Aleister Crowley

Introduction to Crowley

"Do What Thou Wilt"

The Book of the Law

The Tree of Life

Spiritual Practice

Truth and Falsehood

Sex and Gender


His Personality

His Writing

Essays on Crowley

Facts and Phallacies

The Freedom of Doubt

The Included Middle

A Letter to Close

Pentagram Ritual

Tetragrammaton Mass

Why Crowley Doesn't Suck

The Book of Dzyan

Entrance to Medmenham Abbey"Do What Thou Wilt"

"Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law" is a moral utterance found in the Thelemic foundation scripture, which is called the Book of the Law. "Do what thou wilt" is known as the Law of Thelema. It is derived from the rule of the fictional Abbey of Thélème in the classic satire Gargantua by the French priest and occult student François Rabelais. Crowley recommends study of Rabelais when discussing the Law. In Rabelais this rule was "fay çe que vouldras", French for "do what you will." From his work the maxim became a well-known part of Western literary life, and was adopted by the satirical English gentleman's society called the Hell-Fire Club or the Friars of Medmenham.

In Crowley's writing, the Law of Thelema is explained in terms of True Will, the ultimate spiritual core or quintessence of each person, which has a divinely self-ordained path through the world of experience. "Do what thou wilt" refers not to the outer emotional and intellectual self but to this sacred inner core of personal divinity. Often will is contrasted with whim, and the knowing and doing of the True Will is painted not in terms of license and ease but of responsibility and hard work.

Since this new law replaces outdated moral codes based around sins and forbidden acts, a person knowing and doing the will might appear to be sinful from a traditional viewpoint. In Crowley's view the Thelemite is following a demanding code requiring great personal integrity even while, for instance, making love in ways that would be illegal in oppressive societies. Sometimes it is natural to express this ironic inversion of traditional mores in satiric form, and Crowley, Rabelais and the Hell Fire Club all made heavy use of the satirical style in their writing and work.

Crowley also held that "do what you will" was an ethical code bearing on how one should deal with others. However, he expressed a number of contradictory views of this ethical aspect of the Law. To him the Law of Thelema was almost completely explicable in terms of self-improvement and he sometimes even denied the existence of others. One view which one often finds in his writings, and is accepted by most of his followers, is that one must respect not only one's own will but the wills of others. All the wills are magically arranged so that there is no conflict between them, just as (so it was believed in Crowley's day) the stars are arranged so that they never collide. The personal will and the will of all are mystically joined as a whole which is also the basis of individuality in a paradoxical way. Collision between wills would indicate that one or the other person was not doing their True Will.

At other times Crowley said that the only error was to believe that others existed at all and that they had wills that could be violated. This was a solipsistic position inspired by his sympathy for the philosopher Berkeley and modified through Crowley's conception of God as a force within oneself rather than outside.

At yet other times Crowley said that there was no possibility of error and that all beings live according to the will-paths predestined by themselves before their births, from which any deviation would be impossible. In this view the appearance of deviation from the will is akin to the Buddhist doctrine that all beings are enlightened already, and the appearance of non-enlightenment is illusion. Crowley added that incarnation is voluntarily chosen as a play of shadow and light, in contrast with the traditional Eastern curse of rebirth. The idea that sorrow is illusory in a reincarnatory world was popular in Western occult circles during Crowley's formative period, both from Buddhism and from Spiritualism.

These apparent contradictions may have been reconciled for Crowley by the idea of levels of initiatory truth. He believed in a model of development by which people progress through various initiations from a relatively unenlightened state to a state of pure selfhood, which is also paradoxically selfless. The realization of one's true nature comes at the same time that one realizes one's unity with all beings. At different levels of initiation there are different criteria of truth; the truth of one level is falsehood or nonsense to another. So for the ordinary person, "do what thou wilt" is a useful rule of thumb for interacting with others. At a higher level one realizes that there are no others, or that the distinction between self and non-self is an illusion, and so the Law of Thelema takes on a different, non-dual meaning.

There is a relationship between the Law of Thelema and the Wiccan Rede, "an it harm none do as ye will", the moral rule of late 20th century Witchcraft in English-speaking countries. The exact relationships between the three different forms of the maxim remain controversial. The co-founders of the modern Witchcraft movement, Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente, were aware of and sympathetic to Crowley's version. They also referred to a separate literary version in the work of French erotic novelist Pierre Louys, probably derived independently from Rabelais.

The Literalist might say this, with the formal opening: Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. As revealed in the Book of the Law, human history is divided into Æons which correspond to the precession of the Astrological Signs of the Zodiac. The new Æon of Horus, which began in 1904, brings with it a rotation in the roster of deities governing the planet as well as a revolution in moral codes. Gone are the old codes based on sin, sacrifice and other veils of shame and sorrow. The Law of Thelema is the code of absolute Freedom and absolute Responsibility, and the most perfect moral Law ever formulated. It will last for two thousand years until the rise of the next Æon.

The Chaotic might say this: True magical power resides in the unconscious mind, which is aware of many things beyond the scope of the ordinary consciousness. Descend far enough into the alien geometries of the unconscious and you might find out who and what you really are. This will free you from shame and guilt and other limitations that society has imposed on you. You can use magic to go inside, or music, or entheogens, or all sorts of new techniques waiting to be discovered.

The Skeptic might say this: There is a long history of respect for the individual in Western culture, starting with ancient Greek philosophy, waning during the authoritarian middle period of Christian dominance, and returning in force in the seventeenth century with the rise of social philosophers and democratic political institutions recognizing human rights. Existentialist philosophy of the 19th and 20th centuries developed a new set of ideas about the individual that is still relevant today. Crowley's work is part of this stream of thought, but his contributions are not major compared to those of great thinkers such as Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky on one hand and John Stuart Mill on the other.

The Mystic might say this: The True Will, the innermost spark of divine flame known in the Qabala as Yechidah, is unapproachable except by undertaking the work of the Path. By stilling the noise of the lower mind and focusing on the archetypal symbols hidden behind the veil of the universe, and persisting through the great spiritual ordeals that turn away the dilettante and the coward, one may ultimately arrive at that eternal Self and place it into its rightful relation with the rest of the personality, setting intellect and emotion in their proper places as Will's servants rather than its oppressors.

Next: The Book of the Law