Rabelais: The First Thelemite
Feb. 4, 1494 – Apr. 9, 1553
by Brother Gerald del Campo
Very little is available, to those of us who have embraced the Law of Thelema, pertaining to proper conduct, behavior, or etiquette. Aleister Crowley gave us some material, most of it consisting of Liber AL, Duty, Liber Oz, etc. This material, however, is open to interpretation, and in some instances, there are details that cannot be openly discussed without becoming “centers of pestilence.”
Francois Rabelais dreamt of a place called The Abbey of Thelema where the law would be, “Do as thou wouldst.” His plan was greatly detailed, leaving very little to dispute, and this makes him a perfect source of information for Thelemic living, forming a Thelemic community, or at the very least; for the proper conduct for those of us who have embraced these principles. He was so exact in his descriptions of the architecture that a modern architect was able actually construct his Abbey of Thelemé.
He was a Catholic monk who lived in the 15th century France. Rabelais loved the monastic lifestyle, but could not agree with many of the principles embodied by the Church. It is interesting to note, that he was alive at time when the Roman Catholic Church was at a crisis, and Calvinism began to spread throughout Europe. This provided Rabelais with the opportunity to “jump ship;” an opportunity he decided to pass up.
Despite his disagreements with its dogma, and that he would ridicule the priesthood in his works, he preferred to remain faithful to the Roman Catholic Church. This got him into much trouble, as he could not keep his mouth shut. Rabelais was a learned, very well spoken man, whose dialogue was so intriguing he was often sought out by the higher elite class of France to attend social functions: His well-to-do friends got him out of trouble many times when the Church wanted to send him to the stake; he appears to have loved decadent living.
He was a man of the times. The Western world was exposed for the first time to the Byzantine culture when Constantinople fell. Gunpowder was employed for the first time and brought the end to the age of Chivalry and Honor. The invention of the printing press brought knowledge to everyone, and topics like science, warfare, fencing, astronomy, medicine, architecture, zoology, botany, and chemistry fascinated and molded Rabelais psyche. He began his career as a writer by editing the medical works of Hippocrates and others. He was a man in love with knowledge who was intimately familiar and obsessed with medieval philosophy.
Because he believed in the dignity of humanity he was referred to as a humanist. He believed that it was man’s right to enjoy all things of pleasure and was therefore labeled a hedonist. Over the years he has became somewhat of a legend, Crowley’s respect for Rabelais certainly cannot be underestimated, probably due to the fact that Crowley shared Rabelais prankster-like quality.
His father was a successful lawyer, and his mother was a woman of some nobility. He was born February 4, 1494 in a place called La Deviniere, and was baptized at the church of Saint-Pierre de Seuilly; a Benedictine abbey. He had a sister and two brothers to share in the family estate at the death of his parents. It is rumored that he did not receive his share due to the fact that he had entered a religious order known as the Franciscan Order, and although he believed poverty to be “an affliction like no other”, had taken a vow of poverty.
His mind was shaped by three disciplines: Medicine, Theology, and Law.
At the monastery, he had gotten into considerable trouble for having a library of Greek books at a time when the Church perceived such works as heresies. This library was taken by his superiors, but was restored thanks to an admirer with considerable clout. Rabelais was then encouraged to leave the Franciscan Order and seek admission to a more liberal organ of the Church known as The Benedictine Order.
The root of his ideas emerged from the wellspring of classical literature. The banned works of pagan Greek and Roman writers provided Rabelais with much of his ideology. During a time of oppressive Christianity, there was nothing dated or outworn about Plato, Cicero, Livy and others. During those oppressive times, the rediscovery of the classics was to Rabelais indistinguishable to rediscovering truth.
He was concerned with the development of human virtue in all forms to the fullest possible extent. Not just qualities like understanding, kindness, empathy or forgiveness, but also courage, discrimination, discretion, articulacy and even love of honor. He held that action without insight was pointless and barbaric, and likewise rejected insight without action as unproductive and flawed. He looked upon philosophy and poetry as ways to educate of the young and instruct adults (especially rulers). His work, may sound exaggerated to the modern mind, but his criticism of the various bureaucracies of his time was quiet realistic. Held humanity in such high regard that he subscribed to the utopian idea that men and women, when left to their own devices, would be true to their own nature, and do the right thing in every case. In short, with his writings, he called for the comprehensive reform of culture.
His works were compiled into one tome containing five books. Much of what he wrote got him into trouble with ecclesiastical authorities. On more than one occasion the stake was prepared to greet him, but managed to stay alive by disappearing; sometimes for several years at a time.
Sometime after 1530, he decided to turn in his robes for a medical career, which he pursued at the University of Montpellier. He had found his calling; from here forward he would be known as “Master Francois Rabelais, Doctor of Medicine.” He later went back to the Church, and was given permission to practice his medicine wearing the priestly robes. The only catch was that he would not operate or dissect humans, and that he would not charge for his services. In his usual mutinous manner, he ignored the order given him not to dissect, and in 1537 we find him in Montpellier lecturing in Greek and dissecting cadavers!
There is an incident which would indicate that he was held in high regards by the Church. It is rumored that in 1540 Rabelais became the father of a bastard son whose name was Theodule; who was to die at birth. It is said that “princes of the Church” attended the funeral
His works were often censored and labeled heretical. He became so disillusioned that he wrote he would give up writing all together, but as one will see, this lack of enthusiasm did not last.
He died in France April 9, 1553, and was buried in St. Paul’s Cemetery.
Thelemites should really make the study of Rabelais and contemplate what he had to say about Thelema, and the Abbey. His writing is so smart, candid and entertaining, that I would recommend the interested student to spend an afternoon reading into the mind of one of the greatest, perhaps the first, Thelemic visionaries in recorded history. He was one of the fathers of Western realism, precursor of modernism and humanist. Rabelais was a great influence on other writers such as Jonathan Swift, Laurence Sterne, James Joyce and Aleister Crowley.
He was a social critic, a lucid testimonial of humanistic ethics, and his writings were convincing, if often extreme, proposals for human rights. His targets were (and still continue to be) social institutions and intellectual discipline, concentrating mostly on religious tenets which suppress creativity, governmental bodies which reward hypocrisy, learning institutions that encourage idleness, and philosophical techniques that obscure elemental reality. He was a proponent for human dignity and believed it could be achieved by bringing the physical and the mental into a healthy balance. He believed true learning to be a birthright, the genuineness and importance of direct experience.
It will quickly become apparent to the reader that much of Rabelais’ descriptions are as impractical for modern life as they were in his time. It is hoped that that this will not discourage the truly devoted Thelemite: It is presented this in hopes that it will stimulate the unique creativeness within the individual; that together we might dream a little; as Rabelais did; and that we may live to create a way of life which we can be proud of.
The Abbey of Theleme
As excerpted from The Portable Rabelais: The Uninhibited Adventures of Gargantua and Pantagruel, (Viking Press, 1960), in the lively modern version by Samuel Putnam and with his revealing introductory essay:
How Gargantua Had the Abbey of Theleme Built for the Monk
There remained the monk to provide for. Gargantua wanted to make him Abbot of Seuilly, but the friar refused. He wanted to give him the Abbey of Bourgueil or that of Saint-Florent, whichever might suit him best, or both, if he had a fancy for them. But the monk gave a peremptory reply to the effect that he would not take upon himself any office involving the government of others.
“For how,” he demanded, “could I govern others, who cannot even govern myself? If you are of the opinion that I have done you, or may be able to do you in the future, any worthy service, give me leave to found an abbey according to my own plan.”
This request pleased Gargantua, and the latter offered his whole providence of Theleme, lying along the River Loire, at a distance of two leagues from the great Forest of Port-Huault. The monk then asked that he be permitted to found a convent that should be exactly the opposite of all other institutions of the sort.
“In the first place, then,” said Gargantua, “you don’t want to build any walls around it; for all the other abbeys have plenty of those.”
“Right you are,” said the monk, “for where there is a wall in front and behind there is bound to be a lot of murmuring, jealousy and plotting on the inside.”
Moreover, in view of the fact that in certain convents in this world there is a custom, if any woman (by which, I mean any modest or respectable one) enters the place, to clean up thoroughly after her wherever she has been – in view of this fact, a regulation was drawn up to the effect that if any monk or nun should happen to enter this new convent, all the places they had set foot in were to be thoroughly scoured and scrubbed. And since, in other convents, everything is run, ruled, and fixed by hours, it was decreed that in this one there should not be any clock or dial of any sort, but that whatever work there was should be done whenever occasion offered. For, as Gargantua remarked, the greatest loss of time he knew was to watch the hands of the clock.
What good came of it? It was the greatest foolishness in the world to regulate one’s conduct by the tinkling of a timepiece, instead of by intelligence and good common sense.
Another feature: Since in those days women were not put into convents unless they were blind in one eye, lame, hunchbacked, ugly, misshapen, crazy, silly, deformed, and generally of no account, and since men did not enter a monastery unless they were snotty-nosed, underbred, dunces, and trouble-makers at home –
“Speaking of that,” said the monk, “of what use is a woman who is neither good nor good to look at?”
“Put her in a convent,” said Gargantua.
“Yes,” said the monk, “and set her to making shirts.”
And so, it was decided that in this convent they would receive only the pretty ones, the ones with good figures and sunny dispositions, and only the handsome, well set-up, good-natured men.
Since in the convents of women, men never entered, except underhandedly and by stealth, it was provided that, in this one, there should be no women unless there were men also, and no men unless there were also women.
Inasmuch as many men, as well as women, once received into a convent were forced and compelled, after a year of probation, to remain there all the rest of their natural lives — in view of this, it was provided that, here, both men and women should be absolutely free to pick up and leave whenever they happened to feel like it.
Whereas, ordinarily, the religious take three vows, namely, those of chastity, poverty and obedience, it was provided, that, in this abbey, one might honorably marry, that each one should be rich, and that all should live in utter freedom.