Thelema, Karma, and Magical Ethics

Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law


Magical ethics is one of those topics that seems to bring out the intellectual sloth in some of the best authors (the less said about the mediocre authors, and the rank and file somnambulists, the better). Generally, a given pundit will fall into one of two camps: extreme statements about the “Law of Three” and karmic retribution on one hand, and those who say that all of that is bullshit, and sometimes you really do need to use magick to hurt someone. There is a small amount of truth in both these sentiments, but the manner in which they are generally framed looks a lot like the point where the particular “authority” stopped thinking. This is true more obvious with the White Lighters, who by and large are simply regurgitating the teachings of their Tradition. But the offhand dismissal of the Camp of EEEEBIL shows the same phenomenon in a more abrasive costume.

The majority of books on the occult published today are written for a Wiccan audience, or are about a variant of Modern Paganism so close to Wicca that it would be indistinguishable to an uninformed reader browsing in a bookstore. Often, even beginner books on ritual magick present ethics in the frame of the Threefold Law, or some cousin of it. Very, very few are targeted at a Thelemic Audience, and those that are often breeze over the topic, devoting a paragraph or two to what is really a nuanced problem.

At the level of language alone, there is obviously a difference between “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law,” and “And it harm none, do what thou wilt.” The Law of Thelema is unconditional. Harming or not harming another person is not a primary consideration.

The way this is usually handled is to say that, when a person acts according to their True Will, no real harm should come of it. Ones True Will is the Will of God. Since everyone’s Will is also the Divine Will, the result of everyone following their individual Will ought to be harmonious. While I would agree with this in a general sense, I also think it’s a bit superficial and naïve if left to stand alone.

First, there is the issue of ontology. This is exactly the same problem that the Threefold Law and the Western understanding of karma fail to deal with. The Western notion of Karma assumes a balance inherent in the structure of the Cosmos. “As you sew, so shall ye reap.” Basic observation will tell you that this isn’t even generally true. There are any number of individuals who participate in heinous crimes and enjoy vast rewards for doing so. Our entire economy is based on lying to one another. It is quite likely that the people at the top of the pyramid of corruption will continue to prosper long after the rest of us are destitute and fighting one another for scraps in the streets. On a more personal level, we see others getting away with petty acts of dishonesty and even violence. Most of these people will never be caught, if what they are doing is viewed as wrong at all. What distinguishes those who pay for their actions from those who do not is intelligence; only those stupid enough to get caught receive punishment. It is often, if not generally, the “good” people who get fucked over by circumstance, their only consolation that they behaved “rightly.” It is fairly clear that we cannot assume, or even seriously consider with any degree of intellectual honesty, the existence of a Cosmic order than includes moral rewards.

In Book 4, Crowley spoke of Karma this way:

“The Karma of a man is his “ledger.” The balance has not been struck and he does not know what it is; he does not even fully know what debts he may have to pay, or what is owed him; nor does he know on what dates even those payments which he anticipates may fall due.”


Karma does not act in this tit-for-tat-way. An eye for an eye is a sort of savage justice, and the idea of justice in our human sense is quite foreign to the constitution of the Universe.

Karma is the Law of Cause and Effect. There is no proportion in its operations. Once an accident occurs it is impossible to say what may happen; and the Universe is a stupendous accident.

We go out to tea a thousand times without mishap, and the thousand-and-first time we meet some one who changes radically the course of our lives for ever.

There is a sort of sense in which every impression that is made upon our minds is the resultant of all the forces of the past; no incident is so trifling that it has not in some way shaped one’s disposition. But there is none of this crude retribution about it. One may kill a hundred thousand lice in one brief hour at the foot of the Baltoro Glacier, as Frater P. once did. It would be stupid to suppose, as the Theosophist inclines to suppose, that this action involves one in the doom of being killed by a louse a hundred thousand times.

This ledger of Karma is kept separate from the petty cash account; and in respect of bulk this petty cash account is very much bigger than the ledger.” (Crowley, Book 4, Part 2,Chap 9)

I could add numerous caveats to this, particularly concerning the inaccuracy of dubbing karma “cause and effect.” But I think the overall point is basically sound. Crowley is saying that karma is a much bigger, more unpredictable factor in the Cosmic order than a simple reward and punishment scenario would allow. (As a side note, those readers familiar with the concept of Dependent Origination might find the fact that this passage is from the chapter on the Pantacle, which uses the weapon as an analog for karma as the sum total of who the magician is, very interesting.)

Going back to the assertion that a global realization of the Law would result in harmony, we certainly can’t act as if we lived in a Utopia where everyone is fully living out their Will. How people might behave in such an ideal state is irrelevant to our lives right now. In fact, we can’t even assume that such a state would look that much different than what we have today. “There is none that shall be cast down or lifted up” (Liber AL, Chap 2 Ver 58.) I don’t think it’s appropriate to say that Thelema posits a formula for an ideal future. Rather, the Book of the Law presents us with a rather troubling prospect: that the Universe we dwell in is already absolutely perfect. “Remember all ye that existence is pure joy; that all the sorrows are but as shadows; they pass and are done; but there is that which remains.” (Ibid. Ver 9)

From an ethical perspective, this could lead us to a kind of nihilism. Any framework that is really non-dualistic will take us there; the only thing to be said for such a philosophy is that experience of states beyond the narrow fortress of the ego make any other conclusion untenable. But it is also this anagogic trajectory that gives us a ground on which to build a much firmer foundation for a Thelemic ethic.

For a Thelemite, the concern is not with retribution, or with avoiding harm. Both of these motivations are fundamentally about fulfilling the needs of the false persona, the set of ego projections that an individual weaves between themselves and their genuine, divine nature. They are about wanting not Willing.

Our goal is not to avoid punishment and reap rewards. This is, to be somewhat melodramatic, “slave morality.” Our goal is to uncover our divine nature, whatever that may be, and live from that higher orientation. We eat to that end, sleep to that end, and work to that end. Any other concern is a distraction.

From this perspective, activities such as working negative magick against our enemies are suspect, more often than not worse than useless to us. It may well be that, sometime in our lives, we will need to do harm to someone else, perhaps even kill them, in order to accomplish the Great Work. But how likely is that, really? The more I engage in this strange activity called magick, the more I realize how much my problems and anxieties are about me, not about others. I fail to bring up a concern that later becomes a major point of contention. I ignore a problem until it is overwhelming. The times when I can say that another person has objectively done wrong by me become fewer as time goes on. And even then, devolving to the point of violence seems counterproductive at best. Cursing someone? A puerile waste of time.

We don’t need a fanciful concept of divine retribution to keep us in line, whether it be in magick or in life. We just need to remember that we’ve committed to aligning with the most authentic core of ourselves, rather than the momentary whims of our ego. If we keep our priorities straight, we may even fool others into thinking we’re a “good person.”


Love is the law, love under will



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