Whether one could accept a flawed character such as Crowley as a spiritual leader depends on one’s model of spirituality. Treating any of the three as moral exemplars would seem incompatible with their biographies. If the purpose of religion is to produce such exemplars then their religious endeavors—Theosophy, the Golden Dawn, and Thelema—have failed. However, if the purpose of religion is to produce spiritual adventurers then they have succeeded.
Crowley’s life was an adventure. He was set upon by thieves in dark alleys, and expelled from countries for immorality. He climbed mountains, scandalized a culture that had adapted to Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Swinburne, juggled love affairs, formed new magical orders and broke up others, and made headlines as “the Wickedest Man in the World.” Through all he maintained a rigorous course of spiritual practice, exercise, journaling, and writing. Saint Burton might have been proud.
Judgment of personality is necessarily subjective. The best way to get acquainted with Crowley is to read his own works and the better biographies. Unfortunately, there is more bad biography of Crowley than good. It would be difficult to deny his many character failings, but the level of vitriol leveled at him both during and after his lifetime is amazing. Much of this yellow journalism is libelous or fabricated.
Both Crowley’s vices and his virtues shine through clearly in his Confessions. Israel Regardie’s The Eye in the Triangle gives a critical but sympathetic and engaged account of Crowley’s spiritual career, not turning a blind eye to his flaws or his accomplishments. Other biographies are available, and good biographies continue to appear.
ALEISTER CROWLEY: “I will not acquiesce in anything but the very best of its kind. I don’t in the least mind going without a thing altogether, but if I have it at all it has got to be A1. England is a very bad place for me. I cannot endure people who are either superior or inferior to others, but only those who, whatever their station in life, are consciously unique and supreme….
“I feel so profoundly the urgency of doing my will that it is practically impossible for me to write on Shakespeare and the Musical Glasses without introducing the spiritual and moral principles which are the only things in myself that I can identify with myself.
“This characteristic is evidently inherited from my father. His integrity was absolute. He lived entirely by his theological convictions. Christ might return at any moment. ‘Even as the lightning lighteneth out of the East and lighteneth even unto the West, so is the coming of the Son of Man.’ He would have to give an account of ‘every idle word.’ It was a horrifying thought to him that he might be caught by the Second Advent at a moment when he was not actively and intensely engaged on the work which God had sent him into the world to do. This sense of the importance of the lightest act,
of the value of every moment, has been a tragically intense factor in my life. I have always grudged the time necessary for eating, sleeping and dressing. I have invented costumes with the sole object of minimizing the waste of time and the distraction of attention involved. I never wear underclothing….
“I soon discovered that to distinguish myself in school was in the nature of a conjurer’s trick. It is hard to analyze my method or to be sure of the analysis; but I think the essence of the plan was to make certain of the minimum required and to add a superstructure of one or two abstruse points which I would manage to bring to the notice of the master or the examiner so as to give him the idea that I had prepared myself with unusual thoroughness.”
—The Confessions of Aleister Crowley, chapter 4.
THE TRUE BELIEVER: Crowley was the Prophet of the Silver Star, the chosen human agent of the Secret Chiefs. He was selected because for all his human frailties he was a man of prodigious strength, intelligence and discipline, an occultist of many incarnations who was poised to assume the highest mantle and fit himself for a place in the City of the Pyramids with the Prophets and Bodhisattvas. To understand Crowley you must work his system, attaining through the power of your own True Will the keys to the Great Work, and only then judge Crowley from an Initiated perspective.
THE CHAOTIC: I’m tired of Crowley. It seems like all the people who are into him are into nothing else. I’m suspicious of his system; way too regimented, way too hierarchical. Crowley contributed to magic, but so have other people. We’ve learned a lot in the last century about real freedom and sexual liberation, and a Victorian master-of-the-passions approach would be a step backward. Crowley had a lot of hang-ups; I’d rather work a system more relevant to my life.
THE SKEPTIC: Crowley studies have been little adopted by academics, with good reason. His work is derivative and like Blavatsky he can be traced to a handful of main sources. Spiritual progress is feeding people, helping those who need it, participating in society to make it more just and humane, and Crowley has little to contribute to that. For Crowley to be interesting, he does not have to be taken as a spiritual authority. A person might have spiritual accomplishments yet retain base elements of their personality. People outside the normal spectrum might carry back useful viewpoints to the world of the sane.
THE MYSTIC: The documents of A∴ A∴ in Class A are inspired writings from a praeterhuman Intelligence, a direct and flawless link to the Secret Chiefs. The transmission of these gems is all that one needs to know about the career of To Mega Therion, the Great Beast, the Magus who spoke through the physical vessel of the man named Aleister Crowley, himself merely a Student of no great importance. The course of study of A∴ A∴ is the work not of Crowley but of The Master Therion and has been issued under the Authority of the Third Order.
This introduction deals with some of Crowley’s major themes in summary form. Understanding of Crowley’s intricate and contradictory writing requires your own reading. The fragments given here only convey a few of the flavors of his work.
Reading Crowley can be difficult. Crowley was unusual and involved, and his views changed over the six decades of his writing career. He frequently contradicts himself and makes obscure allusions. At other times he is præternaturally lucid. He can seem almost prescient, or be starkly clear and direct when expressing his most outrageous and unbelievable views, such as those on the sexual technology of Atlantis and the turn of ancient Æons.
As this voice ends, I would like to note that your voice is your own. Your own relationship with Crowley will no doubt be unique. Your views may or may not resemble any of the views presented here. Even if some thought you hold seems almost identical with one of these ideas—or utterly incompatible with all of them!—it will still be uniquely yours, embedded firmly in your own personal matrix of thought and life in an irreplaceable and sacred way.
ALEISTER CROWLEY: “Yet to all it shall seem beautiful. Its enemies who say not so, are mere liars.”—The Book of the Law, 111:68.
THE TRUE BELIEVER: My collection contains many rare works. You do not have them, since the Gods reserve them for those of higher degree. Unto such as yourself I solemnly recommend the memorization of The Book of the Law, the Charter of Universal Freedom. The Equinox of the Gods, which is part of the book Magick, explains the revelation of the Book. It should convince even the meanest skeptic, and woe to those who reject the Prophet! In The Law is For All, he interprets the Æon of the Crowned and Conquering
Child with profound wisdom. Liber Aleph, The Words Tragedy, The Star in the West and many other works are required for the serious aspirant, as is membership in my group, the one duly chartered source of Initiation in this Æon. Aum. Ha.
THE CHAOTIC: I like Crowley’s later books, like The Book of Thoth, including Lady Frieda Harris’ beautiful Tarot deck, and Magick Without Tears, a funny and relaxed collection of letters which was originally called Aleister Explains Everything. On the serious side The Vision and the Voice records the scrying of the Enochian æthyrs in an intense succession of visionary images worthy of Blake. Studying just Crowley would be a really bad idea, though. He’s kind of outdated. Be sure to sample Austin Osman Spare, the Discordians, Peter Carroll, Nema, the Sub-Genius movement, and Alan Moore’s Promethea, and don’t forget to familiarize yourself with psychedelics research and transpersonal psychology in your copious free time. Make your own Æon—don’t settle for Crowley’s!
THE SKEPTIC: Crowley was an allusory writer and to understand him it’s necessary to understand the sources of his allusions as well as the cultural and subcultural currents that influenced him. In the literary world one should be familiar with Suvinburne, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Blake, Rabelais, and Græco- Roman classics, and one will need an acquaintance with English and French art and literature in general. Geoffrey Ashe’s Do What You Will: A History of Anti-Morality traces the ironic current in religion and morality, as expressed through Rabelais, the Hell-Fire Club, de Sade, Crowley, and others.
THE CHAOTIC: I’m tired of Crowley. It seems like all the people who are into him are into nothing else.
THE MYSTIC: Study and meditate upon The Holy Books, which emanate directly from the higher intelligence of the Secret Chiefs. Magick or Liber ABA is an invaluable textbook of spiritual practice and symbolism, as are Eight Lectures on Yoga, The Goetia, and every volume of The Equinox, the Encyclopedia of Initiation. The Book of Lies and The Heart of the Master elucidate mysteries through lyric philosophy. The Secret Chiefs who sent Aiwass to Crowley were the same who set in motion the Golden Dawn and Theosophy, and those two parents of Thelema must be studied. Vivekananda helped inspire the Prophet’s work on Yoga, earning His recommendation. Remember that books are not the work. One must practice Yoga and Magick,
as described in the instructions of the holy order A.. A.. May you achieve the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel, and even further Wonders; yea, even further Wonders.
The works of Aleister Crowley are @ Aleister Crowley and Ordo Templi Orientis, and are used by permission.
JOHN S. MOORE
Official culture does not take Aleister Crowley at all seriously these days, but the issues he arouses, and the things he writes about, are often very similar to others which are taken very seriously indeed. Take for example the writings of one of the most revered of modern philosophers, Luduvig Wittgenstein. In his book, Culture and Value translated by Peter Winch, Wittgenstein appears as guru, with views and observations on all manner of subjects over and above the strictly philosophical ones which made his reputation. If it is acceptable to study this sort of thing, Aleister Crowley offers comparable intellectual meat to chew on, fascinating, creative and original speculations, normally censored out of the English scholarly tradition. Why pay attention to one set of ideas rather than to another? This is the question of authority. Why Wittgenstein rather than Marx, Freud, Heidegger, or even Crowley?
Crowley shared with Wittgenstein the urge to submerge others in his own will, to overcome their alienness by dominating and influencing them. Both sought and found fanatical followers among brilliant, unstable undergraduates from Oxford and Cambridge. Through these was hope of influencing the cultural mainstream. However, just as Wittgenstein rejected the idea that his influence should be restricted to academics, so Crowley repudiates any suggestion that he is speaking to some class restricted in scope. As much as to the fortunate members of society he addresses himself to paupers and to prisoners. He is concerned to influence individual minds through unofficial channels, bringing creative thinking to those normally felt to have no right to it.
He did aspire to a popular following, partly for energy, partly as the most obvious possibility of effecting change. He made use of existing occultist movements to refine them and to exercise his will to power. Though “against the people,” the individual who can lead a mass movement acquires freedom of action, and the dominant forces of the day no longer obstruct and oppose him. With the inertia of the mass behind him, he has support for whatever he wants to do. Even a rational ideal could do with a popular base, especially if
it is expected to make any serious difference to society.
In 1911 he was advertising his publications Equinox and 777, textbook of the Crowleyan Qabala, in the Occult Review. These were the waters in which he fished, as Lenin and Mao in those of revolutionary tradition, and Wittgenstein among philosophy students. Crowley showed little interest in politics. From his viewpoint political interests may be thought of as a kind of vice, constricting into immediate place and time. By contrast he invites into some very exotic traditions, exploring the wisdom and experience of civilizations very remote from his own. His literary style has an oriental, very knowing, quality. Little is argued, or attempted to be argued. He writes from a position of assumed enlightenment, though he is far from narrow or dogmatic. Also he was a master of image manipulation, a subject of ever increasing importance in the modern world. A large part of his message actually consisted in the creation of his image. For a seeker after power who was also a serious intellectual, the field of people looking for esoteric wisdom had something promising to it. The world of the philosopher and the world of images might seem to be very different, but if the philosopher desires influence he may have to take account of this other world.
Preoccupation with images may suggest corruption of feeling, or at best triviality, like an excessive concern with clothing. The world of images promises the excitement of the superficial, with immediate opportunities for emotional stimulation and satisfaction. This is the world of Hitler as führer, and that of American advertising and propaganda. The subject includes the emotional power of archetypes and stereotypes, sexual adornment and attraction, kings, queens, gods, goddesses, demons, vampires, maenads, angels, nymphs.
Actors apply their skills to see other people in terms of images; studying image manipulation, they may live out their own lives in such a world. Image contrasts with reality, for example the image of a philosopher versus the reality of a philosopher. Image manipulation appears as a form of play. One takes pleasure in the promotion of a certain image or reputation, and responding to the images projected by others as the truly real as if this is the true game of life, its real meaning. Focusing on the emotional impact of a stereotype, all the charge associated with it, the aspiring magus aims to be more than human in embodying some attractive image.