When Aleister Crowley coined the term “the aim of religion, the method of science,” he was advancing the tradition of humanism for the reunion of science and religion into what Eliphas Levi called the catholic or universal religion of humanity. The aim of scientific illuminism is the advancement of uniting these seeming opposites into a fabric whose unit, based on scientific analysis and observation of the magico-religious, balances the arts of science and mysticism without wandering too far from this middle path. This essay is a brief introduction to Thelema and an examination of the antecedents of Thelemic philosophies, which informs its place in the historical advancement of humanist religion.
The Greek word ϴέληµα ‘Thelema’ comes from the verb ethelo: “to will, wish, want or purpose.” In 1904 Aleister Crowley, novelist, poet and ritualist, penned a series of channeled books, which became known as the Book of the Law. Central to Thelemic philosophy, it spoke of the Aeon of Horus as a new age of humankind, conqueror, and inheritor of the past ages of Isis and Osiris. Here, Horus represents the crowned and conquering child, an evolved synthesis of Isis, an age marked by the Neolithic hunter-gatherer societies and goddess worship, and Osiris, an age marked by sacrifice, death, and resurrection.
Inspired by Western and Eastern approaches to union with the divine, Crowley incorporated methods popular to both worlds in the development of his order Argentum Astrum, providing a systematized rubric for study at every level within the order, involving metaphysical, historical, and literary reading materials, rituals to observe festivals of the seasons and holy days, rituals to unite with various states of being and non-being, and rituals designed to bring to awareness one’s own limitations in an effort to move beyond the polarities, synthesizing them into a new perfected self. The principle of these rituals is the knowledge and conversation of the holy guardian angel. The holy guardian angel is a representation of the light of God that exists in man. The ritual thereof is designed to challenge man to enter union with the divine and leading from a place of love to learn the true purpose of his soul that he may perform the great work. The great work based on the will of the soul differs for each person.
What if anything of Thelema existed before 1904? The philosophical antecedents to Thelema appeared in historical Christian religious doctrine as well as utopian fiction. Evidence of the earliest of these antecedents is present in the writings of Augustine of Hippo. Saint Augustine, one of the founding fathers of the early Christian church, wrote the words “love and do what thou wilt.” In its full context may be read as follows:
“See what we are insisting upon; that the deeds of men are only discerned by the root of charity. For many things may be done that have a good appearance and yet proceed not from the root of charity. For thorns also have flowers: some actions seem truly rough; seem savage; howbeit they are done for discipline at the bidding of charity. Once for all, then, a short precept is given thee: Love and do what thou wilt: whether thou hold peace, through love hold peace; whether thou cry out, through love cry out; whether thou correct, through love correct, whether thou spare, through love do thou spare; let the root of love be within, of this root can nothing spring but what is good.”
If we look simply at Augustine’s words, he speaks of this love as the inspiration, as the fuel to the fire of acting upon and living one’s own will. Christian apologists may argue that Augustine was speaking about a union with an external Christ. However, Augustine’s words cannot be overstated as a likely influence on the importance of love, instead, divine love, in Thelema.
Francois Rabelais, a 15th century Franciscan and Benedictine monk, wrote about an idealism known as the abbey of Theleme’, a utopian society of people who lived by their own free will and pleasure, whose only rule was ‘do as thou wouldst.’ As a humanist, Rabelais held the virtues of humanity in such high regard that he subscribed to the idea that “men and women, when left to their own devices, would be true to their nature, and do the right thing in every case.” Gerald del Campo describes Rabelais’ utopia as an inspiration to which one may continually aspire.
Francesco Colonna, Dominican monk, living in the 15th century, wrote Hypnerotomachia Polyphilo, The Strife of Love in a Dream, in which Polyphilo dreams of seeking his love, Polia, through a series of “ancient buildings, monuments, and gardens frequented by the gods of pagan antiquity.” Here Colonna advances the study of the soul seen previously in the works of Saint Augustine of Hippo. He proposed that memory, understanding, and will, composed the triune parts of the human soul. John Griogair Bell explains in the Hypnerotomachia, Poliphilo, who represents memory, is given two guides Logistica (understanding) and Thelemia (will). When forced to choose between their counsel, he chooses erotic fulfillment over worldly glory and ascetic contemplation.
In The Confessions of Aleister Crowley, Crowley himself remarks that through correspondence with Arthur Edward Waite, he was invited to read Karl von Eckhartshausen’s The Cloud Upon the Sanctuary. Cloud echoes the relationship between love and will present in the writings of Augustine, Colonna, and Rabelais. Furthermore, it exemplifies the mystery of spiritual devotion, the spiritual man born of the union of humankind and God through the gnosis of perfect unity and love. In Letter II of Cloud, von Eckhartshausen speaks of a system of degrees that uses symbolism and ceremony to transmit an understanding of inner spiritual truths.
Briefly, von Eckhartshausen was a member of the Bavarian Illuminati, an enlightenment era organization whose humanist principles were modeled after the philosophies of Freemasonry. Whereas other groups with ties to Freemasonry took a more spiritual approach, the Bavarian illuminati held strictly to the enlightenment principles of reason. In Gems From the Equinox, Crowley included “An Account of the A.A.,” a rewritten summation of von Eckhartshausen’s system of degrees found in The Cloud Upon the Sanctuary.
The essential function of Thelema as philosophy-religion is to unite with one’s holy guardian angel in the pursuit of understanding and to attain the accomplishment of one’s true will. The antecedents of Thelemic philosophy laid the foundation for this concept of experiencing divine love first, as this becomes the foundation for the pursuit of that hard-won prize so floridly illustrated in humanist writings throughout the age the renaissance, the age of enlightenment and the age of reason as an ascent up the mountains of truth, no doubt assisted by the narratives of the kabbalistic tradition of Isaac Luria.
Thelema heralds one law above all: love is the law, love under will. The nature of Liber Oz, a short doctrine on the Thelemic rights of man, is based on the same free-spirited utopian philosophies present in the works of Rabelais and Colonna, and invite creative ways to challenge politics and culture wherever they are in opposition to Liber Oz. Verily Liber Oz was drafted to challenge and change societal laws regarding the rights of men and women in the twentieth century. Thelema is still a relatively new religion. It was 115 years ago when Crowley channeled the Book of the Law, and the simplicity of its foundational concept is still causing a firestorm with the dogmatism of the religions of the Osirian age.
Rabelais’ Abbey of Theleme exists as a utopian ideal where humanity may one day attain a state of purity and respect in relation with one another through a common goal. Thelema uses the language of the Kabbalistic traditions to provide a narrative for how to approach this problem and manifest this reality in the new Aeon. However, it is an aeon or age of war and strife. For everywhere, these shadowlands of Malkuth threaten to obscure the light of the secret self. Narratives such as Wakeworld portray the journey of the child of Malkuth or the magician through the Kabbalistic “Etz Chaim”, the tree of life, ascending its paths and spheres revealing that the nature of the knowledge and conversation of the holy guardian angel transforms the magician resulting in an evolution of the self; reminding the student that in order to change the external world, one must first seek that change from within.
Bell, John Griogair, “Hypnerotomachia polyphili”, The Hermetic Library Blog, October 14, 2019, http://library.hrmtc.com/2013/01/04hypnerotomachia-polyphili.
The Confessions of Aleister Crowley. Edited by John Symonds and Kenneth Grant. London: Arkana Publishing, 1988.
del Campo, Gerald, “Rabelais the First Thelemite”, The Order of Thelemic Knights, October 14, 2019, http://thelemicknights.org/Rabelais-the-first-thelemite.
Karl von Eckhartshausen, The Cloud Upon The Sanctuary, translated by Isabel D Steiger, with an introduction by A.E. Waite, third edition. London: William Rider & Son, Ltd, 1909. EBook.
Gems From The Equinox. San Francisco, CA: Weiser Publications, 2007.
Gershem Scholem, Major Trends In Jewish Mysticism, New York: Schocken Books, 1941. EBook.
Wedgeworth, Steven, “Love God and Do What You Please,” Wedgewords (blog), October 14, 2019, https://wedgewords.wordpress.com/2011/01/03/love-god-and-do-what-you-please/.
[Katie Anderson is a writer, poet, and scholar whose work has appeared in The Far Shining One, The Diviner’s Handbook, Lilith: Dark Feminine Archetype, and The Black Walnut Anthology. She is currently at work on writing occult and mythological fiction. She blogs weekly at Studio Rosalva.]