Ordo Templi Orientis
Sacred River explores spirituality grounded in religious naturalism & progressive ethics that is both non-theistic and non-supernatural.
- So therefore Our Law of Thelema is justified also of Biology and of Social Science. It is the true Way of Nature, the right Strategy in the Way of Man with his Environment, and the Life of his Soul. —Crowley, Liber Aleph
In a recent issue of Agapé, John Crow wrote a compelling article about compassion and its importance within both Thelema and Buddhism. In this writer’s opinion, he did a good job of briefly explaining how compassion fits within Buddhism which is so relevant to Thelema, since Aleister Crowley was a practitioner of that spiritual path at the time of Liber AL’s reception. Crowley’s understanding of Buddhist compassion is evident in his numerous references to (and admonitions against) the concept of losing one’s self as a component of becoming a compassionate Bodhisattva.
However, brother Crow’s well-written article did not tell the whole story. Crowley’s ideas regarding compassion were certainly colored by Buddhism, but that was not the only filter he used to interpret The Book of the Law. Crowley was not immune to outside influences, and there were two other frames that made compassion such poison for him: Christianity and Social Darwinism.
Compassion and Christianity
Crowley was raised in a strict Christian home, his parents being devout members of a fundamentalist sect called the Plymouth Brethren. As the Bible was young Crowley’s only reading material, he knew it well and would certainly have understood how it viewed compassion. In the Old Testament, compassion is mostly equated with the divine mercy and forgiveness of Jehovah. For example, we read in 2 Chronicles 30:9—“For if ye turn again unto the LORD, your brethren and your children shall find compassion before them that lead them captive, so that they shall come again into this land: for the LORD your God is gracious and merciful, and will not turn away his face from you, if ye return unto him.” In 1 Kings 8:49-50 we read “Then hear thou their prayer and their supplication in heaven thy dwelling place, and maintain their cause, And forgive thy people that have sinned against thee and all their transgressions wherein they have transgressed against thee, and give them compassion before them who carried them captive, that they may have compassion on them.”
This concept of mercy was anathema to Crowley’s Thelemic sensitivities. He expresses this clearly in Magic Without Tears (Ch. 46) : “The word ‘compassion’ […] implies that you are a fine fellow, and the other so much dirt; that is, you insult him by pity for his misfortunes. But ‘Every man and every woman is a star.’; so don’t you do it! You should treat everybody as a King of the same order as yourself.” Here he is saying that the OT version of compassion presumes a station of superiority—which ignores every person’s inherent right to Kingly respect—an attitude he rightfully disparages. The lesson in this case is simple: do not presume yourself to be of higher rank to those in need or offer help out of a condescending pity.
In the New Testament, compassion is presented in a different manner—as an act of self-sacrifice, symbolized by the crucifixion of Jesus on the Cross. The apostle John said it best when he wrote, “Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?” (1 John 3:16-17). Crowley had great disdain for this particular notion of compassion—“We have a sentimental idea of self-sacrifice, the kind which is most esteemed by the vulgar and is the essence of popular Christianity. It is the sacrifice of the strong to the weak” (Confessions, Ch. 49—more on this quote later), and “Now in practice, in everyday life, this unselfishness is always cropping up. Not only do you insult your brother King by your ‘noble self-sacrifice,’ but you are almost bound to interfere with his True Will. ‘Charity’ always means that the lofty soul who bestows it is really, deep down, trying to enslave the recipient of his beastly bounty!” (MWT, Ch. 46). Here he is defining compassion in strictly Christian terms, as an act of charity and “noble” self-sacrifice (akin to the false superiority of the OT definition), both of which are really shams used to “ interfere with True Will” and to “enslave” the needy—i.e. to convert them to Christianity (the work of missionaries and the Salvation Army come to mind. These types of Christian charity organizations were very popular in Crowley’s day, some of which were a legitimate response to the more horrible manifestations of the industrial revolution, such as child labor and rampant urban poverty).
When Crowley used his Christian filter to examine compassion, he also drew upon the various aspects of that old-aeon religion that he found most distasteful. For example, he recognized that both fear and guilt were intrinsic aspects of that faith, and reasonably drew the conclusion that they must equally motivate Christian compassion. He reflects this belief in MWT (Ch. 46)— “Let me insist that ‘pity’ is nearly always an impostor. It is the psychic consolation for fear, the ‘pitiful man’ really is a pitiful man! for he is such a coward that he dare not face his fear, even in imagination!” In the same chapter he notes, “[Pity] is the twin of ‘moral responsibility,’ of the sense of guilt or sin.” It is here that we find the basis of suffering for the Christian—that sin is the ultimate source of suffering, a concept that Thelema utterly rejects.
Compassion and Social Darwinism
The third major filter that Crowley used to frame compassion was a theory called Social Darwinism. This was a very popular theory amongst the wealthy in Europe and America from the mid-1800s until about the 1940s. The essential idea is that natural selection—which occurs for individuals—also works on a social level. Survival and evolution were seen as a vicious battle wherein the weakest members were selected out, thereby advancing the entire species. With the rise of industrialism and urbanism came an increase in poverty and terrible living conditions. As society tried to correct for these side effects, a new wave of public welfare and charity efforts came into play. Social Darwinists began to say that these efforts were holding back the “race,” since the “strong” (i.e. the wealthy) were squandering their rightful resources on those that nature would otherwise “select” out (i.e. the poor). This theory was used to justify everything from free-market capitalism, to racism, to genocide.
A few examples from Crowley that illustrates the influence of both Christianity and Social Darwinism:
- ”We have a sentimental idea of self-sacrifice, the kind which is most esteemed by the vulgar and is the essence of popular Christianity. It is the sacrifice of the strong to the weak. This is wholly against the principles of evolution. [...] There is here a conflict between private and public morality. We should not protect the weak and the vicious from the results of their inferiority. By doing so, we perpetuate the elements of dissolution in our own social body. We should rather aid nature by subjecting every newcomer to the most rigorous tests of his fitness to deal with his environment. The human race grew in stature and intelligence as long as the individual prowess achieved security, so that the strongest and cleverest people were able to reproduce their kind in the best conditions. But when security became general through the operation of altruism the most degenerate of the people were often the offspring of the strongest.”— Confessions (Ch. 49):
- Evolution demands exceptional individuals, fitter to their environment than their fellows. Species prosper by imitating efficient eccentrics. Mediocrity, self-styled morality, protects the unfit, but prevents progress, discourages adaptability, and assures the ruin of the race.—“On the Education of Children,” from The Revival of Magick
- The reader will find it only too easy to think of a hundred cases where the error of unfitness, the violation of what we may call biological law in its widest philosophical sense, threatens the well-being and even the very existance of the individual. —”The Method of Thelema,” from The Revival of Magick
However, this idea—that the “weak” (i.e. those who need assistance from others) are somehow inherently inferior—is a concept that has been long proven wrong. The fantasy of raw individualism has been replaced by the knowledge that humans are highly interdependent, requiring cooperation at every level to succeed. Problems like poverty are far more influenced by social forces (e.g. discrimination, education, economics, etc.) and a lack of social support systems (e.g. a healthy family or other supportive group) rather than any inherent flaws in the individual. Moreover, there is no scientific evidence that groups evolve as do individuals. In fact, this theory was finally put to rest in 1966 when George Williams published Adaptation and Natural Selection, where he showed that any selection happening on a group level would be trumped by individual adaptations**.
There is also the problem of altruism, found not only in human society but in many other species. The observation of altruism was a sticky point for evolution since it seemed to go against the very mechanism of natural selection. The riddle was finally answered in 1964 (note: almost 20 years after Crowley’s death) by William Hamilton and then again in 1971 by Robert Trivers. These researchers developed the ideas of inclusive fitness (dealing with kin) and reciprocal altruism (dealing with non-kin), respectively. Their work finally explained why altruism is such an effective evolutionary tool and why the idea behind Social Darwinism—that it holds back the race to assist the “naturally inferior”—is a scientifically incorrect interpretation of Darwin’s theory.
To summarize what we have so far, Crowley had three primary filters that colored his understanding of compassion:
- Buddhism—wherein compassion might be seen as over-identification with others (leading to the neglect of one’s own True Will)
- Christianity—wherein compassion is either the mercy of God (leading to undue moral superiority) or self-sacrifice as symbolized by the Crucifixion (which is possibly insincere, since it’s root is more likely fear, guilt, or the desire to convert the recipient).
- Social Darwinism—wherein compassion is a modern, artificial tool used to support the inherently “weak” at the cost of the “strong,” thereby holding back the advancement of the race.
Compassion and Thelema
We know that Thelema does not identify with Buddhism or Christianity, and Social Darwinism has been shown to be an unscientific idea that was used primarily (by others) to justify racism, economic exploitation, and sometimes genocide. So, the question becomes: with these three frames out of the way, is it possible to define compassion in strictly Thelemic terms? In other words, is there a Thelemic compassion?
I believe that the answer is yes. Science shows us that the drive to help others in need is a product of natural selection, not morality or religion, and as such is a part of human nature. Since this drive exists, our duty as Thelemites is to channel it in a way congruent with the current Aeon. We can do this by understanding what suffering is. To the Buddhist, suffering is founded in attachment to the illusion of existence. For the Christian, suffering is ultimately a result of sin. From a Thelemic point of view, I suggest that suffering results from restrictions on the ability to discover and manifest one’s True Will. Thelemic compassion, then, is the drive to help others by removing either social or individual barriers that restrict the free expression of Will. As Crowley wrote in Duty— “The distress of another may be relieved; but always with the positive and noble idea of making manifest the perfection of the Universe.”
Within this model of Thelemic compassion, the object is not to force others to become what we want, since we do not know or care what one’s Will might actually be. It is not motivated by selfish rewards or social mandates. Such compassion arises out of the interplay of one’s own Love and Will, and never guilt or fear. Thelemic compassion can comfort, but it does not coddle. When necessary, it has the strength to inflict more pain before suffering can be relieved. It seeks to remove barriers to self-sufficiency, not to create dependency. It promotes a view of self with others (i.e. Universal Brotherhood), not self as others. It is practical, not sentimental. It is, in effect, the battle against tyranny, superstition, and oppression!
It is not the impoverished, minority, disabled, helpless, or ignorant that hold us back; it is poverty, discrimination, intolerance, abuse, and ignorance that does. They are our true enemies, along with their elders—greed, fear, and hatred. True Will has no truck with these poisons, and fighting them is a true act of compassion, for why else fight them but to eliminate the suffering they bring?
Just to be clear, this article does not call for a mandate of compassionate acts for Thelemites in the vein of Good Works of the Roman Catholic Church. Nor does it suggest when or how one might go about being compassionate...that is a matter between you and your HGA. Rather, I have tried to show how our natural drive to relieve suffering in others can manifest in responsible ways, without contradiction to Thelemic principles.
Crowley wrote in his Commentaries, “It is necessary that we stop, once for all, this ignorant meddling with other people’s business. Each individual must be left free to follow his own path.” While he was here discussing America’s penchant for cultural imperialism, I reference it to point out that we all ignorantly meddle in people’s lives every day, and often in ways that end up restricting Freedom of Will (via economics, law, war, pollution, et cetera). The way we spend our money, the politicians we vote for, the products we use—these affect people; no one can avoid it. The question then becomes: what are we going to do about it? I end with words of wisdom from the Master: “When you can [help others] as it should be done, without embarrassment, false shame, with your whole heart in your words—do it simply, to sum up—you will find yourself way up on the road to that royal republic which is the ideal of human society.” —Magic Without Tears (Ch. 46)