Aleister Crowley and Thelema critiques of Theosophists
A COMMON MISCHARACTERIZATION OF THEOSOPHISTS
Many Theosophists early-on and still today belonged to and represented their particular tradition, or religion to its highest, being specialized and trained within them in their deeper meanings, and tied to some actual superior, or superiors (priests, gurus) of the group, or religion they belonged to. A Theosophist was hence highly unlikely to be an ordinary believer of their faith, and even more than deeply mystically-inclined. This inspired and enthused many people in those times.
The Theosophists that were Zoroastrians, Hindus, Jains, Christian, etc., were unique, and were not simply amateurs as we mistakenly believe. It was repeatedly noted, that there were also a number of adepts even among Europeans, particularly Eastern Europe at the time. Books about each tradition have been excellently written by Theosophists of those traditions, and each learning from each other’s esoteric traditions within their schools and orders, tracing their origins, and coming together as sisters and brothers in the spirit of study, scholarship, and service. This culture and eclectic kind of influence is completely dead in our present-day, because of the countless petty issues, even dupery among occultists themselves. The early Theosophical literature from the beginnings and after the debacle of the Krishnamurti scandal into the 1990s resurgence of scholarly interest in Western Esotericism is full of high insightful prowess.
These Theosophists were a rather different character from the increasingly modern irreligious, or nonreligious person in our day, particularly in the United States alternative spiritual culture. In this culture, we increasingly see the distrust with and issues of organized religion, but this requires a different discussion. Going through Theosophical Journals and Magazines, you find articles from actual Zoroastrians and Hindu occultists trained under masters and by their masters passed down through tradition and family, rather than as some have tried to portray Theosophical literature, as merely a “white Western person” romanticism of the Orient, or a White colonial mind speaking for other peoples. These people have stories too. So, it is a very ignorant and inaccurate portrait of the history of the Theosophical Movement, in some people’s perceptions.
SERVICE TO HUMANITY AND PROTECTORS OF THE PEOPLE
Aleister Crowley’s opinion of Theosophists can be described as slightly accurate within the time and cultural boundaries he made the remarks, because this period was a later post-Blavatsky period. Yet, that opinion is in reality applicable on a case-to-case basis, and should not be generalized, as all Theosophists could not be generalized into a type with Christian Scientists, Spiritualists and others. Theosophical Lodges were international, not just in Britain, or the U.S.
Crowley had pointed out, that Theosophists are people who talk about Yoga, but do no Yoga, i.e., phonies, or arm-chair occultists.
“‘Theosophist.’ A person who talks about Yoga, and does no work.” (Glossary in Liber ABA, “Part 1: Mysticism”)
As explained before, technically, the term Theosophist refers to a high-learned adept, a hierophant, or actual Theurgist rather than a common person or amateur occultist, that merely calls themselves a Theosophist. Crowley’s observation of Theosophists, was that Theosophists were amateurs, not what the term meant. H.P. Blavatsky however adopted the term, and the term under the 1875 Theosophists since her time developed a relation to philanthropy work, objective idealism or bridging the abstract and action in the world, and thus to service.
The term Theosophist acquires a new meaning, that is action-oriented and involved in service to the world, rather than an ascetic, or in relation to mere subjective mysticism and intellectualism.
ALEISTER CROWLEY’S CRITIQUE OF THEOSOPHISTS
Crowley had mentioned, that:
“There is a highly popular school of ‘occultists’ which is 99% an escape-mechanism.” (Magick Without Tears, ch.71)
Firstly, not all Theosophists are occultists and vice versa. This must be remembered. Theosophy, like Islam discourages pure asceticism, and Theosophists have described it to be cowardice, while humanity suffers. This idea of integrating practice and awareness of being involved in the world and connected to human minds is also foundational in Theravada Buddhism, in which Blavatsky converted to in Sri Lanka. Gnosis, Plato taught was not the end of knowledge, but the beginning. Hence, Theosophists saw their system as teaching the very opposite of escapism, since the Theosophists criticized escapism.
“Charity and love are here used in their technical sense, Agapé. “Love is the law, love under will.” Both Agapé and Thelema (“will”) add to 93, which identifies them qabalistically. This love is not a sloppy feeling of maudlin sentimental kindness. The majority of people of the Christian Science, Theosophical, New Thought type, think that a lot of flabby thoughts, sending out streams of love in the Six Quarters, and so on, will help them. It won’t. Love is a pure flame, as swift and deadly as the lightning. This is the kind of love that the Student needs.” (Liber LXXI: The Voice of the Silence)
So, this is strange to say, as his view on love as a pure flame, is as abstract and metaphysical as “sending out streams of love.” I have not seen Theosophists “sending out streams of love.” I believe, the same situation with Crowley is the same with Guenon. The view about Theosophists of the Guenonians followed the view of Guenon, and the same perhaps with the Thelemite. The opinions of the Thelemite about Theosophists as “New Age types” are likely to be the same as Crowley. Theosophists have never said anything about Thelemites though. Crowley’s critique of Theosophists at the time should serve as a moment to reflect, as Crowley does not portray Theosophical teachings properly, but rather falls into the same misconceptions Blavatsky and others labored to explain, and eventually did. The publishing of her Collected Writings demonstrate this.
ANTI-THEOSOPHY ENGLISH BUDDHISTS
Arthur Lillie was another English Buddhist convert, a soldier in the British Indian Army that loathed Theosophy. Aleister Crowley mentions another English Buddhist by the name Ananda Metteyya, explaining that it was absurd Theosophists call themselves Buddhists (they do not), when they insist that seven souls exist, and Buddhists do not believe in souls. This is of course a misconception of the septenary human classification, which can be traced even to ancient Egypt, Persia and Central Asia. It is the first mistake Blavatsky advises not to make since Isis Unveiled (1877). It is silly for an English Buddhist to pretend another, in this case, Ukrainian Buddhist has no idea what she is talking about. Bhikkhu Ananda Metteyya, or Charles Henry Allan Bennett was an English Buddhist and member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, as well as an early teacher of Aleister Crowley. Like Guenon and Evola’s opinions of the Theosophists, Ananda Metteyya and Aleister Crowley share a similar attitude.
Nevertheless, Blavatsky critiqued Theosophists herself, many of which turned on her or were false friends. The critique of Crowley is more specifically aimed at types of persons within the surrounding Western occult and New Age milieu we all have come across.
Crowley has a deep admiration for Blavatsky, but not so much for Theosophists, and I think he is mistaken there. Here he showed his respect for H.P.B.
“In fact, one who is helping humanity is constantly in need of a wash and brush-up from time to time. There is nothing quite so contaminating as humanity, especially Theosophists, as Mme. Blavatsky herself discovered.” (Liber LXXI: The Voice of the Silence)
I have not however found Aleister Crowley directly naming, or attacking Helena Blavatsky, but only Theosophists in general, and from his observations, in the same manner LaVey observed Thelema.
There are many other groups, that tried to compete with Theosophists, and they each explain that Theosophy was “popular.” The Post-Blavatsky Theosophical Society, that drastically changed under the leadership of Annie Besant and Charles W. Leadbeater gave them the main source of their critiques, though Blavatsky was attacked in her time from every corner.
CROWLEY AND THELEMA HELPED ME BE CONFIDENTLY OPEN IN MY INTEREST IN OCCULTISM IN THE BEGINNING
I have, in a sense taken a step back to gather my life together and put myself back in a healthy mental state; and I have learned to not use spiritual practices for this. I also wanted to test my own will and strength. So, I have thus become more of an arm-chair occultist for some years now writing about the history of Occultism, fundamental things about Occultism, refuting wing-bat conspiracists and so forth. I have felt, doing the latter just creates a Backfire Effect, but I believe the history remains critical in getting right. This series reflected so much of my current attitude English Magic in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell: If Occultism became Reputable.
Although, I did begin in more practical areas of Magick in my beginnings, for some time, learning about Aleister Crowley then gave me the attitude and confidence I have still in being open about my interest in occultism. I am surprised by the number of Thelema proponents and little communities I am finding across social media, that really know what they are talking about, and are dedicated to educating other people not only about their tradition, but about occultism in general. I really do not mind if Thelema do not talk about Theosophy and Theosophists do not talk about Thelema, because for the most part, I have not come across proponents of Thelema being hostile towards Theosophy. However, I have seen other occultists seem to have this strange attitude or disdain for Blavatsky, because she introduced in the West the distinction of left-hand and right-hand occultism. Blavatsky was moreso targeting unaccounted evil within and by established religious institutions themselves, or the history of priesthoods and the development of “exoteric religions,” when she was talking about the left-hand path. It is like they are all getting their opinions from the same source of information, and taking it too personally.
Although, I have literally not written a single thing about Thelema, other than when I defended the performance artist Marina Abramović, who was accused of being involved in Thelema and called a Satanist, I have nothing bad to say about Thelema. I have criticized Anton LaVey though, whom I considered to be too much of a troll, or who focused more on performance and theatrics. The Satanists are often great at poking at the contradictions and hypocrisies of the Church with an easily recognizable sense of humor for me atleast. Interestingly, LaVey sought out a branch of the ‘Order of Thelema‘ (Ordo Templi Orientis) in Berkeley back in 1951, and was disappointed to find them so mystically-inclined.
BLAVATSKY ENCOURAGED OCCULTISTS TO STOP FIGHTING AND HELP EACH OTHER
I have shared this before, but I am surprised, that even occultists saw H.P. Blavatsky and the Theosophical Movement as a threat. It is honestly strange the hate she gets. Nevertheless, Blavatsky in fact dedicated her writings to all occultists (written on the first pages of The Secret Doctrine), and urged that occultists should be helping one another, rather than being caught in pettiness, competitiveness and jealousies.
In the article Tetragrammaton, H.P.B. discusses the “SEVEN MYSTERIES OF WISDOM,” and her approach to disputes between occultists. She is addressing an issue between sides arguing over a specific facet of a mystery they have intuited, or discovered within varying systems, e.g., some systems have the traditional triple constitution of man, but others have four, five, seven, and nine that elaborate further on the different functions within the classifications. Theosophists have explained the reasons for this, and reconciled, even solved such confusions between schools.
“The same remarkable elasticity of interpretation is afforded in the esoteric texts of other nations. Each symbol and glyph having seven keys to it, it follows that one party may be using one key to any subject under dispute, and then accuse another student, who is using another key of deliberate misinterpretation.
Such is not my policy however. In esoteric matters I would rather seek conciliation than quarrel over mistakes made, whether real or imaginary; because the CAUSE and the triumph of truth ought to be dearer to a true Occultist and Theosophist than petty successes over disputants.
No one occultist, if he is true to his colours, can give out the meaning of all the “Seven Mysteries of Wisdom”—even if he himself is acquainted with all–which would be a marvel, indeed. For those “Seven Mysteries” in toto are known thoroughly only to the “MASTERS OF WISDOM”; and those Masters would hardly indulge in polemical discussions whether in newspaper or periodical. What is the use then of losing time and power over proving that one facet of the diamond shines with more light and brilliancy than its sister facet instead of uniting all the forces to draw the attention of the profane to the radiance of the jewel itself? We students of the sacred science ought to help each other, encourage research and profit by our mutual knowledge, instead of unprofitably criticizing it to satisfy personal pride. This is how I look at it: for otherwise our enemies, who started by calling us humbugs on the sole strength of their sectarian and materialistic prejudices and bigotry, will be justified in reiterating their accusation on the ground of our mutual denunciations.
Materialism is raising its ghastly head higher than ever.
This shows how we stand with the men of modern science and how much we need all our forces to hold the materialists at bay.
One word more and I have done. I am repeatedly asked to show my authority—book, page and verse—for the esoteric doctrine of the “Septenary.” This is like saying to one in the midst of a desert prove to me that water is full of infusoria when there is no microscope to be got. Better than any one, those who make such a claim upon me, know that outside of the few places where secret MSS. are stored for ages, no esoteric doctrines were ever written and plainly explained; otherwise they would have lost long ago their very name. There is such a thing as an “unwritten” Kabbala, as well as a written one, even in the West. Many things are orally explained, and always have been. Nevertheless, hints and allusions to it are numerous and scattered throughout the exoteric scriptures, and the classification depends, of course, on the school that interprets it, and still more upon personal intuition and conception. The question is not whether there are three, five or seven colours in the rays of the spectrum, for every one knows there are in fact and nature, but one–the colourless white. And, though Science discerns very plainly seven prismatic rays as clear as are the seven notes in the scale; yet, one has heard of very great men of science who insisted there were only four or five until it was found out that they were colour-blind.” (Helena P. Blavatsky, Tetragrammaton, Theosophist, November, 1887.)