William Blake and the Tradition of Antinomianism

E.P. Thompson’s excellent book on William Blake, Witness Against The Beast, provides a brilliant  analysis of the religious and political traditions which helped form Blake as an artist, and the source of ideas behind many of his poems and paintings. In it he outlines how Blake’s work can be seen as part of a strand of thinking known as antinomianism. Antinomianism essentially means ‘against law’, and represents the idea that, as Thompson puts it, ‘The Ten Commandments and the Gospel of Jesus stand directly opposed to each other: the first is a code of repression and prohibition, the second a gospel of forgiveness and love.’

Blake makes unequivocal antinomian affirmations throughout his work, and very specifically in the Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Only think of the following from plate 23:

I tell you no virtue can exist without breaking these ten commandments… Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules.

The Moral Law (as he refers to the Ten Commandments) also stands for the State and the Church, and Blake was not alone at this time in his radical dissent. Thompson describes a dizzying array of sectarian Christian groups from the 1640s to the late 18th century, and discovers many possible derivations for the ideas expressed by Blake in his religious works, especially those ideas proposed by the Muggletonians. Thompson sums up his position as follows:

[Blake] composed a symbolic world for himself in which the robust tradition of artisan and tradesman antinomianism reasserted itself, not as literal doctrines, but as a fund of imaginative possibilities and as intellectual footholds for an anti-Enlightenment stance.

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