I am opposed, as a matter of principle, to the “dumbing down” instinct. This impulse, found throughout modern life, seeks to reduce every concept and experience to a commodity that can be pleasantly consumed by the lowest common denominator. No-where do I find this trend more noxious than in the realm of occultism. My recommendation is always to go to the source as soon as possible. Liber AL vel Legis, The Magical and Philosophical Commentaries on Liber AL vel Legis, Magick without Tears and Book 4 should clear up 75% of the problems a new student of Thelema encounters. However, I realize that three of these books are out of print, and all of them assume the reader possesses a fairly high degree of cultural capital. Many of the people approaching Thelema today will simply not have immediate access to these books, or be able to understanding them.
The need for good introductory material is genuine. I have made a point of surveying the books that presently fill this void and they are, by and large, awful. Recently, three separate conversations, with individuals new to Thelema, have made this lack distinctly felt. Since I cannot point people at good, affordable, introductory texts, I have decided to write this short orientation. I would like to note before I begin that my understanding of Thelema has evolved considerably over my life, and I fully expect it will continue to evolve. What I therefore offer here is by no means the “final word”, or even my own, personal, fixed definition. It only represents my thoughts at the time of writing, expressed as best my meager skills will allow. I hope my readers find it useful.
What Kind of Thing is Thelema?
I believe Thelema is best described as an ideology, or a paradigm. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines ideology as:
- visionary theorizing
- a systematic body of concepts especially about human life or culture
- a manner or the content of thinking characteristic of an individual, group, or culture
- the integrated assertions, theories and aims that constitute a sociopolitical program
The word literally means “the study of ideas or thoughts”. Paradigm literally means “to exhibit a pattern” and is used here in the sense of a complete model or “world-view”. Other words we could use to describe Thelema are “philosophy” and “religion”, although the last one is problematic. Why? Well, in the old sense of the term, religion is a pretty good fit, but for most people today, religion is something you trot out on Sundays, Holidays, for Weddings and Funerals and otherwise pertains only to your private, internal, beliefs about things that are fundamentally unknowable (ie: the afterlife). Religion, even among those who are deeply involved in religious life is typically synonymous with what you believe in without evidence or proof – or even in spite of contradictory evidence or proof. Thelema is not a religion in this sense. Crowley himself was aware of this difficulty. In perhaps the best introductory text to Thelema, Magick without Tears (available for free online) he wrote:
Would you describe your system as a new religion?” A pertinent question, you doubtless suppose; whether it may happen to mean anything is—is—is—well, is what we must try to make clear.
True, it’s a slogan of A∴ A∴ “The method of science—the aim of religion. Here the word “aim” and the context help the definition; it must mean the attainment of Knowledge and Power in spiritual matters—or words to that effect: as soon as one selects a phrase, one starts to kick holes in it! Yet we both know perfectly well all the time what we do mean.
But this is certainly not the sense of the word in your question. It may clear our minds, as has so often happened, if we examine it through the lens of dear old Skeat.
Religion, he says, Latin: Religion: religio, piety. Collection or paying attention to: religens as opposed to negligens, neglecting; the attitude of Gallio. But it also implies a binding together i.e. of ideas; in fact, a “body of doctrine.” Not a bad expression. A religion then, is a more or less coherent and consistent set of beliefs, with precepts and prohibitions therefrom deducible. But then there is the sense in which Frazer (and I) often use the word: as in opposition to “Science” or “Magic.” Here the point is that religious people attribute phenomena to the will of some postulated Being or Beings, placable and moveable by virtue of sacrifice, devotion, or appeal. Against such, the scientific or magical mind believes in the Laws of Nature, asserts “If A, then B”—if you do so-and-so, the result will be so-and-so, aloof from arbitrary interference…
For true Magick means “to employ one set of natural forces at a mechanical advantage as against another set”—I quote, as closely as memory serves, Thomas Henry Huxley, when he explains that when he lifts his water-jug—or his elbow—he does not “defy the Law of Gravitation.” On the contrary, he uses that Law; its equations form part of the system by which he lifts the jug without spilling the water.
To sum up, our system is a religion just so far as a religion means an enthusiastic putting-together of a series of doctrines, no one of which must in any way clash with Science or Magick.
Call it a new religion, then, if it so please your Gracious Majesty; but I confess that I fail to see what you will have gained by so doing, and I feel bound to add that you might easily cause a great deal of misunderstanding, and work a rather stupid kind of mischief.
The word does not occur in The Book of the Law. (Crowley, MWT, Ch. 31)
Philosophy is also, in my opinion, a bad term to use in describing Thelema. It avoids some of the problems that we encounter with the word religion, but implies a purely mental phenomenon. Thelema puts certain demands on its adherents that go beyond simply thinking about things in a certain way, but we will touch on that later. Thelema contains a philosophy and a religion, but is itself a larger concept.
Why Do We Need a New Ideology?
Much of this is a matter of taste. If you genuinely feel like the world around you meets your needs, and the story you have been told about the purpose of your life, where you came from, and where you are going is just fine as is, then Thelema has nothing to offer you. I have no interest in converting others. If, however, you feel like the story you’ve been told all your life just isn’t cutting it, or leaves something to be desired, then Thelema MAY be what you’re looking for, and I am happy to help point people in the right direction.
The world we inhabit is the product of our ideology. We are not always aware of it, but we experience what it is like to live under the rule of our ideology every day. For the last two-thousand odd years the controlling ideology of European and Middle-Eastern civilization has been monotheism. Even so called “atheists” and “agnostics” are still forced to borrow their moral and ethical categories from the religions of their birth culture. Many philosophers have shown how modern secular ideas are derived from religious ones. (This lies somewhat outside the scope of my essay, but I can give reading recommendations to interested parties. ) The far East, while under the sway of Buddhism until about a hundred years ago, is not terribly different from the West. Buddhism shares many fundamental properties with Christianity, and the East today is grappling with the same political problems that the West is, just from a few years behind. Taking both East and West together, Thelema posits the existence of a “ruling force” that oversees the destiny of the planet for a period of time. This is similar to the German word “Zeitgeist” or “spirit of the age”. Thelema calls this old period of the last two-thousand years “The Aeon of Osiris: The Dying and Resurrected God”, and holds that it is passing away in favor of a new period, called “The Aeon of Horus: The Crowned and Conquering Child”. While to the practicing magician these are living forces, it may be helpful, for now, to think of them as metaphors. Long before the Aeon of Osiris the world was tribal and pagan, and that zeitgeist is referred to as the “Aeon of Isis”. That was the world that monotheism replaced and it had a good run, from about 3000 BC to 500 BC. All good things must end, just as we’re experiencing today.
With the passing of the highest ideal of an older age, the world is thrown into chaos. People don’t know what to believe in anymore. What’s worth working towards? What is good? What is bad? How should men and women organize themselves in society? What does it even mean to be a human being? Is there any point to life at all? I think all my readers can relate to the pressing nature of these questions. It doesn’t take much to see the lack of answers play out in the world around us. Things are falling apart. Either you can see and feel this happening, or you can’t. If you can, it is liable to make you feel depressed, scared and confused. This only means you are more sensitive. As time goes on, the problem will be become more acute, as it has so far in our lifetime. In the preface to Liber AL, in 1904, Crowley wrote:
Above us today hangs a danger never yet paralleled in history. We suppress the individual in more and more ways. We think in terms of the herd. War no longer kills soldiers; it kills all indiscriminately. Every new measure of the most democratic and autocratic governments is Communistic in essence. It is always restriction. We are all treated as imbecile children. Dora, the Shops Act, the Motoring Laws, Sunday suffocation, the Censorship— they won’t trust us to cross the roads at will.
Fascism is like Communism, and dishonest into the bargain. The dictators suppress all art, literature, theatre, music, news, that does not meet their requirements; yet the world only moves by the light of genius. The herd will be destroyed in mass.
The establishment of the Law of Thelema is the only way to preserve individual liberty and to assure the future of the race.
Writing further on the topic, he added in The Equinox of the Gods:
The book announces a New Law for mankind. It replaces the moral and religious sanctions of the past, which have everywhere broken down, by a principle valid for each man and woman in the world, and self-evidently indefeasible. The spiritual Revolution announced by the book has already taken place: hardly a country where it is not openly manifest.
Ignorance of the true meaning of this new Law has led to gross anarchy. Its conscious adoption in its proper sense is the sole cure for the political, social and racial unrest which have brought about the World War, the catastrophe of Europe and America, and the threatening attitude of China, India and Islam. Its solution of the fundamental problems of mathematics and philosophy will establish a new epoch in history. But it must not be supposed that so potent an instrument of energy can be used without danger.
I summon, therefore, by the power and authority entrusted to me, every great spirit and mind now on this planed incarnate to take effective hold of this transcendent force, and apply it to the advancement of the welfare of the human race.
Fixing things isn’t just a matter of changing this particular policy, or that particular policy. It isn’t about electing the right party. It isn’t about trying to roll back the clock to the 1950s, or 1800s, or 1600s – even if we could do such a thing. It isn’t going to be solved by stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, nor by putting our heads in the sand and hoping it will all go away. We need to change our way of looking at the world. Cats grow from kittens. Dogs grow from puppies. The modern world grew from the controlling ideology that we set up over 2000 years ago, and we need a new one.
How Can We Change?
In the next part I will explain, as best I can, the essential features of the Thelemic model. Before I do, I’d like to spend a few minute talking about the act of changing itself. This is, perhaps, one of the hardest and most significant things one can do in any given lifetime. Ideology is in many ways nearer and dearer to us than our own lives. Consider how many people are willing to sacrifice themselves for what they believe to be good, true and beautiful, like a child, or a friend, or one’s country. That is ideology at work. The German philosophy Heidegger said that men and women must “take a stand on their being”. We are the only creatures on the Earth who must choose how to live. We are not born with this knowledge. We must discover it ourselves. In doing so, we make a statement about what life is “all about”. Even if we never write down the reasons for our choices, or even spend much time thinking about them, our actions speak louder than our words. The ancient Greeks who gave us Philosophy called this our “Ethos”, which is where we get the word “ethics”. It refers to our way of going about life. When you seek to change ideologies it follows as a matter of course that you must change your ethics. Since ethics, or morality, is about all we have left of the old ideology derived from monotheism, this change can be quite frightening. We fear that we will fall into the worst possible excesses, or will be forced by our new model to turn a blind eye towards evil, or that we are simply wrong and will be somehow punished for our transgression. I wish I could make this process of transition easier on people, but I cannot. You simply must persevere.
Sometimes we prefer to sit still, in an uncomfortable place, rather than expend the energy, and take on the risk, of change. Perhaps we’ve made mistakes in the past and are scared to make more of them. Perhaps we’ve been convinced that, even though we don’t like where we are, we aren’t really capable of change. Perhaps we think if only we could buy the right bauble, or have sex with the right person, or have the perfect body, then we’d be truly happy. I don’t mean to imply that being able to buy things isn’t great, or sex isn’t pleasurable, or health and beauty aren’t to be desired. Thelema does not deny any of these things, but they are all derivative. Remember, our lives are a product of our ideology. If we don’t change our thinking, nothing else will really change for us. We might get more stuff, but our life will have the same, fundamental “flavor” that it does now. Despite the difficultly involved in creating change through our own will, we really have nothing to lose.
The good news is that you are not alone. There are others out there who have made this transition and are usually willing to help sincere aspirants. I can tell you from personal experience that the rewards of even minor success on this road are beautiful and glorious beyond description. If you do start to feel overwhelmed, this is actually a good sign. Many people identify with Thelema as a kind of fashion statement. They think it makes them look cool, or edgy, but they remain internally just as dominated by the ethics of the old Aeon as they were before they encountered Thelema. These people never get anywhere. Many of them drift in and out of occult groups their whole lives, or spend their time trying to convince others of their authority. Whatever difficulty you may be struggling with, if you are sincere and avoid hubris you will be better off than these people. Finally, while difficult, the transition from the Old Aeon to the New is not impossible. The steps along the journey are already laid out. The reading lists are there and the exercises are publically available. So long as you stay true to yourself, study the core material, and refuse to give up, you will have success.
With courage conquering fear shall ye approach me: ye shall lay down your heads upon mine altar, expecting the sweep of the sword.
But the first kiss of love shall be radiant on your lips; and all my darkness and terror shall turn to light and joy. (Crowley, Liber Tzaddi, 16-17)