William Blake – “All Religions are One”, “There Is No Natural Religion”

After a few rather hectic days I finally have time to sit down and try to write about the complicated and crazy world of William Blake. The two “prophetic” texts (Blake identifies himself as “the voice of one crying in the Wilderness”) These are terse philosophical treatises in bullet points, a bit like Wittgenstein’s, and I find it really difficult to write about them or comprehend them, actually. In the first text, Blake starts with the assumption that there is this entity he calls “the Poetic Genius” which is the beginning of all humans, angels and demons. This is also the source where all sects of philosophy and religion come from, not like the Deists claim, from the observation of the natural world. This brings nothing new, Blake claims, “as none by travelling over known lands can find out the unknown”.

In “There Is No Natural Religion” Blake argues that morally the human being is a blank slate, with no inborn morality but whatever is taught to them in the process of education. They cannot know or desire other things than those they perceive. But since we know they are much greater than that, it brings Blake to the conclusion that there must be something else he calls “the Poetic or Prophetic character”, or otherwise philosophy could do nothing but repeat the same things over and over again. So in the second part of this treatise Blake argues that we are much more than what we perceive, that we desire more and that’s a good thing: if we desired only what we can’t have, our life would be one of endless despair, but our desires are infinite, possessions are infinite and humans are infinite. If you see infinity in all things, you see God, but if you see only “Ratio” (cold calculating reason), you see only yourself. “Therefore God becomes as we are, that we may be as he is.” At leas that’s as far as I could understand it. Wiki has a superb entry on this text with links to all the plates (because Blake really needs to be read with the accompanying pictures).

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Edmund Burke – “Speech on the Conciliation with the American Colonies” (the end)

The third factor which according to Burke contributed to Americans’ special love of liberty is their being Dissenters, While both the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England have been enjoying the support of the state, Puritans, who colonized America, were in opposition to the political establishment. It is “dissidence of dissent, and the protestantism of the Protestant religion” which makes them oppose any form of state tyranny. The Church of England followers constitute no more than 10% of the colonists, in Burke’s estimation.

At this point Burke notices some opposing voices, pointing out that there are in fact more Anglicans in southern colonies, but he says that they are slave-holders. (Was this argument actually improvised in the House or something Burke planned for, I wonder?) In the slave-owning states being free is a part of one’s social status and also their inhabitants don’t see that liberty often goes with being poor and working hard. (I am not an expert on American history, but I have a feeling Burke over-generalizes here a bit. I’m sure not every white person in pre-revolutionary Virginia was a manor owner.) So, because being free in the South equals being white, the colonists living there are going to guard their freedom as jealously as in the North.  Burke doesn’t say it’s good or bad (in fact he opposed slavery), but at this point he merely states the fact and says it was the rule all over the world, for instance it used to be so in Poland. And here the NAEL editors make a howler by claiming in the footnote that “Slavery was abolished in Poland in 1772.” Slavery never existed in Poland in modern times (I don’t mean pre-Christian or early Middle Ages), and if the editors mean serfdom, it was not fully abolished until the 19th c. What happened in 1772, and to which Burke may be referring, was the first partition of Poland between the Prussian, Russian, and Austro-Hungarian Empire. So Burke in this speech, delivered in 1775, uses past tense not because serfdom stopped existing in Poland, but because Poland itself at this point was not truly free.

The next factor Burke names is the widespread education in America, and especially legal education, which means people can spot a bad law even before they feel its effects. And finally the distance, which means Britain can’t rule America effectively, just like any other huge empire, where the state control is bound to be more lax in the peripheries than in the centre.

Edmund Burke – “Speech on the Conciliation with the American Colonies” (excerpts)

Methinks the American origins of the NAEL show here, and personally I would choose maybe something from Reflections on the Revolution in France, or something like that. But the American editors of the anthology like this text, so let’s read it. The excerpt starts with Burke stating that Americans are renowned for loving liberty, and Burke is going to explain why. They are descendants of freedom-loving Englishmen, they left England just at the time when the question of liberty was the most pressing one, and their idea of freedom is constructed around one particular issue, that is of taxation. Burke says freedom is never abstract or general, but people usually need some actual issue, and that of taxation has always been the hot button issue for Americans, like it is for the English. They may overlook twenty other infringements on their freedom, but the question of money is going to set them off. Burke says he’s not saying they are right or wrong, but that’s the way it is. The character of their regional assemblies, many of which are elected by popular vote, further confirms their view.

David Hume – “Of the Liberty of the Press” (the end)

The next three paragraphs were actually excised by Hume in a later edition of this essay, when he got old and stuffy. They are about why the freedom of the press is a good thing. Notably, Hume by “the freedom of the press” Hume doesn’t mean “the freedom of speech”, because he points out specifically that the freedom of the press is less dangerous than populist tribunes, because it does not pose as much danger of inciting mobs to violence or riots: “a man reads a book or pamphlet alone and coolly”. I guess he wouldn’t support the total freedom of the speech on the Internet as well. People are always going to complain against the government, and it’s better to give the vent to their dissatisfaction in words.  People are also more rational than they are given credit for, Hume believes: nobody had thought total religious toleration was possible, but Holland proved them wrong. Hume ends his essay with a rather optimistic claim that the freedom of the press is going to stay in Britain forever, because people are too afraid of slavery. If it could be every taken away, it would have to be all at once, with preventative censorship and the power of the court to suppress whatever they didn’t like. But that would be the last desperate actions of a despotic government, and as such, quite improbable in Britain.

David Hume – “Of the Liberty of the Press”

Hume begins his essay by stating that the British liberty of the press is exceptional and unheard of in other European countries, either monarchies or republican. Every action of the government can be freely criticized. He asks the question: why in Britain? His answer is that it is probably Britain’s mixed form of government, when you have a mostly republican country with a little bit of monarchy. He uses the examples of Holland and France as the extreme cases of total republican liberty and total absolutist slavery, to show that the extremes meet. In France, his argument goes, the monarch has total power over the people and is so secure in his position that he can give them quite a lot of liberty of speech (but, I assume, not as much as in Britain). On the other hand, in the republican Holland, no government official can become too powerful, and for  that reason they are given large discretionary powers, which in turn restrain people and make them very respectful towards the government.  The ancient Rome was mostly slavery with a little bit of liberty: just enough to make every noble family dream about themselves becoming emperors on day, which in turn made the residing emperors suspicious and cruel. Britain struck a happy balance: its liberty means that every magistrate has to be controlled, and he can’t do anything but what is prescribed by the law. I am not sure I understand Hume’s argument here, but I guess it’s something along the lines of : “In Britain, the regular people are free, and the government officials are slaves to the law”. And the liberty of the press is necessary to protect Britain’s delicate balance of government against the encroachments of court despotism.

Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury -“‘Sensus Communis’: An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour” (excerpts)

In the second excerpt Shaftesbury wonders whether there can be too much raillery and irony in our everyday life. He supports “defensive raillery”, covering “more truth that can be conveniently told”, because too much truth, like too much light, can blind you. I wish he gave some examples of what he meant, because all I can think of is when you try to fend off some personal questions from the people you are not really very close with, nor want to be. The kind of wit of which Shaftesbury does not approve is the one which makes people confused or perplexed, and I again don’t quite know what he means. True, I know some people who want to be witty all of the time and they are sometimes infuriating, but was it really so widespread in Shaftesbury’s times? Anyway, Shaftesbury is all for free market, both in economy and culture. He believes that this “gross” sort of raillery will just naturally die out, just like the “wit” of the 17th c., with its incessant punning, died out. “All politeness is owing to liberty”, and there is no way prescriptions can force it. (I’m not sure anybody ever attempted to fine or imprison people for making bad jokes – I don’t mean political, just simply not funny – so I feel Shaftesbury is attacking a straw man here.)

Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury -“‘Sensus Communis’: An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour” (excerpts)

The future 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury was pretty much the child of John Locke without actually sharing his DNA: Locke allegedly negotiated his parents’ marriage, assisted as a physician at his birth and was his tutor. The excerpt starts with Shaftesbury addressing a nameless friend, who yesterday expressed his surprise, when Shaftesbury defended in his conversation “raillery”, and Shaftesbury decided to give this thought a more thorough treatment. Firstly, he hopes his friend was surprised not because he considers him to be such a grouch, but because most people, while they are OK with making fun of other people’s views, do not like it when the same thing happens to them. But truth can exist only in full light, and raillery is one of such lights.