Kanchenjunga, India by Aaron Ostrovsky

Photo: “Kanchenjunga, India” by Aaron Ostrovsky is licensed under Creative Commons SA 2.0

by Hunter MacKenzie

“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.”

Thus wrote Aleister Crowley in the Book of the Law, Chapter I, Verse 40. It is a simple sentence, seemingly, and its meaning is quite commonsensical. Or at least it should be. But common sense is as scarce these days as it was when Crowley first transcribed his message–and time has shown that even the simplest, most straightforward concept can be misunderstood, misinterpreted, and twisted beyond all comprehension by both the forces of ignorance and those of malice. It is my intention in this article to take you back to the source and by so doing, shed light upon the true meaning of the words “Do what thou wilt.”

Why? Because the Law carries as much impact and potential for enlightenment today as it ever did. Because once the meaning is grasped, Willeverything in one’s life can be seen with new clarity. Everything falls into place–or if it doesn’t immediately do so, at least it can be seen to have some meaning or perspective in light of the general theme of one’s life. Because for many of us, this one simple idea can create order out of chaos, hope out of despair, and meaning out of mere existence.

Bear with me. I say it is a simple idea–but for many it only appears simple once it has been grasped. Until you “get it,” it can be as confusing and frustrating as trying to see through a fogged glass. So listen with patience.

A little perspective, first. Who was Aleister Crowley? He lived from 1875-1947; he was born in England but traveled widely, picking up what he could from various religions and systems of philosophy wherever he went. His great passions were ceremonial magick, mountain-climbing, and sex (not necessarily in any particular order). He worked with several mystical orders, most notably with the Order of the Golden Dawn, a group dedicated to the practice of ceremonial magick and devoted to enhancing each member’s spiritual progress and enlightenment. (However, like so many similar groups, the Golden Dawn was plagued with bickering, infighting and politics to such an extent that there seemed to be little time left for spiritual development or the practice of magick.)

It is unfortunate that it is also necessary to explain who Crowley wasn’t in order to get at the real meaning of his message. Even among people of intelligence, the message is often confused with the messenger–and Crowley has to be among the top ten most misunderstood people of all time. So, contrary to some widely-held misconceptions, Crowley was not the founder of Satanism, nor was he the “anti-Christ,” nor was he just another misogynistic sex fiend. Certainly he was no saint either, but his name and character have been sensationalized, slandered and caricatured to the point where few people today truly have any real grasp of what he was trying to accomplish. Much of the misunderstanding has to do with the fact that unlike most philosophers or spiritual leaders, Crowley had a strong ego and a very sharp sense of humor, and wasn’t afraid to show either of them. He was also a man of high intelligence and was, on occasion, given to rambling in his writings–to the point where it can be difficult to pick out exactly what he meant by this or that. When someone makes a tongue-in-cheek remark and it’s taken literally, misunderstandings arise. They’re complicated further if those who take offense aren’t sure exactly what was meant–but they’re certain they’re offended, nevertheless! Given all this, it’s certainly easy to see how the message (as well as the picture of the messenger) has become somewhat warped over the years.

No matter, though. For if Crowley was sarcastic and ego-driven and obtuse and overintellectual and occasionally offensive, he was also a gentleman and a scholar, dedicated to teaching those who truly wanted to learn. And he had the foresight to state in plain language exactly what was meant concerning the crucial points of the Law.

But, one might object, wasn’t it more than a little presumptuous for him to refer to his ideas, his message, as the “Law”? Not really; for once, Crowley wasn’t motivated by ego when he titled his message the “Book of the Law”–because Crowley never claimed to be the author of it. He merely took dictation and transcribed it.

As Crowley describes in several other writings, not only did he not write the Book of the Law, he didn’t even believe it or agree with it for many years after he transcribed it. Those into “New Age” sorts of things today might describe it as a “channeled” piece of writing.

It happened like this. Crowley was on a trip to Cairo with his wife Rose; they had taken an apartment there. Crowley decided one day to invoke some elemental spirits to show to Rose (she having shown no magickal powers or talent for such things up until then). Over the course of a few days’ time, he repeated his attempts but got nothing for his efforts–except for his otherwise perfectly ordinary wife entering into some odd altered state of consciousness and giving him instructions that made no sense. There arose some arguments between Crowley and Rose as she attempted to offer proof of her contact with “the gods,” which he considered ridiculous. Finally he became sufficiently convinced of the genuineness of her communications to at least carry out her “channeled” instructions and see what happened. He wrote down what he heard as a result of this; in three hours’ time, he received the entire three chapters of the Book of the Law, dictated by a discarnate entity on behalf of the “powers that be,” for lack of better terminology.

Still skeptical, he put the pages aside. He made studies of it over the next few years and admitted that it was dictated by an intelligence far greater than his own–but he left it at that. The principles conflicted (inconveniently, perhaps) with many of his own. One of his major objections to the manuscript was that it stated specifically that he was to make it available to everyone–to publish it, to speak of it, to teach it. And like many mystics and occultists of that time, he’d always been taught and had believed that one does not divulge “secret wisdom” to the public at large. So the manuscript sat in an attic for years while he purposefully ignored it. Only through several odd “coincidences” and synchronicities did he re-discover the manuscript and decide to publish it, and it wasn’t until even further signs and revelations were placed before him that he finally understood it enough to accept it and begin to teach it.

“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.”

As with many other divinely inspired writings, the Book of the Law has been subject to misinterpretation. Like Crowley’s persona, perhaps it will help to explain first what the Law is not, to clear up some of the more prevalent misconceptions. It does not mean “Do whatever you like.” Nor does it mean “As long as no one gets hurt, do whatever you want.”

“Do what thou wilt” means simply this: you are an individual, and you have a Will–a purpose, a course–which is the purest and truest expression of all that is your nature. Your only obligation (but also your entire obligation) is to discover your Will–and to devote yourself to doing that.

Now, a necessary corollary to “Do what thou wilt” is another “Crowleyism”: “Every man and every woman is a star.” Each person is a unique individual with their own Will and course to follow. This is the part where it gets sticky for most people. Your Will is your own; you can request assistance and guidance in making your choices and carrying them out, but ultimately they are your choices and no one else can determine your Will for you or tell you what to do. Likewise, you cannot interfere in the Will of another. Although we are all interconnected and some of our paths may interweave at times, each individual is essentially responsible for discovering his or her own Will and doing that. To put it bluntly, what your neighbor is doing is none of your business–and vice versa. Figure out what you’re supposed to do, never mind that fellow over there who isn’t (in your opinion) doing his Will (remember, you don’t really know what his Will is), and do what you’re supposed to do.

So how do you figure out what your Will is? For some people it may come easily–you get a “sign” of some sort, or it comes to you in a dream, or someone you may not even know just says something out of the blue that sticks in your mind as a hint. For others, it may not be that obvious; you may find yourself in a position you didn’t plan on, having gotten there by some series of “chance” meetings or “accidents.” This is where you begin to learn that there is very rarely such a thing as a true “coincidence.” If you do not know what your Will is and you can’t figure it out with any reasonable amount of effort, an odd thing happens: the universe and its energies will show you what your Will is. All it requires is an open mind. Something will happen to push you in one direction or another, and if you take the time to mentally backtrack from there, you will very likely see that the latest “push” isn’t the first, just another in a series of “pushes” in the current that’s been carrying you along until you could gain control and steer for yourself. Usually Will has more to do with the underlying theme of your life, a learning process or task, than it has to do with specifics such as what job to take–though very concrete matters such as jobs, homes and relationships can certainly be affected by Will. Often early relationships forged before we had any idea what we were doing or why will serve to put us in a position to carry out our Will later in life.

Still uncertain if that thing you’re about to do is really your Will or not? There’s another source of guidance. As Crowley put it, “A man who is doing his True Will has the inertia of the Universe to assist him.” This means that if you’re doing your Will, the universe will not oppose you; obstacles will not arise to block your movements. Doing your Will is rather like going through a maze; if you attempt to go where the path is not, you’ll be blocked. It is often the case that only by running into one obstacle after another do we discover where the opening is and thus we are able to pursue our path further.

Crowley claimed that by applying the Law to any circumstances in his life, he could readily understand or resolve the situation. Many of us here agree that it’s very practical as an all-purpose code of ethics and conduct. It is universal; it reaches far beyond the limits of any sort of arbitrary laws that may be established by government or religions. I am a pragmatist, in the sense that my philosophy leans heavily toward, “If it works, use it.” And since I have come to an understanding of the Law, I, too, have found that it works.

In closing his letters and other correspondence, Crowley usually wrote, “Love is the Law, Love under Will.” This part of the Law, too, I have found to be a source of great help in times of uncertainty–for even if one is reasonably certain what one’s Will is, occasionally things arise that have no apparent obvious connection with Will–but which must be dealt with, nevertheless. And if one deals with the situation in the spirit of Love as best one can, then it is difficult to go wrong or be led astray from one’s path. For those who aren’t quite certain what their Will is or how to go about doing it, “Love is the Law” is generally a clear, straightforward indicator of the right action to take. In other words, “Love is the Law” will keep you out of trouble until you figure out what your Will is; “Love under Will” can keep you from going astray once you know what you should be doing. It’s good to have that additional bit of guidance–sometimes it’s years before you discover what your Will is. And even once you’ve discovered it, well–the potential for distractions is always there. “Love under Will” may not make your dilemmas easy to resolve–but it can make you stronger.

In closing, let’s look at the directive from the Book of the Law (I: 40-44)& .

“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.
Thou hast no right but to do thy will.
Do that, and no other shall say nay.
For pure will, unassuaged of purpose, delivered from lust of result, is every way perfect.”

© Copyright 1998, 2007, 2011, 2014 by Hunter MacKenzie

[This article previously appeared in SKOPOS Vol. I No. 3, and is archived here by permission of the author.]

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