What Is Thelema?

by T Polyphilus

Presented on 29 March, IV xvi
in Thelemic Symposium VII
at Sekhet-Maat Lodge, Portland, Oregon

I maintain that Thelema is first and foremost
the formula of spiritual development
most suited to our cultural and historical circumstances.
It includes a philosophy informed by supra-rational experiences;
it provides a basis for sacred observance
that syncretizes the best elements of so-called “world religions.”
As I see it, Thelema is more Christian than Christianity,
and more Satanic than Satanism.

Aleister Crowley’s prophetic status is an integral feature of Thelema,
and I have no interest in “rescuing” the Thelemic movement
from its founding figure, or in getting “beyond” his influence.
“Blessing and worship to the Prophet of the lovely star!”
At the same time,
the Prophet's virtues include the obviousness of his shortcomings:
he was a god the way any man might be.
Thelema also has key literary and philosophical antecedents
in the work of such figures as Augustine of Hippo,
Francesco Colonna, Francois Rabelais, Sir Francis Dashwood,
Friedrich Nietzsche and Anna Kingsford;
and Thelemites can benefit from consideration of those earlier strata.

Since Thelema involves the initiatory progress of individuals
through tasks of spiritual attainment,
there are necessary differences
between the exoteric interpretations
of non-adherents and beginning aspirants on the one hand,
and the esoteric perspectives
informed by initiatory experience on the other.
However, I am willing to throw out a short laundry list
of teachings that I consider indispensable to Thelema,
and which serve to make it distinctive
as a religio-philosophical matrix.
The first of these is the importance of initiation itself.

Crowley referred to the most important initiatory event
as “Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel,”
and he identified it as the “Next Step” for humanity.
This attainment involves an entity that is presumably unique for each individual—
the “personal genius,”
a spirit which attends the individual’s most fundamental character
or True Will.
The technical phrase “Knowledge and Conversation”
is a misleading translation, and often misunderstood.
The Latin conversatio does not mean dialogue or discussion,
but rather a “way of life,”
associated especially with religious orders and monastic vows.
Attainment to “Knowledge and Conversation”
is thus not merely an encounter with the “God of one’s personal universe,”
but actually a discovery of and conversion to
the idiosyncratic pattern of observance
befitting that being which is set over the aspirant’s highest personal destiny.

Another key doctrinal feature of Thelema is global syncresis.
In this respect, we draw on a long tradition that goes back
to the classical Hermetic fusion of Greek and Egyptian wisdom,
the Rosicrucian ideal of a General Reformation to unite Islam and Christianity,
and the efforts of the Theosophical Society to inform European occultism
with Buddhism and other Asian traditions.
“All words are sacred and all prophets true,
save only that they understand a little.”
Such syncresis is not mere eclecticism
driven by the superficial tastes and appetites of individuals and local groups.
Received earlier materials must be tested against and integrated with
the core symbols and teachings of Thelema.
The cosmopolitan and dialectical qualities of Thelema
set it at odds with those schools that emphasize the “purity”
or primordial authenticity of their teachings.

And speaking of dialectic,
a key element of Thelema is its sacred meta-narrative of human history,
under the symbolic figure of the precession of the Equinoxes.
According to our teachings,
the current world age or Aeon began in 1904,
and is still finding its full expression.
We are thus post-Apocalyptic in our perspective,
holding that the old order was destroyed by fire a century ago,
and that it is our responsibility to manifest
the Aeon of the Crowned and Conquering Child,
for which the Law of Thelema is the principle and plan.
In our view, history is neither a degeneration from an original paradise,
nor a progress toward the static perfection of a New Jerusalem.
But we affirm the existence of change
on levels sufficiently deep to impact the spiritual condition
of humanity as a whole.

Without supposing that I have exhausted
the most important components of Thelemic doctrine,
the last one I want to remark is the idea of Magick.
In contrast to most contemporary philosophical and religious systems,
Thelema asserts the positive value of Magick as such.
Crowley’s definition of Magick,
“The art and science of causing change in conformity with will,”
makes it rest upon will,
that is to say Thelema, which is “will” in Greek.
Augustinian psychology marked out will
as one of the three fundamental powers of the soul,
and identified it with desire.
Crowley’s theories also emphasize the role of the “magical link,”
a concept pioneered in the work of the Renaissance martyr Giordano Bruno,
who outlined the erotic basis of magical forces.
Thus Thelema, under the contentious idea of Magick,
advances the primary value of disciplined desire,
and—-in a certain fashion-—the erotic foundation
of all human activity and accomplishment.

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