Ordo Templi Orientis
Sacred River explores spirituality grounded in religious naturalism & progressive ethics that is both non-theistic and non-supernatural.
Aleisterianism is one name for a loose affiliation of beliefs, ideas, and practices based on the writings of Aleister Crowley. Aleisterianism is difficult to define in any strict sense because there is little agreement over what is considered salient Aleisterian doctrine and even less agreement over the possible interpretations of Crowley’s works. Further, little effort has been made to even begin outlining the larger context of Thelema wherein Aleisterianism rests, much for similar reasons.
It is important to state up front that the structure of Aleisterianism is an abstract one, meaning that it is here presented as a convenient model to promote a common language, even if particulars are disagreed upon. Also, every attempt will be made here to avoid strawman arguments—although several conceptualizations will be presented, in no way are those conceptualizations given as implications of any given set of beliefs of real individuals. They might be, of course, but in the chaotic realm of Thelema, the exception is nearly always the rule.
With this in mind, let us first define some broad affiliation categories. Most Thelemites will fall somewhere in between these, but such definitions will be useful when addressing broad groups in the future. These categories are offered up front because it is useful to recognize that for any given model—in this case, Aleisterianism—there are multiple relationships between that model and the people who work within or around it.
1) Orthodox Aleisterianism. This position maintains that Thelema is contained solely within the personality and writings of Aleister Crowley, and that the totality of his ideas constitute a discrete, complete, coherent, irreducible, and universal system of thought and practice applicable to all areas of life. Further, Crowley’s personal interpretations and opinions are considered both perfectly accurate and paramount (with perhaps a few exceptions, such as in cases where elements have been clearly overturned by science). Complimentary non-Crowlian sources can be integrated, but always secondarily to his.
2) Flexible or Liberal Aleisterianism. Although some set of Crowley’s works—such as the Holy Books and/or Book 4, for example—remains of central importance in defining the nature of Thelema, more latitude exists in allowing personal interpretations to take precedence over Crowley’s own and also in judging which elements of his work are more relevant than others. However, in most cases, Crowley’s opinions will be considered the default position and given greater weight. Also, it is more acceptable to integrate ideas, beliefs, and practices outside of Crowley’s canon.
3) Heterodox Aleisterianism. Although personal interpretations can vary wildly from those of Crowley and even other Aleisterians, the general context of those interpretations remains rooted in his works. It is also more likely for non-Crowlian works to be integrated.
4) Secular Aleisterianism. An affiliative sub-set that minimizes, rejects, or ignores the religious aspects of Crowley’s works and focuses solely on his philosophical, political, and social ideas.
5) Magical Aleisterianism. The opposite sub-set of #4—a position that minimizes, rejects, or ignores the secular elements within Crowley’s works and focuses rather on his presented cosmology and the mystical/magical elements of spiritual celebration and attainment.
[Naturally the Secular and Magical sub-categories can also have their own Orthodox, Liberal, and Heterodox positions.]
6) Non-Aleisterianism. This category (which is here offered simply for the sake of comparison, not as an enduring label, since this category does not represent any discrete “system”) includes every other Thelemite who does not accept or recognize Crowley’s works as being central or perhaps even relevant to Thelema. As with Aleisterians, there is a wide range of relationships between these individual Thelemites and Crowley’s works—some integrate many of his ideas, some adapt them into radical new forms, some simply ignore Crowley, and others reject him outright. The key here is the stance that Crowley and his works form neither the single core nor the only context for defining or practicing Thelema. The idea that one can be both a non-Aleisterian and a Thelemite will be discussed in part three.
Definitional Characteristics of Aleisterianism
There are many ways to look at religious traditions, and it is the height of hubris for anyone to claim they have the one and only definition of any system. That said, it can be useful to make the attempt, even knowing that any such outline will be incomplete and arbitrary. In this case, we shall try to look at Aleisterianism from a large scale perspective. From a more internal perspective there are some decent attempts, such as A Guide to the Study of Aleisterian Thelema or The Law of Thelema at ReligiousTolerance.org.
As one way of organizing it, we can define Aleisterianism as having three essential components. The following are large-scale categories, not absolute positions. Indeed, it is possible to find quotes from Crowley that contradict each of these conceptions—in fact, Crowley is so often contradictory that this could almost be it’s own definitional category. However, the ones listed below are summaries of the general characteristics that emerge out of the totality of Crowley’s works.
1) Aleisterianism is rooted in the being of Aleister Crowley.
Aleisterianism is deeply enmeshed with this one individual—his personality, writings, experiences, beliefs, interests, attitudes, prejudices, education, culture, class, and psychology. The subjects he studied, the people he admired or hated, his sexual preferences, his wealth, his emotional wounds and resultant narcissism, his natural talents, his ambitions—these shaped, inspired, and became infused within each and every one of his works. Moreover, he kept his system closed, making sure that his would be the last and only word of authority on the subject of Thelema. This extended to the point of making himself a sacred figure—the one and only priest, prophet, and teacher of Thelema, personified within the divine “office” of the Beast 666.
2) Aleisterianism is characterized by the themes of control, isolation, and conflict.
The Aleisterian perspective sees the world largely as an impediment to spiritual development—it is filled primarily with people who are slaves and/or oppressors, who do not think for themselves, who want to eradicate individual uniqueness, and who only take from society without contributing anything in return. This conservative position, similar to the modern day version, sees little inherent value in any given human being—the worth of a person, in the case of Aleisterianism, is based upon how well he conforms to Crowley’s view of how things should be.
The result is the emergence of three themes. The first theme is control—which is contained within the concepts of power, strength, and manliness. Aleisterianism desires complete mastery over all things—over one’s emotions and thoughts, one’s conditions, and one’s fate. This desire requires the second theme of isolation. Aleisterianism sees the ideal Thelemite as separate from all others, and seeks to sever emotional bonds and social obligations (including with friends and family). This theoretically frees one to act in the way that Will dictates, even if this requires manipulating or disregarding others, without the spiritual obstacles of guilt or compassion. However, achieving this level of control and detachment is not easy, and both the internal and external forces that seek to connect people must be aggressively fought. This leads to conflict, the third major theme in Aleisterianism. This conflict takes several forms, including fighting individuals to solve disagreements, rebellion against mainsteam culture, the struggle against one’s internal “social programming,” and the great war against the malevolent forces of the Old Aeon.
3) Aleisterianism includes a system of spiritual attainment derived from practices and ideas popular in Victorian-era Europe.
Although Aleisterianism is here defined as a sect or denomination of Thelema, it contains within it a kind of system of practice intended to do two primary things—(1) to lead one to the apprehension of “True Will” and (2) to develop the qualities necessary to fulfill the three traits listed above—control, isolation, and conflict. This system has all the components we’re now so familiar with—astrology, the Qabalah, invocatory ritual, automatic writing and psychography, tarot, Eastern yoga and meditation, Renaissance grimoires, astral travel, Hermeticism—all the occult staples that were, at the time, the playthings of the European upper crust and the new middle class.
Indeed, what many believe to be unique to Crowley has its origin in folks like François Rabelais, Eliphas Lévi, and Helena Blavatsky; in organizations such as The Golden Dawn and the Freemasons; and in Eastern religions that were re-introduced to the imperial West: Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. Of course, all of Crowley’s philosophical and cultural concepts were “borrowed” from others too—he took inspiration from the Bohemian poets, the Social Darwinists, the fad of Egyptomania, Friedrich Nietzsche, and even Sigmund Freud. In all, what we call the “system” of Aleisterianism is ultimately a loosely-bound and slightly tweaked collection of Victoria-era countercultural ideas, establishment propaganda, religious traditions, and occult practices that were of personal interest to Aleister Crowley.
As we have seen, Aleisterianism can be defined as a set of ideas, beliefs, and practices derived from the life and works of Aleister Crowley. In its purest form, it has three primary aspects: (1) it is rooted solely in the person and mythology of Crowley, (2) it is characterized by the meta-themes of control, isolation, and conflict, and (3) it is comprised of a loosely bound and slightly tweaked set of philosophies, cultural memes, religious traditions, and mystical esoterica that were popular in Victorian-era Europe. Finally, there is a wide spectrum of possible adherent affiliations with Aleisterianism, including the broad categories of orthodox, liberal, heterodox, secular, and magical—each of which offers its own approach to Crowley’s works.
While some have used the word “Aleisterian” as an invective, I do not. I consider the term (which I did not originate) a respectful description of a legitimate school of religious and philosophical thought and practice. By legitimate, I mean Aleisterianism is as worthy of adherence as any faith, and I honor the choice of anyone to adopt it. To state otherwise would be terrible hypocrisy, since I was a dedicated liberal Aleisterian for over a decade.
However, it is not necessary to be an Aleisterian in order to be an adherent of Thelema. How is this possible? It is first necessary to understand that, with apologies to my Aleisterian friends, Thelema does not rise and set with Crowley. As already outlined, the essential concepts he addressed were already long in existence and will continue to exist long after him. True, he added a structure of personal divinity and myth in order to bind those concepts to him, but one does not need to accept his status of prophet or Beast (or secret chiefs, talking angels, Aeons, etc) in order to integrate Thelemic principles, beliefs, and practices into one’s life. After all, there is no longer any threat of eternal damnation hanging over our heads requiring faith to prevent...the only threat we recognize is the possibility of living a life that is not fully Willful.
Some Aleisterians have argued that “all roads do not lead to Rome” in that one who does not work the system that Crowley laid down will be doing something, but not Thelema. With due respect, all roads DO lead to Rome, IF Rome is where one is trying to get to. If one is trying to align their consciousness with their own unique True Will, they will eventually do so (to some degree), whether or not they perform Reguli daily or if they ride a unicycle in a circle while eating peanut butter. Moreover, since Rome (Will) is different for everyone, it follows that every path to it will be equally unique. It is also reasonable to acknowledge that not every road will be equally efficient or enlightening or any other quality—certainly some roads will be more “right” for one person than another (including, yes, the roads paved by Crowley).
At the same time, while Aleisterianism is as legitimate a path as any other, it does come with its own set of challenges. Perhaps the central difficulty lies in the incongruence between the promotion of universal liberty to manifest each individual’s unique will by requiring a concentrated focus on someone else and adherence to his personal beliefs, experiences, and preferences. Similarly, like any system tied to a central deceased person, Aleisterianism has become relatively static and focused more on the development of the founder rather than on the development of adherents. And because the system is closed (i.e. authorship of doctrine is limited to Crowley), it remains stuck in an historical period that makes it increasingly difficult to keep it relevant to modern times. This is one reason why we will probably see an increasing general shift to Crowley’s mythological aspects—his prophet-hood, his divine office of the Beast, and the myths pertaining to his writing of Liber Legis—as well as a requirement of faith in those things in order to be acknowledged as a Thelemite. After all, the less relevant a religion is to the real lives of adherents, the more that system has to rely on the fantastical to maintain integrity.
True, scholarly-types willing to study history might be able to keep up with his more subtle in-the-times comments, but even so, the issue of a receding context makes Aleisterianism far less viable as a growing, movement-based religion. This becomes exacerbated as Aleisterian conceptions are simply proven wrong by modern science or historical record, which then requires the awkward transformation of assumptions of fact into esoteric statements requiring mystical interpretation—which again requires an increasing level of faith in Crowley as a divine agent beyond reproach. While faith itself is no stranger to religion, Crowley made strong claims that his system is incompatible with faith and in full alignment with the natural sciences—a claim that unravels under scrutiny.
When we look at the Aleisterian meta-themes of control, isolation, and conflict, we see a whole new set of challenges. While increasing mastery over one’s conscious mind is a beneficial task, Aleisterianism goes much further by promoting power over others (i.e. the “slaves”) and developing the “strength” to ignore one’s own social conscience. As pointed out, this requires isolating the self from emotions, from friendship and kinship, and from society in general. While multiple religions require some version of this task, the fact remains that humans are intrinsically social creatures that use emotions to help us make good decisions. When people begin cutting themselves off from these things (as opposed to simply silencing them momentarily for the sake of hearing the ineffable), it is the rare individual that comes out on the other side healthy and whole. Even Crowley himself became less stable and more sociopathic as he worked his own system. Of course, this worked for him, because conflict is another central theme in Aleisterianism. But this also explains why the general Thelemic movement today is characterized by egoism, contention, and chaos. It is no wonder that after a century of Aleisterianism’s existence, it has failed to accomplish much of note—no architecture, influential or robust organizations, or major works of art, literature, or music.
Even considering all this, it is possible to experience anxiety when pondering Thelema outside of Crowley...after all, without his canon of holy books and philosophical opinions, doesn’t it dissolve into meaninglessness? Fortunately, no. Although the concept of divine Will exists in many world religions, Thelema is the first to put individual human Will at the spiritual center. From this, many fundamental principles follow that serve to differentiate Thelema from other systems of thought and belief. Yes, the boundary can be fuzzy in some areas, but this is good—such a boundary allows for multiple compatible beliefs and distinct sects, which would mirror a core strength found within Nature herself: variety.
Let us explore a few of these general principles very briefly. If we acknowledge that divine Will is an outflow of being—each being a microscopic projection of the macroscopic Universal All—then it follows that every person and every part of nature is inherently divine and without flaw (in the Judeo-Christian sense). As such, there is no original sin and so no need for salvation, making Thelema incompatible with orthodox Abrahamic religions. Further, since manifested being is seen as inherently sacred, human existence is equally sanctified, and the human drive for living becomes a potential source of deep joy and fulfillment. Since the will to be is seen as such—and not the source of suffering or corruption—Thelema starts from a different fundamental premise than both Buddhism and classic Gnosticism.
Finally, since Thelema acknowledges that every person has a Will unique to him or her, then certain concepts flow from this—such as tolerance for difference and maximizing the liberty to manifest it; harmony between all the parts of the whole and maintaining a balance between competing needs and desires; the effort to strengthen one’s character and abilities in order to become a more capable vehicle for one’s Will; the courage to engage life fully; openness to experience; the integrity to be fully genuine; the beneficence to assist others in the Great Work; and the critical thinking, rational examination, and healthy skepticism necessary for effective problem solving, spiritual exploration, and personal development. This list is certainly not given as a definitive outline of Thelema—rather, it is an example of how Thelema can be articulated based on fundamental principles, without relying on such mythological structures as prophets, secret chiefs, or revealed texts to legitimize it.
Please note, I say relying, not integrating—there is certainly nothing inherently negative with adopting such concepts into one’s personal belief system if they provide meaning. But when a system depends on such items of faith, it can potentially take on some of the worst elements of dogmatic religion—righteousness, intolerance, and rigidity. Indeed, it takes great effort to avoid them.
Yet, it is important to acknowledge, again, that Aleisterianism is a legitimate path. But it is not the only path one must travel to find the way to a willful life, lived in harmony even with many of Crowley’s more noble precepts: liberty, balance, personal excellence, tolerance, and the age-old Work of uniting the Self with the Universal All. Moreover, the many practices and philosophies he adapted—along with all those he did not or that came after him—remain for anyone to draw from. And in the grand tradition of Crowley himself, every Thelemite has the right to collect their own interlocking stones of belief and practice, to pave their own roads to Rome. In this way, every Thelemite becomes a temple of Will unto him or herself, each with a singular system of personal attainment and celebration designed to realize their own unique and glorious destiny.
...thou hast no right but to do thy will. Do that, and no other shall say nay. —AL I:42-43
When one desires to take in hand the empire and make it, I see him not succeed. The empire is a divine vessel which cannot be made. One who makes it, mars it. One who takes it, loses it. —Dao De Jing, Ch. 29
The Mind is of God’s very essence—if such a thing as essence of God there be—and what that is, it and it only knows precisely. The Mind, then, is not separated off from God’s essentiality, but is united to it, as light to sun. This Mind in men is God, and for this cause some of mankind are gods, and their humanity is nigh unto divinity. For the Good Daimon said: “Gods are immortal men, and men are mortal gods.” —The Corpus Hermeticum, XII