Daily Archives: August 1, 2010


What sort of world would we have if we all could do just as we wished?

The question puts me in mind of the song “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” which describes a sort of hobo’s Cockaigne, with free booze, free sugar, nothing to do but lounge around… To me it sounds like a land of obese diabetic alcoholics with rotten teeth, and I say this as someone who enjoys alcohol, sugar, and unhealthy foods! A land “where they hung the jerk that invented work” is a land where nothing ever gets accomplished. But is this the sort of place that we would get if all could do as they wished? Or is it merely a fantasy provoked by lack of freedom?

Certainly there are many who think that following the dictates of our desires would actually produce the best results. Libertarians hew to a philosophy in that direction; so do Wiccans, whose creed (or, rather, rede) is “An it harm none, do what you will” (If it harms no one, do what you want). And so did Gargantua.

Who? Gargantua was a character invented in the 1500s by François Rabelais. (Yes, Gargantua was very large; we get gargantuan from him.) He founded an abbey with a swimming pool, maid service, and no clocks in sight. Here is a quote from Gargantua and Pantagruel:

All their life was spent not in laws, statutes, or rules, but according to their own free will and pleasure. They rose out of their beds when they thought good; they did eat, drink, labour, sleep, when they had a mind to it and were disposed for it. None did awake them, none did offer to constrain them to eat, drink, nor to do any other thing; for so had Gargantua established it. In all their rule and strictest tie of their order there was but this one clause to be observed,

Do What Thou Wilt;

because men that are free, well-born, well-bred, and conversant in honest companies, have naturally an instinct and spur that prompteth them unto virtuous actions, and withdraws them from vice, which is called honour. Those same men, when by base subjection and constraint they are brought under and kept down, turn aside from that noble disposition by which they formerly were inclined to virtue, to shake off and break that bond of servitude wherein they are so tyrannously enslaved; for it is agreeable with the nature of man to long after things forbidden and to desire what is denied us.

And what was this abbey called? The Abbey of Thélème. From which we get this word that describes those who believe in doing just as they list: thelemite. The source of this is the Greek word θελημα, thelema, noun, “will”; in modern Greek, “I want” is θελω.

Thelemite may seem a rather lax, even effete, word, with its seeming lisp; the liquid /l/ in the middle adds to the relaxation, and the hum of the /m/ may seem to lull to sleep. It has echoes of such words as sodomite and catamite, which may not help its tone. There is that sound of might at the end, but is that strength or simply possibility that might or might not be fulfilled?

But, indeed, what is to say that these unfettered souls may not spend their time in producing great works? If one wants to do good work, then that is what one wants, and so mote it be. We all like to work on things we consider worthwhile: for example, it’s Saturday night on a long weekend, and here I am writing about words. So these thelemites might be formulating thrilling theorems or simply augmenting their wealth (selling thermite?). Or health: they could be setting new records in the swimming pool (though without clocks, how would they know?). Or they could simply be enjoying some vegemite on toast, brought to them by their maid, who perhaps is named Thelma.

Now, that maid, though, those maids… Are they also thelemites? And can one have thelemites without maids? This might be a bit of a dilemma of thelema…