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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

XII. William Law and the Mystics

§ 10. An Appeal to all who Doubt and The Way to Divine Knowledge

The two most important of Law’s mystical treatises are An Appeal to all that Doubt (1740), and The Way to Divine Knowledge (1752). The first of these should be read by anyone desirous of knowing Law’s later thought, for it is a clear and fine exposition of his attitude with regard more especially to the nature of man, the unity of all nature and the quality of fire or desire. The later book is an account of the main principles of Boehme, with a warning as to the right way to apply them, and it was written as an introduction to the new edition of Boehme’s works which Law contemplated publishing. Law’s later, are but an expansion of his earlier, views; the main difference being that, whereas, in the practical treatises (Christian Perfection and A Serious Call), he urges certain temper and conduct because it is our duty to obey God, or because it is right or lawful, in his later writings—Boehme having furnished the clue—he adds not only the reason for this conduct being right, but the means of attaining it, by expounding the working of the law itself. The following aspect, then, of Boehme’s teaching is that which Law most consistently emphasises.

Man was made out of the breath of God; his soul is a spark of the Deity. It, therefore, cannot die, for it “has the unbeginning unending life of God in it.” Man has fallen from his high estate through ignorance and inexperience, through seeking separation, taking the part for the whole, desiring the knowledge of good and evil as separate things. The assertion of self is, thus, the root of all evil; for, so soon as the will of man “turns to itself, and would, as it were, have a sound of its own, it breaks off from the divine harmony, and falls into the misery of its own discord.” For it is the state of our will that makes the state of our life. Hence, by “the fall,” man’s standpoint has been dislocated from the centre to the circumference, and he lives in a false imagination. Every quality is equally good, for there is nothing evil in God, from whom all comes; but evil appears to be through separation. Thus, strength and desire in the divine nature are necessary and magnificent qualities, but when, as in the creature, they are separated from love, they appear as evil. The analogy of the fruit is, in this connection, a favourite one with both Law and Boehme. When a fruit is unripe (i.e., incomplete), it is sour, bitter, astringent, unwholesome; but, when it has been longer exposed to the sun and air, it becomes sweet, luscious and good to eat. Yet it is the same fruit, and the astringent qualities are not lost or destroyed, but transmuted and enriched, and are thus the main cause of its goodness. The only way to pass from this condition of “bitterness” to ripeness, from this false imagination to the true one, is the way of death. We must die to what we are before we can be born anew; we must die to the things of this world to which we cling, and for which we desire and hope, and we must turn towards God. This should be the daily, hourly exercise of the mind, until the whole turn and bent of our spirit “points as constantly to God as the needle touched with the loadstone does to the north.” To be alive in God, before you are dead to your own nature, is “a thing as impossible in itself, as for a grain of wheat to be alive before it dies.”

The root of all, then, is the will or desire. It is the seed of everything that can grow in us; “it is the only workman in nature, and everything is its work;” it is the true magic power. And this will or desire is always active; every man’s life is a continual state of prayer, and, if we are not praying for the things of God, we are praying for something else. For prayer is but the desire of the soul. Our imaginations and desires are, therefore, the greatest realities we have, and we should look closely to what they are.

It is essential to the understanding of Law, as of Boehme, to remember his belief in the reality and actuality of the oneness of nature and of law. Nature is God’s great book of revelation, for it is nothing else but God’s own outward manifestation of what He inwardly is, and can do. The mysteries of religion, therefore, are no higher, and no deeper than the mysteries of nature. God Himself is subject to this law. There is no question of God’s mercy or of His wrath, for it is an eternal principle that we can only receive what we are capable of receiving; and, to ask why one person does not gain any help from the mercy and goodness of God while another does gain help is “like asking why the refreshing dew of Heaven does not do that to flint which it does to the vegetable plant?”

Self-denial and mortification of the flesh are not things imposed upon us by the mere will of God: considered in themselves, they have nothing of goodness or holiness; but they have their ground and reason in the nature of the thing, and are as “absolutely necessary to make way for the new birth, as the death of the husk and gross part of the grain is necessary to make way for its vegetable life.”

Law’s attitude towards learning, which has been somewhat misunderstood, is a part of his belief in the “Light Within,” which he shares with all mystical thinkers. In judging of what he says as to the inadequacy of book knowledge and scholarship, it is necessary to call to mind the characteristics of his age and public. When we remember the barren controversies about externals in matters religious which raged all through his lifetime, and the exaltation of the reason as the only means whereby man could know anything of the deeper truths of existence, it is not surprising that, with Law, the pendulum should swing in the opposite direction, and that, with passionate insistence, he should be driven to assert the utter inadequacy of the intellect by itself in all spiritual concerns.

He, says Law, who looks to his reason as the true power and light of his nature, “betrays the same Ignorance of the whole Nature, Power and Office of Reason as if he were to smell with his Eyes, or see with his Nose.” All true knowledge, he urges, must come from within, it must be experienced; and, if it were not that man has the divine nature in him, no omnipotence of God could open in him the knowledge of divine things. There cannot be any knowledge of things but where the thing itself is; there cannot be any knowledge “of any unpossessed Matters, for knowledge can only be yours as Sickness and Health is yours, not conveyed to you by a Hearsay Notion, but the Fruit of your own Perception.”

Law, liberal scholar, clear reasoner and finished writer, was no more an enemy of learning than Ruskin was an enemy of writing and reading because he said that there were very few people in the world who got any good by either. Their scornful remarks on these subjects often mislead their readers; yet the aim of both writers was not to belittle these things in themselves, but solely to put them in their right place.