Sunday 12 February 2023

William Blake - the first libertarian

 By Colin Bower

If South Africans are familiar with the name of the 18th Century British poet and mystic, William Blake (1757 – 1827) , it is likely to be as the author of what is regarded as England’s unofficial anthem, Jerusalem, or possibly as the author of the poem beginning, “Tyger, tyger, burning bright/In the forests of the night.”  In spite of such a cloud of general unknowing, Blake is revered by the literati as one of the greatest social reformers of all time, loved by undergraduates, university faculty and members of the reforming classes as a champion of the weak and the poor and an enemy of the powerful and the rich. But, based on a close study of his most accessible volume of poetry, the 1789 Songs of Innocence and Experience (SoI&E), and drawing on some of his more famous sound bites, I offer a morally anarchic Blake largely indifferent to what we call today social injustice. He was the first libertarian.

But firstly, a note on his poetic project. As the name suggests, Blake draws on the great myth of the existence of a primeval state of innocence lost when the first humans (as it were) became aware of the existence of good and evil, losing thereby their state of innocence. The 45 poems in Blake’s collection are divided between those which characterise the human consciousness as being in a state of innocence, and those which characterise the human consciousness as being in a state of experience. Neither state is right or wrong. The transition from innocence to experience may be reformulated as the transition from unconscious joy to considered virtue. 

Most people in general and FMF members in particular will have a reasonable notion of libertarian values, but, simply as a point of reference, I will highlight these values as follows:

a view of the individual as the sovereign of his or her life, a view that no person has any natural authority over another, a view that regulation is unnecessary and always harmful, a view that freedom is always inherently good, and coercion always bad, a view that virtue lies not so much in doing good as in doing no harm, a belief in the possibility of spontaneous order and, finally,  a general detestation of all arbitrarily imposed authority.

Libertarians abhor the government run state. In Blake’s time people lived mostly under a Church of England social regime, and Blake abhorred the Church of England, as he abhorred all institutional control or power, and he recognised no such thing as a social contract. Most libertarians – although not universally so – are antinomianalists – antinomianism being the extreme position of denying the existence of any universal morality. Blake’s position is yet more extreme, for he can hardly be said to have had a belief in the existence of a moral code at all. He welcomed the existence of evil as a necessary conjunct to the existence of the good, He wrote a poem entitled The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and famously said: “Rather murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires,” and declared that “without contraries, there is no progression,” a dialectic view meaning that there is no progression in the human world without the existence of evil. Blake was – if only nominally – a Christian, and for Christians of any denomination, God is the highest authority. However, the need to respect God’s authority clearly cut no ice with Blake, my evidence for this claim being his poem The Tyger


Let us start at an easy level of analysis. There is not a single instance in the
SoI&E of the vocabulary of outrage over social injustice (begging the question: what is “social injustice”?) or the vocabulary we associate with reforming zeal. You will battle to find any of these words in SoI&E: “exploitation … justice or injustice … class, upper class, aristocracy or elite… hypocrisy … indifference … beat or smack or assault or hurt … slave or slavery … prejudice …  government.” These are strange omissions for a nominal firebrand hostile to social injustice. Instead of holding society to account for human misery, Blake – astoundingly – holds the sufferers to account for their own suffering . Why? Because, in his view, they are complicit in their exploitation by the “system” – complicit because they have at hand the redeeming power of their imagination. Don’t blame me for proposing such a position, it is Blake’s. This is not a literary journal, so I can’t take up reams of space with lengthy quotation from the poems. I’ll have to be content with just a few excerpts, but London is probably the finest of the poems and certainly represents the definitive exposition of his position – bearing in mind the rider that poetry is an artistic endeavour that does not proceed by means of propositional, denotative prose. It exists to be experienced and interpreted. Please take a moment to read and digest these lines, for they are pivotal:

I wander thro' each charter'd street,

Near where the charter'd Thames does flow. 

And mark in every face I meet

Marks of weakness, marks of woe.


In every cry of every Man,

In every Infants cry of fear,

In every voice: in every ban,

The mind-forg'd manacles I hear 


How the Chimney-sweepers cry

Every blackning Church appalls, 

And the hapless Soldiers sigh

Runs in blood down Palace walls 


But most thro' midnight streets I hear

How the youthful Harlots curse

Blasts the new-born Infants tear 

And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse 

Firstly, we notice the repetition of an unusual word in a poem, “chartered.” It is not only the streets that are chartered, it is also the Thames. Meaning? Certainly “mapped,” suggesting that it is not just the streets that are mapped out, but also the lives of the people living in that mapped out city. But it also means “authorised,” as in “chartered accountant.” The streets are “authorised” into being by the human world, but more astoundingly the Thames is also “mapped” and “authorised.” In nature, rivers flow where they want to, in the human world of the city, the river does as it’s told, it is mapped and authorised, and harnessed by human authority to human purpose. What Blake is not saying is that the physical regimentation represented by the linear order of the city is a symptom of social injustice; a planned environment is as intrinsic to urban life as the weather is intrinsic to rural life, and neither planning nor the weather are symptoms of injustice. Yes, Londoners may be the products of their environment, but this does not mean that they are the victims of it.

 The people that the wanderer (Blake) sees are people whose faces are marked – marked as if branded – by the signs of human failure. But it is their “weakness” that he notices - not their pain, not their smallpox, not their emaciation, not their rags. And then their faces are marked by their “woe,” a timeless condition, not to be confused with – say – sadness or grief, states which can be temporary. The Biblical, “O woe is me” laments a permanent state of misery. 

In the second stanza we encounter the formulation that can serve as the universal Blakean diagnosis of the human condition, “the mind forged manacles.” We create, Blake avers, our own servility and suffering. It is a powerful metaphor: the manacles created in our own minds are as imprisoning and as implacable as steel made on an anvil with heat and percussion.  In this diagnosis he was ahead of his time, for the notion that human achievement is dictated as much by mind control as by physical capability is hardly unusual; it is common cause today among sports scientists and assorted other gurus.

The first two lines of the third stanza may be interpreted as being a condemnation of the church’s indifference to the misery of the sweeper, which we may rightly regard as a shocking symptom of inhumanity. But the accusation is levelled, we must remember, not at the state, but at institutionalised religion which people elect to follow on a voluntary basis. Blake, as an example, exercised his freedom to eschew institutionalised religion. Put bluntly, institutionalised religion, for all its hypocrisy, is not the cause of cruel social conditions. 

The soldier’s life might have been spent in blood shedding, but he is not condemned by Blake as a killer or as an instrument of exploitation. Instead, he is pitied, for his plight is to be “hapless.” It is Blake’s imaginatively-based empathy that is at play here, and his hapless soldier is a far cry from Donovan’s universal soldier complicit in the existence of warfare. Finally, of all the evils faced by Londoners, the worst is not hunger, destitution, alcoholism, exploitation or endless labour, it is the existence of sexually transmitted diseases, and it is STDs that blight – wait for it – “the marriage hearse”, a horrifying oxymoron.

There is another poem that offers a challenging message to a contemporary reader. It is The Chimney Sweeper, from the “Innocence” section of the book. In contemplating it, we need to stop for a moment and contemplate the horror of chimney sweeping, as we all know, undertaken by the smallest and the youngest of children, involving a terrifying confinement, and the possibility of an even more terrifying death by asphyxiation. How does Blake’s ire manifest itself in the face of this abomination? Not in the way you might expect. He blames nobody. Blake describes the help and condolence offered by one little chimney sweep to another. Little Tom Dacre cries when his pretty blonde hair is shaved. His friend says to him: “Never mind it, for when your head’s bare/You know the soot cannot spoil your hair.” This is a bit like comforting a blind man with the good news that he will never suffer from cataracts. The poem ends like this: “Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm/So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm”. This is a lie very difficult for a contemporary reader to swallow. But to be incensed by it is to miss the point. This is human experience viewed through the prism of innocence, and the fact is that Tom was made “happy and warm” by the childlike message of consolation. The point? For Blake, all experience, including the worst horrors that life can throw at a person, are subject to the transcendent power of the human imagination. If you are a victim your recourse lies within, not without. This is not the view of a person who believes in the perfectibility of human life by means of social reform.

Still, one cannot imagine that recourse to the transcendent power of the imagination will be viewed as meaningful relief by the victims of life’s manifold injustices … but bear with Blake for a moment. A fallen world means a world in which evil has an abiding presence. Even if you are a rationalist and a materialist you may be prepared to concede that life can never be universally good, but that, quite on the contrary, it is and will always be universally bad, mitigated only by temporary relief. For Blake, evil is woven into the fabric of life – it is part of God’s plan. Therefore, there is little point in abhorring it, and it is irrational and purposeless to lock yourself into a lifelong campaign to oppose evil in order to banish or even to mitigate it, for it is omnipresent and eternal.  Sharing something of the tradition of stoicism, his “solution” to the problem of evil and injustice is to accept the conditions of life, and to live by the transcendent powers of the imagination (“To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour” – I did say that Blake was a mystic).  You may find this position risible, but Blake’s view is shared by Hamlet, who described the ineradicable nature of evil in the world by means of the memorable metaphor: what purpose does it serve to take up arms against a sea of troubles? Milton, in his great work Paradise Lost, failed miserably in his stated intention “to justify the ways of God to men,” precisely because he also could not provide a rational justification for the existence of evil in a divine world. So Blake welcomes the existence of evil. He says: “The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.” As far as Blake is concerned, salvation happens at the personal and individual level, or not at all.

For Blake, there are no virtues in the abstract. Kindness only exists in acts between individual human beings. With a fine disregard for nuance, he proclaims: “To generalise is to be an idiot.  To particularise is the (sic) alone distinction of merit.” Since social science is the science of generalisation, we can quickly see how out of step Blake would be with social science’s claims of universal victimhood. In such a context it will hardly be surprising that, for Blake, institutionalised charity is an anathema. For Blake, the help that we provide to those in need must be spontaneous, personal and private. The institutionalisation of giving turns charity into control, and is dehumanising. This view is most visibly expressed in his two poems both called Holy Thursday. Orphans helped by the church become instruments for the salvation or the self-approbation of the adult agents of the church – typically beadles.  Institutionalised giving instrumentalises virtue, which means that it is hardly virtue at all, and unworthy of the name of charity, and it creates relationships of control of the giver over the recipient. Nearly every South African admires the work of the Gift of the Givers; we may surmise that Blake would not. But – because you are likely to misunderstand Blake based on the portrait I have given of him -  I need to emphasise that he endorses in spiritual terms any act of one-on-one kindness which flows from the heart: “Then cherish pity,” he writes, “lest you drive an angel from your door.”

As far as spontaneous order is concerned, Blake celebrates the governess who ignores the rules and conventions of control in order to allow the children under her care to enjoy their freedom and to play into the evening, when they should be back indoors. It is a dangerous freedom, but Blake takes up the position that freedom always comes with attendant dangers.

Does all this represent a libertarian position? Implicit in his poems is the view that all regulation imprisons and disarms, that nothing worthwhile can flow from any collective, and that the autonomous human being is responsible to himself or herself alone. So let me answer the question this way: Blake and Ayn Rand may be unlikely bed mates, but Blake has more in common with the inventor of objectivism than he does with Tom Paine.


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