Assessing Crowley’s Alleged “Critique of Modernity”

One sees the phrase “critique of modernity” bandied about quite a bit. It’s connected with the “crisis of modernity” meme that has helped so many people get PhD.s in the “publish or perish” world of the academy. Hence we see “the Surrealist Movement and the Crisis of Modernity”, Competitive Knitting and the Crisis of Modernity”, and so forth. Of course, since we’re dealing with an academic environment drenched in post-structuralism, everyone has a different notion of what “modernity” means, though they tend to assume the reader knows, and if they don’t they shouldn’t be reading the paper anyway.

That being said, the Janus of these “critiques” tends to look either forward or back. One finds the traditionalist (small “t” so as not to confuse it with the Traditionalist School)critique, which basically sees everything after the middle of the 18th Century as a corruption, and on the other hand the post-whathaveyous (post-modern, post-structuralist etc). Both assume that Modernity is bad. Really bad. Either a landscape of decadence and decay or a demonic playground of flat images that we partake of in a simulation of ecstasy. At its heart the critique on both sides reminds us of the old “world, flesh, and the Devil” triad of Orthodox Christianity. From either point of view, this modern world is Fallen.

What we are calling the traditionalist critique quite often goes after the rhetoric of the Enlightenment. Equality (about which volumes have been written trying to simply define the concept), democracy, self government, the people over the aristocracy, that stuff. Since these things are fairly vague targets, which one can tailor for the purpose of shooting holes in (technically a strawman fallacy, but human dignity is at stake dammit) your “conservative revolutionary” types can generally have a field day playing to the pretensions of their intended audience.

The post- critiques generally focus on the fact that these things were, in fact, largely rhetoric. There are basically two political positions, anarchism and monarchism. Everything else is commentary on the ways in which they duke it out, especially through the medium of middle class life. It was this same middle class to which this rhetoric was addressed and which took it up as a way of getting a piece of the nation state pie.

Now, when this is confined to the asylum…er academy… this is all well and good. Sometimes, though, it leaks out. Witness, for instance, the attempt to wed Thelema to what appears to be a marriage of post-structuralism, traditionalism, and the Neo-conservative movement. Listeners to the now inactive Thelema Coast to Coast got horse doctor’s doses of this from Keith418.

There are numerous problems with this. Not the least of which is the attempt to preserve Crowley’s status as an infallible prophet against the more sophisticated critiques of ideology and authority that pervade the works of say, Foucault. The hook that makes this possible, though it was never to my knowledge mentioned on the program, was the idea of the “Noble Lie” borrowed from early Neo-con “theorist” Leo Strauss. This would run something along the lines of “modern society and secular humanism are nihilist; we must provide a narrative for the bulk of humanity to believe in, even if we know it to be a lie, to hold society together and give it purpose.” Crowlyanity, the position that Thelema is exclusively about Crowley and that he got everything right the first time, falls nicely into this box. It’s clearly absurd. Indeed, its absurdity makes it all the more powerful, since this can be used to create a cognitive dissonance that acts as a wedge of discomfort, leading to conflict, personal catharsis, and eventual conversion.

The slaves shall serve indeed.

But anywhoo, part of the rhetoric used by this camp is the notion that Crowley had a critique of modernity. Better.. He had one before it was cool. It’s like owning the original Metallica basement tapes or something.

I have read a fair amount of Crowley. His Confessions, The Law is for All, some of his diaries and most of the minor essays. There is a great deal of what could be read as a more traditionalist critique, lobbed at liberal or Enlightenment rhetoric. But this would only be viable if we forget that Crowley was profoundly anti-traditional in almost every other way. The passages bemoaning the death of aristocracy or the riff raff coming to oppress the higher sort of man (for Crowley “manhood” was almost always the focus) are more the manifestations of his temporal ego, bred as a rich Victorian, rather than sustained intellectual sparring with the liberal tradition. Crowley rarely attempted actual philosophy, and when he did, it was generally of a generally cursory quality. His essay on “scientific illuminism” for example, mentions Kant and Russell as those who object to the infallability of the ratiocinative process, as if these two opinions were in accord in any way but the basic objection. In other words, he’s dropping names, not arguing.

And it is when we encounter “Scientific Illuminism” that we find the real objection to Crowley as a critic of the modern age that some would make him out to be. The key word here is “science.” Science, the assessment of empirical surfaces and repeatable patterns, is what makes modernity possible.

But lets go behind this problem for a second. There is a notable inability on the part of Crowlians to assess the difference between foundation and what is built upon it. One finds, for instance, little knowledge of the Hebrew Alphabet (with egregious pronunciations to boot!) coupled with extensive gematria. Or the strange idea that having a Buddhist ontology can mean anything other than that the system one is dealing with is at its core at least partly Buddhist.

If you start from one place, certain necessities determine where you will end up. If one starts with the proposition that magickal phenomena should be verifiable and repeatable, one is dealing with a value system based in science, and hence modernity. Again, the Royal Society (made up of alchemists who decided to play down the esoteric aspects of their work in order to have a chance) is where the Modern Age really begins. It is in those halls that we killed God, and in those laboratories that we dissected Him. If there is a “bearing partition” for modernity, it is science.

We also see echoes of this scientism in Crowley’s introduction to Liber AL, in which he lays out an essential Thelemic cosmology. The image of every Star, moving in its own orbit, only in error when out of orbit, is totally Newtonian and mechanistic. It is binary and dualist. (Which also means he missed the point, but let that pass for now.) Either the mechanism is working in the form of the non-canonical “True Will” or it is malfunctioning. Defective. either fix it or throw it away.

But science also gave us all those lofty ideals of democracy, by destroying the bases for the Divine Right of Kings. It gave us notions of equality by laying our various bodies out on a slab, opening them, and finding everywhere exactly the same parts and telling us exactly how they worked. Secularism isn’t based on any sentimental fantasy, but on the brutal facts of the operating theatre and the small beings seen in a microscope.

In other words, whatever the downsides of modernity, its basis is impossible to argue with, and if we are taking the “Scientific” part of “Scientific Illuminism” seriously, we must accept all repeatable findings. And if we do this, Crowley’s infallibility and privileged position suffers exactly the same fate as the Divine Right of Kings. It is unprovable, and thus nonsense.

I will grant that Crowley may have been attempting some sort of critique using quasi-scientific language. But Social Darwinism’s relationship to Darwin was always in name only, as any decent study of real literature on evolution will tell you. Crowley never got farther than a pseudo-scientific re-envisioning of the Brahmanic justification for the caste system.

This is not a critique. This is a clever sophistry, and attempt to preserve the aristocratic ideology against Marx and, ultimately, against the undeniable facts discovered by real experiments and research.

I think a meaningful critique of anything should focus on concrete phenomena and effects we can all be shown. Perhaps, Crowley’s ranting can point in a way to the manner in which we have all been reduced to consumers of pre-fabricated culture, to the position of cogs in a great machine whose only purpose is to be bigger than it was yesterday. But they are also muddled, trying to have one foot in the qualitative and another in the quantitative, and never really finding a harmonious Third Thing to reconcile these two perspectives.

As such, it is at best a starting point, and by no means “essential” to Thelema. One does not need the perspective of one man, torn between his Illuminated self and his lesser ego, to see the conditions of reality today. Overcoming the strictures of Victorian England seems silly when we live in a different world with its own challenges.

Kind of like, I don’t know, L.A.R.Ping all day or something.

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1 comment
  1. Mark said:

    “In other words, whatever the downsides of modernity, its basis is impossible to argue with, and if we are taking the “Scientific” part of “Scientific Illuminism” seriously, we must accept all repeatable findings. And if we do this, Crowley’s infallibility and privileged position suffers exactly the same fate as the Divine Right of Kings. It is unprovable, and thus nonsense.”

    I think you are missing the basis of Crowley’s critique of Modernity here. Crowley wasn’t negating the value of science, or the enlightenment’s approach to critical thinking. What he was attempting was to point out that the dominant narrative of Modernity missed out when it came to larger Truths. To rectify this, he attempted a Grand Synthesis of Tradition and Modernity, East and West. Add to this prophetic revelation, and you get the essence of Crowley’s “critique.”

    This puts him at odds with Modernity which has a narrative of ascendancy over the past, as well as it negations of tradition, religious authority, and the idea of spiritual impulse.

    By delving into the worlds spiritual cultures and seeking to create a bridge for them via the medium of “Scientific Illuminism” Crowley was attempting a novel and very brave form of interpretive synthesis.

    Now, also being a Nietzchian, Crowley’s critique of Modernity rested on the correct understanding that MODERNITY had killed the Idols of Christianity. I.E. God is Dead. As a result, in this Twilight of the Idols, a “New God” must rise. For Crowley this was Horus, Current 93, and the locus of Thelemic Metaphysics focused on the individual Will.

    As for Crowley’s “Infallibility.” I don’t think that is what die hard adherents of Crowley’s teachings, myself included, are saying.

    What is being said is that Crowley’s writings and teachings represent a threat to much of what we take as “normative” in everyday society. Like a fish swimming in water, we are largely unaware of the values and cultural context in which we operate. When we encounter some of Crowley’s more “Shocking writings” regards women, transgressive sex, ect…

    We can:

    1.) Reject them as wrong
    2.) Accept them as right
    3.) Engage them to try to understand what is really being said.
    4.) Creatively appropriate them in a way that expands our horizons.

    I think that 3 and 4 are what serious thinkers would try to do, and that too often people in occult circles run from Crowley’s work, or negate it because of the “Water” they are used to swimming in.

    So the argument made by adherents to Crowley’s teachings is that if you dig deep enought into the material, you won’t become “a Crowley copy” but more uniquely and potently yourself.

    I have found, in my experience at least, that those who have a deep practical as well as theoretical knowledge of Crowley’s material tend to be much more effective and interesting magicians and people in general then those who do not.

    These people are not “Crowleyites” but “Thelemites” in that they have fully engaged a set of materials and teachings which lead them to actualzie the uniqueness of what THEY are.

    Instead of neutering, trying to reinterpret, or add to this process, I have found that people who go through it actually DO become more Unique and are able to Conquer via that uniqueness.

    By respecting Crowley’s work and spiritual impulse, people who take this stuff seriously are doing nothing less then paying respects to a lineage as do Buddhist, Taosts, and many other spiritual traditions.

    Why don’t we bang on people for being “Lao Tzulists? Because, someone, Lao Tzu doesn’t threaten some of our “Water” as Crowley does.

    Crowley is scary, threatening, and shocking. As a Tantric, I’d like to engage that and know why…who knows, maybe I’ll become a little more liberated.

    That, after all, was Crowley’s intention with Thelema…to provide a way to LIBERTY.

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