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LAVATER'S Aphorisms form a wise and pleasant little book. The style is not without a sort of large-eyed childishness in its innocent depth of well - meaning thought. Blake not only read each one of the aphorisms with careful consideration, but wrote marginal comments on them, which he considered made his own private copy of the book a composite work done in a sort of personally separate, but spiritually joined, collaboration. He wrote “Will Blake" beneath the name “ Lavater” on the title-page, and surrounded the two with the outline of a heart, in the conventional form used for valentines and playing-cards.
The sentence of Lavater which led to the making of these marginal notes is this :
If you mean to know yourself, interline such of these aphorisms as affect you agreeably in reading, and set a mark to such as left (sic) a sense of uneasiness with you, and then show your copy to whom you please.
On the first page Blake refers the reader to this for the reason of his annotations.
Gilchrist has given a selection from them. But as it is the purpose of this book to set forth Blake visibly and accurately, we cannot spare a word of such valuable help as we get here from his own hand. Gilchrist says that Fuseli remarked, when Blake showed him these annotations, that any one could read his character in them. The frontispiece that Blake engraved to the book is from a painting by Fuseli, representing a theatrical sort of eighteenth-century Hamlet sitting in an elaborate attitude of meditation, while a cherub in the sky shows him a tablet with ΓΝΩΘΙ ΣΕΑΥΤΟΝ (“Know thyself”) in capital letters upon it. The engraving is good. It is accurately and conscientiously Fuseli, and Fuseli treated with a silky suavity and richness of surface in the hero's clothing, and a pleasant, not too heavy, obscurity in the mysterious clouds that fill his study. Here follow such aphorisms as are annotated with their numbers, and Blake's comments, printed in Italics :
Know, in the first place, that mankind agree in essence as they do in their limbs and senses.
(This is true Christian philosophy, far above all abstraction.)
As in looking upward each beholder thinks himself the centre of the sky, so Nature formed her individuals that each must see himself the centre of being
(Let me refer to a remark on Aphorism 533, and another on 630.)
Who pursues means of enjoyment contradictory, irreconcilable, and self-destructive is a fool, or what is called a sinner. Sin and destruction of order are the same.
(A golden sentence.)
The less you can enjoy, the poorer and scantier yourself,—the more you can enjoy, the richer, the more vigorous.
(Underlined by Blake.)
You enjoy with wisdom or with folly as the gratification of your appetites capacitates or unnerves your powers.
(False, for weak is the joy that is never wearied.)
13. Joy and grief decide character. What exalts prosperity? What embitters grief? What leaves us indifferent? What interests us? As the interest of man, so his God. As his God, so he.
What is a man's interest? What constitutes his God, the ultimate of his wishes, the end of his existence? Either that which on every occasion he communicates with the most unrestrained cordiality, or hides from every profane eye and ear with mysterious awe,-to which he makes every other thing a mere appendix ;-the vortex, the centre, the comparative point from which he sets out, on which he fixes, to which he irresistibly returns ;—that, at the loss of which you may safely
think him inconsolable ; that which he rescues from the grip of danger with equal anxiety and boldness.
The story of the painter and the prince is well known. To get at the best piece in the artist's collection the prince ordered “Fire !” to be cried in the neighbourhood. At the first noise the artist abruptly left the prince and seized his darling, his Titian. The alarm proved a false one, but the object of purchase was fixed. The application is easy. Of thousands it may be decided what loss, what gain would affect them most. This the Sage of Nazareth meant when He said, “Where thy treasure is, there will thy heart be also.” The object of your love is your God.
(This should be written in gold letters on our temples.)
16. The greatest of characters no doubt would be he who, free of all trifling accidental helps, could see objects through one grand immutable medium, always at hand and proof against illusion and time, reflecting every object in its true shape and colour, through all the fluctuations of things.
(This was Christ.)
Distinguish with exactness in thyself and others between wishes and will in the strictest sense.
Who has many wishes in general has but little will. Who has energy of will has few diverging wishes. Whose will is bent with energy on one must renounce the wishes for many things. Who cannot do this is not stamped with the majesty of human nature. The energy of choice, the union of various powers for one, is alone will, born under the agonies of self-denial and renounced desires. (Admirable. Regeneration.)
21. Calmness of will is a sign of grandeur. The vulgar, far from hiding their will, blab their wishes. A single spark of occasion discharges the child of passions into a thousand crackers of desire.
The glad gladdens. Who gladdens not is not glad. Who is fatal to others is so to himself. To him heaven, earth, wisdom, folly, virtue, and vice are equal. To such an one tell neither good nor bad of thyself.
(Underlined all but the last sentence by Blake.)
Let the degree of egotism be the measure of confidence. (Uneasy.)
36. Who begins with severity in judging another ends commonly with falsehood.
(False. Severity of judgment is a great virtue.)
37. The smiles that encourage severity of judgment hide malice and insincerity.
(False. Aphorisms should be universally true.)
39. Who without pressing temptation tells a lie will without pressing temptation act ignobly and meanly.
(Uneasy: false. A man may tell a lie for his own pleasures, but if any one is hurt by his lying he will confess his lie. See No. 124.)
40. Who under pressing temptation to lie adheres to truth, nor to the profane betrays aught of a sacred trust, is near the summit of wisdom and virtue.
You can depend on no man, on no friend but him who can depend on himself. He only who acts consequentially towards himself will act so towards others, and vice versa.
Man is for ever the same,—the same under every form, in all situations and relations that admit of free and unrestrained exertion. The same regard which you have for yourself you have for others, for nature, for the invisible Noumen which you call God. Who has witnessed one free and unrestrained act of yours has witnessed all.
(All but the first and third sentences underlined by Blake.)
Frequent laughing has been long called a sign of a little mind, whilst the scarcer smile of harmless quiet has been complimented as the mark of a noble heart. But to abstain laughing and exciting laughter, merely not to offend, or to risk giving offence, or not to debase the inward dignity of character, is a power unknown to many a vigorous mind.
(I hate scarce smiles: I love laughing.)
59. A sneer is often the sign of heartless malignity. (Damn sneerers.)
61. I know not which of these two I should wish to avoid most, the scoffer at virtue and religion who with heartless villainy butchers innocence and truth, or the pietist, who crawls, groans, blubbers, and secretly says to gold, Thou art my hope! and to his belly, Thou art my god!
(I hate crawlers.) (The epithets here underlined by Blake.)
All moral dependence on him who has been guilty of one act of positive cool villainy against an acknowledged virtuous and noble character is credulity, imbecility, insanity.
- is being like him, rather.)
The most stormy ebullitions of passion, from blasphemy to murder, are less terrific than one single act of cool villainy. A still rabies is more dangerous than the paroxysms of a fever. Fear the boisterous savage of passion less than the sedately grinning villain.
(Brave!) (All underlined by Blake.)
66. Can he love truth who can take a knave to his bosom? (No.) (Underlined by Blake.)
67. There are offences against individuals to all appearance trifling which are capital offences against the human race. Fly him who can commit them.
(Underlined by Blake.)
There ought to be a perpetual whisper in the ear of plain honesty“ Take heed not even to pronounce the name of a knave." He will make the very sound of his name a handle of mischief. And do you think a knave begins mischief to leave off? Know this : whether he be overcome or be foiled, he will wrangle on.
(Therefore pronounce him a knave. Why should honesty fear a knave?)
69. Humility and love, whatever obscurities may involve religious tenets, constitute the essence of true religion. The humble is formed to adore, the loving to associate with eternal love.
(Sweet.) (The second sentence underlined.)