Thelema Redux: Conversations with Friends




A: So, I just finished reading Kaczynski’s Perdurabo.

JT: What do you think?

A: I’d recommend it. On the whole he presents a far more coherent and balanced view of Crowley than the Symonds bio. I think for the last few years I have been struggling through the “vision of the demon Crowley” where his most difficult aspects take on monstrous proportion, and that’s literally all you can see anymore. He complained about having this effect on people. I feel much better about my investment in his work now, but I am more thoroughly convinced that the dominant interpretation found in the community simply will not work. Most of our problems, as a movement, are not new but have been with us from the beginning.

JT: Heh. I was just talking with a friend about the weird critical thinking problem we find in the community, like among people who otherwise seem able to navigate life and career just fine.

A: Well, I don’t think they see contradiction as an inherent problem. While Crowley tried to gain a rational understanding of his work – and he frequently encouraged his students to learn logic, he also indulged in self-justification through rejection of philosophical rigor. He wasn’t a philosopher and while he often found philosophers useful, suggestive, inspiring…

JT : He was an artist and a poet, and when he was told something he didn’t want to hear…

A: Exactly, and this problem still plagues us today. We point out “Hey guys, this can’t be A and B at the same time. That’s logically inconsistent.” And it’s like we’re speaking Mandarin to housecats. They just look at us like… “So?”

JT : And they can cite where Crowley avoided the same issue, or double-talked around it.

A: Right. Even if they’re smart enough to follow the point, they don’t really grasp why we think it’s so important. They are totally willing to criticize Crowley as a person, but they never trace back his errors and problems to fundamental mistakes in reasoning. Instead they trace it back to the aristocratic values of Liber AL, which they reject.

JT: Hmm… so how might a more philosophically rigorous approach help us?

A: Well, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between art, theurgy, philosophy, and meditation.

JT : ok

A: What do they have in common? What about each is different? What distinguishes prayer from theurgy (if anything ) and art from ordinary productive activity?

JT : Big questions.

A: Indeed.

JT: To play devil’s advocate, and taking just the last question, I would argue in both cases that there is no essential difference, it’s just about the skill of the practitioner.

A: In so much as art is the highest form of external activity, and theurgy the highest form of prayer, I agree; but each is also distinguished by their character of transcending the rest of the category. Theurgy is prayer that becomes something more than prayer. Art is productivity that is more than regular productivity; not just more quantitatively, but qualitatively.

JT: Qualitatively in that they exist in a state of greater… connection, I want to say?

A: That’s one way to put it. I think what all these have in common is an orientation to being’s transcendent aspect, rather than its merely contingent aspect. Art, for example, is the concrete materialization of the artist’s metaphysics. Philosophy – classic philosophy anyway, is the discipline and organization of thought around the transcendent dimension of being. Prayer is the orientation of the person to the transcendent through direct symbolic communication. Theurgy, pace Iamblichus, is participation in the creative demiurgy through symbol.

JT : Direct participation as opposed to supplication?

A: In a sense, although I think theurgy should always be preceded by prayer. In prayer we orient ourselves toward the highest symbol of being. In theurgy we participate in that current. Crowley in Book 4 says that all magical work should be preceded by the confession, which is part of the consecration. If one reads his description of that act, it’s pretty much prayer – rather typical Christian prayer, actually

JT: So there is no “ascent on the planes”, you’re not identifying with the Gods.

A: Right, but if you pardon the analogy, you get your compass pointed in the right direction. Okay… I’m here…. North is… that way… now I’m moving North… now I’m AT North. I am North.

JT: So how is classic philosophy different from modern?

A: Well, to further belabor this metaphor: Classic philosophy is like map making. To be worthwhile, philosophy has to be logical organization AROUND something, and that something is supposed to be the transcendent aspect of being. Philosophy is ideally the practice of organizing thought, removing contradictions, and proceeding in a rigorous manner, in order to apprehend this transcendent. Modern philosophy is more like cataloging and describing the map making process. The early and late Platonists, the Stoics, the Peripatetics, and the Cynics are all, more or less, in agreement about the purpose of philosophy – even though they disagree about various aspects and approaches. For example, Platonists and Stoics disagree about the nature of the soul and the nature of universals, but they both agree that the soul is real and that universals are important.

JT: So what happens with the philosophical project? Why does it fall apart?

A: I think Epicureanism and Academic skepticism are the first breaks with the orthodox tradition. They retain the emotional emphasis, but they’re chipping away at the project itself. Ultimately though, I think Iamblichus again points us to the answer, and it is metaphysical. Man IS spirit, but FULLY descends into the body. This is necessary for the universe to remain whole, but it also places us in a very precarious position. Without reference to the transcendent view of the whole, we can lose our way. Through theurgy we can regain that reference point. The ancient Greek philosophers, some 800 years before Iamblichus, simply assumed a traditional pagan metaphysics. Many of them were initiates of the Mysteries or at the very least, were familiar with personal worship. It’s the same problem we run into in all Traditional societies. They already know that the Gods exist. It’s a very different point of view.

JT: Right. The problems of us moderns are… well… modern.

A: But as the social order, which they saw as inherently metaphysical in origin, starts to fall apart this confidence in being’s meaning and significance also breaks down. Maybe the Gods don’t really care about us? Maybe the Gods don’t exist at all? Now what? Christianity offers a solution of sorts. It claims that reason itself must be made subservient to faith. It stops at a barrier. Below the barrier, reason is fine, so long as it does not rise above its station. Beyond this you can only have faith in a revelation that is totally outside your experience and understanding. This is subtly different from what Iamblichus and the Pagan neo-Platonists suggest.

JT: I’m not sure how subtle that is.

A: No, I suppose not. Anyway, this arrangement between reason and faith works for a while, but then things start getting funky. Gaps appear in the world-view presented by a literal reading of the Abrahamic faith. In an effort to deal with these gaps, some people start applying the philosophic method to faith. Initially the hope is to improve the faith, but the end result is that it just reveals how contradictory and ridiculous much of it is. Philosophy, however, still lacks that transcendent connection. It’s been gutted of its original context to make it compatible with Christian faith. So while philosophy has revealed the problems with the Christian synthesis, it can’t really offer a replacement. Today we either hold onto the transcendent as a personal and private “belief” or we have faith that science and technology will resolve the problem – although we really aren’t sure how.

JT: Sounds about right.

A: Crowley inherits this condition, goes looking for the experience of transcendence, finds it…and then spends the rest of his life struggling with the implications. Rather than simply admitting that the transcendent dimension of existence is real, he tries to justify the experience of transcendence within the modern worldview.

JT: hmm… but also retain his own claim to transcendent authority and “mission”.

A: Right. As a result, he often identifies that which is above consciousness as that which is below it, namely sexual desire. This is an understandable mistake if you assume that discursive reasoning is insufficient, but you are also uncertain about whether or not the transcendent experience is actual, or just a manifestation of the powers of the brain or something. You have to locate that power somewhere, so he struggles with this and ends up in weird places.

JT: Such as?

A: Well, as an example, he and Rose are in China and Crowley isn’t sure what to do with himself. He contemplates getting away from Rose and the baby to go on a “magical retirement”. They do some theurgic work and Crowley is told NOT to go on a magical retirement, but rather to leave immediately with his wife and child, return to Egypt. He blows it off and does exactly what he’s told not to do. His first daughter dies shortly afterwards. Later in his life Crowley claims that the gods killed his kid for his ignoring them. He doesn’t think ,“ I shouldn’t have abandoned my newborn and wife in China. “, or “Maybe I shouldn’t have taken a newborn on a walking tour of the 3rd world”, but “the Gods – real external beings – reshaped the world to kill off my kid because they were mad at me.” He doesn’t seem to consider that they were trying to warn him of a natural consequence, or even that it was just impersonal fate, but he assumes that, because of his “chosen” station, it HAS to be personal.

JT : There’s a pretty strong historical backing for that attitude.

A: Sure, but at the same time it’s not compatible with the fundamentals of his own purported philosophy: “There is no god but Man”. It’s this weird back and forth with him.  He believes both simultaneously “I can do whatever I want, because we make our own magic, these entities are just ways of me reaching my highest creative potential”, and at the same time –

JT : “They kill my kids when I disobey”

A: Right. At the same time, “They are real, and I have a special mission chosen by them, and since my authority is divinely sanctioned, if you don’t do what I want you to do, you are in error, because you’re contradicting the will of the gods…which is also your own highest will, of course, and you’d know that if only you did what I told you to do.”

JT: Sounds like most biblically inspired would-be rulers.

A: Naturally. On the other hand, I think his identification of the value of theurgy and meditation is correct, and his visions are beautiful and real, and more often than not he gets things right. He values liberty and genuinely wanted the best for people around him, even if his own bullshit got in the way. He shows a way out of the modern mess – that you can still have the transcendent experience without “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”, like refusing modern science and technology.

JT: That’s rather a big deal. Not just “these techniques may be psychologically useful” but rather “this stuff is important for mankind”.

A: Exactly. I also think he was right about the erotic dimension of our existence as a key, but I think he’s wrong about the how and why of it, and that error made his life far more difficult than it needed to be.

JT: How so?

A: Once again he’s locating the transcendent in the physical symbol; not as a correspondence and reference, but as a literal container. It’s not just the highest embodied symbol of the whole – that would be fine. Rather it’s “God” as intellectual superstructure on the physical apparatus of your nuts. If he was philosophically rigorous, he would have realized this doesn’t hold together. It’s just nihilism with some spooky stuff, which may or may not be personally meaningful.

JT: Being raised as a “Born Again” who needed to break through so much guilt about my sexuality, and then just guilt in general, I’m hard pressed to find too much fault with what Crowley linked onto. Embracing sexuality is part of embracing and acknowledging the whole self.

A: Yes, but it also returns us to this idea of fully descending into embodiment. Eros is the infinite force into which we descend. It’s our physical connection to eternity. We have to work with this, but simply indulging in it, letting it lead us around by the dick, which Crowley not only does but explicitly TRIES to do, just leads us into mess after mess after mess.

JT: So enough about these purely modern problems, right?

A: Glad to hear I haven’t drifted too far from the topic at hand.

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