A Stupid Thing Crowley Said

One of the stupidest things Crowley ever wrote wasn’t all that stupid, but it annoys me to no end.  Crowley was far from stupid; I admire his work tremendously. But there are occasional bits of stupidity: flashes of racism, idiotic attitudes toward women and Jews, and hints that he’s not all that serious about any of it.  That all gets on my nerves, and is certainly stupid. But the bit I’m thinking about is a kind of stupidity that just gets on my nerves, rather than offends my sense of justice. He once wrote:

“Then, when thou hast Him, cease to speculate —
Who hath the How is careless of the Why.”

He wrote this in his Bagh-i-Muattar, which he claimed to translate from a rare Persian manuscript.  Of course he wrote it himself.  This quotation shows up in a lot of magical work as an excuse for anti-intellectualism, a vice that Crowley never indulged in.  Most people who quote it never read the B-i-M.  If they had, they’d know it was a satire with mystical elements.  In fact, he includes a footnote to this line:

The natural (though hardly altogether
just) contempt of the practical expert
for the arm-chair critic.

It’s easy to excuse intellectual laziness.  After all, the rutabaga grows without knowing it’s a rutabaga.  “My magic works: why should I think more about it than that?”  Because you’re a human being and not a root vegetable, goddamn it, that’s why.

This anti-intellectual contempt is “natural,” as he says.  It’s how we avoid the unpleasant sensation of cognitive dissonance.  He’s also right: it’s not “altogether just.”  Without insight, without theory, there’d be no practice. And to head off the inevitable, kitchen witches and folk magicians have theory; if they didn’t, they wouldn’t know what to put into their gris gris.  If you can’t wrestle some cognitive dissonance into shape and hitch it to your wagon, you better not claim any attainments in the control of your own mind, let alone reality.

If you’d like to quote this phrase at me again, as some have, I ask first that you read the Bagh-i-Muattar.  And if you’re using it as a thought-stopping cliche to avoid having to engage your intellect, ask yourself what Crowley might have thought of that.

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2 Responses to “A Stupid Thing Crowley Said”

  1. If our theories about magick are basically just “parallel constructions in thought”, not the thing itself, and “intention” is what matters, is there really any benefit to theorising? Beyond exploring concepts for creative inspiration, that is.

    If what magick amounts to is basically: a) thinking of a result, b) imagining that a particular mental or physical action will lead to that result, while c) not obstructing or interfering – aren’t all theories just arbitrary fluff?

    Of course, I suppose that’s a sort of theory too, but only in the sense that it had to be formulated in language in order to be written down. There is no “mechanism” being proposed. And if there is no mechanism, there’s no “how things work” and there is no “Why”. So there’s no point in theory, except of the fun of it?

    That’s how I interpret Crowley’s statements:

    “Then, when thou hast Him, cease to speculate —
    Who hath the How is careless of the Why.”

    Once you realise that you simply “intend” magick, that you bring the result to mind and that is essentially it, the entire “How” of it, then you realise that there is no “Why” because there is no underlying mechanism behind the scenes.

    “The natural (though hardly altogether
    just) contempt of the practical expert
    for the arm-chair critic.”

    The person who realises the “directness” of magick in the above way, is naturally contemptuous of ornate theories and metaphors, since none is required. However, it is not altogether just, because those theories and metaphors can act as a source of inspiration, and to never contemplate things in thought, is to become dry in the well…

    (I don’t necessarily think this myself completely, since I enjoy a good bit of theorising myself, but it’s interesting to pose the question.)

  2. “30. If Will stops and cries Why, invoking Because, then Will stops an does naught. 31. If power asks why, then power is weakness.” — Aleister Crowley (The Book of the Law/Liber Al Vel Legis)

    You know like so:

    “Mommy, why do baby seals have to die?”

    “Because God works in mysterious ways.”

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