Thelema: An Introduction to the Life, Work & Philosophy of Aleister Crowley (2018)


Are you left wanting after reading the Wikipedia entry for Aleister Crowley (“The Wickedest Man in the World”) but also daunted by Richard Kaczynski’s 700-page Perdurabo? Colin D. Campbell’s introductory text is the answer. Neither exhaustive nor limpid, Campbell delivers a three-fold primer on Crowley and Thelema within 200 pages: biography, Thelemic philosophy, and Thelemic application. The prose is conversational, opting for passion over pretension even at the expense of an overuse of exclamation marks and a few knee-slappers. There is no complex thesis in the sense of a critical study—if there is a theme that drives the book it is that Thelema is more relevant than ever, with its very foundation built upon individualism sans conflict. Campbell’s subject matter carries with it its own inherent intrigue to which has been attached much fantastic baggage. This text offers a sobering look at a complex and shrouded figure.

Crowley left behind a substantial corpus, including his own autohagiography (that is, the autobiography of a saint), and a mystique to rival that of Nietzsche (or, at least, the mystique constructed by Nietzsche’s sister, Elisabeth). Campbell, a deft scholar, shoulders the weight of Confessions, 777, The Book of Lies, The Book of Thoth, The Book of the Law, Magick, and many others to offer readers a knowledgeable synthesis. A layman’s perusal of these books is enough to show the inaccessibility of Crowley’s philosophy. The texts cannot be read on their own (like certain French literary theorists used to maintain), and, even with the necessary background information, they cannot be read through once or twice. It takes dedicated study to make sense of what Crowley left behind (for example, Crowley had a penchant for Gematria).

It is easy to fall prey to the popular notion that Crowley was simply a wicked man who dallied with black magick (he stylized the appended “k” to distinguish his art with that of stage magic and legerdemain) and proferred a philosophy of hedonism. The central tenet of Thelema, after all, is “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.” But Campbell explains that there is a difference between what one wants and what one wills. The mantra “…was not a call to hedonism, but rather a call to personal accountability in the establishment of—and adherence to—one’s own moral code.” This may sound like a similar tenet of existentialism, where we are on our own to make our own choices, and it is easy to pose the retort that this freedom (i.e. denying a central absolute authority to govern the masses) will breed conflict. Campbell touches on, but does not elaborate, the Thelemic understanding that, if one operates in accordance with their actual, transcendent will, it will not cause conflict but harmony.

The stigma of Crowley as a crackpot, drug-addled, black magick-loving egomaniac (while understandable) is peeled back to expose a man who disdained the practice of black magic or any kind of magic for any form of material gain. Crowley was a man with a vision of something higher and was willing to do whatever was necessary to achieve it. Presented with an inverse ratio of lesser fulfillment the higher he climbed the rungs of secret societies like the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Crowley emerged with his own philosophy: Thelema. It is a syncretic philosophy that incorporates many areas of knowledge, chiefly Egyptian mythology, astrology, and Jewish Kabbalah, the latter of which Campbell stresses is crucial to understanding Crowley and Thelema.

Admittedly, I do not read a lot of esoterica or grimoire. Tattwa, chakras, Sefirot, the Goetia, the I Ching, and so on ring familiar bells but not much more. My knowledge of such matters can be traced to the novels of Umberto Eco (especially Foucault’s Pendulum), the two main books by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier (Morning of the Magicians and Impossible Possibilities), and my forays into Church history. Crowley’s is a name with which  I’ve brushed shoulders over the years, and when I saw Thelema: An Introduction to the Life, Work & Philosophy of Aleister Crowley, I knew it was time to make further acquaintance with the enigmatic fellow. Thankfully, Colin D. Campbell made a fine Virgilian guide.

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