“Ordinary morality is only for ordinary people” – Another perspective on Aleister Crowley

This essay was originally published by the former Libertarian Alliance in April 2014 and subsequently collected in my book “The Radical Traditionalist Today”.

Dr Gabb has recently posed to us the questions “Was Crowley a sort of national socialist, or a sort of libertarian? Was he a sex-obsessed libertine, or did he preach absolute self-control?”[i] He suspects that all these questions have the same answer, and that such an answer does not reflect well upon the self-styled Great Beast. I hope I can propose to him a rather more nuanced appreciation of this complex and enduringly fascinating – though hardly entirely admirable – character.

An understanding of Crowley – and by that, I mean an understanding of what Crowley himself intended by his work and actions rather than the various re-interpretations and smoke-and-mirrors exercises that even he indulged in, should start from the context of the revival of interest in Western esotericism in which Crowley became a pivotal figure. The key to this revival is that it was by nature anti-modern; its proponents were counter-Enlightenment conservatives who sought to recapture the wisdom and ways of the ancients. Their models of spiritual belief were hierarchical and retrogressive at a time when the demos was in its ascendancy; they proposed not only an aristocratic replacement for modern ecclesiastical structures, but furthermore that progress towards the upper echelons of this enlightened aristocracy would involve exposure to and understanding of progressively more advanced ritual practices and the results thereof, bringing about the growth of the soul and rewards that were to be expressed beyond the present world.

The most direct influence upon the way that Crowley approached this, and indeed most other aspects of his life, was the Decadents and particularly Swinburne; from his Cambridge years onwards, Crowley wrote poetry in the Swinburnian mould, including significant erotic verse. Whereas Swinburne’s moral turpitude was largely the product of his imagination, for Crowley those degenerate aspects which attracted him became a practical way of life. It is not entirely true to suggest that Crowley was obsessed by sex; rather that he attached a high spiritual importance to sex, necessitating it as an aspect of his religious ritual and practice of ceremonial magick, and was frank about discussing it in a way that was unusual for his time and was held by many to be immoral. As he opined, “part of the public horror of sexual irregularity so-called is due to the fact that everyone knows himself essentially guilty.”[ii]

From Blavatsky to Leadbeater to Crowley and myriad other teachers and methods that fall within the Western esoteric tradition, there are constant themes: the material world is illusory; the spiritual world is omnipresent; connexion between mankind and the spiritual world is essential but only possible for the initiate; and that the given method of spiritual training offers such initiation with the promise of resultant enlightenment if its disciplines and rituals are correctly observed by a pupil of sufficient aptitude.

The appeal of the esoteric tradition to the West lies precisely in the failure of Western spirituality – in the wake of the disasters of Protestantism and the First Vatican Council – to offer a true spiritual connexion with eternal principles, and in particular its development in the direction of dogmatic centralization so as to enshrine a false rather than a genuine tradition. The search for the perennial philosophy – that which is held to be present in a degenerate form in the fundamental principles of the major religions – led to an inevitable quest towards the ultimate source of this wisdom in the oldest of human spiritual traditions. The parallel between Western esotericism and Eastern modes of belief is obvious and was explicit in a number of syncretic schools, notably Theosophy, as a form of renewal of the West from without. Crowley’s own peregrinations led him from Egypt and Algeria through India and to China, climbing mountains, indulging in opium and performing magical rituals all the while.

The esotericists are radical decentralizers, and yet they are not quite the individualists or anarchists that some would have us believe. Each has a school, a method, and seeks to teach from the perspective of experience and (so they would assert) achievement. And at the top of each of those schools we find one or more individuals who will assert that they have some form of intercourse with the divine and the supernatural, most commonly in the form of spirit guides and the practice of various forms of magic and clairvoyance. Each such entity is a pyramid in shape, and depends for its continuation not only upon the magus at the top but upon the desire of others to gain access to his wisdom – a prize for which many will pay dearly.

It is, I think, unfair to Crowley to suggest that he had no fixed ideas. His work was, after all, experimental in nature – as a ritual magician it could hardly be otherwise – but it was also dedicated to synthesis: to the exploration of diverse spiritual paths and to the distillation of the results into what he believed to be the end product of that process. The ensuing religion, Thelema, may have a single central fixed principle in the Will, but that is not to imply that it does not also have its own recognizable codex, practices and lore. Thelemites are, for all their tendency to fall out spectacularly with each other, nevertheless recognizable as a group with common beliefs and a common culture, and these rest securely upon Crowley’s writings, most notably the Holy Books of Thelema, and the rituals of the Ordo Templi Orientis.

Above all, Thelema is an anti-modernist school of thought; it is oriented towards the primal and in this aspect forms an interesting analogue to the rediscovery of paganism that was going on at the same time – Gardnerian Wicca owes its impulse and some of its content to Crowley’s decision to entrust Gardner with the revival of the O.T.O. in Britain. It directs itself to those who find in the modern and the material only an emptiness that is far divorced from human potential and human instinct. But in its reversion it also abandons what Crowley construed as bourgeois constraint. His libertinism was a mixture of hedonism for its own sake, particularly in drug-taking, and hedonism with an ulterior ritual purpose – all of his various relationships included the practice of sex magick, and in the case of his homosexual partnerships ritual rather than pleasure appears to have been the main objective, since his primary sexual attraction was to women. His magical work was disciplined and assiduously documented, whatever the chaos that persisted externally. He was a prolific writer, and in a number of works wrote spontaneously, attempting to access unconscious or supernatural impulses. It would be misleading, I think, to dismiss Crowley simply as a bad writer. He certainly has his own style, and there is something crude and elemental about it that can disturb the reader with its ferocity.

There is, of course, the strong suggestion that a certain amount of Crowley’s behaviour was simply designed to shock, an aim in which it succeeded in generous measure, but he was also committed to the exploration of physical and spiritual extremes as part of what he saw as his mission; he himself was the testing-ground for much of his practical work, and as such inevitably the focus became his own ideas, reactions and experiences rather than those of others – a focus that could easily spill over into egotism and arrogance. His biographer Laurence Sutin refers to Crowley’s “courage, skill, dauntless energy, and remarkable focus of will”[iii], but on the other hand, Crowley also had a great capacity for physical and mental cruelty and little time for those who disagreed with him.

Nevertheless, and for all that he participated willingly in his own demonization in the press, it is inaccurate to label Crowley as either a nihilist or a Satanist. Crowley did not worship Satan precisely because he rejected the Christian worldview in which Satan exists. Thelema has a specific code of ethics, entitled Duty, that sets out the role of the Thelemite in relation to self, others, mankind and all other beings and things. This code, amongst other observations, designates crime as a violation of the True Will, calls for the laws of the land to promote the maximum liberty for the individual, and exhorts the Thelemite to promote the enlightenment of others and to avoid the wanton destruction of humans, animals or the environment. This is not to suggest that Thelema is necessarily a socially acceptable religion, but it should be enough to quash suggestions that it is one that is purely destructive, or, as has been suggested in certain rather excitable quarters, that it prescribes human or animal sacrifice. In 2009, Thelema was recognized as a religion by the Courts Service for the purpose of administering an oath for a juror who was a Thelemite.

A revealing side to Crowley remains his counter-establishmentarianism. Having entered an organization, Crowley sought to mould it to his own ends; where this proved impossible, he then used what he had learned to create what he regarded as a superior body of his own. The dissent that surrounded his promotion in the Golden Dawn – in which Crowley remained loyal to the order’s autocrat, Mathers, while feuding with other members, notably Yeats – was the springboard for Crowley to develop the A.:.A.:. from the Golden Dawn rituals with the addition of Thelemic elements.

His Freemasonry further illustrates the point; having been initiated into a clandestine Lodge in Mexico, he was then accepted as a member of a Lodge which had been chartered by the Grande Loge de France, and eventually received numerous esoteric Masonic authorities from the Masonic scholar John Yarker. This was not enough; he desired acceptance by “regular” English Freemasonry, and specifically to join the Royal Arch, and so presented his credentials to Great Queen Street, but was informed by the Secretary that he would not recognize him. In a gesture of unabashed defiance, Crowley immediately walked into another room in the building and took his seat as a Past Master in “one of the oldest and most eminent Lodges in London”. Moreover, the authorities that Crowley received from Yarker provided the foundation for the O.T.O., which Crowley perceived as a consolidation of “bodies of initiates” into a single system. He was no longer interested in being a part of Freemasonry as an organization, but rather in taking its forms, rituals and arguably its secrets for his own ends, and forming a body that he and other members regarded as more highly evolved than the original and thereby superior to it.

Another theme in Crowley’s life was his fascination with the status of the aristocrat. He was uninterested in the mundane aspects of the aristocracy, but merged the concept of aristocratic status with his work as an occultist, purchasing Boleskine House on the banks of Loch Ness and proclaiming himself as the Laird of Boleskine – or sometimes, rather less accurately, as Lord Boleskine. What was certainly the case at that time was that Crowley had a sufficiently generous inheritance to live an independent lifestyle and indulge his passions; indeed he may have embraced hedonism with such vigour not least because he viewed it as part and parcel of the aristocratic outlook. Had these passions been rather more moderate, he would doubtless not have run through his funds as he did; but Crowley was never a man of moderation. His descent into addiction to heroin and cocaine, along with the general breakdown of his health, made his financial problems terminal, and by this point his notoriety was such that – even had he wanted to – it seems unlikely that he could have secured a conventional means of income.

If we see Crowley as part of a traditionalist worldview, then it is plain that he sought the overthrow of the present way of things. He hoped that Germany under the Third Reich and the Soviet Union would adopt Thelema as their religion, and despised democracy. Equally, he was an active agent for British intelligence operations during the First World War and worked to destabilise the pro-German lobby. However, Crowley’s practical progress was not through political or revolutionary action, but rather through the spread of ideas and the setting of an example in his own person and through his teachings. Like others of his time, he saw in Enlightenment thought – and indeed in Western, that is to say, Christian, civilization – only decay and the denial of the human spirit. That spirit was to be liberated only if it could be allied to the true expression of the Will. It could not be found in conventionality, in employment, or in industrial life in general. It was expressed, for Crowley, in a hierarchical, ritualistic social organization in which he was the prime instigator and magus, and where his time was spent not merely communing with human beings but with occult forces whose powers were far in excess of his own and whose willing instrument he had become. At his happiest, at the Abbey of Thelema on the island of Cefalu, he lived a life of simple observance among like minds interspersed with painting, writing, drug-taking, teaching and sex – the last two being inextricably intertwined. Here was his ideal, his “aristocratic communism” lived out before, inevitably, practical considerations intervened and the Italian government expelled him.

Aspects of Crowley’s libertinism were, as many have pointed out, a kind of precursor to the hippy movement of the 1960s, but the context was altogether different. Crowley was not concerned with the Age of Aquarius but with the Aeon of Horus; a time in the affairs of mankind in which man would take increasing control of his destiny, and that had followed upon previous aeons that had been respectively maternalistic and paternalistic. In the new aeon, paternalistic religions such as Christianity, Islam and Buddhism would come to be supplanted. Thelema had been codified in order to replace them, while at the same time being rooted in the teachings of the ancients. It offered its adherents the transcendence that they sought but had failed to find in the mundane. It is perhaps unsurprising that several prominent children of the New Age, including guitarist Jimmy Page (who bought Boleskine House) and the late Peaches Geldof should have become interested in Thelema after having explored a number of mainstream religious beliefs, though one suspects that for some adherents the hedonistic aspects are of greater appeal than spiritual disciplines. We might note, moreover, that the O.T.O. remains the only religious organization to send its members a letter of congratulations when they leave – for in deciding to do so they have exercised their Will.

Why should we concern ourselves with Crowley? To be occupied only with his excesses of behaviour and weaknesses of character seems to me to short-change him. The answer surely comes in his dominant influence upon the development of Western esoteric thought and in turn the influence of that thought upon twentieth-century and contemporary culture. He has left a tangible legacy in terms of those who define themselves as Thelemites and are members of the O.T.O. There is also a much wider legacy defined both in terms of those who have absorbed some of Crowley’s ideas and those who have reacted in sometimes extreme ways against them, either to reassert those belief systems that Crowley so comprehensively rejected, or to promote further directions in occultism that differ from his own. Whichever viewpoint one takes, it is hard to ignore Crowley. Even were one not to be at all concerned with the outcomes of his spiritual work, his life is nevertheless a source of interest in itself, and has been subjected to everything from hagiography to excoriation – and that simply among those who knew him!

[i] “Sean Gabb on Aleister Crowley” http://thelibertarianalliance.com/2015/01/22/sean-gabb-on-aleister-crowley/

[ii] Crowley, The Confessions of Aleister Crowley, chapter 50, 1929: http://www.thelema.ca/156/Confessions/chapter50.html

[iii] Laurence Sutin, Do What Thou Wilt: A Life of Aleister Crowley, New York, St Martin’s Press, 2000, p. 148.