Religion, so Blake believed, was the basic problem of mankind. Early in his life he conceived the idea of a fundamental and universal religion that he developed throughout his life.
He was born in the third – Revolutionary – generation of the eighteenth century. The orthodox Anglican Church had become devoted to place-hunting and was spiritually dead. The Dissenters considered themselves members of this church, but keep apart. Deism had captured the intellectual world and established the “Age of Reason” by denying all miracles and revelations. Generally the public was hostile to all religious controversies, which had been responsible for some of the bloodiest pages in religion. “Enthusiasm” was a term of contempt.
Dissenters, Anglicans, Deists, Jews, Catholics, Pantheists, Kabbalists, Hindus, Buddhists, Rationalists: All Belief Systems are Products of the Human Imagination
Nevertheless – or consequently – things were stirring beyond the bounds of orthodoxy and “common sense.” The Friends (Quakers) long since had swept away all ritual, and depended solely on the Voice of the Spirit addressed to the individual. The Methodists, also preaching the immediate experience of God, had opened the inner life of man and reintroduced emotion into religion. Then there was the small sect of Behmenists, who studied his obscure metaphysics in the handsome “Law edition”. Thomas Taylor was preaching Platonism as the true religion and publishing translations of the mystical woks of the classical philosophers. But most provocative were the revelations of the famous scientist Swedenborg, who claimed the ability to travel in the spiritual worlds of heaven and hell.
Blake read and pondered all these things, and more. “No man can think, write, or speak from his heart, but he must intend truth”. There was some truth in all of them, and those truths he wanted. He was following the advice of St Paul: “Prove all things: hold fast that which is good”. But Blake never accepted anything that was not a psychological fact.
He knew the Bible thoroughly, reading it symbolically, “for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life”. He knew his Milton by heart – he apparently was the first man to understand what Milton was writing about – and in spite of his great admiration, disagreed with some of Milton’s conclusions. If he read the Church Fathers, it was chiefly to learn about the heresies they attacked. But he read everything else that he could find in English, with a thoroughness which probably had not been paralleled since Milton. Although at first ignorant of other languages, he covered an extraordinary range of material, particularly seeking out those uncanonical writings which the authorities had ignored or “answered” and condemned.
Somewhere he found the repudiated doctrines of the ancient Gnostics and in 1793 adopted their evil creator, the Demiurge, for his own Urizen. He studied Plato and dismissed Aristotle. From Bryant or Stukeley or Davies, he accepted the idea that Druidism began in Britain and spread over the rest of the world, being the origin of Greek and all other pagan philosophies; it was responsible for the universal practice of human sacrifice.
He read and was much impressed by the Bhagavad-Gita. He borrowed a couple of ideas from the Koran. He found Lilith in the rabbinical tradition. He studied the materialists Bacon, Newton, and Locke; admired their genius but condemned their ideas, especially as they prepared the way for the Deists. On the other hand, he read the mystics St. Teresa, Fénelon, Mme Guyon, and particularly Lavater, in whose aphorisms he found great stimulus. He also read the mystical alchemists Paracelsus and Behmen, and was particularly indebted to Swedenborg. He helped himself silently to their best ideas and scolded them thoroughly for their errors.
The extraordinary thing is that Blake reconciled all these warring philosophers so that they fitted, or at least were accounted for, in his own philosophy. He was devoted to the Bible; yet he agreed with Paine in his strictures. The only trouble with Paine was that he did not go far enough to see the limitations of those strictures. Nor did Blake ever disagree so completely with anyone as might be supposed. He attacked most fiercely those whose genius he genuinely admired; just because they were great, their errors were the most dangerous. Even the scoffer Voltaire had his role in the divine providence; the Holy Ghost had inspired him to expose the literal sense of the Bible, thus clearing the way for the truth. “He who is out of the Church & opposes it is no less an Agent of Religion than he who is in it; to be an Error & to be Cast out is a part of God’s design.” Furthermore, “those who contemn Religion & seek to annihilate it become in their Feminine portions the causes and promoters of these Religions.” Blake’s infernal trinity of Bacon, Newton, and Locke at the end are exalted in heaven as the greatest scientists. Contraries are equally true and are essential to each other.
Blake’s religion was planned to be all-inclusive. To be exclusive would be incomplete. Therefore, instead of weighing the respective credibilities of contradictory dogmas or the preferability of various rituals, he evaded the wrangling of the sects and struck straight to the heart of the matter, which he found in the human soul.
There is No Natural Religion
From his two tracts of 1788, we learn that he had already dethroned reason from its ancient place as the supreme faculty of man, replacing it with the Imagination. Therefore he attacked the Deists: “There is No Natural Religion.” The Imagination he called the Poetic Genius, which is the “true man”, creator of the outward body. All men are alike in this genius, however various they may be as individuals; all religions and philosophies are derived from it; therefore “All Religions are One.”
Earlier, Blake had identified the Poetic Genius with God, and while there is a distinction, there is no contradiction, for man was made in the image of God. The point come out more clearly in ‘The Divine Image’: “Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love/Is God, our father dear … Then every man of every clime,/That prays in his distress,/Prays to the human form divine,/Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.”
The worldly religions were all derived from Nature. The Deists drew their conclusions by logic from the material world, but before that, the poets had drawn theirs by imaginative insight. “The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses … And particularly they studied the genius of each city & country, placing it under its mental deity; till a system was formed, which some took advantage of, & enslav’d the vulgar by attempting to realise or abstract the mental deities from their objects: thus began Priesthood … Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast.”
Nature is a Product not a Cause of Religion, a Representation rather than a Vision
Blake’s religion became really all-inclusive when he decided that “every thing lives is holy”. This was a natural conclusion from the ancient belief that all things were created from the divine substance. Nature is a projection of man, and therefore “Tree, Metal, Earth & Stone” are admitted to the divine bosom in their “Human Forms”. The human body is also a projection of the inner man; its beauty and its instincts are all holy; even its worst vices spring from staminal virtues and are “the highest sublimities in the spiritual world”.
Man’s body is also the temple of the Holy Ghost [the Human Imagination], who inspires each individual according to his special potentialities. One should obey this Divine Voice within, carrying out its behests – doing the work one was born to do. Thus and thus only does God manifest in this world. And thus only can the individual achieve happiness. To this end, Liberty is essential; and Liberty (Jerusalem) is the central inspiration of all mankind.
But one must also recognise the Divine Voice in others. “The worship of God is: Honouring his gifts in other men, each according to his genius, and loving the greatest men best: those who envy or calumniate great men hate God: for there is no other God”.
Forgiveness vs. Ego
“Brotherhood is Religion”. The brotherhood of Man, which is the only solution to our personal and international problems, is made possible by the great discovery of Jesus, the mutual forgiveness of sins, which differentiates Christianity from all other religions. One must learn to distinguish the essentially good individual from the state of error through which he is travelling. Blake searched the Scriptures and found examples, from the forgiveness of Cain through the forgiveness of Mary.
For the true religion is eternal, and was manifesting long before Jesus revealed it. “All had originally one language and one religion: this was the religion of Jesus, the everlasting Gospel. Antiquity preaches the Gospel of Jesus”.
Blake’s religion was one of joy. From the play of childhood to the supreme ecstasy, life should be joy. The happiness of man is the glory of God, and Blake took it for granted there was no other. That is heaven. “Men are admitted into Heaven not because they have curbed & govern’d their Passions or have No Passions, but because they have Cultivated their Understandings. The Treasures of Heaven are not Negations of Passion, but Realities of Intellect, from which all the Passions Emanate Uncurbed in their Eternal Glory. The Fool shall not enter into Heaven let him be ever so Holy. Holiness is not The Price of Enterance into Heaven.”
Opposed to the true religion is the false religion of this world, whose God is Satan. “Man must & will have Some Religion: if he has not the Religion of Jesus, he will have the Religion of Satan & will erect the Synagogue of Satan, calling the Prince of this World, God, and destroying all who do not worship Satan under the Name of God. Will anyone say ‘Where are those who worship Satan under the Name of God?’ Where are they? Listen! Every Religion that Preaches Vengeance for Sin is the Religion of the Enemy & Avenger and not of the Forgiver of Sin, and their God is Satan, Named by the Divine Name”. “Vengeance” was Blake’s subtle and precise substitution for “punishment”.
The error began with the primal sin, when Adam and Eve, by eating the apple, invented the false values of Good and Evil, and set themselves up as judges over all others. They were pre-empting God’s place and arrogating his function. The error reached its climax in the promulgation of the Ten Commandments, which subjected Individuals to general laws and restricted their energies by negations. So the system of Justice was formed, with its infernal trinity of Accuser, Judge, and Executioner. Jesus came to abrogate this system, under which he was crucified. But it revived as Deism, which has corrupted all the churches.
The false religion is perfectly logical; in fact, it is the product of Urizen. As he wandered, lost in his sorrows, “a cold shadow follow’d behind him, like a spider’s web … and all call’d it The Net of Religion.” Beneath it the senses are limited; man materialises and shrinks; and the creation according to Genesis ensues. The tale is repeated in The Four Zoas, with the conclusion that the Net becomes saturated with tears and falls, entangling Urizen in his own Net. A picture of this event ends The Book of Urizen; it had already appeared in ‘The Human Abstract’.
The worldly religion is also likened to a fiery wheel, the cherub’s revolving sword of flame which bars man from re-entering Paradise. This wheel turns against the current of creation, limiting sun and moon and shrinking man into “a little root a fathom long”. “Jesus died because he strove against the current of this Wheel; its Name is Caiaphas, the dark Preacher of Death, of sin, of sorrow & punishment: opposing Nature! It is Natural Religion; but Jesus is the bright Preacher of Life”.
Another symbol for the worldly religion is Urizen’s Tree of Mystery, the tree of Moral Values. Among other things, this has produced the cruel religion of sex (or “generation”). Urizen’s temple of sex, “builded … in the image of the human heart,” with its “Secret place, reversing all the order of delight … the hidden wonders, allegoric of the Generations of secret lust”, and its priests and priestesses “cloth’d in disguises beastial, inspiring secrecy” is described in The Four Zoas.
It can be understood why Blake often used “religion” as a smear word. The Orc in him would “scatter religion abroad to the four winds as a torn book, & none shall gather the leaves”. The Los in him declared: “their God I will not worship in their Churches, nor King in their Theatres”; he would “overthrow their cup, their bread, their altar-table, their incense & their oath, their marriage & their baptism, their burial & consecration”, for their rituals have lost all meaning and are the Antichrist.
Eventually Blake admitted the original and hence fundamental goodness of the churches (Cathedral Cities), but thought that they had become corrupted almost past hope. Only the Divine Imagination, operating through the poet, could save them.
As individuals, men are separate from each other; but they are united by their Humanities. Therefore Los orders: “Go to these Fiends of Righteousness, tell them to obey their Humanities & not pretend Holiness when they are murderers”. “Thy [Satan’s] purpose & the purpose of thy Priests & of thy Chuches is to impress on men the fear of death; to teach Trembling & fear, terror, constriction; abject selfishness. Mine is to teach Men to despise death & to go on in fearless majesty, annihilating Self, Laughing to scorn thy Laws & terrors, shaking down thy Synagogues as webs. I come to discover before Heav’n & Hell the Self righteousness in all its Hypocritic turpitude, opening to every eye these wonders of Satan’s holiness, shewing to the Earth the Idol Virtues of the Natural Heart, & Satan’s Seat explore in all its Selfish Natural Virtue, & put off in Self annihilation all that is not of God alone, to put off Self & all I have, ever & ever. Amen”.
The Self seems to be the Individual but is not. It is the Selfhood, the false front put up to fool oneself and protect oneself from the world; it is Selfishness, the cruel pride which made Lucifer fall; it is the last enemy, and must be sacrificed. “Cannot Men exist without Mysterious Offering of Self for Another? is this Friendship & Brotherhood? … Wouldest thou love one who never died for thee, or ever die for one who had not died for thee? And if God dieth not for Man & giveth not himself Eternally for Man, Man could not exist; for Man is Love as God is Love; every kindness to another is a little Death in the Divine Image, nor can Man exist but by Brotherhood.”
S. Foster Damon was an American academic, a specialist in William Blake, a critic and a poet. He is perhaps best remembered for his ground-breaking work A Blake Dictionary (1965), from which the above article is taken. It remains a key text for any student of Blake.