Tuesday, June 01, 2010


It is not easy to understand Blake's attitude toward Good & Evil. Northrup Frye, a renowned student of Blake has given some explanations in Fearful Symmetry. Let's go to him and to Mr. Blake himself for some help.

Northrup Frye, Fearful Symmetry, Page 197
"Moral good and moral evil do not represent any genuine opposition. The one wages wars and executes criminals; the other murders. The one exploits labor; the other robs. The one exploits marriage on the destruction of virginity; the other rapes. But they have a common enemy, the power of genius and prophecy. In terms of moral good it is not the murderer or the robber but the prophet who is really evil. Barabbas can be safely released, for it is impossible that his robberies can destroy the social structure of Pilate and Caiphas; but there is deadly danger in Jesus and John the Baptist, who must be got rid of at all costs."

Northrup Frye, Fearful Symmetry, Page 56
"Hence evil is a negative: all evil consists either in self-restraint or restraint of others. There can be no such thing, strictly speaking, as an evil act; all acts are good, and evil comes when activity is perverted into the frustration of activity, in oneself or others...
This death-impulse, this perverted wish to cut down and restrict the scope of life, is the touchstone not only of all the obvious vices, but of many acts often not classified as such, like teasing, instilling fear or discouragement, or exaction unthinking obedience."

William Blake, Annotations to Lavater (E 601)
"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 [<from Individual propensity>] 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 hinderd. for he who hinders another omits his own duty. at the time
Murder is Hindering Another
Theft is Hindering Another
Backbiting. Undermining C[i]rcumventing & whatever is Negative is Vice."

Northrup Frye, Fearful Symmetry, Page 58
"But self-development leads us into a higher state of integration with a larger imaginative unit which is ultimately God. Hence the paradox that one gains his life by losing it, which Jesus taught. The selfish or egocentric are incapable of developing themselves; that comes from expansion outward not withdrawal inward. Hence there are two selves in man absolutely opposed to one another, the better self that grows and lives and the worse self that rots and withers, the good and evil angel:"

William Blake, Annotation to Lavater (E 594)
"Man is a twofold being. one part capable of evil & the other
capable of good that which is capable of good is not also
capable of evil. but that which is capable of evil is also
capable of good. this aphorism seems to consider man as
simple & yet capable of evil. now both evil & good cannot
exist in a simple being. for thus 2 contraries would. spring
from one essence which is impossible. but if man is
considerd as only evil. & god only good. how then is
regeneration effected which turns the evil to good. by
casting out the evil. by the good.
See Matthew XII. Ch. 26. 27. 28. 29 vs"
["If it is Satan who is expelling Satan, then he is divided against himself - so how do you suppose that his kingdom can continue? And if I expel devils because I am an ally of Beelzebub, what alliance do your sons make when they do the same thing? They can settle that question for you! But if I am expelling devils by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has swept over you unawares! How do you suppose anyone could get into a strong man's house and steal his property unless he first tied up the strong man? But if he did that, he could ransack his whole house."]

Northrup Frye, Fearful Symmetry, Page 58
"Man has within him the principle of life and the principle of death: one is the imagination, the other the natural man.
The only possible cure for the original sin of this Selfhood of the natural man is vision, the revelation that this world is fallen and therefore not ultimate."

I think this leads us right back to the first quote; which says in essence that the enemy of the moral system is the prophet who can destroy the status quo.

Los and his Spectre
Jerusalem, Plate 6


Susan J. said...

so... I take it when Frey refers to "moral good and moral evil" he means something like "that which society approves and that which society disapproves" -- is that right?

I can see that -- but does Frye, or does Blake, speak of "real" good and evil? Like, maybe, love and imagination and life are "real" good, and hatred and repression and death are "real" evil...?

ellie said...

Hi Susan,
I think that Frye and Blake were saying that hindering spiritual development in oneself or others is the 'evil' that Blake recognizes. But even this 'evil' is overcome by the 'good' of fostering the development of the spirit. Blake made 'hindering' a very broad concept and he recognized its presence all around as for instance in 'Songs of Experience'. His advice, like that in Romans, is to 'overcome evil with good'.
The 'real' for Blake is always the Eternal. His 'good' leads to Eternal Life. What may be morally good may be misused and lead to death.

Susan J. said...

hmmm.... well I can certainly see that "hindering spiritual development in oneself or others" is AN evil... and a very common, very important one, that well deserves to be exposed. e.g. it brings into focus instances of one person "squelching" another in various ways.

reminds me of one of the arguments in the feminist movement, that the Bible's concept of "sin" is androcentric. Pride may be the premier sin of men, but women sin when we fail to give ourselves (our identities I guess Blake would say) enough credit, submitting to male domination. In other words, women's sin is not Pride, but Submission.

if I'm understanding what you've written, Blake might agree with such feminists, that sin/evil lies in submitting to others' attempts to hinder one's spiritual development.

am I on the right track?

ellie said...

In Blake male and female in Eternity are complementary, two facets of one whole. In the fallen world they each assert contrary personalities. The male who is the active principle may seek submission from the female. The female who is the receptive principle may become jealous of the male's role and subvert a cooperative arrangement.

We have 14 posts which fall into the label women. This one might be helpful: Recreated.

I don't see Blake and the feminists appreciating one another.

Susan J. said...

"I don't see Blake and the feminists appreciating one another."

I agree. :-)

John Cowan said...

Yes, in Blake's symbolism individuality is always male, including individual women. That would certainly piss me off if I were a woman.

ellie said...

Blake's is a complex system of symbolism.
I will hazard to say that the male is never complete without the female. If one thinks in the Eternal dimension, one tends not to get 'pissed off.'

Milton, Plate 3, (E 97)
"Enraged & stifled without & within: in terror & woe, he threw his
Right Arm to the north, his left Arm to the south, & his Feet
Stampd the nether Abyss in trembling & howling & dismay
And a seventh Age passed over & a State of dismal woe

Terrified Los stood in the Abyss & his immortal limbs
Grew deadly pale; he became what he beheld: for a red
Round Globe sunk down from his Bosom into the Deep in pangs
He hoverd over it trembling & weeping. suspended it shook
The nether Abyss in temblings. he wept over it, he cherish'd it
In deadly sickening pain: till separated into a Female pale
As the cloud that brings the snow: all the while from his Back
A blue fluid exuded in Sinews hardening in the Abyss
Till it separated into a Male Form howling in Jealousy

Within labouring. beholding Without: from Particulars to Generals
Subduing his Spectre, they Builded the Looms of Generation
They Builded Great Golgonooza Times on Times Ages on Ages
First Orc was Born then the Shadowy Female: then All Los's Family
At last Enitharmon brought forth Satan Refusing Form, in vain
The Miller of Eternity made subservient to the Great Harvest
That he may go to his own Place Prince of the Starry Wheels"

Thanks for commenting John.