Do What Thou Wilt!

Bishr Ibn el-Harith, the great Sufi philosopher, once came upon a most unfortunate man, a leper lying by the side of the road, totally blind. Bishr immediately sat beside him, raised his head gently and spoke some words of reassurance and compassion.

The leper stirred, saying, “What stranger comes here, to stand between me and my God? With or without my body, I have my love for Him!”

Bishr said that this was a lesson that remained with him throughout his life. A later Sufi commentator, Mashghul, says: “This story can only be understood by those who realize how the leper was preventing Bishr from indulging his own sentimentality and ruining himself by being turned into what people call ‚a good man.‘ Good is what you do voluntarily, not what you do, in furtherance of an appetite taught by others in the name of humanity.”

Bishr also stopped teaching Sufism at precisely the point when he was most renowned and in demand as a bearer of Enlightenment. He explained: “I have stopped teaching because I find that I have a desire to teach. When this compulsion passes, I shall teach again—of my own free will.”

To the ordinary mind there seems to be a paradox here. What is this “free will” or this “good that you do voluntarily,” which is separate from ordinary “appetite” or “desire”? How can one follow his true will by denying his inclinations?

This is the same mystery which confronts us, of course, in the strange metaphysics of Saint Augustine, who lays down a million and one rules and taboos, many of them of most absurd and inhuman character, and then summarizes them in the unexpected conclusion, “Love—and do what thou wilt!”

And, notoriously, it is the enigma of Aleister Crowley, whose great mantras, repeated again and again in all his books, his letters and even his conversation, were “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law,” “Thou hast no right but to do thy will” and “There is no law beyond Do what thou wilt.” While conservatives throw up their hands in horror at this libertarian (and libertine) program, Crowley quietly adds the paradoxical postscripts, “Love is the law, love under will” and “For pure will, unassuaged of purpose, delivered from the lust of result, is every way perfect.”

Again. How can pure will be “unassuaged of purpose” and without “the lust of result”? It seems, in ordinary usage of language, that I am either acting on my own behest, seeking for my advantage (either in a material or a spiritual sense), or else I am denying myself to set some other being or beings above me.

The most obvious response to such use (or abuse) of the language of ordinary moral discourse is to proclaim, in tones of alarm, that such voices are preaching chaos, the destruction of society, mad egomania, and Hobbes‘ dreaded “war of all against all.” Thus, in Dennis Wheatley’s occult novels, the characters based on Crowley and his friends are always quoting “Do what thou wilt” as justification for various crimes and betrayals of ordinary human decency. Others less hysterical than Wheatley still cannot tolerate the seemingly nihilistic implications of “Do what thou wilt” and cannot seem to conceive that anybody who quotes it is not about to pick their pockets or rape their wives and daughters. The epitome of this kind of semantic phobia is a “pagan” circle in Chicago which mildly flirts with Crowleyanity, but protects its own notion of decorum by ending its services with the more respectable variation “Do what thou wilt, without hurting others.”

The problem, of course, as with all “mystical” language, is that the seers are deliberately and consciously “talking nonsense” (as great poets deliberately and consciously talk nonsense in the height of their creative ecstasies; who has ever translated Blake’s “Tyger” into a statement that a zoologist could rule either accurate or inaccurate?). Ordinary language is built, as shown variously by Korzybski (Science and Sanity), Whorf (Language, Logic and Reality), McLuhan (The Gutenberg Galaxy), and others, on certain linear, sequential, one-thing-after-another assumptions about time, together with similar assumptions of linear continuity concerning space.

This is why, as the cliche has it, the Einstein relativity theory cannot be translated from mathematics to ordinary language without its basic features being blurred and distorted. As Korzybski notes, some of the new semantic outlook of Einstein can get across in language, however, if we habitually eliminate the two words “space” and “time” from our speech and writing, always substituting the compound “space-time.”

Similar semantic insight underlies the Cabala, which encourages the assimilation of opposite, unrelated or discordant ideas if the words expressing them have numerological equivalence. This “superstitious” exercise, which drives the rationalist to fury, has various results, sometimes leading to the nonsense of the schizophrenic, sometimes to the nonsense of the inspired poet, and sometimes to the cosmic nonsense of the true Magus.

Thus, the key words of Crowley’s Book of the Law, thelema (Will) and agape (Love) both add to 93; by Cabala, they can be interchanged or assimilated. We then obtain such sentences as “Do what thou love shall be the whole of the law,” “Thou hast no right but to do thy love,” “There is no law beyond Do what thou love,” or, conversely, selecting agape texts at random and substituting in reverse, “There is no bond that can unite the divided but will,” “Nor let the fools mistake will; for there are will and will,” “But to will me is better than all things …” or, using the compounding device, we obtain such gnomic and pregnant expressions as “For pure love-will, unassuaged of purpose, delivered from the lust of result, is every way perfect” or “For I am divided for love-will’s sake, for the chance of union.”

We are hinting that, just as one cannot understand Einstein within the old semantics which separates “space” and “time” but can within a semantics of “space-time,” so, too, one cannot understand Crowley—or any high magus—within a structure of assumptions that separates “love” and “will,” but can, again, within a system that unites them into “love-will.”

But this nonsense—as it seems—can only be understood when one has programmed oneself out of the usual space, time and ego circuits of the central nervous system and into the space-time-cosmos circuits of the autonomic nervous system, where organism and environment cease to exist as separate units and become part of a synergetic Whole. The Sufis (and many Hindus or Buddhists, who can also sound disconcertingly subversive of conventional morality at times), like Crowley and many another heretical “witch” or “magician” of the Western world, are engaged in neurological re-programming to make this trans-ego view point accessible to all who are willing to work at acquiring it. Even within conventional thinking, however, the meaning of “Do what thou wilt” can be demonstrated by the method of assuming the contrary and following it to its logical (and absurd) conclusion.

Thus, if you arc to deny or repress your will, at the behest of your God, your neighbors or any other concept defined as superior to your will, then you must be in perpetual internal conflict. For instance, you want the last piece of pie and so does your spouse. (We assume, for demonstration’s sake, that the piece is too small to be cut in half.) Very well. To deny your will to have the pie, that will must exist in more than a theoretical sense. That is, there can be no “moral” significance in rejecting the pie unless you really want it. Who then refuses the pie and offers it with love to your spouse?

It seems that in some sense there must be two of you living in the same skin: the one who genuinely wants the pie and the one who wants more to achieve the “virtue” of altruism or generosity.

But wait. If the latter half of you, the “virtuous” you, is able to win this contest, then the will of that you must be stronger than the will of the former “selfish” you. What then has happened to denying your will? You haven’t done it. You have balanced two wills and elected to follow the stronger. Ergo, you have in fact done your will and are not a true altruist at all, but are out here in the wilderness of hedonism with us pagans.

Well, then, a true philosopher will say, this is easily met. I will next time choose to follow the weaker will. Leaving aside the question of whether this is neurologically possible, another objection immediately arises. If you are to be a true apostle of altruism, you must be skilled in “examination of conscience” as the Catholics say; you must allow no self-deception or special pleading in your internal parliament; you must be as it were an incorruptible judge. (Now there are three of you, instead of just two. Follow on, and you will become a mob.) So. The judge studies the strong will which wants to be an altruist and the weak will which wants the pie selfishly, and intent on denial of will, awards the decision to the weaker. You eat the pie; your spouse watches with watering mouth. Good—proceed in this way in all your human relations and you will soon be known as one of those wretched Crowleyites, if not as an apostle of Ayn Rand (The Virtue of Selfishness) or Max Stirner (The Ego and His Own). Altruism, meanwhile, seems to have run aground on a rock of contradiction …

Well, perhaps then, the self-denier will say, we have asked the question wrong. It is not a matter of choosing the weaker will, after all; we will have to decide between conflicting wills by estimating, objectively, which is most beneficial to others.

Good. Now we are making progress. The judge will need some assistants: a good prosecutor, a skilled defense attorney, a cast of expert witnesses. Fine. After ceasing to be One, your schizophrenia has advanced just as we promised and you are well on your way to being a whole mob. Our next step is to develop some criteria of objectivity, because otherwise you might slip back into getting what you want after all. Freud, among others, has shown how easy it is to hear only the internal witnesses who agree with the judge (super-ego). What shall we say about our spouse’s objective need for the pie? Alas, it looks as if she doesn’t need it at all—considering that it will add weight and that she is currently on a diet. Objectivity tells us that it would be cruel to let her have the pie. Good. We have had a fair trial, we have denied our will, and we now sit down and happily eat the pie, as we wanted to all along, secure in the knowledge that we are virtuous and even self-sacrificing (after all, it will add inches to our won waist-line; but we heroically accept that burden, since all virtue involves some suffering).

But it looks, again, as if we have somehow gotten ourselves into a contradiction.

Perhaps we are being deliberately perverse. Let us simplify and get rid of some of that growing internal mob. There are only two of you again, the “lower” (as altruism sees it) who just wants what it wants, period; and the “higher” who wants to be self-denying, to achieve brownie points on some moral score card somewhere (personally held or kept by some celestial observer). It’s very simple after all. Always deny the “lower” personal self and let the other party, whoever they are, have exactly what they want. This is simple, clear-cut, precise, and obviously a frustrating and depressing way to go through life. Every philosopher of altruism must agree, then, that we have at last defined his ideal perfectly.

Very well. The other party wants to rape your wife. You allow him. He wants to rape your daughter, too, and pick your pocket on the way out. You cooperate. You are progressive fine. Now, he has developed an ideology and calls himself a National Socialist. He marches into your country, a million strong, and establishes an Occupation. You collaborate, of course, not for you and the selfish and self-determining path of the underground of the resistance. Now he is back at your door again. This time he wants you to turn over the Jewish family hiding in the cellar, so that they may be gassed …

We seem to be in trouble again. But what, in heaven’s name, is altruism, if it be not denying your stronger will (our first choice), and not trying to judge “objectively” (our second choice) and not just cooperating with any thug who comes along (our last choice)? What alternative is left? How do we divide ourselves in half, deny one part of us, and not land in some such miasma of hypocrisy, self-deception, and/or collaboration with the viciousness of others?

But more. The sacerdotal forms of altruism, such as Thomist Christianity, will say that, however we solve these riddles, we’re only beginning. That is, if we are thinking of that score card (somewhere), we are not yet purely self-sacrificing and haven’t achieved the true altruistic ideal yet. We must deny our wills without any sneaky second thoughts about ultimate benefits (in heaven). Then, and only then, will we be truly worthy of those ultimate benefits. This is admittedly intricate, as indicated in T.S. Eliot’s famous lines:

The last temptation is the highest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.

Thus, Eliot’s hero, Thomas a Becket, chooses martyrdom, not for a post-mortem glorification, but in spite of the post-mortem glorification; and thus he is finally worthy of such high reward, because he isn’t seeking it.

Alas, these intricacies delight the minds of theologians, but to an outsider it appears rather grossly obvious that there is, again, some form of self-deception here. Becket must have desired to go to heaven and enjoy eternal bliss, at some point in his career, and his attempt to suppress that desire and act “unselfishly” is, still, in some sense, the resultant of that desire. In short, he would be a true self-denier only if he was working just this hard and this intricately to land himself in Hell.

And worse. Rationalistic atheists, from Marcus Aurelius Atoninus up to Bertrand Russell, have pointed out that post-mortem bliss, no matter how you slice it, still has a personal desire at the root of it, and that true Good can only be accomplished by doing the unselfish things without any such hope at all. They have not convincingly answered the obvious question: for God’s sake, why? It seems obvious that, being born in late rationalistic ages of cultures with a long “supernatural” tradition, these men were conditioned toward the conventionally “good” behavior in childhood, had a strong tendency to do it, but rejected the alleged supernatural reasons for such behavior as incompatible with their logical minds. There is no reason in anthropology or psychology to assume that people without such supernatural conditioning would want to do the conventional “good” thing all the time, or even half the time. There is ample reason to think that they would often be inclined to do the conventionally “evil” things. For instance, by the standards of the majority, Russel himself chose conventional “evil” repeatedly, by endorsing sexual liberalism as against monogamy and by taking an absolutist pacifist position against local “patriotism.”

By the same process, DeSade, another rationalist, took conventionally “good” positions (by liberal standards, at least) in opposing capital punishment and religious bigotry, but meanwhile did whatever conventionally “evil” things seemed appealing to his own peculiar sexual nature. There is no way in logic to prove Russell’s prejudices superior to DeSade’s.

We seem to have plunged into an abyss without bottom. Trying to decide who should get that last piece of pie, we have arrived at a logical impasse where we might sit staring at the pastry forever, attempting to find some way of proving that the impulse to give it away is either better or worse than the impulse to just eat it and be done with the damned epistemological and ontological morass. We might end up by throwing the pie out the window and denying everybody …

Shall we flee to the opposite, join Max Stirner and Ayn Rand, and seek to escape the paradoxes of altruism by merely elevating egotism to the rank of an alternate First Principle? (This is what many people think is meant by Do what thou wilt.) Alas, the same paradoxes then re-appear, as soon as I ask, Which is the real me, the one who wants to please my gut or the one that wants to please my spouse? The moment such a question even occurs to us, we are as hopelessly adrift from the Egotistic Standard as we have previously found ourselves adrift from the Altruistic Standard.

I submit that the only way out (via Crowley’s identification of love will) leads to the redefinition of “I” a way from the restricted central nervous system (and its mental machinery of ego) to include the autonomic nervous system and its feedbacks outside the skin. This, of course, cannot be a mere logical redefinition. Just saying “I am more than my conscious ‚thoughts;‘ I am the entire matrix of my experience, ‚internal‘ and ‚external.’” Such a definition means no thing, until it is a felt experience. The tactics of the great neuro-programmers of East and West—the various methods of yoga, meditation, Tantra, magick, etc.—are all devoted to making this synergetic experience possible.

The trouble with the Altruistic and Egotistic philosophies, in sum, is that they are two-dimensional (either/or) models, and cannot be applied to our multi-dimensional universe. They appear to work only if one avoids asking the questions which lead beyond the simpleminded Aristotelian either/or dichotomy. Thus, the philosophers of egotism, such as Rand and Stirner, can demolish the contradictions in altruism, with equal case, demonstrate that a logical egotism leads inevitably to the notorious “war of all against all.”

The Book of the Law says, “I forbid argument … Success shall be your proof.” With the same intent, Tantric and Zen Buddhists, various Hindu and Vedantic teachers, Sufis, alchemists, etc, have ignored logic entirely and concentrated on teaching method, that is, the neural and astral exercises that get one’s consciousness out of the central nervous system into the greater synergetic whole which extends beyond the gross body (and, ultimately, when one pursues the exercises long enough, reaches to the stars). In this Buddha-Body (or “Big Mind” as Shunryu Suzuki calls it with delightful simplicity) is no conflict between Love and Will.

(For instance, the traditional magick circle is 9 feet in diameter because, as research in kinesic and proemics reveals, the human field including, but not limited to, “astral egg”—extends that far. Taking command of this circle involves escaping from the central nervous system’s internal feedback loops to the autonomic nervous system’s internal/external feedback loops. From this “second skin” as I call it, one can then tap further and further sources of Love/Will, all of which are “I,” although not recognized as such while one is imprisoned in central nervous system either/or computations. The process can be considered as graduating from being a digital computer to becoming an analog computer. The first axiom of Hermes—“As above, so below”—merely states that the human essense is such a cosmic analog computer.)

The conflict of egotism and altruism, then, is a mirror of the confusion attendant upon being stranded, like Robinson Crusoe, in the central nervous system. Love Under Will does not make sense in this context, but is the only natural way of behaving when one discovers that he is not Robinson Crusoe but a part of the seamless unity of the universe. It was from this view point that John Donne wrote, “No man is an island … Send not to ask for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

It is only fair to add, in conclusion, that the very subtle Alan Watts has argued, in Psychotherapy East and West and other books, that the ethic of altruism or self-denial was originally invented by clever Buddhists as a trick to force the student, through getting trapped in the contradictions it involves, to realize that the assumption on which it is based is false. That assumption, of course, is the assumed I/It dichotomy, the separation of self from universe.

Amusingly enough, the egotism of Max Stirner (far more radical than the more popular cult of Ayn Rand) may also have been invented as such a trick. At least, one writer in the English anarchist magazine, Minus One, a few years ago, suggested that Stirner may have been trying to resolve the I/It dichotomy by pushing it to ultimate absurdity. In support of this theory one could quote Stirner’s opening sentence in The Ego and His Own, “I have established my existence upon Nothing.” (Ich hab‘ mein‘ Sache auf Nichts gestellt.) This is virtually identical with the Void of Mahayana Buddhism and the basic equation of Crowley’s sex-magick, 2=1=0. But that is a mystery we cannot explore in this simple article.

Do What Thou Wilt!
by Robert Anton Wilson appeared in Gnostica News, Volume 3, Issue 2 in September 1973.