Whither Thelema? Part One

1905 Aleister Crowley

I imagine that no one who has taken the time to read the works of Aleister Crowley with an open mind has not, at some point, felt inspired by his vision of human freedom, open inquiry and spiritual attainment. I also cannot imagine how any stable and emotionally mature adult, spending any time in or around the organizations that claim to carry on his work today, could come away with a favourable impression.  From the high promise of the source material, we fall to the present manifest reality of mismanagement and dysfunction. What are we to make of this vast discrepancy?

Aristotle tells us that causation is four-fold: material, formal, efficient and final.   In the case of an object, say a vase, the material cause is the porcelain out of which it was cast.  The form is the shape of a vase into which the porcelain was thrown.  The efficient cause was the craftsman who shaped, fired, and lacquered it into being.  The final cause was the purpose for which it was created.  In this case, as an attractive holder for flowers.  It should be noted that the thing we are examining here is not an object but something more abstract: the current state of a culture, or to put a finer point on it a small collection of overlapping organizations.  Nevertheless, I believe we can use this model to good effect if we phrase the question as “What is the primary cause, of the failure of Thelema, to establish itself as a mature and viable movement in the world today?”

The material state of the community could be viewed as the collected assets controlled by the organizations that make it up, both people and property.  A failure on this level would be a simple lack of resources.   The solution here would be membership drives and fund-raising.   It would also mean that one of the other three causal factors: formal, efficient or final, were not at fault.  This makes a failure at the material cause level an attractive “solution”, since it requires no deeper criticism:  “Thelema just needs more time and effort.  That is all.  Show up and help out and all will be well.”   Part what makes this diagnosis attractive is that it is obviously true to some extent. Anyone from even a moderately stable background knows that the community lacks material status.  The organizations are poor, and the members are few, disorganized, and generally lacking in high achievement.  Going to a deeper cause requires investigation and argument, skills most people lack.  Everyone prefers to use the tools with which they are familiar.  This is, I believe, the primary reason for movements like “AC2012”, haphazard attempts to independently publish public domain source materials, conversion missions (aka: “outreach”), bake-sales and other funding drives, and like endeavours.  People remember these mechanisms from similar non-profits they were involved with in the past and attempt to import them without examination.  They are ways to try and address the lack of a sufficient “material cause”, while avoiding the three deeper possible factors.

The question is not if this form of causation is lacking (which is an obvious yes), but rather if it is the primary cause?  Over the last several decades many people, some highly invested, some even formally trained in non-profit strategy and group management, have tried to improve the community on this level, yet we are no better off, and in many cases worse off – materially, than we were twenty years ago.  Moreover, Thelema as a movement has existed for over a hundred years!  One would think that by now some organization would have managed to purchase a building.  This sad state of affairs argues strongly against locating the source of dysfunction at the material level.   We must go deeper.

The formal cause would be the structures of the organizations which make up the community.  While there are dozens of small groups that could be called “Thelemic” to some extent, in the main the Thelemic community is dominated by two organizations: the OTO, and the AA.   Most of the smaller groups are modelled on one of these two.  For example, even Wicca began as an adaptation of the OTO lodge structure, and the TOS titles evolved directly from the AA.  To locate our primary cause here would be to argue that the structure of these organizations runs counter to Thelemic principles, and therefore the subsequent failure of these organizations to establish themselves materially, as we described above, is derivative of their inherently inappropriate structures.  This argument has been put forward by others before – typically arguing against the strict hierarchies that make up these organizations, and suggesting that they should become “more inclusive” or “more open”.   Since “openness” and “inclusion” are popular buzzwords, this diagnosis seems satisfying to many who leave the major organizations, but wish to remain affiliated with the movement itself, as a personal ideology or identity.

The problems here are two-fold.  Firstly, this criticism implies a knowledge of what constitutes fundamental Thelemic principles.  Adherents of this critique often bring up quotes from the source material that seem to support their view, but this is insufficient.  Isolated quotes may be suggestive, but they are by no means authoritative.  A comprehensive analysis is needed and therefore to make this argument is to push the problem back further to the question of final causes, or at the very least efficient causes.   It is glib and superficial to assume we grasp the fundamental principles of Thelema merely because we are able to register our dissatisfaction.   Second, while there are certainly fewer people inclined to locate the primary cause of Thelema’s failure on this level, there have been many experiments in creating small groups organized in different ways.  None of these have risen even to the level of the OTO, let alone an organization the size of a moderate church or synagogue, or even a more mainstream offshoot movement, like Scientology.  Furthermore, today’s OTO and AA are not exact reproductions frozen in amber.  Rather, they are evolving interpretations of the source material.  The leaders of these groups have considerable leeway in how they interpret the original design.  They also have a great deal of sympathy with modern liberal secular values – indeed more sympathy towards those than the values of the founders: Crowley, and his immediate successors.   The point here is that if it were a simply a matter of a more open and inclusive structure, or even merely a simplified structure, one would expect to see one of the newer and more “enlightened” groups rising to a position of pre-eminence.  This has not occurred.

The original efficient cause of Thelema would be Crowley (or more accurately Crowley’s interpretation of Liber AL vel Legis).  Blaming Crowley is certainly convenient, but he died in 1947.  At the date of my writing this it is 2015, over sixty years later.   What is the efficient cause of Thelema today?  It is true that we must deal with Crowley’s influence, but how does this “dealing” occur?  To put it another way, if the original efficient cause was Crowley, how is this cause being carried forward through time, and made manifest in the world today?  Excluding appeals to unknown supernatural agents, the efficient cause of the community today are the leaders that drive it forward, through their various interpretations of Crowley and the source material – both explicit and implicit.

While differences between leaders, and their respective interpretations, certainly exist, organizations by their nature develop according to the consensus of key players.  That consensus today is an amalgam of Judeo-Christian style religious authority and left-leaning “secular” humanist ethics.  Outliers certainly exist, but they are almost always driven outside the existing power structure.  Since these organizations are so small, the OTO is by far the largest at around 3,000 members worldwide, their leadership groups are also small and fairly homogeneous.  It is tempting to think therefore that if they were replaced with better candidates many of the problems facing the community would be resolved; but over time many individuals have cycled in and out of leadership.  Also, many independent Thelemic and quasi-Thelemic groups exist, with their own independent leadership cadres.  Yet what is their interpretation of the source material, and how do they put it into practice?  They seem almost uniformly to adopt a religious authority structure, and secular humanist ethics – perhaps surpassing the OTO in privileging one or the other to a greater extent, but not differing substantially from the dominant consensus.  An astute reader may note here that this spectrum of authority mirrors that of mainstream American society, with a “religious” authority source on the “right” and an “ethical” authority source on the “left”.   I do not believe this is accidental, for absent intellectual engagement with the question of final and ultimate causes, all we can do is mirror the values we have inherited from mainstream society.  The question raised by a failure at this level is:  what is the nature of legitimate authority and who is fit for leadership?  These questions can only be answered in the light of primary metaphysical values.  To investigate these requires we press on to the question of final causes.

The final cause is the thing for the sake of which an object or event comes into existence.  Any ideology making metaphysical claims, that is to say claims about the fundamental nature of human existence, must rest its ultimate purpose in truth.  For an ideology to claim ontological authority on anything other than truth is to destroy the very authority it wishes to posses.  No sane person would willingly adhere to a religion or political movement that itself claimed to be false.  It may in fact be false, or based on falsehoods, but it will at least present itself as true.  To attack the truth claims of such an ideology is to attack its very reason for existing, and to interpret those truth claims, or argue for them where they are not stated explicitly, is to make a claim on the knowledge of what the ideology fundamentally is, and what it is about.  Here our primary tool is logical consistency.  Is the ideology internally consistent, and does it match what we know to be true in the observable world?   Our first task will be identifying the key components of the ideology itself, and for that we must investigate the primary documentary source – Liber AL vel Legis.   Without such an investigation our entire inquiry falls apart.  For by what other standard can we resolve apparent discrepancies in subsequent documents?  How can we judge the opinions of authorities?  How can we build organizations according to Thelemic principles?  We can, to be sure, limit ourselves to adherence to previous orthodox interpretations, but those interpretations themselves must be understood as derivative of fundamentals; and this also assumes that a body of well-established orthodoxy exists, and that this orthodoxy possess epistemic sanction by the metaphysical system of which it speaks.  Is this the case in Thelema?  How can we tell without, again, an investigation of the primary source?  We are forced therefore to confront Liber AL and the commentary directly, if we are to hope to resolve the problem of Thelema in the world today.  This will be the focus of my next post in this series.




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