Aleister Crowley’s classic essay “The Soldier and the Hunchback” (1909) is a fun read that provides some interesting insights into Crowley’s take on skepticism and how it relates to Thelema. Throughout the piece, Crowley’s wit is on full display, as is his keen intellect. Students would do well to familiarize themselves with the ideas set forth in this short document.
The goal of this blog post will be to serve as a guide to Crowley’s essay in order to facilitate study of it. Below the cut, I provide an overview of the essay’s argument, along with some close readings of important pieces of the essay. It is my hope that a beginner will come away from this blog post with a greater understanding of Crowley’s essay and be better prepared to tackle the source material, which may be confusing to those who encounter it for the first time.
Read on for more.
“The Soldier and the Hunchback” takes its name from a poetic description of two marks of punctuation: the question mark (? – the hunchback) and the exclamation point (! – the soldier). Obviously, Crowley calls these marks by those names because of their shape (the curved back of the ? and the straight and standing-to-attention appearance of the !). He uses these marks of punctuation as shorthand for doubt/skeptical questioning (?) and ecstatic revelation/realization (!).
Crowley describes the path of initiation in this essay as a succession of question marks and exclamation points. When one sets out on the path, one is typically operating in what we might call “mundane consciousness,” reacting blindly to sensory stimuli and hardly reflecting at all on one’s life. But the unexamined life is not worth living. So when one first begins to question one’s own basic assumptions and seek a deeper truth – when one puts a question mark next to one’s life – one eventually finds an ecstatic exclamation point, an AHA or EUREKA! moment when one believes that one has found The Answer.
Of course, it is only a matter of time before one realizes that this answer, too, is susceptible to doubt: another question mark arises that challenges one’s understanding of the universe until, eventually, another exclamation point comes along…an even stronger and more forceful exclamation point. Now, one thinks, I have really found The Answer. And yet, before long, the questions begin pouring in again….
And so on and so forth.
We might conceive of this process by imagining an aspirant moving up the Tree of Life on the path to attainment. Each sephiroth can be considered to represent a level of understanding, and entry into each one might constitute an eureka moment.
Crowley’s essay proceeds in three basic parts, by way of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.
In the first five sections, he explores the hunchback, showing how doubt is a weapon that may be turned against any conception whatsoever.
In the next three sections, he examines the exclamation point, showing how realization can assert itself as a practical revelation in the face of the crumbling of all knowledge at the hands of the hunchback doubt. He discusses this realization primarily in terms of Samadhi, a trance experience that can be induced through yoga techniques. This realization is characterized by a feeling of rapturous union produced by clear perception of reality without the distorting influences of the mind.
In the final section, he shows that the soldier and hunchback are, in fact, identical. Just as each mark of punctuation is essentially the same, with only minor differences in appearance (one line curved and the other straight), so too does Crowley assert that doubt and revelation are ultimately identical. The two modes of experience pass through the mind with increasing rapidity until they become virtually interchangeable, allowing the aspirant to bypass these phantoms and access his or her True Will, which dwells beyond (beneath) these mental phantasmagoria.
We will cover each of these sections in turn.
In the first five sections of the essay, Crowley is in rare form showing off his wit. He opens by defining skepticism, and he includes a great snide potshot at Christianity and, by extension, all religion:
What is Scepticism? The word means looking, questioning, investigating. One must pass by contemptuously the Christian liar's gloss which interprets "sceptic" as "mocker"; though in a sense it is true for him, since to inquire into Christianity is assuredly to mock at it.It should be noted, of course, that this observation applies equally to followers of any dogmatic religion, including, perhaps ironically, followers of various modern Thelema-inspired supernaturalist faiths (see later in the essay for Crowley’s reflection on a future overrun with these sorts of “nominal Crowleians”). As an aside, when Crowley notes that Christian liars gloss “sceptic” as “mocker,” I can’t help but think of William Blake’s famous denunciation of Voltaire and Rousseau and the skepticism they represent (“Mock on, mock on”).
Crowley begins this section of the essay by defining skepticism as active and virile, investigative and not merely naysaying:
I do not regard mere incredulity as necessary to the idea, though credulity is incompatible with it. Incredulity implies a prejudice in favour of a negative conclusion; and the true sceptic should be perfectly unbiassed.
Note that Crowley is criticizing a *prejudice* -- that is, a *pre* judgment – in favor of a negative conclusion. He’s not saying that a skeptic shouldn’t conclude that a claim is false (or, at least, unlikely to be true). He’s saying that a skeptic shouldn’t judge *before* seeing the evidence. Once a skeptic sees the evidence, of course, then he is no longer *pre* judging…he can make a judgment, based on evidence. And in some cases, the proper judgment will indeed be “There’s no good reason to think claim X is true.”
This point is important because a lot of people misinterpret Crowley as thinking that a skeptic should always be neutral on all subjects. As we can see, he doesn’t hold that position at all. A skeptic waits for evidence, but then the skeptic *judges* based on evidence.
Crowley include the qualities of “Eagerness, intentness, concentration, [and] vigilance” in his definition of a skeptic, excluding positions such as “vital scepticism” (the denial that anything is worthwhile) as prejudiced, in the sense discussed above, and therefore the opposite of skepticism, “the devil disguised as an angel of light.”
Crowley immediately makes a clever aside that anticipates the argument he will make about skepticism’s ability to destroy knowledge. Regarding this idea of false skepticism as the “devil” disguised as an angel:
[Or vice versa, friend, if you are a Satanist; 'tis a matter of words — words — words. You may write x for y in your equations, so long as you consistently write y for x. They remain unchanged — and unsolved. Is not all our "knowledge" an example of this fallacy of writing one unknown for another, and then crowing like Peter's cock?]
And, in fact, the next several sections of the essay demonstrate how doubt can destroy any conception whatsoever and can demolish the very notion that humans have knowledge at all. As we will see shortly, though, Crowley’s critiques actually do not demonstrate that humans have no knowledge – instead, they demonstrate that absolute knowledge is impossible.
For example, he begins by questioning with Decartes everything that possibly can be questioned, arriving at Cogito (“I think”), which he reduces further to Cogitatur (“Thought exists”). We can question almost everything and succeed in challenging it, but we cannot successfully question whether thought exists because to deny thought is to think (Crowley puts it, “’Negatur’ is only a sub-section of Cogitatur”).
Crowley, however, points out a circularity in drawing the conclusion that thought exists: Cogitatur depends on the proposition A is A, the law of identity. A thing is always equal to itself. If this weren’t the case, then we couldn’t conclude that denying thought is to think. Yet, A is A is itself a thought. So, Crowley concludes, we have a circular argument in which our demonstration that thought exists begins from the assumption that thought exists. [Minor note: I actually think Crowley is incorrect to suggest that logical absolutes, like the law of identity, are thoughts...we use thoughts to model these absolutes, but the absolutes would remain true regardless of the existence of minds (and indeed regardless of the existence of anything at all!). But this quibble would take us very far from the topic, so let's table it for now]
Furthermore, to say that “thought exists" is to make “thought” dependent on a new term called “exists” (Est), and what the heck does that mean?
In section IV, Crowley tries to make a formal syllogism of the argument to show that Negatur implies that thought exists. Rearranging the order to clarify the major and minor premises:
(All) Denial of thought is thought.
There is denial of thought.
The implied conclusion is clearly "Therefore, there is thought."However, as Crowley points out, this conclusion depends on the laws of logic (particularly the law of the excluded middle). And how do we go about demonstrating that?
Crowley’s point, again and again, is that trying to assert even the simplest of claims involves bringing lots of other ill-defined and equally questionable claims to the fore. And we can keep going and keep questioning every part of every claim forever.
He illustrates this most clearly when he says:
Then again we spin words — words — words. And we have got no single question answered in any ultimate sense.
What is the moon made of?
Science replies "Green Cheese."
For our one moon we have now two ideas:
Greenness, and Cheese.
Greenness depends on the sunlight, and the eye, and a thousand other things.
Cheese depends on bacteria and fermentation and the nature of the cow.
"Deeper, even deeper, into the mire of things!"
This is what Crowley means when he says, as he does in many places, that knowledge is impossible. All statements of knowledge can be reduced to “S is P” (“The moon is green cheese”). That being the case, we haven’t actually learned anything about S – we’ve just put it in new terms, and we don’t know anything about those new terms. So now we have to define those new terms. And what do you know, we can phrase our definition of those new terms as S is P also. But guess what? Now we’ve just introduced a bunch more terms that we don’t know anything about….
And so on and so forth forever.
It’s the dictionary game, essentially. Look up a word and read its definition. Then look up the definition of each word in the definition. Keep repeating this until eventually you get the original word.
Ta-da! Proof positive that language is circular and that knowledge is circular too! Therefore, this argument runs, we don’t know anything, and knowledge is impossible.
Knowledge is Possible (Or: Which Bell Does the Hunchback Ring?)
Too many people interpret Crowley’s essay as meaning that it’s impossible to know anything.
But that’s simply not the case. Even if that’s what Crowley meant, it’s a stupid position because it contradicts itself. If knowledge is impossible, is that something we can know? If we can know it, then the argument contradicts itself. If we can’t know it, then nobody has any business asserting it.
So what is Crowley saying? He’s simply denying that absolute knowledge is possible. It is impossible to know anything 100% for certain (except arguably knowledge of things over which I have absolute authority, such as the name I choose to give myself).
To put it another way, Crowley’s critique of knowledge isn’t a critique of practical knowledge as it exists in the everyday world. It is a critique of one idea of the way that knowledge works, an idea that doesn’t actually map to anything in reality. In real life, nobody obtains knowledge by studying the dictionary and mastering the precise definition of every term and arranging all of these terms clearly so that there is no circularity. We gain basic knowledge through a loosely rational process that resembles induction and deduction: the process relies on sensory input, association, and extrapolation (“This is a chair…chair….”).
Knowledge, in the real world practical sense, does not depend on precise definitions or absolute knowledge of all the terms under discussion. To prove it to yourself, ask yourself this simple question: do you know what we call that fiery ball in the sky that looks like it rises and sets every day? If you do know what we call it, then you’ve just demonstrated to yourself that you have knowledge. If you don’t know what that thing is called, then stop pretending to be a dumbass (well, to be fair, some people reading this article probably aren’t pretending).
So why is Crowley arguing against absolute knowledge? Why would he bother arguing against an idea of how knowledge works, an idea that doesn’t map to anything in the real world?
He’s arguing against it because a lot of people mistakenly think that knowledge is absolute or is supposed to be absolute. And people very often mistakenly think that their conclusions about reality, especially conclusions that they form on the back of their AHA moments (!), are absolute.
They’re not. Everything is up for question. The practical knowledge that exists in the real world is always a tentative, provisional kind of knowledge, always up for modification by new evidence when it comes along.
People struggle to understand this point. One of the problems I have when I get into debates with religious believers online is that they operate in absolute frameworks and that they make the assumption that I too must operate in an absolute framework. Hence, when I point out that there’s no good reason to think that, say, their claims about the existence of superpowers are true, they call me a “dogmatist” and think I’m making some kind of absolute denial.
This is one of the main problems with the religious mentality in general: it instills in believers a sense that their beliefs are absolute truth, and it bamboozles them into paying attention to these fantasies about certainty instead of looking at what’s right in front of their faces.
In one recent memorable discussion, when I pointed out that my conclusions are based on all of the information currently available to us, one supernaturalist said, “You are hoping to speak for everyone.”
Another religious believer, when informed that all of the evidence at our disposal suggests that the universe is not the product of an intelligent creator, objected on the grounds that there is lots that we don’t know about the universe and that, therefore, I can’t say that my claim is ultimately true: “The portion of the universe we do not know or comprehend may be far bigger than the one we do, in which case, you can't justify saying the chances for chance [being the cause of the universe] are more than 50%.”
It’s the old "We Know So Little!"gambit, and my reply to it here is instructive:
Sure we can, because we're making claims about the universe that we know and comprehend. As we learn and comprehend more, we refine our claims based on the new evidence we uncover...and unfortunately for you, all of the evidence that we keep uncovering points to the "not designed by intelligence" side.
This is the problem. You think we're making "absolute" claims and that we can't therefore know anything. But we're not making absolute claims. We're making claims about the reality that we are capable of interacting with, and we can make tentative claims about it, to varying degrees of certainty, and keep refining those claims.
These sorts of miscommunications are engendered by religion’s tendency to make believers pay attention to their fantasies of absolute knowledge, but knowledge doesn’t work like that, as Crowley demonstrates over and over again in the “hunchback” section of “The Soldier and the Hunchback.”
In section VI, Crowley proposes the experience of Samadhi as the ! that might emerge to rescue us now that we have knocked down the concept of absolute knowledge.
And this, of course, makes perfect sense: in demolishing the concept of absolute knowledge, we can stop paying attention to our fantasies of it, learn to recognize our actual knowledge as a collection of practical models that we are always revising, and perceive reality instead. The perception of reality, underneath all of the ideas (concepts of absolute knowledge and models of practical knowledge) that we try to overlay ontop of it is one way of understanding Samadhi (!).
As he did earlier in the essay, Crowley puts this ! in terms of ?, again suggesting that the two modes of experience may ultimately be identical:
Hume put his little ? to Berkeley's God-!; Buddha his ? to the Vedic Atman-! — and neither Hume nor Buddha was baulked of his reward. Ourselves may put ? to our own ? since we have found no ! to put it to; and wouldn't it be jolly if our own second ? suddenly straightened its back and threw its chest out and marched off as !?
Crowley introduces Samadhi with some good ol’ Crowleyan humor, requiring knowledge of Christian doctrine and poetry to find it funny:
We shall put all the questions that we can put — but we may find a tower built upon a rock, against which the winds beat in vain.
Not what Christians call faith, be sure! But what (possibly) the forgers of the Epistles — those eminent mystics! — meant by faith. What I call Samadhi — and as "faith without works is dead," so, good friends, Samadhi is all humbug unless the practitioner shows the glint of its gold in his work in the world. If your mystic becomes Dante, well; if Tennyson, a fig for his trances!
Zing! Take that, Tennyson.
Anyway, here’s the really important point: Crowley was smart enough to understand that saying, “I had this inner experience of Samadhi” is on the surface no different than a wackaloo saying that “I have inner certainty that Jesus is God.” In fact, Crowley explicitly says this:
This sounds in a way like the "Interior Certainty" of the common or garden Christian; but there are differences.
Specifically, Crowley gives three differences:
1) Samadhi does not involve accepting false claims about the universe (lies).
2) Samadhi is achieved through quantifiable practices that can be replicated in a scientific manner.
3) Samadhi does not become the basis of telling stories about reality.
In doing so, Crowley emphasizes a distinction between philosophy and a practical perspective:
The Christian insists on notorious lies being accepted as an essential part of his (more usually her) system; I, on the contrary, ask for facts, for observation. Under Scepticism, true, one is just as much a house of cards as the other; but only in the philosophical sense.
By the way, you notice Crowley’s emphatic sexism, gleefully underlining his suggestion that women are, basically, more gullible by virtue of being more prey to their emotions.
Anyway, what Crowley is saying here is an extension of the ideas previously discussed in his essay. While it may be the case that we cannot in any absolute sense know whether Christianity or a scientific viewpoint is true – that is, while we can always apply skepticism and consistently doubt any and all claims to absolute knowledge – we can indeed know things practically.
And that’s the point. All of our knowledge in everyday life is of the practical kind, and it is only when we let go of our insistence on absolute knowledge that we can fully focus on our practical understanding of reality. Once we demonstrate to ourselves that (absolute) knowledge is impossible, we are free to throw that red herring aside and concentrate on knowledge as it actually is, knowledge in the practical sense:
Practically, Science is is true; and Faith is foolish.
Practically, 3 x 1 = 3 is the truth; and 3 x 1 = 1 is a lie; though, skeptically [i.e. when applying skepticism to claims of absolute truth], both statements may be false or unintelligible [when trying to determine the absolute truth of that claim].
Practically, Franklin's method of obtaining fire from heaven is better than that of Prometheus or Elijah. I am now writing by the light that Franklin's discovery enabled men to use.
Crowley’s insistence on the distinction between absolute knowledge (which doesn’t exist and which can be demolished by applying skepticism) and practical knowledge (which does exist and which we can use better and better once we demolish our belief in absolute knowledge) is fundamental to understanding this essay and, more broadly, his entire body of work.
In Book 4, he famously points out that philosophy – i.e. seeking to reason out absolute truths divorced from reality – is the enemy of magick (understood as the practical method of causing change in conformity to will).
many people confuse Philosophy with Magick. Philosophy is the enemy of Magick. Philosophy assures us that after all nothing matters, and that "che sara sara."
In practical life, and Magick is the most practical of the Arts of life, this difficulty does not occur. It is useless to argue with a man who is running to catch a train that he may be destined not to catch it; he just runs, and if he could spare breath would say "Blow destiny!"
In Magick in Theory and Practice, we see this distinction again when Crowley says, point blank, that the astral body is “not real” and then adds that neither is the other (physical) body. He immediately goes on to give that famous story about the imaginary mongoose being brought to help a mentally disturbed man who sees snakes, calling it a “perfect parable of Magick.” Recalling “The Soldier and the Hunchback,” he points out:
All philosophical systems [i.e. absolute knowledge] have crumbled. But each class of ideas possesses true relations within itself [i.e. practically]. It is possible, with Berkeley, to deny the existence of water and of wood; but, for all that, wood floats on water.
Practically speaking, the physical body is real and the astral body is not; philosophically speaking, we cannot draw any absolute claims about the existence of anything (because absolute knowledge is impossible, so we should stop thinking that knowledge works like that and instead pay attention).
Crowley even makes this very point when discussing Samadhi in “The Soldier and the Hunchback." He agrees that he cannot prove that Samadhi is real, but says that “common sense” should be used in support of the claim for its reality. He gives the following parable:
The other day I was with Dorothy, and, as I foolishly imagined, very cosy: for her sandwiches are celebrated. It was surely bad taste on the part of Father Bernard Vaughan, and Dr. Torrey, and Ananda Metteyya, and Mr. G. W. Foote, and Captain Fuller, and the ghost of Immanuel Kant, and Mr. Bernard Shaw, and young Neuburg, to intrude. But intrude they did; and talk! I never heard anything like it. Every one with his own point of view; but all agreed that Dorothy was non-existent, or if existent, a most awful specimen, that her buns were stale, and her tea stewed; "ergo," that I was having a very poor time of it. Talk! Good God! But Dorothy kept on quietly and took no notice; and in the end I forgot about them.
Thinking it over soberly, I see now that very likely they were quite right: I can't prove it either way. But as a mere practical man, I intend taking the steamer — for my sins I am in Gibraltar — back to Dorothy at the earliest possible moment. Sandwiches of bun and German sausage may be vulgar and even imaginary — it's the taste I like. And the more I munch, the more complacent I feel, until I go so far as to offer my critics a bite.
Again, we see that it’s possible to question the (absolute) existence of Samadhi (or question what it “ultimately is”) but in practical terms, Samadhi is an experience that’s open to people. And it differs from something like, say, “an experience of Jesus Christ” because, importantly, Crowley attaches no metaphysical significance or explanations to the experience:
My claim, too, is more modest than the Christian's. He (usually she) knows more about my future than is altogether pleasant; I claim nothing absolute from my Samadhi — I know only too well the worthlessness of single-handed observations, even on so simple a matter as a boiling- point determination! — and as for his (usually her) future, I content myself with mere common sense about the probable end of a fool.
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!
Crowley stressed the importance of both skepticism and Samadhi: he wanted students to undergo the experiences generated by the practices he recommended, but he did not want them attaching stories to those experiences. Hence, the famous Liber O stuff:
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.
Hence, his condemnation of Mohammed and Christ for attaching metaphysical significance, objective reality, and philosophic validity to their experiences:
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"
We might phrase the issue like this: everyone who experiences the kind of realization represented by ! is in danger of allowing his or her mind to crystalize the experience into a story: “I talked to God!” or “Goblins just contacted me!” or “I lived a past life!”
In many cases, the people who tell themselves these stories become convinced that they have absolute knowledge of the truth of these stories: “I experienced it! I have an inner certainty that reincarnation is true.”
These people not only have a false belief in the explanatory power of experience: they tell themselves elaborate stories to prevent themselves from ever having to question those stories. They’ll tell themselves that nobody really knows anything ultimately so all they have to go on is their experience and they experienced the truth of reincarnation so there. Or they’ll tell themselves that knowledge is impossible…to the reason…but they have transcended the reason and, thanks to a little handy special pleading, they can conclude, somehow, that their intuition must be informing them of truth so therefore they know that reincarnation is true so there.
Such people are the victims of their minds, which pull every trick in the book to get them to attach stories to their inner experiences and to accept these stories as absolute knowledge, even as they vehemently deny that this is what they are doing.
Students need to be on guard against falling into the pit of Because. A claim doesn’t become true simply because you tell yourself, via special pleading, that you “don’t use reason.” Further reading can be found on this post, among others.
See also the beginning of section VIII of “The Soldier and the Hunchback” for another clear discussion of the distinction between the practical and philosophical points of view.
The Identity of ? and !
In the final section of the essay, Crowley identifies the two modes of thought that have been its subject, equating complete doubt of absolute knowledge with the ultimate revelation that knocks out the mind:
Shall we not, too, perceive the inter-dependence of the Questions and the Answers, the necessary connection of the one with the other, so that (just as 0 x ì is an indefinite) we destroy the absolutism of either ? or ! by their alternation and balance, until in our series ? ! ? ! ? ! ? ... ! ? ! ? ... we care nothing as to which may prove the final term, any single term being so negligible a quantity in relation to the vastness of the series? Is it not a series of geometrical progression, with a factor positive and incalculably vast?
In the light of the whole process, then, we perceive that there is no absolute value in the swing of the pendulum, though its shaft lengthen, its rate grow slower, and its sweep wider at every swing.
let us rather consider that as the pendulum swings more and more slowly every time, it must ultimately stop, as soon as the shaft is of infinite length. Good! then it isn't a pendulum at all but a Mahalingam — The Mahalingam of Shiva (Namo Shivaya namaha Aum!) which is all I ever thought it was; all you have to do is to keep swinging hard — I know it's hook-swinging! — and you get there in the End. Why trouble to swing? First, because you are bound to swing, whether you like it or not; second, because your attention is thereby distracted from those lumbar muscles in which the hook is so very firmly fixed; third, because after all it's a ripping good game; fourth, because you want to get on, and even to seem to progress is better than standing still. A treadmill is admittedly good exercise.
By portraying the process that he discusses as a pendulum slowing down and ultimately stopping, Crowley presents a symbol that represents the exclamation mark as much as it does the lingam (phallus). The revelation is ecstatic, a parallel for the physical act of sex.
And we see Crowley once again here knocking down the idea of absolute knowledge or absolute meaning. Why go through all of this swinging, all of this symbolic sexuality? What ultimate, absolute reason is there? There are no ultimate absolute reasons. It’s just fun to swing, and since we’re here swinging already, we might as well do it well. [I'm half-deliberately punning on the word "swing," and maybe Crowley was, too]
The meaning of Crowley’s essay is sounded again in Little Essays Towards Truth, written toward the very end of his life, when he writes in the essay on "Understanding":
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.
The practical application of such skepticism, particularly regarding the mind’s ideas about the Self, may be studied throughout Crowley’s writings and on this blog.
It is the hope of this blog post that students will be better equipped to tackle Crowley’s essay. It seems that a number of Crowley’s students come away from this essay with the idea that Crowley espoused the notion that any “worldview” (or, gods help us, "model") is pretty much as good as any other and so therefore (they extrapolate) believing in spooks and superpowers is just as valid as believing in that mean old scientific materialism.
Hopefully, students will see that Crowley was not saying anything remotely like that at all. On the contrary, his essay demonstrates the importance of employing skepticism to avoid getting caught in those kinds of traps of the mind. One must employ doubt as a weapon to shift one’s attention away from one’s fantasies about how knowledge should work in order to be able to regard the world as it is, to be willing to revise one’s tentative knowledge on the basis of evidence.
As the interplay of soldiers and hunchbacks whirls so quickly that one can hardly tell which is which, the two become identified, and the mind can be transcended to allow the individual to perceive what is.
One can do far worse for a conclusion than to quote Aleister Crowley’s own poetic and beautiful ending:
The first step is the hardest; make a start, and I will soon set the hunchback lion and the soldier unicorn fighting for your crown. And they shall lie down together at the end, equally glad, equally weary; while sole and sublime that crown of thine (brother!) shall glitter in the frosty Void of the abyss, its twelve stars filling that silence and solitude with a music and a motion that are more silent and more still than they; thou shalt sit throned on the Invisible, thine eyes fixed upon That which we call Nothing, because it is beyond Everything attainable by thought, or trance, thy right hand gripping the azure rod of Light, thy left hand clasped upon the scarlet scourge of Death; thy body girdled with a snake more brilliant than the sun, its name Eternity; thy mouth curved moonlike in a smile, in the invisible kiss of Nuit, our Lady of the Starry Abodes; thy body's electric flesh stilled by sheer might to a movement closed upon itself in the controlled fury of Her love — nay, beyond all these Images art thou (little brother!) who art passed from I and Thou, and He unto That which hath no Name, no Image. ...
Little brother, give me thy hand; for the first step is hard.