Tag Archive: church and state

A decentralized religious anarchist?

It is unfair to locate Blake on a political spectrum because by strict definition his theory has nothing to do with politics, just like Thomas Paine’s theory has nothing to do with religion.

In A Song of Liberty from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake disdains any possible kind of system: empire, any kind of government either democratic or not, church, slavery, monarchy. So I think it might be safe at least to call Blake an anarchist. He does not support any type of institution because institutions set standards.

However, he is definitely not just an anarchist because there is something dominant in Blake’s theory: the Poetic Genius. For here we need to examine the position of religion in Blake’s theory. Blake is against centralized church and religious morality. But he is still a Christian and believes Jesus is an artist and as rebellious as him, as a man who break the ten commands. In the relationship between state and church, he deletes the existence of state and decentralizes church into personal practice. Nevertheless, the religion exists and exists as the ultimate goal of his theory: the New Jerusalem. So Blake is a religious anarchist.

If we characterize all the political theories during that time period as rational, then Blake is a romanticist. The practice of art and imagination, the essence of Poetic Genius are irrational. Blake’s theory of revolution is irrational, thus system does not exist. He calls for the Poetic Genius in everyman and the undisciplined environment. A categorization for Blake is shameful.

Blake’s Songs of Experience, especially Holy Thursday and The Human Abstract, shares a same spirit with one of China’s oldest philosophical work, Laotse’s Tao Te Ching. They both advocate that the society should follow nature. Furthermore, they both condemn the process of categorization, and the proposers of it, the institutions and industrialization in Blake’s version and the society and the ruler in Laotse’s version.

As we discussed in class today, Blake views charity and all forms of institutions to be hypocritical and the existence of poverty as sins, not matter what they do to relieve poverty. This inclination becomes more obvious in The Human Abstract: “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” (42). In these sentences, Blake challenges the common categorization of noble and inferiority. To him, pity would be unnecessary if we don’t invent the concept of poverty. And the present of mercy is a hypocritical means because it grows on the misfortune of other.

Blake’s theory reminds me of Laotse immediately. Laotse, who views nature as only proper way, dislikes the categorization of good and bad at his time either. In his Tao Te Ching, he expresses similar opinions: “When knowledge and cleverness appeared, Great hypocrisy followed in its wake. When the six relationships no longer lived at peace, [T]here was (praise of) “kind parents” and “filial sons.”” He believes that all good features, which are praised by the society at his time, exist because the gap and inequality makes contrary possible.

Though both of them are viewed as geniuses who speak to the later generations, their theories appeared in time of change. Blake’s resentment towards all forms of institutions was accelerated and magnified by the outstanding effect of Britain’s industrialization. The coming to power of capitalism and industrialization caused a huge income gap. Similarly, Laotse’s time, around 5th to 4th century BCE, was characterized by the emerging centralized state power and social hierarchy, first time in Chinese history.  However, the future developments of these two theories are quite different. Blake’s poetry, though has the characteristics of religion, is studied more in English class. On the contrary, developing from Tao Te Ching, Laotse’s theory transforms into one of China’s major religions, Taoism.

The translation of Tao Te Ching is from Yutang Lin’s The Wisdom of Laotse. Most of the theories of Laotse are from my high school History and Chinese class.


Blake’s “Jerusalem” hymn performed by the London Symphany Orchestra at the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Catherine (“Kate”) Middleton, April 2011


Discussion Question:

How did a hymn that calls for the radical remaking of England as the New Jerusalem become today a nationalist symbol of the British monarchy, the church and state establishment that Blake so much detested?