François Rabelais was an early humanist writer, living from about 1487 through 1553, during the French Renaissance. He wrote in a style of comic allegory which was common at the time, allowing for criticism of the social order in the guise of “jests” which might be unacceptable in polemic writing. His works, Gargantua and Pantagruel are considered to be among history’s greatest literature.
Rabelais, while a Franciscan monk, was a scholar and student of science, languages, and law. He was later a teacher of medicine at the progressive University of Montpellier. He was widely respected by other humanists of the day and was persecuted within the Franciscan order. The Pope allowed him to abrogate his Franciscan vows and enter the more tolerant Benedictine Order.
Rabelais’ writing was not high minded, rather amusing, jocular, and bawdy. He soundly satirized the Church and its rituals. It was condemned by the Sorbonne and by the Catholic Church, however written at a time when the popularity of printing and printed books was exploding, it gained widespread attention and admiration.
Persecuted by the University of Paris, Rabelais fled to the Free Imperial City of Metz, eventually returning to die in Paris under the protection of King Francis I. His legacy outlived his detractors and his statue graces the Louvre Palace and numerous libraries and studies aroudn the world. He inspired writers from Jonathan Swift, whose Gulliver’s Travels was heavily influenced by Rabelais, to Cervantes, Balzac, Cabell and Nabokov.
Rabelais paved the way for countless other humanist writers, including Voltaire. In his seriocomic depiction of the “Abbey of Thelema,” he depicted a utopian society that was both honorable and decadent, focused on human needs rather than high-minded philosophy. Rabelais’ coarse and bawdy style provided a model for generations of students, and “Rabelasian” was a common 19th century term for hedonism, though Rabelais’ utopian society had stoic influences as well.
Rabelais’ Abbey enshrined the law as “Do as thou wouldst.” Writers before Crowley, including Walter Besant and James Rice, played with the idea of a modern-day Abbey of Thelema. The hedonistic Hell-fire club of Sir Francis Dashwood placed his motto over the entrance. From 1885-1934 a prominent Paris Cabaret was named “The Abbey of Thelema,” catering to high class clientele and avant-garde arts.
While it is often put forward that “Thelema” is the Greek word for “Will,” it’s tecnical meaning in Greek is less precise. Rabelais generated numerous new French words through Greek and Latin loanwords, and it is best understood in regards to the Thelemic philosophy as a French word, given its distinctive meaning by Rabelais in the early 16th century.
In his 1926 essay “The Antecedents of Thelema” Crowley makes no secret of Rabelais’ direct influence, saying “We may then conclude that the masterpiece of Rabelais contains in singular perfection a clear forecast of the Book which was to be revealed by Aiwass to Ankh-f-n-khonsu 370 years later.”