“For a Tear is an Intellectual Thing”: William Blake against the Deists

William Blake has probably had a greater influence on me than any other person who has ever lived, save the authors of the Bible. His visions are unparalleled in their grandiosity. His poems, from the catchy choruses of Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience to epic prophecies of Milton and Jerusalem, are unsurpassed. He invented his own mythology. His philosophy is, at heart, an exultation of imagination and forgiveness – the two central qualities of humanity’s divine inheritance, which reached its apotheosis in Jesus Christ.

Blake is at his most convincing – in my opinion, at least – when he’s ranting against Deism, the philosophical movement that turned God into an abstraction, an impersonal, scientific force with no bearing upon humanity. To Blake, such abstraction is the enemy of Christianity and of Art.

This message is nowhere clearer than in his essay “To the Deists,” found just before the beginning of Book III of his illuminated epic Jerusalem. This essay is the third of four, the others of which are addressed “To the Public,” “To the Jews,” and “To the Christians.” I reproduce “To the Deists” here:

He never can be a friend to the Human Race who is the preacher of Natural Morality or Natural Religion; he is a flatterer who means to betray, to perpetuate tyrant Pride and the Laws of that Babylon which, he foresees, shall shortly be destroyed with the Spiritual and not the Natural Sword. He is in the State named Rahab; which State must be put off before he can be the Friend of Man.

You, O Deists! profess yourselves the enemies of Christianity, and you are so: you are also the enemies of the Human Race and of Universal Nature. Man is born a Spectre, or Satan, and is altogether an Evil, and requires a new Selfhood continually, and must continually be changed into his direct Contrary. But your Greek Philosophy, which is a remnant of Druidism, teaches that Man is righteous in his Vegetated Spectre—an opinion of fatal and accursed consequence to Man, as the Ancients saw plainly by Revelation, to the entire abrogation of Experimental Theory; and many believed what they saw, and prophesied of Jesus.

Man must and will have some religion; if he has not the religion of Jesus, he will have the religion of Satan, and 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 any one 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 and Avenger, and not of the Forgiver of Sin, and their God is Satan, named by the Divine Name. Your Religion, O Deists! Deism is the worship of the God of this World by the means of what you call Natural Religion and Natural Philosophy, and of Natural Morality or Self-Righteousness, the selfish virtues of the Natural Heart. This was the religion of the Pharisees who murdered Jesus. Deism is the same, and ends in the same.

Voltaire, Rousseau, Gibbon, Hume charge the spiritually Religious with hypocrisy; but how a Monk, or a Methodist either, can be a hypocrite, I cannot conceive. We are Men of like passions with others, and pretend not to be holier than others; therefore, when a Religious Man falls into sin, he ought not to be call’d a hypocrite: this title is more properly to be given to a player who falls into sin, whose profession is virtue and morality, and the making men self-righteous. Foote, in calling Whitefield hypocrite, was himself one; for Whitefield pretended not to be holier than others, but confessed his sins before all the world. Voltaire! Rousseau! you cannot escape my charge that you are Pharisees and hypocrites; for you are constantly talking of the virtues of the human heart, and particularly of your own; that you may accuse others, and especially the Religious, whose errors you, by this display of pretended virtue, chiefly design to expose. Rousseau thought Men good by nature: he found them evil, and found no friend. Friendship cannot exist without Forgiveness of Sins continually. The book written by Rousseau, call’d his Confessions, is an apology and cloak for his sin, and not a confession.

But you also charge the poor Monks and Religious with being the causes of war, while you acquit and flatter the Alexanders and Cæsars, the Louises and Fredericks, who alone are its causes and its actors. But the Religion of Jesus, Forgiveness of Sin, can never be the cause of a war, nor of a single martyrdom.

Those who martyr others, or who cause war, are Deists, but never can be Forgivers of Sin. The glory of Christianity is to conquer by Forgiveness. All the destruction, therefore, in Christian Europe has arisen from Deism, which is Natural Religion.

I SAW a Monk of Charlemaine
Arise before my sight:
I talk’d with the Grey Monk as we stood
In beams of infernal light.

Gibbon arose with a lash of steel,
And Voltaire with a racking wheel;
The Schools, in clouds of learning roll’d,
Arose with War in iron and gold.

‘Thou lazy Monk!’ they sound afar,
‘In vain condemning glorious War;
And in your cell you shall ever dwell:
Rise, War, and bind him in his cell!’

The blood red ran from the Grey Monk’s side,
His hands and feet were wounded wide,
His body bent, his arms and knees
Like to the roots of ancient trees.

When Satan first the black bow bent
And the Moral Law from the Gospel rent,
He forg’d the Law into a sword,
And spill’d the blood of Mercy’s Lord.

Titus! Constantine! Charlemaine!
O Voltaire! Rousseau! Gibbon! Vain
Your Grecian mocks and Roman sword
Against this image of his Lord;

For a Tear is an Intellectual thing;
And a Sigh is the sword of an angel king;
And the bitter groan of a Martyr’s woe
Is an arrow from the Almighty’s bow.

(Jerusalem, plate 52)

2 thoughts on ““For a Tear is an Intellectual Thing”: William Blake against the Deists

  1. Dear Mr. Mazanek:

    I’m a devoted follower of your blog, and can only lament that you don’t write more in it to illustrate and amplify our knowledge of Chinese Classical Literature and its translations/translators /book reviews.

    I just wanted to leave a note lamenting that in spite of the high number of quality monographs with translations available in the market for, let’s, say, T’ang Poetry, there are still some (for me) obvious and painful absences, like Liu Yuxi (劉禹錫), Lu Zhaolin (盧照鄰), Luo Binwang (駱賓王), Luo Yin (羅隱), Guanxiu (貫休) or Qíjǐ (齊己). They all deserve the attention of a good translator, and although some might have profited from some remote Ph.D. dissertation, those aren’t much available anyway…

    Best greetings

    Manuel

  2. Hey, thanks for your comment! I’m glad you enjoy what I’ve posted thus far, and I’m sorry I haven’t posted in quite a while. I’ve actually been working on material related to Guanxiu 貫休 and Qiji 齊己 for an upcoming conference, so I’ll post something about them after I’ve presented that material. Anyway, I think you’re right to say that they (and a number of others) have been unfairly neglected. I hope you keep reading. I’ll try to get back to blogging soon.

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