XI. COLERIDGE PHILOSOPHER: 1808–17

Perhaps we have exaggerated Coleridge’s collapse; we must note that between 1808 and 1815 he delivered lectures—at Bristol and at the Royal Institution in London—which suffered somewhat from confusion of thought and expression, but impressed such auditors as Charles Lamb, Lord Byron, Samuel Rogers, Thomas Moore, and Leigh Hunt; as if by some spontaneous esprit de corps, these and other scribes came to the support of their maimed compeer. Henry Crabb Robinson, who numbered a dozen English or German notables among his friends, described the third of the London lectures as “excellent and very German.” “In the fourth,” he reported, “the mode of treating the subject was very German, and much too abstract for his audience, which was thin.”68Coleridge’s accumulation of facts, ideas, and prejudices was too abundant to let him cleave to his announced subject; he wandered wildly but inspired. Charles Lamb, who summarized him in a famous phrase as an “archangel, a little damaged,”69 concluded that it was “enough to be within the whiff and wind of his genius for us not to possess our souls in quiet.”70

During the years 1815–17, when Coleridge was again nearing a breakdown, he poured his aging conclusions into print. In Theory of Life (1815) he showed a surprising knowledge of science, especially of chemistry, which he knew through friendship with Humphry Davy; but he rejected all attempts to explain mind in physicochemical terms. He called “absurd the notion of [Erasmus] Darwin,… of man’s having progressed from an orang-outang state.”71

In The Statesman’s Manual (1816) he offered the Bible as “the best guide to political thought and foresight.”

The historian finds that great events, even the most important changes in the commercial relations of the world,… had their origin not in the combinations of statesmen, or in the practical insights of men of business, but in the closets of uninterested theorists, in the visions of recluse geniuses…. All the epochforming revolutions of the Christian world, the revolutions of religion, and with them the civil, social, and domestic habits of the nations concerned, have coincided with the rise and fall of metaphysical systems.72

(He may have been thinking of the results of the thoughts of Christ, Copernicus, Gutenberg, Newton, Voltaire, Rousseau.) After a fair summary of the factors that led to the French Revolution, Coleridge concluded that the voice of the people is not the voice of God; that the people think in passionate absolutes, and cannot be trusted with power;73 and that the best road to reform is through the conscience and action of an educated and propertied minority.74 Generally the best guide to right action, in politics as elsewhere, is the Bible, for this contains all the important truths of history and philosophy. “Of the laboring classes more than this is not demanded,” and “not perhaps generally desirable…. But you,… as men moving in the higher classes of society,” should also know history, philosophy, and theology. The antidote to false statesmanship is history, as “the collation of the present with the past, and the habit of thoughtfully assimilating the events of our own age to those of the time before.”75

A Lay Sermon (1817) continued this appeal to the “higher and middle classes” as the best vehicles of sane reform, and as guards against the “sophists and incendiaries of the revolutionary school.”76 But the book recognized some current evils: the reckless swelling of the national debt, a peasantry sinking into pauperism, the labor of children in the factories. Coleridge noted “the folly, presumption, and extravagance that followed our late unprecedented prosperity; the blind practices and blinding passions of speculation in the commercial world, with the shoal of ostentatious fooleries and sensual vices.” He mourned the liability of the new business economy to periodical exaltations and depressions, leading to breakdowns and general suffering.77

He recommended some basic reforms. “Our manufacturers must consent to regulation,”78 especially of child labor. The state should recognize as its “positive ends: 1. To make the means of subsistence more easy to each individual. 2. To secure to each of its members the hope of bettering his own condition and that of his children. 3. The development of those faculties which are essential to his humanity; i.e., to his rational and moral being.”79 He called for an organization of the leaders in every profession to study the social problem in the perspective of philosophy, and to offer recommendations to the community; and this “national church should be financed by the state.”80

Coleridge ended his Lay Sermon by conceding to the theologians that no purely lay or secular wisdom can solve the problems of mankind; only a supernatural religion and a God-given moral code can check the inherent cupidity of men.81 Evil is so inborn in us that “human intelligence… alone” is “inadequate to the office of restoring health to the will.”82 He called for a humble return to religion, and to full faith in Christ as God dying to redeem mankind.83

In 1815–16 Coleridge composed or dictated certain “Sketches of my Literary Life and Opinions” for use in a projected autobiography. That volume was never completed, and Coleridge published the sketches in 1817 as Biographia Literaria, which is now our most manageable source for Coleridge’s thought in philosophy and literature. It is remarkably coherent and clear, considering that most of it was produced during despondency about his addiction to opium, his accumulating debts, and his inability to provide for the education of his sons.

He began by repudiating the associationist psychology that had once fascinated him; he rejected the notion that all thought is the mechanical product of sensations; these, he now held, give us merely the raw materials which the self—the remembering, comparing, continuing personality—remolds into creative imagination, purposive thought, and conscious action. All our experience, conscious or not, is recorded in the memory, which becomes the storehouse from which the mind—consciously or not—draws up material for the interpretation of present experience and for the illumination of present choices. Here, of course, Coleridge was following Kant. His ten months in Germany had transformed him not only from a poet into a philosopher but from a determinist Spinozist into a free-will Kantian. Here he fully acknowledged his debt. “The writings of the illustrious sage of Königsberg,… more than any other work, at once invigorated and disciplined my understanding.”84

From Kant Coleridge proceeded to Fichte’s exaltation of the self as the only reality directly known, through Hegel’s contrast and union of nature and the self, to Schelling’s subordination of nature to mind as two sides of one reality, in which, however, nature acts unconsciously, while mind may act consciously and reaches its highest expression in the conscious creations of the genius. Coleridge borrowed freely from Schelling, and often neglected to mention his sources;85 but he confessed his general debts, and added: “To me it will be happiness and honor enough, should I succeed in rendering the system itself [of Schelling] intelligible to my countrymen.”86

The last eleven chapters of the Biographia offered a philosophical discussion of literature as a product of imagination. He distinguished between fancy and imagination: fancy is fantasy, as in imagining a mermaid; Imagination (capitalized by Coleridge) is the conscious unification of parts in a new whole, as in the plot of a novel, the organization of a book, the production of a work of art, or the molding of the sciences into a system of philosophy. This conception became a tool for the understanding and criticism of any poem, book, painting, symphony, statue, building: how far does the product have, or lack, structure—the weaving of relevant parts into a consistent and significant whole? In those pages Coleridge offered a philosophical basis for the Romantic movement in literature and art.

He completed his complex Biographia with an acute criticism of Wordsworth’s philosophy and practice of poetry. Is it true that the highest philosophy of life can be found in the ways and thoughts of the simplest men? Is the language of such men the best medium of poetry? Is there no basic difference between poetry and prose? On all these points the poet become critic differed courteously but pointedly and effectively. Then he concluded with a healing homage to the Grasmere sage as the greatest poet since Milton.87

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