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Democracy’s Mysticism: Thoughts on "All Religions are One," by Blake

All Religions are One
William Blake

The Voice of one crying in the Wilderness

The Argument. As the true method of knowledge is experiment, the true faculty of knowing must be the faculty which experiences. This faculty I treat of.

Principle I. That the Poetic Genius is the true Man, and that the body or outward form of Man is derived from the Poetic Genius. Likewise that the forms of all things are derived from their Genius, which by the Ancients was call’d an Angel & Spirit & Demon.

Principle II. As all men are alike in outward form, So (and with the same infinite variety) all are alike in the Poetic Genius.

Principle III. No man can think, write or speak from his heart, but he must intend truth. Thus all sects of Philosophy are from the Poetic Genius adapted to the weaknesses of every individual.

Principle IV. As none by travelling over known lands can find out the unknown, So from already acquired knowledge Man could not acquire more; therefore an universal Poetic genius exists.

Principle V. The Religions of all Nations are derived from each Nation’s different reception of the Poetic Genius, which is every where call’d the Spirit of Prophecy.

Principle VI. The Jewish & Christian Testaments are An original derivation from the Poetic Genius. This is necessary from the confined nature of bodily sensation.

Principle VII. As all men are alike (tho’ infinitely various), So all Religions , &, as all similars, have one source.
The true Man is the source, he being the Poetic Genius.

Commentary:

The argument of this statement of principles reminds me of Kant’s declaration in the Critique of Pure Reason. In the Introduction, he states “that all knowledge begins with experience there can be no doubt.” So the Kantian project of reconciling science and philosophy is in the background for me as I go through these principles.

If you cannot conceive of a conflict between science and philosophy, try to imagine what living philosophically might mean. It could mean using reason to restrain one’s wants and live with less; it could mean thinking about Being in order to better understand one’s true purpose, and live as virtuously as possible. Modern science takes as its point of departure the betterment of our lives in terms of us having more and being able to do more. Heidegger explicitly asserts that practicality was prior to theoretical endeavors as regards the emergence of science in the Enlightenment; one can see this most clearly in the thought of Francis Bacon, where true charity lies in the advancing of the sciences so as to let people live better and do more. Discovering the nature of the cosmos is not a goal, but something that happens incidentally while trying to solve perceived problems.

In any case, the tie between experience and experiment implies that the everyday is the realm of true knowledge. Now we might be very skeptical of this, for good reason. Most people live day-to-day in utter and total ignorance, tolerating and perpetuating massive injustices, thinking of themselves only all of the time, etc. But Blake is going to assert the primacy of everyday experience a curious way.

First, he asserts there is a “Poetic Genius” who is the “true Man,” which is a hypothetical. Suppose there was someone who was truly human, more human than any of us. He would be like a paradigm that all men would be lesser imitations of. So far, so good, until we explain how things came about.

Why on earth would anyone bring up “things?” Plato and Aristotle would fume at this move – the human things are not to be lowered to the realm of purely physical explanation. There is the assumption of modern science in the background, in principle 1: Blake moves to things because whatever principle explains how people came about should explain how everything came about. This is a purely practical move; as a theoretical matter, it makes no sense not to have a division between the human and inhuman. We want principles here that explain everything, and do so usefully and quickly, not so much “truly.”

Blake then argues that the Ancients (!) said the Genius of things was in their use of the words “angels, spirits, and demons.” Now this is curious. Plato does speak of Socrates having a “demon,” and there is the talk of Ideal Forms in the Republic. But none of that adds up to a comprehensive case that the ancients knew what “angels” were and used that as part of an ontology. Blake could be working from different ancient sources, but that’s not really important for our purposes, given that he is aiming for an explanation of all things, all at once. Such an endeavor is pre-Socratic, perhaps, but it is not characteristic of the high point of ancient thought, and he does seem to be mixing in Christian elements with pagan ideas.

His essential point is that things have to be considered as having degrees of mind, if we want to say there is a man who is truly human. What distinguishes a greater man from a lesser man is that the greater knows better, and things must show “mind,” therefore, as reflected in their form, their truly being suited for purposes.

But wait! He’s said things have a Genius that could be termed “angels, spirits or demons.” Things aren’t good or evil; things don’t apprehend time or assert purpose. There is a problem with this simple “knowledge defines the universe,” which is that knowledge in and of itself does not come from things. It comes from people. And so the one who would know truly best would have to comprehend the way everyone else does, all at once.

Hence, we move to principle 2, which asserts that the Poetic Genius must be composed of the infinite variety of men. The emphasis on body, again, shows that the logic of modern science is the driving force behind these principles that work to define mind. We should be asking at this point whether the Poetic Genius can actually be one person. It looks more like that he is the sum of an entire people’s wisdom, a sum that can never be apprehended, but is a force unto itself. Blake is seeming to say we know what is human not through one perfect being, but through the diversity of people showing us various perfections.

That sounds almost like ancient thought, actually, except that ancient thought can move far away from the concept of body for the purposes of a greater universality: we can posit unity of mind as the basis of the political. Here, it is men conceived continually as physical matter that serves as a check on the concept of mind. The implication is that thought like Blake’s doesn’t allow me to say “this guy knows better.” I can only say someone knows “differently,” and yes, you can see a lowering of standards in this humaneness that is being advanced.

Notice that lowering of standards in principle 3: no one can write something from passion. Thought is whenever something is expressible, including those times we mutter angrily to ourselves, not really meaning what we say. Now you know, as well as I do, people say dumb things, say things that are thoughtless. Blake holds that is not the case. Every little thing, as long as it is expressible, counts as thought, for it “intends truth.” The inability to discriminate between things intended as higher thoughts and things intended to be thoughtless means that philosophy itself, you know, “searching for wisdom,” is always partial to the individual.

You should be angry reading that. It means that those times you sat and thought through a problem, all you were doing is working with your biases. This is not a higher conception of being human, not at all. It is a beautiful one, for as we will see, it opens up the possibility of fraternity in a way that mere hierarchy cannot. But if you are someone who has been persecuted in any way for being right, if you are someone who sees what justice is in an unjust age, Blake’s sentiments are an attack on you.

Principle 4 articulates what I have been talking about, that the logic of modern science – man is bodily, reason is epiphenomenal – underlies Blake’s thought in this work. It articulates this through the assertion that no previous learning is good enough for all of Man, not Ten Commandments, not Aristotle’s Ethics, none of that. More knowledge must be had to deal with more problems, so we must progress, and the Poetic Genius must then be Mankind as a whole, in all his faults and values combined.

Principles 5 & 6 assert that as individuals cannot be philosophic as they are merely individuals, nations cannot attain wisdom as their principle of unity isn’t rational, but more a common bond. And since they cannot attain what would be the highest principle of unity, which would unite all mankind, they have religion, which is partial to a people always, even if it strives for universality. Spirit is a degree removed from mind, but more essential to the discussion of Poetic Genius, as the Poetic Genius is everyone at this point.

Now principle 7 brings us back to the true Man, which we know now to be everyone. The source of Religion, then, is everyone searching themselves for why they are in the place they are at the time they are. It is self-discovery that underlies Religion, and if people knew that, they would truly have religious toleration, for they would respect everyone in their searching, the principles of the searching being above, treated rather contemptuously by me. If the search for truth resides on a recognition of everyone else as human, if it starts from the mere recognition of the bodily, and then using the bodily as a check on one’s own knowledge, then a greater fraternity can be had that unites all people. It looks to me like Blake’s mysticism, at least in this work, stems from a deep belief in the logic behind science as empowering of the individual. The individual can see his own experience matters, and thus see that everyone else’s does, too.

1 Comment

  1. The Greeks believed in the Good Genius or Agathodaimon, who was assigned to each mortal. Invincible, they would guide their charges throughout their lives, and die with them. This is a concept very close to, though differing in certain respects from the Christian concept of the guardian angel. Socrates had a daimon that was famous for always saying “No”. It did not enter into rational discourse with Socrates; it merely warned him when he was about to do something wrong (especially something displeasing to the gods), like the prompting of conscience. Guardian angels entered Christian belief from Neo-Platonism and, along with the other classes of angels, became part of Christian dogma at the Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325), though there are Old Testament references that could be interpreted in that light, for instance the “hedge of angels” in Psalm 34. For Blake, I think, Greek ‘Daimon’ = Latin ‘Genius’ = Hebrew ‘Angel’.

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