A reader posed a few questions last month in the comments section of this post, and it prompted an interesting and somewhat lengthy response from me. It’s worth reading the whole thing, but there was one piece of it in particular that I thought I would pull out and make its own post. It has to do with the question of why I spend my time explaining the works of Aleister Crowley and Thelema, as opposed to some other spiritual teacher or tradition that might equally be useful to communicate what I’m trying to say without the baggage.
Here’s how the commenter phrased it:
What is valuable enough to you about Crowley's perspective and the practices he developed that you think worth keeping despite both his own shortcomings and the additional shortcomings of his followers?
This is a really good question, as it allows me to reflect on the advantages of Aleister Crowley and his teachings specifically.
My answer to this part of the comment appears below the cut.
I suppose it’s too easy an answer just to say, as I did above [in another part of the response], that my writing about Crowley is largely a matter of personal interest and preference. I *do* certainly think that a person can learn everything they need to learn about “attainment” without reading Crowley, and in some senses it might be easier for them to avoid getting bogged down in all the distractionary stuff that comes with Crowley.
So why bother with Crowley at all? Or, to put it another way, what is there of value in Crowley over and beyond my personal preference for his writings?
One of the primary things of value is the emphasis he placed on the “method of science,” which, of course, doesn’t mean carefully writing down what phase the moon was in when you did the LBRP tonight. Rather, the “method of science” refers to attempting to view the world – and the Self – as objectively as possible. Now, obviously, Crowley isn’t the only “spiritual teacher” to express this idea, but he was the first, as far as I’m aware, to connect the idea to our developing scientific understanding of the world, and he turned to science, whenever possible, to furnish analogies for spiritual experience.
In an age of flaky new age gurus who try lamely to ride the coattails of quantum mechanics, it’s a breath of fresh air to see Crowley make frequent comparisons to chemical reactions, astronomy, and many other branches of science – not to argue that we have super powers but to illustrate some very old spiritual concepts in often illuminating ways. I mentioned above, in the very post you were commenting on, his use of the chemical composition of air to make a point about the magical weapon attributed to the element of air.
Another value that Crowley has – look out for your irony meter! – is that he was very good at pointing out that most historical spiritual traditions are loaded down with superstitious bullshit. Part of his “mission,” as he conceived it, was to strip these systems down to their bare essentials, to show that if we jettison the crap from the “spiritual” traditions of the world, we can have for ourselves a practical, simple system of initiation.
Look at Part I of Book IV as a classic example: Crowley pared down the practice of meditation to something exceedingly simple, something that a person could practice with scientific precision, tossing out all of the nonsense with which people dress up the experience (including especially ethical ideas associated with the practice and claims that people like Jesus and Mohammed attached to Dhyana [“It was Jehovah!” or “It was Gabriel!”]).
Look at the tables of 777, which reduce the gods worshipped by mankind to a collection of symbols. Have a look at Liber Astarte, which describes the function of religious worship – with the strong implication that one god is ultimately as good as any other, that the experience is the whole point (“First concerning the choice of a particular Deity. This matter is of no import, sobeit that thou choose one suited to thine own highest nature.”)
Crowley’s writings are liberally sprinkled with comments that make fun of the supernatural nonsense that people used to believe in. It’s this attitude that led him to pick an explicitly “absurd” term for the goal of his system (“Holy Guardian Angel”) so as to remind the student that it’s just a label.
I was originally going to go through his writings and give some examples, but this already way too long for a blog comment. Suffice it to say that Crowley's writings contain many examples of him making fun of supernaturalism, and anyone who seriously thinks the guy was anything close to the new age space cadets running around claiming kinship with him now needs to go back to the source material and read it more carefully.
And in part, that's what I'm doing on my blog: facilitating readings of the source material, which is sorely neglected by most of the people calling themselves Thelemites.
Anyway, Crowley is the only spiritual teacher, as far as I’m aware, who explicitly tells his students, “I’m going to use this term *because* it’s absurd, just to make sure you don’t get confused.”
Of course, most of his students get confused anyway.
It’s difficult to overstate the significance of Crowley trying to identify something *useful* and *practical* in other systems, underneath the ridiculous supernatural baggage that they come saddled with. It’s of course deeply ironic that he himself was not immune to his own brand of superstitious nonsense, but the central idea of his mission – that constant quest for what is useful and practical underneath the wooly and ridiculous – is one that ignited my imagination as a young man and that still possesses me to find the “good” in any system (and to scoff at the rest).
Third, I think Crowley’s general emphasis on skepticism is an immense boon to a student. In many ways, this is an extension of my second point, but Crowley stressed skepticism not just toward supernatural beliefs but toward the distorting influences of the mind: the emotions, the thoughts, the self-image, the entire edifice of mental constructs that comprise the illusion we call the self.
When combined with his emphasis on the “method of science,” his comparisons to actual scientific inquiry, and his playful blasphemy and tendency to scoff at supernatural claptrap, this skepticism teaches students a truly useful frame of mind with which to approach the world and claims in general.
It’s this skeptical frame of mind – one that is never laid out so boldly in other spiritual teachers – that constitutes Crowley’s real and lasting value as a teacher. He would have been the first one to say that he doesn’t want people dully repeating him or doing and believing things just because he said them. For goodness’ sake, the man joined a magical order, broke with it, and started his own damn order. If it were actually possible for Crowley to be born again in today’s day and age, do you really think that he would sign up with one of these groups that calls themselves A.’.A.’. and meekly work through the degrees?
Finally, I think Crowley’s works have a literary value that makes them worth studying in and of themselves – far more so than any other “spiritual teachers” throughout history. While his poetry was not very good (though not terrible, either), his so-called Holy Books are masterpieces that deserve to be studied as part of literary modernism, right along with the works of Yeats and Joyce and other contemporaries. His prose, too, is a pleasure to read and unpack: it is often densely packed with literary allusion, religious imagery reinterpreted, obscure symbolism, wordplay, and a great deal of wit and humor. There are very frequently profound nuggets to be gleaned in much of the man’s prose, and while I may not always agree with what Crowley says, I’m almost sure to enjoy how he says it.
I would study his works even if I didn’t have the slightest interest in Thelema or attainment whatsoever, simply for the sheer pleasure of engaging with his thoughts. This article that you’re commenting on is an example of my unpacking his ideas so as to make him easier to read for others. My goal is for someone unversed in Crowley to be able to read my article and then go to the source material and find it less daunting.
For all of the above reasons, I say that Crowley stands head and shoulders above any of the other supposed really great spiritual teachers – R.G.T.s, as he puts in Magick Without Tears.