Some Thoughts on the Meaning of Thelemite

"Who calls us Thelemites will do no wrong, if he look but close into the word."

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

Thelemite was an English word well before the revelation of the Book of the Law. Like most English words derived from the classical languages, it came to us by way of French. The philosopher and satirist Francois Rabelais (1490? - 1553) described an ideal community called the Abbey of Theleme in his novel Gargantua and Pantagruel. Named from the Greek word thelema (signifying "will"), the Abbey had one rule of conduct: "Do what thou wilt." English literati, acting on a simple understanding of Rabelais, adopted thelemite as a synonym for hedonist, libertine, or voluptuary, i.e., a person devoted to sensual pleasures and passing whims. The word was used in this sense as early as 1656, when the lexicographer Blount defined thelemite as "a libertine, on that does what he list."

Aiwass' revelation in 1904 and Fra. Baphomet's extensive analyses and interpretations of "Do what thou wilt" created a new, if not revolutionary, meaning for the word, signaled by the capitalization of the letter T. Although it seems clear that Baphomet's understanding of Thelemite is much closer to the spirit of Rabelais' Abbey of Theleme, the literate profane continue to use the word in its earlier English sense. So then, while Thelemites strive to discover and perform their "True Wills," thelemites strive to have a good time and to enjoy "the finer things in life."

These two definitions may seem totally unrelated, even antagonistic, but through looking "close into the word" a fairly complex relationship becomes visible. I think that the apparent dichotomy of Thelemite and thelemite can be reconciled; it may even be that one includes the other.

One way of understanding the relationship between our modern esoteric sense of Thelemite and the earlier literary sense of thelemite is simply to equate the two. It is popular both among critics of Thelemic ethics and among nihilistic Thelemites to assert that "Do what thou wilt" is just a fancy way of saying "Do as you please," i.e. that Thelema ultimately is a "do what you want" cult. Generally, Thelemites dismiss this idea as too facile to merit a serious reply. Baphomet himself repeatedly rejected the notion that a Thelemite is nothing more than a libertine; on the contrary, he preferred to dichotomize the two, arguing that his new ethical system was in truth the most stringent bond possible.

On a pragmatic level I agree with the Beast, but philosophically I think this view warrants some consideration. Reductionistic reasoning, after all, is not always silly. Fra. Baphomet, and perhaps most Thelemites, would argue that Thelemites are not libertine hedonists because they must frequently put aside immediate pleasures for the sake of their Wills: simply put, you can't do the Great Work while watching T.V.1. Still, there is nothing about this which would necessarily differentiate it from hedonism. Not all desires can be indulged at once,2 and it is often necessary to sacrifice some lesser and more immediate pleasures in favor of a greater but more distant pleasure. If one regards the True Will as one's greatest pleasure in life (which it should be), then there is no essential difference between the hedonistic thelemite and the esoteric Thelemite. They may disagree on questions of teleology and metaphysics, but these questions are rarely significant in real life.

Another approach to reconciling our Thelemite and the hedonists' thelemite involves a closer examination of what a hedonist really is. In the popular usage (the same usage I've adopted so far in this essay), hedonist denotes a pleasure-seeker, a voluptuary or libertine or thelemite, and the word has a distinct connotation of shallowness and moral laxity. A glance at actual Hedonist philosophy, however, will show that classical Hedonism is actually a moral system just as sophisticated as Thelema, but with a different orientation.

A Thelemite's main interest in life is the pursuit of Will (Greek thelema), while a (classical) Hedonist's main interest is the pursuit of Pleasure (Greek hedone); both possess elaborate philosophical systems in which Will and Pleasure respectively provide the central value and meaning of life. All ethical questions are determined by reference to the supreme central standard, and in both cases a complex and often rather strict morality results.

Further, it is obvious that the Pleasure which the classical Hedonist philosophers are talking about is something larger than the enjoyment of a nice dinner. Their idea of Pleasure is more akin to an overall sense of well-being and of fitting into one's niche in the world. The philosophy of Epicurus, e.g., stresses the attainment of Pleasure through moderation and self-discipline, and has virtually nothing to do with the popular notion of an "Epicurean."

It seems, then, that the unreflective people who took Rabelais' thelemite to mean "shallow voluptuary" were merely following the example of those who took both hedonist and Epicurean to mean "shallow voluptuary," while in every case the intended sense of the word was something quite different. In this light thelemite seems even closer to Thelemite than before.

Finally, any consideration of Thelemites and thelemites should include the words of the Book of the Law. This is, of course, the founding document of Thelemic culture -- the original instance of the modern esoteric meaning of Thelemite -- yet it contains numerous passages which would appeal to hedonistic thelemites as well as to esoteric Thelemites. Without venturing to comment on their significance, I invite the reader to consider these representative passages:

Be goodly therefore: dress ye all in fine apparel; eat rich foods and drink sweet wines and wines that foam! Also, take your fill & will of love as ye will, when, where and with whom ye will! But always unto me. (I, 51)

Ye shall gather goods and store of women and spices; ye shall wear rich jewels; ye shall exceed the nations of the earth in splendour & pride; but always in the love of me, and so shall ye come to my joy. (I, 61).

To worship me take wine and strange drugs whereof I will tell my prophet, & be drunk thereof! ... Be strong, o man! lust, enjoy all things of sense and rapture: fear not that any God shall deny thee for this. (II, 22)

...there are also of my friends who be hermits. Now think not to find them in the forest or on the mountain; but in beds of purple, caressed by magnificent beasts of women with large limbs, and fire and light in their eyes, and masses of flaming hair about them; there shall ye find them. Ye shall see them at rule, at victorious armies, at all the joy; and there shall be in them a joy a million times greater than this. (II, 24)

Let her be covered with jewels, and rich garments, and let her be shameless before all men! (III, 44)

I would also encourage meditation on II, 70 & 71 as casting further light on a Thelemic hedonism.

As I remarked above, many "capital T" Thelemites see themselves as entirely distinct from "small T" thelemites. In analyzing the relationship between the two, however, my own understanding has changed. First, I can now follow the reasoning of those who say that an esoteric Thelemite is just one kind of hedonistic thelemite. At the same time, I have understood more clearly that the popular concepts of hedonist and thelemite both result from simple-minded interpretations of sophisticated thoughts. Finally, in my own opinion the idea of thelemite is encompassed by that of Thelemite. I regard hedonism (in the popular sense) as a part of Thelema; in fact I prefer to say that indulgence of sensual pleasures is a religious duty or an act of Thelemic worship. Perhaps the monks and nuns of Rabelais' Abbey of Theleme would agree.

Love is the law, love under will.


1. For the sake of clarity I will pass over hypothetical examples to the contrary, such as the case of a person whose HGA takes the form of Lucy Ricardo. I leave such considerations to my colleagues who are wiser in the ways ov Television. Return to text.

2. It is, however, well worth trying. Return to text.

Last updated: 10/11/98 e.v.
Adjusted by Solemnus: 25-Mar-2000 e.v.
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