Crowley’s Anti-Tao

An Analysis of Liber CLVII by Vered Talor Arnon

In his Liber CLVII, Aleister Crowley translates and interprets the Tao Te Ching. He uses a flawed hermeneutic to approach the text. Due to bias of his occult background, Crowley makes many misinterpretations. The result of his translation and interpretation is very different from the original Chinese version.

Aleister Crowley was a poet and a mystic in the early 20th century. He died in 1947. He was deeply involved in the activities and formation of various occult Orders. He started as a Freemason, joined then left the Order of the Golden Dawn, and eventually joined and became the leader of the Ordo Templi Orientis. He created his own religion and gained many followers. He considered himself a prophet and he was obsessed with his own philosophy. He is generally regarded as one of the most significant individuals to influence modern occult philosophy.

Crowley created the occult religion of Thelema in 1904. His Book of the Law is its holy scripture. “Do what thou wilt” is the central Law of Crowley’s doctrine. Crowley was focused heavily on the importance of individual will, attributing sanctified qualities to it. Actualising one’s own True Will is the most important goal, from his perspective. Thelemic doctrine and philosophy is full of elaborate principles and prescriptions regarding how to put this into practise.

Aleister Crowley comes from an occult background. The paradigm he operates in uses the Hebrew Cabbalah and puts a heavy emphasis on alchemy and Thelemic mysteries. Despite his use of the Cabbalah, he is not a Cabbalic scholar. He approaches the Tao Te Ching with a Thelemic hermeneutic. He uses his own tradition as a reference point for determining universal truth, focusing particularly on the principles he laid out in his own Book of the Law. This results in a text that diverges significantly from the original Chinese version.

Crowley’s hermeneutic is inappropriate because he fixates on his own philosophy as his reference point for universal truth. He sees the text through Thelema-coloured glasses, so to speak, and his hermeneutic reads into it things that are not there at all. His bias doesn’t give the text and honest objective portrayal, as his hermeneutic is so subjective.

An example of how Crowley’s occult background influences his approach to the text is his attempt to juxtapose the Tao onto the Cabbalic Tree of Life. There is no reference to, or implication of, such a hierarchic structure in the text. Crowley is not just using his paradigm to define the Tao. He is approaching it as if they really are the same things. In his diagram, Crowley lines up the elements in a hierarchical format, denoting linear relationships between them by their different positions (Crowley, 2). The Tao Te Ching does not lay out the relationships between different elements. In fact, it doesn’t even discuss the elements at all. Crowley’ diagram is evidence of his preoccupation with alchemy, and with Thelemic mysteries attributed to the Cabbalah by occultists (but not by scholars). Crowley’s hermeneutic is inappropriate.

An example of Crowley’s alchemical bias is evinced in his interpretation of Chapter XXXII. He writes,

“Heaven and Earth combining under its spell, shed forth dew, ((This ‘dew’ refers to the Elixir of the Fraternity R.C. and of the O.T.O. It has been described, with proper caution, in various passages of ‘The Equinox’ and of ‘The Book of Lies.’))” (Crowley, 37).

The Chinese passage is thus:

Tian di xiang he, yi jiang gan lu.” (Tao Te Ching, Chapter 32)

The word for “dew”, gan lu, has the connotations of “life force”. Literally, it means “sweet dew”. In the context of Chinese mythology, it has the connotations of “primordial fluid” and “sacred water”. According to ancient myths, the mother goddess showered this water on the Earth to create life. This passage of the Tao Te Ching is saying, plainly and simply, albeit poetically, that the opposing elements in heaven and earth combine and result in life.

The parenthetical insertion at the end of the passage illustrates direct influence from Crowley’s occult background. The Tao Te Ching does not make references to the mysteries of occult orders that haven’t been around as long as it has. The Fraternity R.C. is also known as the Rosicrucians. It is an occult Order that was founded in the 14th century. It emphasises alchemy, medicine, and mathematics. Its roots lie in Christianity and Gnosticism. It has no ties with Taoism. The O.T.O that Aleister Crowley mentions is his own Order, the Ordo Templi Orientis. This Order was officially founded in the early 20th century, although it stems from the Freemasonic, Rosicrucian, and Illuminist movements of the 18th and 19th centuries. Crowley was admitted to it in 1910. The Order embraced his Book of the Law and Thelemic doctrine. Again in Chapter XXXIII, Crowley writes, “The last paragraph refers once more to a certain secret practise taught by the O.T.O” (Crowley, 38). Throughout his text are references to his own Order. Due to his western occult paradigm, he uses his own Order as the standard of universal truth. With this bias, his translation and interpretation is inaccurate He is appropriating the Tao Te Ching as another version of his Order’s lore. This reflects his Thelemic hermeneutic. His bias does not preserve the Tao Te Ching’s integrity. Crowley appears to be trying, for his own purposes, to read into the Tao Te Ching things that are from his own philosophical background.

Further examples of Crowley’s background influencing his hermeneutic are exhibited in his objectification of the Tao. According to his paradigm, there is nothing that transcends classification and material essence. The Thelemic paradigm focuses on deity and divinity. Much of Crowley’s Book of the Law is invocation of awesome deities as manifestations of power and mystery. The mysteriousness and vastness of divinity is used to explain anything that seems to transcend categorical designations. Anything eternal and formless can easily be pegged into the category of divinity and thus given a material essence that can be beheld and addressed. In various parts of his translation Crowley deifies the Tao by addressing it directly in worshipful terms, as if it were a deity or an entity of some sort. He objectifies it by making it the object of devotion.

To examine one instance of this, there is an example in his translation of Chapter IV. He adds in a sentence at the end of each of his segments that is not part of the original text. Crowley writes:

“The Tao resembleth the emptiness of Space; to employ it, we must avoid creating ganglia. ((Inequality (an Illusion) and disorder necessarily result from the departure from homogeneity.)) Oh Tao, how vast art Thou, the Abyss of Abysses, thou Holy and Secret Father of all Fatherhoods of Things! 

Let us make our sharpness blunt; ((For sharpness implies a concentration.)) let us loosen our complexes; ((For these are the ganglia of thought, which must be destroyed.)) let us ((On the same principles…. The stars are blemishes, so to speak, on the continuity of Nuit.)) tone down our brightness to the general obscurity. Oh Tao, how still art thou, how pure, continuous one beyond Heaven!” (Crowley, 5). 

The Chinese version is rather to the point, describing the aspects of the Tao, without addressing it or invoking it at all.

  Dao chang, er yong zhi huo bu ying. Yuan xi, si wan wu zh zong. Cuo qi rui, jie qi fen; he qi guang, tong qi chen; zhan xi, si huo cun. Wu bu zhi shui zhi zi, xiang di zhi xian.” (Tao Te Ching, chapter 4)

Literally, this passage can be translated as,

“Tao swells, using it does not deplete. Empty, it seems the origin of a thousand things; blunt its sharpness, assemble its parts, conceal its light, accompany its solitude. Full, it is illusionary or real. Unknown whose offspring it is, it is like the ancestor of heaven.”  

Between the literal version and Crowley’s version, there is a big difference. Aside from the absence of occult references, the entire tone is different. The literal version lacks the invoking qualities that Crowley’s has. The western paradigm objectifies in order to explain. The Tao Te Ching merely describes. Stephen Mitchell gives this chapter the following translation:

“The Tao is like a well: used but never used up. It is like the eternal void: filled with infinite possibilities. It is hidden but always present. I don’t know who gave birth to it. It is older than God.” (Mitchell, 4).

A comparison between these three versions, makes the misinterpretation caused by Crowley’s inappropriate hermeneutic quite obvious.

Further examples of Crowley’s misinterpretation can be found throughout the text. He translates part of the first chapter as, “To understand this Mystery, one must be fulfilling one’s will, ((In a moral state, therefore, without desire, frictionless.)) and if one is not thus free, one will but gain a smattering of it” (Crowley, 1). The concept of fulfilling one’s will is from Crowley’s own philosophy, not from the Tao Te Ching. The Tao Te Ching emphasises the concept of wu wei, which literally means “without will”. These two things are antithetical, but Crowley attempts to equate them, and misinterprets the meaning of the Chinese text. The original Chinese version is:

 Gu chang wu, yu yi guan qi miao; chang you, yu yi guan qi jiao. Ci liang zhe, tong chu er yi ming.” (Tao Te Ching, chapter 1)

This passage literally means, “When it’s absent, desire fills one with wonder. When it’s present, desire fills one with arrogance. These two states arise together to be named.” This passage is not talking about “fulfilling one’s will” at all. Stephen Mitchell gives it a poetic translation:

“Free from desire, you realize the mystery. Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations. Yet mystery and manifestations arise from the same source.” (Mitchell, 1)

This passage seems to be about the origin of things, and the relationship of opposing states of being.

Another passage that Crowley attempts to read his Book of the Law philosophy into is in Chapter II.

“By the use of this method, the sage can fulfil his will without action, and utter his word without speech. ((Our activity is due to the incompleteness of the summing-up of Forces. Thus a man proceeds to walk East at four miles an hour, though he is already travelling in that direction at over 1,000 miles an hour! The end of the Meditation on Action is the realization of Hadit; wherefore any action would be a disturbance of that perfection. This being understood of the True Self, the Mind and Body proceed untrammelled in their natural path without desire on the part of the Self.))” (Crowley, 2) 

Most of this is superfluous analysis, with many Thelemic references, such as “the summing-up of Forces” and “Hadit”. These things have nothing to do with the Tao Te Ching, as the original passage is about how to act according to the principle of wu wei (which is antithetical to Thelemic doctrine).

Shi yi sheng ren chu wu wei zhi shi, xing bu yan zhi jiao.” (Tao Te Ching, chapter 2)

This passage literally means “To be like a sage acting with wu wei, is to teach without speaking.” It’s a simple illustration of a principle. But Crowley’s translation misinterprets the principle.

In Chapter VIII, Crowley yet again fixates on his own doctrine about “will”. His translation is relatively accurate, but he adds at the end of the chapter, “It is all another way of saying ‘Do what thou wilt.'” (Crowley, 9). This chapter is not saying that at all. The Chinese is as follows:

 Ju shan di, xin shan yuan, yu shan xin, zheng shan zhi, shi shan neng, dong shan shi. Fu wei bu zheng, gu wu you.” (Tao Te Ching, chapter 8 )

Literally, this means:

“It is favourable to live on the ground, it is favourable to have simplicity when thinking, it is favourable to have virtue when interacting, it is favourable to have truth when speaking, it is favourable to have amelioration in politics, it is favourable to have ability in action, it is favourable to have punctuality in tasks. If one of these is not balanced, there will be no harmony.”  

This passage is talking about balance and harmony, not about will. Crowley’s interpretation is completely inappropriate.

A final example of how Crowley’s background gives him a biased hermeneutic is his translation of Chapter XI. He writes:

“The thirty spokes join in their nave, that is one; yet the wheel dependeth for use upon the hollow place for the axle. Clay is shapen to make vessels; but the contained space is what is useful. Matter is therefore of use only to mark the limits of the space which is the thing of real value. ((This introduces the doctrine of the Fourth Dimension. Matter is like the lines bounding a plane. The plane is the real thing, the lines infinitely small in comparison, and serving only to define it. So also the ‘Self’ is an imaginary limit marking off the divisions of the Body of God. The errors of Ahamkara (the ego-making faculty) is to take the illusory surface for the Sphere.))” (Crowley, 12). 

This is very different from the original Chinese version, which is thus:

 San shi fu gong yi gu, dang qi wu, you che zhi young. Shan zhi yi wei qi, dang qi wu, you qi zhi young. Zao hu you yi wei shi, dang qi wu, you shi zhi yong. Gu you zhi yi wei li, wu zhi yi wei yong.” (Tao Te Ching, chapter 11).

Literally, this chapter can be translated as,

“Thirty spokes, together a wheel, with its emptiness, there is a cart to use. Clay shapes a vessel, with its emptiness, there is a vessel to use. Wood built into a room, with its emptiness, there is a room to use. Since having it is advantageous, emptiness is useful.”  

This is about yin and yang. Empty space and form together create substantial objects. The empty void in a jar is as vital as the clay shape. Without either one, there wouldn’t be a jar. Crowley imposes a material aspect on these principles. The “Fourth Dimension” and “plane” and “real thing” are all imposed from his own background and are not relevant to the original text at all. Crowley’s inappropriate hermeneutic results in an unsuccessful translation.

Taoism and Thelema are two different philosophies. Crowley approaches the Tao Te Ching with an inappropriate hermeneutic and attempts to read Thelemic philosophy into the Taoist text. He misinterprets and mistranslates the text, along with adding a lot of external material that is irrelevant. His bias, stemming from his use of Thelemic philosophy (including his own personal writings) as a reference point of universal truth, creates an inaccurate translation and misinterpretation. The result is that his Liber CLVII is extremely different from the original Chinese Tao Te Ching.

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