Blake & Nature Spirituality: 3 — Pantheisticon

In this series for Finding Blake, James Fox has described psychological experiences he later came to understand through William Blake’s writings. The series is adapted from a talk James gave to the Mental Fight Club — a charity assisting recovery from mental illness through inspiring creative events and projects — and in this final part he outlines Pantheisticon, a Blakean-inspired project he is working on for cultivating the experience of feeling at home in the world. 


In my previous posts, l described my own experiences of both the manacled egoic state (Blake’s Satanic mills) and the liberated ‘mystical’ state (Blake’s awakened Albion). I then elaborated Blake’s doctrine of the four zoas, relating them to underlying ideas of the psyche that may be met with in various belief systems throughout history and across cultures. (See also my previous post, Divine Madness.)

My own response to Blake’s vision and the task he announces is a manifesto, a programme of practice and study, to effect a nature spirituality. I call it Pantheisticon, a term I’ve borrowed from the eighteenth-century philosopher and pantheist John Toland.

The four zoas in Pantheisticon
The four zoas in Pantheisticon

Based on the four zoas and working with these functions or aspects of ourselves, this Pantheisticon manifesto includes four components: a mental engagement with natural philosophy (which corresponds to Urizen); a sensual engagement with the landscape (which corresponds to Tharmas);  an intuitive engagement with the Imagination (which corresponds to Urthona); and an engagement of the feelings through the artistic expression of mystical experience and philosophy (which corresponds to Luvah or Los).

Urizen: mental engagement 

The first component of Pantheisticon is mental engagement with natural philosophy. I use this term instead of ‘science’, not to be deliberately archaic, but to emphasise that this is an activity of the ratio when it acts in the service of spiritual nourishment. In our study of natural philosophy we draw on the products of the ratio as applied to the natural world.

Technology enables us to probe the world beyond the limits of our own senses:

new and strange creatures are revealed in the depths of the oceans;

life forms such as bacteria that are too small for us to see with our eyes are brought into experience through the microscope;

spacecraft provide us with a view of the atmosphere which, whilst beautiful in itself, reveals it to be the thinnest of envelopes, its apparent vulnerability and preciousness to all life on Earth made plain;

the Apollo programme enabled humans to watch the Earth rise from the Moon — and the beauty and preciousness of our planet, a droplet of blue in a bottomless void, is shockingly revealed to us;

and the great space telescopes peer beyond the stars of our galaxy and reveal the universe to be a soup of galaxies, each containing billions of stars — a glimpse towards the infinite and the eternal.

All this provides an awesome spatial and temporal backdrop to our own sense of being: it is Urizen rehabilitated; it is the rational faculty nourishing our spiritual selves.

The world is a manifestation of the infinite, and our particular human experience of the world we divide into the solid, the liquid, the gaseous and radiant energy. These elemental forms of our experience — earth, water, air and fire — we explore in our first component of Pantheisticon — the mental engagement with natural philosophy, or science — as we familiarise ourselves with the principal forms, processes and histories of our rocky world, its oceans and rivers, its climate, and that supreme source of energy without which there would be no life — the Sun.

We also familiarise ourselves with the basic nature of organic life, of the kingdoms of life and the history of their development. Finally, we familiarise ourselves with the universe beyond our little planet. Not extensive in-depth study; we do not become experts in these different sciences. But we gain sufficient of their essential flavour that we obtain a mental grasp of our place in the world and experience the awe, beauty and wonder of the forms that are all around us.

A Dartmoor Grove. Photograph by James Fox
A Dartmoor Grove.
Photograph: James Fox

Tharmas and Urthona: sensation and intuition

Having utilised the power of the intellect through natural philosophy to grasp our place in the natural world and engage with its forms and processes, we proceed to our second component of pantheisticon: we inject into this mental engagement with the wider world the power of our faculty of sensation.

We venture into the landscape and experience those elemental forms most vividly, at first hand: the touch of a rock – its hardness, its smell, the little crystals embedded in it glistening in the Sun, the colourful strange lichens spreading across it. We hear the bubbling of the brook, we smell its earthy cool wetness rising up. We hear the bleat of a lamb, the swoosh of a crow cutting through the air. We feel the breeze on our face, hear it stirring in the trees. We feel an expansiveness in our hearts as we look up, the horizon stretched away, and we feel the warmth of the Sun on our skin.

In our third component, we engage our power of intuition. We find ourselves a secluded place where we will not be disturbed. We may be by a stream in a wood; we may be on a cliff top; but we are comfortable as we sit facing the Sun. We seek now to open ourselves to what Blake calls Urthona or the power of Imagination: to allow into our awareness that which seems to come from nowhere; to enable ourselves to become vessels as it were for spontaneous, intuitively received insight. This is the source of spiritual awakening. We cannot make it happen at will. Indeed trying to will it is a sign that the mental-ego is active — yet it is precisely this ego that must be annihilated, or at least disempowered.

So we close our eyes, we observe our body as a vessel empty of thoughts, and we simply observe the feeling of the movement of the breath inside that vessel; returning the attention when we discover it has been hijacked and taken outside the body into the world of ideas of things.

We maintain our meditation for fifteen minutes, or more. Then, we contemplate the intention of the practice, the spiritual ambition or goal one might say, which is to cultivate a mental state of clarity and tranquillity and to use the good qualities we happen to have in the service of others, and of oneself.

This is a process that disempowers the ego and allows the opening of one’s awareness to the intuitive and the imaginative. This results in the enhancing of the sensual experience of the place and a sense of existential immersion in the natural environment. It might even lead to mystical experience or the spiritual awakening to oneself as both divine and eternal. It is also the occasion in which one can become aware of those desires, those forces of nature, whose realisation as action in the service of others provides a purpose in life — a felt joy, meaning and vitality that arises when these forces flow through you.

If a feeling of reverence towards our natural surroundings has arisen through this meditation process, we express this by a simple devotional ritual of sensually engaging with the presence of the Infinite and its elemental manifestations. For example, the placing of the lips to a rock, the placing of a hand in a stream, feeling the breeze on the face and inhaling deeply of it, facing the Sun and feeling its heat on the skin, and, by shielding the eyes from the Sun, we see the azure dome of the sky: we become aware of the stars and the cosmos beyond, a vision towards the Infinite – which is eternal, unmoving, all-pervasive, and which manifests itself to us as this fire of the Sun, this air of the breeze, this water of the stream, this earth of the rock and of all the living creatures and ourselves made thereof.

William Blake self-portrait 1802
William Blake self-portrait 1802

Luvah: artistic expression of mystical experience 

Finally, in the fourth component of pantheisticon we concern ourselves with the artistic expression of mystical experience and models of the mystical conception of the universe. This may be through the mediums of literature, poetry, painting or music, and concerns the expression of our own experiences, if we have had any, and also the experiences of others, so that, in the words of John Middleton Murry which I quoted in Universal Awareness, the first post in this series, about moments of mystical experience, “if we have not known them, there — in those four simple lines [of Blake’s poem] — one is offered to us”.

About others’ experiences of feeling profoundly at home, of a sense of existential immersion, in the world, we may read for example the English mystic Richard Jeffries. We may engage with its expression in poetry, in the English Romantics (e.g. Tennyson, Shelley, Wordsworth); or in painting (e.g. Turner, van Gogh, Caspar Friedrich), or in music (e.g. Vaughan Williams, John Tavener, Beethoven).

We examine the basic pantheistic model of the universe, before comparing it with other theological/cosmological models, such as the panentheism found in Kabbalah, Sufism and Christian mysticism. We then focus on the expression of pantheism in Eastern mysticism, in modern physics, in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche and finally in the poetry and painting of Blake.

Being at home in the world

Those are the four components of my manifesto of study and practice, of natural and mystical philosophy, of meditation and landscape experience. No doubt some will find this pantheisticon eccentric, peculiar even. But there is a serious point behind it, which is this. We modern men and women, we sons and daughters of Albion, cannot return to the Stone Age, before Urizen became misplaced.

Home for the pantheisticon: Earthrise from Apollo 8, December 1968 Photograph by Bill Anders / NASA
Earthrise from Apollo 8, December 1968
Photograph: Bill Anders / NASA

We cannot remove from the world or our memory all that our excessive and misplaced ratio has brought about. But I share Blake’s vision, which is of a future in which we have awakened from our present human condition of feeling shut out from the sense of being at home in the world, and instead find ourselves living in our day to day world as one that is experienced as suffused, more or less, with the Countenance Divine; a living in which we have ceased to experience ourselves as separate, finite beings, trembling and sick in fear of the annihilation we suppose is inevitable, and instead experience all things, creatures and human beings, the Earth and the heavens above, as suffused with divinity: as radiant, at one and timeless.

And from this springs inevitably a sense of care towards our precious environment, and a compassion towards all creatures and human beings. Then we awaken spiritually. Then we begin to feel at home in the world once more; to open ourselves to the creative forces of the imagination which provide us with our purpose, joy and vitality.

My manifesto is an attempt to help bring about this kind of spiritual awakening which would avert the increasing psychological, social and environmental damage that our misplaced Urizen is causing. Pantheisticon is a Blakean-inspired re-imagining of nature spirituality for the twenty-first century. 


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.

You can find out more about John Toland, the eighteenth-century philosopher, and his original writing on pantheisticon at Wikipedia.

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. 

The Unfolding and Unveiling

In this post, Finding Blake founder James Murray-White shares some of his encounters with William Blake, from childhood up to the present, including the recent Blake in Sussex exhibition at Petworth House.

My first encounter with William Blake happened fleetingly — as a boy, in  the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. I have been there again recently, and of their huge archive of Blake prints and pictures, only four seem to be on permanent display — high on an upper gallery. Maybe it was these I saw, or possibly a temporary exhibition, although my overriding memories of childhood visits there were to the Egyptian mummies and the knights in armour on horseback! I feel my encounter with Blake was a fleeting ‘seeing’ that became an acknowledgement of the work, and a storing up for later.

Frontispiece from ‘Songs of Experience’: William Blake, 1825
Relief etching printed in orange-brown ink and hand-colored with watercolor and gold
Source: Metropolitan Museum, New York

That unfolding and unveiling of the glory and depth of Blake’s works and thought has emerged for me over the past few years: at a summer festival two years ago, with a group of 20 or so in the woods late at night, round a roaring fire — when the guitars and chatter paused, I piped up and said “does anyone know the words to Jerusalem?”, and we all were surprised that we all did, and sang many a rousing versions of it for a communal hour or two.

Then just last year, as I was walking on my way to film an interview with the ex-President of Tuvalu in the Amnesty Bookshop in Cambridge, I was stopped on the street by a friend who I knew to be a member of the Blake Society, who said he had a project to run by me. When we made time to meet properly and discuss, it turned out that the Blake Society had commissioned a new gravestone for Blake, and it was to be made here in Cambridge by renowned letter cutter Lida Kindersley. I had met Lida years before while researching for a play on artist Eric Gill (Lida’s husband David had been Gill’s chief apprentice, and is in the lineage of master crafts folk within the world), so I very quickly felt hooked in and knew that my time to ‘get into Blake’ was beginning.

Blake in Sussex

Then followed a year of deep-time research. I gathered as much material as I could — all the biographies, from Kathleen Raine to Peter Ackroyd, through to the latest (and very good) one by Tobias Churton, as well as books of images and his poetry — and got stuck in. My antennae are always active to Blake-related activities, and one of the highlights was a whole day’s walk led by writer Henry Eliot  a member of the Blake Society committee who also has an interest psychogeography and leads walks on writers works and lives. The walk was divided into the four themes around Blake’s The Four Zoas — characters in Blake’s prophetic work, The Four Zoas: The torments of Love & Jealousy in The Death and Judgment of Albion the Ancient Man.

This was a blast of Blakean energy — on the streets he knew well and trod daily, to the places he lived (most demolished or built over, apart from the South Molton Street flat). A highlight of this day was access to the Tyburn Convent, close by Marble Arch, once site of the infamous Tyburn Cross; London’s hangings took place here, which Blake was well aware of.

Fast forward to more recent blasts of Blake, including a trip to the wonderful ‘Blake in Sussex’ exhibition at Petworth House in West Sussex, followed the next day by filming the Blake Society’s visit to Lida’s studio to see and approve her lettering for the grave.

Twice so far this year I’ve found myself face to face with an original painting, and often a new one to me that I’ve not seen reproduced. There were a few highlights of ‘Blake in Sussex’ at Petworth House, particularly the depth and dimensions of The Sea of Time and Space (vision of the circle of the life of man) from 1821 (owned by The National Trust). Moving from the man in red to the angelic woman, pointing in opposite but aligned directions, through to the connections between tree and sea and sky and flesh and blood… On reflection it feels now that maybe the piece of art, or the creative form, appears to us right at the moment we need it to, and here was this ethereal vision.

The Sea of Time and Space (Vision of the Circle of the Life of Man) by William Blake, 1821. Pen and black ink, watercolour and gouache on gesso ground on stiff paper, 
Source: National Trust

A nature-based energy

It feels very special to have seen this gathering of images and words in this location, honouring William and Catherine Blake’s three years out of the grime and chaos of London. Although his time in Felpham came to a crushing end with his trial for sedition, the work he produced there — much of it commissioned by William Hayley or Lady Egremont (hence the Petworth connection) — I feel has an edge: a nature-based energy, connecting elements and exploding the human form.

After the exhibition, I felt doubly blessed to be shown the Devil’s Punch Bowl, a few miles from Petworth. This is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, owned and managed by the National Trust, with sweeping views around and down into a huge area of heath and woods, and out over Surrey towards London from the top of Gibbet Hill. My guide, Mark Goldthorpe, speculated that the Blakes might have come this way on their journey from London, and had a taste of this spectacular beauty too. I hope so.

Seeing the letters written out on Blake’s ‘new’ grave also feels special — to have been part of this journey from seeing Lida choose the stone, to now being at the point where she will start to cut the letters, makes a wonderful connection in craft and physicality. I’ve only come into this at a very late stage: the Blake Society have been trying to get this grave made for at least a dozen years, and it was an honour to be with them as they gathered round it and saw the design coming to fruition. More of that as the project progresses: do keep coming back to the site for updates.

This is a little of my connection to Blake, and my ‘deep time’ dive into his works and vision. I’ll write more of the project, and its aims and timeline, in a further post. Please feel free to share your connection to Blake with us here, with anecdotes and images: we’d love to hear.

Notes

You can find out about the recent exhibition, Blake in Sussex: Visions of Albion and the history of Petworth House at the National Trust’s site. And there is information about William and Catherine Blakes’ cottage in Felpham at the Blake Cottage Trust site. The Guardian and Telegraph both have interesting articles on the recent exhibition: Maeve Kennedy’s Rare William Blake works to be exhibited in Sussex, where he lived (10/1/18) and Alistair Sooke’s The pastoral interlude that influenced a visionary (12/1/18).

The Devil’s Punch Bowl in Surrey is part of the National Trust’s Hindhead Commons and Devil’s Punch Bowl property.

Blake’s The Four Zoas are among the wide range of topics that American poet Robert Bly explored in a 1980s interview for New Dimensions Radio, William Blake and Beyond, which we’ve added to the Blakean articles collection in A Blakean Archive.