Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

Monday, March 19, 2012

That’s What He Said: Crowley on Skepticism

Announcing a new feature on this blog: “That’s What He Said” – an article (or, hopefully, a series of articles) looking at what Aleister Crowley said about a variety of issues.
Crowley is so little read and so poorly understood by many people calling themselves Thelemites that the purpose of this series is to bring together the disparate threads of his thoughts and elucidate his writings on matters on which he was consistent and emphatic across the decades of his career.
I’d like to turn today to the topic of skepticism (who would have guessed, eh?). While most Thelemites admit – sometimes begrudgingly – that Crowley advocated skepticism, a good deal of them seem to be under the impression that Crowley only expected “students” to begin from a skeptical position and to discard skepticism as they gained more experience and could “prove to themselves” that the supernatural was real.
Take, for example, this line from the Wikipedia entry on Thelema (retrieved March 19, 2012): “Crowley taught skeptical examination of all results obtained through meditation or magick, at least for the student.” In the final phrase of this quote, we see the author attempting to salvage belief in the supernatural from Crowley’s system: the implication is that Crowley must have thought that skepticism was just fine for the student (oh, those poor profane fools who have yet to acquire experience!), but for those who have done the work and “experienced” the supernatural (that is, gotten warm and fuzzies in the belly, encountered ooky-spooky coincidences, or had daydreams about being on an episode of Tales from the Crypt)…for those folks, they can rest assured in the fact that they’ve proven (“to them,” of course) that the supernatural is real. That must be what Crowley was saying. Right?
The above interpretation of Crowley is completely and totally off-base, rooted not in the words of the man himself but in the desires and fantasies of the person doing the interpreting, who reads into those words things that aren’t there.
Read on for a very full explanation.
Let’s start with an obvious quote related to this subject, from the introduction to Book IV, Part I:

Frater Perdurabo is the most honest of all the great religious teachers. Others have said: "Believe me!" He says:"Don't believe me!" He does not ask for followers; would despise and refuse them. He wants an independent and self-reliant body of students to follow out their own methods of research. If he can save them time and trouble by giving a few useful "tips," his work will have been done to his own satisfaction.
Those who have wished men to believe in them were absurd. A persuasive tongue or pen, or an efficient sword, with rack and stake, produced this "belief," which is contrary to, and destructive of, all real religious experience.
The whole life of Frater Perdurabo is now devoted to seeing that you obtain this living experience of Truth for, by, and in yourselves!

Now, granted, this passage was written by Mary d’Este Sturges (aka “Soror Virakam”) and not by Crowley, but we’re more than justified in assuming that it wouldn’t appear at the beginning of the text unless Crowley approved of the message. Further, we can reasonably assume that she wasn’t making these claims up: she is almost certainly advancing these claims on the basis of her knowledge of Crowley and the things Crowley actually said.
Very well, then, but doesn’t this passage suggest that Crowley is saying, “Find out for yourself”? Doesn’t this passage say that Crowley’s message was, “Don’t believe me – go ‘do the work’ and then confirm for yourself that the supernatural is true”?
The passage says nothing about judging the veracity of supernatural theories surrounding the practices. All that it says is that Crowley is “devoted to seeing that you obtain this living experience of Truth for, by, and in yourselves.” (my emphasis)
Experience. Crowley is devoted to seeing that students obtain an experience – he does not say that he’s devoted to seeing that students accept supernatural theories underlying those experiences.
Now indeed, he calls this experience an “Experience of Truth,” but he’s not using the word “Truth” here in the sense of a correspondence between the world and one’s ideas about the world (in the sense of verifiable facts about the world, like “It’s true that the bus comes every morning at 8:30”). He’s using “Truth” in an idiosyncratic sense to designate, in one context, the experience of one’s authentic nature and, in another context, the Understanding that the self, as commonly conceived is an illusion. (cf. See also Magick Without Tears letter on “certainty” discussed further below)
I will further explain this idiosyncratic use of “Truth” later in this essay, but for the time being, it’s sufficient to observe that he’s not using “Truth” to denote a correspondence between the world and one’s ideas about the world. He’s not saying that he expects students to prove “to themselves” that the supernatural is real: he’s saying that he wants students to undergo the experience on their own and – as we can safely conclude from other passages in the same book and elsewhere – wants them to avoid attaching supernatural explanations to the experience.
How do we know that last part is true? Well, we can start with the famous quote from Liber O:

In this book it is spoken of the Sephiroth and the Paths; of Spirits and Conjurations; of Gods, Spheres, Planes, and many other things which may or may not exist.
It is immaterial whether these exist or not. By doing certain things certain results will follow; students are most earnestly warned against attributing objective reality or philosophic validity to any of them.
But we can also turn our attention to the very beginning of Book IV, Part I, where Crowley argues that many of the great “religious leaders” in the world were really people who had a certain kind of experience (what Crowley calls Dhyana) and insisted on (mistakenly) attaching supernatural explanations to the experience.

For example: 

By [Dhyana’s] light all other events of life are as darkness. Owing to this, people have utterly failed to analyse it or to estimate it. They are accurate enough in saying that, compared with this, all human life is absolutely dross; but they go further, and go wrong. They argue that "since this is that which transcends the terrestrial, it must be celestial." One of the tendencies in their minds has been the hope of a heaven such as their parents and teachers have described, or such as they have themselves pictured; and, without the slightest grounds for saying so, they make the assumption "This is That."
We are now in a position to say what happened to Mohammed. Somehow or another his phenomenon happened in his mind. […] he connected it with the story of the "Annunciation," which he had undoubtedly heard in his boyhood, and said "Gabriel appeared to me." But in spite of his ignorance, his total misconception of the truth, the power of the vision was such that he was enabled to persist through the usual persecution […]
The history of Christianity shows precisely the same remarkable fact. Jesus Christ was brought up on the fables of the "Old Testament," and so was compelled to ascribe his experiences to "Jehovah"

According to Crowley, the individuals he uses as examples – such as Mohammed and Christ – didn’t go wrong because they “believed someone else” instead of “finding out for themselves”: according to Crowley, these men went wrong precisely because they believed their own (false!) supernatural interpretations of their experience.
This sort of thing really can’t be stressed enough. What Crowley is explaining in Book IV, Part I is a practical application of the injunction in Liber O, one applicable not just “at least to students,” as our Wikipedia editor seems to think, but to all people who have these kinds of experiences.
A lot of people get confused on this point, so it’s necessary to slow down here: when people claim to have “seen God” or “had a mystical experience where they talked to Jesus” or “were granted a vision of Lord Shiva” or “experienced union with the Star Goddess” or “evoked a demon to visible appearance” or “did a ritual to attract money and then found some cash in the street later that week” etc., etc., etc. – nobody is denying that the person in question had an experience.
Obviously the person had an experience. Nobody questions that.
What skeptics doubt – and, like it or not, what Crowley is saying that one should doubt – are the supernatural explanations advanced for those experiences.
One may very well have had an experience that felt like “talking to God,” but that in no way means that there is a God or that one was actually talking to him. It’s the same down the line with all of those other claims: nobody is disputing that people have had experiences that felt like those things, but having an experience that feels like X is vastly different from demonstrating that X is true.
Crowley is specifically saying in Book IV, Part I that people go wrong when they start believing their own supernatural explanations – not just things other people tell them to believe, but things that their own minds dream up. As a result, one should not take others’ words for spiritual realities (as d’Este Sturges reports Crowley saying) and one should not believe one’s own supernatural hype, should not “attribute objective reality” to these ideas. One should instead focus on obtaining the experience because it is (supposedly) by means of obtaining these experiences that one can come to discover the True Will and – in some cases – perhaps even “cross the Abyss.” (Of course, whether Crowley is right to think that such experience can do this is an entirely different question, outside the scope of this post, which is focused on what Crowley actually said).
In other words, the position I am here explaining is consistent with what Crowley says in one of his most seminal texts on magick, and the position is diametrically opposed to the opinion of some drooling nincompoops who think Crowley was seriously saying that people should “do the work” in order to prove “to themselves” that the supernatural is real. As Crowley argues, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, etc. all thought that they had proved “to themselves” that there was a Jehovah, Gabriel, etc. – and they were, according to Crowley, wrong to do so.
Next, we have to consider the fact that Crowley was strikingly consistent in his published prose works that explain his system on the point that the truth of supernatural claims is irrelevant to the practices. This point follows from the position explained above: if what matters is the experience – and not attaching supernatural theory to the practices that lead to the experience – then obviously it’s completely irrelevant whether such supernatural theories are true (and, if historical precedent – like the cases cited by Crowley in Book IV, Part I – is anything to go by, they seem by and large to be false).
Thus, we get passages in Crowley where he says things like:
“ The spirits of the Goetia are portions of the human brain.” (denying that demons actually exist and that Goetic magick actually works through materialist means like “stimulating” different portions of a person’s brain in a manner similar to psychological techniques like “daily affirmations” in the mirror – and again, whether it actually does “work” at all is beyond the scope of this post)
“The mind is the great enemy; so, by invoking enthusiastically a person whom we know not to exist, we are rebuking that mind.” [affirming that invocation is merely a technique for “thwarting the mind” by calling on non-existent characters]
“Thus, when we say that Nakhiel is the "Intelligence" of the Sun, we do not mean that he lives in the Sun, but only that he has a certain rank and character; and although we can invoke him, we do not necessarily mean that he exists in the same sense of the word in which our butcher exists.
“When we "conjure Nakhiel to visible appearance," it may be that our process resembles creation — or, rather imagination — more nearly than it does calling-forth.”
[Observing that entities “invoked” in magick don’t exist in the sense of the word “exist” that we means when we talk about people -- that is, “existing” as “manifesting in an actual, detectable way” – the process of “invoking” them is far more like an act of imagination than anything else]
A response in Magick Without Tears in which he tells his correspondent, who had just written to him that the Archangels and Elemental Lords “are watching”: “did you invent these beings for no better purpose than to spy on you?” (asserting that these entities are “invented” by the practitioner and are actually representatives of parts of the person, which places this statement – written circa 1947 – in the same category as the “Spirits of the Goetia are portions of the human brain,” written over forty years before that – which really ought to show the consistency in Crowley’s position)
A claim not to care if his “past life memories” aren’t true, on the grounds that “the falsity of Aesop’s Fables does not diminish their value” (affirming once again that what counts is the experience and that if the supernatural theory is false – which it probably is – the experience can still be useful in the same way that Aesop’s fables can be useful despite the fact that they’re not true (i.e. they can have instructional value)
An assertion that the “body of light” is “of course not ‘real’.”

This last point might require a bit of further explanation, as Crowley follows this up with “but then no more is the other body!” While indeed Crowley is arguing that, in the broadest philosophical sense, nothing is “real,” he’s careful to distinguish this broad philosophical position from practical discourse (which is, by the way, what we’re engaging in when we talk about whether any of the supernatural stuff is “real”). As he immediately notes: “each class of ideas possesses true relations within itself. It is possible, with Berkeley, to deny the existence of water and of wood; but, for all that, wood floats on water.”
While it may be fun to indulge in pure philosophy and say that reality and daydreams are equally “unreal,” the fact of the matter is that when people speak practically – like we do when we talk about whether a claim is true – they use words like “real” to denote experience that is not imaginary, not of the order of things like “astral projection.” [To be extra clear: I’m saying that people do have the real experience of engaging in astral projection: what’s not real is the existence of a “body of light” that actually goes anywhere…the whole thing is, as Crowley says about invocations, an act of imagination and make believe]
As Crowley remarks in “The Soldier and the Hunchback” (an essay that requires too intricate a discussion for this particular post): “Practically, Science is true; and Faith is foolish […] So that after all I keep my scepticism intact – and I keep my Samadhi intact. The one balances the other; I care nothing for the vulgar brawling of these two varlets of my mind.”

In “Notes to the Astral Plane” in Book 4, Crowley writes: “The "reality" or "objectivity" of these symbols [i.e. “spirits” or “angels”] is not pertinent to the discussion. The ideas of X to the 4th power and square root of -1 have proved useful to the progress of mathematical advance toward Truth; it is no odds whether a Fourth Dimension "exists", or whether square root of -1 has "meaning" in the sense that square root of 4 has, the number of units in the side of a square of 4 units.
The Astral Plane — real or imaginary […]"
Quite clearly, Crowley is saying that it is irrelevant whether the astral plane or the beings who supposedly exist there are “real.” In the same way that it doesn’t matter whether the square root of -1 is “real” (i.e. corresponds to something actually in the world) – since one can still do the math either way – the question of whether the astral plane is “real” is equally irrelevant since one can still do the exercises of “astral projection” either way.
Once more, Crowley is not saying that one should prove to oneself that the astral plane is “real.” He’s saying, very clearly, that the “reality” of it is irrelevant to the practice and that it’s the practice that counts.

Anyway, the above list of points is somewhat long, but it doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of passages in Crowley where he says – in totally consistency with his ideas I explored earlier in this essay – that the supernatural theory is irrelevant, probably false, and should be discarded because what matters is the experience.
Despite Crowley’s very clear and consistent position on this point, some Thelemites continue to try to use their experience as the basis of supporting supernatural theories, playing word games like labeling their experience “Intuition” or “Understanding” or “Divine Revelation,” etc. For example, the thread “What’s a True Act of Magick?” on featured a number of posters claiming that their Intuition was capable of coming to factual conclusions, such as “reincarnation happens.”
Readers can feel free to read through the “True Act of Magick” thread if they want to see my full argument spelled out, but the long and short of it is that this idea about the Understanding is completely wrong because all factual claims – by definition – are rational constructions that are produced and evaluated by the reason. Now, some may be produced or evaluated ineptly or on the back of insufficient evidence (as is the case with “My intutition tells me that reincarnation is true”), but they are rational claims nonetheless.
Anyway, the point I want to bring up here is that Crowley never – not once, ever – suggests that Understanding is a faculty for revealing factual claims about the world. In fact, everything he wrote suggests the polar opposite: take, for example, his Letter XLVII in Magick Without Tears. Here, he discusses why he believes in reincarnation (note that in light of what he writes elsewhere, as I examined above, we ought to qualify the idea that Crowley “believed” in reincarnation).
In this letter, Crowley does not say, “Gee, I believe in reincarnation because my Understanding tells me that it’s true,” which he absolutely would say if he thought that the Understanding was a faculty capable of confirming factual claims. Instead, he provides reasons and arguments – rational evidence! – for accepting this factual claim, even though he ends the letter by observing that the evidence he’s presented is insufficient and bemoaning the fact that all he really has to go on is “feelings” (and he even, tellingly, reminds his correspondent that he has warned her about trusting feelings to support factual claims).
Indeed, everywhere in Crowley’s writings, he presents factual claims as something other than the “Understanding” that Neschamah provides.

Take, for example, his letter on “certainty” in Magick Without Tears (XXIX), where he draws upon the Emerald Tablet to assert three “degrees” of truth: True, Certain without error, and Of all truth. The first two of these classes pertain to factual claims about the universe, just in different degrees of precision. The third is utterly different than the first two, pertaining not to claims made in reference to other arbitrary measurements (such as we have when making factual claims), but to the Neschamah, to a category of Images that are of-all-truth (which sounds curiously similar to Plato’s Ideals).

Claims about the world – claims like the existence of reincarnation, claims about magick “working” – are claims that pertain to the first two “degrees” of truth he indicates here.

What is Understanding, then, for Crowley? In Book 4, part 2 (“The Cup”), Crowley explains understanding as “the structuralizaiton of knowledge,” which is what it is on the mundane plane.(understanding how the pieces of knowledge one acquires fit together, have meanings as a whole, i.e. understanding the disparate pieces of knowledge as a unity). In terms of the Qabalah, Understanding (capital U) is the Understanding that the disparate pieces that make up human knowledge and experience have a Unity (which is, ultimately, a non-entity, a dissolution, 2=0).

As Crowley puts it in Book 4 part 2: “But it is God who is all and not any part; and every "dealing" [“of God with my soul,” as in the Master of the Temple Oath] must thus be an expansion of the soul, a destruction of its separateness.” [That is, the cultivation of Understanding is an expansion of the True Self and ultimately its destruction in dissolution]

In short, Understanding is the faculty, higher than the mind, of Understanding the illusion of separateness. But Knowledge consists of claims about the relations of illusions – which, while ultimately “illusory,” are perfectly “true” on their own plane.

In other words, Understanding isn’t something that allows one to perceive and assess factual claims about the world. Understanding is the direct perception that the “world,” as commonly understood, is a dualistic illusion – but for all that, the world is still here, and we can still assess claims made about it.
This division between factual claims and Understanding is precisely what Crowley expounds in Little Essays Toward Truth. Take, for example, this passage from his essay on Knowledge:

“The common Mystic affects to despise Science as "illusion": this is the most fatal of all errors. For the instruments with which he works are all of this very order of "illusory things." We know that lenses distort images; but for all that, we can acquire information about distant objects which proves correct when the lens is constructed according to certain "illusory" principles and not by arbitrary caprice. The Mystic of this kind is generally recognized by men as a proud fool; he knows the fact, and is hardened in his presumption and arrogance. One finds him goaded by his subconscious shame to active attacks on Science; he gloats upon the apparent errors of calculation which constantly occur, not at all understanding the self-imposed limitations of validity of statement which are always implied; in short, he comes at last to abandon his own postulates, and takes refuge in the hermit-crab-carapace of the theologian.” (emphasis added)
Here, Crowley is criticizing those so-called “mystics” who attack science as illusory. In reading this passage, one thinks immediately of those idiots who say things like, “Science is just another religion! After all, it doesn’t have all the answers – science is always being proven wrong! We could find out tomorrow that science has been wrong all this time and that there really are praeterhuman intelligences! Hahaha, you have no absolute certainty, so I’m justified in believing in any old crap that I want!” These kinds of fools don’t understand what Crowley calls the “self-imposed limitations” that are always implied in factual statements: they don’t understand that all knowledge is always implicitly “so far as we can determine, based on the best possible evidence we currently have.”

Crowley continues:
“But, on the other hand, to him who has firmly founded his rational thinking on sound principles, who has acquired deep comprehension of one fundamental science, and made proper paths between it and its germans which he understands only in general, who has, finally, secured the whole of this structure by penetrating through the appropriate Trances to the Neschamic Truths of which it is the rightly-ordered projection in the Ruach, to him the field of Knowledge, thus well-ploughed, well-sown, well fertilized, well left to ripen; is ready for him to reap. The man who truly understands the underlying formulae of one root-subject can easily extend his apprehension to the boughs, leaves, flowers, and fruit; and it is in this sense that the mediaeval masters of Magick were justified in claiming that by the evocation of a given Daimon the worthy Octinomos might acquire the perfect knowledge of all sciences, speak with all tongues, command the love of all, or otherwise deal with all Nature as from the standpoint of its Maker. Crude are those credulous or critical who thought of the Evocation as the work of an hour or a week!”

Here, he’s saying that a person who has acquired a knowledge of the whole of science – by studying one branch and by rationally extrapolating through other branches – can “secure the whole of this structure [of knowledge]” by Understanding – via the Neschamah – not by acquiring more facts about the world, but perceiving the Unity underlying this knowledge and, ultimately, the non-existence underlying all of this illusion.

This perception of Truth -- i.e. that claims about the world are "illusion" from one point of view -- does not in any way change the fact that we can still assess those claims and determine whether or not we have any reason to accept them (from another point of view).
[By the way, note that Crowley says “Crude are those credulous or critical who thought of the Evocation as the work of an hour or a week.” He’s saying that those Goetic operations that are, according to the Goetia, supposed to provide “perfect knowledge of all sciences, etc.” aren’t rites to be conducted in an hour or a week – they’re metaphors for the very process of thoroughly studying the world and extrapolating into other areas and Understanding the Unity of knowledge. “Perfect knowledge,” we might read as meaning “Understanding the Unity of Science,” which is the result of a process metaphorized as “Goetic operations”
Note that this passage – written about 35 years after “An Initiated Interpretation of Ceremonial Magick” – is entirely consistent with the position expressed in that work that the Spirits of the Goetia are portions of the human brain: far from “changing his mind” about spirits, as is sometimes claimed, Crowley continues to maintain that the Goetia is, at best, metaphorical.]

This division between Understanding and Knowledge is echoed throughout the essays, particularly in the essay on Understanding:

“The only correct and adequate mode of the Attainment of Understanding is to shut off and to inhibit the rational mind altogether, thus leaving a Tabula rasa upon which the entirely alien faculty—de novo and sui generis—can write its first word […]this formless, even delirious Ecstasy which sweeps away all shapes of thought […] the new Law of the Mind has "come not to destroy but to fulfil" the old. The Understanding takes full cognizance of all that vast material which the Reason was unable to build into any coherent structure. The contradictions have disappeared by absorption; they have been accepted as essential factors in the nature of Truth, which without them were a mere congeries of Facts.”

Having thus established that Understanding “fulfills” rather than “destroys” the mind (and its rational perception of “fact”) – and that it is achieved by “shut[ting] off” the mind and enabling Understanding to “build into […] coherent structure” [i.e. Unity] all of the facts that reason, by itself, cannot – Crowley then proceeds to a clear conclusion:

It will be clear from all these considerations that there need be no surprise at this primordial paradox: that Scepticism, absolute in every dimension, is the sole possible basis of true Attainment. All attempts to shirk the issue by appeals to "faith," by mystic transcendental sophistries, or any other spiritual varieties of the Three-Card-Trick, are devoted to the most abject destruction
See that? “Scepticism, absolute in every dimension, is the sole possible basis of true Attainment.” Crowley decries both faith and “mystical transcendental sophistries,” and this is consistent with what he said all the way back in the Book IV, Part I, in which he warns people not to be taken in by blind faith or by believing supernatural theories supporting their experiences (i.e. Christ, Mohammed, et al are examples of the “transcendental sophistries” that one is to be on guard against – we can extrapolate from Crowley’s thoughts here and extend what he’s saying to conclude that such “transcendental sophistries” include attributing any supernatural theories to one’s experiences, including “I summoned up a real, no-fooling demon” or “I communicated with a discarnate human intelligence”; such “transcendental sophistries also include claims like “My Intuition directly perceives that reincarnation is true,” which we can see now that Crowley clearly did not endorse).
Altogether, one must note the striking consistency of Crowley’s position across the years. For all of the ill-informed blather that Crowley “changed his mind” over time, an honest reading of his words indicates that he stayed very consistent on the necessity of skepticism for his system. What’s really important here is that the reading I’ve advanced here is not a “cherry-picking” of one or two quotes: it is a careful review of Crowley’s remarks spanning a period of nearly forty years, demonstrating consistency with regards to this topic.

So what’s the conclusion of all of the above?
First, I think it should be very obvious that Crowley was consistent and emphatic throughout his life that skepticism was vital for his system, for the work, and for attainment.
Second, I think it should be equally obvious that Crowley consistently stressed that people – not just students, here! – should be focused on the experience and should not give credence to supernatural theories with which their minds might tempt them to surround the experience.
Third, consistent with the above, Crowley wrote in ways that denied validity to supernatural explanations surrounding experience and urged practitioners to focus on the experience itself.
All of the above should be perfectly clear from an honest reading of Crowley, but people insist on reading all sorts of ideas into Crowley that aren’t there, from the idea that only “students” should be skeptical, to the related idea that people should use experience to confirm supernatural explanations (but only “to them”) and therefore graduate from being students and discard that pesky little skepticism and their reason, which is a lie don’t you know, and which stops progress by “punching wholes” in the supernatural explanations.
Hopefully, it’s clear by now that such readings of Crowley are woefully misguided and not rooted in the man’s actual words.
There are two brief objections that I would like to address before concluding:
The first is an asinine objection raised only by the truly stupid, but it has to be addressed. Upon reading that Crowley said that the theory doesn’t matter – only the experience – there are a bunch of cretins who will immediately pipe up and say something like, “Exactly! The theory doesn’t matter – as long as it works! So it doesn’t matter if we don’t know how the ritual causes me to find money in the street or how tarot cards predict the future….cause the theory doesn’t matter, right? Right! All that matters is that it works! And I did the rituals and I read the cards, and I totally proved – to me! – that it works! And that’s all that matters!”
Anyone who seriously thinks along these lines needs to go back and repeat grade school.
The claim “This ritual worked!” is a factual claim about the world that needs to be verified before one can accept it. One cannot verify claims of that magnitude by virtue of a handful of coincidences. If one sat down and actually conducted a serious, double-blind study to investigate whether a ritual could cause one to find money or whether tarot cards predict the future, one would end up concluding that such claims aren’t supportable.
That’s all on that moronic objection. Go back to preschool and stop embarrassing yourself with such displays of credulity.
There’s another, more serious, objection to address: a lot of people will read my essay and say, “Well, yeah, but…didn’t Crowley believe in all kinds of supernatural stuff? Didn’t he write about encounters with praeterhuman intelligences and demons, etc.? Didn’t he say he could turn invisible? I mean, isn’t he an example of the kind of gullible idiot you’re always criticizing, Los? Etc., etc., etc.”
There are a few responses here. First – without yet getting into the question of what exactly Crowley might or might not have believed – we should observe that my essay is about Crowley’s system. I’ve focused entirely on his published writings that he gave to the world to explain his magical system of self-development. I haven’t at all touched on his diaries, his personal letters, his notes, or any of his own specific magical workings: I have done so by design because my interest, in this blog and especially in this post, is in Crowley’s system, not his personal beliefs.
That skepticism is essential to Crowley’s system is beyond question. Whether Crowley himself personally lived up to the standard of skepticism required by his system is a different issue. Perhaps we might decide that Crowley failed to consistently live up to the requirements of his own system, and we might only say that in this, he’s hardly alone.
Second, we really, really ought to be careful about saying “Crowley believed X.” As I have detailed in this post, his writings are brimming with passages that indicate that he expressed a great deal of doubt towards the supernatural and urged people not to accept supernatural theories. People blithely say things like, “Crowley believed in reincarnation” without really considering that while he said he believed it, he also said things along the lines of, “It’s irrelevant whether it’s true” and “Hey, false things can be useful, so it doesn’t really matter.” So yeah, he technically said he believed it, but in a way very different from what most people might mean when they say “I believe in reincarnation.”
Furthermore, we might put Crowley’s “supernatural beliefs” on a kind of continuum, from things he said but probably didn’t believe (like his ability to turn invisibility) to things he might have actually believed (like his being “chosen” by the, erm, “Secret Chiefs”…yikes).
It’s possible that Crowley really did believe some of those things. It might also be possible that he “believed” them like he “believed” (cough, cough) in reincarnation: he just held them to be true because he enjoyed the idea of them, because he thought that other people might be impressed by them, because he could control other people with them (it’s not me who wants you to…it’s the Secret Chiefs who want you to…I am but their humble representative….), etc.
I really don’t know, and I really don’t care all that much. Was Crowley as much of a gullible idiot as some of the people I criticize on this blog? From the evidence of his writing, no. He seems quite aware that this supernatural stuff is nonsense. On those points where he might have held supernatural beliefs, yes, I’d consider him a gullible idiot on those points, if he was really serious about it. But so what?
The point that I’ve been trying to make here – and hopefully it’s come through loud and clear – is that the system that Crowley gave to the world requires skepticism, as he consistently said and illustrated. Further, he was not merely advocating skepticism for “students,” with the expectation that people would come to verify for themselves that the supernatural was real. For Crowley’s magical system of self-development – and especially for his philosophy, Thelema – skepticism is the centerpiece, one not to be displaced by supernatural theory.


  1. Hi Los,

    We've exchanged a few messages on Lashtal fairly recently, I think you'll know who I am. Great post, and I must say I hope you do some analysis of 'The Soldier and the Hunchback' to follow up.

    You say that Crowley was sceptical about the supernatural, but it appears that his was a highly selective brand of scepticism as other examples of his writing seem to show his conviction in the efficacy of magic, and not 'magick' in the wider sense of 'change in conformity with will', but in the 'occult forces' sense. Off the top of my head, for example, in 'Book IV' where he says: [paraphrase] that, "there may be at work a force as yet unidentified by science" and that "as all things are connected in the universe, which does not run on linear time" that in the event one were to do a ritual to get a friend to write one, and the letter arrived next day, that just because the letter had been written prior to the ritual, would not invalidate the conclusion that the ritual was a causative event in the reception of the letter. Does this not invalidate the laws of cause and effect, as they are understood by all rational people?

    What's more, you say he didn't advocate using subjective 'impressions' or 'feelings', etc, to evaluate results of 'operations'. But again, in Book IV, he basically says, "decide if it worked using the law of probability". Very scientific I must say!

    I agree with you though, I wonder how much of any of it he really believed in, in the sense that you use the term (ie. as a proposition backed by fact.) Presumably if he had done, he would have devised real scientific experiments to prove it to the world, which as far as I know, he never attempted (funny that). It didn't seem to matter to him whether it was real, as the example about reincarnation shows (I know there are many others too, 'matters of the merest conjecture', I suppose!) It seems he did kind of blow hot and cold about the objective validity of magical operations?

    Is it on the right lines, so to speak, to view Crowley's life, magical work and writings as some kind of highly developed, grand, elaborate living metaphor for 'real' attainment, along the lines that you and Erwin have articulated so comprehensively? Or perhaps an attempt to transcend "the rational dullness" of his mind? As he was a highly intelligent man, and certainly capable of focused, rational inquiry, might we see his devotion to the arcane as his attempt to embrace that which he was not? You know, all that stuff about embracing ('evoking'?) stuff we don't like, stuff that isn't 'us'? Might this explain it?

    Anyway, just some half arsed ideas I thought I'd toss your way!


  2. Part 1 of 2:

    You write: "Great post, and I must say I hope you do some analysis of 'The Soldier and the Hunchback' to follow up."

    Thanks, though glancing at this article now for the first time in days, I see that there are a bunch of formatting errors. I’ll probably get around to fixing those sooner or later. I do intend to write (eventually) an article on The Soldier and the Hunchback, but I’m currently writing a piece on the LBRP that I will probably finish first.

    You write: "You say that Crowley was sceptical about the supernatural, but it appears that his was a highly selective brand of scepticism"

    Well, like I said, it may be that Crowley didn’t live up to the skepticism that he advocated. But look at the examples you produce – none of them actually is an out-and-out statement of belief in the supernatural. They’re all qualified. Even the example of the letter just says that, if we assume that time isn’t necessarily linear (i.e. that apparently "linear time" is just how our minds experience it) then we can’t rule out the ritual being the cause. Of course, by same token, we can’t *confirm* the ritual as the cause, so we have no good reason to accept that it is, either.

    My point is that even in those places where it seems like he’s being an apologist for the supernatural, we see a lot of doubt, hesitation, tentative claims, etc. It’s more like Crowley is testing out ideas than he is advancing specific claims.

    Now, if your question is why in the heck Crowley bothered with any of this “occult” stuff, it’s because he enjoyed it. That’s a perfectly fine reason to pursue an interest in it and a practice of it. Now, we might speculate on *why* he enjoyed it so much – and springing to mind, we have 1) a rebellious reaction to his nutso religious upbringing, 2) the not-insignificant sexual component of much of his occult practice, and 3) the desire to present himself as a Grand Poobah and impress people (and maybe himself?) thereby.

    Of course, at the end of the day, speculations are just that, and they don’t really get us anywhere, other than entertaining us a bit. The fact of the matter is that Crowley left us a system that has skepticism (that is, “the method of science,” the seeing of the world – and onself – as objectively as possible) as its centerpiece.

    For all the people who want to brush aside my observations by saying I’m just “cherry-picking” Crowley quotes or who say that Crowley’s emphasis on skepticism was just some kind of “phase” he went through, the above article confirms a consistent emphasis on skepticism spanning his entire career.

  3. Part 2 of 2:

    You write: "Is it on the right lines, so to speak, to view Crowley's life, magical work and writings as some kind of highly developed, grand, elaborate living metaphor for 'real' attainment, along the lines that you and Erwin have articulated so comprehensively? Or perhaps an attempt to transcend "the rational dullness" of his mind?"

    I don’t know if you can call his life a “living metaphor” – depends on what you mean by that. It seems like you think that Crowley is some kind of an enigma to be explained, but I don’t really see any big contradiction. Crowley was a fascinating writer who had a wide variety of interests: he was very intelligent, he enjoyed testing out different ideas (“testing” in the sense of running with them and seeing what other conclusions followed from them), and he got a kick out of shocking the pants off of the stuffy Victorian establishment of his day. He liked appearing impressive, he liked thinking of himself as some kind of wizard or “chosen one,” and he liked sex. A lot. He had a thorough knowledge of symbolism and comparative mythology, a zest for the dramatic (both in ritual and in daily life), and a sense of humor so sharp that you can practically see him winking at you when you read some of his books. He also had a nutty fundamentalist upbringing that drummed literalist religion into his head from an early age.

    Now stir all that up in a big pot, and it’s not terribly surprising that the guy said a bunch of wild things and we have a bit of trouble distinguishing exactly how seriously he took all of his own claims. What would be more surprising is if a person like that *never* did anything of the sort.

    And yet, as I’ve demonstrated above, Crowley was very consistent (we might say surprisingly so) about the importance of skepticism, and that’s another reason to take that point very seriously.

    Along those same lines, what’s really interesting about Crowley’s approach to “magick” is that he also pretty much consistently *presents* rituals as having purely psychological effects. I know, I know: he did all those operations for “results,” but those places where he actually explains what rituals do are almost entirely devoid of supernaturalism whatsoever.

    Anyway, I’m starting to ramble now, but I hope I’ve given you some interesting food for thought. Cheers.

  4. cool post, this is what I got from Crowley's writing myself but it's nice (and useful) to have it set out so well in this essay