Christianity and Modernity: Reflections on Blake’s “The Human Abstract”

for Kristine Lowe, because she asked

The Human Abstract
William Blake

Pity would be no more
If we did not make somebody Poor;
And Mercy no more could be
If all were as happy as we.

And mutual fear brings peace,
Till the selfish loves increase:
Then Cruelty knits a snare,
And spreads his baits with care.

He sits down with holy fears,
And waters the grounds with tears;
Then Humility takes its root
Underneath his foot.

Soon spreads the dismal shade
Of Mystery over his head;
And the Catterpiller and Fly
Feed on the Mystery.

And it bears the fruit of Deceit,
Ruddy and sweet to eat;
And the Raven his nest has made
In its thickest shade.

The Gods of the earth and sea
Sought thro’ Nature to find this Tree;
But their search was all in vain:
There grows one in the Human Brain.

Comment:

I am only putting forth some thoughts and questions on this poem. A proper discussion of it would require knowledge of the whole of Blake, which I do not have.

You can see that this poem is a sort of summation of Blake’s thought by where it stands in Songs of Experience – it is the 19th out of 27 poems. Songs of Innocence is only 19 poems long itself. There is no title in either sequence of poems containing the word “human,” either. The poems that I think come closest to the content of this one are “A Divine Image” and “The Divine Image;” since one could say that “the human abstractly considered” is the “divine,” this isn’t much of a coincidence.

1. “The Divine Image” reviewed

Now in “The Divine Image,” Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love, in that order, are 1) virtues, goods in-and-of themselves 2) God Himself. Love, Mercy, Pity Peace in that order open up a third good: They allow us to recognize the universal human form and thus love one another no matter what.

Last time we considered this poem we talked about this stanza, which links this poem explicitly with “A Divine Image:”

For Mercy has a human heart
Pity, a human face:
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.

We will review “A Divine Image” shortly, but only one thing more needs to be said about “The Divine Image:” take note of how “peace” has dropped out of where God dwells in the last stanza.

I really hate saying this stuff, because we live in an age where people can cut heads off on YouTube and criticism of them – and I’m not talking about moderate Muslims here, or the incredibly brave souls standing up against Islamism and the Taliban and al-Qaeda – is considered intolerant. Those of you who are more liberal than I am know I’m not kidding about this, it is considered in some very fashionable and scarily popular circles ignorant to talk about terrorism being simply bad because of some vague notion of American/Christian imperialism. For Blake, Christianity as imperial is just a fact of life, and pious rhetoric in his time doesn’t merely keep things like democracy and science away, but also excuses a regime’s abuses towards the poor, heavy taxes, terrible prison conditions, sham trials, overtly mercantile ventures, etc.

The deeper argument that Christianity is imperial in a fundamental sense comes from rhetoric that Joshua Parens uses as a starting point for his consideration of medieval political thought. Ancient political philosophy presupposes a soul that works within a polytheistic world. One never vanquishes another’s gods; when a society is conquered, those gods are imported into your society. The advent of Christianity puts an end to that sort of custom. There is one God, one sort of soul, and that’s all you need to know. If the entire world could be converted, that would be the best of all possible worlds. Again, please do understand: Dr. Parens’ thought is ultimately far more subtle than this, and I think all of you are sufficiently aware that I can come up with 298374972972979 problems with this narrative as I’ve just presented it, the foremost problem being “haha yeah right the ancient world was REAL peaceable.”

A final comment: throughout “The Divine Image” “Love” is placed in peculiar positions. At first it is the end of the list, when “mercy pity peace and love” are both “God” and “Man.” When we are concentrating on the human form, “love” gets the third position, bringing “pity” to the end of “peace.” “Love” is primary when we are in distress, it seems like we hope anyone or anything will show. It is finally only secondary when “peace” drops out of the equation entirely, between “Mercy” and “Pity,” as if limited by those two concepts, as if there are only some who can be shown mercy and pity.

2. “A Divine Image” reviewed

To make a long story short:

  • Human heart – once Mercy, now Cruelty
  • Human face – once Pity, now Jealousy
  • Human form – once Love, now Terror
  • Human dress – once Peace, now Secresy

Why is “Secresy” such a big deal? It is the essential element of political action that we create yet is alien from us: we created the Presidency over in this country to act with “secresy and dispatch,” and yet he is wholly representative of us. The whole poem leads up to the forging of the dress of iron, “Secresy,” starting with the unlimited desire of the human heart.

How did divinity and politics get mixed up? Regarding Xenophon’s “The Education of Cyrus,” where the question of whether men can be ruled as herds (think good shepherd here) is explicitly taken up: it could be the case that virtue alone would suffice for men. Xenophon gives us a pre-Cyrean Persia which eats dirt and practices virtue. No one wants to live there. The poor are in a miserable condition, the nobility of the few who have almost nothing materially is reduced to fear of the poor always revolting. So along comes Cyrus who is a godlike figure. He figures that virtue should have a reward, imagine that. This leads him to conquer the world in a manner which is hypocritical and tyrannical: he ultimately undermines the very basis of virtue he relied on for conquest.

The problem with Christianity, as you know, is that demanding a universal political order is saying that anything less is not true politics, and that politics, in fact, is man just trying to play God. The only true and wise rule comes from above. The first metaphor used to break this hold on people’s thinking was Machiavelli’s “principe” – by calling tyrants princes, i.e. “The Prince of Peace,” he switched the question of divine rule back to that of human rule, and furthermore asserted that human rule meant moving away from virtue and thinking about power simply. When do you have the most power over someone? When you know something they don’t know.

3. Finally, “The Human Abstract”

We begin with “pity,” not “mercy.” The difference is that we are not considering the divine, we are considering each other. Pity is a relation to each other that depends on someone else being pitiable. Again, this is pure Rousseau: this may be acceptable in the state of nature, but that is because a natural equality reigns since no one knows anything about anyone else. What is more revealing is that we could discuss “compassion” (h/t David Azzerad), where we feel with one another, and the distance between us would mean less.

Nonetheless, we are starting with “pity,” and the harsh truth of inequality behind it yields another harsh truth about “mercy” – one can only be merciful if one is happier than another person. The inequality of means and goods is why “Peace” and “Love” simply aren’t accessible in this poem. Rather, you get a “peace” that looks like it is derived from social contract/state of nature type reasoning: we fear each other, so we don’t fight. But the flaw – and again, you can go to Rousseau and note the parallels (we should get a reading group together. Second Discourse, anyone?) – is in the foundation. You can’t start with people in a position to hate each other and expect virtues to cover up a problem that massive.

The only “loves” you get from this arrangement are “selfish,” and they are fostered by the mutual fear that brings peace. No one likes to be fearful their whole lives, no one wants to be pitied the whole time, no one wants to be only receiving of mercy. Notice that “Love” cannot emerge, not at all.

The first action in the war of all against all is curious. No one wants to be a tyrant over a realm prone to war. So Cruelty is both empowered and constrained by the situation. He literally cries because he cannot really act: if he did, real virtue would emerge and best him immediately (“holy fears”) – Blake isn’t totally lying in Songs of Innocence.

The crying creates humility, from which a tree of mystery emerges that brings forth fruit. You’re probably asking whether or not this is a comment on Christianity directly, whether or not Christianity bears fruits of Deceit.

This is really strange stuff. “Cruelty” simply is not the heart of Christianity. Humility as a response to Cruelty makes sense, and Mystery and Deceit stemming from Humility not knowing itself as a response to Cruelty also makes sense. The Deceit isn’t that Humility wants to trick people; it really thinks in and of itself it has brought Cruelty to an end. Humility appeals to the Mysteries to prove this, the workings of Heaven on Earth.

The caterpillar and the fly confuse me. This tree is ugly as are the things that buzz around it. The issue might be the caterpillar versus the fly. The caterpillar is going to turn into a butterfly, whereas the fly is going to stay ugly. This tree may be ugly but it promises redemption, and some creatures sustained by it will be redeemed.

The Raven we know is Biblical – it was the first bird sent from the Ark for the sake of beginning life again. It “went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth;” no report exactly on where it settled.

Why did the pagan gods wish to find this tree, and what mistake did they make? The tree has power over the human imagination: with it, all can be commanded. The mistake they made was searching through “Nature,” which presupposes man as a “rational animal,” being concerned with his own perfectibility through virtue, and looking for knowledge that would aim him in this quest – nothing “secret,” but rather something like the “form” of justice.

Blake is hinting to us that the Christian and modern (i.e. Constitutionalism, where “ambition must counteract ambition,” most certainly based on the “human brain”) orders have something fundamentally right: they don’t assume man to be truly concerned with the good. In this, both orders are dark and ugly, not in spite of their truth, but because of it.

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