Thus, Blake presents an explicit condemnation not only of organized religion, but specifically those religions which seek official legitimization and control over non-adherents; considering that the Church of England was (and is) the official religion of England, whose leader simultaneously serves as the head of state, Blake's condemnation of religions and religious adherents who presume to "[govern] the unwilling" must be recognized for the rebellious and almost revolutionary statement that it is.
Following from his clear disgust with religious piety that seeks to control human desire and potential, Blake provides a series of "Proverbs of Hell," and these proverbs present what are arguably Blake's most creative, incisive, and entertaining challenges to traditional interpretations of religion in general and Christianity in particular. Examining some of these proverbs in detail will serve to expand one's understanding of Blake's particular moral or ethical position, which stands in opposition to the moral dictates of Christianity. With these proverbs, Blake simultaneously challenges Christian ideals while generating his own positive view of human desire, expression, and potential.
The first proverb that stands out as a clear challenge to traditional Christian notions of virtue and morality is the statement that "Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity" (Blake 52). Contrary to the Christian notion that prudence and self-denial (and the suffering it inevitably causes) leads to a better life, Blake suggests that prudence merely leads to a retardation of human potential. Thus, he continues on to argue that "he who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence" (Blake 52). He contrasts these destructive and repressive tendencies with positive expressions of desire, such as the idea that "the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom," or the claim that "no bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings" (Blake 52, 53).
By presenting these as "Proverbs of Hell," Blake is explicitly challenging the wisdom and utility of traditional forms of Christianity that elevate repression and coercive control to the status of the divine. (This is not to suggest that Blake was necessarily a devotee of Jeremy Bentham's utilitarian ethics, but it is worth pointing out that the two men were contemporaries, and that Blake's celebration of desire and human expression as a path to human flourishing bears some resemblance to Bentham's philosophy.) Thus, when he says that "the cistern contains; the fountain overflows," he is contrasting the woefully limited binary of good and evil, heaven and hell with an alternative view wherein one side of the equation represents control and the other freedom; there is no true good or evil, but only expression and repression (Blake 55).
Blake also uses these proverbs to point out what he sees as the hypocrisy of organized religion. For example, he states that "Shame is Pride's cloke," highlighting the fact that shame and self-condemnation for perceived sin (a made-up concept) is in the end merely a celebration of one's own self-perceived righteousness and moral superiority; the Christian who claims to feel shame for his or her actions is simultaneously prideful of the fact that he or she is more moral than those who feel no shame (although a Christian might argue that the latter is not necessarily a result of the former, this argument has little to no bearing on the actual behavior of religions and religious adherents). In this way, religiously-motivated shame is revealed for what it is: a perverse form of pride born out of an equally perverse response to human desire and the need for human expression.
One must be careful to note that in this proverb Blake is not condemning brothels or human sexuality, but rather pointing out that both prisons and brothels are the natural consequence of efforts to constrain human behavior, and in the latter case, these constraints are not geared towards ensuring safety and the functioning of society, but rather the imposition of arbitrary rules dictated by a delusional, powerful few. That Blake views both Law and Religion as wholly human constructs is evidenced by his succinct history of the evolution of religion:
The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses, calling them by names and adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their enlarged and numerous sense could perceive. And particularly they studied the genius of each city and country, placing it under its mental deity, Till a system was formed, which some took advantage of, & enslav'd the vulgar by attempting to realize or abstract the mental deities from their objects; thus began Priesthood. Choosing forms of worship from poetic tales. And at length they pronounc'd that the Gods had order'd such things. Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast. (Blake 59).
This account is especially telling because Blake disgust with organized religion seems to stem partially from the fact that its power is based on the "enlarged and numerous senses" of poets. That is to say, Blake seems to view organized religion as a direct perversion of the expressive and contemplative powers of the human mind, because it essentially uses the creative, expansive potential of human expression in order to "enslave the vulgar," rather than elevate the consciousness of the masses.
This is why Blake is so unrelenting in his criticism of organized religion and the individuals who perpetuate and wield it, to the point that he says things like "as the air to a bird, or the sea to a fish, so is contempt to the contemptible" (Blake 57). It is precisely those individuals who would seek to condemn and control human behavior who deserve condemnation, because not only are they constraining and abusing humanity, but they appropriate and pervert the best elements of humanity in order to do it. At times his language is hyperbolic, such as when he says "sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires," but this is only because he considers the crimes of religion so cruel and perverted that one cannot help but consider infanticide a rather paltry offense compared to the millions of thinking, feeling, desiring human beings who have been abused, tortured, and murdered in the name of organized religion (Blake 58).
In his book the Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake expands upon and challenges the religious and mystical ideas of Emanuel Swedenborg by building on the latter's conception of a divine humanity while rejecting his insistence on a dichotomy between heaven and hell and the actions or beliefs they represent. Contrary to Christian dogma, Blake views the repression of human desire as essentially the only sin that could ever be committed, because human desire and expression represents the highest and most noble end that be achieved. He explicitly condemns those individuals who would use the most noble elements of humanity, such as creative expression and poetic production, in order to constrain and control the individual. By presenting a "marriage" of heaven and hell, Blake is proposing a new kind of religious and moral system wherein codified dogma and organized religion are recognized for the destructive, repressive, and perverse organizations that they are, and where human potential and creativity is not condemned, but rather celebrated as the apex of moral and ethical endeavor.
Bentley, G.E. William Blake: The Critical Heritage. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2002.
Blake, William. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. London: Florence Press, 1911.
Gilpin, George H. "William Blake and the Worlds Body of Science." Studies in Romanticism
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Kaplan, Carter. "Fractal…
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