A Bizarre but Interesting Parallel
Posted by turmarion
Consider the following two quotations:
And suddenly all was changed. I saw a great assembly of gigantic forms all motionless, all in deepest silence, standing forever about a little silver table and looking upon it. And on the table there were little figures like chessmen who went to and fro doing this and that. And I knew that each chessman was the idolum or puppet representative of some one of the great presences that stood by. And the acts and motions of each chessman were a moving portrait, a mimicry or pantomime, which delineated the inmost nature of his giant master. And these chessmen are men and women as they appear to themselves and to one another in this world. And the silver table is Time. And those who stand and watch are the immortal souls of those same men and women.
Consider for an Example the Game and Play of the Chess, which is a Pastime of Man, and worthy to exercise him in Thought, yet by no means necessary to his Life, so that he sweepeth away Board and Pieces at the least Summons of that which is truly dear to him. Thus unto him this Game is as it were an Illusion. But insofar as he entereth into the Game he abideth by the Rules thereof, though they be artificial and in no wise proper to his Nature; for in this Restriction is all this Pleasure. Therefore, though he hath All-Power to move the Pieces at his own Will, he doth it not, enduring Loss, Indignity, and Defeat rather than destroy that Artifice of Illusion. Think then that thou hast thyself created this Shadow-world the Universe, and that it pleasureth thee to watch or to actuate its Play according to the Law that thou hast made, which yet bindeth thee not save only by Virtue of thine own Will to do thine own Pleasure therein.
The similarities are striking. Both are written in pseudo-Biblical English and both compare human life to the game of chess. The similarity is deeper, though. Both see the true nature of human souls as transcendent, existing beyond time and space. The chess pieces are humans as they perceive themselves and are perceived by others. In reality, though, the pieces are mere reflections or puppets of humans as they really are. To put it another way, life as we experience it is “real” only insofar as we have forgotten our true nature. Our actions express that nature to a degree, but only imperfectly. For the most part, we’ve forgotten that it’s “just a game”, and take our worldly successes and failures more seriously than we otherwise might.
This is not unlike the Hindu concept of līlā, which is generally translated as “play”. Līlā is not any play, however, but the play of Brahman, that is, God. The cosmos is seen as the arena created by God in which He can express Himself through manifestation. There is no “reason” that He creates the world beyond Divine play. All of us are tiny facets of God, the great Ātman (soul or self) of which our own minuscule ātmans are as drops in the sea. We’ve forgotten who we are, and liberation comes from the insight that there is no ultimate separation between ourselves and the Absolute. This is expressed in the classic aphorism “Tat tvam asi,” that is, “Thou art That,” the “That” being Brahman.
Not to drag out the suspense, but neither of the authors of the above passages was Hindu. They were both British and rough contemporaries, both producing most of their best-known work in the mid-20th Century; but aside from that, not only did they have little in common, but they would be perceived by most as almost polar opposites. The first quotation is by C. S. Lewis, from last chapter of his book The Great Divorce. The second is by Aleister Crowley, from Liber Aleph vel CXI: The Book of Wisdom or Folly, Chapter Beta-eta. Lewis was an Anglican and an apologist for Christianity in general. Crowley was an occultist and founder of the magickal (his spelling) and occult religion known as Thelema. One can hardly imagine two less similar men; and yet their thinking was clearly and strikingly convergent, at least in this instance.
What to make of this? I have no particularly profound insights. What I would say is that certain notions tend to crop up repeatedly in philosophy, theology, psychology, and mythology. It is said that “great minds think alike”; but even great minds can agree and still be wrong. At one time, the greatest minds all believed in a geocentric cosmos, after all. Still, convergence, especially between thinkers with very different beliefs and perspectives and who were unlikely to have influenced each other (Crowley might just possibly have read Lewis, but I can hardly imagine the opposite!), often indicates ideas worth pursuing. Here, both men are saying that in one sense, this world and our perceptions of it and ourselves are not fully real, at least not in the deepest sense. Not only are Lewis and Crowley aligned on this, but as I noted, they align also with Hindu thought. For that matter, the idea that the cosmos as constituted is unreal or hides a deeper reality is very much a Gnostic notion, as well.
Make of all this what you will. I think there’s something to it, though I’m not at a point where I’m willing–or able–to write a detailed treatise on the matter (though I may in the future). Still, it’s interesting, and definitely food for thought.
Update 18 August 2021: I did a bit of research on the timeline of publication of the books containing these two quotes. Crowley wrote Liber Aleph in 1918, at which time Lewis was a young man serving at the front in World War I. Thus, Crowley was certainly not influenced by Lewis. It was originally published in Equinox, the magazine of Crowley’s occult order, the A∴A∴ (Argentum Astrum), and not in book form until 1962. Equinox would not have been publicly available until after Crowley’s death in 1947; and the reprints were likely not widely circulated even then. The book form of Liber Aleph came out the year before Lewis’s death, so he could hypothetically have read it. However, The Great Divorce was written in 1945, at which time Lewis would have had no access to Equinox, and at which time the book format was yet to be published; thus, Crowley could not have been an influence on Lewis in this passage. There was enough overlap in their lives that they could possibly have read some of each other’s books (though that seems unlikely); but any such reading could not account for the parallel here. It therefore is a coincidence, or perhaps convergence, and a striking one at that.
Posted on 07/04/2019, in Christianity, religion, religions and tagged Aleister Crowley, C. S. Lewis, Chess, Christianity, cosmos, human nature, metaphysics, religion, religions, Thelema. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.
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