Blake’s Doctrine of Good and Evil

While I continue to read in Fearful Symmetry, I find I cannot credit everything in Northrop Frye’s interpretation of William Blake’s visionary poetry. While very often insightful, those insights often strike me as being incomplete or deficient in some respects. Frye is often contradictory, and particularly so when he attempts to grapple with Blake’s teaching on the question of good and evil. Since the meaning of good and evil is a topic of interest to us all, I suspect, let’s wade into Blake’s doctrine on the matter. I expect you might fnd this discussion provocative, if not eye-opening.

Frye’s third chapter of Fearful Symmetry is entitled “Beyond Good and Evil”, an allusion of course to Nietzsche and his transvaluation of values which takes the teaching of good and evil “to the next level” as they say in sport and gaming (I’ll write more about “the next level” as the meaning of “the transvaluation” and “New Age” later). But that is about as much as we hear from Frye regarding Nietzsche or the attempt to bring Nietzsche’s doctrine of good and evil into relationship with Blake’s. They are, nonetheless, very similar. Frye insists only that the Nietzschean “Superman” (I prefer the term “transhuman” or “overman”) has no relation to Blake’s image of Albion, also “transhuman”, as it were. I insist otherwise, and that we are indeed presently in a situation in which we can indeed take our game “to the next level”. Or what is the meaning of Gebser and his “integral consciousness” at all?

Before I delve into that matter, though, I need to make account of myself with a personal anecdote in order to set the scene for what is to follow.

My own “metanoia” occurred as an undergraduate at university. I was taking a series of courses in communications theory from a professor that I particularly admired and respected. The courses were mainly focussed on the study of propaganda and the “grammatical method” of the “speech-thinker” Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy as a method of diagnosing the health or sickness of human society by an interpretation of its speech patterns — that is, grammar.

On an apparent whim, my professor turned to me and asked, “Scott. Do you know what the opposite of symbolic is?” Having never thought about it, I was a total blank. “Diabolic” was his reply.

Something like a dam burst in my consciousness and my mind was flooded with sudden insights into what had appeared, until that brief moment, strange, intractable, seemingly irresolvable questions and riddles of existence. My life’s work, ever since, has been nothing more or less than a continuing project of arranging them, distributing them, and sorting them out.

What had hitherto been “good” and “evil” as mere bedevilling moral abstractions became transfigured in my mind as being something concrete — symbolic and diabolic activity or process. Only then did I start taking a serious interest in William Blake, whose visionary poetry began to become more accessible to me. For my part, “symbolic” and “diabolic” supersedes everything previously cast in terms of “good” and “evil”.

The significance of this can’t be appreciated, perhaps, without unpacking the etymology of these terms, both Greek. Bolon means “to throw”. It is related to our word “ball” or bolero. The Latin equivalent of bolon is jacere, which is the word that forms our words for “throwness” in terms of sub-ject, ob-ject, in-ject, re-ject (as well as Rosenstock-Huessy’s neologisms tra-ject and pre-ject to represent our “casting” ourselves backwards or forwards in time, in terms of past or future, conservative or progressive, reactionary or revolutionary orientations). Existential philosophers sometimes speak of our “throwness” in just this sense of being cast or hurled into existence or circumstances in which we assume these roles in space and time as subjects, objects (or even rejects) or in Rosenstock’s terms as prejective or trajective types.

The prefix sym– is equivalent to Latin con– signifying “together” or “altogether” — the unitive dynamic or act of “bringing together” or integrating. The dia- prefix, similar to Latin “dis-” is the separative, segregative, or disintegrative act (Dis is the Latin word for Hell). Dis signifies meanings of “apart,” “asunder,” “away,” “utterly,” or having a privative, negative, or reversing force. The terms “synthesis” and “antithesis” parallel somewhat the meanings of symbolic and diabolic. Carried even further, symbolic action is peace-making activity, while diabolic action is war-making activity. And by extention, these correspond to creation and destruction, or Genesis and Nihilism.

Blake, like Nietzsche, has no understanding of “good” and “evil” in any abstract moral sense. There are only symbolic and diabolic processes, and this is the significance of “imagination” and of his anger towards the chief representatives of the European Enlighenment — Locke, Bacon, Voltaire, Newton — and “Aristotle’s Analytics” all of which he dismisses as “Two Horn’d Reasoning, Cloven Fiction”. Like Wordsworth, “we murder to dissect” — that is, the analytical approach is ultimately diabolic, being disintegrative or nihilistic when it becomes dominant over the symbolic, which is the creative or integrative. In those terms, for Blake, these then correspond to healthy or diseased states of being, or sane and insane states of existence.

But as I understand Vice it is a Negative…. Accident is the omission of act in self & the hindering of act in another; This is Vice, but all Act is Virtue. To hinder another is not an act; it is the contrary; it is a restraint on action both in ourselves & in the person hinder’d; for he who hinders another omits his own duty at the same time. Murder is Hindering Another. Theft is Hindering Another. Backbiting, Undermining, Circumventing, & whatever is Negative is Vice.”

This “hindering” actually has the same meaning as the Greek “diabolic”. And the insane (or diabolical) state of existence is what Blake attempts to describe with his mythology of the “four Zoas”, who, in their disintegrative state, represent fallen Man who is disintegrate Man — Albion in eternal sleep. It is the work of “the Poetic Genius” in man — the “imagination” — to bring these back into relation and thus restore Albion, who is the integral human. This is connected, of course, with Blake’s “fourfold vision” in which the act of perception itself is the integrative or restorative imagination at work. “The Nature of my Work is Visionary or Imaginative; it is an Endeavour to Restore what the ancients call’d the Golden Age”. That is the significance of his call to human beings to cleanse “the Doors of Perception”.

The Zoas are, in effect, the same as Gebser’s four structures of consciousness — the archaic, the magical, the mythical, and the mental-rational. Their mutual antagonism has been the source of much human anguish in history. “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” expresses the hostility of the mytho-moral consciousness towards the magical consciousness. Plato’s ejection of the “poets” from his Republic expresses the hostility of the mental-rational consciousness towards the mythical consciousness. The “clash of civilisations” has often been little other than the clash of consciousness structures — reproduced in Blake as the clash of the Zoas (in Blake, Urizen represents the mental-rational, and his name is probably a contraction of “Universal Reason” or, as some suggest, “Your Reason”). For Gebser civilisational types are only articulations of particular identifiable consciousness structures. Gebser’s “fifth” consciousness struture — the quintessence, as it were — is the anticipated integral consciousness, and this can have no other significance than Blake’s “New Jerusalem” and “Albion restored”.

I mentioned earlier the odd parallel between this reconciliation of the Zoas in Blake, Gebser’s “integral consciousness” and the Buddhist legend of “The Guardians of the Four Directions”. I’ll repeat that here again. Upon his enlightenment, the Buddha was presented by the Guardians of the Four Directions with the gift of their own begging bowls. But it’s said that the Buddha “united these into his own for the sake of the dharma”. The  philosophy of the North American aboriginal “Sacred Hoop” with its four directions also represents a unitive or integral vision that forms the same pattern, and it is the same universal pattern that Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy discovered implicit in human language, and what my Sioux friends refer to as “speaking from the centre of the voice”, which is equivalently, to speak from the centre of the Sacred Hoop.

And that is what Blake does. It is symbolic action. And that is all he knows of “the good”.

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12 responses to “Blake’s Doctrine of Good and Evil”

  1. amothman33 says :

    I enjoyed your lingustic journey in the train of good and evil, of course our life is a journey in understanding how to cast our selves in the mode of the human proper, this means that we have already in our imagination the image of the proper otherwise our journey will be futile. This makes the archetyp very essential in the process of casting.Now i understand the importance of the fifth of Gasber.finally i like to know how symmetry can be fearful?

    • Scott Preston says :

      finally i like to know how symmetry can be fearful?

      You yourself answered that question in one of your recent comments, Abdulmonem….

      When the sea of impermanence is turned into land of permanenc doom is expected

      That is “fearful symmetry”: when the powers of destruction perfectly mirror the powers of creation, the result is standstill. A slight disequilbrium of forces is necessary, and that means, in some ways, that the neg-entropic force of life must overrule the entropic force of death, Genesis must overrule the Void — the Nihil — as it were; the Nietzschean “abyss”.

      “Fearful symmetry” is a novel way of stating it, but Blake gave, I think, what he intended to be understood by that in his manifesto “THERE is NO Natural Religion”, part b. It states as follows there,

      I. Mans perceptions are not bounded by organs of perception. he percieves more than sense (tho’ ever so acute) can discover.
      II. Reason or the ratio of all we have already known, is not the same that it shall be when we know more.
      [III. missing]
      IV The bounded is loathed by its possessor. The same dull round even of a univer[s]e would soon become a mill with complicated wheels.
      V. If the many become the same as the few, when possess’d, More! More! is the cry of the mistaken soul, less than All cannot satisfy Man.
      VI. If any could desire what he is incapable of possessing, despair must be his eternal lot.
      VII. The desire of man being Infinite the possession is Infinite & himself Infinite
      Conclusion. If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic character, the Philosophic & Experimental would soon be at the ratio of all things & stand still, unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again
      Application He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only sees himself only.

      The key article is item IV.

      For those somewhat familiar with the Seth material (Jane Roberts’ books), they may recall something Seth also mentioned there the significance of which may have been overlooked — that the sustainability, continuity, and order of the cosmos depends upon a slight disequilibrium of forces, otherwise they would cancel each other out. That, I suspect, is Blake’s “Fearful Symmetry”.

      • Scott Preston says :

        that the sustainability, continuity, and order of the cosmos depends upon a slight disequilibrium of forces, otherwise they would cancel each other out. That, I suspect, is Blake’s “Fearful Symmetry”.

        By the way, that “slight disequilibrium of forces” that Seth mentions is now presently called, in astrophysics, “the Anthropic Principle”, which (overlooking its narcissistic/anthropocentric tenor) means that a certain disequilbrium or imbalance was necessary at the beginning of the universe following the Big Bang that, if it had not occurred, would have made life impossible and would have resulted in a mad universe. So, once again, I find the Seth material very much affirmed by ongoing discoveries in physics (including his bemused comment that the ongoing search for “subatomic particles” would be endless because we are, in fact, creating them. I believe we are up to “101” particles presently?)

        • Scott Preston says :

          Might add something to the foregoing, by way of illustration anyway — if the “expansionary” force of the universe did not overrule the contractionary force, the universe couldn’t exist. That’s a kind of fundamental, symbolic way of understanding the “slight disequilibrium” that must exist for life and the cosmos to continue.

    • Scott Preston says :

      Now i understand the importance of the fifth of Gasber

      The “fifth” or “quintessence” (ie, “the fifth element”) is a very ancient notion, and you might be aware of it from older (or newer) Arabic sources and traditions, particularly alchemy. The ancient Greeks felt that four elements chiefly comprised the cosmos — earth, air, fire, water. These do, in some ways, reflect Blake’s mythology of the four Zoas and “The Guardians of the Four Directions”. The elements of earth, air, fire, and water correspond to the four basic bodily systems: earth is metabolism, air is respiration, fire is nervous system, and water is circulatory system.

      What the ancients lacked was the “fifth” principle that would integrate these into a unified and integrated whole, because the ancients saw these elements as inimical (hostile) to each other. But that would have meant that their very bodies were at war with themselves, and that is not the case. “Homeostasis” is the term used for relative equilibrium of the four bodily systems. The fifth principle was sometimes referred to as “the aether”, and seems to be equivalent to what the Hindus call “akasha”. It may have been what Heraclitus meant by “the Logos”, which was translated into “The Word”, (and may have been the biggest blunder in Western history).

      The “fifth” is the kingly or ruling power. In Blake, this is called “Albion”. In Jesus teaching, though, it is called “love”, which is why they say “God is Love”. Love is the power that integrates, heals, mends and is therefore “the quintessence”. Here, the four “beasts” that surround the throne of God in the book of Revelation correspond to the primal elements earth, air, fire, and water (and the four Zoas in Blake).

      The “quintessence” or power that holds the cosmos together (and in physics terms these are the four cosmic forces: the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, the electro-magnetic force, the gravitational force — is the same power that sustains the relative equilibrium or homeostasis of the four physiological systems of your body — metabolic, respiratory, nervous, circulatory. The scientific quest for “the integral theory” is thus a continuing quest for the “fifth element” or quintessence, and cannot be separated from what we call “self-realisation”.

  2. amothman33 says :

    Thank you Scott , but i was thinking of symmetry in term of balance, not in term of parodox, because i know imperfection is a call for perfection.

  3. LittleBigMan says :

    Nothing could have given me a higher motivation to learn Latin than this article. Such terrific illuminating thoughts. This discussion of “symbolic” and “diabolic” as integrating and disintegrating pocesses was enlightening. Your comment that:

    “In Jesus teaching, though, it is called “love”, which is why they say “God is Love”. Love is the power that integrates, heals, mends and is therefore “the quintessence”.”

    nails it. Both physical and psychological healing benefit from the “love” premise as one or one’s guardian, for example, applies remedy to injury ‘lovingly’ and with attention, and as psychological loss is balanced by others’ or oneself’s love toward the person experiencing the malady.

    Regarding the integrating fifth element, in his “The Way Toward Health” from page 247 onward he emphasizes the role of “spontaneity” in all life. He mentions the time when “human personality was more at one with himself.” I will mention some few excerpts to illustrate his point.

    “As your life is provided for you, so to speak, by these spontaneous processes, the life of the universe is provided in the same fashion. You see the physical stars, and your instruments probe the distances of space – but the inner processes that make the universe possible are those same processes that propel your own thinking.”(p. 253)

    “true discipline is the result of true spontaneity.”(p. 253)

    “Science itself often displays compulsive and ritualistic behavior, to the point of programming its own paths of reasoning, so that they cover safe ground, and steadfastly ignore the great inner forces of spontaneity that make science – or any discipline – possible. As I have said before, spontaneity knows its own order. Nothing is more highly organized than the physical body that spontaneously grows all of its own parts.” (p. 252-253).

    “In the truest regard, your life is provided for you by these spontaneous processes. As I’ve mentioned in past books, at one time the human personality was “more at one with itself.” It accomodated unconscious and conscious experience more equitably. Man was more aware of his dreams and so called unconscious activity.
    “It is only because civilized man has somewhat overspecialized in the use of one kind of knowledge over another that people fear the unconscious, spontaneous portions of self.” (p. 251).

    • Scott Preston says :

      Terrific quotes from Seth, as usual. His continuous insistence on the value of inner “spontaneity” and how spontaneity knows its own order, is really the issue of “faith” — the “faith of a grain of mustard seed” or of the lilies of the valley. This inner “spontaneity” is actually what made Einstein a great scientist, for his logic was subordinate to his imagination — the very meaning of his statement that “imagination is more important than knowledge”. Pickling Einstein’s brain in the hopes of discovering the secret of genius in the pickle is something only Jonathan Swift could adequately lampoon, I think. Seth’s “spontaneity” is the issue of Blake’s “Poetic Genius as the true Man” and his insistence that the imagination is life itself. It’s the same issue.

      So, I’m looking forward to receiving my copy in hand of The Way Toward Health. An odd title, though. Reminds me immediately of Castaneda’s “journey to Ixtlan”. Ixtlan is the mythical city of the “man of knowledge” that can never be reached… only the path is the thing. It’s one of the most moving passages in all of Castaneda’s works. I linked to it online earlier — the last 4 or 5 pages of his book Journey to Ixtlan. Ixtlan seems to be the sorcerer’s equivalent of the City of God.

      “It is only because civilized man has somewhat overspecialized in the use of one kind of knowledge over another that people fear the unconscious, spontaneous portions of self.”

      That is, of course, the issue of Gebser’s “deficient rationality”, and the corrective to that which he calls “integral consciousness”. I have a book acquired some time ago that I’ve yet to read called The Four Ways of Knowing and I’m anticipating that it has something to do with Blake’s “fourfold vision”. But, I’ll have to wait a bit to discover whether that’s the case.

      Seth’s insistence on the value of spontaneity throughout all his books is an issue of life or death for us as a species, and it is stated with the same urgency that Blake insisted on the vital role of “imagination”. As you may recollect, I once quoted Seth’s ominous remark that unless certain changes of a psychic nature were made, the human species would not survive. These issues, therefore, are related, and related as well to Gebser’s issue of the “irruption” of a new consciousness structure, which is also, in his terms, an issue of spontaneity, and there is a close connection between this and Blake’s view that imagination and perception are fundamental issues of life.

      That’s the significance of Gebser’s view that acknowledging or recognising the manifestations of the integral is a necessary aspect of the successful emergence of the integral. To perceive is to be, and to be is to be perceived. “You create the reality you know” is, therefore, intrinsically entangled with the act of perception and the imaginative. I have another book on my shelf (also unread as yet) entitled The Imagined World Made Real, and although I have no idea presently what the author intends by that, it is the main issue in Blake, Gebser, and Seth.

      • Scott Preston says :

        While on this subject, I should add something by way of clarification. What is called “intentionality of consciousness”, particularly amongst the phenomenologists and the philosopher Edmund Husserl, is the same issue as Blake’s “imagination” and “perception”. It is what is called “intent” in Castaneda. The principle of intentionality is “consciousness intends its world” and this can be nothing else than the issues of imagination and perception that Blake dwells upon, and his views of the relationship of Energy and Form. In an old interview with Castaneda that was published in Psychology Today, Castaneda remarked that he had read parts of Husserl’s work to don Juan and, surprisingly, don Juan approved and regarded Husserl’s views very highly, and it seems to be because of Husserl’s view of the intentional character of consciousness as constituting its own reality in the very act of perception. Merleau-Ponty, whose book The Phenomenology of Perception I’ve mentioned before, was a follower of Husserl.

        • LittleBigMan says :

          I have to admit I have forgottten much of the valuable details in Castaneda’s 11 books, and my recollection is limited to the most major events discussed in his work. I do plan on going back and re-reading his works again, though. I totally had forgotten about any reference to Edmund Husserl in his work. This has got me interested in Husserl’s work. Thank you for mentioning it.

  4. amothman33 says :

    You made fly with the birds of your thoughts and the thoughts of those you commented on.Thoughts are independant beings and are attracted to the appreciative souls. I am nearing eighty but have not reached the hight of my flight. Perception is so wide . i feel sorry for those who enclosed themselves in the jail of the senses.

    • Scott Preston says :

      Eighty! That’s a venerable age, Abdulmonem. I never would have guessed it of you. I had the idea in my mind that you were around 35 years. And I believe it, that you “have not reached the height” of your flight. I’ll have to come visit before you soar out of sight!

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