Friday, August 25, 2023

Too Hot to Handle: The Whole of the Law

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

For those who have never heard of Aleister Crowley, a short bio culled from information available at Infogalactic.

Crowley was born into a wealthy Plymouth Brethren family in Warwickshire, England in 1875, and rejected Christianity to become an occultist, poet, painter and novelist. A practicing bisexual, he founded the religion of Thelema, promoted a form of Satanism, traveled the world, climbed mountains, experimented with hallucinogens and claimed to be a prophet of the Egyptian god Horus. In his day, he was referred to as “the wickedest man in the world”. In 2002, the BBC ranked him as the 73rd greatest Briton of all time.

Do What Thou Wilt

Tom: All that said, Crowley’s best-known statement is this one: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.” Philosophically, this is the cornerstone of Thelema and the basis for all Crowley’s subsequent teaching about how people should live, which he said ought to be “in tune with their Will”.

A statement like this is usually dismissed by simply saying, “It came from a Satanist.” For some Christians that sort of evasion is sufficient. But if we do that, Immanuel Can, we haven’t really addressed the rightness or wrongness of Crowley’s thinking at all, have we?

Immanuel Can: Oh, man … why are we talking about this odious character? Well, what do you see in Crowley’s axiom that gets up to the level of needing refuting, Tom?

Tom: Well, put it this way: if I didn’t first establish the source of the quote for you, would you find it terribly offensive? I’m pretty sure there are all kinds of people who live by this credo in one form or another, and hardly any of them are Satanists. If you and I are simply the random by-products of the machinations of an indifferent universe, whose will should we bow to other than our own? In a world without God, what else would make sense?

Not So Great

IC: But by the same token, we might ask, “In a world without God, what makes your will so great?”

I mean, after all, you’re an accidental speck of dust on an accidental ball of mud, floating through a universe that came into being by accident. By cosmic standards, you’re infinitesimally small and weak, you’re decaying, and you’re dead in a wink of cosmic time. So what tells you that your minute, crabbed and puny will has any dignity at all? How absurdly out-of-proportion is your sense of self? What does the massive, cold and indifferent universe “owe” to something like you?

Tom: Very true. But assuming you decide to get past that and not end it all tomorrow, on what logical basis would you allow anyone else to make your choices for you? How is that likely to end in any satisfying way?

IC: I guess if the world is an indifferent place, then doing whatever you want is possible, and maybe appealing, so people are prone to opt for it. But nothing makes it “moral” or raises it to the level of a duty. We don’t (in such a universe) “owe it” to anybody to let them have their way, or to celebrate them for doing so. Only a kind of pragmatic, world-weary self-interest drives such an attitude: “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”

No Happy Endings

But I’m not seeing happiness in people who believe in this philosophy, and not even mere world-weary resignation: I’m seeing active fear. I’m seeing people whose desperation to grab what life has to offer is increasing to the point of pathological; and as they age, and as their life options for pleasures become diminished, more being in the past and fewer prospects for future desires, they are increasingly thrashing around, trying everything that might work to restore to them the naive enthusiasms of youth, or prospects for self-indulgence. And they start to care less and less whom they have to hurt in order to get where they want to go.

What starts out as a philosophy of self-liberation ends up being a desperate race for opportunities that have fled.

Tom: So “do what you will” until you can’t do much of anything anymore, basically. It’s a grim way to look at things, and very short-sighted.

‘An You Harm None ...’

By the way, there’s another element to this, in that Crowley was probably riffing on an old Wiccan saying: “An you harm none, do what thou wilt,” which basically means as long as nobody else gets hurt, whatever you want to do is perfectly fine. So Crowley’s pronouncement amounts to saying that this old Wiccan proverb is the equivalent of a First Commandment for occultists. But really, it’s the First Commandment of atheism and secularism too, isn’t it? We hear this all the time: “two consenting adults”. Any conduct, however vile, is justified on that basis.

But does the fact that something doesn’t hurt anyone else in any obvious way make it right?

IC: It doesn’t. At best, it makes it not-additionally-harmful; but it doesn’t make it positive or good.

I can do no harm by leaving someone to die in a ditch so long as I didn’t put them there. I’m just “doing no help” either.

Unconvincing Rhetoric

In any case, I’m rarely convinced that the things that “two consenting adults” claim are not harming anyone really aren’t. At the very least, they’re modeling bad conduct to others, and at worst, they’re just lying. There are often bad effects of bad behavior that do not instantly appear, or that harm people for whom the two “consenters” simply cannot be bothered to concern themselves. And sometimes people consent to harm themselves too, and still claim a right to do it.

Tom: Well, and there’s often grudging consent, or consent under threat. Many times you read stories after a relationship has broken up, and you find that one party was very keen on a particular activity, while the other one actually hated it but engaged in it in order to maintain the relationship. It’s fairly rare to find two people equally enthusiastic about any specific act of wickedness. And I like your point about the effects of bad behavior that do not instantly appear. None among us is qualified to pronounce authoritatively on the long-term effects of sin on the sinner, on the sinned-against, or on society. There are simply too many variables we can’t see and don’t understand.

The Real ‘Whole of the Law’

At any rate, I note that where love sums up the Ten Commandments for the Christian — the “whole of the law”, if you like — self-will sums up the law for Crowley and those who think like he did. That includes Satan, the original source of the “I will” philosophy. The contrast between those two ethics is pretty stark.

IC: Absolutely. One issue is who has control. For the Satanist, as for the atheist, the answer is “I do”. Of course that’s a total delusion, since none of us actually can “will” to get what we want, and all of us eventually age and die; but it’s a delusion charming to foolish young men in particular. For the Christian, the answer is inevitably the Lord. As the Lord’s Prayer says, “Thy will be done,” not “my”.

Tom: Right. Control is definitely a major difference. Another is priorities. In Crowley’s “whole of the law”, the individual is his own highest priority. In the biblical “whole of the law”, it’s always someone else. A third difference is the content of what you’re doing. In the case of the Thelemites, it’s absolutely anything at all, provided you can field at least a tenuous claim that it’s not harmful. In the case of the Christian ethic, love not only demands more stringent “quality control” of our negative impulses, but also demands positive, real-world expressions of goodwill toward others and toward God.

IC: What’s telling is the life Crowley himself lived. His creed might have said, “Do no harm,” but what did his actual practice reveal? Is he remembered as a man who did no harm in the process of doing his own will?

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