Three Pillars of Thelema

General Thelema

Posted by Michael Sanborn on April 30, 2000 @ 07:22 AM
from the immanentizing-the-eschaton-for-dummies dept.

One of my favorite cartoons depicts a roman orgy. There's a marble pool with bodies thrashing around in the water, men in togas chasing giggling women around the edge of the pool, people dancing, laughing, feasting. In the midst of this recline two men, obviously in their cups, red-nosed, holding up goblets of wine. And one says to the other, “I forget exactly what our religion worships, but we have a hell of a good time!”

This, I think, is something like the problem that the newcomer faces when approaching Thelema. There's obviously a lot going on, with many people exhibiting great enthusiasm. But it's not always easy to discover what the foundation is for all of that enthusiasm, since many of us are too caught up in the experience to explain what's going on, and what's going on is, in some ways, rather complex.

So I'm particularly addressing those who don't consider themselves Thelemites, whether they are looking for something and Thelema might be a possibility, or are just curious to know what Thelema is all about. Those of you who are already Thelemites might just consider this as an alternative introduction to those that tell the newcomer, “put your foot here and draw this pentagram there.”

“Thelema” is a spiritual and cultural movement founded on the teachings of Aleister Crowley. Crowley, if somehow you don't know, was an Englishman who lived from 1875 to 1947. He had been a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a secret society largely responsible for the modern revival of ceremonial magick.

In 1904, he received a communication from a being claiming to represent the forces governing humanity's evolution at the present time. This communication, which he transcribed and eventually published as The Book of the Law, became the centerpiece of his teaching. When the Golden Dawn disbanded, he founded a reorganization of it called the A∴A∴, with The Book of the Law as its central authority. He also restructured a German Masonic body, the O.T.O., along the lines of The Book of the Law. Within the O.T.O., he formulated a Gnostic Mass as the main ritual of the Gnostic Catholic Church, all of it centered on The Book of the Law.

The Book of the Law says, “The word of the law is Thelema,” from the Greek word meaning Will. And so “Thelema” became the name for the teachings and culture centered on The Book of the Law, augmented by Crowley's works, and those who have worked in the tradition after him.

Rather than speak on The Book of the Law, though, I'd prefer to embellish on certain key principles that I think are helpful in providing an orientation to Thelema and what's important about it. To a large extent, that's because I believe that one's relationship to The Book of the Law is a personal matter, and delicate – especially at first. So I'll venture to talk about approaching Thelema as a whole, but leave the approach of The Book of the Law, the heart of Thelema, to you.

Thelema becomes clarified when approached by the light of one's own gnosis, and the principles that emerge in the light of gnosis.

You may be familiar with Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Values. It starts from his observation that there are some people who are much happier and more whole than most. He went about interviewing such people and found that they shared many things in common.

For one thing, they had all had one or more “peak experiences” or moments of profound meaningfulness and insight. One might consider them moments of gnosis. These moments tend to have a profound effect on people in terms of their becoming more self-governing, focused, and clear about their existence in the world. And typically, they tended to share certain values, not always found among those who have not had such experiences, for example: freedom, self-expression, mutual respect, and peace.

True, no one is going to say, “I don't value freedom.” It's rather that people preoccupied with providing themselves with food, shelter, and reproduction usually aren't operating from the more rarified values.

And so he proposed a hierarchy of values, with survival and food towards the bottom, and above them, the values we attend to once our subsistence values have been fulfilled, such as freedom, beauty, and creativity.

I think that this idea can form a key for interpreting Thelema and what was going on with Crowley. Here we have a man who dedicated his life to being the World Teacher, the Avatar, the Messiah. And over the course of his life he came to embrace and express certain being values in a beautiful and unique way.

Now what we are seeing the beginnings of in our time is the gradual adoption of being values by humanity at large, along with the emergence of a world culture. So its time for the teachings that express these values to come forth and bring what they have to offer to the table of our shared understanding.

And Thelema in particular brings some very needed ingredients into the mix.

I think that approaching Thelema from the perspective of being values, or of gnosis, is a great way to get oriented. For one thing, it helps resolve some of Thelema's apparent contradictions, since we can evaluate the teachings by an appeal to conscience (the organ of being values). For another, we can see how Thelema promotes certain values in common with other walks of life.

When I think along these lines, three principles stand out as uniquely helpful in characterizing the Way of Thelema: Liberty, Sex Worship, and Self-Realization. I call these the Three Pillars of Thelema. You won't find this term in Crowley's works; rather, I offer them as potential guideposts to the vast and complex Thelemic terrain.

The first pillar, Liberty, starts with the central tenet of Thelema, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law,” but the depth of that short injunction is such that a further elaboration might be in order.

32. [ . . . ] Set all Men a-horseback: thou speedest the Foot-soldier upon his Way, indeed; but what hast thou done to the Bird-man? Thou must have simple Laws and Customs to express the general Will, and so prevent the Tyranny or Violence of a few; but multiply them not! Now then herewith I will declare unto thee the Limits of the Civil Law upon the Rock of the Law of Thelema.

33. Understand first that the Disturbers of the Peace of Mankind do so by Reason of their Ignorance of their own True Wills. Therefore, as this Wisdom of mine increaseth among Mankind, the false Will to Crime must become constantly more rare. Also, the Exercise of our Freedom will cause Men to be born with less and ever less Affliction from that Dis-ease of Spirit, which breedest these false Wills. But, in the While of waiting for this Perfection, thou must by Law assure to every Man a Means of satisfying his bodily and his mental Needs, leaving him free to develop any Superstructure in accordance with his Will, and protecting him from any that may seek to deprive him of these vertebral Rights.“
– Aleister Crowley, Liber Aleph

So this freedom to be ourselves, to express our natures, is in Thelema not just something we all want, but a political, moral, and spiritual duty.

In America, we give lip service to Liberty all the time. This is more than a superficial connection. The American Revolution was, to a remarkable extent, fueled by Gnosis, both through the insights of Masonry and, more remotely, by the Reformation. It all got watered down and muddled over time, but I think that they shared with Thelema a sense of the sanctity of self-determination.

In reaction against the stifling authority of the Christian churches, though, we tossed out the concept of sanctity altogether. With that, the struggle for liberty lost its moral imperative. So instead of America promoting Liberty, the American military-industrial complex has become one of the world's greatest threats to the advancement of Liberty.

It doesn't have to be this way.

Clearly, one thing that's needed is to remove the perceived contradiction between Liberty and the sacred. Not only do “rugged individualists” tend to want nothing to do with religious traditions, but also many religions have heavily authoritarian strains, with at best lukewarm support for freedom.

This contradiction is resolved through the realization that Liberty and spirituality are each incomplete without the other.

Let's use the example of Tibetan Buddhism, which probably has the best public image of any religious tradition in the world right now, and rightly so. I think it's going to take centuries for the rest of the world to be able to assimilate what they have to teach us. But: there's a strong authoritarian element in their institution. Historically, they weren't looking at Liberty, but now that they've been forced to interact with the world, the value of Liberty (as at least preached in the Western democracies) has become apparent.

I understand that the Dalai Lama's draft constitution for the future autonomous Tibet is, in a complete break with the political tradition of their culture, democratic. We can expect other Tibetan Buddhist institutions to follow suit, as they develop less authoritarian methods that work effectively with their system. We can only hope the Vatican might eventually catch a clue!

So I would assert that Liberty can be recognized as an intrinsic aspect of spirituality.

I believe also that the recognition of the spiritual aspects of our nature is necessary for the full realization of our Liberty. The autonomous secular humanist would demand a rational proof of this, but I don't think that it can be established through reason. I would suppose that many reading these words have been touched by the spirit in one way or another, and so we just know how closely-knit Liberty and the spirit are. But many people, perhaps most, in the Western world take the view that Liberty can be established through a rational materialist worldview.

I don't think there's any refuting that. But we can observe that the struggle for Liberty often runs out of steam or gets derailed, particularly once a populace achieves a certain level of comfort. I believe that this at least hints that there is something missing from the way that Liberty is currently pursued.

But we can at least agree with the secular humanist that a great deal remains to be done toward the achievement of Liberty.

For the rest of us, it should be enough to say that our religious institutions of the future, whatever they look like, need to do a much more rigorous job of upholding and promoting Liberty. We're seeing the beginnings of this, with Liberation Theology and Creation Spirituality in Christianity, Tikkun magazine in Judaism, even Islam has moderately progressive spokespeople like President Khatami of Iran. In these cases, we have reformers speaking out for Liberty in historically authoritarian traditions.

There are other traditions that have always promoted Liberty, such as the Quakers, most manifestations of paganism, and Wicca. But I'd argue that Thelema stands out as the tradition whose doctrine is solidly centered on Liberty.

“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”

“Thou hast no right but to do thy will. Do that, and no other shall say nay.”

Absolute freedom and spiritual perfection are one and the same.

I'd like to talk more about the state of Liberty in the world today, since this is, I think, the most immediate of the Three Pillars. Also, I think that Crowley wasn't always so in touch with the being value of Liberty, and this has led to some confusion.

During World War II, philosopher Karl Popper wrote a book that attempted to express the principles that he felt the Allied powers were fighting for. He called it The Open Society and Its Enemies.

In it, he characterizes fascist and communist states alike as “closed” in that they claim to be in possession of the ultimate truth, and impose that point of view on the members of society. This is in contrast to the Open Society, wherein it is admitted that, since no one is in possession of the ultimate truth, society must allow for many points of view. This also implies that no individual or institution is immune from criticism. It is tied to democracy in the sense that elections are a proven way for the people to limit the powers of their leaders.

What is valued in the Open Society is the freedom of the individual; the right of the individual to have his or her own point of view.

Now does this mean that an individual even has the right to oppress others? Obviously not, since others have rights as well. And so we attempt to develop laws for the purpose of safeguarding the individual from oppression. And since no one is in possession of the ultimate truth, which is another way of saying that we are all fallible, our laws are bound to be imperfect. But since we have the ability to criticize our laws in an Open Society, those laws can be improved.

That we are all fallible; that people have the right to criticize and improve their social institutions; that everyone is free to pursue his or her point of view: these are indeed the principles that we fought for, against the rise of fascism in Europe.

During the Cold War, we fought against the spread of Communism. I would argue that by then we'd already begun to loose our focus, and so a lot of harm was done then, but the intention to preserve the Open Society was still there under the surface.

But something went wrong. Somewhere along the line, Americans stopped being proponents of Liberty, and instead became proponents of capitalism.

Up to a point, the two go hand in hand. The individual expresses his right to choose within the marketplace. But when the accumulation of wealth replaces the value of the Open Society, something is distorted.

To give one example, during the Cold War, America sold weapons around the world, supposedly to help those who were combatting customers of the Soviet Union's arms exports. Then the Soviet Union collapsed, and their arms exports dropped to zero. Did we then put forth a treaty for the elimination of international arms sales? No, we just moved into the arms markets abandoned by the Soviets.

Jobs! Economic growth! But also warfare, oppression, and a grave setback for the Open Society.

George Soros, the successful financier, wrote an article in the February 1997 issue of The Atlantic Monthly called “The Capitalist Threat.” In it, he talks about Karl Poppers vision of the Open Society, but claims that in our time, the greatest threat to the Open Society is no longer fascism or communism, but out-of-control capitalism. Coming from one of the world's most successful capitalists, this article created quite a stir.

And yet it makes sense. If large corporations run sweatshops in developing countries, does that promote individual freedom? If the wealthy own all of the news outlets, does this promote criticism of our institutions? If special interests manipulate our electoral and lawmaking processes, does this serve democracy? If big business pollutes the earth, making it less habitable for our children and their successors, how does this make the world a freer place?

To people who live in a society that is or has recently been closed, the value of the Open Society is obvious. Oppressed people understand the value of Liberty. But in societies such as ours, that have already achieved a measure of openness, people tend to take Liberty for granted.

Don't take Liberty for granted.

Let us continue to kindle the flame of Liberty, at home and in the world. If we don't keep up the fight, we'll lose it. If you look closely you can see that, in many ways, we're already losing it. But if we can hold on to the value of the Liberty, and bring that awareness to the voting booth, to our investments, in all of our contributions to the world, then maybe it's not too late to turn things around.

As a glyph of what I think is meant by the struggle for Liberty, I would turn to the Tarot, and the Tarot trump called the Tower. The Tower is attributable to Mars, and in the breaking down of the Tower, I see the breaking down of restriction and oppression. At times we see the Tower brake down; at times we are the Tower that is broken down; at other times we ourselves break down the Tower.

For the second pillar, Sex Worship, I think of the line from a Kate Bush song: “The more I think about sex, the better it gets.”

Those golden words!

In Thelema, sex is a personal recapitulation of the cosmic process of creation. The parallel is not only ceremonial: sex can be used as a method of realizing the cosmic identity.

Oh dear, am I supposed to say that? I think that I'm supposed to say that if you make a wish when you orgasm, then your wish will come true. (Not that I'd dispute that…)

In Thelema, these cosmic identities are characterized using a nifty inversion of the Christian book of Revelation. You see, it turns out that the Beast and the Scarlet Woman weren't really the Bad Guys of the story. It just seemed that way to John of Patmos because he was living at the start of the Age of Pisces. But in his visions he saw the decline of the Age of Pisces and the arrival of something beyond his comprehension: the unmediated experience of the divine in blissful combination with creation, a mode of operation natural to our time, but so far ahead of his that he could only characterize it in terms of blasphemy. And the bliss part seems to have evaded him altogether.

So Thelema restores the roles of Beast and Scarlet Woman to their rightful purity, as the passionate interaction that is the basis for all things, not so different in this regard from Shiva and Shakti, Moon Goddess and Horned God, or other formulations.

There's an extra bonus, though, for those raised in a Christian culture, taking on the archetypes of what was condemned by the old authorities: The woman visualized as the Scarlet Woman, into whose cup all the nations of the earth have poured their blood; the man visualized as the Beast, the raw force of Will who breaks through all obstructions:

It's sexy. And fun. Aleister says, check it out.

The sexual not only reflects the cosmic in Thelema, it reflects consciousness. And in this the god-forms are the goddess Nuit, who is the night sky and the sould of infinite space, and Hadit, who is the innermost spark at the core of the self. All experience is said to be the interaction of this point of awareness, this silent witness, and the endless play of possibilities that surround it. This interaction is sexual.

And so sexual practice can scale into the dimension of the cosmic or the phenomenological, an exercise I'll leave to the reader.

There is a powerful healing effect that comes along with unifying the sexual and the spiritual. The Hindus celebrate sexual union explicitly in their tantras. We haven't had much of that in the west, but Thelema operates on one level as a passionate love story between Nuit and Hadit on one level, and the Scarlet Woman and the Beast, on another.

To symbolize this principle of Sex Worship, Crowley remade the Tarot trump called Strength, originally depicting a woman closing the mouth of a lion, with the card Lust, depicting a naked and aroused Scarlet Woman riding the seven-headed Beast of the Apocalypse. They are self and universe, god and goddess, and two lovers who look like they're having a very good time.

The final pillar is Self-Realization.

Do you remember the scene in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, where a board member of the Very Large Corporation of America is asked to report on, um, the meaning of life:

“I've had a team working on this over the past few weeks, and what we've come up with can be reduced to two fundamental concepts . . . One . . . people are not wearing enough hats. Two . . . matter is energy; in the Universe there are many energy fields which we cannot normally perceive. Some energies have a spiritual source which act upon a person's soul. However, this soul does not exist ab inito, as orthodox Christianity teaches; it has to be brought into existence by a process of guided self-observation. However, this is rarely achieved owing to man's unique ability to be distracted from spiritual matters by everyday trivia.”

Then there's a pause, and another member of the board asks: “What was that about hats again?”

In that particular instance they were paraphrasing the teachings of Gurdjieff. I don't know how that passage got in there, but it doesn't really matter.

Maybe I can describe this by comparison: if we were to catch a glimpse of people's lives in Europe, say, a thousand years ago, we would see that pretty much everyone was malnourished. The general level of health and hygiene was far, far below what we know in the Western world today. But we wouldn't have noticed if we lived at the time. That's just how things were.

Similarly, if visitors from 1000 (or hopefully 100) years in the future were to look around today, I think they would notice that pretty much everyone was still stunted in the ego phase of their development. (Myself included; don't think I'm trying to tell you otherwise!)

Now the eastern traditions provide ways of overcoming the ego, but they tend to require a life of profound austerity, leaving behind the trappings of the personal life altogether. That is not part of Thelema.

In some traditions, as can be seen for example in The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism by Henry Corbin, the person is a necessary vehicle for the path of spiritual transformation. This is the way of the God-Man, a concept more native to the western and near-eastern traditions than to those of the far east.

The classical magical treatise on this theme is The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abra-Melin the Mage. This work describes an operation whereby one attains the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel, the link between the person and the divine. This is the terminology that Crowley adopted, with the rationale that since this further stage of human development was so far beyond the scope of language, that the obviously ludicrous concept “Holy Guardian Angel” was probably the best one to use. And so he described this as the Next Step in human development, a point that has only grown more clear over the passage of time.

There is nothing wrong with the ego as a phase. The concept that we are separate from what is around us is to some extent necessary for maturation. But then we are ready to cast off the illusion of separateness and take back our mantle of godhood. But generally, we never do, because of the general ignorance of our condition.

It doesn't have to be this way, though. I think we're not far from the day when the recognition that one is God will be the minimum standard to be considered sane.

Crowley had always considered the High Priestess to represent the Holy Guardian Angel. But then during the series of visions in north Africa that were published as The Vision and the Voice, it was pointed out to him that the Holy Guardian Angel was the door to the ultimate realization, and that the Hebrew letter Daleth means “door.” Daleth correspondes to the planet Venus, who is love, and whose symbol encompasses the entirety of the Tree of Life.

The Tarot trump corresponding to Daleth and Venus is the Empress, the beloved, whose further symbol is the pelican who feeds her young with her life's blood.

So: Liberty; Sex Worship; Self-Realization. These three pillars of Thelema can be expressed as The Tower, Lust, and the Empress. Those of you familiar with the Tree of Life will recognize these trumps as corresponding to the three reciprocal or horizontal paths on the Tree. Also, the Tower has the numeric value of 80, Lust is 9, and the Empress is 4, which add to 93. 93 is, of course, the numeration of Thelema, Will, and Agape, Love.

We are, I think, on the verge of a new global paradigm of spirituality, akin to when the Roman Empire introduced the unification of Christianity. So lets bring what's valuable from the world's traditions to the table. Whatever name our new spiritual worldview takes, we need to make the Three Pillars of Thelema a part of it.

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The Fine Print: The following comments are owned by whoever posted them.

Re: Three Pillars of Thelema]]
by Mordecai Shapiro on Sunday April 30, @12:56PM

Is this “Three Pillars” at all influenced by the Five Pillars of Islam?

Re: Three Pillars of Thelema
by Michael Sanborn on Sunday April 30, @02:23PM

I was thinking more “Three Pillars of Zen.” But there are pillars everywhere once you start looking for them . . .

Re: Three Pillars of Thelema]]
by <Jessica> on Tuesday May 02, @03:58PM


Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

May I just say “thank you” for posting this. I am glad that someone is thinking of us 'new-bees'. Although, I think, it is important for us newcomers to establish a new and personal interpretation/expression of the Law of Thelema, it is also beneficial in some aspects to be guided a bit by “Elders”.

I consider you to be one of those benevolent creatures.

Love is the Law, Love under WILL.

Eternally Greatful,


Re: Three Pillars of Thelema]]
by Geoffrey Baldwin on Saturday May 06, @06:30PM

Bravo, Michael!
This is the kind of material I like to see. It certainly reflects the Way as I've been doing it on my own, over the years, my tendency towards pomposity aside. While a lot of people seem to have an inherent need to be told what to do or think next, I think there are enough of us who can think for ourselves (and for the whole as well). I think too that some people throw out the ethics and morals and assume that it's a sex cult or a magick club, but it's an ageless love affair that branches from eternity to eternity.

Re: Three Pillars of Thelema]]
by <Phoenix> on Monday May 08, @07:04AM

I hope you're going to hardcopy this for the technologically impaired. It deserves to go worldwide. Thanks!