The Outlaw Spirit: William Blake

My use of the term “outlaw spirit” over the last couple of posts is meant to draw attention to the largely neglected or suppressed history of dissenters from the “Age of Reason,” and to highlight the fact that, not one, but two models of reason were in contention at the onset of the Modern Age, like the Biblical parable of the twin brothers Jacob and Esau and their competition for the birthright of the firstborn.

This situation is what led Francis Bacon, Lord Verulam, (1561 – 1626) to shape his famous question in the way he did — whether “science or magic” was to provide the philosophical foundations for the New Age emerging amidst the ruins and from the rubble of the Old World in the breakdown and collapse of the civilisation of the Middle Ages (and which now, also, appears to be the equal fate of the Modern Age itself).

This is not a minor issue. It is our autobiography. It has shaped who and what we have become even in our daily life.

Conventional histories largely run roughshod over the whole matter. In them, the social and historical struggle in the transitional age is misrepresented as a struggle between Reformation and Counter-Reformation, between “Age of Reason” and “Age of Faith”, or between the revolutionary Secular against the reactionary and decadent Ecclesiastical power.

But by the 16th century, when Bacon put his question about whether science or magic were to provide the philosophical foundations of the New Era, it was only a question about what would be the shape of the New Age and the form of its self-consciousness and self-understanding, because by then the old order of Christendom had already been irrevocably swept away or persisted only as a lost cause. The struggle — as is the often the case in all revolutionary victories — was now principally between two streams of the triumphant revolutionary forces, both previously suspect, or suppressed and outlawed as heretical, that now turned on each other for the inheritance like Jacob and Esau: representative of those streams are Galileo Galilei (1564 – 1642) or Giordano Bruno (1548 – 1600) or “the Devil’s Doctor” Paracelsus (1493 – 1541).

It is quite possible that Bacon even had the alchemist Paracelsus specifically in mind when weighing the options of science or magic.

As mentioned, the form of the question “science or magic” is summary for a choice between what was then called “Natural Philosophy” (or “the Experimental Philosophy”) or the Hermetic Philosophy (alchemy). One of the things that almost universally characterised the adherents of the Hermetic school was a complete rejection of Aristotelian logic and metaphysics — the very same thing that William Blake later denounced as “Aristotle’s Analytics” in his Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and is what Rosenstock-Huessy refers to as “the Greek Mind”.

At root, then, the controversy was quite simple, and continues in some form or another even to this day — the choice was between an Aristotelian logic of “either-or” or a non-Aristotelian logic of “both-and”; or, to put that another way — between a dualistic and a non-dualistic way of thinking.

This is the very crux of the entire issue and the problem of dualism, but which achieved its most articulate representation in the metaphysical dualism of Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650) resulting in a radical dissociation and contradiction of subject and object, mind and body, spiritual and physical, or consciousness and reality. It was this dichomisation of reality into discrete separate worlds of spirit and matter that was completely rejected by the Hermetic school as false, and whose own mode of cognition and perception was non-dualist, and had to be so given their root principle of “coincidentia oppositorum” or “the coincidence of opposites”.

The root issue is very simple, isn’t it? Dualistic versus non-dualistic consciousness, and this, in turn, goes back to the very roots of the entire Western intellectual tradition in the controversy between the Greek philosophers Parmenides — the philosopher of “Being” — and Heraclitus — the philosopher of “Becoming” and of the coincidence of opposites. So, by extension, Bacon’s question has deeper roots in the conflict of philosophical moods of Parmenides or Heraclitus.

Nothing can be simpler or clearer to understand: the “law of contradiction” (or dualistic logic) was in direct conflict with the principle of “coincidence of opposites”, or non-duality and the doctrine of affinities. The unity of consciousness and reality was at stake, and therefore of man’s powers to even identify with the life process and to know it through the faculty of empathic identification or “intuition”.  For the Hermeticists, therefore, the form of Bacon’s question and the triumph of Cartesian rationalism and dualism was a human disaster, for it meant that man had formalised and adopted an attitude and mood of opposition and contradiction to life and creation itself, or as Rosenstock-Huessy put it, ” the body was delegated to the struggle for food and shelter; the ‘mind’, however, with the optimism of the age of reason, was contemplating the truth of the matter”

It is in this context that Blake’s dissent from “single vision & Newtons sleep” and “Aristotle’s Analytics” must be understood, for Blake is in the Hermetic tradition and of the school of Heraclitus, “for man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern” — that is, from behind the walls of the physical senses (or in what Pitrim Sorokin calls “Sensate Culture”) by adopting this dualism, in effect amputating and divorcing himself from the life-process itself, as Nietzsche later argued. “We murder to dissect” was Wordsworth’s summary judgement on dualistic rationality itself — sterilising and anti-biotic.

Dualistic versus non-dualistic modes of cognition characterise much of the intellectual struggles of the early Modern Period, as exemplified in the career of  Paracelsus. The victory of the “Greek Mind” forced the Hermeticists underground, where it became “the occult” (a word which only came into existence then), like the mad twin brother who was locked away in the cellar as being something shameful, unseemly, or embarrassing. Dissenters from dualism have been uniformly rounded up and stuffed into the camp called “Counter-Enlightenment” or “romantics”, as if they belonged to the reactionary past, which was not true. Only if by “Enlightenment” and “Age of Reason” we understand Cartesianism or the logicians of Port Royal, or “the Greek Mind” as Rosenstock-Huessy calls it, is “counter-enlightenment” intelligible at all.

The refinement of the Hermetic philosophy is what you find in the works of Jean Geber or Rosenstock-Huessy. Jean Gebser with his attacks on dualistic thinking and perspectivising logic in favour of “polarity” or “complementarity” and for “integral consciousness” belongs to classical Hermetic reasoning. Likewise, Rosenstock-Huessy’s “grammatical method” and his integralist programme of “synchronising antagonistic distemporaries” or the concordance of contradictions is classical Hermeticism, and Rosenstock-Huessy has eloquently defended the reputations of Heraclitus and Paracelsus for similar reasons. And Carl Jung, obviously, also belongs to the Hermetic school. The necessity of countering the pernicious consequences of rationalism and dualism — not least of which is “the culture of narcissism” — is why the Hermetic philosophy is now enjoying something of a Renaissance itself.

The very basis of all Hermetic philosophy — the thing that is implied even in the principle of polarity or “coincidence of opposites” — is empathy or affinity. Because of the problems generated by the “deficiencies” of the mental-rational structure of consciousness, as Gebser describes it and as Ralston Saul dissects it in Voltaire’s Bastards, we are now taking a hard second look at the alternative and its meaning that was rejected and denied back then as “magic” or “occult” — Hermeticism.



7 responses to “The Outlaw Spirit: William Blake”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    Much is made of “scientific method” or methodology. But this “method” is, in essence, simply psychic distancing (“disinterested inquiry”) which is simultaneously an objectification. This is what Gebser calls “perspectivisation” and the contraction of consciousness into a “point of view”. In principle, it has the same meaning as Blake’s statement about man having “closed himself up until he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern”.

    Hermetic method works in the opposite direction, as previously discussed — via empathic identification. It seeks immediacy and intimacy (intuitive) knowing rather than knowledge mediated by the senses and grasped through observation alone. Hermeticists work with “essences” rather than “attributes”, and with affinities rather than definitions.

    Of course “essences” are invisible or the unseen (hence “occult”). But to say essences are “invisible” is not the same as to say they are imperceptible. Perception and sensation are not the same thing. Blake emphasised that point in his insisting that he saw “thro’ the eye” and not with the eye, and so could perceive “that which is hid” within the apparent surfaces of things. For Blake, “Imagination” or “Vision” is an actual psychic, rather than physical, sense, and in him these inner senses were highly active. These inner senses are what we vaguely call “the intuitive” senses, and to Blake they are far more real, immediate, and certain than the physical senses — the mortal senses that were “born in a night to perish in a night,” as he writes. Collectively, Blake calls this ensemble of inner or psychic senses “Imagination” and considers them attributes of “the True Man” (or what Seth calls “the You of you”).

    As Jung has argued, the point of “magic” or alchemy was to unfold and develop these inner senses, and “the transmutation of lead into gold” was only a metaphor for this practice, “gold” being true enlightenment or awakening — the colour of the dawn. The denial of the existence of these inner or intuitive senses is what inflamed Blake’s wrath against the “unholy trinity” of Newton, Bacon, and Locke. For Blake, what was not apprehended by the inner senses was only a shade and shadow of the real, and he calls this world of shadows or phenomena “Ulro”.

    Now, I mention this specifically because these “inner senses” are the very things that Seth insists must now become active in the human form if the race — even the planet — is to survive, because the human race has traveled too far down the path of sensate existence. That is the gist of that warning that I posted in “The Most Haunting Words in All Literature”,

    The awakening of these inner senses is Blake’s passion, and that’s how he should be understood, as the authentic Hermetic philosophy should be understood also. In our time, that which does not now lead to the awakening of these inner senses is no good whatsoever, which is why I have such a hate-on for propaganda and “perception management” and for what Blake called “the mind-forg’d manacles”. This is, to a certain extent, also what Ralston Saul means in referring to “the dictatorship of reason” and which corresponds to Blake’s Zoa “Urizen”, the mad god who rules the Ulro, which Ralston Saul correspondingly calls “the unconscious civilisation” in a book by that title.

    So, I’ve found you can learn quite a bit about Blake also by reading Ralston Saul, even if Ralston Saul doesn’t have Blake specifically in mind.

    The fate of the earth hinges now on the awakening and activation of these inner senses or, as Castaneda’s don Juan put it, on “unfolding the wings of perception”. All talk about a “New Age” is meaningless unless it refers to an awakening of these inner senses. This is what Gebser means by a “consciousness mutation”.

  2. alex jay says :

    “… as Rosenstock-Huessy put it, ” the body was delegated to the struggle for food and shelter; the ‘mind’, however, with the optimism of the age of reason, was contemplating the truth of the matter”.”

    This reminds of segement from a TED talk about how the academic profession live their lives from their shoulders up. Some good points on the Cartesian tyranny and entertaining:

    • Scott Preston says :

      Excellent! And he’s quite right, isn’t he? The future doesn’t just happen, we create it, and the well of creativity is running dry for the reasons Robinson gives. And right now we have no idea. We’re in free fall, as it were — exactly the situation described over a century ago by Nietzsche: “Since Copernicus, man has been rolling from the centre towards X”.

      This “X” — the undiscovered country, as it were — is that same “something else” that Seth describes as a probable future for ego consciousness, as I quoted in “The Most Haunting Words in All Literature”. “Ego consciousness must now be familiarized with its roots, or it will turn into something else.”

      This “X” should really be of great concern to us. One scenario for “X” was Nietzsche’s “madman in the marketplace”.

      The Hermeticists, however, had a formula for “X” and it’s contained in the coincidence of opposites — “God is a circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere”. This “God” is, in effect, the Logos of Heraclitus and the “ever-present origin” of Jean Gebser. That is to say, Gebser’s “ever-present origin” is identical with what Heraclitus meant by “Logos“. Completely identical with it.

      So, at the root, the Hermetic philosophy is the articulation of the Heraclitean Logos, and it is the only plausible (in the sense of desirable) solution to Nietzsche’s “X”.

      This is becoming an even more urgent necessity since the Holocaust, because what the Lisbon earthquake did to the legitimacy and credibility of the Age of Faith, the Holocaust did for the legitimacy and credibility of the Age of Reason.

      It is not often noted that Nietzsche’s solution for “X” — the transhuman or overman — is the bearer of this Heraclitean Logos or coincidence of opposites himself or herself, as Jesus was said to be by early Christians. In effect, the transhuman is the realised “Logos“, and the ideal of the Hermetic philosophy — the unity of opposites or “synchronisation of antagonistic contemporaries” in Rosenstock-Huessy’s “cross of reality” model. Nietzsche is a Hermeticist, perhaps without even knowing it. Nietzsche’s formula “become what you are” is, in effect, a nod to Heraclitus who saw the all-pervading Logos as also “the soul”, or what we might call “human nature”, as well as the kosmos itself. It’s the source of all creativity. Blake’s “True Man” is the Heraclitean Logos or what Meister Eckhart called “the Aristocrat”.

      This unity of opposites in and through the Logos is the same as Gebser’s “integral consciousness”.

      For about 2500 years we have lived with the dominance of the Parmenidean philosophy. Its time is over. Our hopes now lie with Heraclitus and his “Logos”.

      • LittleBigMan says :

        This morning, I stumbled on a Youtube clip of “a madman” which was produced in a marketplace, somewhere 🙂 I hope you can access it

        • Scott Preston says :

          Was that fellow stoned? What a performance! Bravo!

          • LittleBigMan says :

            LOL…….. after I posted that clip I watched several other clips and an interview with him and discovered that he is a performing arts artist and has been doing this on the streets for a long time. Apparently, he regularly gets kicked out of department stores for dancing and pounding on a drum half naked while singing “Love is the answer!” 🙂

  3. LittleBigMan says :

    “All talk about a “New Age” is meaningless unless it refers to an awakening of these inner senses.”

    Speaking of the interaction between, and coincidence of, the opposites, the strengthening of the grip of the Age of Reason is bound to coincide with a speeding up of our gravitation toward the inner senses. This is what I have experienced as the “tapping of the universe” on my shoulders. In the most mysterious of ways it interferes with one’s daily life, reminding him/her that what meets the eye and the other senses isn’t all there is.

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