Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
There are few writers who have exercised so deep an influence over their generation as Coleridge, and there have certainly not been many who have been made the subject of such ill-placed praise and such presumptuous censure. The position which he was at one time supposed to occupy, and the relation in which he actually stood to his principal contemporaries, are well worthy of attention, not only on account of the intrinsic importance of the various subjects with which his name is connected, but also because the views which have prevailed respecting him supply perhaps the most perfect illustration that could be given of the injustice which is done by popular or party opinion to the reputation of remarkable men. Few men received during their lifetime so much of that personal worship which is one of the most deadly, and also of the most insidious, poisons that can be administered to those who have sufficient popularity to obtain it. The periodical levees at Highgate, which were attended by every one who was in that very common state of mind which is almost equally dissatisfied with popular orthodoxy and with popular heterodoxy, are well known. The sort of impression which they left on the minds of those who attended them has been described with wonderful force by Mr. Carlyle, in a famous passage in the Life of Sterling. It would be hard to refer to a better example of the contrast between the worship which a man of genius receives whilst the spell of personal sympathy is still upon the worshippers, and the cool and possibly sarcastic indifference with which they reflect upon his teaching when experience has enlarged their views, than is afforded by a comparison between the passage in question and an article on Coleridge's philosophy, in the first volume of Mr. Carlyle's Miscellanies. Mr. Carlyle's early notion that Coleridge had thrown a new light over most things human and divine, and his later conviction that he was a type of that inconclusive see-saw between two opinions which is the normal state of many minds upon some of the most important of all subjects of thought, mark very clearly two stages in the course of opinion respecting his merits. A quarter of a century has now passed since his death; the generation which sat at his feet, and was moulded very deeply by his teaching, has produced its fruits; and it is possible for us to judge more fairly of the real scope and tendency of his teaching than was done by those whose judgment was disturbed by personal knowledge. Our object in the present article is to point out shortly the relation in which he stood to some of the more remarkable of those who were so far brought under his influence that they might—in a very wide and loose sense indeed— be spoken of as his disciples, or at least as the representatives and advocates of some one of the many doctrines which he advanced upon a vast variety of subjects.
The extraordinary inconclusiveness and vagueness of Coleridge’s writings, if they are looked on as a whole, have been noticed by Mr. Carlyle, with his usual success, in the passage to which we have already referred. The assertions that the practical result of his teaching was the advice that everything should be kept quiet till the publication of the great work on the Logos, and the doctrine that matters repugnant to the understanding may be believed by the reason, are wonderful illustrations of the great truth that humour is often wiser than logic—if, indeed, it is not rather to be described as logic thrown into the shape of a reductio ad absurdum. Pungent, however, as these and similar sayings are, they have the common fault of such sayings. They give an exquisite picture of the man himself, instead of giving an estimate of the value of his opinions, or even hints towards the formation of such an estimate. Whatever may have been the defects of Coleridge's organization of mind or body—and they were neither few nor small—and however imperfectly he may have used the powers which he possessed, it is quite impossible for any person of moderate candour and competence to deny that his fragmentary, obscure, and timid utterances on morals, metaphysics, and theology constitute an epoch in the history of English thought. Indeed, it would be hard to mention a more conclusive proof of the fact that the substance of what is written is infinitely more important than the form in which it is written, than the influence which Coleridge's philosophical works have exercised. In form, they have almost every fault that books can have—in substance, they may be open to grave objections—but we doubt whether it would be possible for any one possessed of adequate power and curiosity to read them with care without experiencing effects which nothing could efface. In them we feel for the first time, but in its fullest and deepest maturity, that indescribable change which came over almost every department of thought in the early part of the present century, and which sets a gulf—not the less real because it is extremely hard to define its limits—between the modes of thought which prevail at present and those which prevailed a century ago. The cant which has been talked about progress and the spirit of the age makes those phrases indescribably nauseous, but it is impossible to deny that they do represent a fact—the fact, namely, that between one generation and another there are subtle indefinable differences which can neither be described nor accounted for, though they model the whole history of the ages in which they prevail. Whatever philosophical historians may say to the contrary, there is a mystery in the question why one generation listened to Locke and another to Coleridge, precisely parallel to that which besets the problem why it never occurred to any one to find gold in Australia before 1851, though many of the richest gold-fields had been well known to the settlers for many years before that period.
Mr. J. S. Mill, if we are not mistaken, propounded the doctrine that Coleridge and Bentham represented the two principal divisions of modern thought, and that any one who could harmonize the two would solve some of the chief controversies which of late years have pervaded so many subjects. We propose to modify this very weighty observation by adding to it the remark that one large part of Coleridge's mind was the supplement of Bentham's, that his views pointed out a gap in Bentham's system, and that they have exercised a very marked influence over the more distinguished of Bentham's disciples, and especially over Mr. Mill himself. It is always hazardous to attempt to condense into a single phrase the essential characteristics of a remarkable man; and in the case of a writer so diffuse and fragmentary as Coleridge, the chance of introducing error by such a phrase is of course greater than in other cases. It is, however, so desirable to give unity and clearness to what is said on such subjects, that we will take the risk of saying that the key-note of Coleridge's writings, and of his philosophy generally, was his idealism. He was the first eminently popular writer who revived in this country the realist view of philosophy, which from the time of Locke had been so much discredited, and which has obtained so much currency amongst large and intelligent classes of society during the last half century. The idealist and nominalist controversy is, we need not say, as old as speculation itself; and all that the ablest thinker can do in relation to the subjects to which it is applied is to clothe one or the other branch of the alternative which it presents ill language somewhat different from that in which it has formerly been clothed, and better adapted to the tastes of the existing generation. However the controversy is put, the respective difficulties and advantages of the realist and nominalist are precisely the same. The nominalist always fails to supply the motives which are necessary to make his scheme work. The realist always fails to make the terms which he uses intelligible to those who are not predisposed to agree with him. On the other hand, the nominalist is thoroughly intelligible, whilst the realist appeals to motives which, in point of fact, do exercise a vast influence over some of the highest minds. On what principle the controversy is to be adjusted, and whether any adjustment is possible, or even conceivable, are questions far too wide to be discussed hero; but the different modes in which they are grasped by those who are their advocates for the time being, and the different views which they take of the principle opposed to their own, are of the highest importance to the intellectual history of the age in which they live.
Coleridge's idealism was of course greatly modified in its character by the circumstances of the times. In his age and country it would have been impossible for any man who had that degree of sympathy with his fellow-creatures which is one of the conditions of greatness, to have assumed that lofty and isolated contempt for facts and for the common transactions of life which idealists have sometimes professed, and with which they are almost invariably charged. A theory which would condemn the England of the nineteenth century to contempt would be self-condemned in the eyes of every Englishman, however well it might harmonize with his speculative views. Coleridge, accordingly, strained himself to the utmost to associate his idealism with actual life. All faith, all duty, all aspirations, were to be guided by the fixed eternal ideas of which the reason is properly cognizant; but these ideas must be realized in the common affairs of life, and one great element of the fascination which they exercised over Coleridge's mind most unquestionably consisted of the glory with which they invested the institutions and practices in the midst of which he lived. There was something peculiarly English in the way in which Coleridge's most abstruse and apparently abstract speculations were always associated with practical results. Much as Bishop Berkeley ascended from the virtues of tar-water to the doctrine of the Trinity, Coleridge's mind was continually ascending and descending the steps which appeared to him to connect that direct consciousness of the Divine existence which he supposed to be our only real reason for believing in a God, with the common duties of life, and with the institutions, ecclesiastical and civil, which are based upon the recognition, and intended for the enforcement, of those duties. His theory of the relations of the Church and the State, and of the foundation and nature of morality, and therefore of law, were mixed up in the most intimate manner with his universal formulas about thesis, prothesis, mesothesis, and antithesis; and though they were to the common apprehension hard to be understood, and were left in that vague sprawling condition in which they still remain, their influence upon the whole cast and temper of English thought during the last thirty years can hardly be exaggerated, nor will any candid person deny that, though they may be open to very grave objections, their influence in many important particulars has been most beneficial.
It would be impossible to attempt in this place to give more than a very few illustrations of Coleridge's influence on his contemporaries and immediate successors, but we will try to indicate its character by a few typical examples. He may be regarded as the intellectual progenitor of men so widely opposed to each other in every point of view as Dr. Arnold, Dr. Newman and his brother Mr. Francis Newman. Of Dr. Arnold's intellectual relationship to Coleridge no one who reads his books can entertain a doubt. It has always seemed to us that Dr. Arnold's gifts were rather of the practical than of the speculative kind. He had a sense of duty which was as keen as the sense of honour is with many men. His whole temper of mind was one of burning energy. The main thought and purpose of his life was that of adapting the ordinary events and the common institutions and relations of the world to what he considered to be the Christian model. It is impossible not to see that, in all the opinions in which he embodied these general views, he was treading, to a very great extent, in Coleridge's footsteps, and that he was constantly in the habit of tacitly assuming his fundamental principles of thought. His view of morality, his conception of the relations of the church and the world, and his view of the scope of the Gospel history, and of the relation of Christianity to human nature, are in some of their most important aspects identical with Coleridge's. The same might be said of his opinions on the authority of Scripture.
Dr. Newman was as unlike Dr. Arnold as any man could possibly be; but there is, we think, great truth in Mr. Carlyle's observation, that he and his followers owed their existence to Coleridge, though no man would have more energetically denounced the consequences which they drew from his doctrines, and though it would be most unfair to deny that they only adopted a small part of them. Coleridge may almost be said to have piqued himself on the extent and systematic character of his theological creed. Whether it really was systematic, or whether it was only very large with a certain tendency to convergence in each of its members, is a question which no one now will ever decide, and which in all human probability he himself never decided. But however this may have been, it included, amongst other things, a strong apprehension of the difficulties which beset religious faith in general, and a very strong opinion that tradition and corporate authority are, if not indispensable, at any rate, highly useful allies in the task of overcoming them. How far this arose from reason, how far from association, how far from timidity, is a problem which is rapidly losing its interest, as the number of those to whom Coleridge's personal history is matter of importance is diminished by the lapse of time; but that Dr. Newman, amongst others, seized upon this part of his doctrine, and made it the foundation of much of their own teaching, appears to us highly probable. Whether they learnt it from Coleridge or not, they certainly professed it, and it was a principal element in determining the course which they pursued.
Mr. Francis Newman—between whose views and those of his brother there is much the same relation as that which connects the positive and negative roots of a quadratic equation—might very fairly say that he, too, learnt some of the most characteristic of his opinions from Coleridge's works. The doctrine that individual consciousness is the last court of appeal, and that by virtue of it a man may sit in judgment on everything that is tendered for his belief, is one which finds considerable countenance in several of them, and especially in the Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit; and it is hard to doubt that it was from Coleridge, and not from former asserters of the same opinion, that Mr. Newman derived it.
The most remarkable illustration of Coleridge's influence may, however, be found in one who certainly cannot be called his disciple—Mr. John Mill. Towards the end of the second volume of his work on Logic, that gentleman says that no one trained in the school of Coleridge could have fallen into the blunder of saying that a consistent Berkeleyan ought to walk over a cliff or to be run over by a cart. He would have been protected from such an error by the familiarity which his training would have produced with the conception that the mind, and not the senses, is the real percipient, and that the ultimate realities upon which all external existence depends are spiritual and ideal. This remark—which we quote from memory—has always appeared to us one of the most remarkable of the many proofs which might be given of that superlative clearness and judicial dignity of thought which characterize Mr. Mill's writings, and enable him to state the views of his opponents as clearly as he states his own. It would, we think, be a mistake to speak of him as an opponent of Coleridge's. His relation to him is rather that of conscious distinctness, and the difference between himself and Bentham is that whilst he is, as far as he goes, a true Benthamite, he perceives with characteristic clearness and self-possession that there is a large class of problems which Benthamism does not, and indeed cannot, solve; and it has always appeared to us that he owes this consciousness in a great degree to a familiarity with the works of Coleridge and other authors of the same kind who have devoted the greater part of their attention to the investigation of such problems.
Benthamism, for example, gives a scheme of morality which forms, whether right or wrong, a coherent whole. Whatever produces the greatest happiness of the greatest number is right. Happiness consists of so many elements. Such and such actions tend to produce them, such others to diminish them, and in such and such degrees. Such is Bentham's system; but however perfect it is, it still leaves untouched the question, why should, A, B, or C, trouble myself to produce this end? "Because," said Paley, "you will be damned if you do not." "Because," said Bentham himself (not very ingenuously, we think), "it is for your own greatest happiness to do so." "Because," says M. Comte, as we understand him, "if you act so you conform to the constitution of your brain"—an argument which is like shot without powder. Mr. Mill does not answer the question. He perceives—so at least it seems to us—that it lies out of the reach of his philosophy; but he appreciates and respects those who try to answer it on other principles, as was the case with Coleridge. It is a very remarkable truth, and one which has not been nearly so much noticed as it should have been, that though Mr. Mill has never attempted the solution of any other problems than those which consist in unravelling and classifying complicated facts, and showing the order in which they follow each other, he has never denied the existence of problems of a higher and altogether different order, depending for their solution upon such considerations as those in which Coleridge so much delighted; nor has he ever advanced opinions which were not as consistent with an affirmative as with a negative solution of such problems. This most important result (and no one who does not know the attitude of hostility which scientific men have frequently assumed towards religion and morality can estimate its importance) is probably to be attributed, to a very great extent, to the sympathy with which Coleridge's genius, and substantial candour and nobility of mind, inspired a man whose intellect was as powerful and whose heart was as warm as his own. These are but a very few illustrations of the width and depth of Coleridge's influence, and of his connexion with some of the most eminent thinkers of the day. They appear to us to give a fair notion of the real value and character of his influence. He cannot be said to have established anything, to have constructed anything, or to have written anything which adds to the common stock of knowledge. Gibbon's History will be a possession for ever, whatever may be the fate of his opinions.
Bentham's Principles of Morals and Legislation will return a value of their own, as a perfect exposition of one view of the subject to which they relate, even if that view should be discredited; and the same may be said of several of Voltaire's works; but Coleridge has not, so far as we know, written anything which any one would care to read who does not sympathize with his opinions. Though these considerations tend to show a considerable probability that his fame will not be as lasting as it has, during the present generation, been extensive, his career appears to us to be one of the most remarkable illustrations that our literary history affords of the immense value and influence of a man of real genius, even though indecision, idleness, and timidity may make the trumpet give forth intermittent, uncertain, and even discordant sounds. If he had forced himself to think with more continuity, and had shown a greater degree of menial continence, he would have earned greater fame for himself, but he would also have taught less to his contemporaries. His Literary Remains is one of the most instructive books that it is possible to mention. The depth, the weight, the originality, and variety of criticisms, written on the margins of books, without the fear of scandalizing weak brothers, and without the qualifications to which set composition irresistibly tempted him, are full of every kind of excellence. They are unsystematic; they may, for aught we know, be inconsistent; but they would be ill exchanged for the most symmetrical composition of almost any other hand.
Saturday Review, March 19, 1859.