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Do What Thou Wilt?

Magickal Morality
The Rede
Keeping Score
Be Excellent

An' it harm none, do what thou wilt
The Wiccan Rede

"Do what thou will" shall be the Whole of the Law
Alasteir Crowley, The Book of the Law

This article was brought about following a number of discussions on morality, mostly with modern pagans and Thelemites on IRC's Undernet #wicca chat channel, and with several Christians in real life. The Pagans, it seems, were uncomfortable with anything that Crowley said ("He's amoral" was a common comment) while the Christians felt that both of the statements above were a licence to commit all manner of libertine atrocities.

You'll be glad to know that neither are true; at least not in my interpretation. And you will probably be especially relieved to hear that the renaissance of paganism is not about to herald a new wave of amoral grotesqueness in the manner of the Marquis de Sade. In truth, both of these statements express a universally-felt common sense morality that is genuinely relevant to all.

Magickal Morality

The fundamental difference between both the Rede and Crowley's Law when compared to Christian-Islamic-Jewish law is the absence of an external judge. They both state "Do what thou wilt," rather than "Do what I say."

Modern pagan practice (and I will include Thelemite magick in this broad category) is a path of personal responsibility first and foremost. You are the judge for your own actions. This new take on morality (in truth many thousands of years old) is quite startling; it frees you to act as you believe you should, but at the same time binds you to act in a manner you feel is just.

This new/old morality also comes with a large helping of tolerance. After all, I can only judge my actions. By not having an external Judge, one removes the moral justification for persecution - how can I legitimately constrain someone's will when I have no jurisdiction over them? This tolerance - hard-coded as it is into the pagan way of life - is sometimes misinterpreted by the general public as a sort of spiritual wishy-washiness; nothing could be further from the truth.

The Mechanism: Karma

So what happens when you make a mistake, or worse, commit a crime? Magickal morality isn't without a means for redressing this balance - it's something Crowley called "Natural Law" (in accordance with the term used by High Magicians since Agrippa). Many modern Pagans call karma.

Just to clear this up before we go any further, I'm not talking about the Hindu and Buddhist version of karma (from which the term is borrowed) which keeps track of your good and bad deeds between lifetimes. In this article at least, I'm referring to Karma purely within one person's lifetime. Let's not get into a Glen Hoddle here.

The principle of karma is most simply expressed in the folky phrase, "What goes around, comes around." Do good stuff, and good stuff comes back to you. Do bad stuff, and you likewise get a negative return.

This common-sense approach conveniently disposes of some of the classical paradoxes that confound the morality of the External Judges. Haven't you ever had that awkward Sunday School moment when you ask the vicar why God is being so nasty, and he doesn't have an answer?

The exact proportion of the return is a matter of your Path; some traditions maintain that it is as much as tenfold, while Gardnerian Wicca places it as threefold and enshrines it in the "Threefold Law." Personally, coming from a scientific background that embraced Newton and empirical observation, I put the return at about one-for-one.

To accept karma in this manner may sound a bit kooky, but it makes no less sense than accepting the "Will of Allah" as a celestial judgement. I'll discuss what I think might act as the "cosmic judge" in the karma system later.

Harm None: The Strictures of the Rede

On the surface, the Wiccan Rede sounds very libertine. "An' it harm none, do what thou wilt," doesn't resonate with the awesome patriarchal majesty of the "Thou shalt not's" of the Bible. But then, that is the difference between Paganism and the Big Three religions - pagan wisdom usually sounds more like the homey wisdom of a friendly (though occasionally stern) grandparent.

In fact, the Rede is a very strict and yet flexible moral code. "Harm none" does not limit itself to specific "sins" or situations. It refers to everything around you - appropriate since to many pagans, all things are sacred - without any tribal, racial or species bias. And it crucially also applies to oneself.

Of course, like the Buddhist who dare not move for fear of crushing an ant, there are times when it is impossible to not cause harm, but here the path is clearly mapped out: do as little harm as possible. And we don't just mean short-term, either; consider carefully what imapct your actions will have down the line before you act.

Try it some time: you will find that it is both liberating and constricting; it's truly different to the standard morality that (in particular) the Christian Church markets.

Of course there are quandaries. Should I give money to this vagrant? "Charity" is a virtue, but then, how do I know that it won't be spent on drugs? Or that he's taking me for a ride? Should I give the money instead to a homelessness charity? By thinking about each act you perform, rather than choosing from a simple checklist of sins and virtues, you become more aware of the impact your actions have on the world. And that has to be a good thing.

Pagan paths don't provide nice pat answers. Instead they force you to look at the question, and draw your own conclusions.

Will, the Deep Self and the Chattering Monkey

Okay, enough about harm; that's a subject that can keep semantics professors in pay for decades. How do you actually get punished and rewarded for what you do?

Western hermetic magick - Crowley's line of business - describes the goal of magick as attaining union with the Godhead. Crowley stated that a man's Will is that part of him that drives toward this exalted end. Standing against him are his base desires and external forces, which should be dealt with mercilessly.

In Zen, one's path to enlightenment - along which everyone is drawn, however weakly - is distracted by the "chattering monkey" of the mind, always nagging about the state of the world, hunger, the weather, your mortgage... you get the idea.

In Wicca, the self is divided into three parts, Talking Self, Child Self and Deep Self.

  • Talking Self is the conscious part of the mind, the bit that worries about mortgages and thinks what to have for dinner tonight. It, like the Zen monkey, drowns out the sounds of the other Selves unless you listen very carefully.

  • Child Self - sometimes called Young Self or the Child Within or Inner Child - is a less complicated layer. It works in symbols, and has a wicked sense of humour and fun as well as a deep poetic gravity. Psychologists equate this with the subconscious.

  • Finally there is Deep Self, which (without going into discussions of immortality and reincarnation) could best be described as the soul. Deep Self communicates only via Child Self, which is why magick, religion and psychoanalysis all work in terms of symbols, rituals and games.

This Deep Self or Will is what is referred to when we write, "Do what thou will." It is not "Do what you like" but rather, "Do what you know, deep inside, to be right and holy."

It gets a bit heavy when it's put like that, doesn't it?

Here's a quick example: I had a free day, and I had already decided that I was going to clear out my garage and take the junk down to the recycling centre. But after I had collected my email, I found myself sat at my PC at a seeming loose end. Outside, the garage lurked with promises of back ache and weedkiller. Suddenly I felt a strong urge to spend the rest of the day surfing the Web, revisiting some old sites, maybe spending some time on IRC. I would dearly like to have done that. But at the end of the day my garage would still be full, and I would have another huge phone bill to add to my woes (an instant karmic payback).

I'm no saint. I surfed for half an hour. But then I got down to the garage.

Keeping Score: Your Own Worst Enemy, Your Own Best Friend

We have established that you are, on a deep level, your own judge. We've determined what many pagans consider to be the rules by which this judge operates. But what keeps score? What ensures that you get a fair chunk of good stuff?

It could well be the Deep Self, which raises two questions:

  1. What about punishing yourself? Isn't that going against the "harm none" rule I've just established?

  2. How can an internal scorekeeper affect events outside your own head?

The first of these is the easiest to answer. If you've ever watched The Karate Kid you'll know that the martial arts master (Mister Miyagi, gorblessim) keeps his pupil slaving over tasks that appear to be punishment. Only at the end, when the Kid has to go up against his enemy, does he realise that he was not being punished, he was being educated. It's no break of the Rede to use a little suffering as an educational tool to prevent greater suffering further down the line; your inner self knows that sometimes you need a slap in order to get the message.

The next point, though, is a tougher cookie altogether. We really get into the realm of cosmology, because the "how" of payback is something that has to fit in with your worldview. There are plenty of events that can take place in a person's life that don't seem to have any causal relationship with themselves - receiving that once-in-a-lifetime job offer, perhaps, or being hit by a passing car - and yet I feel that to deny the involvement of the Deep Self in these is, in a way, to deny the general principle of interconnectedness that goes hand-in-glove with the idea of immanence. Synchronicity - meaningful coincidence - seems to be the subtle way in which this sort of thing works itself out.

Of course some of you might have special relationships with various Things - deities, guides, pains in the arse. It may be that they do the tweaking to ensure that you get what's coming. It may be that you see synchronicity and map it to their work. There's no clear answer here. It may be, ultimately, that we're fooling ourselves. There may be no mechanism and we're just reading patterns in chaos.

Be Excellent to One Another

At the end of the day, then, what is this alternative morality actually saying? For all the high talking, it boils down to some sensible home truths: Everyone should get on with their own lives, without persecuting others; don't fritter your life away on urges when you know you have better things to do; don't tolerate harm to others.

Bill and Ted summed it up succinctly: "Be excellent to one another!"

Simple and clear, even if it doesn't attempt to answer any questions or impose any defined bans. Because, let's face it, definitions become out of date; what we have here is timeless.

The neopagan movement is young when compared to the Big Three religions, and often it is easy to confuse its folky style of delivery with shallowness. Yet in placing the burden of judgement on each individual, "What thou wilt" paradoxically liberates us all; it frees and constrains us to consider the impact of our actions and do what's right. And surely, no matter what your definition of the word, that's a good thing.