by Vincent St. Clare
I’ve been accused a few times of trying to turn Thelema into something it’s not, of attempting to somehow create for myself a type of Thelema that fits my own version of how this philosophy and spiritual path should operate. While I’ll concede that I’ve come to terms with The Book of the Law and many of Crowley’s writings in my own way, I don’t deny other Thelemites their own personal understandings of Thelema, so I ask: why should you deny me mine?
In fact, why shouldn’t there be as many versions of Thelema out there as there are Thelemites? “Every man and every woman is a star,” after all, and if this is the case, and we are, after all, in our own particular orbits, going forth and shining brilliantly (like such stars, as Crowley analogized) as individuals as we do so, why shouldn’t we each get to determine for ourselves what this path means for us?
“Every man and woman is not only a part of God, but the Ultimate God,” Crowley once wrote. Indeed, he stated that “the Individual is the Autarch” in Magick Without Tears, and noting that, wouldn’t this autarch, let alone Ultimate God, have some say in what they can reasonably decide to think?!
In fact, Liber OZ states unequivocally that “man has the right to think what he will” Notice, if you read OZ, that there is no addendum to the “think” clause. (Or any of the others, for that matter.)
A lot of this probably seems redundant, but I bring it up to make a certain point: there seems to be this trend in Thelema that there are increasing numbers of Thelemites present in our community who assume there is an orthodox and orthopraxic take on the path that needs to be believed and practiced in a certain way by other Thelemites, respectively, in order to even make them Thelemites. However, we shouldn’t need to codify the path for others, and I’ll tell you why.
First of all, let’s begin at the beginning, so to speak (emphasis mine). “Do what thou wilt shall be the WHOLE of the law,” we read in the various Thelemic texts, most notably Liber AL. It is, as we see the whole of the Law, the whole law, and, furthermore (emphasis mine), “There is no law beyond Do what thou wilt.” These phrases, taken primarily from The Book of the Law, seem to be insisting that there’s really no dogma in Thelema beyond the Law of Thelema itself. What, then, do we make of the rest: the issues of deities, magick, mysticism, planes, Qabalah, tarot, and all the other cognate topics Crowley wrote on?
I would say that beyond the Law itself, the rest of the Thelemic system, inasmuch as it is a system, is made up of strong suggestions at best, and minor suggestions at the periphery.
For many Thelemites, this rank of importance may look like something akin to taking The Holy Books of Thelema, or the Class A texts—and namely Liber AL—most importantly, and placing the rest of Crowley’s writings on a secondary rung. But of course, we can’t be certain of the beliefs or practices of all or even most Thelemites: I’m only speculating here.
Regardless, a common theme is that there’s a thing for hanging onto every word Crowley wrote, even if it was a footnote in a diary, as if it’s infallible dogma, at the very least among some Thelemites. Now I’ll admit that Crowley was naturally and most likely a good judge of his own experience, especially when it came to things like, say, the practice of ritual magick, or the reception or writing of Liber AL; additionally, as the founder and chief source of primary material on Thelema, it makes sense that one would look to his work for information on the topic. And so no one can blame you for lending him an ear on the various subjects making up the Thelema-sphere, but ultimately there’s no topic which Crowley wrote on for which he is the infallible guide. Crowley is not some kind of pope, and his word is not to be believed without questioning.
As he himself wrote (emphasis mine): “I do not want to father a flock, to be the fetish of fools and fanatics or the founder of a faith whose followers are content to echo my opinions. I want each man to cut his own way through the jungle.”
He also actively praised doubt, as, for instance, in The Book of Lies: “I slept with faith and found a corpse in my arms on awakening; I drank and danced all night with doubt and found her a virgin in the morning.”
The dogmatism that, whether actual or simply a misrepresentation, appears to be an aspect of Thelema, drives some people away from the path. It has certainly driven some to chaos magic, which often appears (and perhaps rightly so) to onlookers to be a less precept-leaden alternative.
Part of rejecting blind dogmatism when it comes to Thelema is learning to appreciate the context in which Liber AL, The Holy Books, Crowley’s works generally, and works on the topic of Thelema more broadly, were written, as well as learning to appreciate Crowley’s biases and potential errors and the biases and errors of various Thelemic authors. No-one is incapable of committing a logical fallacy, or committing one to writing. Additionally, knowing when it’s best to utilize reason over faith is extremely helpful. (This isn’t to say faith is never warranted.)
It’s also a fact that Crowley published a number of contradictions in his writings—that, or his opinions on things changed over time—and so, if one is to believe him on the reality or falsity of certain topics, one may actively have to choose which “Crowley” to believe.
This then brings us to the question: what exactly do we believe Crowley on at all? And why? Again we are met with the fact that the whole of the Law is laid out for us very simply, in one phrase (and its follow-up: “Love is the law…”), and the rest of the system of Thelema, inasmuch as it is a system, is at best a series of exhortations to believe or practice in a particular way or from among a certain spectrum of ways. Yet an exhortation is not an absolute demand, and we are led back to the fact that we are only ever to do something if it is our true will.
This is why I actively cherry-pick Crowley, and why I make no fuss about other Thelemites doing the same. Crowley wrote so much material, some of it in which he changes his mind over time, some of it in which his views have become dated, some of it in which his views appear simply to clash with what we know about the universe, and some of which, most importantly, one simply may not agree. And, given that “man has the right to think what he will,” should one not only admit into one’s belief system those things which one finds meaningful and reasonable?
“Act passionately; think rationally; be Thyself,” we read in Liber Librae. How can one act passionately if one has no individuality from which to act, if all one’s actions (or more specifically spiritual practices) are informed by the opinion of one man, as opposed to differing sources or one’s own ingenium? And how can one think rationally if, instead of placing critical thinking at the helm of one’s operation in the world, one places blind faith in stultifying and uncompromising dogma, for which one would refuse to see any alternative? And how can one be oneself if, instead of being defined by going along their own particular path through the universe, they simply tread Crowley’s (or someone else’s, for that matter), instead?
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8 thoughts on “The Multiplicity of Thelemas”
Demons don’t lurk in your doubts. They reign in your certainties.
Nicely put, this isn’t a dogmatic religion/belief system, so people shouldn’t act as if it is.
“..how can one think rationally if, instead of placing critical thinking at the helm of one’s operation in the world, one places blind faith in stultifying and uncompromising dogma, for which one would refuse to see any alternative?” How much better the world might be if there was a much wider application of that question. Excellent article.
“Why shouldn’t there be as many versions of Thelema out there as there are Thelemites?”
Simply because their is no need for different “versions” of Thelema. Thelema is *not* your will, it’s the doctrine that you should do your will, which is already elastic enough in theory to encompass any will you could think of. Of course there are some ethical implications as well which would prevent people from claiming that their harmful deeds are valid because it was their will. “Love under will” implies that “love” does not supersede consent, if we were to change this then it would no longer be Thelema; you can do your will but your will does not equal or necessitate a new form of Thelema.
There is no way to deny someone their own personal understanding, that is the only understanding they can have but that does not mean that their understanding cannot be wrong if it flies in the face of various axioms and pointing that out to them should not be seen as something negative.
There’s plenty to criticize/question Crowley over, that does not mean that Thelema is just whatever I decide to make it.
The first principle of the growth of the Order as of all living things is modulation or variation; uniformity is to be detested as a symbol of death. – LIBER CCIV
Let Him then utter that without Fear, that the Law may be fulfilled. And according to His Original Nature will that law be shapen, so that one may declare gentleness and quietness, being an Hindu; and another fierceness and servility, being a Jew; and yet another ardour and manliness, being an Arab. Yet this matter toucheth the mystery of Incarnation, and is not here to be declared.- LIBER I
These rituals need not be slavishly imitated; on the contrary the student should do nothing the object of which he does not understand; also, if he have any capacity whatever, he will find his own crude rituals more effective than the highly polished ones of other people. – LIBER VI
In order to appreciate the actual working of the system, it is necessary to visit our Profess-Houses.
-LIBER CLXI (Concerning the Law of Thelema)
14. Every Profess-House should develop strongly its own specific tradition, and the individuality of that tradition, by the initiation of customs peculiar to itself. The model may be a madhouse or a university, a nunnery or a brothel; this matters nothing; intrinsic strength, and power of adaptability to environment will survive and grow. But intensity of tradition, and peculiarity of custom, will tend to limit the growth and prevent it from attaining unwieldy proportions.
– LIBER CCIV (Of Eden and the sacred Oak)
Why shouldn’t there be as many versions of Thelema out there as there are Thelemites?
Simply because there is no need for other “versions” of Thelema. Thelema is *not* your will, it is the doctrine that you should do your will and is elastic enough to encompass almost any will you could think of, so long as it doesn’t violate one of the ethical axioms of Thelema. Example: “love under will” implies that “love” does not supersede consent, if we were to change this then Thelema would no longer be Thelema.
There is no way to deny someone their own personal understanding of something, their understanding is by necessity how they understand it. This does not mean that their understanding cannot be wrong if it flies in the face of various axioms.
You’re free to do your will & think as you like about Thelema, but your will does not equate to or necessitate a new “version” of Thelema.
There is plenty of things to question/criticize Crowley over, that doesn’t mean Thelema is just whatever I decide to make it.
Tank you everyone for all the comments. I should say that my thoughts on the matter presented in this essay are evolving, and have evolved to an extent, after I read Entelecheia’s essay, published here, on “consensus Thelema.” Entelecheia and IAO131 also did a great video, now published on YouTube, about the interpretation of Thelema. These works have influenced my view to some degree or another.