By Frater Parrhesia
“I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious, I break them. I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do.”― Robert A. Heinlein
Disclaimer: The author does not intend to suggest that all Thelemites should be Anarchists, nor that anarchism is inherently Thelemic. This essay simply aims at developing a theory of Anarchism rooted in the core concepts of Love and Will articulated by Aleister Crowley, founder of the philosophy of Thelema. The author denies any ambition in stirring up revolutionary sentiments, as people’s desire for revolution is ever present, so long as they continue to bear the burden of oppression and exploitation. This is merely an exercise in philosophy, representing an attempt to understand the current social, political and economic crisis in terms of some of the most radical philosophical systems still circulating in obscure subcultures: Anarchism and Thelema.
At the turn of 20th century, the infamous occult philosopher Aleister Crowley boldly proclaimed that his revelation of Law of Thelema, or “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law”, would usher in a New Aeon that would liberate humanity from the superstition and tyranny of past religious and political institutions. Of course, these ideas were not new, but had been asserted by anarchist philosophers for over a hundred years, with roots in the Enlightenment ideal of the human rights to individual liberty and social equality. It is more than likely that Crowley was well acquainted with the radical political philosophies in circulation throughout his life, and was certainly well aware of the philosophy of the Enlightenment. Still, Crowley’s formulation of the philosophy of Thelema was historically unique in many respects, and added a powerful psychological/spiritual dimension that was typically neglected in the critique of the State presented by Classical Liberalism, especially lacking in the movement known as Anarchism.
More often than not, Anarchism implies a bitter atheism rooted in a vehement rejection of the cycles of abuse justified and perpetuated by organized religion. Somewhere in the rhetoric of the denunciation of authority, the Spirit is lost, as if spiritually itself were tyrannical. But the Spirit, by whatever name it is called, is a force of liberation, as well as a source of inspiration. Why not drink from the well of Life, Love, Liberty, and Light? Why not work together to encourage self awareness through spiritual practices, such as ritual and meditation? Perhaps Anarchism would not be so prone to hopeless apathy, or self destructive nihilism, if more Anarchists made an attempt to overthrow the tyranny of their own minds. Then they might be able to develop more effective strategies of dismantling the systemic ignorance dominating modern civilization, while learning to create more sustainable social structures that directly reflect the Will of the People, or rather the various wills of diverse peoples.
Thus, it seems that Anarchists could learn a lot from the study of Thelema, and Thelemites could learn a great deal from Anarchism. In any case, the purpose of this essay is not to argue for an anarchist Thelema, or imply that all thelemites should embrace anarchism; rather the aim is to develop a theory of Thelemic Anarchism, or to infuse anarchist thought with the ethical philosophy formulated by Crowley in his attempts to map out the practical and political implications of Thelema. Upon reflection, these two philosophies appear not only to be compatible, but complementary, and worthy of careful consideration. Of course, it is the responsibility of each individual to arrive at their own conclusions, but hopefully this essay will provoke further reflection and discussion on the subject.
To avoid unnecessary confusion, some basic definitions should be clarified at the outset. It is common practice in philosophy to attempt to define significant terms as precisely as possible, so that the reader knows exactly what the author means by the words one chooses. This is especially critical when dealing with the controversial, even subversive, ideas associated with Thelema and Anarchism. So please forgive this digression.
First, the word “Thelema” is being used in the broadest sense to signify the philosophical system of Aleister Crowley, including all of his ethical and metaphysical speculations. “Thelemic” is simply used to denote anything that has incorporated some aspect of Thelema, but the title “Thelemite” is reserved for those who self-identify as such, those who consciously embrace Thelema in theory and practice. These terms are not being used in any elitist or orthodox manner, to determine which schools of Thelema are more Thelemic, or who is a “real” Thelemite and who is just a poser. Ultimately, it is up to each individual to arrive at one’s own conclusions based on personal experience. Further, this sort of debate lies beyond the scope of this essay, so these definitions will have to suffice.
Next, the word “Anarchy” needs some clarification, since there are two very different definitions in circulation, which are almost diametrically opposed. The most common use of the word simply signifies chaos, lawlessness, “no rules”, or the lack of structure. It is worth noting that this first definition is the one pushed by those who oppose Anarchism, in an attempt to discredit the philosophy without giving it a proper hearing. The Anarchists, to the contrary, use the word to refer to a decentralized system of self-government, where individuals are responsible for collaborating with other individuals, so as to design social institutions that actually represent the various interests of the diverse individuals who participate in them. This second definition of “Anarchy” is the one intended throughout this article.
Likewise, the word Anarchist is not meant as a derogatory label, to denounce the lawless behavior of terrorists and other criminals, as habitually misused by mainstream media and politicians on the Left and Right. Rather, an Anarchist is one who subscribes to one of the many sub-genres of the philosophy of Anarchism, such as those variants invented by classical philosophers like Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, or developed by later theorists like Emma Goldman, Colin Ward, and Noam Chomsky. In this article, the Anarchists will define Anarchism for themselves, and it will be up to the reader to determine to what extent this philosophy is compatible with that of Thelema.
First it must be emphasized that Crowley never explicitly endorsed Anarchism, or any other political theory. Indeed, most of his political commentary appears to be polemic, merely denouncing existing ideas and ideologies; or wildly speculative, musing on the possibility of developing societies designed to maximize human potential. So it would be misleading to suggest that Crowley himself was an Anarchist, even if many of his ideas strongly suggest the basic tenets of Anarchism. Still, Crowley certainly embraced many Anarchist ideas and integrated them into his own philosophy. Whether he intentionally borrowed from Anarchism or not, he was certainly aware of the similarities that Thelema shared with the Anarchists, and made several comments about Anarchism throughout his writing.
At one point, Crowley made the interesting remark that “I am not an Anarchist in your sense of the word: your brain is too dense for any known explosive to affect it. I am not an Anarchist in your sense of the word: fancy a Policeman let loose on Society.” (Book of Lies) Aside from the obvious humor of this statement, it is an odd way to deny being an Anarchist. In any case, the quote clearly states what sort of Anarchist Crowley is not, namely one that advocates terrorism since no explosive will affect meaningful change. Crowley goes on to say that he “sees no use in the employment of such feeble implements as bombs.” At that time in history, a small but vocal group of Anarchists had been advocating “propaganda of the deed” which was merely a euphemism for revolutionary violence.
Still, the above quote implies that Crowley may be an Anarchist, just not in that sense. So then, in what sense might Crowley have an Anarchist? Crowley ends this little poetic rant about Anarchism with the pointed comment, “Every “emancipator” has enslaved the free.” Thus it seems Crowley surpasses even the Anarchists in his quest for Liberty. He goes on to explain that he disagrees “with the aim of the Anarchists, since, although Anarchists themselves need no restraint… yet policemen, unless most severely repressed, would be dangerous wild beasts.” Again, poking fun at the police. Why? It seems that Crowley is using the police officer as an image of the baser emotions of humanity, those which seek to dominate and control others. It is from this angle, that he says “While there exists… any man who falls far short of MYSELF — I am against Anarchy, and for Feudalism (Book of Lies),” clearly acknowledging that Anarchism would only work if the masses of people were to achieve a higher stage of moral development.
Now, what is Crowley getting at advocating a regressive system like Feudalism? Well it seems he is being extreme to get his point across. It is not enough to “liberate the people,” since true freedom requires genuine responsibility. Indeed, if the people lack the responsibility to handle freedom, they might fare better under the rule of a King. Of course, some Thelemites stop there and insist that we return to a sort of Neo-Feudalism, since most people are too stupid to rule themselves. But Crowley clearly had something more in mind, and went on to develop a political philosophy that does not resemble Feudalism in the least.
As usual, it seems that Crowley was toying with the minds and emotions of his readers, trying to provoke them to think in new and unusual ways. Thus Crowley insists that, “The only solution of the Social Problem is the creation of a class with the true patriarchal feeling, and the manners and obligations of chivalry,” which sounds about as conservative as you can get (even in his day). But taken in the context of the above statement on Anarchism, it is clear that he is speaking metaphorically about the need for those who have attained higher stages of moral development to guide those who have not. As a loving parent guides the child to develop “manners” and “chivalry,” not to dominate, but to liberate the child; so society requires proper guidance if it is to ascend to the next stage of social and political development.
Regarding leadership, Crowley’s speculations about the political implications of Thelema are insightful and provocative. In his Confessions, Crowley insists that Thelema,
“offers to every individual the fullest satisfaction of his true aspirations; and it supplies a justification for all types of political systems beyond the criticisms which have undermined all previous theories of government. There is no need for the fraud of divine right or the cant of democracy. The right of the ruler to rule depends solely upon the scientific proof of his fitness to do so, and this proof is capable of confirmation by the evidence of the experience that his measures really result in enabling each individual in his jurisdiction to fulfill his own peculiar function as freely as possible.” (Confessions)
Although this statement differs from the position of Anarchism in its optimism about designing a government that would enable “each individual in his jurisdiction to fulfill his own peculiar function as freely as possible” (Confessions), it shares the sentiment that a just society would offer “to every individual the fullest satisfaction of his true aspirations.” The main difference seems to be in the definition of government. Anarchism historically used the term government, or the State, to refer to an institution that was inherently despotic, as all governments have been throughout human history. In its place, Anarchists advocate non-coercive forms of social organization. In this sense of the word, Crowley is not promoting governmental control at all, but a very sophisticated form of social organization. Again, it is very important to understand that different authors differ in their use of keywords, especially in philosophy.
As Kropotkin was one of the more articulate Anarchist philosophers, his definition of Anarchism will suffice for the purpose of this exploration. Kropotin defines Anarchism as, “the ideal of a society where each governs himself according to his own will. (Anarchism)” In sharp contrast to the authoritarian Communism of Marx, Kropotkin advanced the idea of Anarchist Communism which he referred to as “the no-government system of socialism.” He further describes this system as a “political organization of society… where the functions of government are reduced to a minimum, and the individual recovers his full liberty of initiative and action for satisfying, by means of free groups and federations — freely constituted — all the infinitely varied needs of the human being.” (Anarchism) Indeed, it sounds as though Kropotkin envisioned an ideal society for the development and realization of the Will of the Individual, one that is quite compatible with the philosophy of Thelema.
Kropotkin does not think of Anarchism in the vulgar sense of “no rules” as it is commonly defined, but as no rulers. The basic idea being that in the ideal Anarchist society each individual would rule oneself. Of course, this may sound like a stretch in today’s society, as it certainly did in Kropotkin’s Russia. Throughout history the masses of humanity have been stunted and not allowed to develop their full potential. Thus Kropotkin recognized the necessity of human development, saying that Anarchism “seeks the most complete development of individuality combined with the highest development of voluntary association in all its aspects, in all possible degrees, for all imaginable aims.” It must be understood that the individual in an Anarchist society would be quite different from the people of modern industrialized societies who have been bred for servitude. Rather, the people would be raised for freedom and solidarity, so as to be well adapted to participate in “ever changing, ever modified associations which carry in themselves the elements of their durability and constantly assume new forms, which answer best to the multiple aspirations of all.”(Anarchism) With this more enlightened definition of Anarchism in mind, rather than the vulgar one Crowley was mocking, it seems there would be no conflict with the principles of Thelema at all.
Anarchism in this refined sense is a critique of the individual as much as it is of political institutions. Kropotkin foresaw the necessity of social and personal development, recognizing all too clearly the emotional fragility of industrial society. Most people look at the horrors of history, perpetuated up to the present, with fatalistic indifference; shirking responsibility, they prefer to ignore disturbing details. But Kropotkin saw historical cruelty not as divine fate, or an inherent flaw in human nature, but as the inevitable consequence of the series of abuses humanity has endured for the last several millennia. He understood that the cycle of abuse must be stopped if there is to be any meaningful improvement in the future. Instead of giving into hopeless apathy, he set out to dismantle the prejudices that perpetuate the institutions of war and slavery.
Kropotkin recognized that most people can scarcely imagine the possibility of moving beyond the tragic past, thus Anarchism seems little more than a utopian fantasy. He addresses this issue, stating that “It is often said that Anarchists live in a world of dreams to come, and do not see the things which happen today. We do see them only too well, and in their true colors, and that is what makes us carry the hatchet into the forest of prejudice that besets us.” (Anarchism) From this statement it is clear that Anarchism is not founded upon a denial of reality, but on the direct confrontation with the beliefs and values which enable systemic corruption, oppression and exploitation. Thus Anarchism vehemently rejects all forms of authoritarianism, whether of government, religion, education or of the family; for it is the abuse of power, inherent in the exercise of arbitrary authority, which is at the root of most human sorrow. These abusive relationships, where the one dominates the other, produce the wide range of abuses that plague humanity. This is the cause of the majority of preventable suffering for humanity; thus anarchism seeks to destroy domination in all its forms.
Of course, many will protest that Anarchism is just too negative, too pessimistic about the role of the State. It is thought that Anarchy is a destructive force; only tearing apart, never repairing. But this assumption is false, as Anarchism is rooted in optimism for the potential of the individual to thrive when fully liberated from State control. Thus the Anarchist is wholly committed to the evolution of humanity, not merely the destruction of the State. As Kropotkin says,
“But it is not enough to destroy… That is why Anarchy, when it works to destroy authority in all its aspects, when it demands the abrogation of laws and the abolition of the mechanism that serves to impose them, when it refuses all hierarchical organization and preaches free agreement — at the same time strives to maintain and enlarge the precious kernel of social customs without which no human or animal society can exist.”Anarchism
Of course, this precious kernel is Love. Thus the Anarchists work in solidarity with all humanity, not content to liberate any subsection of society at the expense of some other. This position ultimately rests on the belief that each individual has the right to live as one Will, as the ultimate expression of a universal love for life. Thus the Anarchism of Kropotkin, and that represented by the more enlightened anarchist philosophers, is anything but nihilistic. In fact, this idea of Anarchy is diametrically opposed to the vulgar definition so often abused. Far from a digression into chaos, Anarchism represents an ascent into a higher form of social organization. Thus the Anarchist works to take the power away from the State and put it back in the hands of the people to which it belongs.
An Aristocratic Anarchist
It seems that Crowley may have been part of this more refined school of Anarchism that consistently advocated for the freedom of individuals to take control over their own lives, but recognized political aggression as a barbaric practice that generally did more harm than good. Further, unlike many socialists (including Anarchists) who resented the Aristocracy, and wanted to level everyone to the condition of the proletariat, Crowley recognized the value of aristocratic culture. He summarizes his political stance succinctly in one of his journals, saying, “I have a Socialistic or Anarchistic brain, but an Aristocrat’s heart; hence constant muddle not in myself, but in others who observe me.” (“The Urn”) Indeed, this statement explains a great deal about some of the apparent contradictions in Crowley’s ethics and politics.
For Crowley, it was never a matter of choosing between this or that ideology; he considered the relative value of each and then constructed his own system, integrating whatever ideas made sense in his experience. So it might be said that Cowley both was and was not an Anarchist, depending on what sense the word is used in. Elsewhere Crowley says, “I’m certainly not an anarchist for the family is the smallest and so vilest unit of government, nor a Socialist, for the State is the largest human unit.” But here he seems to be using these words in a different sense. In this statement Crowley is contrasting the interests of the Individual (or family unit) with those of the State, recognizing that neither extreme would allow for proper social organization. Then he goes on to conclude that he wants “a Patriarchal-Feudal system run by initiated Kings.” (The Magical Diaries of TO META OHIPION: 32) Now if the term “patriarchal-feudal” is understood metaphorically, as suggested, it is clear that Crowley is acknowledging the fact that people require the guidance of teachers. Just as children require the guidance of responsive parents to achieve their fullest potential, so society needs enlightened leaders who will guide the development of civilization from one stage to the next.
Further, it should be understood that Crowley was not referring to “the aristocracy of birth or of the purse,” as Ibsen wrote, but “the aristocracy of character, or will, of mind.” (Ibsen) To understand Crowley’s use of the word Aristocrat, one need only break the word apart. Aristo-cracy simply means the rule of the best. It is a mistake to assume that the best are necessarily the rich, as the ruling class has always claimed. The rule of the best, taken literally, would mean that those best fit for leadership would lead. Further, Aristocracy takes on a more subtle meaning in a Thelemic context, for it implies the need for each individual to be ruled by the best part of themselves, the Will. For, as Crowley put it, “The ‘lords of the earth’ are those who are doing their Will.” He goes on to explain that “It does not necessarily mean people with coronets and automobiles [symbols of status in his day]; there are plenty of such people who are the most sorrowful slaves in the world.” No, for Crowley, “The sole test of one’s lordship is to know what one’s true Will is, and to do it.” (The Commentaries of AL) So for Crowley, Aristocracy had nothing to do with the inbred snobbery which usually goes by that name, rather the term Aristocrat was used to describe the personal attainment of one who had developed the capacity to lead.
In reality, Crowley was many things at once; never one to be pinned down to a single system. This makes it very difficult to discern his exact position on any given point, especially in relation to politics and ethics. As he had devoted his life to embracing that one thing that is all things, he came to recognize that all human ideologies were merely shadows cast on reality by the fear and ignorance of humanity. Although each thought may be correct in its limited sphere, it is ultimately false. Perhaps this is one of the most valuable lessons that Crowley taught as requisite to make any progress in the practice of Magick, the capacity to suspend identification with any idea but the one idea wherein all ideas dissolve into nought. Crowley seems to have attempted to integrate this understanding in formulating the social and ethical implications of the philosophy of Thelema, as he had within his own soul. Indeed, this is certainly a crucial skill when it comes to analyzing political theory, one sorely lacking in contemporary politics.
Unfortunately, most people are completely incapable of holding two opposing viewpoints at one time, much less the myriad perspectives represented throughout a diverse population like the United States, much less of the World. Thus people cling to their party line for safety, in fear of the threat of actually having to think about all the problems facing humanity, let alone confront and resolve their own petty personal dramas. But it is no wonder, since the citizenry of all industrialized nations have been factory farmed into submission. The children are taught to memorize the one right answer, or punished and ridiculed if they fail to conform to whatever social norms their teachers, parents, and peers enforce. As a rule, they grow up unable to think critically about the intricacies of various ideologies, to break the systems down into their most basic components, to recognize which parts are valid, which need improvement, and which may as well be discarded.
This is why Anarchists have always advocated for progressive pedagogy, for the viability of Anarchism has always rested on the possibility of educating children in compassion and solidarity. Contrary to popular opinion, Anarchists do not advocate a descent into barbarism, into the brutal war of all against all. Rather, Anarchism is founded upon the premise of the perfectibility of human nature, not that humans are perfect by nature, but that humanity has the potential for perpetual improvement. Thus, nearly all Anarchist thought pivots on the idea of education as the primary method of preparing future generations for the responsibility of freedom.
Crowley’s own thoughts on education mirrors that of the classical Anarchists in many respects. (See The Pedagogy of Thelema by Frater Parrhesia for a thorough analysis of Crowley’s philosophy of education.) Like many Anarchist philosophers before him, Crowley advocated progressive methods of education which respected the individuality of the child. The essential idea being that all children deserve an aristocratic education so that they might develop their full potential. The pedagogy of Anarchism follows from the understanding that children must be raised with abundant freedom if they are to acquire the social responsibility essential for personal liberty. Likewise, the pedagogy of Thelema recognizes that the freedom of children to explore their own interests is essential to the development of Will.
Rather than advocating a return to the arbitrary hierarchies institutionalized in Feudalism, Crowley championed a true meritocracy where each individual would be enabled to do what they did best. Indeed this would be Aristocracy in the best sense of the word, a world in which those who were best suited for each occupation would have an opportunity to fulfill that function. But in order for everyone to be the best they can be at whatever it is they do, children need a chance to explore their aspirations and abilities, from birth into adulthood. What better way to encourage the individual to know and do the Will? What better way to ensure that the future of humanity comes to embrace the Law of Liberty?
Towards Some Conclusion
It should be understood that every Thelemite is at liberty to develop their own interpretations of the Book of the Law, in reference to the confusing and often contradictory commentaries of Aleister Crowley. Thus it is no surprise that Thelemites will come to understand the Law in vastly different ways. Like the current of Thelema, Anarchism has come to mean many things to many different people. In fact, there are so many different schools of Anarchism, with drastically varying understandings of Anarchy, it is misleading to speak of Anarchism without some qualification. One might even argue that respect for diversity and individuality is inherent to Anarchist theory, so that it is inevitable that philosophers of Anarchism will deviate from the philosophies of their predecessors and contemporaries in critical ways. The same might be said of Thelema. No doubt there are some orthodox Thelemites out there, who adhere to an almost fundamentalist vision of Thelema. But alas they just represent one point of view among the infinite perspectives embraced by individual Thelemites.
In the same vein, this essay merely presents one more perspective. The aim is not to convert anyone to “Thelemic Anarchism” but only to provoke some serious thought on the intersection of Anarchy and Thelema. The hope is that by opening up discussion on these topics, the broader Thelemic community will be encouraged to reflect upon the social, political, and economic implications of the ethics of Thelema. Further, many Anarchists could gain a great deal from exploring some of the mythical interpretations of the spirit of anarchism, conveyed in the poetic philosophy of Aleister Crowley.
Further, Thelema presents people with a system of personal evolution which develops the state of mind necessary for genuine freedom, at least if the practices are taken seriously. Thus Anarchism would do well to integrate the Thelemic ideal of developing the Will through a series of graduated exercises. Even if the idea of Magick strikes most Anarchists as rather absurd, there is much to be said about training the mind, and strengthening the Will. At the very least, the Anarchists might recognize the Thelemite as an ally, for the Thelemite seeks to do internally, what the Anarchist struggles for externally.
In some sense, the philosophy of Thelema might be understood as a natural, if not inevitable, development of philosophical anarchism; a sort of religious anarchism, to complement the political theories that developed the previous century. No self respecting individualist would ever bow down to any tyrant, whether human or divine; yet the religious impulse persists, even plaguing the most adamant atheists. Indeed, much of new age thought is part of this development as well, but Crowley seems to have been particularly self conscious of the philosophical foundations of his thought, whether or not he cited his sources.
Yes, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law,” presents a powerful motto which encapsulates the Spirit of Anarchism in a single sentence. The philosophy of Will articulated by Aleister Crowley in elaboration of this statement provides a solid foundation upon which to build a fresh understanding of Anarchism. At least, the aim of this essay is to demonstrate how the Thelemic understanding of Will might inspire the Anarchists of the future to develop a more sophisticated approach to reconciling the conflicting interests of diverse individuals. Perhaps most importantly, this formulation of Thelemic Anarchism is intended to provide a counter-narrative to the rise of neo-fascism in modern Thelema.
Let it be known that there are countless ways to interpret the ethical and political implications of the Law, but that any ideology that seeks to usurp the right of the individual to live as one Will is not Thelemic. It does not matter how one identifies politically, whether one leans to the left or the right, so long as one recognizes that “there is no law beyond do what thou wilt,” and that “the law is for all.” Any philosophy that falls short of this realization is not worthy of the name Thelema. The same could be said to Anarchism, as no philosophy that advocates the domination of any individual or group by any other individual or group is worthy of the name Anarchy. So let the Thelemites and Anarchists work together in “love under Will” towards the fulfillment of the New Aeon, the liberation of humanity from the plagues of superstition and tyranny.
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