Do What I Wilt

The individualist authoritarianism of Aleister Crowley


The British author, mountain climber, and mystic Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) is long dead. But his afterlife as a pop icon continues. Crowley is beloved by subcultures ranging from heavy metal devotees (Ozzy Osbourne wrote a song about him, Jimmy Page bought his old house) to magicians (Crowley designed a popular Tarot deck, and wrote some of the more enduring modern instructional and philosophical manuals on ritual magic, or "magick" in his pet spelling).

He was the inspiration for W. Somerset Maugham's 1906 novel The Magician and has appeared, either as himself or in a loosely fictionalized disguise, in works by writers ranging from Anthony Powell to Robert Anton Wilson. He is one of the select figures on the cover of that founding document of the Aquarian Age, the Beatles' Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. More recently, he is the subject of the new biography, Do What Thou Wilt: A Life of Aleister Crowley (St. Martin's), by Lawrence Sutin.

Crowley was arguably the biggest star to arise from late Victorian England's fascination with the occult. His self-created reputation as the "wickedest man on Earth" guaranteed him inches of coverage in British newspapers and scandal sheets all through the first half of the 20th century. But his most enduring legacy is his oft-quoted statement of what Crowley called the Law of Thelema, Greek for will: "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law/ Love is the law, love under will."

This credo is boldly libertarian, denying the authority of law to circumscribe individual freedom in any way. (To be sure, it lacks the usual proviso of "as long as you don't directly harm other people or their property.") Crowley thought that when the world finally heeded him, a new age would dawn, freed from the stifling, repressive bonds of ancient tyranny and Christian morality. While Crowley claimed his signature phrase was dictated to him via a disembodied entity called Aiwass, it can be traced back to both Rabelais (whose Abbey of Thelema in Gargantua and Pantagruel had a similar slogan) and St. Augustine (who wrote, "Love, and do what thou wilt").

How did this grandly liberatory notion play out politically for Crowley? Like many of his modernist contemporaries—T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Wyndham Lewis, to name a few—Crowley melded a taste for breaking from tradition in the name of individual expression with an equally enthusiastic admiration for authoritarianism. The modernists' flirtation with fascism had multiple sources, but its practical tenets can be roughly reduced to a combination of contempt for what they saw as grubby, stupid masses and an intense dislike for Jews.

Crowley, "the spoiled scion of a wealthy Victorian family" in Sutin's characterization, had the typical British aristocrat's disdain for what he thought of as inferior peoples—a group essentially consisting of all non-Brits (despite another of his resonant slogans, "Every man and every woman is a star"). In his dotage, Crowley even managed to convince himself that no less an avatar of human liberty than Adolf Hitler had been inspired by his writings.

Crowley stumbled on a familiar barrier: He paid lip service to liberty while ultimately judging it merely an instrumental goal, a stepping stone to something more important—in his case, a proper playing out of one's uniquely appropriate True Will or, it often seemed, his True Will (the capitals are Crowley's own). Contrary to those who see him simply as a libertine, it wasn't just any old casual whim that should define the law to Crowley. This obsession with liberty as the instrument of True Will led Crowley to truly ridiculous conclusions.

Hence, the ostensible individualist once wrote that governments ought to appoint "experts to work out, when need arises, the details of the True Will of every individual, and even that of every corporate body whether social or commercial, while a judiciary will arise to determine the equity in the case of apparently conflicting claims." (This berserk, self-parodying vision of bureaucrats weighing and balancing spiritual fates in a Ministry of True Will is from Crowley's 1937 essay, "The Scientific Solution of the Problem of Government.")

In Do What Thou Wilt, Lawrence Sutin sums up Crowley's contradictions, and his contributions, well: "[He] was at his best when pointing the way to diligent individual effort, and at his worst when purporting to govern his fellows and to forecast the course of history." This is true not only of Crowley, but of any would-be guru.