Thelema, libertarianism and politics

An recent news article on generated the following comment from an individual calling himself “mendaxveritas”:

Beyond that, the point is simply that it is unwise to employ methods that arguably violate the principles of The Book of the Law. The cause of liberty is not advanced by taking advantage of laws that themselves are an affront to liberty. If “hate speech” laws (in Australia or elsewhere) get turned on us at some point, we’re going to look really stupid if we’ve been using those laws ourselves to shut down those who have offended us, and we’ll look hypocritical if we suddenly start arguing (correctly) that hate speech laws are an offense against free speech.

and then responding to criticism:

Your distinction that only “willed” speech should be considered protected by Thelemic principles sounds superficially reasonable, but it is impractical for a legal system. Unless you can propose a means for a court of law to determine whether a given act of speech was “willed” or not in Thelemic terms (which seems tantamount to determining the true will of the speaker), the distinction is not one that a court or a legislature can use, even assuming a society devoted to Thelema (which isn’t what we have now in Australia or anywhere else).

Many people make the mistake of trying to turn Thelema into a socio-political system, and in particular attempts to equate Thelema with libertarianism deserve further examination, because they turn out to be fundamentally mistaken.

Many people take the verses “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law,” (AL I, 40) “thou hast no right but to do thy will. Do that, and no other shall say nay,” (AL I, 42) and “There is no law beyond Do what thou wilt” as being symbolic of a libertarian doctrine, if not in fact then at least in spirit.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Crowley writes in Liber II that “Do what thou wilt” is “is the apotheosis of Freedom; but it is also the strictest possible bond.” [Emphasis added] If we assume – unrealistically – that it were possible for one person to objectively know the will of another, then a most extreme form of despotism would be perfectly consistent with Thelema. The significant difference between libertarianism and Thelema is that the former gives you the freedom to do something other than your will if you so choose, whereas the latter does not. If it were possible for a despot to objectively know the wills of all the people under his power, then he could direct their lives in every detail, and provided that he directed them in line with their wills, then such a method of government would be perfectly “thelemic,” despite the fact that political freedom would be completely and utterly absent. If it were possible for the despot to objectively know your will, if he did in fact know your will, and if you protested that it was your will to do something else, then you would be simply mistaken, and you would find absolutely no support at all for your position in the Law of Thelema.

Although Crowley is not the final word on Thelema, we really see very little of a libertarian approach in his own writings on what we might reluctantly call “political Thelema.” He writes in The Confessions that “each man will be a king, and his relation to the state will be determined solely by considerations of what is most to his advantage. The worker will support a strong government as his best protection from foreign aggression and seditious disturbance instead of thinking it tyrannical.” Far from being true, this idea can be used to justify almost any “tyrannical” outrage.

In “The Scientific Solution of the Problem of Government,” he echoes this idea in the statement that “The absolute rule of the state shall be a function of the absolute liberty of each individual will.” It all depends on the presumption that the state knows the wills of its citizens, and always acts to further them. In the same paragraph, Crowley gives birth to the ridiculous notion that “experts will immediately be appointed to work out, when need arises, the details of the True Will of every individual, and even that of every corporate body whether social or commercial.” The idea that the most offensive and restrictive of laws can be justified on the grounds that “it is good for you, but you don’t know it, because you aren’t experts like us,” is the child of fascism, but is entirely consistent with Crowley’s political vision and, if we accept his “experts” premise, entirely consistent with Thelema also, yet nothing could be further from a libertarian philosophy.

Crowley placed a lot of emphasis on the ideas of political order and stability, and appeared to strongly favour a form of feudalism as the ideal form of government; one cannot help but get the idea that he was interested in using the notion of will to “keep the workman in his place,” by arguing that such was his “purpose,” and that in order for him to “do his will” he must be kept to that purpose, forcibly if necessary. Charles Stansfeld Jones complained in a letter shortly after Crowley’s death that “before the ‘child’ had had much chance to do anything on its own account (or in accordance with its Will) 666 lost no time in formulating what he thought it should be expected to do – viz: his Will, more or less.” Contrary to the common perception of “will” being a liberating notion, it is in fact an ideal concept with which to oppress, precisely through this idea that it “is the apotheosis of Freedom; but it is also the strictest possible bond.” Any objection to restriction whatsoever can be trumped by this notion: “it’s not restriction, it’s liberation, because it’s in accordance with your will, despite the fact that your ego is objecting.”

He notably attempts to declare that any type of law-breaking is “unthelemic” by remarking in Magick in Theory and Practice that “men of ‘criminal nature’ are simply at issue with their true Wills. The murderer has the Will to Live; and his will to murder is a false will at variance with his true Will, since he risks death at the hands of Society by obeying his criminal impulse.” Under this “argument,” mountaineers are “at issue with their true Wills,” since they “risk death at the hands of” the mountain. The very idea that there is such a thing as a “criminal nature” is another illustration of the use of the concept of “will” to justify keeping a particular subset of the population under control, by simply declaring that “risking death” must be against will in their cases, but that “risking death” is perfectly in line with will in others.

In Crowley’s “Abbey of Thelema,” the reading of newspapers was banned, unless used for specific types of work. It served no purpose to argue that it was your will to read them for fun; if you suggested such a thing, you were mistaken, and you were mistaken because Crowley said you were. It is no excuse to argue that one was free to reject the rules of the Abbey by not joining in the first place, because Crowley tells us in The Confessions that “in the abbey each of us respected the will of the others as absolutely as they respected his. It was nobody’s business to inquire what the will of another might be.”

In Diary of a Drug Fiend, the story concludes with the wife of the hero discovering that it is, in fact, her will – her life’s purpose – to simply assist the hero in his own work, and we are expected to feel warm and fuzzy now that the little woman has accepted her place as subservient to her husband, because it is in fact “more liberating” for her to accept that to “pretend” that she has her own purpose.

The Book of the Law itself states that “the kings of the earth shall be Kings for ever: the slaves shall serve,” (AL II, 57) along with many other verses suggestive of a master-slave relationship, such as “Let my servants be few & secret: they shall rule the many & the known” (AL I, 10) and “If he be a King, thou canst not hurt him. Therefore strike hard & low, and to hell with them, master!” (AL II, 59-60)

Of course, we are under no obligation to accept such a political philosophy just because The Book of the Law appears to support it, but it is simply impossible to seriously suggest that the book implies a philosophy of libertarianism, of complete conscious liberty, because it implies precisely the opposite; if one accepts the idea that “will” can be translated to a definite path, then the Law of Thelema forbids one to do anything else whatsoever apart from that will, and one does not have the freedom to do whatever one chooses.

Now, naturally, it is not possible for one person to objectively know the will of another. “mendaxveritas” observes this, and reasons that, therefore, in practice an emphasis on individual liberty is “thelemic” on the grounds that as little interference as possible will maximise the number of people “doing their wills.” Is he right? The answer is a resounding “no.” The Book of the Law tells us quite clearly that “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law,” and that “There is no law beyond Do what thou wilt.” If temporal laws cannot in practice be grounded objectively in will, then the Law of Thelema leaves us with no alternative, and no other philosophy can sensibly be described as more “thelemic” than any other. Any attempt to do so is to simply declare by dictat that one’s own political leanings are “thelemic” without any justification whatsoever. He remarks that:

There may be some killings that are proper expressions of will, but I suspect that in practice most are not, so I don’t mind having a law against murder (with appropriately-defined exceptions for self-defense, accident, and other extenuating circumstances). A law against gay sex, on the other hand, I find objectionable as an improper restriction on individual will, even though I acknowledge that not all sex acts are “under will”.

This “argument” can be reduced to a statement that “I don’t mind people having gay sex against their will, but I do mind people killing others against their will, so I’m happy to allow the former but ban the latter, and I’ll call the result ‘thelemic’ because I like being a Thelemite.” One could just as easily come to the opposite conclusion and justify it under the same grounds. Again, if “will” cannot be objectively determined then laws cannot be based on it, and if laws cannot be based on it then laws can be neither “thelemic” nor “unthelemic,” since Thelema provides us with no other standard whatsoever except for will. To pretend that a self confessed value judgment – “I don’t mind having a law against murder … I find objectionable as an improper restriction on individual will” – as a basis for law can be described as “thelemic” is indicative of a confused mind.

The reality is that if will is not objectively determinable, then there cannot be any connections at all between temporal laws and Thelema, and it is a mistake to assume that there can be. In particular, libertarianism is not a “reasonable practical substitute” for Thelema; if anything, it runs completely counter to the idea that “thou hast no right but to do thy will.”

4 Comments on “Thelema, libertarianism and politics”

By Ben. January 26th, 2012 at 4:40 pm

I certainly agree that Crowley’s political philosophy apropos Thelema was undeveloped and naive, and that his personal political predilections seem, in some of his writings, to lean towards some form of bizarre class-based authoritarianism. And while I also agree with you that it is not, in point of fact, correct to label one style of government as more ‘thelemic’ than another, is it not the case that many thelemites may be attracted to libertarianism for no other reason than it affords the individual a high degree of personal autonomy, and freedom from arbitrary restrictions from the state? Freedom from the worst aspects of ‘Officialdom’? Crowley wrote (in ‘Confessions’)(paraphrase): “the America envisioned by the founding fathers really was true freedom”. I tend to agree. Jefferson, Franklin et al. seem to have been a high water mark for the integrity of politics to me, rooted as they were in the empiricism of the enlightenment, the more laudable aspects of freemasonry, secularism, science and reason. Libertarianism may well be a compromise, and not inherently ‘thelemic’, but isn’t this the best we can realistically hope for when dealing with such a vast edifice as a modern state? I disagree that it’s “‘completely counter to the idea that “thou hast no right but to do thy will.” Perhaps you could say that it’s a kind of ‘thelemic-utilitarianism’ whereby it affords the majority of citizens the liberty to enact their will without undue interference.

I see the ‘master/ slaves shall serve’ thing in terms of ‘masters’ having control of their own destinies, while the ‘slaves serve’, in the sense that they labour under some false ideas about the world which affects their ability to do their True Will.

I have very much benefited from reading your essays, and your efforts to free Thelema from it’s supernatural baggage very much appeal to me. Many thanks.

Best regards


By Erwin. January 26th, 2012 at 8:21 pm

is it not the case that many thelemites may be attracted to libertarianism for no other reason than it affords the individual a high degree of personal autonomy, and freedom from arbitrary restrictions from the state?

Sure, just as it’s the case that many Thelemites might like bananas, or Fruit Loops. But, as you say, it’s “not inherently ‘Thelemic'”.

isn’t this the best we can realistically hope for when dealing with such a vast edifice as a modern state

That depends entirely on your views about modern states. There certainly seems to be no shortage of people who love living in a modern state, big government and all. Frankly, most talk of “Freedom from the worst aspects of ‘Officialdom'” is mere distraction. So “they won’t trust us to cross the roads at will”, and we have to wait for the little green man, or the walk signal – big deal. It doesn’t affect my “ability to do [my] True Will” one tiny bit.

Let’s be honest, here – it was easy to have small government when you didn’t need miles and miles of paved roads, electric street lighting, efficient emergency services, national power grids, space exploration, clean drinking water in every home, regulatory protection over invested retirement funds, and all the rest of it. A modern state with a modern economy is a complex thing, and big government goes along with that.

Particularly when we’re talking about occultists, posting their callow opinions to the interwebs on their iPads, we have to remember that they’re about as politically sophisticated as they are intellectually sophisticated, and it’s highly likely that it they were ever presented with the kind of society that many of them clamour for then they’d be wishing for the old one back in fairly short order.

Perhaps you could say that it’s a kind of ‘thelemic-utilitarianism’ whereby it affords the majority of citizens the liberty to enact their will without undue interference.

But it doesn’t. Just as Crowley pointed to newspapers, we can easily point to mass advertising, other media, the teaching of Creationism in schools, and a whole host of other things which are perfectly consistent with an entirely libertarian society but which nevertheless can be easily argued to make it more difficult to “enact their will without undue interference”, not less difficult. This whole objection to government appears to assume that the one and only thing which interferes with the free exercise of the will is in fact the government, and that’s so far from the truth as to be hardly even worthy of consideration. Unless – as was the case for Crowley in the matter of his sexual preference – the exercise of one’s will happens to contravene strict laws with heavy punishments – which, in today’s Western societies, at least, is becoming increasingly rare – then the fact is that the effect of government officiousness on the ability to exercise will is likely to be very much at the minor end of the scale. This renders practically all talk of “Thelemic government” as nothing but pure and pointless Utopia-mongering.

By Ben. January 27th, 2012 at 10:16 pm

Agreed, petty restrictions and regulations imposed by government, which may well be a pettifogging irritation to some, do not affect True Will at all. Actually, they are widely objected to at first as an imposition on ‘free will’, then pretty quickly accepted as being a great and inevitable improvement (planning regulations, seat belts, drink-drive laws, public smoking ban etc.)

Agreeing with you further: government is not the main obstacle to the vast majority of people doing their Will, especially in the west (although there are still some ridiculous narcotics laws on the books which do have a serious adverse effect on the lives of many otherwise upstanding citizens).
I still hold to the proposition that a significant proportion of thelemites, (and by this I mean those who would self-identify as thelemites, and not those who might qualify as thelemites in the wider sense but who have never heard of the doctrine of thelema) will naturally incline towards some kind of libertarian approach to government. Just as you point out that most thelemites will have a reverence for the natural world, I see libertarianism as the most natural form of government in as far as it would tend to preserve the world’s rich ethno-cultural heritage.

Perhaps your average modern occultist makes the same mistake that many others do in conflating libertarianism with liberalism? I totally agree that a ‘liberal’ or ‘permissive’ society will absolutely not help to facilitate a scenario where more people do their True Will. In fact, as you imply, it just widens the scope for them to do other than their True Will, for example by seeking to emulate famous ‘libertines’ or by engaging in activities which seem ‘out there,’ ‘rebellious’ or ‘alternative’, but only serving to slavishly act out according to a romantic false image they have of themselves (which has often been inculcated by the popular media, which of course has barely concealed links to the very ‘military industrial complex’ they believe they are sticking it to).

If so, and occultists do in fact share common moral ground with egalitarian-minded, neo-Marxist liberals, then I agree they would soon be pining for the familiar comforts of the nanny state if someone like Ron Paul were to be elected (ha ha – as if).

I do disagree that the ubiquitous trend for Big Government is the only viable model for the 21st century. Modern technology could just as easily facilitate the devolution of government into small regional parliaments, with greater respect for regional customs. Greater assemblies could come together for certain functions of common advantage, for example national defence policy, overseas trade, or big infrastructure projects. If the public will changes, and the senseless pursuit of rampant materialism abates, the march towards a global homogenous cultural and ethnic banality is not inevitable, and maybe a great deal of the world’s rich diversity can indeed be preserved. Is it ironic that this is the stated objective of political cult of ‘multi-culturalism’?

By Cheryl. November 17th, 2013 at 5:51 pm

Thank you for pointing out that there is only ONE tenet of Thelema – do what thou wilt. I am getting awfully tired of reading so-called Thelemites’ self-righteous pronouncements on what is and what is not Thelemic, whether it be in politics or some other arena. It’s well and good to have an opinion; goodness knows we are a highly opinionated bunch. But to assert one’s opinion as inherently Thelemic and implying or outright stating that if one disagrees they are not a “real” Thelemite? I guess they are just making it easy for us to tell who actually understand what Thelema is, and those who are only using Thelema to further their personal agenda(s).

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