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What is Thelema?

Author: Adley Tenenbaum
Posted: November 3rd. 2013
Times Viewed: 5,424

Thelema as defined by Mr. Tenenbaum, is a philosophy that teeters on religion and science which demands of its aspirants a supreme level of introspection which results in a better understanding of ones self and thusly ones nature. Having obtained the knowledge of ones unconditioned nature one can consciously act in accordance to it, thusly living whole-heartedly to the deepest and true identity of ones self. Those who follow Thelema are called Thelemites.

Now that we have a summery qualified for the Thelema for Dummies book, lets take a look at the origin of this philosophy and expand it into questions of morality, ethics and faith.

The Origin of Thelema:
Liber AL vel Legis or translated into The Book of the Law was a work written in the hand of Aleister Crowley over April 8th, 9th and 10th of 1904. Crowley states that he dictated the book from a holy source known as Aiwass to which Crowley identified as his Holy Guardian Angel. Don’t fret too much about the term of the Holy Guardian Angel as we’ll address it shortly and if you are unfamiliar with the term, just assume your connotations are wrong for the moment to avoid any preconceived notions. I do not wish to focus too much attention on how the book was ‘received’ but rather on the facts, that Crowley walked into a room alone and came out with a book written in his hand. This Book of the Law is held as a Holy Book to Thelemites as the entire system is addressed within it. Later in his magical career, Crowley made the book the foundation of his magical system.

The Law of Thelema:
"Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law. This short line is referred to as the Law of Thelema, the summery of the Book of the Law. This law can only be expounded upon by the entirety of the work.

Thelema—means Will.

The Key to this Message is this word—Will. The first obvious meaning of this Law is confirmed by antithesis: “The word of Sin is Restriction.”

Again: “Thou hast no right but to do thy will. Do that and no other shall say nay. For pure will, unassuaged of purpose, delivered from the lust of result, is every way perfect.”

From these considerations it should be clear that “Do what thou wilt” does not mean, “Do what you like.” It is the apotheosis of Freedom; but it is also the strictest possible bond.

Do what thou wilt—then do nothing else. Let nothing deflect thee from that austere and holy task. Liberty is absolute to do thy will; but seek to do any other thing whatever, and instantly obstacles must arise. Every act that is not in definite course of that one orbit is erratic, a hindrance. Will must not be two, but one (Crowley 2005, 41) .”

This essentially implies that “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law” is not an excuse to indulge in any self-appointed desire, but rather a mandate to discover and accomplish your (True Will) while allowing others the liberty of doing the same in their own unique way. It should immediately sink in that if one is to allow others the same right of discovery as ones self, that there are many circumstances within ones daily life that should be scrutinized and considered heavily before acting on them. This leaves the Law of Thelema as an extremely simple law, yet intellectually and philosophically inexhaustible.

The Ethics and Morality of Thelema:
"Ethics is balderdash. Each Star must go on its orbit. To hell with ‘moral Principle;’ there is no such thing; that is a herd-delusion, and makes men cattle. Do not listen to the rational explanation of How Right It All Is, in the newspapers (Crowley 1996, 117) .”

As much as I love the dictionary, I’m going to avoid its definition of this word and move to something a bit more qualified. Albert Lyngzeidetson defines morality as a class of rules held by society to govern right conduct of members. He continues to define ethics as a branch of philosophy that seeks to understand the nature, purposes, justification and founding principles of moral rules and the system they comprise (Lyngzeidetson 2002) . That being said, morality is a class of rules and ethics are the philosophy that justifies those rules. So what then is the morality and ethics of Thelema?

There is no doubt that many lines of Liber AL vel Legis contain references of morality, but you will not find within its texts a single prescription for justification. There are but three lines that plainly state morality or the class of rules held by Thelemites.

"Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law (AL I: 40) "
"So with thy all; thou hast no right but to do thy will (AL I: 42) .”
"There is no law beyond Do what thou wilt (AL III: 60) .”
(Crowley 2004)

Simply put, a Thelemite, (A) Does what he Wills, (B) Does what he Wills and does nothing else, and (C) acknowledges that nothing more must be done than his Will. A Thelemite must ask himself one question: is this act necessary to accomplish his Will. If so, it must be done, if not, it must be avoided. Think not much of others unless it be necessary to accomplish your Will.

What then justifies these moral codes; what are the ethics of Thelema? Simply put, you define the ethics; you are the unit of society. If you are moved to accept these moral principals than you have fulfilled such ethics. Justifications are personal and will differ from one Thelemite to another. How one justifies such morality is irrelevant to the system of Thelema.

The wise man Swami Vivakananda said, "Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this divinity by controlling nature, external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or psychic control, or philosophy – by one, or more, or all of these – and be free. This is the whole of religion. Doctrines, or dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temples, or forms, are but secondary details (Vivikananda 2004) .”

Don’t get too caught up in dogmas doctrines and books, know thyself and be thyself.

Belief in Thelema:
"Faith in its Meaning Number One was perfectly well defined by the schoolboy: “the faculty of believing that which we know to be untrue.” It is at least the acceptance of any statement as true without criticism, examination, verification, or any other method of test. [...] It is the kind of faith upon the possession and exercise of which religious persons always insist as the first condition of salvation (Crowley 1994, 403) .”

It’s important that we do not equivocate belief with faith, as the two are not the same. You can believe in irrational, fictional and delusional things just as you can believe in factual, verifiable and real things. As far as belief stems within Thelema, it varies based on the Thelemite. Nowhere in Liber Legis do you find any demand of faith and therefore one may often find a number of Thelemites who embrace the elastic mind built upon archetype symbols and psychology rather than variants of theism. The Law of Thelema allows for these wide variants within its practitioners. Because of the personal nature of Thelema, one may not find too many Thelemites pushing their beliefs on others but rather keeping their details to themselves to allow others the freedom of self-discovery with little interference.

Within Thelema, there is recognition of three Gods (a term I use elastically) : Nuit, Hadit and Ra-Hoor-Khuit (Horus) . Each chapter of The Book of the Law is dictated by one of these three concepts, symbols or Gods. "The elements are Nuit–Space–that is, the total of possibilities of every kind–and Hadit, any point of which has experience of these possibilities (Crowley 2004, 10) .

Now, Horus, the child, in which we come to perceive events as a continual growth partaking in its elements of both these methods, and not to be overcome by circumstance. This present period involves the recognition of the individual as the unit of society (Crowley 2004, 16) .”

Is Thelema a Religion?
Call it a new religion, then, if it so pleases your Gracious Majesty; but I confess that I fail to see what you will have gained by so doing, and I feel bound to add that you might easily cause a great deal of misunderstanding, and work a rather stupid kind of mischief (Crowley 1994, 219) .
Many people get hung up on the debate between Thelema being a religion or philosophy. In the end of the exhausting debate, it just doesn’t matter. One can find religion within the system if they need it, just as one can find liberation from religion if they need. Thelema encourages a mentality that transcends such a meaningless classification.

The Comment of Liber AL vel Legis:
"Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

The study of this Book is forbidden. It is wise to destroy this copy after the first reading.
Whosoever disregards this does so at his own risk and peril. These are most dire.
Those who discuss the contents of this Book are to be shunned by all, as centres of pestilence.
All questions of the Law are to be decided only by appeal to my writings, each for himself.

There is no law beyond Do what thou wilt.
Love is the law, love under will.
The priest of the princes,
Ankh-f-n-khonsu (Crowley 2004) "

Much confusion has resulted as the reader finishes the work with this brief paragraph. What specifically is the purpose of the odd request of this tidbit? We must understand the comment was composed well after Thelema had been established by Crowley to those adepts who embraced it. It so happens that a number of students who have embraced Thelema had quarrels about the true interpretation of the work. Much of these quarrels teetered on dangerous and had outraged Crowley. In 1936, he published a final blow to remove any delusional claim to authority in The Equinox of the Gods. The comment resolves any attempt to undermine Crowley’s authority of the correct interpretation of Liber AL vel Legis.

"I lay claim to be the sole authority competent to decide disputed points with regard to The Book of the Law, seeing as its author, Aiwaz, is none other than mine own Holy Guardian Angel, to whose knowledge and Conversation I have attained, so that I have exclusive access to him. I have duly referred every difficulty to him directly, and received his answer; my award is therefore absolute without appeal (Crowley 1991, 127) .”

"One High Court of Interpretation, each for himself alone. No Patristic logomachies! No disputed readings! No civil wars and persecutions. Anyone who wants to say anything, off with his head, and On with the Dance; let Joy be unconfined, You at the prow and Therion at the helm! Off we go (Crowley 1991, 316) .”

The comment in summery was written to dethrone any unneeded quarrels or infighting. It successfully left the sole authority to resolve disputes of correct interpretation in Aleister Crowley’s hands alone. This is why appeal to his writings is so important.

Other Thelemic Concepts:
There are a number of concepts not described in Liber AL vel Legis. I’m going to give a brief description of some of these concepts. It is important to understand that the establishment of Thelema was due to Aleister Crowley and his composition of The Book of the Law. Because of Crowley’s profound history in the hermetic system, he had established a wide variety of beliefs. Although these beliefs were not included in The Book of the Law and therefore are not “Thelemic”, Crowley often refers to such references during his commentary of the work. If one is to take The Book of the Law seriously, they will inevitably be exposed to these concepts through Crowley’s many published works.

1. True Will
There is no mention of True Will anywhere in The Book of the Law. The only mention of anything remotely similar is found in Chapter I, ”For pure will, unassuaged of purpose, delivered from the lust of result, is every way perfect. (AL I:44) ”. This implies there is a difference between will and pure will. That being said, even the word Thelema in the Greek language suggests not merrily the will of man, but rather the will of God. This appears to be the emphasis of the word “True Will” within the Thelemic context. True Will therefore is the Will that the Law of Thelema addresses, not the whimsical will of our timely indecision.

2. Magick
Aleister Crowley had a magical history and he uses this as the foundation of much of his teachings. Crowley however explicitly changed the appearance of the word as to define it without confusion.
"I. Definition: Magick is the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will (Crowley 1997, 126) .”

This definition of magic is often seen as inappropriate as it is claimed that it makes magic a very mundane and unholy thing. It is however to the contrary that it makes even the most mundane and seemingly natural tasks one of great importance and disbands them from the illusion that they are simple and unholy. They become shrouded in the light of ones holy task where they belong. Magic then, under this definition is no longer necessarily one of mysterious incantations or summoning but rather any action that requires the intent to fulfill ones desire.

3. The Holy Guardian Angel
"He who became the Master Therion was once confronted by this very difficulty. Being determined to instruct mankind, He sought a simple statement of his object. His will was sufficiently informed by common sense to decide him to teach man ‘The Next Step’, the thing that was immediately above him. He might have called this ‘God’, or ‘The Higher Self’, or ‘The Augœides’, or ‘Adi-Buddha’, or 6113 other things — but He had discovered that these were all one, yet that each one represented some theory of the Universe which would ultimately be shattered by criticism — for He had already passed through the realm of Reason, and knew that every statement contained an absurdity. He therefore said: ‘Let me declare this work under this title: “The obtaining of the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel”’, because the theory implied in these words is so patently absurd that only simpletons would waste much time in analyzing it. It would be accepted as a convention, and no one would incur the grave danger of building a philosophical system upon it (Crowley 1997, 151) .”

We have here an intended absurd title often associated with God, the Higher Self, etc… It is important to understand that when Crowley often spoke of Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel, that he was referring to a mystical union with God. Often this was in the language of uniting the conscious with the True Will being able then to act in accordance with it.

There is also much useless debate about the Holy Guardian Angel being a physical and external thing or an internal archetype. The objective view that it is an external entity is generally composed by a letter addressed in Magick Without Tears.

"The Holy Guardian Angel…is something more than a man, possibly a being who has already passed through the stage of humanity, and his peculiarly intimate relationship with his client is that of friendship, of community, or brotherhood, or Fatherhood. He is not, let me say with emphasis, a mere abstraction from yourself; and that is why I have insisted rather heavily that the term ‘Higher Self’ implies ‘a damnable heresy and a dangerous delusion.’ If it were not so, there would be no point in The Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage. Apart from any theoretical speculation, my Sammasati and analytical work has never led to so much as a hint of the existence of the Guardian Angel. He is not to be found by any exploration of oneself (Crowley 1994, 282) .”

On the side of a subjective Angel we need not cite anything but the same letter. Nowhere in this letter does Crowley’s term of ‘objective’ equivocate a ‘real existing thing’ like we tend to think it. In fact all it asserts is that there are two degrees of entities. There are those objectives that are eternal, such as Zeus, by the fact that you cannot change the entity. Zeus has been widely known socially and you cannot bend Zeus to be something he is not. You then have lesser entities not yet immortalized in time referred to as subjective. All that is being stated is a regurgitation of the things he has stated in his past.

Again, do not get caught up in the triviality of such debates. There is work to do and progress to be made. The only time this debate is important is when you are invading to push your belief on others or when they have humbly inquired to your stance. Both circumstances demand a high level of understanding which an aspirant will have acquired doing such work and not getting caught up in meaningless debates. Such an acquired understanding will lead only to the latter circumstance. Question intensely any Thelemite pursuing the former.

In the end, Thelema is a very simple concept that triggers a great deal of introspection and knowledge. There is much more to cover regarding many details of Thelema, but it is my hope that this brief article can help some seeker or soldier of liberty out there. Please see the referenced work below if you wish for further details
Act passionately; think rationally; be Thyself. (Liber Librae)


Crowley, Aleister. The blue equinox: the equinox, vol. III, no. I. York Beach, Me.: Weiser; 2005. Print.
Crowley, Aleister, Louis Marlow, and Hymenaeus Beta. The law is for all: the authorized popular commentary of Liber AL vel Legis sub figura CCXX, The book of the law. Tempe, AZ: New Falcon Publications, 1996. Print.
Vivekananda, Swami. R ja yoga: conquering the internal nature: also Patanjali’s yoga aphorisms with commentaries. Delhi, India: Bharatiya Kala Prakashan, 2004. Print.
Lyngzeidetson, Albert, PhD. Student’s Guide to the Basic Principles of Philosophy for Introductory Courses. BarCharts, Inc., 2002. Print.
Crowley, Aleister. The Book of the Law. 100th anniversary ed. York Beach, Me.: Samuel Weiser; 2004. Print.
Crowley, Aleister, and Israel Regardie. Magick Without Tears. Tempe, AZ: New Falcon Publications, 19941991. Print.
Crowley, Aleister, and Aleister Crowley. The equinox of the gods the official organ of the A.·.A. ·. ; the official organ of the O.T.O.. Rev. ed. New York: Issued by the O.T.O. in association with New Falcon Publications, 1991. Print.
Crowley, Aleister, Mary Desti, Leila Waddell, and Hymenaeus Beta. Magick: Liber ABA, book four, parts I-IV. 2nd rev. ed. York Beach, Me.: S. Weiser, 1997. Print.

Copyright: © 2004


Adley Tenenbaum

Location: Omaha, Nebraska


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