such thinkers as Nietzsche and Crowley. — O.M.”
–Note in Crowley’s translation of Eliphas Levi’s The Key of the Mysteries
“…kindness and conscientiousness and altruism are really drawbacks to the progress of humanity. As Nietzsche said this, and I too agree with him, there is little more to be said.”
From Crowley’s knowledge of Nietzsche, we can guess that he read at least The Gay Science, Beyond Good and Evil, and The Antichrist. He mentioned The Antichrist by name in the above quotation, and essentially mentions Beyond Good & Evil in the following commentary to Liber LXV V:37, “O ye that are beyond Aormuzdi and Ahrimanes! blessèd are ye unto the ages:” He comments: “In Persian Theology, the principles of Good and Evil. Cf. Nietzsche; and in our own doctrine, expressed in many ways in many places.”
Crowley mentions Nietzsche when he writes regarding the ethic of Thelema and going beyond good and evil:
“[In 1919] my main idea had been to found a community on the principles of Book of the Law, to form an archetype of a new society. The main ethical principle is that each human being has his own definite object in life. He has every right to fulfil this purpose, and none to do anything else. It is the business of the community to help each of its members to achieve this aim; in consequence all rules should be made, and all questions of policy decided, by the application of this principle to the circumstances. We have thus made a clean sweep of all the rough and ready codes of convention which have characterized past civilizations. Such codes, besides doing injustice to the individual, fail by being based on arbitrary assumptions which are not only false, but insult and damage the moral sense. Their authority rested on definitions of right and wrong which were untenable. As soon as Nietzsche and others demonstrated that fact, they lost their validity.”
—Confessions, chapter 87.
Further, Crowley writes:
“Nietzsche has well observed that the best thoughts come by walking; and it has happened to me, more than once or twice, that really important correspondences have come, as by a flashlight, when I was padding the old hoof.”
—Magick Without Tears, ch.4
This either comes from The Gay Science (“We do not belong to those who have ideas only among books, when stimulated by books. It is our habit to think outdoors – walking, leaping, climbing, dancing, preferably on lonely mountains or near the sea where even the trails become thoughtful. Our first questions about the value of a book, of a human being, or a musical composition are: Can they walk? Even more, can they dance?”) or Ecce Homo (“Sit as little as possible; give no credence to any thought that was not born outdoors while one moved about freely – in which the muscles are not celebrating a feast, too. All prejudices come from the intestines… The sedentary life – as I have said once before – is the real sin against the holy spirit.”)
The Nietzschean Standpoint in Thelemic Writings
In the essay of Magick Without Tears when Crowley describes the Three Schools of Magick. He essentially defines the White School by quoting from Book of the Law and then citing Nietzsche, relating the two closely:
“We may define the doctrine of the White School in its purity in very simple terms. Existence is pure joy. Sorrow is caused by failure to perceive this fact; but this is not a misfortune. We have invented sorrow, which does not matter so much after all, in order to have the exuberant satisfaction of getting rid of it. Existence is thus a sacrament. Adepts of the White School regard their brethren of the Black very much as the aristocratic English Sahib (of the days when England was a nation) regarded the benighted Hindu. Nietzsche expresses the philosophy of this School to that extent with considerable accuracy and vigour. The man who denounces life merely defines himself as the man who is unequal to it. The brave man rejoices in giving and taking hard knocks, and the brave man is joyous.”
—Magick Without Tears, ch. 7
Crowley also writes, “Yet this I charge thee with my Might: Live Dangerously. Was not this the Word of thine Uncle Friedrich Nietzsche?” (Liber Aleph, ch.47). This mention of “live dangerously” is most likely a reference to The Gay Science (“the secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment is – to live dangerously … “) although similar lines appear in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Crowley echoes Nietzsche’s ideas about evolution and the will-to-power when he writes:
“There is a good deal of the Nietzschean standpoint in this verse. It is the evolutionary and natural view. Of what use is it to perpetuate the misery of Tuberculosis, and such diseases, as we now do? Nature’s way is to weed out the weak. This is the most merciful way, too. At present all the strong are being damaged, and their progress hindered by the dead weight of the weak limbs and the missing limbs, the diseased limbs and the atrophied limbs. The Christians to the Lions!”
–Commentary to The Book of the Law II:21
Finally, Crowley also writes about Nietzsche’s knowledge of going beyond opposites:
“It is characteristic of all high spiritual vision that the formulation of any idea is immediately destroyed or canceled out by the arising of the contradictory. Hegel and Nietzsche had glimmerings of the idea, but it is described very fully and simply in the Book of Wisdom or Folly.”
—The Book of Thoth
From these quotations it should be apparent that Crowley not only knew Nietzsche’s writings fairly well for his time but was greatly influenced by them. He hailed Nietzsche not only as a Gnostic Saint of the E.G.C. but also a prophet of the Law of Thelema, a title Crowley did not throw around lightly.
Love is the law, love under 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:
7 thoughts on “Aleister Crowley on Friedrich Nietzsche”
Very well written and researched article.
Great article, but the story about the whipped horse, although often reported as fact, is conjecture.
93 Adrian — This is true, it is an apocryphal story as far as we know.
There is a lot to learn from both Nietzsche and Crowley. There are some commonalities. But as an avid student/scholar of Nietzsche I can say that Crowley misunderstood key points in Nietzsche’s thought. He created his own Nietzsche from the limited readings he had done.The social Darwinian bend that the Nazis pushed through as the authoritative interpretation of Nietzsche and probably influenced Crowley’s views of Nietzsche are not an accurate interpretation of his works taken as a whole. Nietzsche was the master of subtleties. I recommend for all Thelemites to study (and really study) Laurence Lampert’s brilliant commentary on Thus Spoke Zarathustra as a good starting point. I believe it will be of great benefit. This fact of course, does not diminish neither Crowley nor Nietzsche as stand alone giants.
Nietzsche gives the idea-the theory
Crowley shows the way-the practice