What does this quote from William Blake mean?

Prisons are built with stones of Law, brothels with bricks of Religion

It appears without context in a collection of proverbs.

  • 1
    Can you add a source to your question, so that we can look up the context?
    – user2953
    Apr 29, 2013 at 17:53
  • 2
    We generally frown on "what does this quote mean?" type questions (though there are exceptions). Given that the person quoted isn't even primarily a philosopher, I'm issuing a vote to close as "off-topic".
    – Dennis
    Apr 29, 2013 at 19:37
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    @RicardoBevilaqua But certainly not everyone lauded by Wikipedia for the philosophical undertones of their literature is on topic for this SE, right?
    – Dennis
    Apr 30, 2013 at 0:11
  • @RicardoBevilaqua Fair enough, maybe we simply have a matter of taste here.
    – Dennis
    Apr 30, 2013 at 5:07
  • I think it's obvious it's not a meaningless sentiment. Whether William Blake is a philosopher has nothing to do with his opinions on matter which belongs to the field of philosophy. May 2, 2013 at 11:37

5 Answers 5


It seems to me that Blake is observing how some social institutions either require (as in prisons) or encourage the development (as in brothels) of other institutions. The roles played by prisons and brothels are different on their face, however.

  • A prison is an institution which is required by a legal system which wishes to restrict people's freedom as a punishment or safeguard; Blake observes that without law (whether formalised or not), there would be no prisons.

  • A brothel is not an institution which is required by nearly any religion today — quite the opposite, of course — but Blake seems to imply that because of social mores developed by religion regarding promiscuity, and because of people's natural drives, there will arise institutions to allow people to exercise those drives beyond the edges of polite society.

Aside from the dis-analogy between an institutions which arise through societies intentions (prisons) rather than in spite of them (brothels), one could criticise Blake for a somewhat oversimplified view of sexual mores and drives. Is Blake of the opinion that without religion, sexual freedom would be so total that everyone could find a willing conjugal partner (or several), who fulfils their desires whenever they want? People are more complicated than this, especially when it comes to sex. But because of the intoxicating qualities of sexual desire, and social awareness of that quality of desire, it would be natural to find social mores arising around how one pursues sex, just as there are mores concerning other intoxicants such as alcohol. Just as naturally, there will be people who are impatient with those mores, whatever they may be; and there will also quite likely be people who, for some reason, find themselves in the position where selling sexual favours seems either necessary or at least expedient. As long as there are people looking for sex beyond the moral norms of society, and people willing to offer sex-as-service, prostitution or something like it will exist.


Before there was law, there was no crime; before there were morals, there was no sin.


It has the same meaning as the saying that "You become what you oppose." Our laws create criminals; our religions, prostitutes. The more you try to control something, the more out of control it gets. Look at our "War on Drugs," which after 40 years has resulted in a society in which drugs are more easily available than ever.


This is a proverb taken from the 'proverbs of hell' section in Blakes book of poetry & prose The Marriage of Hell & Heaven, and illustrated by himself. The title is a reference to the book Heaven & Hell by the Swedish scientist & Christian mystic Swedenborg. Blake held a theory of opposites which he explains as:

Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate are necessary to Human existence. From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy. Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.

This marriage of contraries is directly seen in the title of his book - the marriage of Hell & Heaven; and is also seen in this proverb: Prison-criminal-bad vs law-good & brothel-promiscuity-invirtuous vs religion-chastity-virtue. He combines them by stating that prisons are built by law, and brothels by religion. In this he has taken the conventional route and placed law & religion higher than prisons & brothels. One, could in fact, suppose the opposite - that it was the discovery of criminality that erects law, and the discovery of decadence that brings about religion.

Now, the law is conventionally associated with justice, but here he has associated it with prisons; and likewise religion is conventionally associated with virtue, but here he associates it with brothels. As a poor man in 18th century London, Blake would have been aware of the many injustices enacted through law and religion: the poor man in debtors prison or frequenting brothels. So, also, in this association, he implies that the law and religion are not as virtuous as they claim. That they are perhaps reflected or derived from their opposites; or even that they become their opposites. Through this, he possibly implies a kind of higher order equality between the two opposites - a marriage. And as marriage, is a sum greater than its parts; so here he also implies that one must look at the whole - the law together with criminality, and religion with immorality. That criminality maybe lawful, that immorality maybe moral; is noted by Oscar Wilde, a good century after Blake, after he had been imprisoned for 'acts of gross indecency' through the vindictive accusations of his ex-lover, Lord Douglas, when he wrote in the Ballad of Reading Gaol, and echoing Blake:

That every prison that men build

Is built with bricks of shame

One, also supposes, that through his theory of opposites that he considers both the law & religion as a neccessary good & a neccessary evil; and similarly for prisons and brothels, that they are also a neccessary good and a neccessary evil.


Is it perhaps about "bourgeois" law and order?hypocritical morality perhaps. Think of human trafficking to day? Or the number of young men engaged in anti-social behavior due to lack of meaningful employment or civic participation and where youthful passion for care and giving is twisted into destruction of self-or whole communities? Blake was no judo-christian moralist, he believed in human capacity to do the right thing if our capacity to nurture one another was facilitated by the status qua no racism, sexism, Afrocentrism ethnocentrism, isl mam-phobia, misogyny generally- he after all anticipates the signs of our multicultural postmodern nee-conservartism; EAST-WEST-SOUTH-NORTHERN? JUST MUSING1

i am looking at is dialectic of haven and hell or innocence and experience in our face-off moment in which anything goes!

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