“Pure being is pure nothing!” An Addendum on “Berashith”

While doing some research last night while writing the post on Crowley’s “Berashith,” I noticed that Hymenaeus Beta’s description of this essay in his editor’s introduction to Magick: Liber ABA contains an interesting error — one which ends up being rather telling regarding Crowley’s subtle evolution of views from “Berashith” to his later writings.

Hymenaeus Beta provides a description of the essay in his introduction because “Berashith” supposedly provides the philosophical foundation for understanding Crowley’s Book 4:

The philosophical underpinnings of Book 4 were first given in Berashith, where Crowley attempts to reconcile “noumenon and phenomenon, unity and multiplicity.” He posits that this is achieved through the attainment in consciousness of what Buddhists meant by their term nirvana, and Hegel expressed with his “pure being is pure nothing.” (Hymenaeus Beta, “Editor’s Introduction,” Magick: Liber ABA, xxvii)

This is a mistaken description. In fact, though Crowley in “Berashith” does posit the former (a somewhat misleading version of Buddhist nirvana) as the goal of attainment, he actually denies that the latter (Hegel’s “pure being is pure nothing”) is a workable solution for accomplishing the Great Work. This is even though something like what is described in the quote from Hegel here — the grounds for a dialectical mysticism — is indeed what he will prescribe in later works, and, in the form of the unity of opposites, what seems to be at the core of the Book of the Law (see the previous post on “Berashith”).

What does Crowley actually say? While critiquing esoteric Christian and Hindu forms of mysticism, in which the mystic expands his or her consciousness until it is identical with the cosmic consciousness, Crowley explains:

But even allowing for a moment that the Absolute is really attainable, is the nothingness of the finity related to it really identical with that attained directly by the Buddhist Arahat? This, consistently with my former attitude, I feel constrained to deny. The consciousness of the Absolute-wala is really extended infinitely rather than diminished infinitely, as he will himself assure you. True, Hegel says: “Pure Being is pure nothing!” and it is true that the infinite heat and cold, joy and sorrow, light and darkness, and all the other pairs of opposites cancel one another out: yet I feel rather afraid of this Absolute! Maybe its joy and sorrow are represented in phases, just as 0° and finity are phases of an identical expression, and I have an even chance only of being on the right side of the fence!

In other words, though expanding one’s consciousness to encompass all phenomena would in fact result in the attainment of “nothing” — as Crowley writes in The Book of Thoth, “all possibilities are enjoyed … all things are real … all things are Truth: because they cancel out” — the Crowley of “Berashith” rejects such a solution precisely because, if “pure being is pure nothing,” then “0° and finity are phases of an identical expression.” They are constantly in dialectical motion, and therefore identity with this cosmic flux could result in ending up on the “wrong side” of the dance of manifestation (sorrow) just as much as it could result in ending up on the “right side” of nothingness (joy).

Crowley seems to undermine here the whole thesis of “Berashith,” in which is not just an equivalent part of an “identical expression” with manifestation, but is actually its first cause and ontological ground. Instead, Crowley inadvertently suggests what I would argue is closer to the truth contained in the Book of the Law, that nothingness and manifestation are in constant dialectical relationship, without one being primary over the other.

Furthermore, the Crowley of “Berashith” emphasizes here that, rather than existence being “pure joy” as the Book of the Law states, he still believes existence to be suffering. This is why he is afraid of ending up on the “wrong side” of the fence — he has not yet heard Nuit’s statement, in the Book of the Law, “Let there be no difference made among you between any one thing & any other thing; for thereby there cometh hurt. But whoso availeth in this, let him be the chief of all!”

Better, according to the younger Crowley, to practice his version of the Buddhist path, because the “Buddhist leaves no chances of this kind; in all his categories he is infinitely unextended,” he is diminished infinitely. Crowley’s (misleading) vision of Buddhist nirvana is the “extinction of all that exists, knows, or feels; extinction final and complete, utter and absolute extinction.”

Crowley’s version of the Buddhist Arahat infinitely diminishes or restricts his or her consciousness to the point of extinction. To me, this actually brings to mind the practice of the Black Brother of the Left-hand Path, the “formula of restriction” — the Black Brother being he who is ultimately “torn in pieces and reduced to his Elements against his Will.” (Perhaps there is something insightful about Crowley’s use of the word “Arahat” here after all; in some forms of Mahāyāna Buddhism, the aspiration to arhatship is considered to be selfish, an “outside path.”)

On the other hand, the dialectical mystic infinitely expands his or her consciousness, remaining open to all that exists — as Liber Cheth puts it, “Thou shalt mingle thy life with the universal life. Thou shalt keep not back one drop.” By doing so, the mystic remains within the “pure joy” of the dialectic of manifestation, experiencing all possibilities while also recognizing that they cancel out, signified by the emptying of every last drop of blood into the Cup of Babalon. As the later Crowley puts it in Magick Without Tears, “Unless ‘all you have and all you are’ is identical with the Universe, its annihilation would leave a surplus.”

Ultimately, Crowley’s understanding of liberation evolves from “Berashith,” to the point where his final position resembles something he rejected in that essay, while what he recommended actually resembles the villainous path in his later system. Maybe the Crowley of “Berashith” — who, when discussing Hegel’s insight that “pure being is pure nothing,” admits he feels “rather afraid of this Absolute” — was just not yet ready for the experience described in Liber Cheth. This younger Crowley wishes to extinguish the dance of manifestation altogether, rather than experience the “universal life.”

1 thought on ““Pure being is pure nothing!” An Addendum on “Berashith””

  1. Nicolas,

    Possibly, something might be added to an understanding of the topic of Being and Non-Being if it is considered from the point-of-view of the Four Levels of Reality epitomized in the Sacred Tetractys:

    The Divine World, the Primal ONE without a Second ^
    The Ideal World, through the One Idea of Creation, the rupture ^ ^
    of Divine Unity into Being/Non-Being
    The Spiritual World, True Reason, Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis ^ ^ ^
    The Physical World, Four-Fold Manifestation ^ ^ ^ ^

    In Poetic Form, the Ideal World:

    Nothing as Something

    Why is there being at all and not rather nothing?

    Because Being is a concomitant of Nothing
    And Nothing a concomitant of Being; that is,
    Being could not be Being without a substratum
    Of Nothing against which, as it were, to assert itself;
    And Nothing could not be Nothing without Being being
    Subtracted from Being to leave Nothing as a residuum.

    —John Urban

    The Ideal World, the World of the Transcendentals, Unity, Truth, Goodness, Beauty, is also the World of the Celestials; thus the fallen Angels Who represent Non-Being, the World of Matter (Chaos) and the “Good” Angels who represent Being (Form)

    The Four-Fold World of Manifestation:


    The Four Directions,
    In, Out, Up, Down;
    The Macrocosmic Cross.

    And, as Above, so Below,
    As Below, so Above;
    As the Inner, so the Outer,
    As the Outer, so the Inner.

    —John Urban

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