Spent some time yesterday evening with All Religions are One and There is No Natural Religion, two series of philosophical aphorisms by William Blake written around a decade after the publication of David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. What surprised me about Blake's pieces was how closely he follows the methodology of the empiricists, even though he proclaims to feel contempt and abhorrence for the ideas of Locke and Bacon. Blake must have decided that the best way to pour scorn on this tradition is to undermine it from the inside – use empiricism against itself. However, I hope to show that the gains of such a strategy were probably more limited than what Blake was hoping for.
The 'Argument' of All Religions are One is a stringent declaration of scientific principals. But 'Principal 1' proceeds with what Hume would consider the 'unphilosophical' claim that 'the forms of all things are derived from their genius'. I encountered the use of the word 'genius' in a natural religion context when researching my MA dissertation, it crops up in William Derham's work as an analogue for 'telos' – the purpose or end for each and every object in the universe. Blake's proposition that all objects have a purpose is a teleological one. As Hume had shown, such propositions cannot be empirically substantiated.
Blake goes on to suggest that as men all look alike (even in their variety), so are they all in possession of the same intrinsic 'genius', our minds (even in their variety) all work in the same basic way. 'Principal 4' is very interesting because it makes the very Humean point that men are everywhere the same.
'Principal 4' also puts forward the suggestion elsewhere elaborated as 'Man can have no idea of any thing greater than Man as a cup cannot contain more than its capaciousness'. And yet our 'Poetic Genius', or the 'Spirit of Prophesy', nevertheless compels us to imagine the stuff we cannot encompass with our senses. This drive is the source of all human religions. Ironically enough, Hume would have no quarrel with Blake's conclusion that religion is the product of the imagination. He would just feel queasy about privileging it over the philosophical (or scientific) method, as it is a pretty unstable source of moral and political values.
The above describes the source of religion in a very naturalistic way, which may make There is No Natural Religion quite a confusing title for the second series of philosophical aphorisms. 'Natural Religion' is a slippery term. It is usually contrasted with revealed religion, the most important source for which is scripture, but what it actually is depends on who you ask. Some Enlightenment thinkers posited the existence of a innate moral sense which invariably led people to an awareness of God. Blake rejects such a reading on empirical grounds, arguing that you cannot perceive something your senses cannot. However, he acknowledges that men use their 'reasoning power' to compare and judge what they have perceived. Our senses can be educated to understand more than our surroundings, but when they are 'untaught', or 'organic', they only perceive and desire immediate objects already familiar to the senses. Thus, the natural man lacks a natural religion.
[Apparently, it has been suggested that the above argument is ironic, and is contradicted by the second part of the piece. I disagree, because I think Blake has too little to gain from pointing out the fatuousness of the suggestion that men cannot deduce ideas beyond those immediately perceivable by their senses (which empiricist argues that exactly??). Fact is, 1.II indicates the way humans put perceptions together to form ideas using their 'reasoning power', and this is taken up in part 2.]
Men can perceive more than their senses reveal, because the accumulation and comparison of sensory data eventually indicates the existence of certain natural laws governing our reality that cannot be perceived, yet which we accept (gravity being the big one in the 18th century). New discoveries (such as Newton's) change the 'ratio of all we have already known'.
The third proposition doesn't survive, but I think the rest is still explicable: the bounds of knowledge become loathed by those who possess them – they find the mechanical clockwork universe unsatisfactory. If the many objects of the universe are rendered the same as the few observable objects by the laws of physics, we are still left yearning for more: 'less than all cannot satisfy Man'. We strive to fill the gaps left by science, but are incapable of satisfaction.
Here Blake's teleology comes back in. If mankind's nature is to desire the infinite, they must be capable of possessing it, because the forms of all things are derived from their genius. The philosophic and experimental can only halt at the ratio of all things, unable to go beyond it. The poetic and prophetic, on the other hand, can see the infinite in all things. But poetry and prophesy is irrational, sourced from the imagination. Thus men are only truly fulfilled when they let their imaginations complete their understanding of the universe. To come back to the title, religion is not a natural mechanical result of the senses, but the result of a striving to possess knowledge of the infinite.
In response to this, Hume need only repeat his contention that teleological arguments are 'unphilosophical'. In practical terms, his cheerful skepticism undercuts Blake's notion that humans absolutely have to construct imaginary solutions to plug the gaps in our understanding and gain fulfillment. But Hume was a rare case in the 18th century. His close friend Adam Smith knew as much, and told him so. Smith had more time for the Stoic notion (revived in Scotland by Shaftesbury) of the melancholy produced by skepticism. And he so much as confirmed Blake's point that the imagination provides a salve for these disappointments in religion.
But these comforts are still imaginary, and for Enlightenment thinkers like Hume and Smith, suspect. Blake noted in 1800 that morality is a product of philosophy: 'the poet is independent and wicked, the philosopher is dependent and good'. I guess what this means is that the philosopher is dependent on a rational understanding of the universe, and is bound by the need to delineate moral rules by which to govern society. The poet is free from such burdens of responsibility, their job is to 'excuse vice, and show its reason and necessary purgation'. Poets provide an imagined structure by which to fill reality with meaning and assist people to grasp the infinite. They also provide an understanding of the emotional drives which produce evil, and in so doing, purge it. It is a much expanded role for the imagination, but it is nevertheless surprising how many of Blake's Romantic conclusions are shared with his contemporaries on the side of the Enlightenment.