Toward an Enlightened Individualism

Thelema is a religion that places the individual at the center of its discourse. This emphasis has led many to conflate it with political ideologies as different as Anarchism and Libertarianism. (If you don’t know why these are incompatible, you don’t understand Anarchism.) It is neither of these. Thelema is a spiritual philosophy, not a political movement. Its concerns are with a different level of reality and consciousness entirely.

None of this means that Thelema has nothing to do with the socio-political context it arose from and continues to manifest within. Crowley, in addition to being a Prophet, was also a human being with a history. The Revelation of Liber AL passed through the psyche of an upper class British bohemian at the turn of the 20th Century. To make too much of this is to either freeze Thelema in the mindset of that time or dismiss it as the delusions of a privileged eccentric. Ignoring the person of Crowley altogether, by, for example, limiting his contribution to the Holy Books “which he merely wrote down” or extending the origins of Thelema backward in time to Rabelais, is to overlook the fact that, at that time and place, Crowley’s psyche provided the path of least resistance for the Revelation of the New Law. From a magical point of view, this is significant, particularly if we are discussing a philosophy which puts the individual at its center.

Individualism in the form we know it today is relatively knew. It is the core of liberalism in the classical sense. It is likely this modern usage that leads Libertarians, also known as Classical Liberals, to claim that Thelema supports their views. This ignores the amount of time that both Liber AL and Crowley’s mundane writing devote to undermining the basis for liberal individualism: “rationality.” The Book of the Law repeatedly refers to the inability of the discursive intellect to fully comprehend the Truth.

Further, the entire idea that one has a Will that they must come to know through something as patently irrational as magick suggests that, at the very least, any reasoning one does needs to be guided by a suprarational understanding. Classical liberal thought repeats the error of the unenlightened by crowning the Ruach the monarch of the Soul when it is more like its secretary. Even if it were true that all individuals act in their rational self-interest (which it isn’t; the efficacy of modern advertising is empirical proof) this would be a very low standard from a Thelemic perspective.

In addition, the concept of the individual as “an island” is hardly supported by the core metaphor of “every man and every woman is a star,” with “their own orbit in relation to other stars.” This clearly establishes that the individual operates within a context, and a rather mechanical one at that.

Taking the approach to Crowley indicated above, that is, by acknowledging that his centrality to Thelema is the result of the fact that his life, and not another’s, was the factor that made the proclamation of the Law possible on this plane of existence, we can come to a more enlightened understanding of the individual.

Ontologically, the idea of the individual is troublesome from the start. Who are you, really? Nearly every answer that just came to your mind depends on external circumstance. Strip any of those factors away, and your behavior changes almost instantly. More than that, the way you perceive the world around you changes. What is the “you” that supposedly glues all this experience together? We know enough about the development of the mind now to seriously question how much of what we consider “us” is anything more than a reflection of the social context we grew up in, and the memories engraved in our psyches over the course of a lifetime.

But there is one thing we can confidently say about this “I” that our culture is built to feed and pacify: there is no other manifestation of social context and cosmic circumstance exactly like it. Even in a totally homogeneous society, with little or no variation in wealth or privilege, it would be impossible for every individual within it to have precisely the same experiences. There are too many factors that are beyond the ability of any family or society to control. Take into account the complexity of modern societies, and the possible combinations come near to infinity.

Which gives us a good idea of why Thelema showed up when it did. As industrial civilization was nearing its peak, society was saturated with enough complexity that it was now ontologically impossible to ensure that every single person would be “on the same page” as everyone else. In relatively closed societies, with an unquestioned religious orientation, it is feasible to expect individuals to accept the dominant narrative and their place in it. As more individuals experience other narratives, and the religious beliefs of the past lose their exclusive claims to truth, the dominant narratives lose the ability to control individual thought and behavior. The Law of Thelema emerged when it did, not in opposition to the direction of modern civilization, as some would have it, but as an expression of it.

I would also argue that it is the least problematic, and perhaps even the highest, expression of those tendencies. Crowley’s privileged background, along with the specific period of history he lived through, gave him the opportunity and desire to experience a much larger world than would have been available to him just a few decades earlier. His religious upbringing, and the trauma that led him to reject it, gave him both an intensely spiritual and questioning soul. The political fads of the day colored these with a focus on individual liberty.

What we ended up with, as a result, is a refined early synthesis of western and eastern esotericism combined with an acknowledgement that Truth was larger than any story told to an individual by society. Each person was forced, not by any temporal authority, but by the very nature of the world around them, to determine the best way to express their deepest, truest self.

No other individual on the planet could have produced the Book of the Law other than Aleister Crowley. Yet that individual was also a collection of forces, factors, and history that met temporarily within the context of his life and moved in and out of it independently of him. This temporary synthesis was like none other that had existed or would again.

The preceding should not be taken as a panegyric to Crowley. It is utterly possible for someone to be the one best suited to express the nature of the Cosmos at a particular time and still fall short of being an ideal role model. In many ways, it was his mundane failings that made him the Prophet of the Aeon. And he hardly could be said to live up to the demands of the Law in any consistent sense.  The point is not that he was holier than anyone else, but that he was one most fit to deliver the message.

What I think we can take from this example is that the individual and their Will is part of something larger than a particular, temporary expression of forces, factors, and history. That momentary configuration is the best suited but not necessarily ideal vehicle for manifesting that greater reality. It cannot do anything but manifest it, but it can do it with greater relative efficacy.

Bringing it down to something more concrete, “Thou has no right but to do thy Will.” This being a Divine or Cosmic Law, there isn’t any choice in the matter. We’re not talking about “free will.” An individual has no option but to be whatever they are at any given moment.

What they can do, is reach beyond the temporal manifestations that make up their persona to the greater, spiritual reality that they allude to.. In other words, these conditions are indicative, not prescriptive. Peeling back the veil of words, that “lying specter of the centuries,” to find the non-discursive core behind them, opens up possibilities that the meat robot could not have conceived of. This can aid us in achieving that “fulfillment of Will, and of Love under Will, that is perpetual happiness.”

It is important to remember, when dealing with an esoteric doctrine, that it is, in fact, different from the ideologies it may resemble. The dogs of reason are legion, and it is a good idea to keep them from tasting blood…


  1. Apocryphon. said:

    I don’t see how you can separate “Personal spirituality” from political goals. Since the entire purpose of a religious system is to create spiritual feelings in relations to immersing the individual into their social narrative. It builds the self as part of a cosmic narrative, that defines the relations between social classes and categories, as well as shows one’s place in history by relation to the ancestors, and to nature in the sense of the changing signs of the seasons and times with respect to the cultivation of life (harvest) and the continuity of life (child birth).

    It is true that Thelema appeared out of the collapse of traditional society as we entered into modern industrial society. But I think it is a huge mistake to claim Crowley would have any affinity with hippie socialists, and his resemblance to “classical liberalism” is itself sketchy. He himself constantly affirmed his faith in and desire to restore Traditional Feudalism, to be the father of a new narrative formula that could restore what the relativism of the modern world had shattered.

    As Nietzsche said “God is dead” meaning the traditional western Christian narrative no longer holds the authority over ethical and social order. Nietzsche’s solution was to forge from the crisis, a few individuals who were tempered by profound suffering and deep self torture into Overmen, who could create their own values.
    It would seem to my understanding that Crowley had a similar idea, but that he also wanted a social order, where those strong individuals could create narratives for the common people. A narrative that didn’t depress them and make them feel wicked and unworthy of life, as the Christian story of sin-guilt and redemption did. Rather he wanted a social narrative that encouraged saying YES to the world, and rewarded valor, courage, self expression. Those who achieved would act as examples for others to achieve. But those who were too sullen in their self repression, were not thrown to the wolves, they would be taken care of as a sort of peasant class worker in the social order. The idea being that from a healthy “man of earth” class, we could cultivate the individual genius. Through initiation and ordeal, we could make selected common people into superior individuals to rise them up from the herd, to be leaders of men.

    The herd guided by the formula of the book of the law, and rites such as the Gnostic mass, and daily calls to collective Resh (A time to stop toiling and identify with the “Solar” self).

    • Please read the post again, and respond to something I actually said. Nearly all of the above would lead to intractable caul de sacs of discussion far afield from the point of the essay.

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