…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