Attitudes to man and God in the Age of Reason

A new perspective on ‘truth'

Described as the ‘Age of Reason' (see Literary Context > The Age of Reason), the eighteenth century saw a movement away from an understanding of truth as something which was revealed by God and, therefore, independent of human reason. Instead, truth could be found through observation of the world and by the use of human reason. Accordingly, laws were to be judged valid because they met human requirements of reasonableness, rather than because they were based on divine commands encountered in the Bible.

John Locke

JOhn LockeIn his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke (1632 -1704) argued that the human mind is a blank slate at birth. Therefore:

  • There are no innate (inborn) ideas
  • Everything humans think or know comes to them through the experience of their senses, an experience upon which they reflect
  • This means that knowledge of the world issues from observation and analysis.

Locke's thought was seen as laying foundations for the scientific thinking of such men as Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton.

Blake's opposition to Locke

Blake reacted violently against the philosophy of John Locke, seeing him as an ‘agent of the devil':

  • According to Blake, Locke's emphasis on rationality at the centre of human life was a distortion of humanity
  • Instead, Blake believed that the imagination was central, since it allows humans to perceive, relate to, and express, divine reality
  • According to Blake, people cannot understand anything fundamental about the natural world by observing, measuring or analysing it
  • Understanding can only be achieved by employing the creative power of the imagination, since this enables people to see, as it were, through the eyes of the creative imagination responsible for the world (i.e. God).

For this reason, Blake also vehemently opposed the scientific method he saw as being embodied in Isaac Newton's work, which he believed, produced a model of the world as a mechanism to be analysed, measured and regulated.

Blake's views put him in alignment with the European Romantics, as well as with the views of other Dissenters (see Blake's religious world > Beliefs of Dissenters).

Changing attitudes to God

Locke and Newton remained convinced theists and still upheld some kind of belief in revealed religion:

  • Revealed religion refers to the idea that God makes himself known to human beings who could not know him in any other way.

However, in the eighteenth century many Christian thinkers believed in natural religion:

  • Natural religion is the belief that people can arrive at knowledge of God by using their reason and drawing inferences from their experience and observation of the world.


Influenced by the dominance of reason and science, many key thinkers of the period started to regard God in a way described as Deism:

  • Deists believed that reason required the existence of a creator but did not require his continued involvement with his creation.

A popular Deist description of God was as a clockmaker:

  • He was responsible for creating the complex mechanism, or clock, of the universe
  • Once in existence, however, it has no further need of its creator's involvement
  • A clock runs according to its mechanical nature and does not need interference from the clockmaker
  • So, too, the universe runs according to its own laws and has no further need of its creator.

The outworking of this view is that:

  • God is purely a philosophical necessity, as ‘first cause'
  • There is no need for a God who engages with human beings and intervenes in his creation.

Blake's reaction to Deism

Although thinkers such as Tom Paine espoused Deism, Blake was very antagonistic towards the mechanistic view of the world which it implied:

  • He rejected the Deism represented by writers such as Voltaire
  • He rejected Christian writers such as William Paley, who attempted to establish the existence of God from rational arguments which considered the natural world as a complex mechanism.

For Blake, the deist approach rendered the world dead, barren and devoid of the active presence of creative divine power (in which creative power human beings participated when they employed their own imagination).

Blake further rejected a mechanical vision of the world because it implied that:

  • Laws or rules govern the world
  • People could therefore fulfil themselves by following laws
  • These laws, however, are man-made and imprison the human spirit.

For Blake, true fulfilment comes from being transformed through the development of the imagination and thus participating in divine life.

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