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"Do What Thou Wilt"
The Book of the Law
The Tree of Life
Truth and Falsehood
Sex and Gender
Essays on Crowley
Facts and Phallacies
The Freedom of Doubt
The Included Middle
A Letter to Close
Why Crowley Doesn't Suck
The Book of Dzyan
Crowley was an unusual and involved individual and his views changed over the course of the more than fifty years of his writing career. It is not unusual for him to contradict himself on the same page. The best way to get acquainted with him as a character is to read biographies of him and his own books. Unfortunately, there is more bad biography of Crowley than good. It would be difficult to deny his many character failings, but the level of vitriolic abuse leveled at him both during and after his lifetime is remarkable, and it only continues to grow as bad writers with low standards of truth and fairness find the sensationalistic aspects of his life -- both real ones and confabulated ones -- useful for the swelling of their coffers. Crowley has not been adopted by the literary mainstream, and so the reader has to rely upon biographers with a religious ax to grind, whether one is reading a sympathetic biography, a critical one, or a hatchet job.
Probably the two best sources are Crowley's own "Confessions" and Israel Regardie's "The Eye in the Triangle". Crowley's failings are disguised, but without success, in his own account of himself; both his vices and his virtues shine through clearly. Regardie gives a critical but sympathetic and engaged account of Crowley's spiritual career, not turning a blind eye to his flaws or his accomplishments.
In short, though, Crowley was talented, intelligent, capable, arrogant, judgmental, prejudiced, and not afraid to turn politeness aside if it would get in the way of a good insult. His talents extended to ritual and meditative practice, writing, mountain climbing, sexual athletics,attracting followers, and getting publicity. His vices went as far as anti-Semitic blood libel, rabid hostility to Christianity, misogyny, neglect of family, loss of friends through obnoxiousness, and megalomania. There are marked similarities between Crowley, MacGregor Mathers (his mentor in the Golden Dawn), and Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (who founded the Theosophical Society). All three were charming, impressive, well-read, anger-prone, tough-talking international spiritual leaders. The current euphemism "strong ego" does not begin to describe their arrogance. Followers were drawn to them by their magnetism, energy and talent, but frequently did not know what to make of their character flaws. In each case there is cause to suspect mental disorder by the criteria of modern psychology, but now psychology is also beginning to study a possible link between creativity and mood disorder, while Szasz and Laing continue to remind us that inspired wisdom is often socially condemned as insanity. Simple pathologizing perspectives of such people are necessarily oversimplifications, but they give so much ammunition to character assassination that it is inevitable. Crowley, Mathers and Blavatsky were creators of new religious traditions when traditional belief in Christianity was on the decline because of new knowledge -- knowledge of the scientific world on one hand, and of Eastern and pre-Christian religions on the other.
Whether one could accept a flawed character such as Crowley as a spiritual leader depends on one's model of spirituality. Treating any of the three as moral exemplars would seem incompatible with their biographies. If the purpose of religion is to produce moral exemplars then these religious endeavors have failed. However, if the purpose of religion is to produce spiritual adventurers then they have succeeded. A person might have attained to real spiritual accomplishments yet retain base characteristics of their personality.
Crowley's life was an adventure. When he was not climbing mountains he was being set upon by thieves in dark alleys, getting thrown out of countries for his sexual immorality, recklessly spending away two inherited fortunes, writing fantastic tracts and books claiming to reveal the mysteries of magic, scandalizing a culture that had adapted to Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Swinburne, having torrid affairs, producing theatrical performances, getting reviewed in the popular press, forming new magical orders and taking over or helping to break up others, being reviled in headlines as "the Wickedest Man in the World", and through all this maintaining what most people would consider a rigorous course of spiritual practice, journaling, and interpretive writing. His career is reminiscent of the 19th century adventurer/writer Richard Francis Burton, a man Crowley admired.
In this main text voice I have tried to be cautious and say only those things that I was sure could be defended by the evidence. Biography is a hard subject in which to be objective because it deals with personalities, and your own relationship with Crowley the dead writer and spiritual leader will no doubt be unique. For the last time, your Unreliable Narrator will turn the subject over to the little voices inside his head.
The Literalist might say this, with the formal closing at the end: Crowley was the Prophet of the Silver Star, the chosen human agent of the Secret Chiefs. He was selected because for all his human frailties he was a man of prodigious strength, intelligence and discipline, an occultist of many incarnations who was poised to assume the highest mantle and fit himself for a place in the City of the Pyramids together with the Prophets and Bodhisattvas of other religions. The attacks on Crowley's character by yellow journalists are libelous and fabricated. To understand Crowley you must work his system, attaining through the power of your own True Will the keys to the Great Work, and only then judge Crowley from an Initiated perspective. Any other perspective is unequal to the task of interpreting an Initiate. Love is the law, love under will.
The Chaotic might say this: I'm tired of Crowley. It seems like all the people who are into him are into nothing else. I'm suspicious of his system; way too regimented, way too hierarchical. Yeah, Crowley made a contribution to magic, but other people have made better ones in the last fifty years. We've learned a lot in the 20th century about real freedom and sexual liberation, not this Victorian captain-of-your-own-soul and master-of-the-passions crap. Crowley was a hung-up jerk in a lot of ways and I'd usually rather read something that is more relevant to my life today.
The Skeptic might say this: Crowley studies have not been adopted by academics, with good reason. His work is derivative and like Blavatsky he could be traced to a handful of main sources. He does not give credit where credit is due to previous traditions and he fails to teach the reader about his sources. The intensity of Crowley's sexism and racism is beyond the standards of his day and endorsing him could be tantamount to endorsing those prejudices. Spiritual progress is feeding people, helping those who need it, participating in the social process to make it more just and humane, and Crowley has nothing to contribute to that. (Also almost all of his poetry is terrible; why would anyone want to study it?)
The Mystic might say this: The documents of A.·. A.·. in Class A are inspired writings from a praeterhuman Intelligence, a direct and flawless link to the Secret Chiefs. The transmission of these gems of True Wisdom and Perfect Happiness is all that one needs to know about the career of To Mega Therion, the Great Beast, the Magus who spoke through the physical vessel of the man named Aleister Crowley, himself merely a Student of no great importance. The course of study of A.·. A.·. is the work not of Crowley but of The Master Therion and has been issued under the direct Authority of the Third Order. Who masters it masters the universe and himself. May you achieve in this life the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel, that great spiritual Being assigned as your Guide, who will teach you better than any other.
Next: Crowley's Writing