What Most People Would Call Evil: The Archontic Spirituality of William S. Burroughs

Tommy Cowan


This paper argues that the true depth of William Seward Burroughs II’s ideological legacy within Western esotericism has been somewhat underappreciated by historians of religion, and this is evidenced by the insufficient credit Burroughs has thus far received for his pivotal role in the emergence of the “2012 phenomenon.” The purpose of this paper is to distinguish Burroughs’ works as centrally spiritual, thus providing a context that can allow scholars to properly measure the communities that gravitate to his ideas. The body of this paper begins by examining Burroughs’ role in the 2012 phenomenon, and it will be argued that “anti-magical polemics” are perhaps partly responsible for somewhat reducing the awareness of Burroughs’ roles in esoteric currents of the twentieth century. A diachronic comparison is then undertaken by analyzing Gnosticism to provide a foundational context for situating Burroughs’ worldview as a transhistorical pattern of thought that herein will be defined as ‘archontism.’ The concept of archontism is then used to more accurately classify Burroughs’ literature as ‘books of the dead,’ and this paper concludes with a refutation of anti-magical polemics that explicitly denigrate the study of esotericism.

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