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

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Gems from the Forums: Crowley and His System

From time to time, some folks find themselves confused by my arguments because, as they point out, Crowley believed in all sorts of things that I don’t (things like magic spells, spirit beings, reincarnation, supernatural abilities, etc.). While these folks are, in my estimation, grossly exaggerating the extent to which Crowley probably “believed” in many of those supernatural things, I have no problem acknowledging that my opinions differ from Crowley’s in many areas.

One area in which Crowley and I agree, however, is on Thelema and what it is. That Crowley’s personal beliefs on issues other than Thelema may diverge from mine is not relevant. Yet religiously-motivated Thelemites still often puzzle over this divergence and wonder how what I present on my blog can be, as I say, “Crowley’s Thelema.”
A while back, someone on asked me “whether or not Thelema, as presented by Crowley, necessitates the abscence of supernatural beliefs.”

My response was a good one, and it will comprise the first half of this post. I will follow it by citing another post in which I explain my position further.
Read on for more.

Thelema, as presented by Crowley, is a philosophy of individual action and not a set of supernatural beliefs. Discovery of the true will, as theorized under the Thelemic model of self proposed by Crowley, is best aided by attempting to believe as many true things as possible and as few false things as possible.

Here ends the Crowley portion of this post.

Now, fast-forward to the modern day, when we know lots more about the universe than was known in Crowley’s day, when yet another hundred years has gone by since Crowley’s day revealing not so much as a shred of evidence that anything supernatural is real, when all of the discoveries we’ve made about the universe are entirely consistent with a completely natural worldview and do not admit any violations of the completely blind and mechanical forces of the universe.

In practice, today, regardless of what Crowley may have personally believed, we can say that based on the best evidence we have today, believing as many true things as possible and as few false things as possible means not accepting supernatural claims. [at least not until there’s sufficient evidence for them]

In other words, Thelema, as presented by Crowley, necessitates skepticism. That Crowley himself (apparently) failed to properly practice skepticism (personally) is irrelevant to the necessity of skepticism for his system. And my claim is that the proper practice of skepticism -- which is fundamental to Crowley's Thelema -- necessarily leads one to a position of not accepting supernatural claims, regardless of whether Crowley personally agreed on that particular point or not.

Now, you may not agree that not accepting supernatural claims is the inevitable outcome of attempting to believe as many true things and as few false things as possible. But the way we discuss that is by talking about the evidence for those supernatural claims, not appealing to “But Crowley believed in that stuff!”

As I said before, in all real subjects of knowledge, the subject evolves as people practice it and learn more about reality: to use an example I used earlier, our modern understanding of evolution is significantly different than Darwin’s. But it’s still clearly evolution, the concept that he came up with and laid out all of the fundamental principles for.

That we today who practice Crowley’s Thelema come to conclusions that he may not have is practically a given, assuming that we’re dealing with a real subject. What would be more surprising is if we today held Crowley’s positions entirely, without seriously differing from him at all – that would be a sign of danger, an indication that people are just blindly (and religiously) repeating Crowley’s ideas without there being any actual discovery, any actual growth.

While we’re at it, another poster on Lashtal more recently asked me, “How can understandings of Thelema not shared by AC or those who knew him be the most useful way to read his work, as an historiographic matter?” The question, of course, falsely assumes that my understanding of Thelema is not shared by Crowley. My response follows:

I haven't been advancing an "understanding of Thelema not shared by AC." I've been advancing what Thelema is, as explained by Crowley: an individual philosophy of conduct.

What we've been speaking about recently on this thread are not the specifics of Thelema (which is concerned more or less entirely with discovering and executing the True Will) but about a host of ideas (outside the scope of Thelema) in which to contextualize a practice of Thelema: naturalism or supernaturalism, atheism or theism, skepticism or faith, rational inquiry or enthusiasm, etc. [Note: I seem to have misspoken here: skepticism is essential to what Thelema is] Plus there are a number of practices, outside the scope of Thelema, that can be used in the service of discovering and executing the True Will: meditation, ceremonial magick, mindfulness, etc.

I claim Crowley's understanding of what Thelema is is very close (if not identical) to my take on what Thelema is (it should be, since I derive my understanding of Thelema from his interpretation of Liber AL). His beliefs about things outside the scope of Thelema -- the existence of spirits, magical forces, "preternatural whazzamacallits," etc. -- are all extra-Thelemic ideas that are non-essential to understanding what Thelema is or practicing it.

People often get confused on this subject: they want to lump everything Crowley ever wrote -- or at least all of his writings on occultism -- into the "Thelema" pile. But occultism and Thelema are two separate subjects, just as mountain-climbing and Thelema are two separate subjects or chess playing and Thelema are two separate subjects.

Witness, for example, the extensive commentary to Liber AL, which hardly says anything at all about ceremonial magick but goes on and on and on about conduct and behavior.

Everywhere in Crowley's writings, when he's talking about Thelema, he's talking about conduct, discovering and performing the Will, etc. Look at Liber Aleph, for example, where he carefully explains the Will as "buried" within an individual, to be discovered if one only "gives ear." Liber II, where Crowley defines Thelema exclusively in terms of discovering and carrying out the Will. De Lege Libellum, where he's takling again about conduct and not about supernatural beliefs.

Even those magical practices -- note: practices, not supernatural beliefs -- associated with the discovery of the True Will (Liber Samekh, as an obvious example), describe the process entirely in psychological terms. If you look at Crowley's notes for Samekh, he clearly says that the purpose of the ritual is to distract the body, mind, and imagination of the magician so that he can be free to concentrate on his "deepest self," the HGA.

We also have Crowley on record telling Frank Bennett that Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel is nothing other than integrating the conscious and unconscious minds (Bennett recorded in his diary that Crowley told him that the HGA is the Unconscious mind and that KCHGA is the process of freeing it from the restrictions of the conscious mind...this insight is what caused Bennett to attain, without the use of any ceremonial rituals).

Right up until the end of his life (in Little Essays and Magick Without Tears) we find Crowley presenting the same doctrine that saturates his work all through his career: that there is a True Self (or "genius" or HGA) dwelling beneath the body and mind and that the purpose of initiation is to set that genius loose.

Nowhere, anywhere, is there any injunction to accept any supernatural claims as part of any of Thelemic practice. Now sure, if we step outside the scope of Thelema and want to talk about Crowley's personal beliefs on subjects other than Thelema, he said he believed in supernatural critters of various kinds -- and we might question how seriously he actually took some of the claims he said he believed -- but those beliefs are outside the scope of Thelema.

So I guess I'm not getting where you think I have an "understanding of Thelema" not "shared by AC." I have a different understanding of the supernatural, maybe, if we take him at his word on some of those claims he said he accepted. And I arguably have a more developed take on Thelemic practice (that is, on the application of what Thelema is), but my understanding of what Thelema is comes directly from Crowley's interpretation of Liber AL.

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