Introduction: Blake and His Traditions

  • Matthew J. A. Green


When Blake, in the final pages of his annotations to Lavater’s Aphorisms on Man, refers to himself and the Swiss theologian as ‘philosophers’, it might be tempting to dismiss this appellation as a mere rhetorical flourish within a rather obscure piece of antinomian mysticism. Indeed, the promotion of active Virtue’ in opposition to ‘vicious’ restraint and the rejection of ‘Sin’ as a concept seem far closer to radical Protestant enthusiasm than to the style of philosophy that the late eighteenth century inherited from figures such as Locke, Newton and Bacon (ibid.). To be sure, a number of apparently contradictory meanings converge in the ‘philosopher’, who may be learned in one or more branches of knowledge ranging from the rational and natural to the occult and even magical. In what follows, I will argue that Blake’s early works evince a philosophical position that expands the boundaries of what it is conceivable to know, exceeding the restraints and exclusivity built into competing discourses of enlightenment and counter-enlightenment. Nevertheless, Blake articulates his ‘strong objection to Lavater’s principles’, which appears on the final pages in his copy of Aphorisms on Man, by splicing together the twin discourses of enthusiasm and empiricism: the language of ‘accident’ and ‘Causes & Consequences’, employed by Locke and his descendants, is interwoven with talk of ‘bad or good spirits’, of ‘God & heavenly things’, which are presented as topics of first-hand, revelatory experience.


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© Matthew JA Green 2005

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  • Matthew J. A. Green

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