A lot of the issues of religion, society, law, and economics can be boiled down to one basic, two-part question: How should I behave, and how should I expect other persons to behave?
There are different ways to approach this question, but surely one reasonable way would be to first consider what sort of world we have been born into, and then perhaps this will enlighten us as to what sort of role it would be best for us to play in it.
One could make the argument that the person whose behavior is best lined-up with the ways of the world is not only the wisest and most successful person, but is also the happiest person, a person whose strengths are so well-adapted to his environment that he can live the way he wants to live, producing the outcomes he desires to produce. This person’s chain of triumphs and remarkable accomplishments would make him appear to the rest of us as a demi-god, like a Theseus or Hercules of some other Hero of old.
But what truths about the world would such a wise, powerful, and happy person have learned which would have set him up for such success?
Some have maintained that the hard reality which we must face about the world is that it is imperfect and full of evils. It is a world full of great and permanent injustices– wrongs which will never be righted.
A few of Jorge Luis Borges’s lectures have been collected under the title, Professor Borges: A Course in English Literature. In one of these lectures, Borges describes an early Christian Gnostic sect which believed in multiple gods– multiple LAYERS of gods actually. According to their beliefs, as related by Irenaeum, there is a first god, the greatest and most perfect god. From this god emanated seven more gods, and then seven more from EACH of these. This procreational process continued for a time, with each generation of gods being less perfect than the generation before. Each god possessed his own domain, each domain resting on top of the other, until eventually there existed a “high tower” of 365 domains or “conclaves,” each conclave becoming less and less “divine” the farther one goes down until– by the time we reach the bottom of this tower of gods– the fraction of divinity remaining in their conclaves is close to zero. It was the god on the floor BELOW the bottom, 365th floor which created the our world. “And that is why there is so much imperfection on Earth,” says Borges. “It was created by a god who is a reflection of a reflection of a reflection.”
The poet and artist William Blake subscribed to some of these Gnostic beliefs. Borges tell us that Blake distinguished between the High God and the lowly “Creator God,” the one who made our world. The imperfect Creator God he identified with Jehovah. It was Jehovah, not the High God, who gave us the heavy and detailed proscriptions of Moral Law. Quite possibly Jehovah decreed these Moral Laws in an effort to shore up the tottering, ate-through-with-evil world which he so imperfectly created. Blake believed that in response to Jehovah’s incompetence, the High God sent Jesus Christ to redeem us, to deliver us from these encumbering Moral Laws imposed by the bumbling lower god.
Besides the imposition of Old-Testament-style Moral Law, Jehovah– being the inferior god he is– created a world for us which is all a lie; it is a world of illusion. Blake believed that the only way to get a glimpse of true reality is to somehow cleanse the “doors of perception” of their accrued of illusions.
Borges points out that Blake, though he lived in a time of high Romanticism, was actually diametrically opposed to the Romantic view of Nature. The Romantics viewed Nature as something beautiful and benign, something sublime and deserving of reverence. Blake, on the other hand, saw Nature as something bad, something standing between us and the Truth, a painful illusion created by an inferior god.
If Blake is correct, and we live in an evil world under insipid Moral Laws handed down by a blundering Creator… then Man has no duty to be guided by either the laws of Nature or of God. The first set of laws will lead him astray, into illusion… the second set will needlessly confine him and restrict his development. And if there exists neither natural nor divine laws deserving of respect, then, as Dostoevsky said, “anything is allowed.” A man must decide for himself what is best. He cannot be judged by other for his actions, and he certainly should not be condemned or punished for the choices he makes.
Blake writes that there is nothing wrong, for instance, with the desire to revenge a wrong– with, in other words, the desire for justice. The desire for revenge is natural, and cannot simply be erased because we ignore it. The desire for revenge repressed will only serve to corrupt him who pushes it down, said Blake. If a man CAN take revenge, he SHOULD take revenge. To simply lie down and absorb mistreatment is, for Blake, the morality of the worm… The cut worm forgives the plow, he writes, only because it has no other choice. The worm is powerless to take revenge upon the plow.
But a man has the ability to strike back against his aggressors. And what a man wants to do, what a man feels is right to do– he should do.
Some men are born to have great desires and the great strength to satisfy them, thought Blake. They are lions in the field of life. Blake says that such lion-men should not be held accountable to the same Moral Law applicable to worms or sheep or oxen. Such men will not be wantonly cruel; they will not act from motivations of petty envy… Lion-men are the true Heroes of this world– and they will naturally pursue Enlightenment and Beauty. And –importanly for Blake– they should be left alone to do so, practicing their own versions of morality and art howsoever they see fit– regardless of the norms of the sheepish society surrounding them.