Blake & Nature Spirituality: 2 — Four Zoas

In Universal Awarenesspart 1 of his new series for Finding Blake, James Fox described his psychological experiences that he later came to understand through William Blake’s writings as either manacled, ‘egoic’ states (Blake’s Satanic mills) or liberated, ‘mystical’ states (Blake’s awakened Albion). In this second part, James elaborates Blake’s doctrine of the four zoas. This series is adapted from a talk he gave in November 2018 to the Mental Fight Club — a charity assisting recovery from mental illness through inspiring creative events and projects — and builds on his earlier post for us, Divine Madness


In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell William Blake writes:

If the doors of perception were cleansed
Every thing would appear to man as it is – infinite.
For man has closed himself up, till he sees
All things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.

Blake’s mythological world refers to ‘four zoas’, from the Greek meaning ‘four powers’. These represent four primary aspects of our human experience, our human being you might say.

The first concerns our sensations, our raw sensual experience, the things of the world: Blake calls this first zoa Tharmas. The second is Urizen, our rational intellect, the power of nature in us that enables us to abstract generalities from our particular sense experiences and to apply the principles of logic to formulate ‘laws’ and predict our future experiences. The third zoa, a force which he calls Luvah or Los, is the power of desire: that which seeks to express itself, to realise itself creatively in the form of production or action – Art in general, according to Blake. The fourth is the power of Imagination, which he calls Urthona, to which are assigned ideas and images that arise intuitively and spontaneously, out of thin air as it were. It is through the Imagination that we may be provided with mystical experience.

In Blake’s work Milton we find the following illustration:

The four zoas. Plate from Milton
The four zoas. Plate from Milton, object 34, copy C.
Source: the William Blake Archive The four zoas. Plate from Milton

Here is Luvah, the power of desire and creative action; Urizen, the rational power; Tharmas, the power of sensation; and Urthona, the power of intuitive imagination. We can see a parallel here immediately with the work of Carl Jung, who also proposed four functions of the human psyche by which consciousness orientates itself:

Jung’s four functions of the human psyche
Jung’s four functions of the human psyche

Like Blake, in Jung we find a function for feeling, thinking, sensation and intuition.

Microcosm mirroring macroscosm 

The same fourfold division of the psyche or microcosm is something that appears again and again in psycho-spiritual belief systems throughout history and across the world. It is present in the spiritual alchemy of the West and in shamanistic doctrines past and present, where particular emphasis is placed on corresponding the microcosmic or human qualities with those of the external world or macrocosm:

Microcosmic and macrocosmic correspondences
Microcosmic and macrocosmic correspondences

Thus in a typical alchemical or shamanistic arrangement we might find the power of the intellect as a microcosmic manifestation of the same power that manifests itself as the element of air in the macrocosm of the natural world; for our ideas, being rarefied and intangible, yet nevertheless moving us to action, relate most closely to invisible air, whose presence is known when it stirs itself as the breeze.

Similarly, intuition and fire are seen as manifestations of the same power, for inspiring ideas fire us up, they arise like lightning, they energise us like the Sun.

Our feelings have a propensity to flow, to spread and move out, like water in the stream, as they seek to express themselves.

And our bodily sensations are most vivid when they touch solid objects, such as the rock of the element earth.

Directional placement and displacement 

The directional placing of these powers is nearly always related to the Sun, for it is by far and away the principal source and visible sign of energy. So, for example, intuition is placed in the east where the Sun rises – where the new energy and fire announce themselves.

What is key in all this is the intention to associate essential qualities of the human being to related qualities in nature, and — through various psycho-spiritual practices — to effect the felt experience that we are in fact, after all, integral to nature.

Blake himself attaches a similar importance to the directional placing of the four zoas:

Directional placing of the four zoas

So we have Luvah, the power to act creatively, at the east; Urizen, the rational power, at the south; Tharmas, the power of sensuality, at the west; and Urthona, the power of intuitive imagination, to the north. But when our microcosmic forces cease to be in alignment with those of the macrocosm — when we become psychically disconnected from the world, due to the rational faculty becoming over-bloated and tyrannising the other aspects of the psyche — then we fall from Heaven and enter the despondency of the ego-world. Blake describes this lapsed state as one in which the zoas have been displaced directionally:

The displaced zoas

Urizen is now in the west, Tharmas is in the east and Luvah is in the south. And this is the state most of us find ourselves in. But when Urizen is rehabilitated and the individual awakens spiritually, then the zoas are returned to their pre-lapsarian positions where they are once again aligned with the forces of the cosmos. Reason is returned to the south and once more functions as instrument, as emissary, of the spiritual soul.

At home in the world 

In the last plate of Jerusalem Blake shows Los or Luvah resplendent, having built Jerusalem. Now, the ratio is the instrument of art and imagination. Now, Los is at home in the world, at one with its divine presence that shines forth in its elemental modes: the earth upon which he stands; the river, the Moon; the fiery Sun; the translucent air through which the stars and the infinite universe are seen.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a wild flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

At the heart of Blake’s work is mysticism, specifically pantheism – a nature spirituality in which all things and oneself are conceived as infused by the Infinite, a single universal and infinite substance. In the words of the most famous philosopher of pantheism, Baruch Spinoza, ‘Deus sive natura’: God and nature as interchangeable terms.

The task that Blake has Los perform – the building of Jerusalem amongst the dark satanic mills of the Urizenic mind and the industrial world of its externalisation – is the spiritual awakening of the sons and daughters of Albion – we modern men and women – to a felt and lived experience of this nature spirituality. And the means by which this task is accomplished is through the re-placing of Urizen, the rehabilitating of the rational faculty, from one who supposes himself to be the master and originator of our actions and reifies himself as the supposed mental-ego, to one who instead serves our desires and our imagination, one who enables the spiritual nourishment of the soul.  


Notes

James Fox is a philosopher and former researcher at the Open University and is a co-author of A Historical Dictionary of Leibniz’s Philosophy (Scarecrow Press, 2006). He is now mostly interested in mystical texts, especially pantheistic nature-based doctrines and practices which he sees as key to transforming our conception of ourselves in relation to the world: a transformation that can lead to the spiritual experience of total at-homeness in (at one with) the natural environment and hence to the feeling of a reverence and duty of care towards that environment. Prior to pursuing philosophy, he held a position in a climate research department at the UK Meteorological Office.

In the third and final part of the series, James outlines a Blakean-inspired project he is working on at present: a manifesto, a programme of practice and study, that has as its aim the cultivating of a mental space that has both an understanding of its place in the world and the experience of feeling at home in the world.

You can view William Blake’s manuscript of The Four Zoas online at the British Library. 

2 thoughts on “Blake & Nature Spirituality: 2 — Four Zoas”

  1. Hi James
    I don’t know if you know of Scott Preston’s blog called Chrysalis? He has written at great depth and length about Blake’s view of the psyche; much of which agrees with your overview. He also relates the four zoas to other thinkers and critiques modernity ruthlessly! ( PS. I would say Blake was more a panpsychist rather than pantheist!)

    1. Hello Eric, good to hear from you again.

      I’ve checked out the blog you mention. I see he also mentions Nietzsche and David Bohm, two thinkers who interest me in terms of pantheistic mysticism and in whom I see many parallels with Blake. I see Blake as an English Nietzsche: so much of the latter’s concerns are addressed by Blake. There is a book to be written comparing their doctrines, which I may attempt in due course!

      My own interpretation of pantheism is in fact a pansychism: when the infinite is seen to be in all things, and there is nothing of the infinite outside of the world (panentheism), then the being of our particular sentiences is in fact the same being as that of the universal sentience (the infinite, or ‘God’).

      Best wishes, James.

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