Compassion is the Vice of Kings
We have nothing with the outcast and the unfit: let them die in their misery. For they feel not. Compassion is the vice of kings: stamp down the wretched & the weak: this is the law of the strong: this is our law and the joy of the world. (AL 2.21)
Pity not the fallen! I never knew them. I am not for them. I console not: I hate the consoled & the consoler. (AL 2.48)
One of the more interesting aspects of Thelema is that the Law is not for those who have no ability to learn discipline or exhibit self-control. Wimps need not apply within. Those who need to feel secure only through the lies they tell and weave need not apply within. Facing life honestly, I believe, is a Thelemic virtue. Someone said recently to me that “Gnosticism is just too hard.” I agree. The whole idea that one must actually strive to know themselves at the deepest levels is hard work. It’s not an overnight miracle. It’s easy to throw your life at a church or a religion or a god, but it’s really hard to face yourself in the mirror when the only thing going for you is an illusion, a lie, a nightmare based on the false image you portray to others. Being real is the most difficult course in life. And being real is what the Law of Thelema demands of its adherents. And that is one of the most difficult things to do in this world today.
I remember once upon a time when some would interpret "the vice of kings" as either a dispassionate approach to every event in life or a compassionless love (whatever the hell that is supposed to mean) and many would offer up their twisted Nietzschean fantasies of supermen and slaves when talking about "stamp[ing] down the weak." But when I look deeper into these verses with the eyes of an exegete, keeping in mind that I want to see where the rubber meets the road, I see two things immediately.
First, I see that we have nothing to do with the outcast and unfit who have one common trait elaborated on here: they feel not. They don’t feel themselves. They don’t feel others. There is no connection that is not full of illusions. But take note of AL 2.48: "Pity not the fallen! I never knew them. I am not for them. I console not: I hate the consoled & the consoler." I believe there is a direct connection between these two verses. The key to this second verse is the final pericope "I console not: I hate the consoled & the consoler." This has everything to do with feeling and sympathy.
There are two kinds of sympathy: that which offers assistance and that which oozes pity.
The first is fairly straight-forward. Your brother breaks his leg and needs assistance in preparing his dinner until such time as he is capable of caring for himself without aid. This is a practical sympathy that follows in the nature of preserving life and the continuation of life. This kind of sympathy is a productive aspect of humanity and society. This is the part of human nature that is most often mistaken for a kind of altruistic syrup to be poured out over every situation. It is that which is also taken advantage more often and turned into the second kind of sympathy without regard for the difference between the two approaches.
The second is complex only in the nature of its manifestation. It could come in many different forms. It is a type of moral sympathy that presumes the form of an "ought" statement from one individual to another (or to a group), e.g., "You ought to be nice to me because my life has been rough." The implicit—and, many times, explicit—reasoning is that because one has some self-perceived deficiency, others ought to have sympathy for them and do whatever it is to relieve that individual’s hardships. This second type of sympathy could be called a "guilt complex" or "guilt trip." It is this particular type of sympathy that is despised within the Book of the Law. These individuals who have "fallen" and have become "the outcast and the unfit" are those who vying for consolation. Here we see, in this second verse, that the speaker says, "I console not." It specifically states that this pathological type of sympathy is out of the question. It goes further to say, "I hate the consoled & the consoler." The Book of the Law condemns, first, the consoled, the individual who allows themselves to sink so low as to feed off the emotions of others. It goes one step further and equates the consoler with the consoled: that is to say, the one who pities another, the one who allows themselves to be the target of another’s lack of self-esteem and self-worth, the one who allows themselves to be dragged down into the same emotional state that transforms mere productive assistance into worthless, helpless pity.
When we look back to the first verse, we read "let [the outcast and the unfit] die in their misery. For they feel not." Such an odd statement: "For the feel not." The individual who seeks out pity from another is one who cannot feel for themselves. They feed off the emotions (the feelings) of another. They are already dying in their misery. In reaching out for pity, they take from (redirect) the feelings of the consoler in order to stay alive emotionally. But here also we are told to "stamp down the wretched & the weak." Is this some kind of pathetic Nietzschean directive to a Thelemic Übermensch that demands individuals run around acting like assholes? No, of course not. We are being shown the signs of the weak and wretched, those who have no feelings beyond their own nihilistic narcissism, those who feed off the energy of others and attempt to turn their practical sympathy into a kind of pathological emotional sustenance.
Do this mean that we are not to have compassion or sympathy for others? Of course not. Such emotions are natural and normal to human beings. It’s not hard to find examples of individuals who have no compassion for those in actual need: mothers locking children away in closets and starving them, adult children sequestering their elderly parents away to avoid their needs, medical professionals turning away those of lesser means. But these are not examples of stamping down the wretched and the weak. These are not examples of the outcast and unfit dying in their misery. These are not examples of slaves under the feet of kings.
The quality of the individual who is portrayed in the Book of the Law as wretched and weak is directly related to the fallen, those who are consoled or attempt to be consoled by preying on the compassion of kings. The quality of a king, while not really the subject of this examination, is not about social wealth or status, but is an internal trait. Just because your brother breaks his leg and needs assistance in preparing a meal does not reduce him to some status of a slave. The one assisting, likewise, is not reduced to the status of slave. Should your brother’s leg heal and he continue to promote his need of your assistance in spite of the fact that his body has returned to a proper level of functioning and you feel something akin to guilt or obligation then you can be sure that you are being played and your brother has fallen and reduced himself—by means of his own actions, not through any judgment by others—to the level of the wretched and the weak.
Second, I see that kings have a trait so common as to be viewed as a vice, as something that is totally consuming in its hold over that king’s life; and that vice is compassion. Compassion is not some false pity. We do not pity people. We do not pity those who feel the need to lie about their lives, hide their insecurities in abhorrent and aberrant behavior toward others, or strive to find new and unusual ways to manipulate the people around them. These are not the actions and attitudes of someone who lives under the law of the strong. Looking at the first point above, there is a connection here when looking at this behavior of those who would seek attention, approval, pity, and pathological sympathy that goes beyond mere need. We could run into the area of ethics and politics here to discuss rational self-interest, but I’ll save that for another day. Suffice here to submit that what we see most often in social discussions of selflessness and altruistic measures are really more about being held captive by pity and guilt than providing assistance to those in actual need. It is the self-serving blank check on another’s life rather than the natural outpouring of generosity by those who have the wisdom to see past the prideful façade of those in true need. Pride, one of those kingly qualities found in the Book of the Law, has no place in the hearts of the wretched and the weak. Pride does not demand from others nor take from others by force that which is not its own even in its weakest moments of need. On the other hand, pride—pride in one’s self, pride in one’s community, pride in one’s environment—does seek to alleviate the need of those in times of struggle.
Kings feel. Kings feel deeply, I would submit. “Love one another with burning hearts,” the Book of the Law demands. “Wisdom says: be strong!” And there is more strength in the little pinky of a king who understands that his vice is not to be veiled in virtuous words interpreted as some New Age love-fest but a directed, dedicated, and firm empathy for all that is connected to him. Every man and every woman is a star. We are all a part of the Body of Nuit that brilliantly connects each of us to the other. This, as the Prophet states, is one of the most difficult doctrines of the Law. And I agree with him. We may believe, for better or for worse, that we are each the center of the universe (or even of only our own universe), but most seem to forget that the center is merely one point in the larger whole of that universe.1 From this perspective, then, I believe we can see it is our duty to be ever vigilant toward those who are less fortunate but to be guarded against those who would use their misfortunate as a weapon of destruction.
I call it my naiveté, but I believe in the good of human beings. I believe—or want to believe—that people don’t set out to maliciously deceive, hurt, cause pain, or violate other people. I realize that I could turn on the television to any news channel or scan various pages of any social networking site and be shown something different. But I choose to believe that we have the possibility of living the law of the strong, the law that lifts men up from the darkness of their own self-pity. I believe that we have the ability to show compassion to a world in need without being dragged down by those who would abuse that compassion for their own gain.
- And it is a very small point indeed. I’m reminded of the Douglas Adams scene in one of his books where the analogy for one of the gadgets is that a person is shown the enormous vastness of all creation in one, momentary glimpse along with a tiny little marker that says, “You are here,” putting the insignificance of one’s existence into universal perspective. [↩]