If you spend some time on social media today you might see that today is the birthday of Aleister Crowley, also known as the Great Beast. It is sometimes celebrated as the Lesser Feast of the prophet of the lovely star, mostly spuriously, though some contest the drive to mark it. Aleister Crowley is a name known to many, and there is a lot of sensationalism around his life and work including claims Crowley was the wickedest man in the world. What, by modern standards was his great heresy? Crowley told people to think for themselves, to be themselves, and to respect the rights of others to do the same. He was bisexual. He used drugs. He was involved in the occult. Cue the pearl clutchers.
There are many layers of obscurity laid over Aleister Crowleys law of Thelema, but at its core it is a movement of ethical individualism. Thelema is often conflated with occult practices as espoused and practiced by Crowley, but the truth is he made explicitly clear that the occult is a method that he has used, but is not in the biography or path of very many. Crowley claimed to channel a book from a supernatural entity which gives the law of thelema as Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.
At the core of my path is healthy skepticism, something Crowley encouraged in his writings (see for example the Soldier and the Hunchback) and I struggle with the idea of channeled texts, and I find myself comparing the experiences of Aleister Crowley to other contemporaries who were handed revelations like Joseph Smith (of the Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter Day Saints, better known to most as Mormons). And yet for me, though I am skeptical of the claimed esoteric origins of the law of thelema, as a human being, the core message has a deep personal resonance for me. It was a deeply brave thing to challenge moral objectivity in Victorian England, with its values, and Crowley, from his drug use to his enjoyment of taboo sexual practices thoroughly challenged those values.
There are things about Aleister Crowley I do not look upon as positive things for my path, and I would not uphold him as anything more than a man, a brilliant man, but a man all the same. So why stop to remember the birthday of Aleister Crowley? I do not accept anyone other than myself as my lord and saviour, but I believe very positive ideas and ideals have arisen from the work of Aleister Crowley and his law of thelema that are still as relevant to the world we live in today, as they were over a hundred years ago. I live with his biography and his work as impetus for my own work and life and appropriately remember why I have attached myself to the work of a controversial man.
I am reminded of the relevance of the ideas of thelema, and their need in the world today also because today is another important anniversary – a more contemporary anniversary. On this day in 1998 a gay youth named Matthew Shepard died. Matthew was a vibrant young man, a college student and a gay man who was abducted in the small town of Laramie in Wyoming, USA, and was savagely beaten and left for dead. Most people believe this is because Matthew was gay. In the USA hate crime legislation, signed into law in 2009, bears his name.
In placing these two events next to each other I ask myself, what does the life of one man have to do with the other? In the light of Aleister Crowleys own bisexuality, gender fluidity and teachings around the law of thelema, I cannot help but wonder, if the law of thelema was not only universally applicable, but universally applied, would Matthew be dead? And would there be the same questions around hate crimes based on bigotry (religious and secular) today if this law lived in the world?
On this day a man was born who dreamed of a different world. Aleister Crowleys teachings have the potentially to literally create a better world if put into practice. On this day a man also died, and was abused long after his death because these values have not come to live in the world. Though Matthew Shepard is best known and portrayed as a gay martyr, the questions of ethical individualism and mutual tolerance touch everyone’s lives and it is appropriate to muse on a life cut short in a world where the law of Thelema has not been successfully implemented.
As well as sharing this day in common, Aleister Crowleys death day, the 1st of December, is the birthday of Matthew Shepard. Both are remembered for how the world is and how the world could one day be. Let’s make that world!
Aleister Crowley 12 October 1875 – 1 December 1947
Matthew Shepard 1 December 1976 – 12 October 1998