Coleridge and Scepticism free download ebook
OX F O R D E N G L I S H M O N O G R A P H S
hel en barr christo pher butl er
katherine duncan-jones hermione lee
a. d. nuttall fiona stafford
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To R. L.
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This book emerged from an M.Phil. and then D.Phil. undertaken at Linacre College, Oxford, between 1997 and 2003. I want to thank the AHRC (then AHRB) for funding my doctoral research, and the Principal and Fellows of Linacre College for awarding me a Mary Blaschko graduate scholarship.
Many people have assisted me before, during, and after my doctoral research in Oxford. I want to start by thanking Professor John Haffenden and George Botterill at the University of Sheffield for early advice and encouragement. I also want to thank Dr Timothy Chesters, Professor Paul Hamilton, Professor Alister McGrath, Professor Jon Mee, Professor Lucy Newlyn, and Dr Seamus Perry for their invaluable help and guidance at various stages of this project. I want to thank my examiners, the late Professor A. D. Nuttall and Professor J. B. Beer for giving the thesis the benefit of their great learning and insight, and for their constructive observations on how it might be developed into a book. My greatest intellectual debt, however, is to my supervisor Dr Fiona Stafford who has helped me immeasurably throughout my time in Oxford. I cannot imagine a better or more generous teacher.
At OUP I would like to thank Andrew McNeillie for commis- sioning and generously supporting the publication of the book, and Jacqueline Baker for providing professional and efficient guidance at various stages of the publication process. I would especially like to thank the two anonymous readers from OUP who offered extreme- ly perceptive and practical advice on developing the thesis into a book.
I would like to thank the librarians and staff at the Bodleian library, the English Faculty library, the Philosophy Faculty library, the Theology Faculty library, and the Radcliffe Science library in Oxford.
On a personal note, I would like to thank my family for their support, and also my friends. In particular, I would like to thank viii Acknowledgements Gorji, Andrew Marsham, Farrhat Arshad, Luisa Calè, Richard Caplan, Anthony Bale, Tim Phillips, Harriet Jaine, Leon Wilson, and Trisha and Tony Loncraine. Finally, the biggest thanks of all goes to Rebecca Loncraine, who has helped me in every conceivable way. I dedicate this book to her with all my love.
Boyle, Works R. Boyle, Works of Robert Boyle, ed. M. C. W. Hunter and
CL Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. E. L. Griggs(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956–71)
CN The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. KathleenCoburn and Merle Christensen (London and Princeton: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1957–90)
CO Johannis Calvini: Opera Selecta, ed. P. Barth and W. Niesel(Munich, 1928–62).
There is in Form … something which is not elementary but
divine. The contemplation of Form is astonishing to Man and
has a kind of Trouble or Impulse accompanying it, which exaltshis soul to God.¹
Coleridge’s theory of symbolism was an attempt to describe and explain a triadic analogy that he perceived to exist between the underlying laws of the natural world, the underlying laws of human reason, and their divine architect and source: the seminal Word of God. The theory aimed to account for his powerful poetic and religious intuition that human reason and the poetic imagination were finite echoes of the divine Reason, or Logos, out of which the natural world was created and then sustained. This divine Logos which, according to the Genesis account in the Old Testament, had called the language of nature into being and provided it with its deepest grammar and significance, was analogous to the organic form and unity of the poems Coleridge wished to write in praise of nature. His theory of symbolism was an effort, therefore, to connect human language and reason to the ‘intelligible’ language of divinity incarnate in the natural world, and to explain the relationship of reciprocity that exists between poems about nature and the divine poetry in nature that they ideally mirrored.
After about 1805, Coleridge developed a ‘sacramental’ account of symbolism regarding the divine Logos as both immanent within and
¹ Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Notebook Entry, 1804. The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor
Coleridge, ed. Kathleen Coburn and Merle Christensen, 4 vols. (London and Princeton,
2 Introduction transcendent of the language of nature. Fearing either a panthe- ism that would entirely identify God with the finite language of nature, or an agnosticism that would entirely separate them, Coleridge always maintained that the Logos principle could be nei- ther reduced to nor separated from the finite language of God in nature, whose meaning and being was sustained by God’s intelligible speech.
This, at least, was the theory. In practice, Coleridge was less con- fident in his own developing theory than some of his poetry and prose works would suggest. In letters, notebooks, and sometimes even within the body of his published works, Coleridge attempt- ed, and failed, to fully affirm the Logos doctrine, and he likewise failed to find experiential confirmation of his theory of symbol- ism. It may be legitimately argued that doubts expressed about this theory within ostensibly private notebooks and letters cannot undermine Coleridge’s published thoughts on the subject. It may be further argued that it is methodologically unsound to treat dif- ferent evidential sources as if they had an equal weight, even as part of an attempt to give a comprehensive picture of a writer’s views on a particular subject. These are important theoretical con- siderations; however, I do not use private evidence of Coleridge’s uncertainty about his theory of symbolism to suggest that the let- ters and notebooks can entirely undermine the affirmations of his published works. I argue, instead, that these unpublished para- texts provide us with legitimate evidence to show that he was not always entirely convinced by ideas affirmed in his published works.
It must also be acknowledged that Coleridge on many occasions planned to destroy his notebooks, and even some letters, in order that certain of his thoughts should not be disclosed to posterity. In a notebook entry written in December 1804, for instance, he pleads directly to a future reader, who he hopes may not exist, to offer a charitable interpretation of his private anxieties and self-doubts:
I verily am a stout-headed, weak-bowelled, and O! most pitiably weak-hearted
Animal! … If I should perish without having the power of destroying these
& my other pocket books, the history of my own mind for my own
improvement. O friend! Truth! Truth! but yet Charity! Charity! I have never
only as a means of escaping from pains that coiled round my mental powers,as a serpent around the body & wings of an Eagle!²
Coleridge reasonably expects that he should not be condemned by, or confined to, the doubts and uncertainties he expresses within his notebooks, but he also acknowledges that these views are one authentic expression of his intellectual and emotional life: ‘O friend! Truth! Truth! but yet Charity! Charity!’ I hope to approach these sources employing the principle of interpretative charity and caution that Coleridge here recommends.
The central question that this book is concerned to answer is why Coleridge was privately, and sometimes publicly, sceptical about his theory of symbolism. Scholars and critics of Coleridge’s work have fully explored both his theory of symbolism and the hermeneutic anx- iety that plagued him in connection with this theory over the course of his life. This book offers a new account of why this hermeneutic anxiety was present in Coleridge’s published and unpublished writ- ings, and why it happened to be explicitly connected with his theory of symbolism.
Coleridge’s anxieties about his ability to perceive the symbolic presence of God in nature cannot be fully understood in isolation from the intellectual precursors whose work engaged him. I argue that in order to fully understand Coleridge’s theory of symbolism and his doubts on this subject, it is necessary to situate him within two important intellectual traditions. The first is a tradition of ‘epistemological piety’, which informs the work of predecessors such as Kant, Hume, Locke, and Boyle and is connected to Protestant critiques of post-lapsarian natural reason. The book begins with an examination of John Calvin’s views on the devastating ‘noetic’ effects of the Fall. According to Calvin, one of the consequences of Adam and Eve’s rebellion and disobedience was that our reasoning powers had been vitiated and almost entirely destroyed by inherited original sin.
Calvin argued that while God still revealed himself in an accom- modated form in the ‘book’, or ‘theatre’, of nature, mankind was now incapable of discerning this divine revelation. Only the Elect, guided by the ‘spectacles’ of a Biblical faith and illuminated by the Holy Spirit,
4 Introduction could discern the legible marks of God’s presence in nature. The vast majority are blinded to this divine revelation, and are only capable of perceiving idolatrous substitutes for the one true God. These argu- ments concerning the effects of the Fall on our unaided reasoning powers had a powerful afterlife in the philosophical writings of Boyle, Locke, and even Hume. These thinkers, for pious Christian reasons in the case of Boyle and Locke, and strategic reasons in the case of Hume, tended to stress the divinely ordained limits of the human understanding, and to situate human knowledge within a vast abyss of ignorance and darkness.
This tradition of Protestant-inflected epistemological scepticism, directed against the presumption that one can read God’s handwriting in nature without the assistance of a Biblical faith provided by divine Election, had a powerful and disabling impact on Coleridge’s theory of symbolism. Scholars have thoroughly explored Coleridge’s many pained reflections on himself as being a fallen individual, and they have connected these ideas to well-known biographical events such as his persistent addiction to opium, his clandestine love for Sara Hutchinson and his own loveless marriage. I will argue that Coleridge’s sense of being fallen can partly explain why he was uncertain about his ability to perceive God’s presence in nature. I explore Coleridge’s detailed familiarity with this tradition of epistemological piety in Chapters 3 and 4 of the book, and argue that while he could dismiss sceptical arguments in the writings of the ‘infidel’ Hume, for instance, he could not dismiss similar arguments when piously expressed in the writings of Calvin, Locke, Boyle, and Kant. I will conclude that Coleridge’s sense of being fallen generated a powerful, though pious, Christian doubt in his own ability to confidently read the divine language of nature; and that, correlatively, his inability to confidently read that divine handwriting reinforced his sense that he was indeed a fallen being, hidden from God.
The second intellectual tradition that the book explores, one that is intimately connected with the first, is theological voluntarism. Theological voluntarists like Locke, Boyle, and Newton, tended to stress the omnipotence of God at the expense of His other attrib- utes, and to posit an entirely arbitrary and contingent relationship between God and His creation: the natural world. Theologians in
5 an ‘intellectualist’ tradition, like St Thomas Aquinas, had argued that there are certain external constraints on any expression of God’s power (his other attributes of Justice, Mercy and Good- ness and the principle of non-contradiction, for instance) and that the created order must necessarily be an expression of all God’s accommodated attributes.³ Late medieval theological voluntarists, like William of Ockham and Duns Scotus, however, emphasized the arbitrariness and contingency of the created world as simply being one possible expression of divine omnipotence. Theological voluntarists consequently denied the idea that nature can be regard- ed as necessarily embodying, incarnating, or symbolizing divine truths.
While theologians in this tradition stressed God’s radical tran- scendence of His creation, they also emphasized the finiteness and remoteness of our reasoning powers from those of God. Although Calvin made some disparaging remarks about theologians in this tradition, he would often stress God’s radical transcendence of the human understanding, particularly when trying to defend patently
³ According to Aquinas’s Neoplatonic account of causation, for instance, an
efficient cause (A) to some extent explains the nature of its effect (B), because part
of the nature of the A becomes present in its effect B. Since God is the primary
efficient cause, something of God’s nature must be present in the things He has
created. This does not mean that there is an equivalence of Being between God
and His creation (it would be inappropriate to describe God as being ‘cloud-like’
or ‘flower-like’, for instance), rather God ‘contains’ the perfections of His creatures
because He ‘necessarily contains within himself the full perfection of being’ (Summa
Theologiae, Ia. 4. 2). The perfections of God’s creatures are necessarily limited by
the finite and imperfect mode of being they share as members of a particular genus
and species. Nonetheless, according to Aquinas, there is a remote analogical ‘likeness’
(similitudo) between God and human beings (imago Dei): ‘[i]t is plain that people
bear some likeness to God that is derived from God as its original, though this likeness
does not amount to equality, since this particular original infinitely surpasses the
thing modelled on it. So then we say that God’s image is to be found in people, though
not his perfect image’ (Summa Theologiae, Ia. 93. I). Human beings resemble God
as artefacts resemble the craftsman who fashioned them. It is because of this partial
resemblance between God and humanity (later Thomists called this doctrine Analogia
Entis) that we are able to speak of God’s ‘Goodness’ and mankind’s ‘goodness’ without
equivocation. The relationship between God and His creatures was also characterized
by Aquinas in terms of ‘exemplar’ and ‘likeness’, ‘first cause’ and ‘effect’, ‘infinite’
and finite’, ‘perfection’ and ‘imperfection’, and ‘participation’. See G. P. Klubertanz,St Thomas Aquinas on Analogy (Chicago, 1960), 35–76.
6 Introduction anti-rational and barbaric doctrines such as absolute double predesti- nation. At these moments, Calvin affirms divine ‘Justice’, ‘Mercy’, and ‘Goodness’ in all His dealings with mankind, while frankly acknowl- edging that there is no intuitive connection between these divine qualities and our own creaturely understanding of mercy, justice, and goodness. Furthermore, when Calvin turned to God’s providential work in human history, he would often acknowledge that God’s handiwork appears a labyrinth to our minds, and that we must simply and piously affirm God’s benevolent role in history even if history seems, to our fallen minds, to be the handiwork of a lunatic.
Many natural philosophers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, including Catholics, like Gassendi and Descartes, and Protestants, like Boyle, Locke, and Newton, were theological volun- tarists. In Chapters 1 and 2 of the book I explore this tradition in detail. The methodological axioms for reasoning in experimental philosophy developed by Boyle and Newton, and later exploited by Hume, are guided by the sense that, while human beings are obliged to try and formulate provisional scientific explanations for the law-like regular- ities and physical properties of the natural world, they should piously refuse to speculate about the hidden metaphysical Cause or causes of those ordained physical laws, and to admit the possibility that the laws of nature may be revised by God in the future. Because philoso- phers are acquainted only with the effects of divine omnipotence (the physical laws and properties of the natural world) and are prohibited from gaining insight into their Cause, it is very difficult to ‘read’ the language of nature as offering necessary truths about the mind and will of God. Coleridge was exposed to this tradition through his reading of Boyle, Locke, Newton, and Hume.
Hume was brought up as a Calvinist and studied Newtonian physics and methodology at Edinburgh University and beyond. He was thor- oughly immersed in both of the intellectual traditions that the first two chapters of the book explore. In An Essay Concerning Human
Understanding (1748) and his posthumously published Dialogues
Concerning Natural Religion (1779), Hume attacked the foundations
of post-Newtonian natural theology by exploiting both Newton’s rules for reasoning in natural philosophy (Regulae Philosophandi) and Protestant critiques of natural reason in order to attack the
7 metaphysical and theological foundations of eighteenth-century nat- ural religion. The sceptic Philo, in the Dialogues, poses as a pious Christian philosopher adverting to the blindness and infirmity of nat- ural reason and attacking the presumption of the Newtonian theist, Cleanthes, who thinks that he can discern the craftsmanship of God in the natural world. Philo is aided in this pursuit by the character Demea, whose fideism and mysticism leads him to also reflect on the corruption of natural reason and the radical transcendence of God. Philo sides with Demea to attack the anthropomorphic basis of Cleanthes’s natural religion, and then sides with Cleanthes in order to attack the agnostic impasse that Demea’s fideism results in. In short, Philo ‘forks’ the respective positions of Demea and Clean- thes in order to argue that natural religion leads inevitably to either anthropomorphism or agnosticism.
While Coleridge never ceased to attack the ‘infidelity’ and cor- ruption of the atheist Hume, he could not easily dismiss Hume’s arguments against natural religion, because they were couched in the language of ‘epistemological piety’ practised by Christian philoso- phers like Boyle, Locke, and Newton. Also he could not dismiss Hume’s arguments because they were founded on a shrewd strategic exploitation of the methodological axioms of Newtonian ‘experi- mental philosophy’ and the theological voluntarism they embodied. In pointing out how little can be safely inferred about God from a study of the natural world, and how little inferential reasoning can in general be trusted, Hume again disguised himself in the language and theory of pious Christian scepticism.
Coleridge attempted to establish Hume as his own neme- sis, but Hume’s scepticism entered his own intellectual speculations through his immersion in Kantian aesthetics. I suggest that Kantian aesthetics were a kind of Trojan horse through which Hume’s scepti- cism breached the citadel of Coleridge’s piety. After 1802, Coleridge repeatedly and frankly acknowledged his intellectual debts to Kant, and yet Kant’s writings on religious symbolism and the sublime in the
Critique of Judgment (1790) and elsewhere, were a studied response
both to the Humean ‘fork’ of agnosticism and anthropomorphism, and his own upbringing in Lutheran Pietism. Kant’s theory of the sublime is radically anti-symbolic. A world of spirit is disclosed,
8 Introduction negatively, through the inability of the imagination to find adequate ‘sensible’ illustrations of Ideas of Reason. The imagination is in fact always humiliated in its attempt to ‘see’ noumenal realities embodied in the language of nature, and Kant diagnoses the desire to see such embodied Ideas as both psychological fallacy and fanaticism. Kant accepts the Humean fork of anthropomorphism and agnosticism and settles for the latter option: it is precisely because the imagination fails in its attempt to ‘see’ a world of spirit embodied in matter, that the existence of such a noumenal realm can be secured from doubt.
While Coleridge tried to distinguish between the ‘letter’ and ‘spirit’ of Kantian aesthetics, both the letter and spirit of Kant’s writings were ultimately destructive of the premises of Coleridge’s theory of symbolism, which required the sacramental incarnation of spirit in the language of matter.
Chapters 1 and 2 explore these two intellectual traditions of epistemological piety and theological voluntarism in detail. They provide the necessary intellectual context for a full understanding of Coleridge’s theory of symbolism and the doubts he had concerning it. In Chapters 3 and 4, looking exclusively at Coleridge’s writings, I examine some of the notebooks, letters, poetry, and prose works he wrote between 1795 and 1805, and 1815 and 1825. The book offers, therefore, an interpretation of two chronological phases of Coleridge’s thinking on these topics, rather than an analysis of his career as a whole.
In Chapter 3 I begin by discussing a range of writings in which Coleridge explores his uncertain faith in his ability to read the handwriting of God in nature. I then turn to his Lectures on Revealed
Religion (1795), in which his early debts to post-Newtonian natural
religion are made explicit, before discussing, in detail, his poem, ‘Religious Musings’. I then turn, in conclusion, to a discussion of three ‘Conversation’ poems: ‘Fears in Solitude’, ‘France: an Ode’, and ‘Frost at Midnight’ published together in 1798, which together reveal Coleridge’s religious uncertainty, and its connection with his sense of being fallen. Finally, in Chapter 4 I discuss some aspects of Coleridge’s published prose works written between 1815 and 1825, including The
Statesman’s Manual (1816), Biographia Literaria (1817), The Friend
(1818), and Aids to Reflection (1825). I argue that, while Coleridge
9 agnosticism, and cannot be said to have discovered an original solution to the philosophical and religious questions he encountered, his writings on religion, and particularly his pained acknowledgement of uncertainty and doubt, were authentic responses to the profound intellectual problems he had inherited from his precursors.
I hold it as a settled axiom, that nothing is more unsuitable to
the character of God than for us to say that Man was created by
Him for the purpose of being placed in a condition of suspenseand doubt
As early as 1802, Coleridge considered writing accounts of the major theologians of the Reformation, including Calvin.¹ In a notebook entry listing projected works for the future, Coleridge mentions, among others, ‘Luther & Lutheranism, Calvin & Calvinism (with Zwinglius) … [,] Presbyterians & Baxterians in the times of Charles
1 and 2 —George Fox—& Quakerism/Socinians & Modern Uni- tarians’.² Coleridge read Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559) and an English translation of his commentaries on the Synoptic Gospels, which included a separate translation of his commentary on St John.³ In Coleridge’s marginalia to Andrew Fuller’s The Calvinistic
¹ See John Beer, ‘The Development of Coleridge’s Religious Thought’, in Aids
to Reflection, ed. John Beer, Bollingen Series, 9 (London and Princeton, 1993),pp. xlii–lxxviii.
² CN i. 118.
³ Wordsworth’s library contained a copy of Calvin’s Institutio Christianae religionis
(Geneva, 1569), which is signed by both Coleridge and Wordsworth. Coleridge also
read (possibly in 1820), and made marginal notes on, a copy of A Harmonie upon the
Three Evangelists, Matthew, Mark and Luke, with the Commentarie of M. Iohn Calvine:
faithfullie translated out of Latine into English by, by E. P[aget]. Whereunto is also added
Protestant Critiques of Natural Reason
and Socinian Systems Examined and Compared (1793), which he prob-
ably read in 1807, he upbraids Fuller’s work for conflating authentic Calvinism with Priestleyan materialism:
I have hitherto made not objection to, no remark on, any one part of this
Letter; for I object to the whole—not as Calvinism, but—as what Calvin
would have recoiled from. How was it that so good and shrewd a man as
Andrew Fuller should not have seen, that the difference between a Calvinist
and a Priestleyan Materialist-Necessitarian consists in this:—the former not
only believes a will, but that it is equivalent to the ego ipse, to the actual self, in
every moral agent; though he believes that in human nature it is an enslaved,because a corrupt, will.⁴
In Aids to Reflection (1825), Coleridge again attempts to distinguish Calvin’s authentic views on predestination from those ‘Fathers of Modern (or Pseudo-) Calvinism’, such as Jonathan Edwards and Edward Williams.⁵ In August 1827 Coleridge declared his ‘great respect’ for Calvin, noting that he was ‘undoubtedly a man of talent’.⁶ In 1836, he criticized Jeremy Taylor because he ‘never speaks with the slightest symptom of affection or respect of Luther, Calvin, or any other of the great reformers’. In the same year, Coleridge defended Calvin’s posthumous reputation against the charge that he had been solely responsible for the death of Miguel Servetus.⁷
Calvin’s profoundly pessimistic views on natural theology and the capacities of natural reason after the Fall are detailed in his Old and New Testament commentaries, and in the final expanded
The Holy Gospel of Iesus Christ, according to Iohn, with the commentary of M. Iohn
Calvine: faithfully translated out of Latine into English by Christopher Fetherstone,
student in divinitie. 2 pts in 1 vol. (London, 1584). See Coleridge, Marginalia, ed.
George Whalley, 5 vol. Bollingen Series, 12 (London and Princeton, 1980–), i. 476–7.
⁴ Coleridge, Marginalia, ii. 801. ⁵ Coleridge, Aids to Reflection, 159.
⁶ Coleridge, Table Talk Recorded by Henry Nelson Coleridge (and John Taylor
Coleridge), ed. Carl Woodring, 2 vols., Bollingen Series, 14 (London and Princeton,1990), ii. 397.
⁷ See Coleridge, Table Talk, ii. 272. Coleridge defended Calvin against this charge
in his marginal notes (written in 1810) to James Sedgwick’s (1775–1851) Hints to the
Public and the Legislature, on the Nature and Effect of Evangelical Preaching (1808–10):
‘his [Sedgwick’s] abuse of Calvin displays only his own vulgar Ignorance both of the
man & of his writings. He is too ignorant to know, that the humane Melanchthon, &
not only he but almost every Church, Lutheran and Reformed, throughout Europe,
sent Letters to Geneva, extolling the execution of Servetus, & returning their Thanks’.
12 Protestant Critiques of Natural Reason edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion.⁸ Calvin maintained a constant duality of perspective in his writings on natural theology. He argued that while God’s accommodated attributes are witnessed objectively in the order, beauty, and workmanship of the visible universe, the Fall had deformed our natural reasoning powers to such an extent that natural theology had been rendered impossible. He was convinced that, although the human intellect had a considerable sphere of worldly competence, it was incapable of ascending to knowledge of spiritual truths through the contemplation of nature.⁹ The only reliable, redemptive knowledge of God was contained within the Sacred Scriptures, and disclosed to God’s Elect through the mediation of the Holy Spirit. Ultimately, Calvin’s radical Pauline and Augustinian view of the effects of the Fall on human reason served to dismantle that triadic analogy between human reason, the natural world, and the nature of God, which provides one of the key theological premises of Coleridge’s theory of natural symbolism. Human beings are incapable of perceiving God in the ‘book of nature’, because the spiritual analogy or ‘likeness’ between God and mankind (imago Dei) has been vitiated and nearly destroyed by human sin.
A DA M I C R E A S O N
Three gradations, indeed, are to be noted in the creation of man; that his
dead body was formed out of the dust of the earth; that it was endowed
with a soul, whence it should receive vital motion; and that on this soul Godengraved his image, to which immortality is annexed.¹⁰
⁸ John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559), ed. John T. McNeill,
tr. Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols. (London, 1961). The 1st edn. of the Institutes of
Christian Religion was published in 1536. Calvin completed his Commentaries on
the New Testament Epistles between 1539 and 1551. Until 1548, Calvin probably
used Simon de Coline’s 1534 edn. of the New Testament; this was then replaced by
Erasmus’s Novum Testamentum Omne. See C. Schw¨obel, ‘Calvin’, in R. J Coggins and
J. L. Houlden (eds.), A Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation (Philadelphia and London,1990), 98–101.
⁹ See John Morgan, Godly Learning: Puritan Attitudes towards Reason, Learningand Education, 1560–1640 (Cambridge, 1988), 43–4.
¹⁰ Calvin, Commentary on Genesis 2: 7; Commentaries on the First Book of Moses
Protestant Critiques of Natural Reason
13 In the Institutes, Calvin argued that the human soul is created immortal, and divine; and that even in its fallen state, it is still endowed with certain divinely implanted gifts of natural reason. Among these gifts of reason, Calvin noted our capacity to distinguish good from evil (conscientia), our ability to investigate the physical structure of the natural world (tota physica scientia), our memory and general inventiveness, as well as a universal ‘sense of divine judgement’ (sensus divinitatis).¹¹ These noetic gifts are ‘unfailing signs of divinity in man’, since they have been ‘implanted’ or ‘engraved’ on the soul by God and cannot ‘be defaced’.¹² According to Calvin, there are two principal sources for our knowledge of God: the revelation of His will in the created order (including providential history), and the redemptive knowledge of His will revealed by the Sacred Scriptures and incarnate in Christ.
As well as defending the created and immortal nature of the soul in the Institutes, Calvin was concerned to trace what he called a ‘two-fold knowledge of man’, referring to knowledge of the soul in both its pre- lapsarian and post-lapsarian states. Book I, chapter 15, of the Institutes is devoted to human nature in its unfallen state, while the theme of Book II, chapters 1 to 5, concerns human nature in its fallen and now ruined state.¹³ In its unfallen state, we are told, the human soul was in a state of harmonious order with the senses and ‘affections’ both tempered and controlled by reason: ‘to begin with, God’s image was visible in the light of the mind, in the uprightness of the heart, and in the soundness of all the parts’.¹⁴ The purpose of the Adamic intellect, Calvin argues, was to allow the ‘creature’ to ascend to knowledge of the Creator, through the contemplation and praise of the visible universe:
texts can be consulted in Johannis Calvini: Opera Selecta, ed. P. Barth and W. Niesel(Munich, 1928–62; hereafter CO), xxiii. 18–19.
¹¹ Calvin, Institutes, III. 19. 15, p. 848. ¹² Ibid. I. 5. 5, p. 57.
¹³ Mary Potter Engel argues that Calvin continually makes perspectival shifts in
his writings: moving from man’s fallen to his pre-fallen understanding, and shifting
between the perspective of the redeemed to that of the damned. It is therefore
important to clearly distinguish between Calvin’s conception of the soul in its fallen
and pre-fallen states, before discussing his views on natural theology. Mary Potter
Engel, John Calvin’s Perspectival Anthropology, (Atlanta, GA, 1988). See also Derek
S. Jeffreys, ‘How Reformed is Reformed Epistemology? Alvin Plantinga and Calvin’s‘‘Sensus Divinitatis’’ ’, Religious Studies, 33 (1997), 419–31.
14 Protestant Critiques of Natural Reason
Accordingly, the integrity with which Adam was endowed is expressed by
this word [imago], when he had full possession of right understanding,
when he had his affections kept within the bounds of reason, all his senses
tempered in right order, and he truly referred his excellence to exceptional
gifts bestowed upon him by his Maker. And although the primary seat of the
divine image was in the mind and heart, or in the soul and its powers, yet
there was no part of man, not even the body itself, in which some sparks did
not glow … . From this we may gather that when his image is placed in man a
tacit antithesis is introduced which raises man above all other creatures and,as it were, separates him from the common mass.¹⁵
The natural world was a ‘mirror’, ‘theatre’, ‘painting’, or ‘book’ that displayed and reflected an otherwise hidden God.¹⁶ God accommo- dated Himself to our finite understanding in the ‘visible language’, ‘garment’, and ‘fabric of the world’, so that ‘all people might know and praise him’.¹⁷ Even after the Fall, Calvin argued, the ordered structure of the universe still bears witness to the divine attributes of its author. Similarly, despite the ‘blindness’ of natural reason after the Fall, mankind is still able to attain a very limited knowledge of God through its study.
A detailed consideration of pre-lapsarian natural theology can be found in Calvin’s Commentary on John (1553).¹⁸ In his exegesis of the Johannine Prologue, Calvin conventionally suggested that, ‘the Word (Sermo) was, as it were, hidden there before He revealed Himself in the outward workmanship of the world’.¹⁹ Through His ¹⁵ Calvin, I. 15. 3, p. 188.
¹⁶ Ibid. I. 5. I ; I. 5. 10; I. 6. 1–2; I. 14. 20; Argument to Genesis, CO xxiii. 8; Comm.
On Gen. i. 6; CO xxiii. 18. Susan Schreiner notes that the idea of the vestigia Dei was
a traditional theme throughout the Middle Ages. Susan Schreiner, The Theater of his
Glory: Nature and the Natural Order in the Thought of John Calvin (Durham, NC 1991),
141–2. See also Ernst Robert Curtius, ‘The Book as Symbol’, in European Literature
and the Latin Middle Ages, tr. Willard R. Trask, (Princeton, 1953), 319–26. See also
Peter Harrison, The Bible, Protestantism and the Rise of Natural Science (Cambridge,1998), 64–107.
¹⁷ Calvin, Commentary on Psalms, 104: 1, Commentary on the Book of Psalms,
tr. James Anderson, 5 vols. (Edinburgh, 1847), iv. 145; CO xxxii. 85; Institutes, I. 6. I.
¹⁸ Calvin, The Gospel according to St John, ed. David W. Torrance and Thomas
F. Torrance, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, iv, tr. T. H. L. Parker, 2 vols.(Grand Rapids, 1961).
¹⁹ Calvin, Commentary on John, 1: 1, p. 8; CO xl. 7. Calvin’s commentary on
the Gospel of John was first published in Latin in Jan. 1553 as a folio entitled In
Protestant Critiques of Natural Reason
15 accommodated revelation in the natural world, God displayed His will and intentions towards Adam in a manner that his unfallen reason could comprehend: ‘the Word of God came forth to outward action immediately from the creation of the world. For having been previously incomprehensible in His essence, He was then openly known by the effect of His power’.²⁰ Discussing the famous words from verse 4 of the Prologue, ‘[i]n him was life, and the life was the light of men’, Calvin explained that God’s ‘life’ and the effects of His ‘power’ are manifested objectively by the ‘stable and settled order of nature’, and subjectively by ‘that part of life in which men surpass the other animate creatures … the light of understanding’ (my italics).²¹
Through the light and clarity of his unfallen intellect, Adam was able to discern a parallel light reflected in the harmony of the visible universe. From this twinned ‘light’ reflected in reason and in the natural world, he could ascend to knowledge of its single divine source: the eternal Word of God.²² Human reason and the external world were both reflective effects of the seminal Word of God, created as finite ‘mirrors’ of God’s infinite and transcendent perfections. Adam was meant to praise the wisdom of God, witnessed in the ‘stable and settled order of nature’, so that the ‘mute’ creation would become articulate and conscious in his praise.
Calvin insisted that God could not reveal His essence (essentia) in the world, because it ‘transcends man in every respect’, and is ‘infinitely exalted above the comprehension of our understanding’. Through contemplation in the ‘mirror’ of the natural world, Adam discovered only God’s virtutes, a refracted or accommodated sense
work into French. Finally, in 1584 the work was translated into English by Christopher
Fetherstone bearing the title The holy Gospel of Iesus Christ, according to John, with
the commentarie of M. Iohn Calvine: Faithfully translated out of latine into englishe by
Christopher Fetherstone, student of divinitie. This was the translation owned and readby Coleridge and Wordsworth.
²⁰ Calvin, Commentary on John, 1: 3–4, p. 10; CO xl. 7. ²¹ Calvin, Commentary on John, 1: 3–4, pp. 10–11; CO xl. 7.
²² Calvin, Institutes, I. 14. 21, pp. 180–1. According to T. F. Torrance, Calvin
‘always thinks of the imago in terms of a mirror. Only while the mirror actually reflects
an object does it have the image of that object. There is no such thing in Calvin’s
thought as an imago dissociated from the act of reflecting’. T. F. Torrance, Calvin’s
Doctrine of Man (London, 1959), 36. See also Brian Gerrish, ‘The Mirror of God’s
Goodness: A Key Metaphor in Calvin’s View of Man’, in The Old Protestantism and
16 Protestant Critiques of Natural Reason of God’s paternal intentions toward him. As Calvin put it, God ‘is shown to us not as he is in himself, but as he is toward us: so that this recognition of him consists more in living experience that in vain and high-flown speculation’.²³ Even in an unfallen state, the soul knew God only from His works and from the divine intentions (virtutes Dei) that these works revealed. God’s real nature, His essentia, remained ‘infinitely exalted’ above the meagreness of human understanding.
T H E N O E T I C E F F E C T S O F S I N
As Adam at his first creation had received for his posterity as well as for himself
the gifts of divine grace (divinae gratiae dotes), so by falling from the Lord,
in himself he corrupted, vitiated, depraved, and ruined our nature—having
lost the image of God (abdicatus a Dei similitudine), the only seed which
he could have produced was that which bore resemblance to himself (sui
simile). We have, therefore, all sinned, because we are all imbued with naturalcorruption, and for this reason are wicked and perverse.²⁴
Adam and Eve’s rebellion was ‘the subversion of equity, and of well- constituted order’, according to Calvin, because it was instigated by a creature ‘lower than themselves’ and directed against a presence infinitely higher than themselves.²⁵ By refusing to recognize his spiritual gifts as gifts, and his nature as a mirror of God, Adam sought an unjustified equality with his creator:
Unfaithfulness, then, was the root of the Fall. But thereafter ambition and
pride, together with ungratefulness, arose, because Adam by seeking more
than was granted him shamefully spurned God’s great bounty, which had
been lavished upon him. To have been made in the likeness of God seemed a
small matter to a son of earth unless he also attained equality with God—amonstrous wickedness! ²⁶
²³ Calvin, Institutes, I. 10. 2, p. 97.
²⁴ Calvin, Commentary on Romans, 5: 12, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the
Romans and to the Thessalonians, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, vii, tr. Ross
Mackenzie (Grand Rapids, 1960), 111–12. This commentary was published in Latinin 1540, in French in 1550, and in English in 1577 and 1583.
²⁵ Calvin, Commentary On Genesis, 3: 1, p. 144; CO xxiii. 55.
Protestant Critiques of Natural Reason
17 The consequences of Adam’s unfaithfulness included the complete effacement of the soul’s spiritual gifts (faith, holiness, charity, and the love of God), as well as an almost complete corruption of the soul’s natural gifts in relation to spiritual knowledge. The once harmonious and ordered soul has now become disordered and blinded by sin, so that men and women no longer refer the excellence they witness in the natural world, and in themselves, to God.²⁷ In short, we can no longer perceive God in the ‘book of nature’, or grasp His presence reflexively through the exercise of natural reason.²⁸
The image of the ‘book’ of nature is flexible enough to convey both a fallen and pre-fallen understanding of it. In its pre-fallen state, the natural world had an established, though accommodated, affinity with the attributes of God; it was a medium through which the ineffable Wisdom, Goodness, and Power of God were translated into an idiom that human beings could universally comprehend. After the Fall, mankind is incapable of perceiving that spiritual and rational analogy between nature and God. Human beings no longer refer the excellence they still perceive in the natural world (opera Dei) and in their soul (imago Dei) to God. The symbolic character of the natural world is also lost since nature, at least in mankind’s fallen perception, no longer points beyond itself to a divine creator. After the Fall, objects in the natural world are just so many dead letters, whose spiritual meaning and ultimate frame of reference has vanished.²⁹
²⁷ As Brian Gerrish puts it, ‘the blindness of sin effectively negates God’s self-
disclosure in nature and prevents it from leading man to a saving knowledge of hisMaker’. Gerrish, Old Protestantism and New, 142.
²⁸ According to Bouwsma, like Valla and Erasmus, Calvin ‘rendered Logos as
sermo, God’s ‘‘speech’’; oratio rather than ratio, rhetorical rather than philosophical
discourse’. W. J. Bouwsma, Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait (New York and
Oxford, 1988), 125. In the Institutes, Calvin argued that God ‘revealed himself and
daily discloses himself in the whole workmanship of the universe. As a consequence,
men cannot open their eyes without being compelled to see him. Indeed, his essence is
incomprehensible; hence, his divineness far escapes all human perception. But upon
his individual works he has engraved unmistakable marks of his glory, so clear and so
prominent that even unlettered and stupid folk cannot plead the excuse of ignorance’.Calvin, Institutes, I. 5. I, p. 52.
²⁹ In a lecture on Phillipians, the puritan Henry Airey argued that his contem-
poraries’ interest in the exercise of their natural reason made them ‘like unto little
children, which if they see faire and great and coloured letters in a booke, are in great
love with the letters, but care not for the sense and understanding of the words’.
18 Protestant Critiques of Natural Reason Perhaps the most terrible aspect of the Fall, from Calvin’s per- spective, is that, despite our spiritual blindness, we are still driven by a ‘sense of divinity’ to seek God in nature.³⁰ Even within our ‘perverted and degenerate nature’, he thinks, some sparks of divinity ‘still gleam’; but the ‘mirror’ of nature through which mankind could formerly perceive God, has now become a dark and opaque medium to our fallen understanding: ‘[i]t is therefore in vain that so many burning lamps shine for us in the workmanship of the universe to show forth the glory of its Author. Although they bathe us wholly in their radiance, yet they can of themselves in no way lead us into the right path.’³¹ We have not lost our desire to seek God, but we have lost our spiritual and rational capacity to find Him. Natural theology is condemned after the Fall, even if the divinely implanted urge that motivates it still remains. Calvin suggests that, without illumination by scriptural revelation, the mind simply becomes idol- atrous, conjuring a phantasmal ‘crowd of Gods’ in place of the one hidden God.
In Calvin’s Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to
the Romans and to the Thessalonians (1540), he constantly adverts
to the blindness of natural reason and to the idolatrous nature of post-lapsarian natural religion. Discussing Paul’s Epistle to the Romans 1: 18 (‘For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men’), Calvin argues that, ‘although the structure of the world and the most splendid ordering of the elements ought to have induced man to glorify God, yet there are none who discharge their duty’.³² Discussing Romans 1: 20 (‘For the invisible things of him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made’), Calvin
³⁰ ‘Hence arises that boundless filthy mire of error wherewith the whole earth was
filled and covered. For each man’s mind is like a labyrinth, so that it is no wonder that
individual nations were drawn aside into various falsehoods; and not only this—but
individual men, almost, had their own gods’; Calvin, Institutes, I. 5. 12, pp. 64–5.
In the 13 cent. Arnulfus Provincialis, Master of Arts at Paris, argued that Adam
was originally endowed with perfect virtue and knowledge (scientiae). After the Fall,
Adam’s ‘eye of understanding’ (his oculus intellectualis) was blinded and darkened,
and he ceased to have a true vision of things. Arnulf argued that theology was born as
a consequence of this blinding. See G. R. Evans, Philosophy and Theology in the MiddleAges (London, 1993), 8–11.
³¹ Calvin, Institutes, I. 5. 14, p. 61.
Protestant Critiques of Natural Reason
19 acknowledges the Apostle’s apparent recommendation of natural theology. ‘God is invisible in Himself’, Calvin writes, ‘but since His majesty shines forth in all His works and in all His creatures, men ought to have acknowledged Him in these, for they clearly demonstrate their Creator.’ However, he goes on to claim that after the Fall the revelation of God in creation serves only to condemn mankind who, in their blindness and arrogance, have manifestly rejected it:
We must, therefore, make this distinction, that the manifestation of God by
which He makes His glory known among His creatures is sufficiently clear
as far as its own light is concerned. It is, however, inadequate on account of
our blindness. But we are not so blind that we can plead ignorance without
being convicted of perversity. We form a conception of divinity, and then
we conclude that we are under the necessity of worshipping such a Being,
whatever His character may be. Our judgment, however, fails here before it
discovers the nature or character of God. Hence the apostle in Heb. 11. 3
ascribes to faith the light by which a man can gain real knowledge from the
work of creation. He does so with good reason, for we are prevented by our
blindness from reaching our goal. And yet we see just enough to keep usfrom making excuse.³³
We are able to ‘form a conception of divinity’ and to ‘conclude that we are under the necessity of worshipping such a Being, whatever His character may be’. Apart from these few fragmentary and vague intuitions, however, our understanding fails. Calvin concludes that, ‘we are prevented by our blindness from reaching our goal’ even though we see enough ‘to keep us from making excuse’.³⁴ Switching from the perspective of the damned to that of the saved, Calvin goes on to argue that only those illuminated by the revelation in Scripture, through the mediation of the Holy Spirit, are able to make inferences about God from the structure of the natural world: ‘the apostle in
³³ Ibid. 1: 20, pp. 31–2.
³⁴ As John Beversluis argues, ‘Although Calvin is perfectly aware of the Pauline
thesis that ‘‘the invisible things of [God] from the creation of the world are clearly
seen, being understood by the things that are made,’’ he does not exploit this apostolic
utterance. … On the contrary, he unambiguously asserts that, in their present fallen
condition, human beings have no eyes to discern the revelation of God in Nature’;
John Beversluis, ‘Reforming the ‘‘Reformed’’ Objection to Natural Theology’, Faith
20 Protestant Critiques of Natural Reason Heb. 11. 3 ascribes to faith the light by which a man can gain real knowledge of creation’.³⁵
According to the redeemed perspective, which Calvin now assumes, ‘[n]o conception of God can be formed without including His eternity, power, wisdom, goodness, truth, righteousness, and mercy’. God’s eternity is said to be ‘evidenced by the fact He holds all things in His hand and makes all things to consist in Himself’. God’s wisdom is apparent ‘because He has arranged all things in perfect order’.³⁶ These conventional elements of the argument from design, which became so popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, only become apparent, Calvin insists, after scriptural revelation and through the supernatural illumination of the Holy Spirit. Such truths are not available to pagans and philosophers, who are fearfully aware of the existence and absolute dominion of God (sensus divinitatis), but cannot discern His essential attributes. The acknowledged weakness of the argument from design as a source of Christian knowledge is exposed when Calvin rehearses the empirical evidence for the divine attributes of Justice, Goodness, and Mercy. God’s ‘Justice’ is said to be apparent from the fact that God ‘punishes the guilty and defends the innocent’. His ‘Goodness’ is said to be evident ‘because there is no other cause for His creation of all things, nor can any other reason than His goodness itself induce Him to preserve them’. Finally, God’s ‘Mercy’ may be inferred from the fact that ‘He bears the perversity of men with so much patience’.³⁷ All of these truths about God may be inferred from the revelation in creation, Calvin argues, but only
after the faithful Christian has been enlightened by the revealed truths
contained within the Bible. In fact, when Calvin points to the attributes of God revealed by the creation, his vision is always mediated by this prior scriptural revelation. At no point does he suggest that natural theology can proceed independently of this scriptural revelation, nor does he accept that any substantive knowledge of God can be attained by those who are not illuminated by the Holy Spirit.
In his Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles (1552), Calvin argues that the ‘one rule of true godliness’ is that ‘believers cast away all
³⁵ Morgan, Godly Learning, 56. ³⁶ Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles to the Romans 1: 21. ³⁷ Ibid.
Protestant Critiques of Natural Reason
21 confidence in their natural powers, and submit themselves wholly to God’.³⁸ Noting the propensity of mankind to lapse ‘into various superstitions and depraved cults’, Calvin argues that ‘the examples of all periods of time teach how miserably blind are those, who are not enlightened by the Word of God’.³⁹ All certain knowledge of God is confined to the ‘Biblical Revelation in Jesus Christ’ because, as Calvin observes in the Institutes, ‘he is the one fit witness to himself, and is not known except through himself’.⁴⁰ Those who seek knowledge of God must become ‘disciples of scripture’, Calvin insists, and seek knowledge of ‘heavenly doctrine’ only within its pages:
Just as old or bleary-eyed men and those with weak vision, if you thrust
before them a most beautiful volume, even if they recognize it to be some sort
of writing, yet can scarcely construe two words, but with the aid of spectacles
will begin to read distinctly; so Scripture, gathering up the otherwise confused
knowledge of God in our minds, having dispersed our dullness, clearly showsus the true God.⁴¹
The clarity and vividness of the scriptural revelation is set against the ‘dimness’ and ‘confused knowledge’ of God provided by natural reason. The revelation in creation cannot of course contradict scrip- tural revelation (since both manifest the Word of God). Instead, the scriptural revelation corrects the blindness of our sinful perception by allowing the faithful to perceive the revelation in creation through the ‘spectacles’ of their faith.⁴² Edward Dowey suggests that the scriptural
³⁸ Calvin, Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, 14: 16; Calvin’s New Testament
Commentaries, iii, tr. John W. Fraser, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids, 1966). The first part of
this commentary was published in Latin in 1552, the second part appeared two yearslater.
³⁹ Calvin, Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, 14: 17, p. 12. ⁴⁰ Calvin, Institutes, I. 13. 21, p. 146. ⁴¹ Ibid. I. 6. 1, p. 70.
⁴² In book 1 of The Advancement of Learning (1605), Francis Bacon claimed that
the ‘schoolmen’ had ‘inclined to leave the oracle of God’s word and to vanish in the
mixture of their own inventions, so in the inquisition of nature they ever left the oracle
of God’s works and adored the deceiving and deformed images which the unequal
mirror of their own minds or a few received authors did represent unto them’. In
book 2, Bacon argued that ‘the mind of man is far from the nature of a clear and equal
glass, wherein the beams of things should reflect according to their true incidence;
nay, it is rather like an enchanted glass, full of superstition and imposture, if it be not
delivered and reduced’; quoted in Francis Bacon: The Major Works, ed. Brian Vickers(Oxford and New York, 1996), 142, 227.
22 Protestant Critiques of Natural Reason revelation ‘supplements’ the revelation in creation by connecting observed events in the natural world (available to all) to the will and creative acts of God (discernible only by the Elect).⁴³ Pointing to the orderliness and beauty of nature, empirical events open to believers and non-believers alike, the special revelation in Scripture supplements this natural knowledge of events by revealing them to be the visible effects of God’s Wisdom, Power, Goodness, and Justice. In order to understand the ‘mysteries of faith’, Calvin argues, ‘we must especially strive to become disentangled from our own reason, and devote and give ourselves entirely to the obedience of His word’.⁴⁴ Discussing Romans 4: 18, Calvin insists that ‘[t]here is nothing more inimical to faith than to bind understanding to sight, so that we seek the substance of our hope from what we see’.⁴⁵
Calvin’s use of sceptical arguments in his reflections on the uncer- tainty and blindness of natural reason, were not without precedent at the beginning of the sixteenth century. In The History of Scepti-
cism: From Savonarola to Bayle, R. H. Popkin discusses the revival
of Greek scepticism throughout the sixteenth century. Prior to the first printed edition of the Hypotyposes of Sextus Empiricus by Henri Estienne in 1562, there were a number of other sources of information about ancient scepticism. Discussions of academic and pyrrhonistic scepticism could be found in Cicero’s De Academica and De Natura
Deorum, Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers, as well
as in Lucian and Galen. Sceptical arguments were also rehearsed in the writings of anti-rational Muslim and Jewish authors such as Al-Ghazzali and Judah Helevi. The Latin word ‘scepticus’, which produced the French ‘sceptique’ and English ‘sceptic’, first appeared in a Latin translation of Diogenes from 1430, as well as in two ‘unidentifiable Latin translations of Sextus from a century earlier’.⁴⁶ According to Popkin, ‘[t]he extended discussions of scepticism in the
⁴³ Edward A. Dowey, The Knowledge of God in Calvin’s Theology (New York,1952), 50. ⁴⁴ Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles to the Romans, 3: 5, p. 62. ⁴⁵ Ibid. 4: 18, p. 96.
⁴⁶ R. H. Popkin, The History of Scepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle (Oxford,
2003), 17. Popkin is quoting from Charles B. Schmitt, Cicero Scepticus ( The Hague,
Protestant Critiques of Natural Reason
23 early sixteenth century, with the exception of that of Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola, all seem to be based on information in Cicero, Lucian, Diogenes Laertius, or Galen’.⁴⁷
Calvin could acknowledge and indeed affirm a profound scepticism concerning natural reason, without putting his own Biblical faith in doubt. In Book I, chapter 5, of the Institutes, Calvin relates the anecdote of Simonides from Cicero’s De Natura Deorum. He uses the story as a means of deflating the pretensions of natural reason, while simultaneously demonstrating the necessity of the scriptural revelation:
Some praise the reply of Simonides, who, asked by the tyrant Hiero what
God was, begged to be given a day to ponder. When on the following day
the tyrant asked the same question, he asked for two days more, and after
having frequently doubled the number of days, finally answered, ‘The longer
I consider this, the more obscure it seems to me’. He wisely indeed suspended
judgment on a subject so obscure to himself. Yet hence it appears that if men
were taught only by nature, they would hold to nothing certain or solid
or clear-cut, but would be so tied to confused principles as to worship anunknown God [my italics].⁴⁸
Because Simonides was ‘taught by nature alone’ and therefore deprived of the scriptural revelation, it was ‘sensible’ of him ‘to suspend judgment on a subject he found obscure’. Calvin advocates a form of mitigated scepticism in regard to the use of natural reason in matters of religion.
In his commentary on St Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians (1546), Calvin notes that even the Elect, guided as they are by the supernatural illumination of the Holy Spirit, are still incapable of fully fathoming God’s intentions for Man through study of the Bible or the book of nature:
[T]he mode of knowledge which we now have is appropriate to our imperfect
state, and what you might call our childhood; because we do not have a
clear insight into the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven, and we do
not enjoy the unclouded vision. In order to bring that out Paul uses yet
another comparison, viz. that the only way we see now is as in a mirror, and
⁴⁷ Popkin, History of Scepticism, 28. ⁴⁸ Calvin, Institutes I. 5. 12, p. 66.
24 Protestant Critiques of Natural Reason
therefore blurred. He conveys that indistinctiveness by the use of the word‘enigma’.⁴⁹
T H E DA R K E N E D M I R RO R : P ROV I D E N C E A N D P R E D E S T I NAT I O N
‘[T]he splendour of the divine countenance … , is for us like an inex- plicable labyrinth unless we are conducted into it by the thread of the Word.’⁵⁰ For Calvin, the effects of the Fall were clearly manifest in the course of human history. He employed typological tropes of engulf- ing waters in order to describe human society drowning in a ‘flood of iniquity’. The wicked threaten society with violence and misrule, while the perpetual fall of governments and the triumph of injustice and vice in the world present themselves as potent symbols of God’s enduring wrath and the ‘hiddenness’ of His providential purpose. When Calvin looked into history he saw that ‘everything is mixed up such that one can say nothing except that things are confused in this world, … that everything goes into confusion, that there is disorder so great that we are astonished’.⁵¹ In the historical sphere, as opposed to the ordered natural sphere, God remains entirely hidden from Mankind and ‘still allows things to be confused in the world’.⁵² This does not mean, of course, that God has abandoned human history, but only that a cloud has settled between His providential wisdom and our own fallen perception. According to Calvin, human history is disordered by sin, and our perception of history is distorted by sin.
Accompanying Calvin’s appreciation of the visible orderliness of the natural world was an apprehension, and indeed dread, about the ‘sheer enigma’ and ‘impenetrability’ of God’s providential role in history.⁵³ Calvin’s doctrine of providence, like that of the revelation
⁴⁹ Calvin, Commentary on the First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians,
1: 13, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, ix, tr. John W. Fraser (Grand Rapids,1960), 281.
⁵⁰ Calvin, Institutes, I. 6. 3, p. 73. ⁵¹ Calvin, Sermon on Job, 24: 19–25; CO xxxiv. 397–8. ⁵² Calvin, Sermon on Job, 5: 3–7; CO xxxiii. 221.
⁵³ ‘But the order, reason, end, and necessity of those things which happen for the
Protestant Critiques of Natural Reason
25 in creation, relies heavily on the ‘spectacles’ of faith to correct our ‘natural’ vision. For Calvin there is no immediate empirical evidence for the presence of design or purpose in the progress of history, indeed much of the available evidence points to an absence of design in the historical realm, and to the inscrutability and hiddenness of God’s will. Without the illumination of law and gospel, through faith, there is only an abyssal knowledge of nature and history:
And it is, indeed, true that in the law and the gospel are comprehended
mysteries which tower far above the reach of our senses. But since God
illumines the minds of his own with the spirit of discernment … for the
understanding of these mysteries which he has deigned to reveal by his Word,
now no abyss is here; rather, a way in which we ought to walk in safety, and a
lamp to guide our feet … , the light of life … , and the school of sure and clear
truth. Yet his wonderful method of governing the universe is rightly called an
abyss, because while it is hidden from us, we ought reverently to adore it.⁵⁴
Natural reason naturally balks at the revealed truths of scripture, truths which nonetheless ‘ought reverently to be adored’.⁵⁵ At no point is this fideistic disparity between reason and religion more apparent than in Calvin’s discussions of absolute double predestination. In his commentary on Romans 9: 19 (‘Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he still find fault? For who withstandeth his will?), Calvin admits that ‘the flesh rages’ when it learns of absolute double predestination.⁵⁶ Nor does he seek to evade the fact that we naturally impute an arbitrariness and caprice to the will of God on hearing of this stark Pauline doctrine: ‘[t]here are some, too, who allege that God is greatly dishonoured if such arbitrary power is bestowed on Him. But does their distaste make them better theologians than Paul?’⁵⁷ While Calvin admits that Paul does not explicitly refute the objections of the ‘ungodly’ with regard to this doctrine, he interprets Paul’s silence on the matter to mean that ‘God determines to deal with men as He pleases’. Calvin suggests that Paul could have produced arguments
opinion, those things which it is certain take place by God’s will, are in a sensefortuitous’; Calvin, Institutes, I. 16. 9, p. 208.
⁵⁴ Ibid. I. 17. 2, p. 213.
⁵⁵ For a full discussion of Calvin’s use of the terms ‘abyss’ and ‘labyrinth’, seeBouwsma, Calvin, 46–7.
⁵⁶ Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles to the Romans, 9: 19, p. 208.
26 Protestant Critiques of Natural Reason that would have vindicated God’s Justice, but he decided instead to remain silent because he knew ‘they would not have been understood’. Calvin bifurcates human and divine concepts of Justice, Mercy, and Goodness, in order to maintain God’s transcendent perfections while admitting that they do not clearly intersect with our own ‘creaturely’ notions:
In short, the apostle did not introduce into his discussion what he could have
said, but what our ignorance would accept. Conceited men are resentful,
because, in admitting that men are rejected or chosen by the secret counsel
of God, Paul offers no explanation, as though the Spirit of God were silent
for want of reason, and does not rather warn us by His silence—a mystery
which our minds do not comprehend, but which we ought to adore with
reverence. In this way he curbs the perversity of human curiosity. Let us
know, therefore, that God refrains from speaking to us for no other reason
than that He sees that His boundless wisdom cannot be comprehended in
our small measure. Thus having pity on our frailty, He summons us tomoderation and sobriety.⁵⁸
Attached to this process of showing God’s essential transcendence of every human concept is an obvious danger: the analogy between human reason, the natural world, and the nature of God—established in the Johannine Prologue—seems to break down irrevocably. If there is no correspondence established between human and divine concepts of Justice, for instance, then there seems to be no way in which to ascend to knowledge of God through the investiga- tion of His creation. This in turn implies that there can be no unequivocal means of describing God, since His attributes are utterly remote from our own. Discussing Romans 11: 33–6 (‘O the depth
of the riches both of his wisdom and the knowledge of God!’), Calvin
After having spoken out of the Word and Spirit of the Lord, and overcome at
last by the sublimity of so great a mystery, Paul can do nothing but wonder
and exclaim that the riches of the wisdom of God are too deep for our reason
to be able to penetrate them. If, therefore, we enter at any time on a discourse
concerning the eternal counsels of God, we must always restrain both our
language and manner of thinking, so that when we have spoken soberly
and within the limits of the Word of God, our argument may finally end
Protestant Critiques of Natural Reason
in an expression of astonishment. … Let us then learn not to make inquiries
concerning the Lord, except so far as He has revealed them by Scripture [myitalics].⁵⁹
Revelation seems to amount to the acceptance of a doctrine that the believer can neither explain nor comprehend, and which places an abyss between our understanding and that of God; even to speculate about doctrines of faith using reason alone is, Calvin argues, to ‘enter a labyrinth from which retreat will not be easy’.
C A LV I N A N D T H E O LO G I C A L VO LU N TA R I S M Reviewing the work of ‘the most eminent Schoolmen, Thomas Aquinas, Scotus, and Occam’, in his Lectures on the History of Philoso-
phy (1819), Coleridge was ‘persuaded that to the Scholastic philosophy
the Reformation is attributable’.⁶⁰ Both Reardon and McGrath, in part, agree, tracing the source of Calvin’s thinking concerning divine omnipotence back to the late medieval theological voluntarism of Duns Scotus and William of Ockham.⁶¹ The theological concerns which motivated late medieval voluntarists can be usefully illustrated by a brief consideration of the views of Scotus and Ockham on the relationship between the moral and meritorious value of human actions.⁶² McGrath contrasts the theological assumptions of volun- tarists—who posited an arbitrary connection between the moral and meritorious aspects of a human act—with those who adopted an ‘intellectualist’ approach to the same questions of justification and salvation:
⁵⁹ Ibid. 11: 33, p. 259.
⁶⁰ Coleridge, Lectures 1818–1819 on the History of Philosophy, ed. J. R. de J. Jackson,
Bollingen Series, 8 (London and Princeton, 1999), 466–7; see also his Table Talk for
⁶¹ McGrath argues ‘[t]he pervasiveness of such a voluntarism, both in ethics
and theology, suggests an important degree of continuity between early Reformed
theology and the late medieval tradition, in that the early Reformed theology appears to
demonstrate such a voluntarism’. Alister McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction(Oxford, 1997), 85.
⁶² For a brief historical account of theological voluntarism see Jan W. Wojcik,
28 Protestant Critiques of Natural Reason
The early Dominican and Franciscan schools adopted an intellectualist
approach to the relation of the moral and meritorious realms, recognizing
a direct correlation between the moral and the meritorious value of an act,
the transition between the two being effected by grace or charity. The use of
terms such as ‘aequiparari’, ‘associatio’, ‘comparabilis’ and ‘proportionalis’
in the discussion of this question indicates how initially the meritorious
value of an act was understood to be directly correlated with its moral value:
the divine intellect recognizes the latter, and the divine will thence effects
the former. … The origins of the voluntarist position may be traced to Duns
Scotus and William of Ockham, who emphasized the radical discontinuity
between the moral and meritorious value of an act, the latter being understoodto rest entirely upon an uncoerced decision of the divine will.⁶³
According to the ‘intellectualist approach’ to questions of merit, God ‘recognizes’ the intrinsic moral quality of certain human acts and effectively endorses them. This suggests certain external constraints upon God’s freedom to act, beyond the principle of non-contradiction recognized by voluntarists like Ockham, since it implies that God is obliged to recognize and reward the intrinsic moral value of certain human actions. Voluntarists, on the other hand, argued for a ‘radical discontinuity’ between the moral and the meritorious value of an act (the latter based solely on the extrinsic denomination of divine acceptance). An act is meritorious, voluntarist theologians argued, solely because God has determined that such an act shall be considered meritorious. As McGrath argues, ‘the decision as to what may be regarded as meritorious or demeritorious lies solely within the orbit of the divine will’.⁶⁴ God has no external ontological constraints on the exercise of His will, nor is He bound by any internal necessity to ‘recognize’ or ‘accept’ acts as meritorious beyond those that he has freely ordained to be meritorious. God cannot be constrained by ‘created principles of morality’, since this would clearly violate His absolute freedom and omnipotence. By placing so much emphasis on the divine attribute of Omnipotence, as opposed to His other attributes of Justice, Wisdom, and Mercy, the voluntarists were exposed to the charge that they had turned God into an arbitrary tyrant, who exercises His will without reason or restraint.
⁶³ A. McGrath, The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation (Oxford,1987), 84.
Protestant Critiques of Natural Reason
29 Although Ockham does not claim that the moral and meritorious value of an act is necessarily discontinuous, he does claim that there are no ontological constraints (either ‘internal or ‘external’) upon the will of God, which would force Him to ‘endorse’ actions because they conform to a ‘creaturely’ paradigm of morality. This suggests a radical, even unbridgeable gulf between the inscrutable attributes of God, and our own contingent principles of justice, morality, and knowledge. Although God is necessarily Just, Benevolent, and Wise in His dealings with mankind, there is no guarantee of ‘compatibility’ or ‘proportion’ between these divine attributes and their created counterparts.
In the Institutes, Calvin would not ‘advocate the fiction of ‘‘abso- lute might’’ ’, and he strenuously denied that God is ever arbitrary or capricious in His actions and dealings with mankind.⁶⁵ Calvin insisted that God’s acts are always a manifestation of His essential nature, and are thus as much an expression of His Wisdom and Goodness, as they are of His Power. However, while God is always Just, Wise, and Reasonable in his actions, those essential attributes are often inaccessible to human reason, Calvin argued. As was noted in his exegesis of Romans, Calvin refers to a Reason above human reason, and a Mercy above human mercy when theological doctrine is in open conflict with common sense; but this expedient, while preserving God’s essential attributes, only underscores an essential incompatibility and discontinuity between natural and supernatural realms. In fact, Calvin’s voluntarism is remarkably similar to those of the ‘Schoolmen’ he criticizes: ‘The predestination of God is truly a labyrinth from which the mind of man is wholly incapable of extricat- ing itself. … God determines to deal with men as He pleases. Yet men rise up in their wrath to contend with Him, but to no avail, because He assigns whatever fate He pleases to His creatures by His own right.’⁶⁶
In his discussions of double predestination, Calvin posits an insur- mountable gulf in moral understanding between God and His creatures, which has potentially disastrous metaphysical and con- ceptual consequences. After all, what can God’s Justice, Goodness, and Wisdom mean if human standards of rationality and virtue ⁶⁵ Calvin, Institutes, III. 23. 2, p. 950 n. 6.
30 Protestant Critiques of Natural Reason (determined by our blinded and corrupt faculty of reason) are not applicable? Calvin’s response is to suggest that that the condition of anxiety and doubt any rational person is liable to experience on hearing of this unbridgeable divide between the inscrutable will of God and our creaturely standards of equity and justice, is a symptom of the sure fact that God has abandoned us: ‘But he that doubteth is
condemned. Paul uses a single well-chosen word to express the state
of mind which wavers and is uncertain of the necessary course of action’. The Elect, on the other hand, have an unswerving conviction in their hearts as God’s chosen remnant:
The word faith here means a constant persuasion of mind and an unshaken
certainty—and not just any certainty, but that which is derived from the truth
of God. Confusion, therefore, and uncertainty spoil our actions, however
fair they may otherwise be. … The first principle, therefore, of upright living,
if our minds are not to be in continual uncertainty, is to rest with confidenceon the Word of God, and go wherever it calls us.⁶⁷
Ockham made a distinction between the ‘two powers’ of God: His absolute power (potentia absoluta) and His ordained power (potentia ordinata). According to voluntarist theologians, God was hypothetically free, prior to the actual creation, to have created anything he wanted so long as He did not violate the law of non- contradiction. From an initial set of unactualized possibilities, God chose to actualize a subset of those possibilities in the creation of the world. While God was entirely free to create any possible world, once He had created the actual world, He was under a self- imposed obligation to respect His creation. God therefore chooses to act in an absolutely reliable manner. This ‘covenantal’ account of causality retains the contingency of the created world in relation to God’s absolute power, while preserving the future reliability of the creation.⁶⁸ This, however, threatens the principle of symbolism motivating natural theology. If the natural world is an arbitrary expression of the otherwise inscrutable attributes of God, then it seems impossible that one should be able to ascend to knowledge of God through its study. Natural reason is still perhaps a mir- ror of ‘nature’ (as ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ aspects of the one
Protestant Critiques of Natural Reason
31 creation), but neither nature nor human reason necessarily mirrors the hidden and transcendent attributes of God. The consequences for natural theology of this strict bifurcation between the Cre- ator and His creation, was pointedly summarized by the late Amos Funkenstein:
The Terminists could not but object to any attempt to see God symbolized
in nature because the order of nature was, in their eyes, so utterly contingent
upon God’s will. Not only was the physical order of things in relation to
each other (ordo ad invicem) changeable at any time through God’s absolute
power (de potentia Dei absoluta), even the order of salvation was in no
way necessary. … Of the many logically possible universes, ours is neither the
best nor otherwise the product of a particular, discernible aim representative,
thereby, of God’s image. The Nominalists had to reject the doctrine of analogy
because they had already desymbolized the universe (as well as history)almost completely [my italics].⁶⁹
In denying that the universe was ‘the product of a particular, dis- cernible aim representative, thereby, of God’s image’, the Nominalists undermined the metaphysical foundations of natural theology. If the physical universe clearly manifests only the omnipotent will of God—rather than exemplifying His Wisdom or Goodness in a com- prehensible manner—then natural reason becomes a redundant tool in matters of religious knowledge. If the physical universe is just one arbitrary and contingent expression of God’s will, then its study can yield no reliable knowledge of its creator.⁷⁰
⁶⁹ Amos Funkenstein, Theology and the Scientific Imagination: From the MiddleAges to the Seventeenth Century (Princeton, 1986), 57–8.
⁷⁰ Morgan argues that both Luther and Calvin’s theology were influenced by
late medieval nominalism, See Morgan, Godly Learning, 41. See also Margaret
J. Osler, ‘The Intellectual Sources of Robert Boyle’s Philosophy of Nature: Gassendi’s
Voluntarism and Boyle’s Physico-Theological Project’, in R. Kroll, R. Ashcraft,
and P. Zagorin (eds.), Philosophy, Science and Religion in England 1640–1700,
(Cambridge, 1992), 180; Bouwsma, Calvin, 107; Alfred J. Freddoso, ‘Ockham on
Faith and Reason’, Paul Vincent Spade (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Ock-
ham (Cambridge, 1999), 327–49; Alan Charles Kors, ‘Scepticism and the Problem
of Atheism in Early-Modern France’, Richard H. Popkin and Ardo Vanderjagt
(eds.), Scepticism and Irreligion in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Leiden,
1930), 185–215; Gary B. Deason, ‘Reformation Theology and the Mechanistic Con-
ception of Nature’, in David C. Lindberg and Ronald Numbers (eds.), God and
Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science (Berkeley,
32 Protestant Critiques of Natural Reason RO B E RT B OY L E : R E A S O N A N D T H E O LO G I C A L
VO LU N TA R I S M Theological voluntarism is not the doctrinal preserve of Protes- tantism. Many profoundly influential Catholic intellectuals (such as Ren´e Descartes, 1596–1650) were theological voluntarists; and indeed, one of the principal influences on Boyle’s voluntarism and corpuscularianism were the writings of the Catholic priest Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655).⁷¹ Even so, there are strong grounds for argu- ing that Boyle’s theological voluntarism and epistemological piety were at least partly influenced (though not uncritically) by Calvinist theology.⁷² In Robert Boyle and the Limits of Reason, Jan Wojkic iden- tifies at least three separate strains of theological voluntarism in the seventeenth century, the most extreme of which Boyle adopted.⁷³ In
Some Considerations about the Reconcileableness of Reason and Religion
(1675), Boyle describes the ‘arbitrariness’ of the relationship between God and His creation:
If we consider God as the Author of the Universe, and the free Establisher
of the Laws of Motion, whose general Concourse is necessary to the Con-
servation and Efficacy of every particular Physical Agent, we cannot but
acknowledge, that by with-holding his Concourse or changing the Laws of
Motion, which depend perfectly upon his Will, he may invalidate most, ifnot all, the Axioms and Theorems of Natural Philosophy.⁷⁴
Boyle does not suggest that God will, or must, change ‘these laws of motion’, only that God may, if He so wishes, do so. That Boyle should countenance even the possibility of fundamental changes being made to the ‘laws of motion’ after the creation of the universe, demonstrates
⁷¹ See Osler, ‘Intellectual Sources’, 180. ⁷² See Wojcik, Robert Boyle, 201–4.
⁷³ Wojcik, ‘Boyle’s Voluntarism and the Limits of Reason’, ibid. 189–211. See
also Wojcik, ‘The Theological Context of Boyle’s Things Above Reason’, in Michael
Hunter (ed.), Robert Boyle Reconsidered (Cambridge, 1994), 139–52.
⁷⁴ Robert Boyle, Some Considerations about the Reconcileableness of Reason and
Religion (1675), in M. Hunter and E. B. Davis (eds.), Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols.(London, 1999–) viii. 251–2 (hereafter referred to as Works).
Protestant Critiques of Natural Reason
33 just how far removed his position is from the ‘covenantal’ account of divine causality found in the writings of William of Ockham.⁷⁵
Boyle’s voluntarism had a profound effect upon his view of the extent and character of knowledge derived by natural reason. Since God may, at any time, radically alter the structure of the physical universe, the natural philosopher can only ever secure ‘provisional conclusions’ from its study. These ‘collected truths’ patiently ‘gath- ered from the settled Phaenomena of Nature’ only remain true, Boyle argues, ‘where the irresistible power of God, or some other supernatural
Agent is not interpos’d to alter the course of Nature’.⁷⁶ The ‘gradual’
‘emergent’, or ‘physical propositions’ of natural philosophy remain true, therefore, only for as long as the laws of physics remain true, and these ‘depend perfectly’ on God’s will. In Boyle’s account, the physical universe is an entirely contingent expression of God’s will, and potentially liable to any number of radical structural revisions. Conclusions in natural philosophy are therefore fallible, provisional, and constitutionally uncertain. From a pious respect for the omnipo- tence and transcendence of God, Boyle denied any essential link between the visible universe and the hidden attributes of its author. Just as God freely instituted the properties of the natural world with- out internal or external constraints, so He also freely instituted the character and limits of human reason. Since the properties of matter might easily transcend the ordained limits of human reason, Boyle distinguished between intelligible explanations in natural philoso- phy—commensurate with finite human intellects, and constantly liable to revision—and ‘metaphysical’ truths about the Cause and structure of the universe, known only to God as their author:
[W]e are really but created and finite Beings (and that probably of none of
the highest orders of intellectual Creatures) and we come into the world, but
such, as it pleased the Almighty and most/free Author of our Nature to make
us. … It seems then not therefore unreasonable to think, both that God has
made our faculties so limited, that in our present mortal condition there
⁷⁵ According to Wojcik, Boyle maintained that ‘God, at the time of creation, was
entirely free to create any world whatsoever, and further, that even after the creation
God remained utterly free to intervene in the world he had created at any time hemight choose to do so’. Wojcik, Robert Boyle, 196.
⁷⁶ Boyle, Advices in judging of Things above Reason (1681), Works, ix. 415.
34 Protestant Critiques of Natural Reason
should be some Object/beyond the comprehension of our Intellects (that is)
that some of his creatures should not be able perfectly to understand some
others, & yet that he has given us light enough to perceive that we cannotattain a clear and full knowledge of them.⁷⁷
In his Advices in Judging of Things Said to Transcend Reason (1681), Boyle again distinguished between causal explanations of natural phenomena (which are rationally intelligible to our limited human intellects) and the actual constitution and operations of the universe (known only to God or ‘angelical intellects’). ‘I see no necessity, That Intelligibility to a humane Understanding, should be necessary to the Truth or Existence of a thing’, Boyle argues.⁷⁸ This gap between the metaphysical Cause of the operations of matter and motion in the universe (the transcendent Will and Wisdom of God), and hypothetical explanations of these same phenomena (provided by natural philosophers) again threatens to erase that analogical harmony between mind, world, and God that is posited by the Logos theme in the Johannine Prologue:
[W]e are not Authors of our own nature; for aught we know it may be true,
and all the experience we have hitherto had, leads us to think it is true,
that the measures suggested to us either by sensations, the results of sensible
observation, or the other instruments of knowledge, are such as fully reach
but to finite things or Beings, and therefore are not safely applicable to others.
And divers of those very Principles that we think very general, may be (if I
may so speak) but gradual notions of truth, and but limited and respective,not absolute and universal.⁷⁹
While Boyle carefully distinguished between the explanatory force and the metaphysical truth of physical ‘hypotheses’ in natural phi- losophy, he also readily admitted that the experimental natural philosopher is often unable to provide even an intelligible explana- tion for certain empirical observations. In A Discourse of Things Above
Reason (1681), Boyle assigns such phenomena (unsurprisingly) to the
category of the ‘inexplicable’. From the observed presence of such ‘inexplicable’ phenomena, the natural philosopher is at least entitled to infer the existence of an insensible cause, even though the character
⁷⁷ Boyle, A Discourse of Things Above Reason (1681), Works, ix. 370–1.
Protestant Critiques of Natural Reason
35 and mode of operating of any such cause remains unknown, ‘though we cannot deny that they are, yet we cannot clearly and satisfacto- rily conceive, how they can be such as we acknowledge they are’.⁸⁰ ‘Unsociable’ truths are those that seem ‘not reconcileable with some very manifest, or at least acknowledged Truths’; for instance, ‘how a certain fore-knowledge can be had of contingent things, and such as depend upon the free will of man’. Finally, ‘Incomprehensible’ truths are those ‘whose Nature is not distinctly and/adequately comprehen- sible by us: To which sort perhaps we may refer all those intellectual Beings … as are by nature of a higher order than humane Souls’.⁸¹
One of Boyle’s most significant methodological strictures on intel- ligible explanations in natural philosophy is that they must involve only ‘natural agents’ and be ‘explicated by the ordinary course of Nature’.⁸² Boyle did not believe that observed phenomena could be fully explained in terms of the operations of immanent principles in the natural world; nonetheless he considered it a point of epistemo- logical piety that natural philosophers should not concern themselves with ‘what God can do’, but proceed empirically in terms of what ‘can be done by Natural Agents’.⁸³ It is because of the freely ordained fini- tude and frailty of the human understanding that philosophers should not aspire in their scientific explanations to causes ‘elevated above the sphere of nature’. Boyle explicitly connects this methodological conservatism in natural philosophy with a religious conviction of the divinely ordained limits of our fallen natural reason:
We must not suppose, that at least in our present state, our reason and other
faculties are given to us, to reach all things that are knowable, even as to
corporeal creatures; but only things, that are in such a sphere of intelligibility,
that they are proportioned to our present faculties, and convenient for ournotice in our present state and condition.⁸⁴
In his reflections on the limits of human reason, Boyle went as far as to argue that even the most fundamental axioms of logic
⁸⁰ Ibid. 367. ⁸¹ Ibid.
⁸² Boyle, A Defence of the Doctrine Touching the Spring and Weight of the Air (1662),Works, iii. 48.
⁸⁴ Boyle, An Appendix to the First Part of the Christian Virtuoso (1744), Works, xii.
36 Protestant Critiques of Natural Reason may be considered to be merely contingent from the perspective of God’s omnipotent will. In A Discourse of Things Above Reason, Boyle suggested that
God intended the mind of Man but of a limited Capacity, his Understanding
is so constituted that the inbred or easily acquir’d Ideas and primitive
Axioms wherewith it is furnished … do not extend to all knowable Objects
whatsoever; but reach only to such as … God thought fit to allow our minds
in their present (and perchance laps’d) Condition, or state of Union withtheir mortal bodies.⁸⁵
Boyle also rejected the ‘conceited’ idea that God had constructed the universe in such a way as to be intelligible to finite human intellects. In the posthumously published: An Appendix to the First Part of the
Christian Virtuoso (1744), Boyle argues:
I fear, we men have too good a conceit of ourselves, when we think, that no
such thing can have an existence, or at least have a nature or being, as we are
not able to comprehend. For if we believe God to be the author of things, it
is rational to conceive, that he may have made them commensurate, rather
to his own designs in them, than to the notions we men may best be able to
frame of them. … [T]he world itself was first made before the contemplator
of it, man: whence we may learn, that the author of nature consulted not,
in the production of things, with human capacities; but first made things
in such manner, as he was pleased to think fit, and afterwards left human
understandings to speculate as well as they could upon those corporeal, aswell as other things.⁸⁶
In A Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature (1686), Boyle chose to emphasize the ‘probationary’ condition of human knowledge and connects this philosophical piety to the dan- gers of idolatry. ‘[T]he looking upon merely corporeal and oftentimes inanimate things as if they were endowed with life, sense and under- standing, and the ascribing to nature and some other beings (whether real or imaginary) things that belong but to God’, Boyle writes, ‘have been some (if not the chief) of the grand causes of the polytheism and idolatry of the Gentiles’.⁸⁷ It is idolatrous, Boyle suggests, to argue that
⁸⁵ Boyle, Discourse, Works, ix. 390. ⁸⁶ Boyle, An Appendix, Works, xii. 397–8
⁸⁷ Boyle, A Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature (1686), ed.
Protestant Critiques of Natural Reason
37 God’s intentions in creating the world must be entirely conformable to human wisdom, or answer human ends:
God having an understanding infinitely superior to that of man in extent,
clearness and other excellencies, he may rationally be supposed to have framed
so great and admirable an automaton as the world, and the subordinate
engines comprised in it, for several ends and purposes, some of them relating
chiefly to his corporeal and others to his rational creatures; of which ends he
has vouchsafed to make some discoverable to our dim reason, but others are
probably not to be penetrated by it but lie concealed in the deep abyss of hisunfathomable wisdom.⁸⁸
When Boyle speaks as a ‘divine’, rather than as a ‘philosopher’, he is more than happy to remark upon the beauty, order, and artifice of the natural world, and to proclaim in no uncertain terms that God does plainly ‘witness’ Himself in the creation. However, developing the conventional description of the natural world as the ‘book of nature’, Boyle is careful to distinguish between the legible, partly legible, and illegible aspects of this divine text, and to maintain that those aspects, which are ‘plainly’ comprehensible, are modes of divine accommodation to human frailty rather than metaphysical revelations of God’s essence. Furthermore, Boyle will not countenance any suggestion that God is ‘immanent’ within His creation, or that the ‘language’ of nature is anything more than a contingent expression of the divine Will:
As if we suppose an excellent letter about several subjects and to different
purposes, whereof some parts were written in plain characters, others in
ciphers, beside a third sort of clauses wherein both kinds of writing were
variously mixed, to be heedfully perused by a very intelligent person … [,]
it is rational as well as equitable in him to conclude that the passages or
clauses of the third sort, if any of them seem insignificant or even to make
an incongruous sense, do it because of the illegible words; and that both
these passages and those written altogether in ciphers would be found no less
worthy than the plainest part of the epistle, if the particular purposes they
were designed for were as clearly discernible by the reader … by this way (I
say) of managing things, the most wise author of them does both gratify ourunderstandings and make us sensible of the imperfection of them.⁸⁹
38 Protestant Critiques of Natural Reason In the Christian Virtuoso (1690), Boyle defends ‘being addicted to
Experimental Philosophy’ from the charge of irreligion, by arguing
that to ‘a man of a well-dispos’d mind … and inclin’d to make pious applications of the Truths he discovers’, the experimental philosophy, ‘will furnish him with weighty and uncommon/Motives, to conclude such [religious] Sentiments to be highly rational and just’.⁹⁰ He goes on to argue that an ‘Experimentarian’ is naturally susceptible to the ‘reception of Reveal’d Religion’ because ‘an Accustomance of endeavouring to give Clear Explications of the Phaenomena of Nature … does insensibly work in him a great and ingenuous Modesty of Mind’. This piety, or modesty, means that the natural philosopher ‘will be very unapt to take, for the adaequate Standard/of Truth, a thing so Imperfectly inform’d, and Narrowly limited, as his mere or abstracted Reason’. He concludes by asserting that, ‘[t]his Reason, furnish’d with no other Notices than it can supply it self with, is so narrow and deceitful a Thing, that He that seeks for Knowledge only within Himself, shall be sure to be quite Ignorant of far the greatest part of Things, and will scarce escape/being Mistaken about a good part of Those he thinks he knows’.⁹¹
How can we explain the fact that while Boyle can confidently engage in natural theology, he simultaneously stresses the weakness, blindness, and ‘tendency to error’ that he believed was innate in human reason? Why is it that experimental philosophy augments or supplements his knowledge of God, while those ‘infidels’ who practise the same experimental philosophy find that it has entirely severed them from an understanding of God? I would suggest that Boyle considers himself to be among the Elect; his reason is ‘regenerate’ and guided by a scriptural faith. It is because his mind is ‘pious’, ‘modest’, and ‘well dispos’d’ to God that he is able to read His handwriting in nature, and it is because of the ‘infidel’s’ immodesty, sensuality, and corruption that, historically, they have been unable to read that same divine language in nature:
For most of these [atheists] do as little understand the Mysteries of Nature,
as believe those of Christianity; and of divers of them it may be truly said,
that their Sensuality, and Lusts, and Passions, darken’d and seduc’d their
Protestant Critiques of Natural Reason
Intellects. Their Immorality was the Original Cause of their Infidelity; nor
were they led by Philosophy to Irreligion, but got and perverted some
smattering of Philosophy, to countenance the Irreligious Principles, they
brought with them to the Study of it. … Twill not be difficult to apply these
Reflections to our present purpose; since there are several passages in the
Scripture that sufficiently declare, … that Multitudes persist in a CriminalInfidelity, out of an overweening Conceit of their own Knowledge.⁹²
Gary Deason argues that Boyle’s voluntarism was specifically influ- enced by Calvinist theology.⁹³ Wojcik, while more circumspect, also suggests that the ‘Reformation’s emphasis on God’s absolute power contributed at least to some extent to the voluntarism of such thinkers as Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton’.⁹⁴ She also suggests that, in his views on the limits of natural reason (particularly with respect to judgments on the content of revelation), Boyle ‘aligned himself with what was predominantly (though not exclusively) a nonconformist position, even at the risk of leaving himself open to charges of enthu- siasm’.⁹⁵ This should serve, she concludes, to revise a standard picture of Boyle as being an ‘orthodox’ Anglican and latitudinarian.⁹⁶ ⁹² Ibid. 294, 324.
⁹³ See Deason, ‘Reformation Theology and the Mechanistic Conception of Nature’,
in D. C. Lindberg and R. L. Numbers (eds.), God and Nature (Berkeley, CA, 1986),180.
⁹⁴ Wojcik, Robert Boyle, 210.
⁹⁵ Joseph Glanvill, the latitudinarian divine, criticized the Puritans on the grounds
that, having declared the weakness and corruption of natural reason, they were unable
to mobilize an effective rational defense of scriptural doctrines to counter the threat
of Socinianism. Glanvill noted that ‘’tis from the Pulpit, Religion hath received those
wounds through the sides of Reason’. He went on to criticize those clergymen who ‘set
up a loud cry against Reason … under the misapplied names of Vain Philosophy, Carnal
Reasoning, and the Wisdom of this World’. Joseph Glanvill, OŴOY PH KEIA;
or, A Seasonable Recommendation, and Defence of Reason, in the Affairs of Religion;
Against infidelity, Scepticism, and Fanaticism of all sorts (London, 1670), 2; quoted inWojcik, Robert Boyle, 64–5.
⁹⁶ See Wojcik, ‘Anglicans and Puritans’, Robert Boyle, 37–41. On latitudinarianism
in the 17th cent. see Joseph M. Levine, ‘Latitudinarianism, Neoplatonists, and the
Ancient Wisdom’, in Kroll et al., Philosophy, Science and Religion in England, 85–105;
John Marshall, ‘John Locke and Latitudinarianism’, ibid. 253–74. See also Alan
Gabbey, ‘ ‘‘A Disease Incurable’’: Scepticism and the Cambridge Platonists’, in R. H.
Popkin and A. Vanderjagt (eds.), Scepticism and Irreligion in the Seventeenth and Eigh-
teenth Centuries (Leiden, 1993), 71–91. For a general overview of latitudinarianism
and liberal Anglicanism in the 17th and 18th cents., see Paul Avis, Anglicanism and the
40 Protestant Critiques of Natural Reason Boyle’s philosophical scepticism, and his belief in the divinely ordained limits on the human understanding, suggests the ‘modesty’ and ‘piety’ of his outlook both as an experimental philosopher in the Baconian tradition and as a lay ‘divine’ in the Calvinist or Puritan tradition. However, his confident engagement in natural theology, and his faith in the divine legibility of the created order, clearly supports the validity of interpretations that characterize Boyle as a latitudinarian Anglican. I would argue that these two apparently ‘unsociable’ truths about Boyle’s outlook are in fact reconcilable, and represent an authentic and integrated expression of the Calvinist inheritance. John Morgan suggests that:
‘Regenerate reason’, to puritans, meant the restoration of ‘right reason’, that
is, reason in proper control over erratic and perverted will. It was crucial
that the first step had to be taken by the Spirit, in instilling the first ounce
of faith. But then, once man had been first invigorated (though not, of
course, fully restored), he could apply his reason to the search for greater
assurance through discerning and fulfilling the tasks as laid down in Scripture.
Thus could puritans of ‘obvious salvation’, such as the learned divines of
the universities, both rely increasingly in practice on their own reason for
particular casuistical problems, and yet denounce in the very strongest terms
any general reliance by the (probably largely unsaved) commonality on the
supernatural powers of reason. The paradoxical halves of this one doctrine
at once protected the irrational core of a Pauline view of Christian existenceand the status of ministers as rational interpreters of the Word.⁹⁷
It is this paradoxical combination of ‘pious’ epistemological scep- ticism with the dogmatic conviction provided by divine Election, which allows Boyle at once to engage in and disparage natural theolo- gy. The fact that Boyle had earnestly strived to reconcile his Christian beliefs with the new experimental philosophy, led Coleridge to place him, with Shakespeare and Milton, among ‘the great living-dead men of our isle’.⁹⁸ In An Answer to ‘A Letter to Edward Long Fox, M.D’ (1795?), Coleridge referred to the ‘patient wisdom of the experimental philosophy’, describing Boyle and Newton as ‘the two great masters
88–104. Morgan discusses the difficulties surrounding definitions of ‘Anglicanism’and ‘Puritanism’ in the 16th and 17th cents.; see Morgan, Godly Learning, 10–22.
⁹⁷ Morgan, Godly Reason, 56.
⁹⁸ CN iii. 3270 (1808). See T. H. Levere, Poetry Realised in Nature: Samuel Taylor
Protestant Critiques of Natural Reason
41 of the philosophy’.⁹⁹ In Aids to Reflection, Coleridge described him as ‘the great and pious Boyle’. This deferential statement follows a discussion of predestination, in which Coleridge asserts that Man ‘is a fallen creature, essentially diseased’.¹⁰⁰
LO C K E ’ S ‘ E PI S T E M O LO G I C A L PI E T Y ’ One of the first times Coleridge invokes Locke’s name is in a letter to John Thelwall on 17 December 1796. Trying to persuade Thelwall of the philosophical respectability of the Christian religion, Coleridge states: ‘this Religion was believed by Newton, Locke, & Hartley, after intense investigation, which in each has been preceded by unbelief.—This does not prove its truth; but it should save it’s followers from contempt.’ While Locke and Newton, at this point at least, are considered to be philosophical allies in defence of the Christian religion, Coleridge’s attitude to Lockean empiricism and the experimental philosophy was more often defensive or ambivalent. In a celebrated letter to Thomas Poole written on 16 October 1797, he reflected upon the effects of his early reading of ‘Faery Tales, Genii &c &c’ by whose ministry his ‘mind had been habituated to the
Vast’. This imaginative freedom is contrasted to the kind of piecemeal
knowledge acquired by ‘Experimentalists’:
Those who have been led to the same truths step by step thro’ the constant
testimony of their senses, seem to me to want a sense which I possess—They
contemplate nothing but parts—and all parts are necessarily little—and the
Universe to them is but a mass of little things.—It is true, that the mind
may become credulous & prone to Superstition by the former method—but
are not the Experimentalists credulous even to madness in believing any
absurdity, rather than believe the grandest truths, if they have not thetestimony of their own senses in their favor?¹⁰¹
⁹⁹ Coleridge, An Answer to ‘A Letter to Edward Long Fox, M.D’ (1795?), in Lectures
1795 On Politics and Religion, ed. Lewis Patton and Peter Mann, Bollingen Series, 1(Princeton, 1971), 328.
¹⁰⁰ Coleridge, Aids to Reflection, 140.
¹⁰¹ Coleridge, Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. E. L. Griggs 6 vols.
42 Protestant Critiques of Natural Reason While this letter seems to announce an unequivocal rejection of the experimental philosophy, in so far as it concerns itself only with ‘parts’ and a ‘mass of little things’, Coleridge used exactly the same language to describe his own intellectual predicament in a letter to Thelwall written two days before:
[A]ll things appear little—all knowledge, that can be acquired, child’s
play—the universe itself—what but an immense heap of little things?—I
can contemplate nothing but parts, & parts are all little —!—My mind
feels as if it ached to behold & know something great —something one
& indivisible —and it is only in the faith of this that rocks or waterfalls,
mountains or caverns give me the sense of sublimity or majesty—but in thisfaith all things counterfeit infinity! ¹⁰²
Coleridge seems to ‘want’ precisely the same ‘sense’, which he claims to possess in his next letter to Poole, written only two days later. Coleridge does not claim that his mind does ‘behold & know something great’, but only that it ‘ached’ to do so.
In another letter to Poole written on 23 March 1801, discussing the ‘philosophical letters’ he had recently sent to Josiah Wedgwood, Coleridge argues that Locke’s contemporary reputation rested on doc- trines, particularly the rejection of innate Ideas, that had been either intentionally plagiarized from Descartes, or that had at least been antecedently postulated within the Cartesian philosophy. ‘The whole of Locke’s system’, Coleridge writes, ‘pre-existed in the writings of Des Cartes, in a far more pure, elegant & delightful form.—Be not afraid, that I shall join the party of the Little-ists.’ It is in this letter that Col- eridge famously argued that the ‘Souls of 500 Sir Isaac Newtons would go to the making up of a Shakspere or a Milton’, before he observed:
Newton was a mere materialist—Mind in his system is always passive—a
lazy Looker-on on an external World. If the mind be not passive, if it be
indeed made in God’s Image, & that too in the sublimest sense—the Image
of the Creator —there is ground for suspicion, that any system built on thepassiveness of the mind must be false, as a system.¹⁰³
As in the former letters, Coleridge tends to adumbrate his own uncertain faith in the idea that human reason is made in the image of
¹⁰² Coleridge, letter to John Thelwall, 14 Oct. 1797, ibid i. 209.
Protestant Critiques of Natural Reason
43 God, in the context of bold dismissals of Locke, Newton, and Hume. Yet here, as before, Coleridge’s stated views on one occasion have to be carefully qualified by proximate retractions and qualifications. His 1801 letter to Poole, for instance, has to be read alongside two others written two days and two years later, respectively.
On 25 March 1801, two days after his letter to Poole, Coleridge writes to William Godwin, observing that,
I have been, during the last 3 months, undergoing a process of intellectual
exsiccation … [,] all sounds of similitude keep at such a distance from each
other in my mind, that I have forgotten how to make a rhyme—I look at
the Mountains (that visible God Almighty that looks in at all my windows) Ilook at the Mountains only for the Curves of their outlines.
Alluding to his recent reading of Newton’s Optics, he claims (with a good deal of wry humour and self-mockery) that ‘my hands are scarred with scratches from a Cat, whose back I was rubbing in the Dark in order to see whether the sparks from it were refrangible by a Prism. The Poet is dead in me.’ Like ‘Dejection: An Ode’, whose verse- letter original was written in April 1802, Coleridge tends to exhume and reanimate his own poetic genius in the very act of apparently burying it; but the dejection of the poem is real, and founded upon a despairing insight into that ‘inanimate cold world’ of Newtonian physics, which underlies and undermines the ‘passion and the life’ of genuine poetry.
On 14 October 1803, two years after his first letter on Newton and Locke, Coleridge instructed Poole to destroy both the first letter and the letter he was presently writing:
I know, my dear Poole, that you are in the habit of keeping my letters;
but I must request of you, & do rely on it, that you will be so good as to
destroy this Letter—& likewise, if it be not already done, that Letter which
in the ebulliency of indistinct Conceptions I wrote to you respecting Sir Isaac
Newton’s Optics—& which to my Horror & Shame I saw that Ward had
transcribed—a Letter which if I were to die & it should ever see the Lightwould damn me forever, as a man mad with Presumption.¹⁰⁴
If Coleridge had had his way, posterity would never have known of his ‘bold’ repudiations of Locke and Newton. Given the immense
44 Protestant Critiques of Natural Reason intellectual prestige attached to the name of both thinkers, then as now, it is unsurprising that Coleridge should have feared that these views would ‘damn me forever, as a man mad with Presumption’. One reason Coleridge may have had for fearing that his attacks on Locke and Newton would bring upon him the censure of others was that he tended to regard both thinkers as enemies of religion, and this view, in particular, would have struck his contemporaries as deeply implausible. Coleridge was well aware of the pious reputation of both thinkers, and acknowledged as much in his philosophical letters to Wedgwood: ‘I feel deeply, my dear Sir! What ungracious words I am writing; in how unamiable a Light I am placing myself … when the Name, from which we attempt to detract has been venerable for a century in the Land of our Fathers & Forefathers, it is most vile.’ Part of Locke’s immense contemporary reputation, Coleridge notes, is due to the fact that ‘no Parson preaches, no Judge speechifies, no Counsellor babbles against Deism, but the great Mr Locke’s name is discharged against the infidels, Mr Locke, that greatest of Philosophers & yet most pious Believer’.¹⁰⁵ The same point is made in his 1818–19
Lectures on the History of Philosophy, where Coleridge refers to Locke
as the ‘true modest man’ and ‘a man of true piety’.¹⁰⁶ Here, then, was the problem confronting Coleridge: in attempting to associate Locke and Newton with a philosophical tradition that had robbed the mind of the ‘sense’ it needed to see God in nature, he was attempting to dissever a powerful and venerable tradition that bound both these names with piety and true religion.
In December 1664, Locke delivered a valedictory speech resigning his post as Censor of Moral Philosophy at Christ Church, Oxford. The speech was entitled ’Can Anyone By Nature Be Happy In This Life? No’. This was a ‘funeral’ oration, delivered in Latin before the entire college, as part of the ceremony of ‘burying the Censor’. Despite one or two humorous asides, Locke’s reflections on earthly human life are both sober and sobering:
Nature in fact has confined all men alike to this life as to a convict prison,
where there are laws and commands enough but no tranquillity and peace:
hands there are wearied by work and backs are stricken beneath the lash,¹⁰⁵ Coleridge, ii. 702.
Protestant Critiques of Natural Reason
no one is free from hardship or suffering, and the scourge is a threat even
to the industrious. Such is the condition of our life, and nature has shown
pretty well how very mean it is by creating us out of earth, which we are
seen to resemble in this also, that we bear briars and brambles in great
profusion. And if perchance there is in us a small flame of divine origin, yet
by that flickering and restless motion whereby it strives perpetually towards
its original dwelling-place, it gives us more trouble and anxiety than light,
and it bestows on this clay of ours merely the awareness that it is ablaze and
is both consumed and tormented with the silent torture of an imprisonedfire.¹⁰⁷
Locke’s sombre vein of reasoning concludes with the observation that, ‘on earth’s crust we live on sufferance like outcasts’ beholden to a nature which ‘mocks our prayers and grants us in this life not happiness at all except the desire for it’.¹⁰⁸ The severity, and perverse relish, with which Locke indicts all worldly aspiration, may perhaps be partially accounted for by the speech’s valedictory occasion; however, he frequently recurs to similar themes and imagery across the entire body of his writings.
Recent work on Locke’s religious beliefs, and on the Reasonableness
of Christianity as Delivered in the Scriptures (1695), in particular, have
suggested that his mature views reflect an attempt to define a middle way between the extremes of pessimistic Calvinism on the one hand, and optimistic Deism on the other.¹⁰⁹ Locke was brought up as a strict Calvinist, but as an adult he considered himself to be a member of the Church of England. He was friends with and read the works of both Socinians and Latitudinarian Anglicans, and he was a particularly close friend of Robert Boyle.¹¹⁰ Locke’s arguments are conditioned
¹⁰⁷ John Locke, Censor’s Valedictory Speech (1664), in W. Von Leyden (ed.),
Essays on the Law of Nature: The Latin Text with a Translation, Introduction and
Notes, Together with Transcripts of Locke’s Shorthand in his Journal for 1676 (Oxford,1954), 221.
¹⁰⁸ Ibid. 230.
¹⁰⁹ See Paul E. Sigmund’s introduction to The Reasonableness of Christianity, in The
Selected Political Writings of John Locke, ed. P. E. Sigmund (New York, 2005), 207–9.
See also W. M. Spellman, John Locke and the Problem of Depravity (Oxford, 1988) and
John Marshall, John Locke: Resistance, Religion, and Responsibility (Cambridge, 1994).
¹¹⁰ Dan Kaufman has recently commented on the dangers of looking for specifically
Lockean notions in the work of his predecessor Boyle. See Kaufman, ‘Locks, Schlocks,
and Poisoned Peas’, in D. Garber and S. Nadler (eds.), Oxford Studies in Early Modern
46 Protestant Critiques of Natural Reason by the methodological axioms and theological voluntarism of Boyle’s experimental philosophy, as well as by his own sensitivity to the limits and frailty of natural reason, as described by mainstream Anglican theology.¹¹¹
Locke begins The Reasonableness of Christianity with this statement: ‘It is obvious to anyone, who reads the New Testament, that the doctrine of redemption, and consequently of the Gospel, is founded upon the supposition of Adam’s Fall.’¹¹² Interpreting Corinthians 15: 22 [‘In Adam all die’], Locke goes on to argue that:
[N]obody can deny, but that the doctrine of the Gospel is, that death came
on all men by Adam’s sin; only they differ about the signification of the word
death: for some will have it to be a state of guilt, wherein not only he, but
all his posterity was so involved, that every one descended of him deserved
endless torment, in hell-fire. I shall say nothing more here, how far, in the
apprehensions of men, this consists with the justice and goodness of God,
having mentioned it above: but it seems a strange way of understanding a
law, which requires the plainest and directest words, that by death should bemeant eternal life in misery.¹¹³
In rejecting the notion of inherited original sin and individual cul- pability for Adam’s disobedience, Locke distanced himself from the radical Augustinian inheritance within Calvinism. However, in his views on idolatry, natural religion, and the limits of mortal human reason, Locke remained remarkably faithful to his Calvinist upbring- ing. Discussing Galatians 3: 10 (‘Cursed is every one, who continueth
¹¹¹ In ‘John Locke and latitudinarianism’, John Marshall notes that Locke was
‘especially close to Robert Boyle, his greatly admired correspondent for thirty years on
religious and scientific matters’. Marshall also demonstrates the compatibility between
latitudinarianism and Locke’s sense of the limits and uncertainty of human reason:
‘Latitudinarian support of enquiry in philosophy and theology owed much to a shared
vision of the limits of men’s understandings and emphasis upon the extent of men’s
ignorance. Developing the moderate skepticism inherited from debates over the rule
of faith in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the latitudinarians argued that
man was not capable of attaining metaphysical certainty in physical science. He was
to be content instead with the acceptance of probability.’ Ibid. 253, 262–3. Discussing
the relationship between Cambridge Platonism and scepticism Alan Gabbey argues
that ‘[t]heir aim was to ensure that the sceptics bridles on the natural light of reason
would not thereby become bridles also on the progress of the Christian soul towardsdivine knowledge and understanding’; Scepticism and Irreligion, 90.
¹¹² John Locke, The Reasonableness of Christianity, As Delivered in the Scriptures
(1695), The Works of John Locke, in Nine Volumes, 12th ed., (Longman, 1824), vii. 4.
Protestant Critiques of Natural Reason
47 not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them’), Locke argued that ‘[t]o disobey God in any part of his commands … is direct rebellion; which, if dispensed with in any point, government and order are at an end; and there can be no bounds set to the lawless exorbitancy of unconfined man’.¹¹⁴ This apprehension about ‘uncon- fined man’ occurs throughout the work. Reflecting on the necessity of Christ’s saving mission, Locke describes the ‘taint or infection’ of human sin, arguing that ‘Christ’s coming into the world’ was ‘to reform the corrupt state of degenerate man’.¹¹⁵ One consequence of this human tendency towards corruption and error, Locke argues, is the historical fact of polytheism and idolatry throughout the ages:
Though the works of nature, in every part of them, sufficiently evidence a
Deity; yet the world made so little use of their reason, that they saw him not,
where, even by the impressions of himself, he was easy to be found. Sense
and lust blinded their eyes in some, and a careless inadvertency in others … .
In this state of darkness and ignorance of the true God, vice and superstitionheld the world. Nor could any help be had or hoped for from reason.¹¹⁶
Like Calvin and Boyle before him, Locke attempts to reconcile the fact that God witnesses Himself within the created order with the equally evident fact that, historically, the vast majority of people have failed to discover that reflection of the divine within the mirror of nature. His solution, again like his predecessors, is to claim that only the Elect, guided by a scriptural faith, are capable of that act of witness and worship. ‘Hence we see’, Locke writes, ‘that reason, speaking ever so clearly to the wise and the virtuous, had never authority enough to prevail upon the multitude’.¹¹⁷ This connection between moral virtue, wisdom, and competence in natural theology is reiterated several times over the course of the work, and each time Locke connects the inability of the ‘herd’ to see God in nature with their natural corruption and degeneracy:
But natural religion, in its full extent, was nowhere, that I know, taken care
of, by the force of natural reason. … Experience shows, that the knowledge
of morality, by mere natural light, (how agreeable soever it be to it) makes
but a slow progress, and little advance in the world. And the reason of it
is not hard to be found in men’s necessities, passions, vices and mistaken
48 Protestant Critiques of Natural Reason
interests; which turn their thoughts another way: and the designing leaders,
as well as following herd, find it not to their purpose to employ much of theirmeditations this way.¹¹⁸
Like Calvin and Boyle before him, Locke denied any necessary con- nection between the Creator and His creation. Under the heading of ‘Idolatry’, in his 1676 shorthand Journal, Locke connected polytheism and idolatry to the mental ‘grossness’ of the majority of people: ‘For knowing the grossness of men’s apprehension,’ he writes, ‘especially of the ignorant part of mankind which is much greater, and how apt we are all to rest our thoughts upon sensible objects, He forbade His people … divine worship before any image or representation.’¹¹⁹ Locke reiterates this iconoclastic prohibition on making visible images of God in the Reasonableness of Christianity. He insists that God is ‘not like to any visible objects, nor to be represented by them’. This conviction of the arbitrary relationship subsisting between any earthly sign and its heavenly referent (from the perspective of divine omnipotence) extends into his consideration of the sacraments. Dis- cussing the divine institution of Baptism and the Eucharist in A Letter
Concerning Toleration (1689), Locke argues:
[T]he sprinkling of water, and use of bread and wine, are both in their own
nature, and in the ordinary occasions of life, altogether indifferent. Will any
man, therefore, say that these things could have been introduced into religion,
and made a part of divine worship, if not by divine Institution? … What
difference is there between a dog and a goat, in respect of the divine nature,
equally and infinitely distant from all affinity with matter; unless it be that
God required the use of the one in his worship, and not of the other? [myitalics]¹²⁰
When Locke considers the apparent contradiction of a concept of ‘thinking matter’ in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), he defers to God’s ‘Omnipotency’, arguing that ‘God can, if he pleases, superadd to matter a faculty of thinking … merely by the
¹¹⁸ Locke, Works, 139.
¹¹⁹ Locke, IV Idolatry, Journal for 15 July and 20 July, Essays on the Law of Nature,260.
¹²⁰ Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), The Selected Political Writings of
Protestant Critiques of Natural Reason
49 good pleasure and bounty of the Creator’.¹²¹ When reflecting upon ‘the coherence and continuity of the parts of matter’, he argues, ‘we cannot but ascribe them to the arbitrary will and good pleasure of the wise architect’.¹²² Finally, considering the relationship between the ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ qualities of matter, Locke argues that ‘we can attribute their connexion to nothing else, but the arbitrary determination of that all-wise agent, who has made them to be, and to operate as they do, in a way wholly above our weak understandings to conceive’.¹²³
Boyle and Locke arrive at similar theological conclusions. Both agreed that God’s existence could be inferred from the study of the natural world, and both stressed the arbitrariness of this instituted relationship between the Creator and His creation. Both practised natural theology but insisted that the ‘multitude’ or ‘herd’ were effectively blind to this divine revelation in nature. Finally, both Boyle and Locke reflected upon the corruption and frailty of human reason, while apparently exempting themselves from this same universal malaise when they turned to the book of nature to read the language of God. These views were only consistent, I suggest, if both thinkers considered themselves to be part of God’s Elect. It is this divine assistance that allows them to register both the inscrutability and the legibility of the divine language within the natural world.
Locke’s ‘epistemological piety’, to use Nicholas Wolterstorff’s phrase, is evident throughout Book IV, chapter 3, of An Essay Con-
cerning Human Understanding.¹²⁴ Entitled ‘Of the Extent of Human
Knowledge’, the guiding principle of the chapter in question is sum- marized by Locke: ‘it is of use to us, to discern how far our knowledge does reach; for the state we are at present in, not being that of vision, we must, in many things, content ourselves with faith and proba- bility’.¹²⁵ The purpose of the chapter is to determine the extent of illumination afforded by unaided natural reason, but also to recognize the ‘abyss of darkness’ (‘launch not out into that abyss of darkness
¹²¹ Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), ed. Roger Wool-house (Harmondsworth, 1997), IV/3, p. 480. ¹²² Ibid. 496. ¹²³ Ibid.
¹²⁴ See Nicholas Wolterstorff, ‘John Locke’s Epistemological Piety: Reason is theCandle of the Lord’, Faith and Philosophy, 11/1 (Oct. 1994), 572–91.
50 Protestant Critiques of Natural Reason [where we have not eyes to see, nor faculties to perceive anything]’) that always surrounds and dwarves human knowledge:
The subject part of mankind, in most places, might, instead thereof, with
Egyptian bondage, expect Egyptian darkness, were not the candle of the Lord
set up by himself in men’s minds, which it is impossible for the breath or
power of man wholly to extinguish … . Our knowledge being so narrow, as I
have showed, it will, perhaps, give us some light into the present state of our
minds, if we look a little into the dark side, and take a view of our ignorance:
which being infinitely larger than our knowledge, may serve much to thequieting of disputes … .¹²⁶
Throughout Book IV, chapter 3, Locke uses images of ‘darkness’, ‘blindness’, and ‘half-light’ to describe the earthly condition of natural reason, and he refers to the effects of sin with images that distinctly recall Calvinist theology. He describes the ‘narrow bounds’ of the human understanding which proceeds by ‘single and slow steps, and long poring in the dark’.¹²⁷ Like Boyle, Locke rejects the hubristic notion that God must have accommodated the divine workmanship of the creation to mankind’s feeble understanding, and he concludes that we must remain content with mere ‘probabilities’ in natural philosophy:
The ignorance, and darkness that is in us, no more hinders, nor confines the
knowledge, that is in others, than the blindness of a mole is an argument
against the quick-sightedness of an eagle. He that will consider the infinite
power, wisdom, and goodness of the Creator of all things, will find reason to
think, it was not all laid out upon so inconsiderable, mean, and impotent a
creature, as he will find man to be; who in all probability, is one of the lowestof all intellectual beings.¹²⁸
Locke posits a radical disanalogy between our conditioned experience of the world and the constituent ‘reality’ on which that experience ultimately, but unknowably, depends. He suggests that the only thing of which we can be entirely certain, is that our minds have no access to the world behind our ideas of the world: ‘the intellectual and sensible world, are in this perfectly alike; that that part, which we see of either of them, holds no proportion with what we see not; and whatsoever
Protestant Critiques of Natural Reason
51 we can reach, with our eyes, or our thoughts, of either of them, is but a point, almost nothing, in comparison of the rest’.¹²⁹
Locke sets the tiny sphere of human knowledge against the immen- sity of the universe to reveal to his readers ‘an huge abyss of ignorance’. He then argues, anticipating Hume’s ‘transductive fallacy’, that we have no reason to presume that knowledge of our own solar system provides a reliable inferential guide for understanding the rest of the universe:
If we narrow our contemplation, and confine our thoughts to this little
canton, I mean this system of our sun, and the grosser masses of matter,
that visibly move about it, what several sorts of vegetables, animals, and
intellectual corporeal beings, infinitely different from those of our little spot
of Earth, may there probably be in the other planets, to the knowledge
of which … whilst we are confined to this earth, there being no natural
means, either by sensation or reflection to convey their certain ideas into ourminds?’¹³⁰
The chapter recurs, obsessively and claustrophobically, to Locke’s sense of ‘being confined’ to earth, mortality, and his own unreliable body, excluded by his five ‘narrow’ senses from the worlds and minds ‘out of reach of those inlets of all our knowledge’.¹³¹ It ‘becomes the modesty’ of philosophy, Locke insists, ‘not to pronounce magisterially where we want that evidence that can produce knowledge’.¹³² This is the final, melancholy note the chapter sounds. The ‘experimental philosopher’ is ‘tied down to the dull and narrow information’ of the body, and he is therefore ‘destitute of the senses’, which would allow him either ‘to discover the minutest particles of bodies’, or the vast unknowable extent of the cosmos.¹³³
¹²⁹ Ibid. 492. ¹³⁰ Ibid. 492–3. ¹³¹ Ibid. 493. ¹³² Ibid. 481.¹³³ Ibid. 494.
We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such asare both true and sufficient to explain their appearances
When we infer any particular cause from an effect, we must
proportion the one to the other, and can never be allowed to
ascribe to the cause any qualities, but what are exactly sufficientto produce the effect (David Hume)
This chapter explores the ways in which David Hume exploited the methodological axioms and epistemological piety of Boyle, Locke, and Newton’s philosophies, in order to undermine the arguments of natural religion, and specifically the post-Newtonian form of the argument from design. The methodological strictures that Newton placed on reasoning in natural philosophy are partly conditioned by a strand of theological voluntarism that he shared with his con- temporaries Boyle and Locke. Newton preserves a clear distinction between scientific and theological questions, and his views on the role and limits of inferential reasoning in natural philosophy are governed by pious appeals to the omnipotence and transcendence of God. In his writings on natural religion, Hume develops a powerful critique of inferential reasoning and the argument from design, which is explicitly indebted to Locke and Newton. Hume also develops the ‘epistemological piety’ of this line of thinkers in order to undermine the presumed competence of natural reason to engage in speculations
Scepticism and Natural Religion
53 In his Lectures on Revealed Religion (1795), considered in detail in Chapter 3, Coleridge develops a version of the argument from design that is clearly indebted to the work of post-Newtonian theists like Colin Maclaurin. The arguments in favour of natural religion and the argument from design that Coleridge takes from Maclaurin were also used by Hume to create the character of the Newtonian theist, Cleanthes, in the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779). Furthermore, in mock-piously emphasizing the limits of natural reason and the radical transcendence of God, in his writings on natural religion, Hume made it very difficult for Coleridge simply to dismiss his arguments as those of an infidel. Humean philosophical scepticism was profoundly threatening to Coleridge, in fact, because it reminded him of sound Christian reasons for denying his own ability to read the divine handwriting of God in nature.
Based on the recent work of revisionist historians such as James Force, Kenneth Knoespel, Richard Popkin, and Sarah Hutten, James J. Bono has traced the significant methodological connections between Newton’s ‘voluminous unpublished work on the scriptures’ and his work as a natural philosopher.¹ Just as in his scientific work, where he sought to define clear rules for reasoning in experimental philosophy, Newton also sought to define clear hermeneutic rules ‘for interpreting ye words and language of Scripture’.² Newton urges those who wish to engage in scriptural exegesis:
[T]o choose those constructions which without straining reduce things to
the greatest simplicity. … Truth is ever to be found in simplicity, and not in
the multiplicity and confusion of things. As the world, which to the naked
eye exhibits the greatest variety of objects, appears very simple in its internall
constitution when surveyed by a philosophic understanding, and so much
¹ J. J. Bono, ‘From Paracelsus to Newton: The Word of God, the Book of Nature,
and Eclipse of the ‘‘Emblematic World View’’ ’, in J. E. Force and R. H. Popkin (eds.),Newton and Religion: Context, Nature and Influence (Dordrecht, 1999), 73.
² Sarah Hutton argues that Newton always leaned ‘towards the literal’ in his
interpretation of scripture, while James Force, in his reading of Chronology of Ancient
Kingdoms Amended (publ. 1728), notes that Newton was deeply distrustful of what he
called the ‘ emblematical way of writing,’ which he associated with an ‘idolatrous gentile
theology’. Sarah Hutton, ‘More, Newton, and the Language of Biblical Prophecy’,
46; quoted in Force and Popkin, Newton and Religion, 73–4. James Force, ‘Samuel
Clarke’s Four Categories of Deism, Isaac Newton and the Bible’, in Richard H. Popkin
54 Scepticism and Natural Religion
the simpler by how much the better it is understood, so it is in these visions.
It is the perfection of God’s works that they are all done with the greatestsimplicity. He is the God of order and not of confusion.³
Newton’s distrust of allegory within cultural narratives was part of a wider distrust of symbolic ‘readings’ of the natural world. According to Bono, this distrust was influenced by ‘Calvinist readings of signs in nature’, in which ‘the very order and nature of physical things and systems themselves become merely contingent expressions of God’s will rather than mirrors of His eternal and unchanging nature’.⁴ James Force has suggested that the methodological axioms guiding Newton’s investigations of the natural world (Regulae Philosophandi) were clearly influenced by the theological voluntarism of Calvin. According to Force, Newton ‘urges … a cautious empiricism through which he recognizes the power of God to effect changes even in created natural law’.⁵ Force concludes that:
Newton … assumes a certain vigilance with respect to the presence of sym-
bols in cultural narratives and in nature. In pointing to the close association
between ‘this emblematical way of writing’ and the error of polytheism,
Newton wants to guard against any diminution of God’s unique status. Sim-
ilarly, the presence of symbols in nature can be misconstrued as necessitating
essential links between natural things and God, thus limiting both God’sfreedom and power.⁶
Like Boyle and Locke, Newton denies a necessary symbolic connection between God and the natural world.
N EW TO N A N D T H E A RG U M E N T F RO M D E S I G N Newton’s first published statements on the relationship between natural philosophy and theology occur in a series of four letters to
³ Quoted in Frank Manuel, The Religion of Isaac Newton (Oxford, 1974), appendix
A, p. 120. In his essay ‘Newton and the Guaranteeing God’, G. A. J. Rogers explicitly
connects Newton’s rules for interpreting scripture, and his Regulae Philosophandi,with his Puritan background. See Rogers, Newton and Religion, 232.
⁴ Bono, Newton and Religion, 74–5. ⁵ Force, in Popkin, Scepticism in the History of Philosophy, 63.
Scepticism and Natural Religion
55 Richard Bentley written between 1692 and 1693. Bentley had been asked to deliver the first of an annual series of Boyle lectures, which the celebrated chemist had provided for in his last will and testament. The lectures had been established to explore the ‘evidences of Christianity’, and Bentley sought Newton’s advice on the evidential connections between theology and experimental philosophy. In his four letters to Bentley, Newton emphasized the fact that certain observed celestial phenomena were not, at that time, reducible to the actions of known mechanical laws. In his first letter, Newton lists a number of ‘world processes’ that could be described mechanically but not adequately explained (‘inexplicable’ phenomena in Boyle’s terminology). Newton suggests that, from these ordered, mathema- tically precise features of the ‘world process’, the existence and agency of a divine geometrician and mechanic could be inferred:
To make this systeme therefore with all its motions, required a Cause
which understood and compared together the quantities of matter in the
several bodies of the Sun and Planets and the gravitating powers resulting
from thence, the several distances of the primary Planets from the Sun and
secondary ones from Saturn Jupiter and the earth, and the velocities which
these Planets could revolve at those distances about those quantities of matter
in the central bodies. And to compare and adjust all these things together in
so great a variety of bodies argues that cause to be not blind and fortuitous,but very well skilled in Mechanicks and Geometry.⁷
Although the order, predictability and harmony of the ‘world process’ might now be regulated by mechanical laws and described mathema- tically, they certainly could not have originated through the operation of such laws, or have been generated (as Philo will later suggest in Hume’s Dialogues) by ‘blind and fortuitous’ causes. The existence of a planetary ‘system’ implied the existence and agency of a powerful and intelligent deity.
The design argument has historically taken two distinct, though often elided, forms. The ‘regularity’ argument or argument from design is based upon a purported similarity between the order and regularity displayed by certain objects and systems of objects in the
⁷ Isaac Newon, Opera Omnia, iv. 441. Quoted in I. B. Cohen and R. S. Westfall
(eds.), Newton: Texts, Backgrounds, Commentaries (New York and London, 1995),
56 Scepticism and Natural Religion natural world, and the order displayed by artefacts constructed by human beings. Since in the latter case, artefacts are always the prod- ucts of human agency and purposive intent, the analogous appearance of order and regularity in the visible universe implies the existence of a super-human creator who exercises similar, though considerably advanced, skills. To the inheritors of Newtonian mechanics in the eighteenth century, the ‘world process’ could be very exactly described in mechanistic and geometrical terms. The paradigm-creator, there- fore, was understood by Newton and his theistic followers to be one ‘very well skilled in mechanicks and geometry’ whose mechanism, the world, operated according to rigidly prescribed ‘mathematical- physical laws’. The ‘clock-work universe’ of the eighteenth century, whose precise structure and relationship to God was fought over by Leibniz and Samuel Clarke (a celebrated Newtonian theist) in their famous correspondence, was the analogical counterpart of a mundane clock-work mechanism:
The argument is a posteriori, since it proceeds from a scientific description
of observed sequences of events in nature. … The argument, as are all design
arguments, is teleological in that it takes purposive relationships as evidence.
But the teleology or ‘purpose’ emphasized in the Newtonian argument is
not in nature itself, although there are purposes which are cited by Newton
later on. In this particular form of the design argument the purpose of
intention is in the mind of the creator or mechanic, and he transcendsnature.⁸
In the regularity argument or argument from design, the ‘purposes’ which Newton describes do not exist within nature—since matter was held to be inert and passive by Newton—but instead exist within the mind of God as a kind of blueprint or design. From the mechanical, geometrical order exhibited by the ‘world process’, we may infer the existence of a super-intelligent mathematician and mechanic who transcends nature, and yet exercises worldly skills and aptitudes. Although purposive intent and intelligence can be
⁸ Robert Hurlbutt, Hume, Newton and the Design Argument (Lincoln, NE, 1965), 8.
Hurlbutt’s discussion of the ‘argument from design’ is very similar to J. C. A Gaskin’s
description of the ‘Regularity argument’ in Hume’s Philosophy of Religion (London,
1978), 9–11. See also letters 1–3 in The Leibniz-Clarke Correspondence: together with
Extracts from Newton’s Principia and Opticks, ed. H. G. Alexander (Manchester, 1956),
Scepticism and Natural Religion
57 attributed to God by inference from the order discovered in nature, His actual purpose in creating the universe remains an ineffable mystery. J. C. A. Gaskin has described the ‘regularity’ argument as follows:
If order is taken as the feature of nature in stating the argument, then what
I shall call the regularity argument results: for example, the orderly and
regular workings of the solar system, like the orderly working of a traffic
system, come about by the design of some rational agent. They are neither
‘brute facts’ incapable of further explanation nor are they attributable to‘chance’.⁹
The argument to design or teleological argument, refers to those features of the natural world which display means–end ordered functions, and which are held to embody, or enact, specific teleological principles. The argument to design is alert to immanent structures, adaptations, and processes in the organic world that exhibit not only purposiveness but explicit purposes as well.¹⁰ For instance, a typical teleological description of the human eye would describe its anatomical structure as a means for fulfilling its final purpose or end, which in this case would be to enable human vision. The argument
to design was formulated by Newton through specific examples taken
from animal anatomy, in query 31 of the third edition of the Opticks, published in 1718:
Also the first contrivance of those very artificial parts of animals, the eyes, ears,
brain, muscles, heart, lungs, midriff, glands, larynx, hands, wings, swimming
bladders, natural spectacles, and other organs of sense and motion; and the
instinct of brutes and insects, can be the effect of nothing else than thewisdom and skill of a powerful ever-living Agent. ¹¹
Newton describes the organs, limbs, and instincts of various animals as ‘those very artificial parts of animals’ (my italics). He then elides manufactured artefacts and biological structures by describing ‘eyes’ ⁹ Gaskin, Hume’s Philosophy, 11.
¹⁰ Gaskin describes the teleological argument as follows: ‘[i]f purpose is the feature
of nature used in stating the argument then what I call the teleological argument results:
for example, the camera and the human eye have striking similarities of structure; the
camera was made by an intelligent being for a purpose; therefore the purpose whichthe eye fulfills was also given it by an intelligent being’. Ibid.
58 Scepticism and Natural Religion as ‘natural spectacles’ exactly as if they had been fashioned by an anthropomorphic being skilled in optics, geometry, and mechanics.¹²
Another important source for Newton’s theological writings is the General Scholium to Book 3 of the second edition of Newton’s
Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, published in 1713.
Newton begins the General Scholium by criticizing the Cartesian theory of vortices, while suggesting that his own theory of gravitational forces provides a simpler, and more elegant, explanation of planetary movements. Having argued that the orbits of the planets can be accounted for in terms of the action of simple mechanical laws, described mathematically, Newton begins to hint at the limits of rigorous scientific explanations by arguing that ‘they [the planets] certainly could not originally have acquired the regular position of the orbits by these laws’.¹³ A negative space is generated for theism by delineating the legitimate boundaries of scientific explanation, and then placing God’s providential activity beyond these established empirical boundaries.
Like Boyle, Newton maintained strict evidential criteria for deter- mining what could and could not be inferred about the nature of God a posteriori. In his letters to Bentley, for instance, he was careful to distinguish between ‘hypotheses’—i.e. causal explanations of nat- ural phenomena that extend beyond the experiential boundaries of natural philosophy—and ‘explanations’, which provide provisional ‘rules’ for describing the properties of matter as they are revealed by
¹² In the Newtonian form of the argument from design, purpose is entirely
extrinsic to matter, which is itself lifeless, inert, and passive. In the argument to
design, however, matter seems to be regarded as self-organizing and animate: its
physical structure actively determined by a prior concept of its purpose. In the
‘Critique of Teleological Judgment’, Kant observes that ‘when in teleology we speak
of nature as if the purposiveness in it were intentional, we do so in such a way
that we attribute this intention to nature, i.e., to matter. This serves to indicate that
this term refers here only to a principle of reflective, rather than of determinative,
judgment. (It indicates this inasmuch as no one would attribute to lifeless matter an
intention in the proper sense of the term, and so no misunderstanding can arise.)’
Kant concludes that the hypothetical attribution of intentionality to organisms is
a regulative principle guiding scientific investigation, and has no objective basis.
Immanuel Kant, ‘Critique of Teleological Judgment’, Critique of Judgment (1790),tr. Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis and Cambridge, 1987), §383, p. 263.
¹³ I. Bernard Cohen and Anne Whitman (eds.), The Principia: Mathematical
Principles of Natural Philosophy, tr. I. B. Cohen (Berkeley, CA, 1999), 934; quoted in
Scepticism and Natural Religion
59 experimentation, and then generalized by induction.¹⁴ This distinc- tion between metaphysical ‘hypotheses’ and probabilistic empirical ‘explanations’ was formally codified in the four Regulae Philosophandi included at the beginning of Book 3 of the third edition of the Principia (1726). In a draft version of an unpublished Rule V, Newton observed that: ‘Whatever is not derived from things themselves, whether by the external senses or by the sensation of internal thoughts, is to be taken for a hypothesis … . And those things which neither can be demonstrated from the phenomenon nor follow from it by the argument of induction, I hold as hypotheses.’¹⁵
In the General Scholium to Book 3 of the second edition of the
Principia (1713), Newton again makes a sharp distinction between
metaphysical ‘hypotheses’ and his own a posteriori experimental method, noting that ‘whatever is not deduced from the phenomena must be called a hypothesis, and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, or based on occult qualities, or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy’.¹⁶ While advising Roger Cotes about the exact wording of the ‘General Scholium’ prior to its publication, Newton wrote, but never sent, a long letter contrasting the ‘manner of Philosophising made use of in the Principia … from the method of others’. In the course of writing the letter, Newton chose to illustrate the purported differences between his own observationally controlled, inductive techniques of reasoning and the hypothetical philosophy of ‘Cartes, Leibnitz & some others’. Newton argued that:
One may suppose that bodies may by an unknown power be perpetually
accelerated & so reject the first law of motion. One may suppose that God
can create a penetrable body & so reject the impenetrability of matter.
But to admitt of such Hypotheses in opposition to rational Propositions
founded upon Phænomena by Induction is to destroy all arguments taken
from Phænomena by Induction and all Principles founded upon such
¹⁴ For detailed studies of Newton’s inductive method see Alexander Koyré, New-
tonian Studies, (London, 1965), Ch. 6; J. E. McGuire, ‘Atoms and the Analogy of
Nature: Newton’s Third Rule of Philosophizing’, Studies in the History and Philosophy
of Science, 1 (1970), 3–58, repr. in McGuire, Tradition and Innovation: Newton’sMetaphysics of Nature (Dordrecht, 1995), 52–102.
¹⁵ Alexander Koyré, ‘Newton’s Regulae Philosophandi’, 272; quoted in Rogers,Newton and Religion, 224.
60 Scepticism and Natural Religion
arguments … . Experimental Philosophy reduces Phænomena to general
Rules & looks upon the Rules to be general when they hold generally inPhænomena.¹⁷
Newton’s views on the limits and scope of experimental philosophy were already well established by the time they were explicitly codified in the Regulae Philosophandi. In a letter written to Henry Oldenburg in June 1672 (fifteen years before the publication of the first edition of the
Principia), Newton distinguished between ‘the properties of things’ as
established by experimental philosophy and speculative ‘hypotheses’ that attempt to explain the metaphysical cause of those properties. Newton insists that the ‘best and safest method of philosophizing’ is to ‘inquire diligently into the properties of things’, and to utterly reject explanatory hypotheses, except in so far as ‘they may furnish experiments’. Sounding like Hume, Newton warns Oldenburg of the manifold dangers accompanying unchecked scientific speculation:
[I]f anyone offers conjectures about the truth of things from the mere
possibility of hypotheses, I do not see by what stipulation anything certain
can be determined in any science; since one or another set of hypotheses
may always be devised which will appear to supply new difficulties. Hence
I judged that one should abstain from contemplating hypotheses, as fromimproper argumentation.¹⁸
In the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779), Hume constantly refers to the Newtonian form of the argument from design, espoused by Cleanthes, as a ‘hypothesis’, and will argue that from the same empirical evidence of design in the natural world, any number of alternative hypotheses may be ‘feigned’ to account for it. The implication, of course, is that the argument from design cannot establish the existence and attributes of God with any degree of certainty.
The ‘argument from induction’ is discussed at length in Newton’s explication of his third rule of reasoning (which first appeared in the second edition (1713) of the Principia): ‘Those qualities of bodies
that cannot be intended or remitted [i.e. qualities that cannot be
¹⁷ The Correspondence of Isaac Newton, ed. H. W. Turnbull, J. F. Scott, A. Rupert
Hall, and Laura Tilling, 7 vols. (Cambridge, 1959–77), v. 398; quoted in Rogers,
Newton and Religion, 224–5.
Scepticism and Natural Religion
61 increased or diminished]’, he writes, ‘and that belong to all bodies
on which experiments can be made should be taken as qualities of
all bodies universally.’ Newton describes this principle, informally,
as the ‘analogy of nature’, which amounts to a claim that ‘nature is always simple and ever consonant with itself’. Newton provides a number of empirical illustrations to substantiate this axiom, including the following: ‘[t]hat all bodies are impenetrable we gather not by reason but by our senses. We find those bodies that we handle to be impenetrable, and hence we conclude that impenetrability is a property of all bodies universally.’¹⁹
While Newton is quick to claim that the premise of his argument is a posteriori (‘we find those bodies that we handle to be impene- trable’), the conclusion (‘impenetrability is a property of all bodies universally’) is clearly a universal claim about the properties of mat- ter. From an empirical ‘sample’, Newton has reached an inductively invalid conclusion. The ‘analogy of nature’ is an a priori principle masquerading as an inductive judgement, for experiment alone could never determine that all matter in the universe must necessarily pos- sess this property of ‘impenetrability’. Hume isolates this inferential (‘transductive’) fallacy in the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, arguing, like Locke, that the appearance of design in one part of the universe, does not entitle us to make claims about the presence of design in the universe as a whole.²⁰
In ‘Newton and the Guaranteeing God’, G. A. J. Rogers argues that Newton was clearly, and unequivocally, committed to a now-familiar inductive method which ‘moves from the particular to the general and
¹⁹ Newton, The Principia, 806–7; quoted in Newton, 117.
²⁰ According to Westfall and Cohen, ‘transduction’ is ‘used to indicate a way to
assign properties discernible in objects of the same or similar kind beyond the reach
of any experiment. For example, since mass is observed in every sample of matter on
which we can perform direct experiments, and since the mass of any bit of matter
is a constant under all physical conditions, Newton’s third rule would justify the
attribution of mass as a property of planets, comets, the sun, and stars’; Newton, 115.
Boyle was similarly happy to make transductive or ‘transdictive’ inferences: ‘And since
Experience shews us … that this division of Matter is frequently made into insensible
Corpuscles or Particles, we may conclude, that the minutest fragments, as well as the
biggest Masses of the Universal Matter are likewise endowed each with its peculiar
Bulk and Shape’; Boyle, Works, v. 307. For other instances of the transductive fallacy,
see Kaufman, ‘Locke, Schlocks and Poisoned Peas’, Oxford Studies in Early Modern
62 Scepticism and Natural Religion looks upon the conclusions so drawn as a general truth even though the generality cannot be demonstrated a priori’. Rogers’s general assessment of the Newtonian inductive method is that it yields only conjectural or probable conclusions and ‘does not generate certainty’. Newton ‘was prepared to settle for mere probabilities in much of natural philosophy’, Rogers argues.²¹ While commentators are certain in their evaluation of the limits and dangers attached to inductive reasoning, it is not clear that Newton was always aware that inductive arguments can provide, as he put it in the last Query to the
Opticks (1730 edition), ‘no Demonstration of general Conclusions’.²²
The argument from design, for instance, partly fits the general pro- file of an inductive argument (a ‘rational proposition founded upon Phænomena by Induction’), because it makes inferential judgements on the basis of various accumulated empirical observations. But the argument is also partly hypothetical in that it makes claims about the existence and attributes of a Being that absolutely transcends such empirical observations, and is therefore beyond the ‘general conclusions’ that can legitimately be drawn from them.
The inductive argument from design that appears in the General
Scholium to the Principia, as part of a general encomium to the beauty
and harmony of the solar system, seems to collapse this important distinction between the probabilistic and the hypothetical aspects of the design argument. Newton writes: ‘this most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel
and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being’ (my italics).²³ The
proper inferential conclusion of the argument from design ought to be that God probably exists and probably possesses the traditional attributes of intelligence, power and perhaps even benevolence.²⁴ But ²¹ Rogers, Newton and Religion, 225.
²² The passage from Query 31 of the Opticks (1730 edn.) is as follows ‘although
the arguing from Experiments and Observations by Induction be no Demonstration
of general Conclusions; yet it is the best way of arguing which the Nature of Things
admits of, and may be looked upon as so much stronger, by how much the Induction
is more general’; Isaac Newton, Opticks, Dover edn., based on 4th edn., 1730 (NewYork, 1952), 404. This passage was originally published in Latin in 1706.
²³ Hurlbutt, Design Hypothesis, 14.
²⁴ At the conclusion of the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779), Philo
notes laconically: ‘the whole of natural theology, as some people maintain, resolves
Scepticism and Natural Religion
63 Newton, like many of his later theistic followers, makes the fallacious claim that the order and regularity of the solar system somehow
proves that it ‘could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of
an intelligent and powerful being’. Newton uses a probabilistic mode of reasoning to try and establish a necessary divine truth.
H U M E ’ S C R I T I Q U E O F NAT U RA L R E L I G I O N
What peculiar privilege has this little agitation of the brain which we callthought, that we must thus make it the model of the whole universe? ²⁵
The way you use the word ‘God’ does not show whom you mean—but,rather, what you mean.²⁶
In his seminal biography, The Life of David Hume, E. C. Mossner noted both the strict Calvinism of Hume’s Presbyterian upbringing as well as the role played by Newtonian theism in his early intel- lectual development at Edinburgh University.²⁷ Recounting Hume’s own memories of his religious upbringing, Mossner notes: ‘[o]n his own word, he was ‘‘religious when he was young,’’ apparently accepting the stern Calvinistic doctrines of Original Sin, the Total Depravity of Human Nature, Predestination, and Election, without a tremor—which is only what was to be expected of a normal boy’.²⁸ Although Mossner suggests that Hume’s religious beliefs ‘were probably lost while he was at college or shortly thereafter’, I sug- gest that Hume’s mature epistemological scepticism is at least partly
that the causes or causes of order in the universe probably bear some remote analogy
to human intelligence’; Hume, Principal Writings on Religion including the Dialogues
Concerning Natural Religion and The Natural History of Religion, ed. J. C. A. Gaskin(Oxford, 1993), 129.
²⁵ Hume, Dialogues, 50.
²⁶ Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, ed. G. H. von Wright, tr. Peter Winch (Oxford,1980), 50.
²⁷ See Reardon, ‘Calvinist Presbyterianism in Scotland’, Religious Thought in the
Reformation (London, 1995), 270–5. Peter Millican has recently argued that religious
questions were central to Hume’s philosophical concerns; see ‘The Context, Aims,
and Structure of Hume’s First Enquiry’, in Peter Millican (ed.), Reading Hume onHuman Understanding (Oxford, 2002), 34–40.
64 Scepticism and Natural Religion informed by his early acquaintance with Calvinist thought. In par- ticular, Hume would have been influenced by doctrinal assumptions concerning the corruption and limits of natural reason, as well as by Calvin’s conviction that, in a fallen world, God’s presence is no longer reflected in the mirror of nature. This is not to say that Hume was a committed Calvinist, of course, but only that he under- stood the theoretical compatibility between philosophical scepticism and Calvinist theology, and used Calvinist resources in his strategic attacks on natural theology and the argument from design. There are significant grounds, therefore, for suggesting that Hume’s scepti- cism would have been at least partly shaped, directly and indirectly, by the diffuse influence of Calvinism throughout his intellectual development.²⁹
Mossner has amply documented the influence of Newton, and post-Newtonian theism, on Hume’s university education.³⁰ Hume testified to his continuing admiration for Newton—and for his methodological principles in particular—in his celebrated History of
England (1754–61). ‘In Newton’, Hume writes, ‘this island may boast
of having produced the greatest and rarest genius that ever rose for the ornament and instruction of the species. Cautious in admitting no principles but such as were founded on experiment; but resolute to adopt every such principle, however new or unusual.’³¹ According to Mossner, Hume lost his religious beliefs through a gradual process of ‘rational education’, perhaps between 1727 and 1730. Quick to dismiss the aprioristic argument of Samuel Clarke, Hume went on ‘to question even the argument from probability based on the empirical philosophy of Locke and Newton’. Mossner notes, however, that the
²⁹ Max Charlesworth argues that there is a complex—and in Hume’s case strate-
gic—connection between Kant and Hume’s epistemological pessimism, and the
endless attacks on natural reason found in the writings of Luther and Calvin: ‘[i]t is
too facile to call Kant ‘‘the philosopher of Protestantism,’’ for Kant’s own concep-
tion of religion is highly complex and not simply reducible to the basic Protestant
position. Nevertheless his view of the philosophy of religion, like that of his great
sceptical mentor David Hume, chimes in with Luther and Calvin’s theological posi-
tion’; Charlesworth, Philosophy and Religion: From Plato to Postmodernism (Oxford,2002), 91.
³⁰ On Hume’s Edinburgh education see Mossner, Life of David Hume, 41–3.
³¹ Hume, History of England (Edinburgh, 1792), viii. 334; quoted in Mossner, Life
Scepticism and Natural Religion
65 a posteriori argument from design ‘always remained for Hume the only philosophical argument concerning religion worthy of serious consideration’.³²
Section 11 of Hume’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1748) is entitled ‘Of a Particular Providence and of a Future State’. The section is written in dialogue form, and recounts a conversa- tion between Hume and ‘a friend who loves sceptical paradoxes’. Deploying a Ciceronian mode of irony, Hume tells us that his friend ‘advanced many principles of which I can by no means approve’, and yet those same principles, we are told, ‘bear some relation to the chain of reasoning carried on throughout this enquiry’.³³
The dialogue begins with a discussion of the philosophical liberty and religious toleration supposedly enjoyed by thinkers in ancient Greece. Hume wistfully notes that Epicureans—who in the eigh- teenth century, along with Hobbes and Spinoza, were regarded as paradigmatic examples of a Godless materialism—were originally allowed to ‘officiate at the altar, in the most sacred rites of the established religion’. He goes on to compare the ‘entire liberty’ felt by ‘the professors of every sect of philosophy’ at that time with the ‘harsh winds of calumny and persecution’ felt by contemporary philosophers. ³⁴
Hume convinces his friend to ‘make a speech for Epicurus’, as if he stood accused of impiety before a hostile Athenian ‘mob’. His task is to convince the ‘more philosophical part’ of this imaginary audience, represented by Hume himself, that the principles of Epicureanism are of no practical consequence for ‘questions of public good, and the interest of the commonwealth’.³⁵ ‘Epicurus’, as I shall now call him, begins his address with a placatory expression of regret that the Athenians should have been ‘diverted’ from their ‘useful occupations’ to discuss his own ‘perhaps fruitless enquiries’. His next observation,
³² Mossner, Life of David Hume, 64.
³³ Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), ed. Tom L. Beau-champ (Oxford and New York, 1999), xi. 187.
³⁴ Ibid. As Isabel Rivers points out, ‘Hume’s evocation in his principal works on
religion of the name of Epicurus, traditionally regarded by the orthodox as a thinly
disguised atheist, was even more offensive.’ Rivers, Reason, Grace and Sentiment: A
Study of the Language of Religion and Ethics in England, 1660–1780, 2 vols. (Cambridge,1991–2000), ii. 248.
66 Scepticism and Natural Religion however, is both barbed and acute, and it is aimed at contemporary advocates of the a posteriori design argument:
The religious philosophers, not satisfied with the tradition of your forefathers,
and doctrine of your priests (in which I willingly acquiesce), indulge a rash
curiosity, in trying how far they can establish religion on the principles
of reason; and they thereby excite, instead of satisfying, the doubts, which
naturally arise from a diligent and scrutinous enquiry. They paint, in the
most magnificent colours, the order, beauty, and wise arrangement of the
universe; and then ask, if such a glorious display of intelligence could proceed
from the fortuitous concourse of atoms, or if chance could produce what thegreatest genius can never sufficiently admire.³⁶
Natural religion, and specifically the argument from design, are incapable of removing religious doubts or answering theological questions, Epicurus argues, yet the ‘religious philosophers’ rely on exactly these indeterminate foundations in developing their religious commitments: ‘my accusers, have acknowledged, that the chief or sole argument for a divine existence (which I never questioned) is derived from the order of nature’.³⁷ Epicurus’ premise is clear. If the Athenian people will admit that their religion is entirely ‘derived from the order of nature’, as he claims it is, then Epicurus will show that the order of nature itself can yield only limited inferential knowledge, which extends no further than this world, and has nothing substantive to say about the next. If he can undermine his opponents’ confidence in the argument from design, and if the argument from design provides the only real evidence for their belief in God, then ultimately their confidence in God’s existence will be proportionally undermined.
It is important to be wary of immediately granting Epicurus’ premise. Who, for instance, among Hume’s contemporaries, would seriously argue that the only grounds for their belief in God are furnished by reason and the argument from design? Hume was certainly aware that traditionally the design argument was meant to provide only supplementary evidence for the existence and attributes of God, which had been established by a prior scriptural revelation. Certain contemporary proponents of Deism relied solely on reason and natural religion in establishing their belief in a Deity; but if
Scepticism and Natural Religion
67 they were the targets of Hume’s critique, it would only be effective against a heterogeneous group of thinkers whom most orthodox theologians considered to be ungodly anyway. More importantly, Hume’s argument is not effective against most Christian theologians, who regarded reason and revelation as two complementary avenues to a single, unitary truth. The religious knowledge provided by revelation is, in Locke’s terms, ‘above’ but not ‘contrary to reason’; therefore, it is not clear that the exercise of reason alone could undermine Christianity itself, which relies, doctrinally, on scriptural revelation.³⁸ This point should be borne in mind since some critics anachronistically assume that Hume’s decisive critique of natural religion provided an equally decisive critique of Christianity.
Although Hume’s arguments in Section 11 of the Enquiry cannot undermine Christianity, they are devastatingly effective against the claims of natural religion, and also, as we shall see, against all reasoning by analogy. The severe strictures that Epicurus places on inductive arguments, and on the ‘regularity’ argument in particular, apply equally to all reasoning by analogy:
When we infer any particular cause from an effect, we must proportion the one
to the other, and can never be allowed to ascribe to the cause any qualities, but
what are exactly sufficient to produce the effect. … If the cause, assigned for
any effect, be not sufficient to produce it, we must either reject that cause, or
add to it such qualities as will give it a just proportion to the effect. But if we
ascribe to it farther qualities, or affirm it capable of producing other effects,
we can only indulge the licence of conjecture, and arbitrarily suppose the
³⁸ The Lockean classification is as follows: ‘1. According to reason are such propo-
sitions, whose truth we can discover, by examining and tracing those ideas we have
from sensation and reflexion; and by natural deduction, find to be true, or probable.
2. Above reason are such propositions, whose truth or probability we cannot by
reason derive from those principles. 3. Contrary to reason are such propositions, as
are inconsistent with, or irreconcilable to our clear and distinct ideas’. Locke, An
Essay Concerning Human Understanding, IV 17, §23, p. 606. Freethinkers such as
John Toland (1670–1722) and Anthony Collins (1676–1729) employed this slippery
Lockean distinction between reason and faith to undermine both revealed and natural
religion and to attack the notion that there is anything ‘above Reason’. The subtitle of
Toland’s Christianity not mysterious, for instance, is That there is nothing in the Gospel
Contrary to Reason, Nor above it: And that no Christian Doctrine can be properly call’d A
mystery. It seems to me that the most obvious target of Hume’s critique in the Enquiry
and Dialogues must be freethinkers like Toland and Collins. For a detailed discussion
68 Scepticism and Natural Religion
existence of qualities and energies, without reason or authority … . Nor can
we, by any rules of just reasoning, return back from the cause, and infer other
effects from it, beyond those by which alone it is known to us [my italics]. ³⁹
The criterion of a good inferential argument, according to Epicurus, is that in moving from known or visible effects to their unknown or invisible causes (as is the case in the argument from design), our epistemological or theological claims should extend no further than what is precisely sufficient to produce only such effects. Employing the logico-critical method typical of Boyle and Newton’s natural philosophy, Epicurus argues that ‘the cause must be proportioned to the effect; and if we exactly and precisely proportion it, we shall never find in it any qualities, that point farther, or afford an inference con- cerning any other design or performance’. For the moment, however, Epicurus at least accepts that certain features of the visible universe are
analogous to the productions of mankind, and he grants his Athenian
opponents the appropriate polytheistic inference: ‘the gods … possess that precise degree of power, intelligence, and benevolence, which appears in their workmanship’.⁴⁰ He will not accept, however, that we are entitled ‘to mount up from the universe, the effect, to Jupiter, the cause; and then descend downwards, to infer any new effect from that cause’.⁴¹ If our knowledge of Jupiter is entirely inferred from the visi- ble universe he created, then we cannot make any further claims about attributes he may or may not possess, beyond those actually sufficient to produce the ‘course of nature’ as we find it. If philosophers ‘pre- tend to neglect authority, and to cultivate reason’ in religious matters, as Epicurus claims, then beliefs about the providential wisdom and ‘distributive justice’ of the gods become mere ‘hypotheses’:
That the divinity may possibly be endowed with attributes, which we have
never seen exerted; may be governed by principles of action, which we cannot
discover to be satisfied: All this will freely be allowed. But still this is mere
possibility and hypothesis. We never can have reason to infer any attributes,
or any principles of action in him, but so far as we know them to have beenexerted and satisfied. ⁴²
It is clear that Hume’s formal strictures on inferential and analogical arguments were powerfully influenced by the methodological axioms
Scepticism and Natural Religion
69 of Boyle and Newton’s experimental philosophy. Unlike Newton, however, Hume understood that those same axioms of experimental philosophy could be used as an effective weapon against all versions of the a posteriori design argument.
Epicurus claims that if the ‘religious philosophers’ genuinely derive their knowledge of the gods ‘by drawing effects to causes’ from ‘the present scene of things, which is so full of ill and disorder’, then the gods must bear the mark of that present ill and disorder. The religious philosophers are not entitled to speculate about a future state in which worldly ills may be rectified and explained, nor are they entitled to speculate about the infinite mercy, justice, or love of their gods, since we are only rationally acquainted with a finite world in which misery and injustice are omnipresent. If a knowledge of God is granted beyond that which is known by inference from the visible universe (i.e. through tradition and scripture in the classic formula of Anglican authority), then the problem of evil can be, at least, reconciled with God’s supreme perfections. Without such a reliance on a super-rational authority, the gods appear like mirror images of the world we know and inhabit:
When priests and poets, supported by your authority, O Athenians, talk of
a golden or silver age, which preceded the present state of vice and misery, I
hear them with attention and with reverence. But when philosophers, who
pretend to neglect authority, and to cultivate reason, hold the same discourse,
I pay them not, I own, the same obsequious submission and pious deference.
I ask; who carried them into the celestial regions, who admitted them into
the councils of the gods, who opened to them the book of fate, that they thus
rashly affirm, that their deities have executed, or will execute, any purposebeyond what has actually appeared?⁴³
If religious philosophers choose to neglect authority, and to retain only the knowledge of God that can be rationally inferred from the course of nature, then ultimately, Epicurus argues, they ‘embrace a principle, which is both uncertain and useless’. The knowledge is ‘uncertain’ because ‘the subject lies entirely beyond the reach of human experience’; the knowledge is ‘useless’, because if all we really know of God is that He is powerful, intelligent, and rational, then the
70 Scepticism and Natural Religion
Athenians will be unable to ‘establish any new principles of conduct and behaviour’ leading, perhaps, to a fatal moral agnosticism.⁴⁴
Epicurus begins to dismantle the supposed analogy between God and human beings at this point, suggesting that the only God we are rationally capable of knowing—Newton’s divine geometrician and mechanic—does not possess any of the moral attributes that we are capable of worshipping. The Athenian people are not entitled to infer a morally anthropomorphic deity from an ambiguous world in which the wicked are not always punished, nor the virtuous always rewarded.
Hume’s next move, in response to Epicurus’ ‘harangue’, is to make the analogical foundation of the argument from design explicit:
If you saw, for instance, a half-finished building, surrounded with heaps of
brick and stone and mortar, and all the instruments of masonry; could you
not infer from the effect, that it was a work of design and contrivance? And
could you not return again, from this inferred cause, to infer new additions
to the effect, and conclude, that the building would soon be finished, andreceive all the further improvements, which art could bestow upon it?⁴⁵
If the present state of the world is genuinely analogous to that
of a half-finished house, as Hume contends (alluding, perhaps, to Joseph Butler’s argument in the Analogy of Religion, 1736), then we may assume that while the world is presently in an imperfect and incomplete state, it still has some preordained end and purpose which will be realized by the divine craftsman in the future.⁴⁶ When we see a house in the process of being built, Hume argues, we can infer with ⁴⁴ Hume, An Enquiry, 194. ⁴⁵ Ibid.
⁴⁶ Joseph Butler’s The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution
and Course of Nature (1736) had a clear influence on Hume’s thinking. On completing
the manuscript of his Treatise of Human Nature in 1737, Hume ‘castrated’ the
recently completed work—removing some ‘Reasonings concerning Miracles’—so
as not to give offence to Bishop Butler. Within the published Treatise itself, Butler
was mentioned among those ‘[p]hilosophers in England who have begun to put the
science of man on a new footing, and have engaged the attention, and excited the
curiosity of the public’. In a letter to David Home (London, 2 Mar. 1737), Hume
wrote ‘Your thoughts and mine agree with respect to Dr Butler, and I would be glad to
be introduced to him. I am at present castrating my work, that is, cutting off its nobler
parts; that is, endeavouring it shall give as little offence as possible, before which, I
could not pretend to put it into the Doctor’s hands.’ The Letters of David Hume, ed.
J. Y. T. Greig 2 vols. (Oxford, 1932), i. p 25. In another letter to Home (London, 4
Scepticism and Natural Religion
71 some confidence that it is being intentionally built according to some specific architectural plan, and that at some point in the future it will be completed. If the analogy is legitimate, as Hume suggests, then the existence of providence and a perfect future-state can both be inferred from the world even in its present state of ‘ill and disorder’.
However, it is precisely the legitimacy of the analogy that Epicurus now vehemently denies. It is because we have seen and experienced innumerable buildings at various stages of construction, completion, and dilapidation that we are entitled to speak of ‘architectural plans’, and make inferences about the minds and intentions of their archi- tects and builders. But we have never seen other worlds being built, or even architectural plans for such future worlds, and we cannot claim to have had any insight into the mind and intentions of any god-like being, since ‘the subject lies entirely beyond the reach of human experience’. Epicurus deploys what Gaskin calls the ‘unique cause objection’ to undermine all but a minimal analogy between our singular experience of the natural world, and our prosaic familiarity with human artefacts:
In works of human art and contrivance, it is allowable to advance from the
effect to the cause, and returning back from the cause, to form new inferences
concerning the effect, and examine the alterations, which it has probably
undergone, or may still undergo. But what is the foundation of this method
of reasoning? Plainly this; that man is a being, whom we know by experience,
whose motives and designs we are acquainted with, and whose projects and
inclinations have a certain connexion and coherence … . But did we know
man only from the single work or production which we examine, it wereimpossible for us to argue in this manner.⁴⁷
We are able to infer, with some degree of confidence, that a half- built house will one day be completed, because we have experienced,
Butler, ‘I shall not trouble you with any formal compliments or thanks, which would
be but an ill return for the kindness you have done me in writing on my behalf, to one
you are so little acquainted with as Dr Bulter [sic.]; and I am afraid, stretching the
truth in favour of a friend. I have called upon the Doctor, with a design of delivering
him your letter, but find he is at present in the country. I am a little anxious to havethe Doctor’s opinion’; Letters of David Hume, 25.
⁴⁷ Hume, An Enquiry, 195. For a much more detailed explication of the ‘unique
cause objection’ see Gaskin, Hume’s Philosophy of Religion, 20–2.; for a critique of
this ‘unique cause objection’ see R. G. Swinburne, ‘The Argument from Design’,
72 Scepticism and Natural Religion directly or indirectly, the process of building houses on innumerable occasions. We are also able to infer something of the plans, aspirations, and desires of those who design and build such houses, and of those whose houses are being built. This kind of informed guesswork is only mysterious to the most extreme Pyrrhonian sceptic: that human beings know something of the desires and projects of other human beings is not at all surprising. It would, however, be surprising if we were to correctly guess, or even claim to know, of the future aspirations, desires, and attributes of a Being who is only partially and indirectly glimpsed through a single act of creation. Epicurus argues that since the ‘Deity’ is a ‘single being in the universe, not comprehended under any species or genus’, we can make no analogical connections between His being and our own.
T H E H U M E A N ‘ F O R K ’ : A N T H RO P O M O R P H I S M O R AG N O S T I C I S M
Look round this universe. What an immense profusion of beings, animat-
ed and organized, sensible and active! … How hostile and destructive to
each other! How insufficient all of them for their own happiness! How
contemptible or odious to the spectator! The whole presents nothing but
the idea of a blind nature, impregnated by a great vivifying principle, and
pouring from her lap, without discernment or parental care, her maimedand abortive children.⁴⁸
It is a pleasure to me (and I hope to you too) that just reasoning and sound
piety here concur in the same conclusion, and both of them establish the
adorably mysterious and incomprehensible nature of the supreme Being.⁴⁹
The principal strategy pursued throughout Hume’s Dialogues Con-
cerning Natural Religion (1779) is to turn the supra-rational insights
of revealed religion against the a posteriori, probabilistic empiricism of natural religion.⁵⁰ The character Philo, whose scepticism and prin- cipled agnosticism have led most critics to identify him with Hume, ⁴⁸ Hume, Dialogues, 113. ⁴⁹ Ibid. 45.
⁵⁰ This was a popular strategy among deists and freethinkers, amply demonstrated
by Edward Stillingfleet’s Discourse in Vindication of the Doctrine of the Trinity (1697).
Scepticism and Natural Religion
73 engineers a ‘fork’ between revealed and natural religion by convincing the mystic-fideist Demea, and the Newtonian theist Cleanthes, that the respective grounds for their belief in God are mutually exclusive rather than—as was traditionally conceived—supplementary argu- ments that should be advanced in tandem.⁵¹ Demea and Cleanthes are persuaded, by the wiles of Philo, that the only means of consolidating their own respective positions is to undermine each other, rather than pooling a set of compensatory, non-exclusive religious insights that could overcome the deficiencies of either position explored in isola- tion. The overall strategic objective of the Dialogues is to show that neither Demea nor Cleanthes can secure the traditional attributes of God, and that both positions lead, in extremis, either to gross anthro- pomorphism or to a form of agnosticism that is actually synonymous with scepticism.⁵²
atheists nonetheless hid ‘under some shew of Religion’, putting ‘natural religion in
opposition to Revealed’ in order ‘to loosen and unhinge the Faith of Men’; The
Works of … Dr. Edward Stillingfleet (London, 1707–10), p. xlvi.; quoted in Richard
⁵¹ Anthony Flew first described a ‘fork’ that Hume engineered between a priori
and a posteriori questions in philosophy. My use of the term ‘fork’ is significantly
different to that of Flew. See Flew, Hume’s Philosophy of Belief (Bristol, 1993),53.
⁵² There is little critical unanimity on whether or not Hume may be identified
with any one of the characters in the Dialogues. I would suggest that this is because
Hume deploys a basically unreadable form of irony that, like the Dialogues themselves,
can be traced back to a Ciceronian model. In De Oratore, Cicero refers to a form
of urbane dissimulation (urbana dissimulatio), in which what you say is different
from, but not necessarily contrary to, what you mean (De Or. 2. 67. 269–71). In The
Art of Living, Alexander Nehamas provides a brilliant analysis of Ciceronian Irony
which, I would argue, applies equally to the form of irony deployed by Hume in the
Dialogues: ‘In general, he [Cicero] is saying, irony gives the impression that you are
saying something different from (alium, aliter), not contrary (contrarium) to, what
you are thinking. But what it is that you are thinking is thereby left unclear … Irony
allows you simply to refuse to let your audience know what you think and to suggest
simply that it is not what you say. And though that may not amount to deceit as we
most commonly understand it, preventing your audience from knowing what you
actually think is far from constituting ‘‘a meeting with other minds’’ ’. In Nehamas,
The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault (Berkeley, CA, 1998),
55. Isabel Rivers notes that ‘In defending the Treatise early in his career Hume had
insisted that ‘‘a great distinction ought always to be made betwixt a Man’s positive
and avowed Opinions, and the Inferences which it may please others to draw from
74 Scepticism and Natural Religion Philo’s intention to ‘fork’ natural and revealed religion becomes apparent at the beginning of part one of the Dialogues, when he disingenuously praises Demea for his acute insight into the ‘weakness’ and ‘blindness’ of natural reason:
Let us become thoroughly sensible of the weakness, blindness, and narrow
limits of human reason: Let us duly consider its uncertainty and needless
contrarieties, even in subjects of common life and practice: Let the errors
and deceits of our very senses be put before us; the insuperable difficulties,
which attend first principles in all systems: the contradictions, which adhere
to the very ideas of matter, cause and effect, extension, space, time, motion;
and in a word, quantity of all kinds, the object of the only science, that can
fairly pretend to any certainty or evidence. When these topics are displayed
in their full light, as they are by some philosophers and almost all divines;
who can retain such confidence in this frail faculty of reason as to pay any
regard to its determinations in points so sublime, so abstruse, so remotefrom common life and experience? ⁵³
Echoing Calvin, Boyle, and Locke, Philo solemnly expatiates upon the ‘weakness, blindness, and narrow limits’ of ‘this frail faculty of reason’. In mock-piously emphasizing the ‘uncertainty’, and ‘contradictions’ plaguing finite natural reason, Philo seeks to gain the confidence of Demea, while undermining Cleanthes’ conviction that the attributes of the Deity are mirrored in the natural world and that human reason is capable of perceiving them. Unlike the gullible Demea, however, Cleanthes quickly grasps Philo’s underlying strategy since, as Pam- philus observes, ‘I could observe a smile in the countenances of both Demea and Cleanthes. That of Demea seemed to imply an unre- served satisfaction in the doctrines delivered: But in Cleanthes’s features, I could distinguish an air of finesse; as if he perceived some raillery or artificial malice in the reasonings of Philo.’⁵⁴
After Philo’s initial critique of reason and natural religion, directed at Cleanthes, Cleanthes decides to turn his attack on Demea’s mystic- fideist position by drawing explicit historical parallels between the epistemological scepticism of the ancient ‘Academics’, and the theo- logical scepticism of the ‘Reformers’. His intention is to demonstrate
not avowing Philo’s opinions, he in principle made himself doubly secure from hisreader’s inferences’. Rivers, Reason, Grace and Sentiment, ii. 279.
Scepticism and Natural Religion
75 that Demea’s Protestant-inflected fideism has clear affinities with the philosophical scepticism that Philo espouses, and that Philo’s scepti- cal enquiries are the enemy and not the friend of religion, as Demea mistakenly assumes:
After the union of philosophy with the popular religion, upon the first
establishment of Christianity, nothing was more usual, among all religious
teachers, than declamations against reason, against the senses, against every
principle, derived merely from human research and enquiry. All the topics of
the ancient Academics were adopted by the Fathers; and thence propagated
for several ages in every school and pulpit throughout Christendom. The
Reformers embraced the same principle of reasoning, or rather declamation;
and all panegyrics on the excellency of faith were sure to be interlarded with
some severe strokes of satire against natural reason. … The ill use which
Bayle and other libertines made of the philosophical scepticism of the
Fathers and first Reformers, still farther propagated the judicious sentiment
of Mr. Locke: And it is now, in a manner, avowed, by all pretenders to
reasoning and philosophy, that atheist and sceptic are almost synonymous.⁵⁵
As Cleanthes immediately grasps, Philo wants to side with Demea in order to claim that his own ‘severe strokes of satire against natural reason’ have an orthodox religious justification. Philo also wishes to protect himself—and Hume, of course—from any imputation of atheism; he is aided in this task by Demea himself who, at the very beginning of the Dialogues, describes an ideal religious education in terms that distinctly recall the epistemological piety of Calvin, Boyle, and Locke:
To season their minds with early piety is my chief care; and by continual
precept and instruction, and I hope too, by example, I imprint deeply on
their tender minds an habitual reverence for all the principles of religion.
While they pass through every other science, I still remark the uncertainty of
each part, the eternal disputations of men, the obscurity of all philosophy,
and the strange, ridiculous conclusions, which some of the greatest geniuseshave derived from principles of mere human reason.⁵⁶
At the beginning of Part 2, Demea continues his assault on human reason using language that clearly recalls Calvin’s critique of our unaided reasoning powers. We are, Demea argues, ‘[f]inite, weak, and
76 Scepticism and Natural Religion blind creatures, we ought to humble ourselves in his august pres- ence, and, conscious of our frailties, adore in silence his infinite perfections’.⁵⁷ Philo of course is very happy to concur with Demea, both in his views on religious education and in his pious acknowledge- ment of God’s radical transcendence of human attributes. Philo ques- tions the whole analogical foundation of the argument from design, suggesting that the attributes of wisdom, design, and knowledge, which we ascribe to God by inference from the natural world, become
meaningless terms of approbation when applied to God, since He tran-
scends all merely ‘relative’ perfections. Our language, Philo implies, can describe human beings and their finite attributes, for which it was designed, but it cannot adequately describe the ineffable being of God:
[W]e ought never to imagine, that we comprehend the attributes of this
divine Being, or to suppose, that his perfections have any analogy or likeness
to the perfections of a human creature. Wisdom, thought, design, knowledge;
these we justly ascribe to him; because these words are honourable among
men, and we have no other language or other conceptions, by which we can
express our adoration of him. But let us beware, lest we think, that our ideas
in any wise correspond to his perfections, or that his attributes have anyresemblance to these qualities among men. ⁵⁸
Philo’s critique of analogical reasoning, in the passage above, is far more radical than the one developed by Epicurus in the Enquiry. Epicurus was content to suppose that a minimal knowledge of the Deity (His wisdom, intelligence, and power) could be acquired by inference from the known course of nature. Even though the wisdom and power of the Deity far exceeds our own rational capacities, a tenuous analogy between God and mankind can still be inferred from certain posited similarities between their respective productions (i.e. the presence of order and purpose in the universe and in human artefacts). The argument from design in its skeletal form cannot, however, support the traditional religious picture of a just, providential, and loving God (whom the ‘Athenians’ claim to know by the exercise of reason alone); so even this minimal knowledge of the Deity is revealed to be both uncertain and useless: ‘it must evidently appear contrary to all rules of analogy to reason, from the
Scepticism and Natural Religion
77 intentions and projects of men, to those of a Being so different, and so much superior’.⁵⁹
In the Dialogues, Philo makes the more radical claim that the central analogy between the universe and human artefacts, which Epicurus was willing to grant in the Enquiry, is weaker and more uncertain than Cleanthes is prepared to admit:
[W]herever you depart, in the least, from the similarity of the cases, you
diminish proportionably the evidence; and may at last bring it to a very
weak analogy, which is confessedly liable to error and uncertainty … . Stone,
wood, brick, iron, brass, have not, at this time, in this minute globe of earth,
an order or arrangement, without human art and contrivance: Therefore
the universe could not originally attain its order and arrangement, without
something similar to human art. But is a part of nature a rule for another
part very wide of the former? Is it a rule for the whole? Is a very small part a
rule for the universe? Is nature in one situation, a certain rule for nature inanother situation, vastly different from the former?⁶⁰
Philo suggests that there are no rational grounds for supposing that the principle of order found in human artefacts can provide a successful model for understanding the principle of order, if any, displayed by the rest of the universe. It is a transductive fallacy, Philo argues, to assume that the order we discover in ‘this minute globe of earth’ is necessarily repeated throughout the rest of the universe; and if the ‘operations’ of ‘this minute globe of earth’ are not necessarily representative of the rest of God’s creation, then our inferential knowledge of His attributes will be partial and possibly even misleading. Like Locke and Boyle, Philo situates human knowledge within a vast ‘abyss of darkness’. Since we perceive only a tiny fraction of the universe we cannot make determinate judgements about the nature of its author. Philo exposes the sceptical possibilities within Lockean empiricism and the experimental philosophy by turning the methodological axioms of Newtonian science against the argument from design. The presence of order in ‘a part of nature’ provides only a ‘very weak analogy’ for nature as a whole. Natural theology, which expressly relies upon this ‘very weak analogy’ to prove the existence and attributes of God, is therefore a ‘very weak’ argument, Philo implies. In his Lectures on the
78 Scepticism and Natural Religion
History of Philosophy, Coleridge calls Hume ‘one of the followers of
Locke’ who ‘has carried the premise to the natural consequences’.⁶¹
In Part 4 of the Dialogues, Philo’s overall strategy of engineering a damaging antagonism between Cleanthes and Demea reaches fruition. Reeling, perhaps unjustly, from Philo and Demea’s critique of the anthropomorphic bias of natural religion, Cleanthes sets out to expose the emptiness of Demea’s fideism. Cleanthes argues that, in denying any ‘manner of likeness’ between ‘human creatures’ and ‘the Deity’, Demea’s fideism is in fact no different from the views of ‘sceptics and atheists’. All along, Cleanthes has emphasized the importance of the doctrine of the imago Dei in founding any analogical similarity between the Creator and His creatures. In denying this analogical ‘likeness’ between God and His creation, Cleanthes argues, Demea has denied the very foundations of religious knowledge:
It seems strange to me, said Cleanthes, that you, Demea, who are so sincere
in the cause of religion, should still maintain the mysterious, incompre-
hensible nature of the Deity, and should insist so strenuously, that he has
no manner of likeness or resemblance to human creatures. The Deity, I
can readily allow, possesses many powers and attributes, of which we can
have no comprehension: But if our ideas, so far as they go, be not just and
adequate, and correspondent to his real nature, I know not what there is in
this subject worth insisting on. Is the name, without any meaning, of such
mighty importance? Or how do you mystics, who maintain the absolute
incomprehensibility of the Deity, differ from sceptics or atheists, who assert,that the first cause of All is unknown and unintelligible?⁶²
In what approaches a state of desperation, Cleanthes is forced to expose the sceptical possibilities inherent not only within Demea’s mysticism, but also within his own a posteriori argument from design.⁶³ Unless Demea will concede an analogical resemblance between humanity and God, then Cleanthes assumes that there
⁶¹ Coleridge, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, ed. J. R. Jackson (London, 1993),lecture 13, p. 560. ⁶² Hume, Dialogues, 60.
⁶³ Cleanthes’ design argument is first articulated in Part 2 of the Dialogues: ‘Look
round the world: Contemplate the whole and every part of it: You will find it to be
nothing but one great machine, subdivided into an infinite number of lesser machines,
which again admit of subdivisions, to a degree beyond what human senses and faculties
can trace and explain. All these various machines, and even their most minute parts,
Scepticism and Natural Religion
79 will be nothing ‘in this subject worth insisting on’. Unless God’s moral attributes can somehow be preserved from doubt, the sub- stantive core of Christian doctrine and belief will have been lost. Cleanthes is aware that to insist on the frailty of human reason and the incomprehensibility of God (as Demea has) is to side with the only genuine enemy of religion: Philo. In response to this criticism, however, both Demea and Philo can simply point to the corruption of the imago Dei as a consequence of the Fall, and again refuse to except any form of religious knowledge that employs analogical arguments.
Demea, as usual, is blissfully ignorant of the manifold dangers his mysticism entails; he merely observes that ‘anthropomorphite is an appelation as invidious, and implies as dangerous consequences, as the epithet of mystic, with which he has honoured us’.⁶⁴ His next criticism, however, is far subtler. If God’s nature is modelled on human nature, then how is Cleanthes rationally able to determine which aspects of human nature, and which productions of mankind, properly resemble those of God? Perhaps the existence of snakes and scorpions, like the
men, who have ever contemplated them. The curious adapting of means to ends,
throughout all nature, resembles exactly, though it much exceeds, the productions
of human contrivance; of human design, thought, wisdom, and intelligence. Since
therefore the effects resemble each other, we are led to infer, by all the rules of
analogy, that the causes also resemble; and that the Author of nature is somewhat
similar to the mind of man; though possessed of much larger faculties, proportioned
to the grandeur of the work, which he has executed.’ Hume, Dialogues, 45. Cleanthes
conflates the regularity and teleological arguments from design here. He also exposes
the deficiencies in the design argument in the act of articulating it. For instance, he
admits that the complexity and minute ordering of the universe extends ‘beyond
what human senses and faculties can trace and explain’; which immediately invites
the suspicion that the supposed analogy between the universe and human artefacts is
weaker than he admits, and that the supposed analogy between their respective causes
is therefore also proportionally weaker. The weakness of the analogy is suggested again
at the end of the passage where Cleanthes vaguely argues that the ‘Author of nature
is somewhat similar to the mind of man’. Cleanthes’ version of the design argument
is clearly modelled on the work of Newtonian theists such as Cheyne and Maclaurin;see Hurlbutt, Design Hypothesis, 140–5.
⁶⁴ Hume, Dialogues, 60. In Christ and the Hiddenness of God (1971), Don Cupitt
articulates the inevitable tension between agnosticism (Demea) and anthropomor-
phism (Cleanthes) in portrayals of God: ‘Religion desires objectivity but it smashes
idols. It must have imagery to work with: but it must negate it. The demand of faith for
a God who is real, and is a possible object of knowledge, seems to be incompatible with
the other demand of faith for a God who is ineffable, who eludes any representation
80 Scepticism and Natural Religion vicious productions of mankind, suggest a divine cruelty resembling the human. Cleanthes replies that Demea’s alternative mystical vision of divine simplicity reveals a God with no mind or morality at all:
For though it be allowed, that the Deity possesses attributes, of which we
have no comprehension; yet ought we never to ascribe to him any attributes,
which are absolutely incompatible with that intelligent nature, essential to
him. A mind, whose acts and sentiments and ideas are not distinct and
successive; one, that is wholly simple, and totally immutable; is a mind which
has no thought, no reason, no will, no sentiment, no love, no hatred; or in
a word, is no mind at all. It is an abuse of terms to give it that appelation;
and we may as well speak of limited extension without figure, or of numberwithout composition.⁶⁵
By the end of this bitter exchange of views, Philo has engineered a ‘family fork’ between mysticism and anthropomorphism as modalities of religious knowledge; if Cleanthes concedes defeat to Demea, then any concrete knowledge of God is ultimately lost, and with it our capacity for genuine worship. If Demea concedes defeat to Cleanthes, then the infinity, transcendence, and simplicity of God are ultimately lost, and with it a Being that truly merits Christian worship.⁶⁶ As Philo notes at the conclusion of Part 1 of the Dialogues: ‘[i]f we distrust human reason, we have now have no other principle to lead us into religion’.⁶⁷
The consequences of anthropomorphism are plain. If an analogy between the structure of the natural world and the constructions of mankind is pursued, how can reason determine where this resem- blance begins and ends? Philo concludes that Cleanthes’ religious impulse is ultimately narcissistic and idolatrous: he worships a mirror image of his own imagination. But Demea’s mysticism leads to an antithetical impasse, as Cleanthes has repeatedly observed. Unless the ⁶⁵ Hume, Dialogues, 61.
⁶⁶ According to Rivers, ‘In a letter to Gilbert Elliot written at the time of the
composition of the Dialogues, Hume points out that Roman Catholics and Protestants
have undermined each other’s attempts to base religion on reasoning and authority,
but that the answer cannot be to base it on sentiment: ‘‘this were a very convenient
Way, and what a Philosopher wou’d be very well pleas’d to comply with, if he coud
distinguish Sentiment from Education’’ [Letters, ed. Grieg, i. 151, 155]’; Reason, Grace,and Sentiment, 309.
Scepticism and Natural Religion
81 Deity has some substantial resemblance to mankind—and again who can determine where this resemblance will begin or finally end—then faith is left in a vacuum without any real object to believe in or worship. The conclusion of Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion is that analogy is essential to religious belief, but ultimately destructive of that belief as well.⁶⁸ Like Calvin, Philo recommends the wisdom of Simonides:
And can you blame me, Cleanthes, if I here imitate the prudent reserve
of Simonides, who, according to the noted story, being asked by Hiero,
What God was? desired a day to think of it, and then two days more; and
after that manner continually prolonged the term, without every bringing
in his definition or description? … You might cry out sceptic and raillier as
much as you pleased: But having found, in so many other subjects, much
more familiar, the imperfections and even contradictions of human reason,
I never should expect any success from its feeble conjectures, in a subject, sosublime, and so remote from the sphere of our observation.⁶⁹
In a letter to John Prior Estlin written in 1798, Coleridge acknowledged the dangers of philosophical scepticism, stating that, ‘Hume’s system of Causation—or rather of non-causation’ is ‘the pillar, & confessedly, the sole pillar, of Modern Atheism’.⁷⁰
T H E KA N T I A N S U B L I M E
An idea, in the highest sense of that word, cannot be conveyed but by a
symbol; and, except in geometry, all symbols of necessity involve an apparentcontradiction.⁷¹
⁶⁸ Coleridge was himself acutely aware of this problem: ‘God is Absolute Will
essentially invisible or God is a most pure Spirit.—To this point Philosophy by a long
and arduous discipline gradually desensualizing the mind, and emancipating it first
from the tyranny of the Eye, and then of the Imagination may elevate the natural
man. But in order to render this idea of God serviceable as an hypothesis or causa
ultima, much more make it the object of religious hope, fear & confidence, God must
be conceived as the Creator of all things—There must be a transition given from
the Infinite to the Finite. … [W]e must find a sense in which the Finite is not the
incompatible Contrary of what we have hitherto called the Infinite.’ Coleridge, ShorterWorks and Fragments, ii. 900.
⁶⁹ Hume, Dialogues, 51. ⁷⁰ Coleridge, letter to John Prior Estlin, 13 Feb. 1798, CL 231–2.
82 Scepticism and Natural Religion
I meet, I find the Beautiful—but I give, contribute, or rather attribute the
Sublime. No object of Sense is sublime in itself; but only as far as I make it
a symbol of some Idea. The Circle is a beautiful figure in itself; it becomessublime, when I contemplate eternity under that figure.⁷²
At the time of writing his 1801 letters on Newton and Locke to Poole and Wedgwood, Coleridge was also immersing himself in the writings of Hume and Kant. As the editor of Coleridge’s Lectures on
the History of Philosophy notes, ‘[h]e seems to have looked into the
controversy between Locke and Edward Stillingfleet, and into Hume’s
Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. … Most important, how-
ever, is his exploration of Kant, which seems to have overlapped with his critical examination of the claims of Locke and, by exten- sion, of empirical materialism.’⁷³ In chapter 9 of Biographia Literaria, Coleridge acknowledged his intellectual debts to Kantian philosophy: ‘[t]he writings of the illustrious sage of Köningsberg, the founder of the Critical Philosophy, more than any other work, at once invig- orated and disciplined my understanding’.⁷⁴ Among the works that he particularly admired, Coleridge alluded to the Critique of Practical
Reason (1788), the Critique of Judgment (1790)—which he called ‘the
most astonishing of his works’—and Religion Within the Boundaries
of Mere Reason (1793).⁷⁵ In a letter to an unknown correspondent,
written in December, 1811, Coleridge argued that his current lec- tures on literature bore an uncanny resemblance to those of Schlegel because they had both read Kant’s Critique of Judgment: ‘it is only necessary for both to have mastered the spirit of Kant’s Critique of the Judgment to render it morally certain, that writing on the same Subject we should draw the same conclusions by the same trains [of reasoning] from the same principles, write to one purpose & with one spirit’.⁷⁶ Finally, in a letter to James Gooden, written in January ⁷² Coleridge, Shorter Works and Fragments, 596.
⁷³ Coleridge, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, editor’s introduction, p. li.⁷⁴ Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, i, ch. 9, p. 153.
⁷⁵ Coleridge’s Miscellaneous Criticism, ed. T. M. Raysor (London, 1936), 386. As
Michael John Kooy has argued ‘[i[t was from Kant that Coleridge took what would
become the key terms of his own aesthetics, borrowing from the third Critique while
at the same time objecting to its reductively subjective bias’; Coleridge, Schiller, andAesthetic Education (Basingstoke, 2002), 100.
Scepticism and Natural Religion
83 1820, Coleridge offered advice on Gooden’s philosophical researches: ‘I by no means recommend to you an extension of your philosophic researches beyond Kant. In him is contained all that can be learnt.’⁷⁷
The ‘fork’ Hume engineered between Demea’s fideistic mysticism and Cleanthes’ anthropomorphic natural religion finds its most sub- tle philosophical response in Kantian aesthetics and his theory of the Sublime, in particular. Kantian aesthetics acted as a kind of ‘Trojan Horse’ through which Coleridge was forced to confront Humean scepticism. The Critique of Judgment (1790) is, among many other things, an attempt to provide fitting emblems for moral adversity. The central problem confronting any moral agent within the Kan- tian scheme is that ‘Ideas of Reason’ (God, the Immortality of the Soul, Noumenal freedom), since they transcend every possible sen- sible illustration, also transcend the conditions of human knowledge. Kantian aesthetics, in attempting to provide a ‘bridge’ between the
Critique of Pure Reason (1781/7) and the Critique of Practical Reason
(1788), through the mediation of the faculty of Judgement, is always therefore threatened by the existence of an ontological and episte- mological gulf between knowledge and moral responsibility, between what we can know and what we ought to do:
[W]e express ourselves entirely incorrectly when we call this or that object of
nature sublime, even though we may quite correctly call a great many natural
objects beautiful … . For what is sublime, in the proper meaning of the term,
cannot be contained in any sensible form but concerns only ideas of reason,
which, though they cannot be exhibited adequately, are aroused and calledto mind by this very inadequacy, which can be exhibited in sensibility.⁷⁸
In attributing sublimity to objects of the senses, rather than to the mind contemplating such objects, we are guilty of what Kant calls ‘objective subreption’.⁷⁹ The feeling of the sublime is not caused ⁷⁷ Ibid. v. 14. ⁷⁸ Kant, Critique of Judgment, §23, p. 99.
⁷⁹ Kant’s account of Beauty and Sublimity was influenced by British aesthetic
theory. He had probably read Frances Hutcheson’s An Inquiry Concerning Beauty,
Order, Harmony, Design (1725), and had certainly read Edmund Burke’s, Philosophical
Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757). For a detailed
account of Kant’s reading in contemporary aesthetic theory see Paul Guyer, Kant
and the Experience of Freedom: Essays on Aesthetics and Morality (Cambridge, 1993).
See also Andrew Ashfield and Peter de Bolla (eds.), The Sublime: A Reader in
84 Scepticism and Natural Religion by a natural object, but engineered by Reason, which demands of the imagination that it should ‘exhibit’ or symbolize a transcendent Idea. According to Kant’s account of the Mathematical Sublime, for instance, the faculty of Reason attempts to ‘make intuitable for us the superiority of the rational vocation’, by demonstrating that no object of sensibility, however vast, can ever symbolize it. This negative, anti-symbolic presentation of a rational Idea reveals that the faculty of Reason is not bound by the aesthetic limits of the imagination (‘we are compelled to subjectively think nature itself in its totality as the exhibition of something supersensible, without our being able to bring this exhibition about objectively’).⁸⁰ Kant is aware that we are naturally disposed to regard objects in the natural world as being intrinsically sublime, and are apt to confuse our own supersensible nature with objects in the natural world. For Kant, this is a psychological fallacy that must be diagnosed and cured.
T H E DY NA M I C A L S U B L I M E In the case of the dynamical sublime, we are inclined to regard ‘threatening rocks’, ‘thunderclouds’, ‘volcanoes’, and ‘hurricanes’ as sublime because they threaten our empirical selves with destruction. According to Kant, the proper locus of the dynamical sublime is internal. For after an initial feeling of imaginative humiliation, when faced with the overwhelming destructive forces of nature, the soul discovers elements within that can resist such forces, while the mind feels a compensatory feeling of elevation. As Kant puts it, objects of the dynamical sublime ‘raise the soul’s fortitude above its usual middle range and allow us to discover in ourselves an ability to resist which is of a quite different kind, and which gives us courage [to believe] that we could be a match for nature’s seeming omnipotence’.⁸¹
The dynamical sublime is intimately connected with the ethical concerns of practical reason; since it leads us, in Kant’s account, to ‘regard as small the [objects] of our [natural] concerns: property, health, and life’. Confronted with the destructive force of nature,
Scepticism and Natural Religion
85 the dynamical sublime forces us to momentarily transcend all selfish interest in our own empirical welfare, and to subordinate the sensible ‘matter’ of such desires to our formal obligations as free moral agents: ‘it reveals in us … an ability to judge ourselves independent of nature, and reveals in us a superiority over nature that is the basis of a self-preservation quite different in kind from the one that can be assailed and endangered by nature outside us’.⁸² The dynamical sublime teaches us that our ultimate vocation is not within the natural world, whose immanent forces threaten us with destruction, but in a realm of noumenal freedom in which we must strive to realize the highest good under the Moral Law. This connection between the dynamic sublime and respect for the Moral Law is clearly posited by Kant in the Critique of Practical Reason (1788):
Now, the propensity to self-esteem, so long as it rests upon only sensibility,
belongs with the inclinations which the moral law infringes upon. So the
moral law strikes down self-conceit. But since this law is still something
in itself positive—namely the form of an intellectual causality, that is,
of freedom—it is at the same time an object of respect inasmuch as, in
opposition to its subjective antagonist, namely the inclinations in us, it
weakens self-conceit; and inasmuch as it even strikes down self-conceit, thatis, humiliates it, it is an object of the greatest respect. ⁸³
The experience of the dynamical sublime is relatively ‘purposive’ and desirable: ‘Sublime is what, by its resistance to the interest of the senses, we like directly’. Through a subjective disharmony between the faculties of imagination and Reason, the supremacy of the Moral Law over every claim of sensibility is asserted.⁸⁴
The sublime is ‘purposive’ for the faculty of Reason, because in failing to exhibit or symbolize a rational Idea, the imagination allows the universal claims of Reason to present themselves as superven- ing, absolutely, over the narrow claims of worldly happiness, pride, and empirical self-esteem, ‘[f]or human nature does not of itself harmonize with that good; it [can be made to harmonize with it]
⁸² Ibid., §28, pp. 120–1.
⁸³ Mary Gregor (ed.), Critique of Practical Reason, tr. Mary Gregor (Cambridge,1997), iii. 5: 73, p. 63.
⁸⁴ Kant, The Critique of Judgment, ‘General Comment on the Exposition of
86 Scepticism and Natural Religion only through the dominance that reason exerts over sensibility’.⁸⁵ Kant’s strict ethical rigour is presented as a necessary counterweight to a radical evil in human nature. While natural beauty offers the possibility of a benign harmony between the free imagination and the law-bound Understanding, the dynamical sublime demands the subjugation of an unruly will beneath the form of the Moral Law.
Kant’s views on the noumenal freedom of the will, individual ethical responsibility, and the critical limits of natural reason were all partly influenced by his religious upbringing in Lutheran Pietism.⁸⁶ His theory of the dynamical sublime, for instance, is clearly motivated by theological assumptions concerning human nature. There is an innate evil in the human will, Kant argues, that must be ‘humiliated’ and coerced by the faculty of Practical Reason. The dynamical sublime aids this effort by aesthetically ‘presenting’ the vanity (and vulnerability) of our empirical desires for health, pleasure, and worldly success. His more general engagement with Protestant thought, most explicit in Religion Within the Limits of Mere Reason (1793), also clearly influenced the anti-symbolic character of his exposition of the sublime in the Critique of Judgement. In his ‘General Comment on the
⁸⁵ Kant, The Critique of Judgment, ‘General Comment on the Exposition ofAesthetic Reflective Judgments’, 132.
⁸⁶ In German Pietism during the Eighteenth Century (Leiden, 1973), F. E. Stoeffler
provides a detailed historical account of the development of Lutheran Pietism in the
18th-cent. Germany. Phillip Jakob Spener (1635–1705) and August Hermann Francke
(1633–1727) helped to found the University of Halle in Berlin, which became a centre
of Lutheran pietism. Francke was appointed to the chair of Oriental languages in
1692, before becoming professor of theology in 1689. Stoeffler notes that the influence
of Lutheran pietism rapidly spread to East Prussia and the University of Königsberg:
‘[v]ery quickly Lutheran Pietism in East Prussia, and specifically at Königsberg, came
under the theological leadership of a number of very able men’ (ibid. 75). Christian
Wolff was appointed as professor of mathematics in the University of Halle in 1707.
Wolff ’s Leibnitzian rationalism was regarded with considerable suspicion by the
pietists. In a lecture given in July 1721, Wolff argued that natural reason alone could
attain to moral truths. This led Francke to denounce him from the pulpit, and in 1723
Freidrich Wilhelm I expelled and exiled Wolff and his family. Under Friedrich the
Great, Wolff was reinstated at the university in 1740. His most able opponent among
the pietists was Christian August Crusius, professor of philosophy and then theology
at the University of Leipzig from 1744. John Zammito suggests that Kant (who began
lecturing at the University of Königsberg in 1755) was never an ‘orthodox Wolffian’
and that many of his philosophical commitments were developed under the influence
of Crusius. See John Zammito, The Genesis of Kant’s Critique of Judgment (Chicago
Scepticism and Natural Religion
87 Exposition of Aesthetic Reflective Judgments’, for instance, Kant defends his ‘abstract’ account of the mathematical and dynamical sublime, on the grounds that it is the only available means of avoiding the theological charge of idolatry:
We need not worry that the feeling of the sublime will lose [something] if
it is exhibited in such an abstract way as this, which is wholly negative as
regards the sensible. For though the imagination finds nothing beyond the
sensible that could support it, this very removal of its barriers also makes it
feel unbounded, so that its separation [from the sensible] is an exhibition of
the infinite; and though an exhibition of the infinite can never be more than
merely negative, it still expands the soul. Perhaps the most sublime passage
in the Jewish Law is the commandment: Thou shall not make unto thee any
graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven or earth, or under
the earth, etc. This commandment alone can explain the enthusiasm that the
Jewish people in its civilized era felt for its religion when it compared itselfwith other peoples, or can explain the pride that Islam inspires.⁸⁷
Kant prohibits any attempt to anthropomorphize our noumenal selves or God, by presenting these transcendent realities in a ‘sensible’ form. An ‘exhibition of the infinite can never be more than merely negative’, Kant argues. Indeed, the separation of the imagination ‘from the sensible’ is what enables it to feel sublimely ‘unbounded’, in the Kantian account. In insisting that Ideas of Reason must be entirely separate ‘from the sensible’, Kant confronts the Humean ‘fork’ of anthropomorphism and agnosticism, and chooses the latter. The transcendent status of Ideas of Reason can only be preserved through a refusal to countenance any objective analogy between supersensible Ideas and sensible objects. Here, I would argue, we find central elements of the Kantian project that Coleridge found deeply problematic, and which partly accounts for his ambivalent attitude towards symbolic apprehension.⁸⁸
⁸⁷ Kant, Critique of Judgement, 135.
⁸⁸ Modiano argues that ‘[a]lthough Coleridge had his own anxieties regarding
a close attachment to nature and found it important to liberate the mind from a
debilitating dependence on sense objects, he did not find nature either overpowering
like Burke, or ultimately insignificant like Kant and, to a lesser degree, Schiller … . Kant
exerted the most enduring influence on Coleridge’s views on the sublime. But Kant’s
theory presupposed a discontinuity between the sensible and the supersensible worlds
and a blunt power play between man and nature which did not suit Coleridge’s
88 Scepticism and Natural Religion In his discussion of Kant in chapter 9 of Biographia Litera-
ria, Coleridge admitted that ‘An idea, in the highest sense of that
word, cannot be conveyed but by a symbol; and, except in geome- try, all symbols of necessity involve an apparent contradiction’. The ‘apparent contradiction’ resting at the heart of Coleridge’s theory of symbolism in the Biographia, is the notion that the infinite and the finite can somehow be reconciled in an object of sense. There are two fundamental problems confronting this sacramental theory of symbolism, from a rational perspective. If an infinite, indeterminable self can be symbolized by finite objects, then its supersensible status becomes uncertain (a fact that surely motivated Kant’s definition of the sublime). But unless this noumenal self can be present- ed, if only indirectly, in sensibility, then its very existence is put into doubt.
Coleridge managed to avoid the first horn of this dilemma by claiming in chapter 13 of Biographia that the primary imagination was finite, and hence could be exhibited in sensible form. In admitting the mind’s finitude, however, Coleridge was then inexorably confronted with the second and more serious horn of this dilemma. If the human mind is, at bottom, identical with the objects it perceives, he is then unable to preserve the creative autonomy of the imagination, or seriously maintain the active supremacy of the human mind over nature. Coleridge risked falling into the very traps of materialism and Lockean mental passivity that his theory of the imagination had been expressly created to avoid.
In demanding to ‘see’ the self in nature, Coleridge sought the very thing that Kant’s disanalogical and iconoclastic conception of the sublime contrived to prevent. Kant repeatedly argued that to seek symbols of the self in the natural world was an idolatrous impulse that was doomed to failure. Furthermore, he defined the urge to ‘see’ beyond the finite forms of human sensibility as fanaticism (Schwärmerai): ‘fanaticism … is the delusion (Wahn) of wanting to SEE
something beyond all bounds of sensibility’.⁸⁹ Coleridge could derive
little comfort from Kant’s theory of the sublime. If he sought symbols of his own self in the natural world, he became an idolator. If he sought a direct intuition of his own ‘inner’ self, without symbolic
Scepticism and Natural Religion
89 mediation, he became a delusionary fanatic.⁹⁰ Kant’s sceptical theory of the sublime is the philosophical expression of his religious piety; Coleridge acknowledged as much, in his Lectures on the History of
Philosophy: ‘[T]his is Kant’s scepticism. It is a modest humility with
regard to the powers of the intellect.’⁹¹ S Y M B O L I C H Y P OT Y P O S I S
In symbolic hypotyposis there is a concept which only reason can think and
to which no sensible illustration can be adequate, and this concept is supplied
with an intuition that judgment treats in a way merely analogous to the pro-
cedure it follows in schematizing; i.e. the treatment agrees with this procedure
merely in the rule followed rather than in terms of the intuition itself, and
hence merely in terms of the form of the reflection rather than its content.⁹²
Symbolic hypotyposis is the process of providing an indirect illus- tration for those Ideas that transcend all schematic or empirical illustration. Symbols are human creations and they can present ratio- nal Ideas only indirectly, according to Kant. It is impossible for our Judgement either to discover an adequate sensible illustration of a rational Idea in the natural world, or to directly subsume any intuited particular under such an Idea.⁹³ In symbolic hypotyposis, Judgement provides an Idea of Reason with an indirect sensible illustration
⁹⁰ See Anthony J. La Vopa, ‘The Philosopher and the Schwärmer: On the Career
of a German Epithet from Luther to Kant’, in L. E. Klein and A. J. La Vopa (eds.)Enthusiasm and Enlightenment, Huntington Library Quarterly, 60: 85–117.
⁹¹ Coleridge, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, lecture 12, p. 538. ⁹² Kant, Critique of Judgment, §59, 226.
⁹³ As Ted Cohen puts it, ‘A true concept, properly so called, according to Kant,
has what he calls märkmale (marks) by means of which it is attached to its instances.
However these marks are thought of—whether visually, as something like outlines
or patterns to be matched to samples, or more abstractly, as kinds of operational
definitions or rules that can be applied in effective procedures of identification—it
is the mark that links concepts to the instances falling under them. Now a concept
without marks is not really a proper concept. It is called an Idea by Kant, or an Idea
of Reason, or, sometimes, a Rational Concept. That is what we are dealing with here,
a concept without marks, and, consequently, a concept that has nothing strictly falling
under it. That is, it has no direct presentation.’ Cohen, ‘Three Problems in Kant’s
Aesthetics’, British Journal of Aesthetics, 42/1 ( Jan. 2002), 9. Cohen concludes that,
90 Scepticism and Natural Religion by following a procedure ‘analogous to the procedure it follows in schematizing’, that is, ‘merely in terms of the form of the reflection rather than its content’. This rather gnomic definition of symbolism excludes any substantive connection between a symbol (beauty) and the Idea (morality) it indirectly illustrates, while positing a relational similarity in the ‘rule followed’ by the faculty of Judgement (the ‘form of reflection’) in its treatment of both beauty and morality.
Before this obscure claim, made in section 59 of the Critique
of Judgment, can be understood, it is necessary to briefly turn to
chapter 1, theorem IV, of the Critique of Practical Reason, in which Kant distinguishes between the ‘form’ and the ‘matter’ of our moral obligation: ‘the sole principle of morality consists in independence from all matter of the law (namely from a desired object) and at the same time in the determination of choice through the mere form of giving universal law that a maxim must be capable of’.⁹⁴ The sole principle of moral autonomy, Kant argues, is that our moral choices, codified in subjective maxims, must be formulated independently of our empirical desires and inclinations; and, that the choices we elect to make should be entirely determined by ‘the mere form of giving universal law that the maxim must be capable of’.
In section 59 of the Critique of Judgment, Kant lists a number of ways in which our reflection upon the principle of morality harmonizes with the principle of our aesthetic reflection on beauty. Aesthetic judgements are disinterested, subjectively universal, and present, in the apprehension of the mere form of an object, an attunement between the freedom of the imagination and the lawfulness of the Understanding, which is felt subjectively as pleasure. The form of our reflection on beauty is analogous to our reflection on morality, since in a moral judgement ‘we think the freedom of the will as the will’s harmony with itself according to universal laws of reason’.⁹⁵
even indirectly illustrate it. I think Cohen misconstrues Kant’s theory of symbolism
by arguing that he (Kant) is committed to a ‘literal similarity’ between a symbol and
the idea it symbolizes. Cohen rightly argues that Kant’s theory of symbolism is only
successful as a ‘figurative’ device and as a relational ‘statement of analogy’. In my
opinion, however, that is exactly how Kant regarded this theory of symbolism, andhence it is neither incoherent nor a failure. I defend this idea later in this section.
⁹⁴ Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, theorem IV, p. 30.
Scepticism and Natural Religion
91 Our reflection on beauty, with its harmony between freedom and lawfulness, is a benign analogue of the strenuous harmony
(symbolized by the sublime) between personal desire and disinterested obligation that is required by the Moral Law. Most significantly, objects of beauty can symbolize morality because they represent the possibility that, at some level, the natural world harmonizes with our moral concerns and obligations: ‘judgment finds itself referred to something that is both in the subject himself and outside him, something that is neither nature nor freedom and yet is linked with the basis of freedom, the supersensible, in which the theoretical and the practical power are in an unknown manner combined and joined into a unity’.⁹⁶ Natural beauty offers a symbolic bridge between the mechanical lawfulness of nature and the noumenal freedom of human beings, intimating in an obscure and theoretically indeterminate manner the possibility of a supersensible harmony between the two. It is prudent, therefore, to assume that Kant regarded symbolic hypotyposis, and the argument from design, as useful devices for filling a vacuum in the human imagination, while leaving our fundamental ignorance of God intact. This is confirmed when Kant attempts to steer a clear theological path between the post-Humean options of deism and anthropomorphism:
If a mere way of presenting [something] may ever be called cognition (which
I think is permissible if this cognition is a principle not for determining the object
theoretically, as to what it is in itself, but for determining it practically, as to what
the idea of the object ought to become for us and for our purposive employment
of it), then all our cognition of God is merely symbolic. Whoever regards
it as schematic—while including in it the properties of understanding, will,
etc., whose objective reality is proved only in worldly beings—falls into
anthropomorphism, just as anyone who omits everything intuitive falls into
deism, which allows us to cognize nothing whatsoever, not even from apractical point of view [my italics].⁹⁷
According to Kant, the traditional attributes of God, such as ‘under- standing, will etc.’, only have objective reality in ‘worldly beings’. It
⁹⁶ Ibid., §59, p. 229.
⁹⁷ Ibid., §59, p. 228. See also Kant’s essay (first published in Oct. 1786 in
the Berlinische Monatschrift), ‘What does it Mean to Orient oneself in Thinking?’
Collected in Kant, Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason: And Other Writings,
92 Scepticism and Natural Religion is a reflexive knowledge of ourselves, purified and elevated, which we have projected into a void of sensibility. Kant accepts the practical necessity of producing a regulative, symbolic representation of God, but he rejects as anthropomorphic the idea that we should ever ascribe objective reality to such self-made representations, or to fall into the delusion that they can offer knowledge of what God is in Himself.
In Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, Kant argued that ‘it is in no way reprehensible to say that every human being
makes a God for himself’, in a manner that is commensurate with
the objective claims of practical reason. This notion that we should consciously fashion a representation of God, not in order to worship it, but rather to avoid the void of agnosticism, is consistent with Kant’s repeated rejection of anthropomorphism and idolatry, which entails the worship of a sensuous (self-made) image of God or moral freedom. At such moments, we are only worshipping ourselves, Kant maintains. In a late section of Reason, concerned with church-going and the external worship of God, Kant adverts to the dangers of institutional idolatry:
Church-going, thought of as the solemn general external worship of God in a
church, inasmuch as it is a sensuous display to the community of believers,
is not only a means valuable to each individual for his own edification but
also a duty obligating them collectively, as citizens of a divine state which is
to be represented here on earth; provided, that this church does not contain
formalities that might lead to idolatry and can thus burden the conscience,
e.g. certain forms of adoration of God personified as infinite goodness under
the name of a human being, for such sensuous portrayal of God is contrary
to the command of reason: ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any gravenimage, etc.’⁹⁸
Kant accepts the need for churches to provide a ‘sensuous display’ and ‘external worship of God’, while warning against the dangers of a ‘sensuous portrayal’ of God, and ‘certain forms of adoration of God personified as infinite goodness under the name of a human being’. Leaving aside the question of whether or not Kant is refer- ring to Christ here, I suggest that he is quite unable to avoid the Humean ‘fork’ of deism and anthropomorphism, which results from
Scepticism and Natural Religion
93 an attempt either to symbolize God or to entirely prohibit such symbolic representations. By insisting that symbols are merely metaphorical substitutes for the transcendent realities they purport to describe, Kant effectively denies all knowledge of the supersensi- ble. He avoids anthropomorphizing God, but only at the cost of a Philo-like agnosticism.
In the process of symbolic hypotyposis, the mind moves from thought to sensibility, seeking presentation for a rational Idea (of God, Immortality, or Freedom) in the form of a sensible intuition. This process is ‘expressionist’ not ‘impressionist’, John Zammito argues; the mind does not encounter symbols of Reason in the natural world, it creates them.⁹⁹ The triadic analogy between God, human Reason, and the natural world, which provides the theological premises for natural religion as well as for Coleridge’s theory of symbolism, has no objective role in Kantian philosophy. The idea that one can attain knowledge of God, or the self, through the contemplation of nature is diagnosed by Kantian philosophy as a psychological fallacy.
⁹⁹ Zammito, Genesis of Critique of Judgment, 274–5.
In looking at Objects of Nature while I am thinking, as at yonder moon
dim-glimmering thro’ the dewy window-pane, I seem rather to be seeking,
as it were asking, a symbolical language for something within me that already
and forever exists, than observing any thing new. Even when that latter is the
case, yet still I have always an obscure feeling as if that new phænomenon
were the dim Awaking of a forgotten hidden Truth of my inner Nature / It
is still interesting as a Word, a Symbol! It is oγoς , the Creator! and theEvolver!¹
In this famous passage, taken from a notebook entry written in April 1805, Coleridge describes, with simplicity and directness, the raw experience from which his theory of the imagination and its symbol- making powers was constructed. Gazing at the huge Mediterranean moon that loomed above Valetta harbour in Malta, which he could see from his window, Coleridge is ‘seeking’ or ‘asking’ for a ‘symbolical language’ to describe a perhaps ‘forgotten hidden Truth’ of his own ‘inner Nature’. Faintly alluding to the Platonic doctrine of anamnesis or divine ‘recollection’, Coleridge seeks to intuit the ground of a ‘likeness’ he discerns—and an affinity he feels—between his own contemplative mind and the objects in nature he contemplates. This numinous ground, in which both the laws of the mind and the laws of nature are indivisibly united, he terms the Logos: ‘the Creator! And the Evolver!’ ² ¹ CN ii. 2546.
² The word Logos is intimately connected to the idea of a Kosmos. Logos is cognate
‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805
95 Coleridge’s reflections on the symbol tended to be guided by three very general assumptions. First, he assumed that the objects and processes in the natural world, which he observed and discussed throughout his life, possessed an intrinsic significance that was simul- taneously poetic, philosophical, and religious. Whether he was writing about the moon above Valetta harbour or the process of metamor- phosis transforming a caterpillar into a butterfly, Coleridge perceived a spiritual significance within the natural world, which he felt obliged to describe and interpret. In A Common Sky: Philosophy and the Liter-
ary Imagination, A. D. Nuttall describes Wordsworth and Coleridge as
‘figural’ poets. Following Eric Auerbach’s essay ‘Figura’ (1944), Nuttall suggests that ‘[t]he writer of a figural poem does not frame a fictitious series of persons to convey the significance; instead he encounters, in real life, a person or thing which is felt to be quite objectively significant, and this the poet need only describe, literally’.³ According to Nuttall, Auerbach’s essay, ‘has shown us there are two kinds of poetry: first a poetry made with words, and second (and more rarely) a poetry which, before it becomes verbal, is made with perceptions’.⁴ Like
Wordsworth, Coleridge routinely encountered objects in the natural world that he thought possessed an intrinsic, ‘numinous’ significance.⁵
meaning than that. To give a logos or ‘account’ of something means not only to
describe it, but also to be able to give an intelligible reason for why it is the way
it is. Logos is therefore connected both to an order outside of ourselves (embodied
by the Kosmos) and also to the faculty of reason within us that can describe and
more importantly account for this order. The Greek word Kosmos designates the
universe. Its first recorded use is by Heraclitus, though Jonathan Barnes argues that
it was probably used by the first Milesian philosophers: ‘[t]he noun Kosmos derives
from a verb which means ‘‘to order’’, ‘‘to arrange’’ and ‘‘to marshall’’—it is used by
Homer of the Greek generals marshalling their troops for battle. Thus a Kosmos is
an orderly arrangement. Moreover, it is a beautiful arrangement: the word kosmos in
ordinary Greek meant not only an ordering but also an adornment (hence the English
word ‘cosmetic’), something which beautifies and is pleasant to contemplate … The
cosmos is the universe, the totality of things. But it is also the ordered universe,
and it is the elegant universe. The concept of the cosmos has an aesthetic aspect.
( That, indeed, it is sometimes said, is what makes it characteristically Greek.) But
also, and … more importantly, it has an essentially scientific aspect: the cosmos is,
necessarily, ordered—and hence it must be in principle explicable.’ Jonathan Barnes,Early Greek Philosophy (Harmondsworth, 1987), 19.
³ A. D. Nuttall, A Common Sky: Philosophy and the Literary Imagination, (London:(Chatto & Windus for University of Sussex Press, 1974), 111.
96 ‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805 Unlike Wordsworth, however, Coleridge felt obliged to try and explain these moments of symbolic apprehension in philosophical or reli- gious terms; and he was often forced by those same philosophical or religious explanations to distrust the evidence of his own senses.
The theological framework supporting Coleridge’s theory of nat-
ural symbolism has been explored by a number of scholars. In
Coleridge’s Philosophy: The Logos as Unifying Principle, Mary Anne
Perkins suggests that the ‘logos theme’, familiar to Coleridge from his reading in Greek philosophy and the Christian theological tradition, was central to his theory of symbolism after 1805:
He [Coleridge] believed he could show Logos to be the supreme philosophical
principle through which the reality of life and mind could be communicated.
The external world in which humanity finds itself, and the world of thought
through which it finds itself, share the same source. In answer to the materialist
philosophy prevalent in his own time (this, he believed, had developed out
of an obsession with the empirical method as propounded by Newton, Locke
and Hume), he claimed that a principle of life must be presupposed as theground of all phenomena; this principle was Logos.⁶
Like Calvin, Coleridge believed that the rational order, harmony, and beauty of the natural world (ontic-logos) were the objective counterpart of a subjective order and cognitive harmony present within the human mind (logos).
Coleridge’s theory of symbolism assumes, therefore, a complex triadic analogy between the ‘subjective’ structure of the human mind,
⁶ Mary Anne Perkins, Coleridge’s Philosophy: The Logos as Unifying Principle
(Oxford, 1994), 22. Perkins suggests that Coleridge’s ‘Logos idea’ was drawn ‘from the
meanings and functions of the term ‘‘logos’’ in Greek philosophy and from the Logos
of the Christian tradition, based on the fourth Gospel’. She notes that Coleridge was
well read in Patristic theology, particularly Origen, Chrysostom and Augustine, as well
as in ‘Scholastic and Reformation theology’; Ibid. 10–11. Ronald C. Wendling suggests
that, for Coleridge, ‘[p]erceptions of nature are more sensuous and vibrant for being
perceptions of the Logos (the ‘‘communicative intelligence’’ of God) within them than
they would be as perceptions of the natural objects itself ’. He also argues that ‘Coleridge
developed his theories of imagination, symbol, and myth within the context of such
possibilities of religious awareness’. Wendling, Coleridge’s Progress to Christianity:
Experience and Authority in Religious Faith (London, 1995). For more information on
the Logos theme in the Johannine Prologue, see J. Ashton, Studying John: Approaches
to the Fourth Gospel (Oxford, 1994), 5–35; C. H. Dodd, The Interpretation of the
Fourth Gospel (Cambridge, 1953), 263–85; Craig R. Koester, Symbolism in the Fourth
‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805
97 the ‘objective’ structure of the natural world, and the transcendent attributes of their divine creator. Human reason and the rational order realized objectively in the physical constitution of the natural world were ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ expressions of the creative Word of God.⁷ Coleridge was inclined to suggest, as he does in the notebook entry above, that his observations of objects in the natural world were at the same time reflexive observations of his own poetic psyche, and that both self and nature were ‘mirrors’ or ‘images’ of a supersensible realm. In Coleridge, Philosophy and Religion, Douglas Hedley notes that ‘[t]he English word ‘‘reflect’’ is derived from the Latin reflectere, which means to bend or to turn back’.⁸ To ‘reflect’ upon objects in nature, as Coleridge does in the notebook entry, means for the mind to metaphorically ‘bend back’ and reflect upon its own operations while thinking about objects outside of itself. Coleridge believed that this dual consciousness of a world without and a world within, present in acts of reflection, implied a fundamental congruence between mind and world. Hedley observes that ‘[t]he term reflection can also mean mirroring’, and that viewing your own self ‘can only be done through objects like mirrors through which the eye can see both the object and itself’.⁹ In Coleridge’s notebook entry, nature is viewed as an analogue of the self and the self is viewed as an analogue of nature.
While Coleridge seems to be deliberately personifying nature by attributing human-like qualities to otherwise inanimate objects, those same objects play a constitutive role in articulating and defining the very category of ‘personhood’ through which they are purportedly described. In a discussion of the notebook entry quoted above, Raimonda Modiano argues that:
Implicit in Coleridge’s note is the statement that the self would have no way
of recognizing its own activity without physical objects that externalize or
⁷ ‘The mind … then looking abroad into nature finds that in its own nature it has
been fathoming nature, and that nature itself is but the greater mirror in which he
beholds his own present and his own past being … while he feels the necessity of that
one great being whose eternal reason is the ground and absolute condition of the ideas
in the mind, and no less the ground and the absolute cause of all the correspondent
realities in nature’. Coleridge, The Philosophical Lectures of Samuel Taylor Coleridge,ed. Kathleen Coburn (London and New York, 1949), 333–4.
⁸ Douglas Hedley, Coleridge, Philosophy and Religion: Aids to Reflection and theMirror of Spirit (Cambridge, 2000), 110.
98 ‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805
lend ‘outness’, to use a Coleridgean term, to the self ’s internal landscape. In
the absence of sensory signs the truths that lie hidden in the deepest recesses
of consciousness would remain forever buried, while various thoughts and
impressions rising to the surface would be forced to return to the silentregions of the self. ¹⁰
Modiano assumes that the poet’s ‘inner’ world is already fully con- stituted, requiring only a form of physical externalization in ‘sensory signs’ to be made visible. But she chooses to describe the poet’s consciousness as an ‘internal landscape’ full of the ‘deepest recesses’ in which truths about the self may be ‘forever buried’. The spa- tial metaphors which Modiano instinctively employs to describe the topography of Coleridge’s ‘inner’ self imply that the poet’s own mind is being shaped by its encounter with nature, just as nature is being shaped by becoming an object of thought. Coleridge undoubtedly ‘personifies’ nature by transposing mind-like qualities to inanimate objects, but nature also ‘reifies’ and shapes his own poetic psyche. There is a kind of analogical ‘looping’ of the categories of ‘subject’ and ‘object’ in Coleridge’s notebook entry. The contemplative self and the objects it contemplates become mutually constitutive entities, elided by analogical comparison. From Coleridge’s point of view, this eli- sion of concepts of ‘personhood’ and ‘nature’ is to be expected, given the theological framework underpinning his theory of symbolism. According to the Logos doctrine, the same rational principles that shape human subjectivity also shape the objective structure of the natural world. Coleridge might therefore have regarded the analogical looping of ‘subject’ and ‘object’ present within his notebook entry as providing an experiential confirmation of the Logos doctrine.
Although critics tend to be distanced from Coleridge’s theory of symbolism by their own philosophical assumptions concerning subject–object relations, there are points at which the critic’s per- spective on the symbol almost converges with that of Coleridge. In the notebook entry above, there is a clear ambivalence in Coleridge’s description of the moon; an ambivalence which concerns its exact status as a symbolic object. Coleridge shifts from a direct description of the ‘numinous’ quality he perceives in the moon to a conscious reflection upon what this ‘numinous’ quality implies about the self’s
‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805
99 relationship to the natural world. Where we might expect a seamless transition between Coleridge’s first-personal experience of gazing at the moon and his self-conscious explanation of that experience, we discover that the explanation of his experience actually casts doubt upon the experience itself.
This tense negotiation between direct experience and self-conscious
explanation in the notebook entry suggests that Coleridge was both
a ‘participant’ in and an ‘observer’ of his own intellectual life. As a ‘figural poet’, he perceived a spiritual significance within the very fabric of the natural world and posited analogical connections between the objects he contemplated and his own poetic psyche. However, these phenomenological ‘insider’ accounts of symbolic apprehension are generally qualified by another level of self-conscious reflection in which Coleridge attempts to define these experiences in philosophical or religious terms. At this self-conscious level of reflection, Coleridge metaphorically stands outside of his own first-personal experiences and offers what are often equivocal accounts of those experiences. When Coleridge adopts this ‘outsider’ perspective towards his own direct experiences of symbolic vision, he becomes highly attuned to the potential disanalogies dividing natural objects from his own poetic psyche. He is also aware of the disanalogies dividing natural objects from the supersensible realities they purportedly symbolize (i.e. embody and point towards). When Coleridge ‘reflects’ upon his symbolic apprehension of the natural world, he tends to reinscribe the very divisions between self and nature, or between matter and spirit, that were erased at the level of immediate experience. In practice, Coleridge was far less confident in his own symbolic vision of nature than his theoretical statements on the subject seem to suggest.
Like his theory of the imagination formulated throughout the philosophical chapters of Biographia Literaria (1817), the notebook entry above is suffused with an unsettling ambiguity.¹¹ The moon, tentatively selected as a symbol of the poet’s own ‘inner Nature’, is described as being ‘dim-glimmering’, in relation to the ‘dim Awaking’
¹¹ In my doctoral thesis I offered a full account of the philosophical chapters of
Biographia Literaria and also explored Coleridge’s intellectual debt to Schelling. See
Brice, ‘Analogy, Disanalogy and the Coleridgean Symbol: Some Philosophical and
Theological Contexts for Coleridge’s Theory of Symbolism’, D.Phil. thesis, Oxford
100 ‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805 of his being that it apparently provokes and reveals. On closer inspec- tion, this ‘dim-glimmering’ moon seems a frustratingly remote and opaque figure; more a symbol of hermeneutic indeterminacy than that reflexive symbol of the poetic psyche promised by Coleridge’s theory of the imagination. Furthermore, this celebrated encounter between poet and nature is mediated from the start by the intervening ‘dewy window-pane’ (my italics). Interposed between subject and object, the ‘dewy window-pane’ makes the moon appear ‘dim-glimmering’ and enables it to provoke only a ‘dim Awaking’ of the poet’s being. In drawing attention to the window set squarely between symbol and self, Coleridge is perhaps unconsciously echoing the famous verse of St Paul on the meagreness and darkness of earthly knowledge: ‘[f]or now we see though a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known’ (1 Corinthians 13: 12). Describing a paradigmatic moment of symbolic apprehension, Coleridge assumes a doubtful, equivocal tone. He is both a participant and a sceptical observer of his own symbolic vision.
The entire passage rests upon a few delicately balanced textual equivocations. The poet, confronted with a sublime ‘new phæ- nomenon’, ‘seems[s]’ to be presented with a symbol for an unspecified ‘something’, which exists eternally within him. This hermeneutic investigation serves further to engender an ‘obscure feeling’ and ‘dim Awaking’ again of some unspecified ‘hidden Truth’ of his being. The whole emphasis of this famous passage is on an experience that is sought and patiently asked for but never fully received. It is clear that the synthesis of subject and object, which it is incumbent upon the imagination to perform, is threatened by a supervening gulf (symbolized by the ‘dewy window-pane’) dividing the contemplative mind from the objects of its contemplation.¹² Modiano concludes her discussion by arguing that ‘[f]rom the very beginning the landscape is not a purely external environment but a largely emblematic one’.¹³ While it is true that, as readers, we tend to think of this passage as being about symbolism rather than actually describing symbols themselves, it should be recalled that Coleridge is trying to record the numinous significance which he thinks is present within the ‘external’ scene he is describing. He is not consciously projecting or
‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805 101
constructing an ‘emblematic significance’ for natural objects, at least according to his own account. He is attempting, instead, to encounter that significance fully realized in nature. If, like Modiano, we conclude that Coleridge is making the objects he witnesses meaningful by describing them poetically, then his attempt to discover a symbolic spiritual significance in the natural world will have failed.
If we ignore the theological premises grounding Coleridge’s hermeneutic investigation of nature, and concentrate instead upon its practical results, we see that he is unable, on anything oth- er than a figurative level, to discover that analogical relationship between mind and nature postulated by the Logos doctrine. It is certainly intimated that such a numinous relationship exists, and on a rhetorical level he succeeds in impressing us with the sub- lime depths of his own ‘inner’ nature; but this ‘dim-glimmering’ picture of the self is only metaphorically represented by the ‘dim- glimmering’ moon: as readers we are persuaded more by a successful poetic conceit than by a moment of symbolic apprehension. The possibility that haunts Coleridge, and which induces his equivocal language of ‘seeming’, is that the symbolic ‘moon’ is merely an adum- bration of the self projected onto an alien and ex-timate material object:
Hard to express that sense of the analogy or likeness of a Thing which enables
a Symbol to represent it, so that we think of the Thing itself—& yet knowing
that the Thing is not present to us.—Surely, on this universal fact of words
& images depends by more or less mediations the imitation instead of copy
which is illustrated in very nature shakespearianized/—that Proteus Essence
that could assume the very form, but yet known & felt not to be the Thing by
that difference of the Substance which made every atom of the Form another
thing/—that likeness not identity—an exact web, every line of directionmiraculously the same, but the one worsted, the other silk— ¹⁴
In this notebook entry, written in 1804, Coleridge adverts to the subtle interplay of analogical likeness and disanalogical difference on which, he argues, the ‘universal fact of words & images’ depends. Coleridge is thinking, specifically, about the poetic imagination and its symbol-making powers, and also of its greatest historical exponent:
102 ‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805 William Shakespeare. Part of the genius of Shakespeare, according to Coleridge, lay in his ability to distil essential truths about human nature solely through a process of self-examination, and then to embody these multiform truths in the dramatic characters, language, and imagery of his greatest plays and poetry.
Coleridge’s ‘Shakespeare’ is a symbol of the creative powers of the imagination, whose mind is both singular and universal, and whose thoughts are both real and ideal. Shakespeare is a symbol of creative spontaneity and individual autonomy since he was able, according to Coleridge, at least, to thoroughly anatomize human nature simply by turning ‘inwards’ and reflecting upon his own nature by introspection. He also represents a model of poetic ‘selflessness’ or creative self-oblivion, because the protagonists of his dramas and poetry are never merely phantom-proxies for the states and strata of his own voluminous mind, but have their own discrete existence illustrating living truths about human nature in dramatic form.¹⁵ For Coleridge, Shakespeare was the greatest poetic symbolist because in his individual mind all possible minds were contained and bodied forth.
Coleridge clearly makes exaggerated and paradoxical claims about the genius of Shakespeare—he is a thoroughly overdetermined figure of creativity—and so it is sensible to regard ‘Shakespeare’ as an impossible ego-ideal, which enables us to understand Coleridge’s own creative aspirations. According to Coleridge’s account, Shake- speare could voluntarily transport himself, or half-lose himself, in everything he saw or imagined, and by this act of poetic sym- pathy become, momentarily, all things outside of himself.¹⁶ The imagination, however, is pre-eminently an active and idealizing
¹⁵ In a letter to William Sotheby written on 13 July 1802, Coleridge remarked
‘[i]t is easy to cloathe Imaginary Beings with our own Thoughts & Feelings; but to
send ourselves out of ourselves, to think ourselves in to the Thoughts and Feelings of
Beings in circumstances wholly & strangely different from our own / hoc labor, hocopus / and who has atchieved it? Perhaps only Shakespere.’ CL ii. 810.
¹⁶ In a notebook entry from March 1808, Coleridge considers Shakespeare’s power
of imaginative sympathy in more detail: ‘Shakespeare possessed the chief if not all
the requisites of a Poet—namely deep Feeling & exquisite sense of Beauty, both
as exhibited to the eye in combinations of form, & to the ear in sweet and appro-
priate melody [with the except[ion] of Spenser, he is &c]—. That these feelings
were under the command of his own Will —that in his very first productions he
projected his mind out of his own particular being, & felt and made others feel, on
‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805 103
faculty; it modifies and unifies sensory information and blends them with the human intellect and emotions. Having initially projected his own mind and sentiments into the things he contemplated in nature, Shakespeare could transform such images into half-created symbols of his own psyche, which in their final dramatic incarnations offered a blend of ‘inner’ thoughts and feelings with ‘outer’ objects and appearances. This coalescence or ‘co-adunation’ of subject and object was always, for Coleridge, the imaginative ideal. Shakespeare’s imagination was able to ‘mirror’ nature, because nature was fashioned to ‘mirror’ his own polymorphous imagination.¹⁷
Coleridge’s critical distinction between an ‘imitation’ and a ‘copy’ of nature is central to his analysis of the poetic imagination. Shake- speare’s mind was not a passive Lockean ‘blank tablet’, on which the sensible forms of nature simply impressed themselves; it was a cre- ative and expressive faculty ‘blending’ and ‘interfusing’ the outward forms of nature with the head and heart of the poet contemplating them. This dialectical interplay between receptivity and spontaneity on the part of the poetic imagination, and the blending of inner states with outer objects (‘very nature shakespereanized’) which resulted in the completed poetry and dramas, required a theory of analogy and symbolism that could explain, philosophically, how such poetry was even possible: ‘Hard to express that sense of the analogy or likeness of a Thing which enables a Symbol to represent it, so that we think of the Thing itself—& yet knowing that the Thing is not present to us’. Reflecting on Shakespeare, once again, Coleridge is asking how it is possible that we are able to recognize the author in all of his varied creations, and yet at the same time sustain the continu- ing illusion that characters such as Prospero, Hamlet, or Cordelia
that sublime faculty, by which a great mind becomes that which it meditates on’. CNiii. 3290.
¹⁷ In his third lecture on Shakespeare, delivered on 30 Mar. 1808, Coleridge
undertook a psychological exploration of the poetic imagination, listing eight essential
‘Instances of the poetic Power of making everything present to the Imagination’. He
praised Shakespeare in the seventh instance for ‘The describing natural objects by
cloathing them appropriately with human passions’, and this theme continued into
his fourth lecture, delivered on 1 April, where he argued that the imagination ‘acts by
impressing the stamp of humanity, of human feeling, over inanimate Objects’. Lectures
1808–1819: On Literature, ed. R. A. Foakes, 2 vols., Bollingen Series, 5 (Princeton,
104 ‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805 have their own credible, independent existence (a form of fictional autonomy).
Coleridge carefully distinguishes between analogical ‘likeness’ and ‘identity’ in the passage quoted above. Shakespeare, we are told, ‘could assume the very form’ of outward nature and yet still remain self-identical and distinct from it, his protean ‘essence’ intact despite endless poetic metamorphoses. Like a lesser God, Shakespeare is both an immanent and a transcendent creator. All of Shakespeare’s characters point towards their author’s creative imagination, but they cannot be simply identified with his thoughts, or translated without loss into abstract concepts; as such, they perform a symbolic, mediating function. The scholastic categories of form and substance, which Coleridge employs here to describe the ‘likeness not identity’ between a symbol and that which a symbol represents, underscore the quasi-sacramental nature of his theory of poetic symbolism. As J. Robert Barth notes:
Some of the similarities between sacrament and symbol will be strikingly
obvious. A sacrament is a sensible sign—a spoken word of forgiveness, a
ritual gesture, a material object (a piece of bread, a bit of wine)—pointing
to something beyond itself. So, for Coleridge, is a symbol. A sacrament
is an efficacious sign; it actually makes present what it represents—the
grace of God, which is a share in the life of God … so does a symbol. A
sacrament—Baptism, Confirmation, Marriage, the Eucharist—involves the
union of a subject with an object, the faithful recipient and the material sign
in which the grace of God is mediated to the Christian. So does a symbol.¹⁸
Shakespeare transforms the substance of the things he contemplates into representations and ‘echoes’ of his own mind, and yet their form (‘accidents’) or phenomenal appearance remains the same. The poetic mind transubstantiates the world outside the self into symbols
of the self, yet self and world, subject and object, retain their owndistinct identities.
In a letter written to William Sotheby in 1802, criticizing the pastoral poetry of William Bowles, Coleridge begins by criticizing the idea that ‘nature’ may be adequately described or understood by ‘moralizing every thing’, connecting every ‘interesting appearance’
¹⁸ J. Robert Barth, The Symbolic Imagination: Coleridge and the Romantic Tradition
‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805 105
in nature by ‘dim analogies’ with ‘the moral world’. Yet in the next sentence it becomes clear that Bowles’s mistake lay not in his attempt to connect the ‘great appearances in Nature’ with the human intellect and emotions, but in the fact that his emotional or moral response to the natural world was, as it were, ‘tacked on’ to otherwise naturalistic descriptions, using clumsy ‘formal Similies’. In Bowles’s poems, nature and the moral world are discrete, merely contiguous realms, ‘held in solution & loose mixture’ rather than being ‘intimately combined & unified’ as they should be in great poetry:
There reigns thro’ all the blank verse poems such a perpetual trick of
moralizing every thing—which is very well, occasionally—but never to see
or describe any interesting appearance in nature, without connecting it by
dim analogies with the moral world, proves faintness of Impression. Nature
has her proper interest; & he will know what it is, who believes & feels, that
every Thing has a Life of its own, & that we are all one Life. A Poet’s Heart &
Intellect should be combined, intimately combined & unified, with the great
appearances in Nature—& not merely held in solution & loose mixture withthem, in the shape of formal Similies.¹⁹
In his letter to Sotheby, Coleridge maintains two plainly contradictory attitudes towards the poet’s proper relationship to the natural world. Coleridge’s initial criticism of Bowles’s poetry is that he had allowed his own moral preoccupations to obtrude upon his observations and descriptions of nature. Such a habit, Coleridge maintains, ‘proves faintness of Impression’. He goes on to suggest that ‘Nature has her proper interest’ and that the true poet is one ‘who believes & feels, that every Thing has a Life of its own’. This quite reasonable plea for faithful naturalistic description in poetry, and respect for the alterity of nature, immediately segues into the statement that ‘we are all one
Life’. Here the disanalogical aspect of Coleridge’s sensibility—that
part of him responsive to minute differences and distinctions both among the objects he contemplates and between the observer and the world observed—is balanced by an equal and opposite need to discover analogical grounds of ‘likeness’ connecting features of the natural world with the mind that contemplates them (‘we are all
one Life’). Coleridge finally pronounces, rather optimistically, that ‘A
106 ‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805 Poet’s Heart & Intellect should be combined, intimately combined &
unified, with the great appearances in Nature’. The tension in the
phrase ‘intimately combined & unified’ suggests a relationship of the ‘Heart & Intellect’ to the modalities of the natural world that is at once awkwardly mechanical and emotionally tactful and sensitive. It is as if Coleridge cannot decide whether nature is ‘like’ a person, to be loved and intimately understood (analogous), or a mechanism to be minutely analysed (disanalogous):
[P]sychologically my brain fibres, or the spiritual Light which abides in the
brain marrow as visible Light appears to do in sundry rotten mackerel &
other smashy matters, is of too general an affinity with all things / and tho’ it
perceives the difference of things, yet is eternally pursuing the likenesses, or
rather that which is common / bring me two things that seem the very same,
& then I am quick enough to shew the difference, even to hair-splitting—but
to go on from circle to circle till I break against the shore of my Hearer’s
patience, or have my Concentricals dashed to nothing by a Snore—that ismy ordinary mishap.²⁰
As this deflationary and comic notebook entry demonstrates, Coleridge was highly attuned to his own ambivalent psychological needs. He was aware, for instance, of his emotional and cognitive need to be ‘eternally pursuing the likenesses’ of things ‘platonically speaking’, while acknowledging, in the same breath, that he cannot help but perceive ‘the difference of things’. Throughout his life, Coleridge oscillated between a form of poetic agnosticism and an open faith in the potentially world-and-self-disclosing powers of the imagination. This ambivalence about the powers of the imagination could emerge in comic bathos, as in the passage above, but more often in anxiety and self-doubt.
In terms of the imagination, one of the most significant differences between the Shakespearean ego-ideal, and the Coleridgean reality is that ‘Shakespeare’, in Coleridge’s fantasy, at least, could never fail or even need to transcend the boundaries of self, since his heart and mind contained and adumbrated every conceivable human emotion and every possible trajectory of thought. Similarly, Shakespeare would not have had to depend on anything extrinsic to his own ‘inner’ nature
‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805 107
in order to fathom or articulate that ‘inner’ nature. He certainly used natural forms or human characters as a means of illustrating truths about his own inner being, but since what he discovered in himself was also miraculously true for all individuals, at all times, he could never fall into the kind of naïve self-projection that Coleridge feared. Shakespeare was never in any danger of losing himself in the objects he contemplated, or of merely projecting his own being onto the forms of nature; Coleridge, however, was capable of doing just that. He was troubled by the possibility that the ‘affinity’ he felt with nature, conceived of as an organic, teleological system, was no more than a projected self-image narcissistically ‘discovered’ in the natural world.
T H E L E C T U R E S O N R EV E A L E D R E L I G I O N
Their subtle fluids, impacts, essences, Self-working Tools, uncaus’d Effects, and all
Those blind Omniscients, those Almighty Slaves,Untenanting Creation of its God.²¹
Coleridge’s Lectures on Revealed Religion, delivered in Bristol between May and June of 1795, illustrate his early engagement with post- Newtonian natural theology and the a posteriori argument from design. As the editors of the Bollingen edition of the Lectures have shown, one of the most important sources for the ideas and images Coleridge develops over the course of the lectures, alongside the Neoplatonism of Ralph Cudworth’s The True Intellectual System
of the Universe (1678), was Colin Maclaurin’s An Account of Sir
Isaac Newton’s Philosophical Discoveries (1748).²² Published two years
after Newton’s death, Maclaurin’s book, along with George Cheyne’s
Philosophical Principles of Religion: Natural and Revealed (1715),
had provided David Hume with the two principal sources for the
²¹ Coleridge, ‘Contributions to Joan of Arc, by Robert Southey’, Poetical Works,ed. J. C. C. Mays, 2 vols. (Princeton, 2001), i. 211–12.
²² Coleridge, Lectures 1795 on Politics and Religion, ed. Lewis Patton and Peter
108 ‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805 post-Newtonian argument from design developed by the character Cleanthes in the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Coleridge’s
Lectures on Revealed Religion depend, therefore, on the same intellec-
tual sources and argumentative premises that Hume had set out to undermine in the Dialogues. In Lecture 1, Coleridge offers a version of the a posteriori argument from design that is drawn almost verbatim from Maclaurin. Unsurprisingly, Coleridge sounds very similar to Cleanthes in Hume’s Dialogues:
The evident contrivance and fitness of things for one another which we
meet with throughout all parts of the Universe seems to make the belief of
a Deity almost an Axiom. There is no need of nice or subtle Reasonings on
this Subject—a manifest Contrivance immediately suggests a contriver. It
strikes us like a sensation, and artful Reasonings against it may puzzle us,
but never convince … This admirable and beautiful structure of things that
carries irresistible Demonstration of intending Causality, exalts our idea ofthe Contriver—the Unity of the Design shows him to be one. ²³
The language of ‘contrivance’, ‘Design’, and ‘intending Causality’ employed in the passage situates this version of the argument from design firmly within a mechanical-causal and post-Newtonian vision of the universe. As a mathematician, Maclaurin is careful to note that the argument from design makes a belief in a Deity ‘almost an Axiom’ (my italics) and he offsets the impersonality of ‘a Deity’ (my italics) revealed by evidences of contrivance and design in the physical world by simply assuming that ‘the Unity of the Design shows him to be
one’. This spare and august conception of a divine mechanic and geo-
metrician, a mathematician’s idea of a perfect Being, is immediately personified and anthropomorphized by Coleridge’s poetic additions:
Thus the existence of Deity, and his Power and his Intelligence are manifested,
and I could weep for the deadened and petrified Heart of that Man who
²³ Coleridge, 93–4. Cleanthes’s speech, based upon the same passage in Maclaurin,
is as follows: ‘The declared profession of every reasonable sceptic is only to reject
abstruse, remote and refined arguments, to adhere to common sense and the plain
instincts of nature; and to assent, wherever any reasons strike him with so full a
force, that he cannot, without the greatest violence, prevent it. Now the arguments for
natural religion are plainly of this kind; and nothing but the most perverse, obstinate
metaphysics can reject them. Consider, anatomize the eye: survey its structure and
contrivance; and tell me, from your own feeling, if the idea of a contriver does not
‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805 109
could wander among the fields in a vernal Noon or summer Evening and
doubt his Benevolence! The Omnipotent has unfolded to us the Volume of
the World, that there we many read the Transcript of himself. In Earth or Air
the meadow’s purple stores, the Moons mild radiance, or the Virgins form
Blooming with rosy smiles, we see pourtrayed the bright Impressions of theeternal Mind.²⁴
Coleridge now describes a natural landscape as the ‘Volume of the World’ in which God reveals a ‘Transcript of himself’. Reading nature as a visible language, rather than as a contrivance or mechanism, allows Coleridge to remark upon God’s ‘Benevolence’ in addition to the ‘Power’ and ‘intelligence’ that the mechanical-causal argument could manifest. However, it is not clear how it is possible to view the same set of objects, at the same time, as both mechanical contrivances and as a visible language of Deity without falling into hermeneutic difficulties. It is true that in simple causal terms, the relationship between written words and their writer’s intention can be regarded as analogous to the relationship between a watch and the watchmaker’s intention (they are both the inert physical expression of two different intellectual projects), but to describe the natural world as a language, rather than as a bare mechanism, automatically assumes that the world was specifically designed as a vehicle of communication between God and humanity, rather than a machine whose engineering we can appreciate aesthetically without the certainty that it was deliberately made with our appreciation in mind. Furthermore, if Coleridge wants to ‘read’ the language of God in nature as figurative and as expressing a non-arbitrary, even sacramental, relationship between earthly vehicle and spiritual tenor, then this other model of inert mechanism and transcendent mechanic denies the possibility that objects in the natural world can actually communicate something beyond the fact of their having been consciously designed: ‘To the philanthropic Physiognomist a Face is beautiful because its Features are the symbols and visible signs of the inward Benevolence or Wisdom—to the pious man all Nature is thus beautiful because its
²⁴ Coleridge, Lectures, 94. One clear inspiration for the passage above, noted by the
editors of the Bollingen edn., is Mark Akenside’s The Pleasures of Imagination (1772);
other important sources for the passage have been discovered in the writings of David
Hartley, Joseph Priestley, and Bishop Berkeley. See Coleridge, Lectures, footnote 3,
110 ‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805 every Feature is the Symbol and all its Parts the written Language of infinite Goodness and all powerful Intelligence.’²⁵
In Lecture 3, the relationship between divine intentionality and its material expression is described as being analogous to that between facial expressions and the emotional states they represent. Although it is still possible to insist that the causal relationship here is similar to that between a designer and a designed object, since there is no
necessary connection between ‘inward benevolence’ and a particular
facial expression, it is difficult to imagine an entity smiling or frowning and not impute human-like emotional states to them. It is equally difficult to distinguish between emotional states and their physical expression, since a smile seems to be an inextricable part of the happiness or joy it expresses. The image of the divine ‘book’ or ‘face’ of nature seems to collapse any substantive distinction between the ‘mind’ of God and His creation, while the causal-mechanical argument from design still preserves a distinction between God’s purposive intent and the created world He intended.
Coleridge explicitly connects his multivalent image of the ‘book of nature’ to the Logos doctrine of St John in Lecture 5. Following Priestley, Coleridge states:
St John asserts, that in the beginning there was Intelligence, that this
Intelligence was together with God, not an emanation from him, and that
this Intelligence was God himself. [‘‘]All things were made by it and without
this Intelligence was not anything made that was made[’’] … In the visible
World we perceive Life or Power, which Plato calls the Spirit and above
Life, Intelligence which he calls ó oγoς —the same word which St John
uses and which in our Version is rendered by the Word—and above Power
and Intelligence the principle of Benevolence which employs them to the
production of happiness … These three Principles are equally God, and God
is one—a mysterious way of telling a plain Truth, namely that God is a livingSpirit, infinitely powerful, wise and benevolent.²⁶
Rejecting the divine Hypostases of Cudworth, Coleridge describes the ‘Spirit’, ‘Intelligence’, and ‘Benevolence’ of his Unitarian God, not as ‘emanations’ or subordinate demiurges, but as three indivisible ‘Principles’ or aspects of the one Deity. The seminal Word, which called all creation into being and called it ‘Good’, breathed a spirit
‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805 111
of wisdom and benevolence into the natural world that provides it with its deepest grammar and significance. Under the influence of the Cambridge Platonism of Cudworth, Coleridge is instinctively drawn to metaphors that dramatically reduce the distance between God and His creation, and that evade, rhetorically at least, the philosophical problems surrounding the idea of the natural world as a vehicle of communication between God and mankind. Whether nature is the language or the benevolent ‘face’ of God, Coleridge exploits a metaphorical vocabulary that allows him to insist on the legitimacy of regarding the natural world as a translation or transcription of divinity into fully human terms, rather than as an artefact of divine power and intelligence.
In minimizing the distance between God and the natural world in this way, Coleridge always runs the risk of idolatry. Conflating the Creator with His creation is a constant danger in the lectures, because Coleridge is particularly concerned to stress the immanence rather than the transcendence of the divine Logos. Aware of the risks attached to this process of accommodating God to our own creaturely understanding, Coleridge develops a parallel attitude of epistemological piety, occasionally observing the distance between God and His creation as well as the divinely ordained limits of the human intellect. Discussing two principles of atheism in his first lecture, Coleridge dimisses the notion that since our concept of divine agency in the world and of creation ex nihilo generates certain metaphysical problems, and perhaps contradictions, it should therefore be rejected. While Coleridge acknowledges the difficulties of explaining how an immaterial being can act on matter or, if material and finite, how such a being could be omnipresent, he describes these atheistic arguments as the impious product of philosophical hubris:
These men think by this Argument that they have incontrovertibly proved the
impossibility of Divine Existence, when in reality they have demonstrated the
limited nature of the human Intellect—for let us apply the same argument
in the same words to the Cause of Gravitation, or of Magnetism. … Would
it not be absurd from these reasonings to conclude that the Stone fell to
the Earth and the planets revolved round the Sun from no cause, simply
because the Cause is incomprehensible to us? Our nature is adapted for the
112 ‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805
attributes of Causes but their immediate Essence is in all other cases as wellas Deity hidden from us.²⁷
Coleridge’s line of reasoning here, based upon an argument in Maclaurin, is that the idea of divine agency in the world entails no more philosophical problems than the idea of gravitational forces acting at a distance, and since we believe in gravity, despite these apparent contradictions in the concept, we cannot dismiss the idea of God because it presents similar philosophical difficulties. In short, if you can believe in gravity you can believe in God. The problem with this particular line of reasoning is that sceptics had exploited both the framework of Newtonian physics and Newton’s rules for reasoning in natural philosophy, to argue that the mathematical-physical laws of nature previously assigned to the general providence of God could and should be explained solely in terms of the self-regulating action of gravitational forces. Newton’s first rule of reasoning, from the 1687 edition of the Principia, ‘No more causes of natural things
should be admitted than are both true and sufficient to explain their
phenomena’ provided a methodological justification for those radical
deists and freethinkers in the eighteenth century who wanted to argue that the idea of divine providence was both an imponderable and unnecessary hypothesis in natural philosophy.²⁸ In the General Scholium to the second edition of the Principia (1713) Newton had ‘not yet assigned a cause to gravity’, and he defended this reticence by stating that he did ‘not feign hypotheses’ (hypotheses non fingo). According to Newton, ‘it is enough that gravity really exists and acts according to the laws that we have set forth and is sufficient to explain all the motions of the heavenly bodies and of our sea’.²⁹ The natural philosopher, according to Boyle and Newton, should provide provisional explanations of the behaviour of natural phenomena in terms of the action of immanent physical forces and laws. The metaphysical Cause or causes, if any, of those natural forces and laws is not the concern of a scientist.
²⁷ Coleridge, 96–7.
²⁸ Newton continues, ‘As the philosophers say: Nature does nothing in vain, and
more causes are in vain when fewer suffice. For nature is simple and does not indulge
in the luxury of superfluous causes.’ Newton, Principia, 806–7, quoted in Newton,116.
‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805 113
While Newton, on the grounds of piety and methodological scru- ple, was not prepared to venture an opinion on the metaphysical cause of gravitational forces, his silence on the matter generated some misunderstandings of his work. Richard Bentley, for instance, occa- sionally considered gravity to be an inherent property of matter.³⁰ In his second letter to Bentley, written in January 1692, Newton observed warily,‘[y]ou sometimes speak of gravity as essential and inherent to matter: pray do not ascribe that notion to me, for the cause of gravity is what I do not pretend to know, and therefore would take more time to consider of it’.³¹ In An Answer to Mr Clarke’s Third Defence of His
Letter to Mr Dodwell (1708), the freethinker Anthony Collins rejected
Samuel Clarke’s assertion that ‘material impulse cannot be the cause of gravitation’, and argued that the Christian myth of creation ex
nihilo was a more extravagant and conjectural explanation of the
same phenomena. Although, Collins argues, we ‘may be able to aim at some dim and seeming conception, how matter might at first be made, by the power of the External First Being’, we soon discover that such a conception leads ‘too far from the notions on which the philosophy now in the world is built’.³²
Coleridge’s first argument against atheism, therefore, immediately falls victim to Newton’s own first rule of reasoning in natural philos- ophy. The idea of God, whether or not it implies any contradictions, is a ‘superfluous’ explanation, or ‘hypothesis’, for events that can be adequately, or equally inadequately, accounted for in terms of the action of immanent physical forces and laws.³³ Coleridge’s second argument against atheism seeks to dispose, therefore, of the dangers inherent in the first:
But the Phænomena of Nature (they assert) are explicable without a Deity.
Here atheism splits itself into two parties—the first attempt to explain
³⁰ See John Hedley, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge,1991), 146. ³¹ The Correspondence of Isaac Newton, iii. 233–56. Quoted in Newton, 335. ³² Anthony Collins, An Answer (London, 1708), 92.
³³ In a note to his ‘Contributions to Joan of Arc’, Coleridge acknowledges these
dangers himself ‘[i]t has been asserted that Sir Isaac Newton’s philosophy leads in its
consequences to Atheism: perhaps not without reason. For if matter by any powers or
properties given to it, can produce the order of the visible world, and even generate
thought: why may it not have possessed such properties by inherent right? and where
114 ‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805
the formation of the Universe from the accidental play of Atoms acting
according to mere mechanical Laws, and derived the astonishing aptitude
and ineffable Beauty of Things from a lucky hit in the Blind Uproar—even as
you may easily suppose a vast number of Gold & Brass Particles accidentally
commoved by the Wind would after infinite Trials form themselves into apolished and accurate Watch or Timepiece! ³⁴
It is easy to sympathize with Coleridge’s argument that the Epicurean theory of natural order, having emerged from the ‘accidental play of Atoms according to mere mechanical laws’, is a less plausible explanation of the clockwork Newtonian universe than is the idea of divine creation and providential supervision. It should be noted, however, that Coleridge has entirely reorientated the terms of his argument. His first argument against atheism tacitly admitted that the idea of divine providence involved ‘Contradictions’ since, among other things, its proponents could not explain how an immaterial being could act upon and guide inert matter. Coleridge dismissed this argument by pointing to the limited nature of the human intellect, and the fact that we are adapted only to the observation of natural effects and incapable of making inferences about their hidden metaphysical Cause. Having assumed this Demea-like piety in his first argument, in order to avoid the charge of anthropomorphism and idolatry, Coleridge goes on to adopt a Cleanthes-like confidence in that same mode of inferential reasoning in his second argument, in order to avoid the pitfalls of agnosticism. Coleridge manages to evade the Humean fork of anthropomorphism and agnosticism, but only by refusing to squarely confront it.
In Lecture 3, Coleridge invokes Newton, Locke, and Hartley to provide some philosophical prestige for the a posteriori argument from design he has been pursuing:
So what to the eye of Thomas Paine appears a chaos of Unintelligibles Sir
Isaac Newton and John Locke and David Hartley discover to be miraculous
Order, and Wisdom more than human. And again as from the evident and
vast predominance of Good in the natural World, the wise infer that allapparent Discord is but Harmony not Understood.³⁵
Putting aside Coleridge’s misunderstanding of Paine’s Deism, he con- fidently invokes the names of Newton and Locke as philosophical allies
‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805 115
in his attempt to describe the natural world as a ‘miraculous Order’. But as I have argued, Lockean philosophy and the methodological premises of Newtonian physics are both grounded in theological voluntarism and epistemological piety. Stressing the frailties of the finite human intellect and the radical transcendence of God, both thinkers denied that the natural world could be regarded as a sym- bolic medium integrating matter and spirit, God and nature. These metaphysical assumptions are built into the foundations of Newton’s
Regulae Philosophandi, and yet Coleridge invokes Newton’s rules of
reasoning in defence of his own attempts to read God’s handwriting in nature. Drawing on passages from Michaelis’s Introduction to the
New Testament (1793–1801), Coleridge argues:
In natural philosophy we scruple not to adopt that hypothesis as true which
solves Phænomena in a simple and easy manner and if no other can be
produced, that gives a similar solution, the probability amounts to a moral
Certainty. On this principle rests the Truth of the Newtonian System, and
the same principle obtains in Arithmetic. A Rule is given and demonstrated
to be the true one, if it solves all the cases to which it can be applied. Let usadopt this undeniable Principle in our reasoning on Revealed Religion.³⁶
Without wishing to overlabour the irony, Coleridge adopts a method of reasoning to establish the existence and attributes of God which had, itself, been developed in order to decisively separate theological speculation from the domain of natural philosophy. Attempting to discern the benevolent ‘face’ of God behind the laws and forms of the created order, Coleridge employs a method of reasoning that was grounded in a recognition of God’s radical transcendence both of the natural world and of the finite human intellect.
R E L I G I O U S M U S I N G S
The sonnes of Adam are now as busie as ever himself was, about the Tree of
Knowledge of good and evil, shaking the boughs of it, and scrambling for thefruit: whilest, I fear, many are too unmindful of the Tree of Life.³⁷ ³⁶ Ibid. 175.
³⁷ Ralph Cudworth, ‘A Sermon Preached before the House of Commons, March
116 ‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805 Coleridge’s ‘Religious Musings’, written and continuously revised between 1794 and 1803, represents an epic attempt to give poetic utterance to many of the thematic concerns and hopes of the 1795
Lectures on Revealed Religion:³⁸
Fair the vernal Mead, Fair the high Grove, the Sea, the Sun, the Stars; True Impress each of their creating Sire! Yet nor high Grove, nor many-coloured Mead, Nor the green Ocean with his thousand Isles, Nor the starr’d Azure, nor the sovran Sun, E’er with such majesty of portraiture Imag’d the supreme beauty uncreate, As thou, meek Saviour! at the fearful hour When thy insulted Anguish wing’d the prayer Harp’d by Archangels, when they sing of Mercy! (14–24)
Oscillating between anthropomorphism and an imageless ideal of a God beyond human attributes, Coleridge describes the natural world, variously, as the ‘True Impress’ and ‘portraiture’ of the divine, before reminding his readers that the Logos is ‘uncreate’ and therefore only partially ‘Imag’d’ and imaginable through things that are made.
The first six lines, built syntactically through a series of unobtrusive negations and rhetorically by a form of paralipsis, assert and then deny the symbolic adequacy of nature’s visible language. The most ‘majestic’ portrait of God, introduced at the beginning of the poem, is Jesus Christ: ‘For the Great / Invisible (by symbols only seen) / With a peculiar and surpassing light / Shines from the visage of th’oppress’d good Man’ (9–12). Coleridge’s Unitarian beliefs are registered in the discrete repetition of humanizing epithets: Christ is the ‘Man of Woes!’, the ‘Despised Galilæan!’, and finally ‘th’oppressed good Man’ (9–12). This insistence that Jesus was a persecuted man, and not the second Person of the Trinity, also lies behind Coleridge’s deflationary observation that the ‘Great Invisible’ is ‘by symbols
only seen’ (my italics).³⁹ ³⁸ Coleridge, ‘Religious Musings’ (1797 version), Poetical Works, 175.
³⁹ Joseph Priestley heavily influenced Coleridge’s Unitarian beliefs; Priestley was, in
‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805 117
At line 45 of the poem, Coleridge begins a new stanza with a bold avowal of the idea of divine Election:
And blest are they,
Who in this fleshly World, the elect of Heaven,
Their strong eye darting thro’ the deeds of Men,Adore with stedfast unpresuming gaze Him, Nature’s Essence, Mind, and Energy! And gazing, trembling, patiently ascend Treading beneath their feet all visible things
As steps, that upward to their Father’s ThroneLead gradual—else nor glorified nor lov’d.
Coleridge describes the ‘elect of Heaven’ recognizing beneath or behind the ‘deeds of Men’, and the physical forces of the natural world, the Mind and Energy of God. Capable of that symbolic ascent from matter to its providential spirit and essence, the Elect ‘dare know of what may seem deform / The Supreme Fair sole Operant: in whose sight / All things are pure, his strong controlling Love / Alike from all educing perfect good’ (55–8). Coleridge’s Unitarian optimism allows him to preserve a concept of divine Election without its obvious theological corollary: predestined damnation. Some individuals are especially favoured by God, and therefore among the Elect, but none are the arbitrary victims of divine disfavour.⁴⁰ To the loving eyes
the Question Whether the Logos Supplied the Place of a Human Soul in the Person of
Jesus Christ (1759). Lardner’s rational and moving objections to the idea of Christ’s
divinity centre around the crucifixion: ‘The supposition, of Christ being a man, does
also best account for his agony in the garden, and the dark, yet glorious scene of his
sufferings on the cross, and the concluding prayer there: My God, my God, why hastthou forsaken me?’ Ibid. 7–8.
⁴⁰ In Lecture 5 of the Lectures on Revealed Religion, Coleridge, quoting from
Priestley, attacks both the orthodox notion of Christ’s atonement for human sin and
the idea that a meaningful distinction can be made between divine foreknowledge of
events and predestination: ‘[t]o assert therefore with Bishop Butler that Sin is of so
heinous a nature that God cannot pardon it without an adequate Satisfaction being
made to his justice, and the honour of his Laws and Governments, appears to me not
to be Blasphemy only because it is nonsense. He who forsees and permits what he
might have prevented predestines. And is this the all-loving Parent of the Universe,
who mocks the Victims of his Government with a semblance of Justice and predestines
to Guilt whom he had doomed to Damnation’; Coleridge, Lectures 1795 on Politics
118 ‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805 of God, Coleridge suggests, ‘All things are pure’, and from apparent disorder both in the lives of individuals and in the destinies of nations, He is always, and inexorably, ‘educing perfect good’ (58–9).⁴¹
Describing the moral regeneration, through faith, of the Elect, Coleridge describes its effects as an escape from the prison-house of solipsism and self-interest:
Thus from th’Elect, regenerate thro’ faith, Pass the dark Passions and what thirsty Cares Drink up the spirit and the dim regards Self-center. Lo they vanish! or acquire New names, new features—by supernal grace Enrob’d with Light, and naturaliz’d in Heaven.
Coleridge’s argument that the ‘dark’ or ‘evil’ passions manifest them- selves in an imprisoning self-centredness and egotism is affirmed at several key points in the poem. The antithetical notion that spiritual regeneration will issue in self-annihilation and the impartial love of the wider human community is equally frequently asserted: ‘He from his small particular orbit flies / With blest outstarting! From Himself he flies, / Stands in the Sun, and with no partial gaze / Views all
Priestley discussing Romans 7: 7, 8, dismisses the notion of inherited original sin: ‘[i]t
appears to me that the apostle speaks here only of personal character and conduct, and
the effects of them in producing governing habits; but not at all of any corruption or
depravity of the nature of man effected by Adam’s sin, whereby he is become incapable
of doing that which is good, or of pleasing God. … It is readily acknowledged, that
a person who attaches himself to the gratification of his carnal or sensual appetites
and passions cannot perform the will of God, but must daily become more and more
alienated from him, and from his duty: but this is saying no more than that a wicked
man cannot be a good man, or please God so long as he continues wicked’; Ibid. 14.
⁴¹ William Ulmer has provided a very cogent explanation of how free will and
necessity can be reconciled in the Priestleyan scheme: ‘Pristleyan Necessity was a
qualified form of providential optimism. His Necessitarian scheme did not assign
God the role of fixedly determining every event. Necessity merely made God the
origin of moral and physical laws that assimilate events to an overriding harmony
despite their local waywardness—a waywardness expressly presupposed by Priestleyan
gradualism. Priestley’s theodicy was progressive, envisioning a teleological process in
which humankind slowly learned from experience to choose good for themselves. In
the meantime there existed a disjunction, or lagtime, between divine perfection and
human experience. This disjunction manifested itself psychologically as fitful contact
between the finite will and the divine will’. Willliam A. Ulmer, ‘Virtue of Necessity:
‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805 119
creation; and he loves it all, / And blesses it, and calls it very good!’ (109–13). Recalling the divine Word that called the creation into being and in the same breath blessed its goodness, the Elect discover themselves to be ‘Parts and proportions of one wond’rous whole!’ (128). Like the Ancient Mariner, who is relieved from his spiritual privation by unconsciously blessing the surrounding sea, the Elect praise the natural world as ‘God / Diffus’d thro’ all, that doth make all one whole’ (130–1). Those who desire anything less than this ‘Supreme Reality!’, and especially those who fall into worship of the false avatars of ‘Superstition’ and ‘Trade’, are occluding a saving vision of the spiritual and moral order of the creation:
Hiding the present God; whose presence lost, The moral world’s cohesion, we become An Anarchy of Spirits! Toy-bewitch’d, Made blind by lusts, disherited of soul, No common center Man, no common sire Knoweth! A sordid solitary thing, Mid countless brethren with a lonely heart Thro’ courts and cities the smooth Savage roams Feeling himself, his own low Self the whole; When he by sacred sympathy might make The whole one self! self, that no alien knows! (144–54)
The language of rejected filiation here—‘no common center Man’, ‘no common sire’, ‘A sordid solitary thing / Mid countless brethren’—picks up an earlier assertion that to recognize oneself as part of a broader spiritual community fathered by God, immediately ‘fraternizes man’. If God is recognized as the father of mankind and the author of the creation, then every other human being must be recognized as a brother or sister, inmates of the same earthly home. Solitude and individualism, conversely, are both ‘sordid’ and ‘savage’ mockeries of this authentic human family. Against the ‘purity’ of the Elect, whose favoured status in the eyes of God leads to a benign self-extinction and recognition of the moral filiation of all mankind, Coleridge sets the ‘Toy-bewitch’d’ idolaters of their own sole selves.⁴²
⁴² In the ‘Introductory Address’ to Conciones ad Populum (1795), Coleridge again
120 ‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805 Solipsism and loneliness are the psychological symptoms of being ‘disherited’ children, Coleridge argues. Whether the ‘smooth savage’ has actively orphaned himself, or been orphaned by God through a failure to be educated by experience (it is hard to see how a child could disinherit herself), Coleridge describes such a solitaire as being made ‘blind by lusts’, incapable of sympathy with the plight of others, and ‘feeling his own low Self the whole’. A society that lacks a spiritual ‘center’ and ‘moral cohesion’ is one that is composed of such monadic individuals who refuse to acknowledge their wider responsibilities to the whole of which they are single constituent parts.⁴³ The atomized, ‘punctual’ self of Lockean political theory is the equivalent in the moral order of an epicurean universe of anarchic, impenetrable atoms:
If to make aught but the Supreme Reality the object of final pursuit, be
Superstition; if the attributing of sublime properties to things or persons,
which those things or persons neither do or can possess, be Superstition;
then Avarice and Ambition are Superstitions. … In the first age, Men
were innocent from ignorance of vice; they fell, that by the knowledge of
consequences they might attain intellectual security, i.e. Virtue, which is awise and strong-nerv’d Innocence.⁴⁴
Seeking the origins of this unequal distribution of virtue in the world, Coleridge describes a happy fall from a primordial ignorance of vice to a knowledge of the ‘consequences’ of human actions, and finally to the achievement of a habitually ‘wise and strong-nerv’d Innocence’. In this Unitarian moral theodicy, ‘Innocence’ is the strenuous achievement of individual virtue and benevolence while vice is the sum of every individual refusal to move beyond selfish desires and worldly ambitions. Coleridge uneasily combines the idea that Election is a predestined condition for some—‘what’er of mystic good / Th’Eternal dooms for his Immortal Sons’—with the idea that the ‘Virtue’ flowing from such a condition of Election is the product of freely chosen human acts. In fact, Coleridge remains ambivalent
and propagated its principles with unshaken courage! For it was ordained at the
foundation of the world, that there should always remain Pure Ones and uncorrupt,
who should shine like Lights in Darkness, reconciling us to our own nature’. Coleridge,Lectures 1795 on Politics and Religion, 43.
⁴³ See Charles Taylor, ‘Locke’s Punctual Self ’, in Sources of the Self, 159–77.
‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805 121
about the degree to which individuals can be held responsible for either their benevolent or their selfish actions.⁴⁵ In the ‘Introductory Address’ to Conciones Ad Populum (1795),
Coleridge refuses to blame individuals for the ‘errors’ of vice, but praises others for the achievements of virtue:
That vice is the effect of error and the offspring of surrounding circumstances,
the object therefore of condolence not of anger, is a proposition easily
understood, and as easily demonstrated. But to make it spread from the
understanding to the affections, to call it into action, not only in the great
exertions of Patriotism, but in the daily and hourly occurrences of social life,requires the most watchful attentions of the most energetic mind.⁴⁶
Coleridge adopts the position that vice is the product of invidious social inequalities, while admitting that the translation of this abstract political insight into felt experience and consistent political action requires both strenuous moral discipline and the ‘most watchful attentions of the most energetic mind’. Moving from the essential passivity of those under the influence of vice to the active agency of virtuous individuals, Coleridge seems to register doubts in his own doctrine in the act of actively promoting it. If vice is the product of surrounding circumstances, and individuals cannot be held responsible for the errors that ensue from them, how is it possible for other individuals to transcend these same imprisoning circumstances, and to act virtuously in spite of their ‘evil Passions’? Coleridge is perhaps arguing that social and economic privation explains the existence of vice, while those capable of virtue—the socially and economically privileged—are free from such imprisoning circumstances.⁴⁷ However, this oversimplistic equation between vice
⁴⁵ Priestley, however, is unequivocal on this point, ‘We may assure ourselves,
therefore, that God, notwithstanding the love that he bears to men, as his offspring,
will certainly suffer them to perish, and undergo the pains of hell, whatever they are,
rather than save them from that punishment when they die impenitent; and also,
that he will suffer them to die impenitent, rather than employ any other than the
usual natural means of their repentance and reformation. So sacred with him are his
established laws of nature’. Priestley, The Doctrine of Divine Influence on the HumanMind (1779), 14.
⁴⁶ Coleridge, Lectures 1795 on Politics and Religion, 49.
⁴⁷ In the ‘Introductory Address’ to Conciones ad Populum, Coleridge argues,
‘Domestic affections depend on association. We love an object if, as often as we see or
122 ‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805 and societal circumstances cannot account either for habits of vice amongst the privileged classes, or for virtuous individuals who emerge from a socially deprived environment.
Describing the ‘small but glorious band’ of ‘thinking and disin- terested patriots’ in A Moral and Political Lecture (1795), Coleridge reiterates his view that while individuals are not responsible for acts of vice, they are responsible for acts of virtue:
These are the men who have encouraged the sympathetic passions till they
have become irresistible habits, and made their duty a necessary part of their
self interest, by the long cultivation of that moral taste which derives our
most exquisite pleasures from the contemplation of possible perfection, and
proportionate pain from the perception of existing depravation … .Believing
that vice originates not in the man, but in the surrounding circumstances; not
in the heart, but in the understanding; he is hopeless concerning no one—to
correct a vice or generate a virtuous conduct he pollutes not his hands with
the scourge of coercion; but by endeavouring to alter the circumstancesremoves, or by strengthening the intellect disarms, the temptation.⁴⁸
Peter Mann and Lewis Patton, editors of the Bollingen edition of the 1795 Moral and Political Lectures, explicitly link Coleridge’s praise of these ‘thinking and disinterested patriots’ to the character of the ‘Elect’ developed in ‘Religious Musings’. Again, it is not clear how it is possible to argue that the moral character of an Elect individual is predestined from eternity, while maintaining that this same virtuous character is the product of an active and ‘long cultivation of that moral taste which derives our most exquisite pleasures from the contemplation of possible perfection’. If Coleridge
with the charities of Father and Husband, who gaining scarcely more, than his own
necessities demand, must have been accustomed to regard his wife and children, not
as the Soothers of finished labour, but as Rivals for the insufficient meal!’ Coleridge,Lectures 1795 on Politics and Religion, 45.
⁴⁸ Coleridge, 12. In Lecture 1 of the Lectures on Revealed Religion, Coleridge argues
that ‘there is not one Pain but which is somehow or other the effect of moral
Evil … .But whence proceeds this moral Evil? Why was not Man formed without the
capability of it? To this it may be answered that in morals as in Science our Wisdom is
the effect of repeated Errors. Innocence implies the Absence of Vice from the absence
of Temptation. Virtue the Absence of Vice from the knowledge of its Consequences. It
was therefore necessary that Man should run through the Course of Vice & Mischief
since by Experience alone his Virtue & Happiness can acquire Permanence & Security’;
‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805 123
claims that the ‘Elect’ are those predestined to acquire habits of disinterested benevolence then, like those habituated to vice, they cannot be regarded as having any individual moral agency. If Coleridge claims that the ‘Elect’ are not predestined to act virtuously, or to necessarily acquire habits of virtue, then the very concept of Election is effectively meaningless (unless by Election, Coleridge means a kind of secular auto-Election). Whether or not Coleridge’s reflections on virtue and vice are coherent, he does have a clear genealogical account, derived from Hartley and Priestley, to explain how the selfish passions of childhood can be modified into the disinterested habits of benevolence in adulthood:
It is with Virtue precisely as it is with money. Originally money is not
valued but for its use in the procuring of something else, but in old age,
many love and pursue that as an end which at first was only a means. So
virtue is first practised for the pleasures that accompany or the rewards that
follow it—and Vice avoided as hateful from the punishment attached. But in
length of Time by the magic power of association we transfer our attachment
from the Reward to the action rewarded and our fears and hatred from the
Punishment to the Vice Punished. Hence it is that gross self-interest rises
gradually into pure Benevolence, and Appetence of Pleasure into Love ofVirtue.⁴⁹
The egotism and self-interest that can poison an adult life is present in early childhood, Coleridge argues. Children will only pursue socially sanctified activities for the reward of praise. Similarly, they will only avoid socially proscribed activities to avoid the threat of punishment. That disinterested love of virtue, which distinguishes the character of the Elect, is the product of a gradual spiritual education whereby such individuals learn to ‘transfer’ their ‘attachments’ to acts rewarded or punished, rather than to the reward or punishment itself. A similar argument is essayed poetically in ‘Religious Musings’:
So Property began, twy-streaming fount, Whence Vice and Virtue flow, honey and gall. Hence the soft couch, and many-colour’d robe, The timbrel, and arch’d dome and costly feast, With all th’ inventive arts, that nurs’d the soul
124 ‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805
To forms of beauty, and by sensual wants Unsensualiz’d the mind, which in the means Learnt to forget the grossness of the end, Best pleasur’d with its own activity.
In this not entirely convincing analysis, our ‘sensual wants’ for property, food, clothes, and ‘the inventive arts’ are redeemed by the gradual transfer of our love and attention away from the various ends of pure luxury and pleasure to their enabling means. The ‘grossness of the end’ is forgotten, as the mind becomes gradually ‘Unsensualiz’d’, associating pleasure with the pure ‘forms of beauty’ rather than with the carnal appetites they were first created to satisfy. Similarly, the greed, envy, and pride that lead us to collectively plunder the earth for personal profit and to exploit our fellow human beings become themselves the source of a higher good: ‘Their keen necessities / To ceaseless action goading human thought / Have made Earth’s reasoning animal her Lord’ (218–20). Coleridge is developing an argument whereby the ontogenetic evolution of an individual within a family recapitulates the phylogenetic destiny of mankind. Just as the sensual wants of the child are ideally refined into the disinterested benevolence of adulthood, so the selfishness and greed of nations are translated into the cosmopolitan virtues of the ‘family’ of mankind, under the providential supervision of God and the moral and physical order of the universe. The creative vanguards of the coming spiritual community of mankind are the philosophers, poets, and scientists:
From Avarice thus, from Luxury and War Sprang heavenly Science; and from Science Freedom. O’er waken’d realms Philosophers and Bards Spread in concentric circles: they whose souls Conscious of their high dignities from God Brook not Wealth’s rivalry; and they who long Enamour’d with the charms of order hate Th’ unseemly disproportion: and who’er Turn with mild sorrow from the victor’s car And the low puppetry of thrones, to muse On that blest triumph, when the Patriot Sage Call’d the red lightnings from th’ o’er-rushing cloud
‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805 125 Smiling Majestic. Such a phalanx ne’er Measur’d firm paces to the calming sound Of Spartan flute! … .⁵⁰ (224–40)
Benjamin Franklin, architect of the American Revolution and tamer of the lightning bolt, stands metonymically for those benign philoso- phers and Dissenters who, having mastered the order and symmetry of nature’s laws, wished to see an analogous order replicated within the political sphere. A member of the ‘Club of Honest Whigs’ in the 1760s and 1770s, whose membership included leading Dissenters such as Joseph Priestley, Richard Price, Andrew Kippis, James Burgh, and Theophilus Lindsey, Franklin also stands proleptically for those English patriots who had looked to the French Revolution as another benign example of a polis being established and defended on rational rather than martial principles.⁵¹
Among the natural philosophers placed in this select band along- side Franklin, Coleridge mentions Isaac Newton, ‘Adoring Newton his serener eye / Raises to heaven’ (367–8), Joseph Priestley, ‘Lo! Priestley there, Patriot, and Saint, and Sage’ (372), and David Hart- ley, ‘Wisest, he first who mark’d the ideal tribes / Up the fine fibres thro’ the sentient brain / Roll subtly surging’ (369–71). That these ‘Patriot Sages’ are among the Elect is indicated by the fact that they are connected, by contrastive allusion, to the fallen angels in Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667). The defeated angels who ‘move / In perfect phalanx to the Dorian mood’ (1. 549–50), are recalled by
⁵⁰ As Ian Wylie explains, ‘The conjunction of natural philosopher, Dissenter, and
political radical at this time is no coincidence. To dissent from the Articles of The
Church of England in the eighteenth century involved automatic exclusion from civil
and municipal office under the Test and Corporation Acts, and it also excluded a
Dissenter and his sons from university education. In place of the universities the
Dissenters had established Teaching Academies, where standards often rivalled the
older institutions and where, unlike the universities, the modern disciplines such as
mechanics, electrostatics, and chemistry were encouraged. … It is this extraordinary
confidence in the plan of nature which led Priestley and men like him to the
fundamental discoveries of the late eighteenth century. More striking still, though,
was the rational Dissenter’s perception of the parallel that could be made between
their work as natural philosophers and experimentalists, and their hopes for political
and social reform’; Wylie, Young Coleridge and the Philosophers of Nature (Oxford,1989), 49–50.
126 ‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805 Coleridge when he describes his sages and scientists as a ‘phalanx’ which ‘ne’er / Measur’d firm paces to the calming sound / Of Spartan flute!’ This allusion is reiterated a few lines later, when the ‘Kings and the Chief Captains of the World’ are said to be a ‘baleful influence’; this recalls Satan who round hell ‘throws his baleful eyes’ (1. 56), and it suggests that Coleridge regards these Kings and Captains as having a satanic antecedent and influence.⁵² The ‘Kings and Chief Captains of the World’ are introduced at the conclusion of the ‘Religious Musings’ as agents of the coming apocalypse:
The Lamb of God hath open’d the fifth seal:And upward rush on swiftest wing of fire Th’ innumerable multitude of Wrongs By man on man inflicted! Rest awhile,
Children of Wretchedness! The hour is nigh:
And lo! the Great, the Rich, the Mighty Men,
The Kings and Chief Captains of the World,
With all that fix’d on high like stars of Heaven
Shot baleful influence, shall be cast to earth,(304–12)
Turning to the progress of the French Revolution, Coleridge acknowledges its destructive birth pangs: ‘Faith and meek Piety, with fearful joy / Tremble far-off—for lo! the Giant Frenzy / Uprooting empires with his whirlwind arm / Mocketh high Heaven’ (316–19), yet he remains serenely calm. In the economy of historical salvation, the fall of kings and the violence of revolutions will be balanced and reconciled on the scales of divine Justice. Having described the vast overlapping circles of scientific discovery and revolutionary political change spreading irresistibly over the earth, and awaiting the millennium that will not in fact come, Coleridge’s imagination contracts to the smaller concentric circle of a single life. Turning to the ‘favour’d good man in his lonely walk’ (352), who ‘drinks / Strange bliss which he shall recognize in heaven’, Coleridge describes the ‘strange beautitude’ which seizes his own ‘young anticipating heart / When that blest future rushes on my view!’ (355–7). The image of a
⁵² John Milton, Paradise Lost, 1, 549–50, ed. Alistair Fowler, Longman Annotated
‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805 127
horizon, both spatial and temporal, captures the spirit of anticipation in these concluding lines of the poem. At some future point, God’s rule for mankind and mankind’s rules for itself will intersect, and the earth will then become a mirror of heaven. At that same moment the language of nature, history, and God will be finally united. It is this epic vision of integration that the poet anticipates.
The great waves of millennial progress that Coleridge anticipates, and the benevolent character of those who will be the partial agents of this progress, are both rooted in the formative environment of the childhood home, and in the paternal and filial attachments it ought to inculcate in both parent and child. As Coleridge remarks in the third of his Lectures on Revealed Religion:
The filial and paternal affections discipline the heart and prepare it for that
blessed state of perfection in which all our Passions are to be absorbed in
the Love of God. But if we love not our friends and Parents whom we have
seen—how can we love our universal Friend and Almighty Parent whom we
have not seen. … Jesus knew our Nature—and that expands like the circles
of a Lake—the Love of our Friends, parents and neighbours leads us to the
love of our Country to the love of all Mankind. The intensity of private
attachments encourages, not prevents, universal philanthropy—the nearer
we approach to the Sun, the more intense his Rays—yet what corner of theSystem does he not cheer and vivify? ⁵³
Looking for the first circumference of those concentric circles of universal philanthropy and disinterested benevolence that will dis- tinguish the lives of certain favoured individuals, Coleridge discovers it in the ‘filial and paternal affections’ and in the local ‘intensity of private attachments’. It is in the isolated, apparently apolitical, space of the domestic home that the epic-shaping agents of politics and his- tory begin and it is in the apparently intimate sphere of the lyric poem that these public political concerns can find an original and authen- tic expression. Coleridge’s ‘conversation’ poems, often beginning in private domestic spaces and in moods of reflective meditation, find their colloquial voices and the auditor who must ‘overhear’ them, as the consciousness of an individual blends almost imperceptibly with much broader currents of thought and much wider arenas of human
128 ‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805 concern. In a letter written to John Thelwall in December 1796, Coleridge describes the unobtrusive power of this model of domestic retirement: ‘I am not fit for public Life; yet the Light shall stream to a far distance from the taper in my cottage window. Meantime, do
you uplift the torch dreadlessly, and shew to mankind the face of that
Idol, which they have worshipped in Darkness!’⁵⁴
V I P E R T H O U G H T S : P O E M S 1 7 9 8 – 1 8 0 2
I feel strongly, and I think strongly; but I seldom feel without thinking, or
think without feeling. Hence tho’ my poetry has in general a hue of tenderness,
or Passion over it, yet it seldom exhibits unmixed & simple tenderness or
Passion. My philosophical opinions are blended with, or deduced from, my
feelings: & this, I think, peculiarizes my style of Writing. And like everythingelse, it is sometimes a beauty, and sometimes a fault.⁵⁵
Seem to have made up my mind to write my metaphysical works, as my
Life, & in my Life—intermixed with all the other events / or history of themind & fortunes of S. T. Coleridge.⁵⁶
‘Fears in Solitude: Written in April 1798, During the Alarm of an Invasion’, to give it its full title, was the first poem in a quarto pamphlet published by the radical Joseph Johnson later that year. The second and third poems in the sequence were ‘France: An Ode’ and ‘Frost at Midnight’. The ordering of the poems in the pamphlet reversed the chronological order of their composition. ‘Frost at Midnight’ was written in February, followed by ‘France: An Ode’ between March and April, and finally ‘Fears in Solitude’, which Coleridge, according to his own account at least, wrote on 20 April 1798. As the full title of the poem suggests, ‘Fears in Solitude’ addresses a country gripped by the fear of an imminent invasion by Napoleon, just one month after his armies had invaded the neutral Swiss Confederacy (Bern was the final Canton to fall after the Battle of Grauholz in March, and the Helvetic Republic was declared on 21 April). Revolutionary France, ⁵⁴ CL i. 277.
⁵⁵ Coleridge, ‘Letter to John Thelwall 17 December 1796’, CL i. 279.
‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805 129
which Coleridge, along with Price and Priestley, had once hailed as a key co-ordinate in God’s millennial design for human history, had become an imperial aggressor threatening the shores of Great Britain.
‘Fears in Solitude’ begins in a pastoral landscape of ‘vernal’ corn- fields, ‘unripe flax’, and the ‘quiet’ of a ‘spirit-healing nook’.⁵⁷ Subtly shifting between his own present-tense experience and that of a ‘humble man’ in an imaginary past, who might experience for himself these first stirrings of spring, Coleridge writes:
The humble man, who, in his youthful years,Knew just so much folly, as had made His early manhood more securely wise! Here he might lie on fern or wither’d heath,
… And from the Sun, and from the breezy Air,Sweet influences trembled o’er his frame;
And he, with many feelings, many thoughts,Made up a meditative joy, and found Religious meanings in the forms of Nature! (13–24)
Beginning his poem amidst fears of a military invasion, Coleridge chooses to dwell upon the ‘meditative joy’ of a man who has dis- covered ‘Religious meanings in the forms of Nature’. This man is neither the strident prophet of a millennium to come nor the con- fident exegete of historical progress. He is, instead, a ‘humble man’ educated by ‘youthful folly’ into an ‘early manhood securely wise!’ Solitude and security are the first themes the title and introduction of the poem suggest, and Coleridge describes a moral education from green idealism into the ripe humility of adult experience. Turning, reluctantly, from pastoral pieties and the religious joys of solitary meditation, Coleridge anticipates ‘Invasion, and the thunder and the shout, / And all the crash of onset; fear and rage, / And undetermin’d conflict’ (37–9). All this might be soon arriving ‘o’er these silent hills’ and ‘beneath this blessed Sun!’ Apparently written on a single day at Nether Stowey, Coleridge finds himself locked in a present instant poised between bathos and disaster. The conflict is undetermined, which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary means ‘Not author- itatively decided or settled’, ‘still subject to alteration or uncertainty’,
130 ‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805 ‘Not definitely ascertained or identified; uncertain, doubtful’. Part of the enforced humility of the poem stems from the fact that Coleridge can no longer predict the future with any degree of confidence, and he finds himself in an unnervingly contingent present, whose final meaning is yet to be determined.
From this position of acknowledged weakness and intellectual modesty, Coleridge goes on to the offensive, while including himself among those he attacks:
We have offended, Oh! my countrymen! We have offended very grievously,
And been most tyrannous. From east to westA groan of accusation pierces Heaven!
The wretched plead against us; multitudes
Countless and vehement, the Sons of God,Our Brethren! (42–8)
The patriotic claim registered in the possessive ‘my’ of ‘my coun- trymen’, is immediately qualified by reference to the cosmopolitan family of all mankind, ‘the Sons of God, / Our Brethren!’ The export of slavery, disease, and war are acts of subjugation and fratricide within the family of mankind, that will inevitably, and perhaps immi- nently, come back to haunt his nation: ‘Ev’n so, my countrymen! have we gone forth / And borne to distant tribes slavery and pangs, / And, deadlier far, our vices, whose deep taint, / With slow perdition murders the whole man’ (50–3). Instead of placing himself among the ‘purity’ and ‘virtue’ of the Elect, as he seems to do in ‘Religious Musings’, Coleridge again includes himself in the category of things he despises. It is ‘our’ vices, ‘whose deep taint’ corrupts others, and will recoil upon the corrupters themselves. Part of this taint in his country’s moral nature expresses itself in a complete failure of moral imagination and empathy. In lines that speak with equal power to the moral hypocrisy and complacency of our own present conflicts, Coleridge chastizes those who see only the surface of certain words and phrases, and not what these phrases actually denote:
The poor wretch, who has learnt his only prayers From curses, who knows scarcely words enough
‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805 131 Becomes a fluent phraseman, absolute And technical in victories and defeats, And all our dainty terms for fratricide;
Terms which we trundle smoothly o’er our tonguesLike mere abstractions, empty sounds to which We join no feeling and attach no form! As if the soldier died without a wound … As though he had no wife to pine for him, No God to judge him! Therefore, evil days, Are coming on us, O my countrymen!
Ominously alluding to the massed troops across the English Channel, Coleridge offers the conditional possibility that the invasion, if it happens, might be the providential means, or secondary causes, by which God teaches the real meaning of the word ‘war’ through a brutal encounter with its reality: ‘what if all-avenging Providence, / Strong and retributive, should make us know / The meaning of our words, force us to feel / The desolation and the agony / Of our fierce doings?’ (126–9). In 1807, Coleridge recalled some of the critical responses to the poem when it was first published. In particular, he recalls a review by Gifford in 1799, in which he was called a traitor both to his country and to his family:
I was declared in ‘the Beauties of the Anti-Jacobin’ a traitor, and proselytizing
at that, a runagate from his Country, who had denounced all patriotic feelings,
and to quote the very words ‘become a Citizen of the World, & left my children
fatherless, & my Wife destitute’—So much for the candor and ChristianCharity of Mr Gifford, the Author of the Baeviad ….⁵⁸
In fact, despite seeing the hand of providence at work in the machi- nations of Napoleon, Coleridge urges his countrymen to repel the French invaders (‘an impious foe’) and to make themselves belatedly ‘pure’ (140–1). His retrospective criticism of the revolutionaries is that, although they promised freedom, they were ‘themselves too sensual to be free’ (144). Having launched out into these epic specu- lations on war, providence, and divine retribution, the poem slowly
⁵⁸ Quotation from The Beauties of the Anti-Jacobin (1799); quoted in Coleridge,
132 ‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805 contracts and returns, first of all, to an expression of love for his country and in conclusion to an expression of love for his family and home:
And now, beloved Stowey! I behold
Thy church-tower, and, methinks, the four huge elmsClustering, which mark the mansion of my friend; And close behind them, hidden from my view, Is my own lowly cottage, where my babe And my babe’s mother dwell in peace! With light And quicken’d footsteps thitherward I tend, Remembering thee, O green and silent dell! And grateful, that by nature’s quietness And solitary musings, all my heart Is soften’d, and made worthy to indulge Love, and the thoughts that yearn for human kind.
While Gifford had argued in 1799 that an abstract love of mankind had rendered Coleridge completely incapable of loving his country, and unfit to look after his own family (he was travelling abroad in Germany in 1799, the year his son Berkeley died), Coleridge tries to make the opposite case. Returning to his family and home, from his ‘solitary musings’ among the unripe fields, his heart has been made ‘worthy to indulge’ the ‘thoughts that yearn for human kind’. Yearning for his family is elided with his political and religious yearnings for peace and ‘amity’ between nations. Indeed, the Moral
and Political Lectures make it clear that such ‘fraternal’ concern for
his countrymen and for the rest of ‘human kind’ has its genesis and its firmest roots in first love for one’s immediate family, friends, and place.
‘France: An Ode’, first published as ‘THE RECANTATION’ in the
Morning Post on 16 April, but dated to February in the published
quarto pamphlet, included an appended editorial by the editor Daniel Stuart:
It is very satisfactory to find so zealous and steady an advocate of Freedom
as MR. COLERIDGE concurs with us in condemning the conduct of France
towards the Swiss Cantons. Indeed his concurrence is not singular; we know
‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805 133
is the avowal of his sentiments, and public censure of the unprincipled and
atrocious conduct of France. The Poem itself is written with great energy.⁵⁹
As its original title suggests, ‘France: An Ode’ is a poetic apologia. In the pamphlet sequence it replicates the systole and diastole of poetic concern established by ‘Fears in Solitude’ as it seamlessly moves between the solitary meditations of an individual man, and the choric voice of public apostrophe. In fact, the whole published sequence is a perfect mirror of its individual parts with the public ode being immediately preceded by Coleridge’s loving reflections on his home and family at the conclusion of ‘Fears in Solitude’, and then immediately followed by the ‘Abstruser musings’ of the solitary poet in ‘Frost at Midnight’. It is as if Coleridge can now only risk public declamation if it is hemmed in on both sides by the proximate realities of home and family, and by the intimacy of personal affection and knowledge.
Like ‘Fears in Solitude’, the poem begins with the poet fondly recollecting an isolated pastoral idyll:
How oft pursing fancies holy
My moonlight path o’er flowering weeds I wound,Inspir’d beyond the guess of folly
By each rude shape, and wild unconquerable sound!O ye loud waves! and O ye forests high! And O ye clouds that far above me soar’d! Thou rising sun! thou blue rejoicing sky! Yea, every thing, that is and will be free,
Bear witness for me, wheresoe’r ye be, With what deep worship I have still ador’d The spirit of divinest Liberty.
Shrewdly placing himself within a ‘native’ tradition of pastoral pieties (Chaucer, Spenser, and Shakespeare are invoked in his reference to the landscape’s ‘rude shape, and wild unconquerable sound’), Coleridge expresses his final disenchantment with the political vehicles of human emancipation and praises instead the ‘spirit of divinest Liberty’ he perceives in waves, forests, the sun, and the sky. In a version of that
134 ‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805 internalization of apocalypse in romantic literature that M. H. Abrams described in Natural Supernaturalism (1971), Coleridge concludes the poem with another heartfelt apostrophe to the divine spirit of liberty in nature:⁶⁰
And there I felt thee! On yon sea-cliff ’s verge,
Whose pines just travell’d by the breeze above,Had made one murmur with the distant surge— Yes! as I stood and gaz’d my forehead bare,
And shot my being thro’ earth, sea, and air, Possessing all things by intensest love— O Liberty! my spirit felt thee there! (99–105)
This concluding stanza, which returns to the poem’s beginning, is immediately preceded by a religious diagnosis of the failure of the French Revolution. In images that are freighted with symbols of fallenness, Coleridge describes the revolutionaries as lost in darkness, sensuality and madness: ‘The sensual and the dark rebel in vain, / Slaves by their own compulsion! In mad game / They break their manacles, and wear the name / Of Freedom graven on an heavier chain’ (85–8). Coleridge concludes by bluntly rejecting the claim that God is ever present in ‘forms of human Pow’r!’ (92).
In a letter to his brother George, written in March 1798 at the time of the poem’s composition, Coleridge offers a personal recantation of his support of the French Revolution:
Of the French Revolution I can give my thoughts the most adequately in the
words of Scripture—‘A great & strong wind rent the mountains & brake in
pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind; and after
the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: and after
the earthquake a Fire—& the Lord was not in the fire:’ and now (believing
that no calamities are permitted but as the means of Good) I wrap my face in
my mantle & wait with a subdued & patient thought, expecting to hear ‘thestill small Voice,’ which is of God.⁶¹
Coleridge has not renounced his optimistic faith in providence, that from historical events God is always ‘educing perfect good’, but he
⁶⁰ M. H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in RomanticLiterature (New York, 1971).
‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805 135
has renounced faith in himself as a reliable exegete of historical events. Looking back to his support of the French Revolution as a symbol of God’s hand at work in human affairs, he recognizes that he was mistaken.⁶² In ‘Religious Musings’ it was the Patriot Sages and the Elect who could penetrate the veil of matter, and the plot of history, to see the workings of divine benevolence; and though he remains convinced that God is still at work orchestrating earthly affairs through inexorable laws of necessity, he is not among those who are privy to the divine plan. If Coleridge himself is incapable of ‘reading’ symbolic human events, then can he be among the ‘pure’ Elect he admires? It is a ‘subdued & patient’ Coleridge, chastized by his inability to see God’s workings in history that offers in the same letter to his brother George a meditation on ‘original Sin’:
Of Guilt I say nothing; but I believe most stedfastly in original Sin; that
from our mothers’ wombs our understandings are darkened; and even where
our understandings are in the Light, that our organization is depraved, &
our volitions imperfect; and we sometimes see the good without wishing to
attain it, and oftener wish it without the energy that wills & performs—And
for this inherent depravity, I believe, that the Spirit of the Gospel is the solecure.⁶³
As many critics have pointed out, Coleridge’s letters to his brother tend to be governed by pious appeals to his brother’s conservative Anglican sentiments. Even so, apart from a possible caveat concerning the inheritance of Adam’s guilt, on which he chooses to remain silent, Coleridge briskly affirms the fact of ‘original Sin’, whose consequences include a darkening of the human understanding and the depravation
⁶² Seamus Perry has described the poetic effects of Coleridge and his circle’s
embarrassed millennial expectations: ‘their poetry reveals a much more interesting,
paradoxical, and double-minded predicament: the sense of a teleology without ending,
a surviving intuition of the significance or portentousness of objects and events, but
without any clear scheme of the providential arrangement into which they might
justly fit. The twin aspects of a literature of ending that I have described persist, but
changed: the sense of representativeness, of latent revelatory power, now lacks any
interpretative conviction about what that might be, and a continuing preoccupation
with formal endings is accompanied by an apprehension of their evasiveness or
arbitrariness. These may not be prominent features of Coleridgean theory, but they do
distinguish Coleridgean practice and characterise his most original poetry’; Seamus
Perry, ‘Coleridge’s Millennial Embarrassments’, Essays in Criticism, 10 (Jan. 2000), 10.
136 ‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805 of ‘our organization’.⁶⁴ Returning to the poems discussed so far, one word that Coleridge frequently uses to describe and even epitomize this human frailty and corruption is ‘sensual’. In ‘Religious Musings’, he refers to our ‘sensual wants’ (209), in ‘Fears in Solitude’ the French Revolutionaries are described as being ‘too sensual to be free’ (144), while in ‘France: An Ode’ they are described as ‘the sensual and the dark’ (85). As I will show, he returns to this language and imagery in ‘Dejection: An Ode’ (1802). One possible textual source for this equation of human sinfulness with sensuality is Cudworth’s A Sermon
Preached Before the House of Commons (1647):
The Grossenesse of our apprehensions in Spirituall things, and our many
mistakes, that we have about them, proceed from nothing, but those dull
and foggy Stemes, which rise up from our foul hearts and becloud our
Understandings. If we did but heartily comply with Christs commandments,
and purge our hearts, from all grosse and sensuall affections, we should not
look about for Truth wholly without our selves, and enslave ourselves to
the Dictates of this and that Teacher, and hang upon the Lips of men; but
we should find the Great Eternall God, inwardly teaching our souls, and
continually instructing us more and more, in the mysteries of his will: andout of our bellies should flow rivers of living waters.⁶⁵
Cudworth describes the ‘Grossenesse of our apprehensions in Spir-
tuall things’ being caused by our ‘grosse and sensuall affections’.⁶⁶
This statement should be compared with the gradualist optimism of ‘Religious Musings’, where the Elect had ‘by sensual wants / Unsen- sualiz’d the mind, which in the means / Learnt to forget the grossness of the end’ (209–11). In fact, at several points in the poem, Coleridge seems to be drawing on images and themes from Cudworth. When Coleridge imagines a narcissistic ‘savage’ who feels ‘his own low Self the whole’ (151–2), and describes the idolators of ‘Superstition’
⁶⁴ For a penetrating and persuasive account of how Coleridge was able to maintain
the orthodox notion of ‘original Sin’ while claiming, as a Unitarian, that individuals
were not culpable for the inherited sin of Adam (therefore rejecting the orthodox
notion of Christ’s Atonement), see Ulmer, ‘Coleridge’s Unitarian Moral Theory’,(2005), 389–96.
⁶⁵ Ralph Cudworth, ‘A Sermon Preached before the House of Commons. March31, 1647’, Cambridge Platonists, 126.
⁶⁶ Also see Boyle’s references to sensuality in Boyle, Christian Virtuoso, i, Works, xi.
‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805 137
and ‘Trade’ as ‘An Anarchy of Spirits! Toy-bewitch’d, / Made blind by lusts, disherited of soul’ (146–7), he seems to be recalling the following passage from Cudworth:
And therefore it is no wonder if men seem naturally more devoutly affected
tovvard such an Imaginary God, as we have now described, then to the True
Reall God, clothed with his own proper Attributes; since it is nothing but an
Image of themselves, which Narcissus-like they fall in love with: no wonder if
they kisse and dandle such a Baby-god as this, which like little children, they
have dressed up out of the clouts of their own fond Phancies, according totheir own liknesse, of purpose that they might play and sport with it’.⁶⁷
Finally, Coleridge’s claim in ‘Religious Musings’, that the Elect are able to ‘read’ God’s handwriting in history and nature because of the ‘purity’ and spotlessness of their divinely favoured understandings, chimes with another passage from Cudworth:
All the Books and writings which we converse with, they can but represent
spirituall Objects to our understandings; which yet we can never see in their
own true Figure, Colour, and Proportion, until we have a Divine light within,
to irradiate, and shine upon them. Though there be never such excellent
truths, concerning Christ, and his Gospel, set down in words and letters;
yet they will be but unknown Characters to us, untill we have a Living spirit
within us, that can decypher them: untill the same Spirit, by secret Whispersin our hearts, do comment upon them, which did at first endite them.⁶⁸
The familiar, benign Neoplatonism of Cudworth is present in his sense that the ‘light’ of human consciousness is the mirror of a ‘Divine light’ continually returning to its spiritual source. This illumination of the language of God, however, is unequivocally reserved for the Elect in whom the Holy Spirit ‘by secret Whispers in our hearts, do comment upon them, which did at first endite them’. While Cudworth places himself in the company of the Elect with his possessive ‘our hearts’, Coleridge in the poems already discussed has begun to place himself in the company of those fallen. Cudworth can ‘read’ the handwriting of God, because the Holy Spirit, its writer, is secretly whispering its meaning; but Coleridge now situates himself alongside the ‘Toy- bewitch’d’ idolators of themselves. It is not perhaps coincidental that in the letter to his brother George, in which he acknowledges the
138 ‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805 reality of ‘original Sin’, he describes having snapped ‘my squeaking baby-trumpet of Sedition’ whose fragments ‘lie scattered in the lumber-room of Penitence’.⁶⁹
In ‘Frost at Midnight’ these images of fallenness, like the ‘gentle breathings’ of his son, have an insistent under-presence. One of the Shandyesque ambitions of the poem is to make you feel as if you are standing at the poet’s shoulder sharing his consciousness as he writes, while the poem reminds you, all the time, that you are in fact reading a written artefact. The first method of achieving this distancing effect is through unobtrusive narrative ironies that are more characteristic of a comic work of prose fiction than a meditative lyric poem.⁷⁰ At the beginning of the poem, for instance, the reader is seduced into thinking that it has been composed almost in the same midnight moments as the experiences it records (‘The owlet’s cry / Came loud—and hark, again! loud as before’, 2–3). Having started in the past tense and at a temporal distance from the experiences he is narrating, Coleridge, like the narrators of Shamela (1741) or Tristram
Shandy (1760–7), immediately indulges in some unobtrusive frame-
braking (metalepsis) by collapsing this distinction between the time of experience and the time of narration (discourse level and story level).⁷¹ ⁶⁹ CL i. 397.
⁷⁰ A second method is achieved through verbal parallelism. In lines 10–11 of the
poem: ‘Sea, hill, and wood, / This populous village! Sea, and hill, and wood,’ Coleridge
seems to point beyond the words ‘Sea, hill, and wood’ to the objects they describe,
while reminding the reader, through repetition of this phrase, that it is, in fact, onlywords we can see and not the things they denote.
⁷¹ One of the most famous examples of metalepsis in the 18th cent. is in Shamela,
attributed to Fielding, ‘Mrs Jervis and I are just in Bed, and the Door unlocked; if my
Master should come—Odsbobs! I hear him coming in at the Door. You see I write
in the present Tense, as Parson Williams says. Well, he is in Bed between us, we both
shamming a Sleep, he steals his Hand into my Bosom, which I, as if in my sleep, press
close to me with mine, and then pretend to awake.’ Fielding, An Apology for the Life
of Mrs. Shamela Andrews (1741), Henry Fielding: Joseph Andrews and Shamela, ed.
Douglas Brooks-Davies (Oxford, 1970), 318. Coleridge’s love of the novels of Fielding
and Sterne is well known. In a lecture on ‘Wit and Humour’ delivered on 24 Feb 1818,
Coleridge makes some illuminating remarks about Sterne that apply, I would argue,
to ‘Frost at Midnight’. Describing the ‘excellencies’ of Sterne’s digressive anti-method,
Coleridge writes: ‘[a] sort of knowingness, the wit of which depends, first on the
modesty it gives pain to; or secondly, the innocence & innocent ignorance over which
‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805 139
In fact, the narrative strategies of prose fiction are omnipresent in the poem. Susanne Keen describes the kind of narrative mode which Coleridge employs in this poem in relation to prose fiction:
Considering the position of the narrator as ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ the story world
relies upon the idea of narrative level. All narrative fiction has a discourse
level or a textual level and a story world. These distinctions reflect a basic
division within narrative level, as comprised of (at least) a discourse level, a
realm of narrated words-in-order, and the story level, a realm of imagined
actions and agents. Narrators are described according to their relationships
to the other figures in these levels. … Depending on the narrative situation,
the discourse level and the story level may overlap: a self-narrating narrator
who describes his or her experiences consonantly and chronologically createsa story world that very closely resemble the level of the narration.⁷²
To appreciate the technical achievement of ‘Frost at Midnight’, it must be recognized that the poem has a ‘self-narrating narrator’ who describes his experiences consonantly and dissonantly, chronological- ly and achronologically. Not only does Coleridge import the dialogic narrative strategies of prose fiction into an ostensibly monologic lyric
the remaining Good and the encroaching Evil of his nature, a sort of dallying with
the Devil, a fluxionary act of combining Courage and Cowardice. … The bringing
forward into distinct consciousness those minutiae of thought and feeling which
appear trifles, have an importance [only] for the moment, and yet almost every man
feels in one way or another’; Lectures 1808–19, ii. 174. The influence of a tradition
of fideistic scepticism on Sterne’s thought has been recently explored by J. T. Parnell,
‘Swift, Sterne and the Skeptical Tradition’, inThomas Keymer (ed.), Laurence Sterne’sTristram Shandy: A Casebook (Oxford, 2006), 23–50.
⁷² Susanne Keen, Narrative Form, (Basingstoke 2003), 109 Coleridge’s blending
of lyric poetry with the narrative strategies of the novel represents a sophisticated
example of romantic irony at work. Friedrich Schlegel, whose reflections on modern
Socratic irony developed from an appreciation of novelists like Cervantes, Fielding,
and particularly Sterne, described this union in his ‘Critical Fragments’: ‘[m]any of
the very best novels are compendia, encyclopaedias of the whole spiritual life of a
brilliant individual … .And every human being who is cultivated and who cultivates
himself contains a novel within himself. But it isn’t necessary for him to express it
and write it out’; Schlegel, Critical Fragments (1797), 78, in J. M. Bernstein (ed.),
Classic and Romantic German Aesthetics (Cambridge, 2003), 243. See also, Phillipe
Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy, The Literary Absolute: The Theory of Literature
in German Romanticism, tr. Philip Barnard and Cheryl Lester (Albany, NY, 1988),
58–100; Anne K. Mellor, English Romantic Irony (Cambridge, MA, 1980), 12–30;
Thomas McFarland, Romanticism and the Forms of Ruin: Wordsworth, Coleridge, and
Modalities of Fragmentation (Princeton, 1981), 3–55; Michael O’Neill, Romanticism
140 ‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805 poem, he also models his own narrated life experiences generically on the structure of spiritual autobiography, or fictionalized spiritual autobiography.⁷³ The poem has a ‘narrating self’ and a ‘protagonist self’, who sometimes merge and sometimes split, so that Coleridge is both ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ the experiences he narrates, in a narrative mode analogous to that of free-indirect speech:
The thin blue flame Lies on my low burnt fire, and quivers not: Only that film, which fluttered on the grate, Still flutters there, the sole unquiet thing. Methinks, its motion in this hush of nature Gives it dim sympathies with me who live, Making it a companionable form, Whose puny flaps and freaks the idling Spirit By its own moods interprets, everywhere Echo or mirror seeking of itself, And makes a toy of Thought (13–23).
The passage begins with Coleridge directly recording his vision of the ‘thin blue flame’ and the ‘film’ (a piece of soot) that is fluttering on the grate. He simply describes what he immediately apprehends, registering no discernible split between his direct experiences as a ‘protagonist’, and his role as a detached narrator of those experiences. Calling the film the ‘sole unquiet thing’ in the silence and calm of the cottage, he begins to reflect on the processes of his own mind, watching
⁷³ For two excellent historical accounts of the formative presence of spiritual auto-
biographies in early prose fiction see Michael McKeon, ‘Histories of the Individual’,
The Origins of the English Novel 1600–1740 (Baltimore, 1987), 90–131; J. Paul-Hunter,
‘The Self and the World: Private Histories’, Before Novels: The Cultural Context of
Eighteenth-Century English Fiction (New York and London, 1990), 303–24. Susanne
Keen describes the generic structure of fictional autobiography as follows: ‘[i]n one
variety of first-person narrative, the experiencing self is also the protagonist, or the
central character. Often called fictional autobiographies these narrative do not differ
formally from actual autobiographies of real people about their lives, except in the
fictitiousness and preconception of the events narrated. … First-person fiction of this
kind may be either consonant or dissonant, that is, it may present the experiences
of the protagonist-self as reported by a narrating self positioned very close to the
experiences (consonant narration), or it may emphasize the altered perceptions made
possible by a gap in time between experiences and narration (dissonant narration).
‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805 141
himself begin to see, and simultaneously to project, an emblematic significance on to the film’s strange fluttering movements. Now, the speaker of the poem is both ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ his own experiences, simultaneously watching the film, and reflecting on his own mind at work as it translates its erratic movements into a symbol of the poet’s own ‘unquiet’ self. Coleridge is a ‘participant’ and a sceptical, ironic ‘observer’ of his own processes of thought. The fact that the ‘participant’ or ‘protagonist self’ of the poem and the ‘observing,’ or ‘narrating self’ are in fact one and the same speaker generates a powerful narrative dissonance in the poem.
Coleridge’s uncanny recognition that he is ‘unquiet’ amidst the quietness and calm of the cottage is a troubling one. He has been arguing in contemporaneous poems and lectures that it is in the home, and surrounded by objects of love and affection, that virtue and benevolence have their genesis and final end; yet it is only the ‘flaps and freaks’ of the film on the grate that makes it a ‘companionable form’ for the poet. The word ‘make’ is important, since it implies that the ‘dim sympathies’ he sees between himself and the film is simply an act of narcissistic projection that he instantly recognizes and condemns. In lines that recall Cudworth’s statement that such acts of self-projection are a consequence of the Fall, Coleridge watches how his own ‘idling Spirit / By its own moods interprets, every where / Echo or mirror seeking of itself’. Seeking and finding only a mirror or echo of his own moods in the film, Coleridge has simply made another ‘toy of Thought’. In the 1798 edition of the poem, Coleridge includes a passage, derived from Cowper, which expands upon the lines above:
But still the living spirit in our frame, That loves not to behold a lifeless thing, Transfuses into all its own delights It’s own volition, sometimes with deep faith, And sometimes with fantastic playfulness. Ah me! amus’d by no such curious toys Of the self-watching subtilizing mind …
These acts of the ‘self-watching subtilizing mind’ are one of the themes of the poem, embodied in its mode of narration. Part of the
142 ‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805 Coleridge cannot readily distinguish between acts of self-projection onto his immediate environment and recognitions of a ‘dim sympa- thy’ between himself and objects in that environment.⁷⁴ The ‘living spirit in our frame’, we are told, ‘transfuses into all its own delights’ and sometimes this act is done in playfulness and at other times in ‘deep faith’. One of the questions raised by the poem, but not definitively answered, is how the poet is able to distinguish, within his own first-personal experiences, or phenomenal field of awareness, between playful acts of self-projection, whereby an object outside the self is ‘made’ into a symbol of his own watching self, and his claim to have discovered, sometimes with deep faith, such symbols of the self embodied within the very fabric of nature.⁷⁵
If ‘Fears in Solitude’, ‘France: An Ode’, and his March 1798 letter to his brother George begin to explain why Coleridge’s confidence in the French Revolution had been ultimately misplaced, then ‘Frost at Midnight’ begins to explain how he had managed to misread the divine handwriting in history. Finding it so difficult to distinguish between an emblematic significance imposed by his own mind and a symbol ‘discovered’ there, Coleridge begins to understand how it might have been possible either to have misread the symbols of God’s interventions in human history, or to have read that divine inter- vention in to otherwise innocent historical events. Having reflected on this tendency to illusion and error in his own ‘self-watching subtilizing mind’, Coleridge turns his attention to the past:
But O! how oft, How oft, at school, with most believing mind, Presageful, have I gazed upon the bars, To watch that fluttering stranger! and as oft With unclosed lids, already had I dreamt Of my sweet birth-place, and the old church-tower, Whose bells, the poor man’s only music, rang From morn to evening, all the hot Fair-day,
⁷⁴ Compare the ‘dim sympathy’ between Coleridge and the flame, with the ‘dim
awaking’ of his being provoked by the moon in the notebook entry that heads thischapter.
⁷⁵ An analogous problem would be presented by an attempt to distinguish, within
your own first-personal experience, between the act of someone kicking a dog and the
‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805 143 So sweetly, that they stirred and haunted me With a wild pleasure, falling on mine ear Most like articulate sounds of things to come! (23–33)
Looking at the film as a ‘companionable’ form, the poem dilates back into space and time, as Coleridge remembers having looked at a ‘fluttering stranger!’ on the grate at his school in London, which according to superstition presaged the arrival of a friend or loved one. He then remembers, by the same associative train of thought, having remembered then that as an infant he had heard the church music in his ‘own sweet birth place’ and imagined that it was ‘like articulate sounds of things to come!’ Coleridge describes a vicious temporal circle of expectancy and yearning. The infant hearing the church bells, and the older schoolboy watching the fireplace were both looking and listening for ‘companionable’ forms on the horizon of the future. The adult poet surrounded by real companionable forms, in his sleeping wife and child, finds/creates dim sympathies only with the film fluttering on his fireplace. Coleridge sympathizes with the emblem of human companionship, not his actual companions. Having described in his lectures and poems how the disinterested and universal benevolence of the Elect are rooted in and evolve out of first love for one’s parents, siblings, and place of birth, Coleridge looks back into his own past and sees the same pattern of frustrated hopes for companionship and love that remain in his adulthood.
Here the pattern of spiritual autobiography, whereby a chastened narrating self looks back upon the tribulations of his younger pro- tagonist self and discovers that redemptive pattern in events which allows the guilty protagonist to eventually become the penitent narrator, is ironically undercut. The narrating self and protagonist self of ‘Frost at Midnight’ remain dissonant and irreconcilable in the immediate present tense of the poem, with no discernible trajectory of spiritual education visible within the recollected fragments of the past. Coleridge, in short, seems to have learnt nothing, and been taught nothing, by his own experiences. It is at this point, having seemingly given up on himself, that he looks for vicarious fulfilment
144 ‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805
But thou, my babe! shalt wonder like a breeze By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hearThe lovely shapes and sounds intelligible Of that eternal language, which thy God Utters, who from eternity doth teach Himself in all, and all things in himself. Great universal Teacher! he shall mould Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask
The ‘articulate sounds of things to come’ of Coleridge’s own ‘presage- ful’ childhood, have leapfrogged his adult life altogether, to become instead the visual and auditory language of God in nature (‘lovely shapes and sounds intelligible / Of that eternal language’), which he hopes his son will one day see and hear. Having resigned his own ability to read the future, the present, and even the past, he imagines Hartley, and not himself, confidently reading the symbolic language of the ‘Great universal Teacher!’
The poet’s inability to feel at home, at home, was bitterly confirmed in 1799 when he fell in love with Sara Hutchinson after visiting her at Sockburn that November on his return from Germany.⁷⁶ His optimistic faith that from everything that occurred God was necessarily ‘educing’ some wider good was further shaken by the death of his son, Berkeley, and the birth pangs his wife suffered during labour. Finally, in 1802, Coleridge found himself in a theological
⁷⁶ In a letter to Godwin in Mar. 1801, Coleridge declared that ‘the Poet is dead
in me’ (CL ii. 713–17). In a notebook entry containing the seeds of his letter to
Sara Hutchinson, he wrote, ‘[a] lively picture of a man, disappointed in marriage, &
endeavouring to make a compensation to himself by virtuous & tender & brotherly
friendship with an amiable woman—the obstacles—the jealousies—the impossibility
of it.—Best advice that he should as much as possible withdraw himself from pursuits
of morals &c—& devote himself to abstract sciences—; CN i. 1065. In his ‘Letter to
Sara’, Coleridge argues, ‘My own peculiar Lot, my house-hold Life / It is & will remain,
Indifference or Strife. / While ye are well & happy, ’twould but wrong you— / If I
should fondly yearn to be among you— / Wherefore, O wherefore! should I wish to
be / A wither’d branch upon a blossoming Tree?’; ‘Letter to Sara Hutchinson’, 4 Apr.
‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805 145
predicament which critics have described as ‘negative Unitarianism’, and it is in this year that he writes his great poem of spiritual and creative drought: ‘Dejection: An Ode’.⁷⁷ As many readers of the poem have noted, Coleridge subverts the spousal imagery of Wordsworth’s ‘Home at Grasmere’ (1801). Indeed, the second of the original verse- letters from which ‘Dejection’ evolved, was addressed to his fellow poet (the first was addressed to Sara Hutchinson). In stanzas III,
IV, and V of ‘Dejection’, Coleridge offers a diagnosis of his own creative sterility that equates the ‘genial spirits’ of poetic creation with a particular kind of joy:
O Lady! we receive but what we give, And in our life alone does nature live:
Ours is her wedding-garment, ours her shroud!
And would we aught behold, of higher worth,Than that inanimate cold world allow’d To the poor loveless ever-anxious crowd,
Ah! from the soul itself must issue forth, A light, a glory, a fair luminous cloud Enveloping the earth— (47–55)
In establishing an apparently masochistic comparison between his own poem and Wordsworth’s confident epithalamion, ‘Home at Grasmere’, Coleridge manages subtly to undermine his friend’s claim that his mind was somehow ‘wedded’ to nature. In a letter written in December 1800, Coleridge had described himself as ‘only a kind of mere metaphysician’ in contrast to the ‘true poet’ Wordsworth, but he uses this disenchanted philosophical knowledge to insist that behind the ‘fair luminous cloud’ of Wordsworth’s poetic inspiration there lies an alien and ‘inanimate cold world’.⁷⁸ Like the deluded
⁷⁷ Coleridge, Poetical Works, 695–702 In a letter to his brother George on 1 July
1802, Coleridge declares ‘I have read carefully the original of the New Testament—&
have convinced myself, that the Socinian & Arian Hypotheses are utterly untenable;
but what to put it their place? I find [nothing so] distinctly revealed, that I should
dare to impose my opinion as an article of Faith on others—on the contrary, I hold it
probable that the Nature of the Being of Christ is left in obscurity—& that it behoves
us to think with deep humility on the subject, & when we express ourselves, to be
especially careful, on such a subject, to use the very words of Scripture’; CL ii. 807.
146 ‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805 woodsman of ‘Constancy to an Ideal Object’, who follows an optical projection of his own self, believing it to be ‘An image with a glory round its head’, Wordsworth is simply worshipping a spectre of his own poetic ambition, and pursuing the shadow cast by the light of his own creative imagination: ‘The enamoured rustic worships its fair hues / Nor knows, he makes the shadow, he pursues!’ (31–2).⁷⁹ Joy, in fact, is the key spiritual ingredient both for personal happiness and poetic inspiration, and in stanza V Coleridge makes the source of such joy unambiguously clear:
O pure of heart! thou needs’t not ask of me What this strong music in the soul may be! This light, this glory, this fair luminous mist, This beautiful, and beauty-making power.
Joy, virtuous Lady! Joy that ne’er was given, Save to the pure, and in their purest hour,
Life, and Life’s Effluence, Cloud at once and Shower,Joy, Lady! is the spirit and the power, Which wedding Nature to us gives in dow’r A new Earth and new Heaven, Undreamt of by the sensual and the proud— (59–70)
The fruitful ‘joy’, ‘virtue’, and ‘purity’ of Wordsworth and his imme- diate circle are contrasted with the privation and barrenness of the ‘sensual’ Coleridge.⁸⁰ This contrast is sealed at the beginning of stanza
VII: ‘Hence, viper thoughts, that coil around my mind, / Reality’s dark dream!’ (94–5). Lamenting the loss of his poetic gifts, Coleridge mourns for them, paradoxically, in lines of stunning metrical beauty and power:
There was a time when, though my path was rough,This joy within me dallied with distress, ⁷⁹ Coleridge, Poetical Works, 778.
⁸⁰ Compare this with the concluding lines of ‘The Eolian Harp’ (1795), ‘Well hast
thou said and holily dispraised / These shapings of the unregenerate mind; / Bubbles
that glitter as they rise and break / On vain Philosophy’s aye-babbling spring. / For
never guiltless may I speak of him, / The Incomprehensible! save when with awe / I
praise him, and with Faith that inly feels; / Who with his saving mercies healed me, / A
sinful and most miserable Man, / Wildered and dark, and gave me to possess / Peace,
‘That Uncertain Heaven’, 1795–1805 147 And all misfortunes were but as the stuff
Whence Fancy made me dream of happiness:For hope grew round me, like the twining vine,
And fruits, and foliage, not my own, seem’d mine.
The concluding couplet is both memorable and moving, and its sense is relatively simple. The dejection the poet feels is founded in the severing recognition that the sense of reciprocity or blended harmony, which had seemed to bind his own mind and affections to his immediate environment, as if it were an extension of the family and friends he loved, was an illusion of ‘Fancy’. What had seemed ‘his’ did not, in fact, belong to him. Even as the lines deny the hope that lay behind this entwining chiasm of mind and world, the syntax of the concluding couplet, with its sinuous run-on lines, delicately cadenced caesural pauses, and perfect chiming rhyme connecting ‘vine’ to ‘mine’, unobtrusively and insistently affirm it. In a famous notebook entry written in February 1805, Coleridge looks back regretfully to the annus mirabilis of creativity in 1798, and hesitantly accepts both the divinity of Christ and Trinitarian Anglicanism:
[I]t burst upon me at once as an awful Truth what 7 or 8 years ago I thought
of proving with a hollow Faith and for an ambiguous purpose, my mind then
wavering in its necessary passage from Unitarianism … thro’ Spinosism into
Plato and St John / No Christ, No God!—This I now feel with all its needful
evidence, of the Understanding: would to God, my spirit were made conform
thereto—that No Trinity, no God.—That Unitarianism in all its Forms is
Idolatry … . O that this Conviction may work upon me and in me / and that
my mind may be made up as to the character of Jesus, and of historical
Christianity, as clearly as it is of … the Logos and intellectual or spirit-
ual Christianity—that I may be made to know either their especial andpeculiar Union, or their absolute disunion in any peculiar Sense.⁸¹
In Coleridge’s later writings after 1814, discussed in the next chapter, this persistent attempt to embrace orthodoxy in the form of Christ’s divinity and the Anglican Trinity remained shadowed by uncertainty and self-doubt.
⁸¹ CN ii. 2448.
[T]he perception and acknowledgement of the proportionality
and appropriateness of the Present to the Past, prove to the
afflicted Soul, that it has not yet been deprived of the sight of
God, that it can still recognize the effective presence of a Father,
though through a darkened glass and a turbid atmosphere,though of a Father that is chastising it.¹
In May 1815, Coleridge wrote to Wordsworth chastizing him for his failure to complete The Recluse. Employing a subtle mode of passive-aggression that was more typical of his early relationship with Wordsworth, Coleridge tries to sink his friend under the burden of his own philosophical expectations of him. Reflecting on their former poetic ambitions, Coleridge reminds Wordsworth that, ‘I supposed you first to have meditated the faculties of Man in the abstract … , removing the sandy Sophisms of Locke, and the Mechanic Dogma- tists, and demonstrating that the Senses were living growths and developments of the Mind & Spirit in a much juster as well higher sense, than the mind can be said to be formed by the Senses—’.² Coleridge rejects the Lockean contention that our minds are sub- ordinate to our physical senses, and instead asserts his own idealist faith that the senses are effects of the sovereignty of mind. He goes on to remind Wordsworth that he was ‘to have affirmed a Fall in some sense, as a fact … not disguising the sore evils, under which the
Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825 149
whole Creation groans, to point out however a manifest scheme of Redemption from this slavery, of Reconciliation from this Enmity with Nature’.³
It is no coincidence that Coleridge manages to slip seamlessly in the letter, from a critique of the ‘sandy Sophisms’ of Locke to a discussion of the Fall and a description of its consequences, ‘this Enmity with Nature’. In both The Statesman’s Manual (1816) and
Aids to Reflection (1825), Coleridge seeks to ‘inoculate’ himself from
the sensual reasoning of ‘Mechanic Dogmatists’, by arguing that the faculty of Understanding they champion is the philosophical expres- sion of a fallen intellectual culture. In Aids to Reflection, Coleridge professes ‘a deep conviction that Man was and is a fallen Creature, not by accidents of bodily constitution, or any other cause, which
human Wisdom in a course of ages might be supposed capable of
removing; but diseased in his Will’.⁴ Five years later, in his Table Talk of 25 April 1830, Coleridge again categorically asserts the fact of a Fall: ‘A Fall … is the fundamental Postulate of the Moral History of Man. Without this hypothesis Man is unintelligible; with it, every phenomenon is explicable. The Mystery itself is too profound for human insight.’⁵
Against a model of a fallen mind tyrannized by the physical senses, and confined within a materialist ontology, Coleridge outlines his own uncertain faith in a faculty of ‘regenerate Reason’, immune to the despotism and intellectual poverty of the mechanical philosophy. Drawing on the ideas of Cambridge Platonists like John Smith, and incorporating his new understanding of the philosophies of Kant and Schelling, Coleridge turned to the ‘book of nature’, in order to read ‘the forms of matter as words, as symbols valuable only for the meaning which they convey to us, only for the life which they speak of, and venerable only as being the expression, an unrolled but yet a glorious fragment, of the wisdom of the Supreme Being’.⁶ While Coleridge hoped to be able to read the ‘book of nature’ by employing a ‘spiritual sense’ under the aegis of a regenerate faculty of Reason, he was haunted by the possibility that he was himself a part of the fallen ³ CL ii. 575. ⁴ Coleridge, Aids to Reflection, 139–40.
⁵ Coleridge, Table Talk, 25 Apr. 1830, p. 106.
150 Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825 multitude he sought to ‘inoculate’ himself against. Towards the end of 1813, at the height of his addiction to opium, he suffered a severe illness for about a week. This event, though mundane in itself, was to precipitate a long spiritual crisis. In December 1813, Coleridge wrote a harrowing account of his physical, mental, and spiritual suffering in a letter to Thomas Roberts:
O I have seen, I have felt that the worst offences are those against our own
souls! That our souls are infinite in depth, and therefore our sins are infinite,
and redeemable only by an infinitely higher infinity; that of the Love of God
in Christ Jesus. I have called my soul infinite, but O infinite in the depth of
darkness, an infinite craving, an infinite capacity of pain and weakness, andexcellent only as being passively capacious of the light from above.⁷
While Coleridge had reconciled himself, doctrinally, to the idea of personal salvation through Christ’s atonement, he struggled to feel the truth of this theological cornerstone. Fighting an addiction to opium that had robbed him of any vestige of ‘free-will’ and dignity, Coleridge regarded his condition as a symptom of fallenness and of his infinite remoteness from God’s grace.
In chapter 13 of Biographia Literaria, Coleridge sought to establish that triadic analogy between human reason, the natural world, and the nature of God (the Logos theme), which grounded natural religion, and his own theory of natural symbolism:
The imagination then I consider either as primary, or secondary. The
primary imagination I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of
all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal
act of creation in the infinite I am. The secondary I consider as an echo of
the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the
primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the
mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create;
or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles
to idealize and to unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects)are essentially fixed and dead.⁸
The secondary, or poetic imagination is described as being ‘identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree,
⁷ Coleridge, letter to Thomas Roberts, 19 Dec. 1813, CL III. 463.
Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825 151
and in the mode of its operation’. Coleridge describes the secondary imagination as ‘co-existing with the conscious will’, correcting any notion of the poet being a mere amanuensis of divine inspiration. The poet acts deliberately, and initially destructively (he or she ‘dissolves, diffuses, dissipates’), in order to reorganize the given objects of perception according to a rational paradigm of unity. The secondary imagination is ‘essentially vital’, it blends natural objects, which ‘are essentially fixed and dead’, with the living forms of human reason and emotion, creating an intimate unity of subject and object, which distantly echoes and recalls the unity (or rather tri-unity) of God. The poet’s aim is to recreate an alien world in the image of his or her own subjective being:
The poet, described in ideal perfection, brings the whole soul of man into
activity, with the subordination of its faculties to each other, according to
their relative worth and dignity. He diffuses a tone, and spirit of unity, that
blends, and (as it were) fuses, each into each, by that synthetic and magical
power, to which we have exclusively appropriated the name of imagination.
This power, first put in action by the will and the understanding, and retained
under their irremissive, though gentle and unnoticed, controul (laxis effertur
habenis) reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant
qualities: of sameness, with difference; of the general, with the concrete; the
idea, with the image; the individual, with the representative; the sense of
novelty and freshness, with old and familiar objects; a more than usual stateof emotion, with more than usual order. ⁹
The imagination is an ‘esemplastic’ power, which blends natural objects and human feelings, within seamless poetic involutes. The imagination not only ‘diffuses a tone, and spirit of unity’ over all it surveys, it also creates poetic symbols which ‘fuse’ the general and the particular, the individual and the representative, the human idea in the image of nature. Above all, the secondary imagination struggles to achieve a ‘balance or reconciliation of opposite and discordant qualities’ (my italics). The poet strives to accommodate both ‘sameness’ and ‘difference’ within humanized images of the natural world, registering the analogical similarities between subject and object, as well as the disanalogical distinctions. The poetic or esemplastic imagination is that ‘fusing power, that fixing unfixes &
152 Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825 while it melts & bedims the Image, still leaves in the Soul its living meaning’.¹⁰
In chapter 15 of Biographia Literaria, entitled ‘The specific symptoms
of poetic power elucidated in a critical analysis of Shakespeare’s Venus
and Adonis, and Lucrece’, Coleridge develops his earlier distinction
(see Chapter 3) between an ‘imitation’ and a ‘copy’ of nature. In order to demonstrate the difference between a mere ‘transcription’ of nature, and that ideal blending or fusing of mind and world that occurs in great poetry, Coleridge produces two descriptions of the same landscape: one a ‘topographical’ copy, and the other a poetic ‘imitation’. The first description is as follows: ‘Behold yon row of pines, that shorn and bow’d / Bend from the sea-blast, seen at twilight eve’.¹¹ Coleridge suggests that while these lines would be perfectly acceptable as part of a descriptive poem, they could just as easily (with a ‘small alteration of rhythm’) be turned into a prose description from a ‘book of topography’. We might be slightly dubious about the purported accuracy of the imagery here (it would be more appropriate, after all, to describe a sheep, or perhaps Samson, as ‘shorn and bow’d’ rather than a row of pine trees), but we can accept with reservation the possibility of this being a passage of descriptive prose.
The next description of the same ‘row of pines’ is, however, elevated into a ‘semblance of poetry’ by Coleridge, ‘[y]on row of bleak and visionary pines, / By twilight-glimpse discerned, mark! how they flee / From the fierce sea-blast, all their tresses wild / Streaming before them’. With its gothic imagery, distressed trees, wild apostrophe and Miltonic diction, this new description of the same row of pines is set squarely in the exalted realm of poetry and ideal imitation. The pine trees, which as ‘objects’ are ‘fixed and dead’, have now become ‘bleak and visionary’ pines vainly attempting to flee, like naïve tourists of the sublime, the ‘fierce sea-blast’. The movements of the trees and the roar of the sea have been entirely anthropomorphized. According to that ‘law of the imagination’, a physical ‘likeness’ between trees bending in the wind and people recoiling in fear has been transformed into a ‘likeness of the whole’, so that the pines’ foliage blowing in the wind becomes tresses of human hair, and the stormy sea breaking
Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825 153
against the headland becomes ‘his’ or ‘her’ ferocious adversary. The whole description is correlated and blended with the emotional states of the observer. It is the poet’s ‘bleak and visionary’ mood that is ‘diffused’ throughout the poem, and it is around the axis of his own anxious thought that the description revolves:
It has before been observed, that images however beautiful, though faithfully
copied from nature, and as accurately represented in words, do not of
themselves characterize the poet. They become proofs of original genius
only as far as they are modified by a predominant passion; or by associated
thoughts or images awakened by that passion; or when they have the
effect of reducing multitude to unity, or succession to an instant; or lastly,
when a human and intellectual life is transferred to them from the poet’sown spirit.¹²
For Coleridge, the central purpose of great poetry is to describe objects in the natural world after ‘a human and intellectual life is transferred to them from the poet’s own spirit’. The poetic imagination is essentially active and analogical; it voluntarily appropriates natural objects as a means of illustrating human thoughts and emotion and incorporates those thoughts and feelings within its descriptions of the natural world.
The sole difference between the primary and secondary imagination is that acts of the secondary imagination are voluntary. Coleridge did not choose to turn the moon in Valetta harbour into a symbol of his own psyche; he encountered it already possessing this numinous significance. Coleridge accounts for this fact (in 1815, at least) through the Schellingean notion of a pre-reflective act of self-objectification: the natural world is at bottom a symbolic reflection of the self that contemplates it; so everything in nature is an unconscious echo of the voice that describes it. The secondary imagination is a voluntary ‘repetition’ of this primary imaginative act. It was Coleridge’s elected decision, after all, to describe a row of pines as embodying human feelings and preoccupations. The primary and secondary imaginations are analogical, symbol-making powers, which construct a mirror of the self in finite form. Coleridge describes this symbolic aspect of great poetry in relation to Wordsworth’s ‘Immortality Ode’. According to
154 Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825 Coleridge, Wordsworth’s Ode was written for those who ‘feel a deep interest in modes of inmost being, to which they know that the attributes of time and space are inapplicable and alien, but which yet can not be conveyed, save in symbols of time and space’. ¹³
At the heart of Coleridge’s theory of symbolic apprehension is an unavoidable contradiction, masquerading as a paradox. The self can only be ‘pictured’ in spatiotemporal form, and yet the ‘attributes of time and space are inapplicable and alien’ to that self. Behind the analogical and symbolic thrust of Coleridge’s theory of the imagi- nation, and the intimated ‘likenesses’ connecting mind to nature, there is still a supervening ontological gulf between reason and sen- sibility, which the imagination cannot erase. Coleridge’s admixture of faith and doubt in symbolic apprehension is a reflection of his irreconcilable loyalty to both Kant and Schelling at this point in his career. As Paul Hamilton argues: ‘Schelling believes that the prin- ciple producing nature outside our experience is the same as the imaginative principle which produces our experience of nature. Kant would have thought fundamentally mistaken a philosophy which claimed to establish that we could know anything of things as they exist in themselves outside our experience of them.’¹⁴ In attempt- ing to reconcile the philosophies of Kant and Schelling, Coleridge was demanding of himself the impossible. His sacramental theory of symbolism, which relies upon the possibility of a metaphysical interpenetration of finite and infinite realms, placed him square- ly at odds not only with the mechanical philosophy of Newton, but also with the dualism of Kant. Kantian transcendental idealism secured epistemological certainty at the cost of an absolute distinction between phenomena and noumena: things as they appear, and things as they are an-sich. While Coleridge’s admiration for Schelling was based upon his rejection of any absolute distinction between subject and object, matter and spirit, exactly those distinctions characterize the metaphysical premises of Kantian transcendental idealism, which Coleridge equally admired.
¹³ Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ii, ch. 22, p. 147.
¹⁴ Paul Hamilton, Coleridge’s Poetics (Oxford and Stanford, CA, 1983), 86. Hamil-
ton argues (p. 43) that ‘It is from the Germans, chiefly Kant, that Coleridge takes
the argument for how poetry and the poetic imagination could inform philosophy
Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825 155
T H E P O E T I C A N D T H E PAT H O LO G I C A L
I M AG I NAT I O N Throughout his life, Coleridge was intrigued by what he regarded as diseased or pathological states of the imagination. As someone who had regularly experienced vivid and often terrifying hallucinations under the influence of opium and alcohol, he was particularly inter- ested in the psychological and perceptual conditions that could lead to the illusory apprehension of ghosts or other supernatural agents. In the three-volume collection of his periodical The Friend, published in 1818, Coleridge included three important essays about Martin Luther in a section entitled, The Landing Place, or Essays Interposed for Amusement, Retrospect, and Preparation.
In the second essay of the series, entitled ‘Luther and Rousseau’, Coleridge provides a psychological analysis of Luther’s apparent visitation by the devil while in hiding at the Warteburg. Luther was alleged to have hurled his inkstand at the devil as it emerged from the wall of his room, leaving, as Coleridge puts it, a ‘marvellous blot’ which ‘bids defiance to all the toils of the scrubbing-brush’.¹⁵ Putting aside the issue of whether or not the story of Luther and the devil is apocryphal, Coleridge argues that such hyper-vivid hallucinations could be fully explained in psychological terms, and were in part due to what he wryly calls the ‘deranged digestion in men of sedentary habits, who are at the same time intense thinkers’.¹⁶ Under acute physical and mental strain—and in a trance-like state between wakefulness and sleep—Luther could easily have ‘seen’ the devil, according to Coleridge:
I see nothing improbable, that in some one of those momentary slumbers,
into which the suspension of all Thought in the perplexity of intense thinking
so often passes; Luther should have had a full view of the Room in which
¹⁵ Coleridge, The Friend (1818), ed. Barbara E. Rooke, 2 vols., Bollingen Series, 4/2(London and Princeton, 1969), i. 137.
¹⁶ Coleridge, The Friend, i. 139. On the relationship between dreaming and
digestion in Coleridge’s writings see Kathryn Kimball, ‘Coleridge’s Dream Theory and
the Dual Imagination’, The Coleridge Bulletin: The Journal of the Friends of Coleridge,
156 Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825
he was sitting, of his writing Table and all the Implemenents of Study, as
they really existed, and at the same time a brain-image of the Devil, vivid
enough to have acquired apparent Outness, and a distance regulated by the
proportion of its distinctness to that of the objects really impressed on theoutward senses. ¹⁷
Coleridge uses his favourite Berkeleyan term ‘outness’ to describe a moment of hallucinatory perception whereby an unconsciously projected ‘brain-image’, a mere ghost of the mind, is regarded as if it had an independent, embodied existence outside the mind that perceives and creates it.¹⁸ In this case, Luther perceives the devil in exactly the same way as he perceives his writing-table and ‘implements of study’, objects that are ‘really impressed on the outward senses’. One significant difference between Coleridge’s ‘symbolic’ apprehen- sion of the moon, and Luther’s delusory apprehension of the devil, is that Coleridge—aware of the dialectical interplay between objects impressed on the senses from without and brain-images projected into a pseudo-externality or ‘outness’ by the mind within—is reluctant to ascribe an independent significance, or even reality, to objects whose relational existence and meaning is dependent on their being per- ceived by someone. Luther, on the other hand, is unable to distinguish between elements of experience that may have a wholly subjective ori- gin (i.e. the pseudo-externality of dream objects), and those elements that refer to objects having a substantial, extra-mental existence:
He deemed himself gifted with supernatural influxes, an especial servant of
Heaven, a chosen Warrior, fighting as the General of a small but faithful troop,
against an Army of evil Beings headed by the Prince of the Air. These were
no metaphorical beings in his apprehension. He was a Poet indeed, as great a
Poet as ever lived in any age or country; but his poetic images were so vivid,¹⁷ Coleridge, The Landing-Place, essay II, p. 140.
¹⁸ Coleridge refers to this Berkeleyan term in a notebook entry for May, 1808,
the same year he began lecturing on Shakespeare: ‘All minds must think by some
symbols—the strongest minds possess the most vivid Symbols in the Imagination—yet
this ingenerates a want, … desiderium, for vividness of Symbol: which something that
is without, that has the property of Outness (a word which Berkeley preferred to
‘‘Externality’’) can alone fully gratify/even that indeed not fully—for the utmost
is only an approximation to that absolute Union, which the soul sensible of its
imperfection in itself, of its Halfness, yearns after.’ CN iii. 3325. For the influence of
Berkeley on Coleridge’s philosophical development, see R. C. Wendling, Coleridge’s
Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825 157
that they mastered the Poet’s own mind! He was possessed with them, as with
substances distinct from himself: Luther did not write, he acted Poems.¹⁹
Coleridge generates a distinction between poetic and religious enthu- siasm, by diagnosing Luther’s encounter with the devil as the result of a pathological inability to distinguish between ‘supernatural influx- es’ from without, and projected ‘metaphorical beings’ from within. Luther was ‘as great a Poet as ever lived’, but he confused his gen- uine poetic gifts with bogus supernatural illumination. Nevertheless, a connection between poetic creativity and cognitive delusion is automatically implied by Coleridge’s description of Luther as a poet.
In the late fifth century bce, Democritus of Abdera is supposed to have developed a theory of poetry in which the state of enthousiasmos or temporary divine possession was emphasized.²⁰ According to this theory, poets could only compose the truly valuable aspects of their work when in this fleeting state of divine possession, hence poetic and divine inspiration were regarded as being almost synonymous states. Coleridge, on the other hand, is concerned to de-synonymize a healthy and self-regulated state of poetic enthusiasm from the religious fanaticism—he translated the term Schw¨armerei to mean religious ‘fanaticism’ as opposed to poetic ‘enthusiasm’—that had emerged among the sectaries of the English Civil War.²¹
¹⁹ Coleridge, The Landing-Place, essay ii, p. 140. In Observations on Man: His
Frame, His Duty, And His Expectation (1749), Hartley speculated as to whether or
not ideas (mental images) could become so vivid that they were mistaken for sensory
impressions. Coleridge made several notes on his copy of the book, and argued that
it was the function of poetry to provide such images. See Ian Wylie, Young Coleridgeand the Philosophers of Nature (Oxford, 1989), 84–5.
²⁰ See Glenn W. Most, ‘The Poetics of Early Greek Philosophy’, in A. A. Long (ed.),The Cambridge Companion to Early Greek Philosophy (Cambridge, 1999), 339.
²¹ As the editors of the Bollingen edn. of Biographia Literaria note, the use of
the term Schw¨armerei for ‘fanaticism’ dates back as far as Luther (1527). In ch. 2 of
Biographia Literaria (p. 30), Coleridge offers a psychological profile of the religious
fanatic ‘A debility and dimness of the imaginative power, and a consequent necessity
of reliance on the immediate impressions of the senses, do, we well know, render
the mind liable to superstition and fanaticism. … Cold and phlegmatic in their own
nature, like damp hay, they heat and inflame by co-acervation; or like bees they become
restless and irritable through the increased temperature of collected multitudes. Hence
the German word for fanaticism (such at least was its original import) is derived from
the swarming of bees, namely, Schw¨armen, Schw¨armerey’. For an excellent discussion
of the changing meaning of the term ‘enthusiasm’ in the 18th cent., see Jon Mee,
158 Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825 Coleridge attempts to salvage the great Reformer’s reputation by presenting him as a great, if misguided, poet rather than a theologian in direct communion and confrontation with the devil. He describes Luther as being ‘mastered’ and ‘possessed’ by his own poetic imagination. ‘[H]is poetic images were so vivid’, Coleridge writes, ‘that they mastered the Poet’s own mind! He was possessed with them, as with substances distinct from himself: Luther did not write, he
acted Poems.’ Coleridge describes a dangerous experiential parallel
between the states of being poetically and supernaturally possessed, which tends to blur the distinction he had so carefully made between the nature of poetic and spiritual inspiration. Luther’s possession by ‘poetic images’ recalls the definition of poetic enthusiasmos ascribed to Democritus, yet Luther is not meant to have been possessed or inspired by divinity, but rather trapped in a world that is half-fantasy and half-fact:
Disappointed, despondent, enraged, ceasing to think, yet continuing his
brain on the stretch in solicitation of a thought; and gradually giving himself
up to angry fancies, to recollections of past persecutions, to uneasy fears
and inward defiances and floating Images of the evil Being, their supposed
personal author; he sinks, without perceiving it, into a trance of slumber:
during which his brain retains its waking energies, excepting that what would
have been mere thoughts before, now (the action and counter-weight of
his senses and of their impressions being withdrawn) shape and condensethemselves into things, into realities!²²
In a state of paranoiac vulnerability and anger, and assailed by imaginary persecutors and ‘floating Images of the evil Being’, Luther
(Feb. 2002). See also J. G. A. Pocock, ‘Enthusiasm: The Antiself of Enlightenment’ in
Lawrence E. Klein and Anthony J. La Vopa (eds.), Enthusiasm and Enlightenment inEurope, 1650–1850, Huntington Library Quarterly, 60: 7–44.
²² Coleridge, The Landing-Place, essay ii, p. 142 That Coleridge himself suffered
from such terrible experiences is evidenced in the poem ‘The Pains of Sleep’ (1803).
The second verse is as follows ‘But yester-night I prayed aloud / In anguish and in
agony, / Up-starting from the fiendish crowd / Of shapes and thoughts that tortured
me: / A lurid light, a trampling throng, / Sense of intolerable wrong, / And whom I
scorned, those only strong! / Thirst of revenge, the powerless will / Still baffled, and
yet burning still! / Desire with loathing strangely mixed / On wild or hateful objects
fixed’. For an interesting discussion of this poem, and of Coleridge’s opium-induced
nightmares, see Rosemary Ashton, The Life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Oxford, 1996),
Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825 159
falls ‘into a trance of slumber’ allowing ‘mere thoughts’ to ‘shape and condense themselves into things, into realities!’ It is in this condition of somnambulant awareness, a dangerous twilight world between waking and sleeping, that a mental image of the devil acquires an apparent ‘outness’ proportionate to the real objects surrounding him. Coleridge now describes Luther’s vision as being enabled by the withdrawal of the ‘action and counter-weight of his senses’, a statement which flatly contradicts his earlier pronouncement that Luther ‘had a full view of the Room in which he was sitting, of his writing Table and all the Implements of Study, as they really existed, and at the same time a brain-image of the Devil, vivid enough to have acquired apparent Outness’.
In order to clarify, or perhaps even to create, a distinction between properly symbolic objects and pathological illusions, Coleridge is obliged to describe a condition of what might be called imaginative homeostasis, whereby the ‘impressions’ of the senses and the ‘expres- sions’ of the mind have an equal and opposite counter-weighting function. This state of poetic harmony between subject and object is then set against a delusory variant illustrated by Luther’s visitation by the devil, where the counter-weighting influence of the senses have been entirely removed. The tension in Coleridge’s symbolic description of the moon, as well as in his metaphorical account of Luther’s vision, might then be usefully described as an attempt to register the influx of sensible impressions as well as the idealizing and unifying expressions of the imagination, without collapsing symbolic apprehension into another subtle form of madness.²³ At this point symbolic vision is distinct from metaphorical projection, because
²³ In an important passage from ch. 2 of Biographia Literaria (pp. 31–2), Coleridge
attempts to distinguish between religious fanatics (or men of commanding genius)
and poetic enthusiasts (or men of absolute genius). Of poetic enthusiasts, like himself,
he states ‘where the ideas are vivid, and there exists an endless power of combining
and modifying them, the feelings and affections blend more easily and intimately
with these ideal creations, than with the objects of the senses; the mind is affected by
thoughts, rather than things; and only then feels the requisite interest even for the
most important events, and accidents, when by means of meditation they have passed
into thoughts’. Coleridge goes on to suggest that ‘[t]he sanity of the mind is between
superstition with fanaticism on the one hand; and enthusiasm with indifference and
a diseased slowness to action on the other’. For harmless poetic enthusiasts, like
himself, ‘the conceptions of the mind may be so vivid and adequate, as to preclude
160 Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825 while ‘the devil’ is entirely generated from within Luther’s mind, a symbolic object has a genuine, physical existence.
In the third essay from The Landing Place, entitled ’Ghosts and Apparitions’ and again devoted to Luther, Coleridge attempts further to clarify his account of the psychological and perceptual conditions that enabled the great Reformer to see the devil. Coleridge’s theory, we are mordantly told, is for the benefit of those of his readers ‘who are fortunate enough to find it obscure in consequence of their own good health and unshattered nerves’.²⁴ The essay was written at Greta Hall, in Keswick, where Coleridge lived between 1800 and 1802; on this occasion, Coleridge employs a detailed illustration from his own domestic life in order to illuminate, and to distance himself from, the experiences of Luther. The following long passage from the essay is worth quoting in full:
The window of my library at Keswick is opposite to the fire-place, and looks
out on the very large garden that occupies the whole slope of the hill on
which the house stands. Consequently, the rays of light transmitted through
the glass, (i.e. the rays from the garden, the opposite mountains, and the
bridge, river, lake, and vale interjacent) and the rays reflected from it, (of
the fire-place, &c.) enter the eye at the same moment. At the coming on
of evening, it was my frequent amusement to watch the image or reflection of
the fire, that seemed burning in the bushes or between the trees in different
parts of the garden or the fields beyond it, according as there was more or
less light; and which still arranged itself among the real objects of vision,
with a distance and magnitude proportioned to its greater or lesser faintness.
For still as the darkness encreased, the image of the fire lessened and grew
nearer and more distinct; till the twilight had deepened into perfect night,
when all outward objects being excluded, the window became a perfect
looking-glass: save only that my books on the side shelves of the room were
lettered, as it were, on their backs with stars, more or fewer as the sky was
who possess more than mere talent (or the faculty of appropriating and applying
the knowledge of others) yet still want something of the creative, and self-sufficing
power of absolute Genius. For this reason therefore, they are men of commanding
genius. While the former rest content between thought and reality, as it were in
an intermundium of which their own living spirit supplies the substance, and their
imagination the ever-varying form; the latter must impress their preconceptions on
the world without, in order to present them back to their own view with the satisfyingdegree of clearness, distinctness, and individuality.’
Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825 161
more or less clouded, (the rays of the stars being at that time the only onestransmitted).²⁵
The window of Coleridge’s library acts as an equatorial point, where rays of light transmitted by the sun, and reflected from the gardens and fields outside his house, meet rays of light from the fire in his library, reflected from objects inside his room. This blended light created by the fire and the sun (the Platonic allegory of the cave is faintly present within this passage), inside and outside the poet’s library, enters his eyes at the same time creating the illusion that a fire burns, at a distance, among the garden and fields outside his house. As the reflected light from the garden becomes gradually fainter at dusk, the firelight becomes proportionately stronger until, at nightfall, the window ceases to be a medium between the inside and the outside of the library, and becomes instead an almost ‘perfect-looking glass’ in which the whole room, including the poet himself, is clearly reflected.
The analogical purpose of this passage becomes clear, Coleridge suggests, if we ‘substitute the Phantom from Luther’s brain for the images of reflected light (the fire for instance) and the forms of his room and its furniture for the transmitted rays’.²⁶ In this analogy, the library window, acting as a medium between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ worlds, represents Luther’s phenomenal field of awareness containing real objects like the wall and the inkstand (transmitted to the brain through the medium of the senses), as well as a projected phantom of his own mind (given ghostly ‘outness’ by the senses, which act simultaneously as mirrors of the self). The organs of perception are, by analogy, windows onto the world that can also act as mirrors of the self that looks through them. The hidden fire, flickering in the library hearth behind the poet, represents his hidden, ‘dim-glimmering’ self that can only be grasped by viewing its reflected image in the window/mirror of his senses. The senses are media and mirrors and within their integrated field of vision, a projected self and reflected world seamlessly blend in an analogical loop of subject and object. It is in this uncanny province between fantasy and fact, that shadows of the self and substantial realities may promiscuously interact, becoming, as Coleridge puts it, ‘consubstantial’ phenomena:
162 Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825
I might then explain in a more satisfactory way the mode in which our
thoughts, in states of morbid slumber, become at times perfectly dramatic
(for in certain sorts of dreams the dullest Wight becomes a Shakespeare) and
by what law the Form of the vision appears to talk to us its own thoughts
in a voice as audible as the shape is visible … . [I]t would appear incredible
to persons not accustomed to these subtle notices of self observation, what
small and remote resemblances, what mere hints of likeness from some real
external object, especially if the shape be aided by colour, will suffice to make
a vivid thought consubstantiate with the real object, and derive from it anoutward perceptibility.²⁷
In the space of a paragraph, Coleridge has again diminished the dis- tance between symbolic apprehension and delusional hallucination. In the preceding discussions of Luther’s vision, the devil was described as a projected ‘brain-image’ given ghostly ‘outness’ by the senses (in a manner that had not been explained), and appearing among other
real objects in his room like the inkstand and the writing desk. In
this later passage, however, it looks as if the apparition can only achieve its ghostly externality by taking ‘hints of likeness from some real external object’. The hallucinated devil is now understood to be dependent upon real objects in order to derive an apparent physical presence. As Coleridge puts it, a ‘vivid thought’ must ‘consubstantiate with the real object, and derive from it an outward perceptibility’ (my italics). According to this new theory, a ‘vivid thought’ can merge or consubstantiate with an actual physical object (having, I suppose, a suitably amorphous shape), so that, being clothed in this borrowed material reality, it can be interpreted as actually being a ghost or a devil. Having earlier argued that Luther’s vision was dependent on the withdrawal of the senses, and the ‘impressions’ of external objects, Coleridge is now arguing that such visions are only possible through the collaboration of the senses with ‘real external objects’.
It is now extremely difficult to specify exactly what distinguishes Coleridge’s description of Luther’s pathological visions from his own account of symbolic apprehension detailed in the notebook entry about the moon, written a few years earlier in Malta. The moon was able to make ‘perceptible’ some ‘hidden truth’ of the Poet’s being,
Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825 163
due to a mysterious analogical likeness or symmetry between the laws of the natural world and the laws of the imagination. Luther was able to make a ‘brain-image’ or thought of the devil perceptible, by combining it in perception with the external objects in his room. In both cases an amorphous ‘inner’ thought or mental state is given a determinate physical form and extrinsic reality; but in Luther’s case the act is delusional, while in Coleridge’s it represents an authentic act of symbolic revelation.²⁸
In his Philosophical Investigations (1953), Wittgenstein alludes to certain changing moments of perceptual interpretation, which he calls, the ‘continuous seeing’, the ‘dawning’, and the ‘noticing’ of an aspect: ‘I contemplate a face, and then suddenly notice its likeness to another. I see that it has not changed; and yet I see it differently. I call this experience ‘‘noticing an aspect’’ ’.²⁹ Wittgenstein describes an experience whereby a physical object, which we must assume remains physically unchanged throughout, is suddenly transformed
by and within our perception of it; so that, in his example, a complete
stranger’s face is suddenly ‘revealed’, in passing, to physically resemble the face of an old friend. Such a moment of dawning recognition changes the way you ‘see’ the stranger’s face, since it becomes, if only for an instant, ‘like’ the face of your friend: it has a new interpretative aspect that has been half-discovered and half-created, ‘the flashing of an aspect on us seems half visual experience, half thought’.³⁰
In Wittgenstein’s example there is an interpretative movement from estrangement into a tenuous intimacy, as a physical ‘likeness’ is momentarily constructed/discovered. This perennial need to bring the alien or unknown in our experiences within an ambit of subjective familiarity is at the heart of Coleridge’s thinking about symbolism and analogy:
²⁸ It should also be noted that in both passages a window ultimately divides the
poet from the objects he contemplates, turning from a translucent medium in the day
to a ‘perfect looking-glass’ at night. The intellectual ‘light’ and ‘life’ of the Johannine
prologue, which provides the theological framework for Coleridge’s Logos doctrine,
must be set against that ‘abyss of darkness’ found in St Paul (‘we see through a glass,darkly’).
²⁹ Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, tr. G. E. M Anscombe (Oxford, 1953),193.
164 Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825
Even when we are broad awake, if we are in anxious expectation, how often
will not the most confused sounds of nature be heard by us as articulate
sounds? For instance, the babbling of a brook will appear for a moment the
voice of a Friend for whom we are waiting, calling out our own names, &c.
A short meditation, therefore, on the great law of the imagination, that a
likeness in part tends to become a likeness of the whole, will make it not only
conceivable but probable that the ink-stand itself, and the dark-coloured
stone on the wall, which Luther perhaps had never till then noticed, might
have a considerable influence in the production of the Fiend, and of thehostile act by which his obtrusive visit was repelled.³¹
In moments of heightened expectation and awareness, the mind automatically attunes itself to the potential realization of its hopes or fears. Even the senses can bend to this need, translating alien sights and sounds into the anticipated voices and familiar presence of friends: projecting a web of likeness over the otherwise ‘confused’ and inarticulate ‘sounds of nature’. There is a pressing psychological need, Coleridge suggests, to transform the unknown into something known, to make ourselves at home in the world.
Coleridge connects Luther’s encounter with the devil to the ‘great law of the imagination’, an analogical law which specifies that ‘a like- ness in part tends to become a likeness of the whole’. The perennial danger of the analogical imagination is that in moments of heightened expectation or anxiety, the mind will tend to observe minute points of similarity in the objects it beholds, to the exclusion of every point of objective dissimilarity. The sounds of a river may be ‘like’, but also ‘unlike’ human voices, just as a stranger’s face may be ‘like’, but also ‘unlike’ the face of a friend. If the meaning of objects outside the self may be transformed into emblems of the self, at moments of great psychological need or anxiety, it seems impossible to maintain a firm distinction between symbolic vision and delusional apprehension.
T H E S TAT E S M A N ’ S M A N UA L ‘A hunger-bitten and idea-less philosophy naturally produces a starveling and comfortless religion. It is among the miseries of the
Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825 165
present age that it recognizes no medium between Literal and
Metaphorical’³² The Statesman’s Manual (1816), addressed specifi-
cally to ‘men moving in the higher class of society’, is intended, as the full title of the work suggests, to demonstrate that the providential wis- dom contained within the Bible offers a perpetually relevant political guide to the ruling classes in Britain. Against those who, ‘under chains of papal darkness’, argue that the Bible’s apparent relevance is merely the result of its ‘wax-like pliability’ to our worldly ‘fancies and prepos- sessions’, Coleridge insists that it is a source of ‘permanent prophecies’ because it reveals and proclaims ‘eternal truths’. Among the blessings of being born in a ‘enlightened and protestant land’, he argues, is that the Bible, an involute of eternity in which the past, present, and future of the world are contained and adumbrated, may be consulted by the ‘least educated’ citizen; those who elect to neglect its study in this life (as a perpetually relevant moral, political, and spiritual guide) may legitimately be judged by God in the next, and this particular failure will ‘stand first in the fearful list of blessings abused’.³³ Addressing himself to an ideal readership of legislators and statesmen, Coleridge begins by issuing a stark, though avunculars warning:
But you, my friends, to whom the following pages are more particularly
addressed, as to men moving in the higher class of society:- You will, I
hope have availed yourself of the ampler means entrusted to you by God’s
providence, to a more extensive study and a wider use of his revealed will and
word … Would you feel conscious that you had shewn yourselves unequal
to your station in society–would you stand degraded in your own eyes;
if you betrayed an utter want of information respecting the acts of human
sovereigns and legislators? And should you not much rather be both ashamed
and afraid to know yourselves inconversant with the acts and constitutions of
God, whose law executeth itself, and whose Word is the foundation, power,and the life of the universe?³⁴
The statesman who neglects to study political history in the light of a providential narrative, built into the very constitution of the
³² Coleridge, The Statesman’s Manual or The Bible the Best Guide to Political Skill
and Foresight: A Lay Sermon Adressed to the Higher Classes of Society with an Appendix
Containing Comments and Essays Connected with the Study of the Inspired Writings
(1816); ed. R. J. White, Lay Sermons, Bollingen Series, 6 (Princeton and London,1972), 30.
166 Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825 physical universe (the divine Logos), will have failed in his pri- mary duty, which is to understand present events as anti-types of the past and proleptic foreshadowing’s of the future. In the first of many paradoxical formulations, Coleridge chastizes the ‘natural man’ for seeking ‘the true cause and origin of public calamities in outward circumstances, persons and incidents’.³⁵ To understand his- tory correctly, Coleridge suggests, one must abandon any notion of the pastness of the past or the futurity of the future. Events must instead be regarded under the serene aspect of eternity as parts of a single, providential narrative as ‘surges of the same tide, passive conductors of the one invisible influence, under which the total host of billows, in the whole line of successive impulse, swell and roll shoreward; there finally, each in its turn, to strike, roar and be dissipated’.³⁶ The Biblical record of miraculous, vertical erup- tions of the divine within the historical process were intended, Coleridge argues, to persuade people that the progress of history, and its ultimate end and purpose, have been determined from eternity by God.
Coleridge attempts to avoid the familiar Enlightenment critique of miracles—as being a source of idolatry, darkness, and supersti- tion—by arguing that they occurred in order to displace a more dangerous source of superstition, namely the hubristic assumption that political history can be understood as the arbitrary product of human motives and action: ‘if we think the Bible less applicable to us on account of the miracles, we degrade ourselves into mere slaves of sense and fancy’.³⁷ The senses are admittedly the ‘appointed medium between earth and heaven’, he argues, but they can be relied upon only insofar as they ultimately yield to ‘spiritual truth’ and provide an unobstructed ‘free passage to its light’. The biblical miracles, with their astonishing appeal to the senses and disruption of causal laws, were paradoxically designed to undermine our faith in the senses, Coleridge claims, and to overthrow our empirical reliance on the human under- standing: ‘it was only to overthrow the usurpation exercised in and through the senses, that the senses were miraculously appealed
³⁵ Preceding quotes, 9. ³⁶ Ibid.
³⁷ Ibid.; see also: Shorter Works and Fragments, ii. 902–3.
Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825 167
to’.³⁸ Coleridge attempts to invert Hume’s critique of miracles, from Section 10 of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:
A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable
experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the
very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can
possibly be imagined. … Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happens
in the common course of nature. … There must, therefore, be a uniform
experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not
merit that appelation. And as a uniform experience amounts to a proof,
there is here a direct and full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the
existence of any miracle; nor can such a proof be destroyed, or the miraclerendered credible, but by an opposite proof, which is superior.³⁹
Hume’s argument, to put it crudely, is that our knowledge of the ‘laws of nature’, derived from ‘firm and unalterable’ experience, ‘amounts to a proof’ against miracles; since such events, by definition, represent a ‘violation’ of the laws on which our concept of proof is based. In order to prove that a miracle has occurred, Hume argues, one would have to provide an ‘opposite proof, which is superior’.⁴⁰ But Hume stipulated that only a ‘uniform experience amounts to a proof’; therefore to prove that a ‘miracle’ has occurred, one would need to have had a regular and uniform experience of such events, which automatically excludes the possibility of a genuine miracle.
Hume’s argument against miracles, while superficially plausible, is arguably vulnerable to his own sceptical arguments against inferential reasoning, developed in Section 5 of the Enquiry, and throughout the
Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. In Section 5 of the Enquiry,
Hume claimed that ‘all inferences from experience … are effects of custom, not of reasoning’. This proposition alone undermines his ‘proof’ against miracles offered in Section 10; for if the supposed ‘laws of nature’ are the ‘effects of custom, not of reasoning’, there can be no rational proof against miracles. Miracles only ‘violate’ our customary expectations, according to Hume’s argument in Section 5, they do not violate any fundamental axioms of reasoning, as he later implies in Section 10. Coleridge turns these self-refuting aspects of Hume’s
³⁸ Coleridge, Lay Sermons, 10. ³⁹ Hume, An Enquiry, 173.⁴⁰ Ibid. v. 121.
168 Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825
Enquiry partly to his own advantage in The Statesman’s Manual. He
agrees with Hume that miracles constitute a violation of the ‘laws of nature’, but he argues that they occurred precisely in order to remove our dogmatic reliance on the senses and the mechanical understanding.
Through the use of miracles, Coleridge argues, God aimed to shatter our habitual modes of reasoning, and to usurp our customary faith in natural laws. The whole movement of Coleridge’s argument at this point is away from natural theology, of the kind practised by Newton, Joseph Butler, and William Paley, and towards the mystic insight and self-certifying illumination of revealed religion:
Reason and Religion are their own evidence. The natural Sun is in this respect
a symbol of the spiritual. Ere he is fully arisen, and while his glories are still
under veil, he calls up the breeze to chase away the usurping vapours of the
night-season, and thus converts the air itself into the minister of its own
purification: not surely in proof or elucidation of the light from heaven, butto prevent its interception.⁴¹
The senses and understanding cannot serve ‘in proof or elucidation’ of the spiritual, Coleridge suggests, but must instead become the ministers of their own purification, by yielding their sovereignty to Reason and Spirit. Miracles occurred to convince the stubborn senses and sublunar understanding of the poverty and narrowness of their own metaphysical assumptions. In this elegant but otherwise unconvincing metaphor the purpose of the human Understanding is to serve the faculty of Reason, by refusing to exercise its own empirical criterion of truth. Objects and events in the natural world do not provide translucent channels for spiritual light; instead they must be swept away to ‘prevent its interception’. For the moment, Reason is presented as an intuitive faculty, whose spiritual vision eclipses the mundane categories of the faculty of Understanding. However, even as Coleridge affects a complete disdain for the sensual world and for the ‘bestial’ understanding, he is only able to communicate that disdain through the use of sensible images.
This counter-empirical strain in his argument continues, as Col- eridge describes Reason as being primarily an act of faith in itself:
Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825 169
‘We (that is, the human race) live by faith. Whatever we do or know, that in kind is different from the brute creation, has its origin in a determination of the reason to have faith and trust in itself.’⁴² In a passage that would make even the most diffident positivist cringe, Coleridge asserts that Reason is the unconditioned ground of all human knowledge, whose self-constituting principle is nothing more than a ‘primal act of faith’ in itself, and in God: ‘This primal act of faith is enunciated in the word, God: a faith not derived from experience, but its ground and source, and without which the fleeting
chaos of facts would no more form experience, than the dust of
the grave can of itself make a living man.’⁴³ Without an antecedent commitment of faith to a benign and providential divinity (an act of faith which is identical with human reason itself) the course of history would appear to our understanding as a ‘fleeting chaos of facts’.
The nature and purpose of God cannot be ‘derived from expe- rience’, as the proponents of natural religion claim. According to Coleridge, it is only if we approach the natural world and human history with a prior faith in God and Reason that experience may be
revealed to be more than that ‘fleeting chaos of facts’ accumulated
inferentially by the mechanical understanding.⁴⁴ To come to this simultaneous faith in God and in human Reason, we must turn, he argues, to the ‘imperative and oracular form of the inspired Scripture’, which is also ‘the form of reason itself in all things purely rational
⁴² Ibid. 18.
⁴³ Ibid. As Coleridge later puts it (The Statesman’s Manual, 32), ‘[o]nly by the
intuition and immediate spiritual consciousness of the idea of God, as the One and
Absolute, at once the Ground and the Cause, who alone containeth in himself the
ground of his own nature, and therein of all natures, do we arrive at … real objective,
necessity. Here the immediate consciousness decides: the idea is its own evidence, and
is unsusceptible of all other. It is necessarily groundless and indemonstrable; because
it is itself the ground of all possible demonstration. The Reason hath faith in itself, inits own revelations.’
⁴⁴ In Copy G of The Statesman’s Manual, Coleridge states: ‘[t]he Sense can only
say, It seems: that ‘‘it is’’, is a decision of the Reason, judging, by the instrument of
the Understanding, or the phaenomena according to their participation of its own
constituent attributes. The Rules of Certificates (as it were) of Reality granted to the
outward Appearances are what the elder Logicians name the Categories—without
which there can be no Experience. For Experience is—the Reduction of the notices
of the senses to the a priori Forms of the Understanding’; Coleridge, Lay Sermons,
170 Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825 and moral’.⁴⁵ The Biblical prophecies illustrate the ‘supreme Reason’ of God because they reveal from eternity the past, present and future of human affairs:
If it be the word of Divine Wisdom, we might anticipate that it would in
all things be distinguished from other books, as the Supreme Reason, whose
knowledge is creative, and antecedent to the things known, is distinguished
from the understanding, or creaturely mind of the individual, the acts of
which are posterior to the things, it records and arranges. Man alone was
created in the image of God: a position groundless and inexplicable, if the
reason in man do not differ from the understanding. For this the inferior
animals, (many at least) possess in degree: and assuredly the divine image oridea is not a thing of degrees.⁴⁶
Coleridge invokes the foundational Judaeo-Christian doctrine of human Reason as the imago Dei, in order to make both an epis- temological and a theological distinction. The ‘creaturely mind of the individual’ which mechanically ‘records and arranges’ isolated facts a posteriori, is placed on a continuum with the bestial instinct of animals, and is contrasted with the a priori faculty of Reason, created in the image of the divine Logos, ‘whose knowledge is creative, and antecedent to the things known’. Since human Reason mirrors, however inadequately, divine Reason—established in the constitu- tion of the universe and in the progress of history—the Christian is able, through faith in this regenerate aspect of human intelligence, to discern the marks of God’s providence in nature and human history. With a rhetorical flourish, Coleridge gazes into the depths of the past and exclaims: ‘Mightier powers were at work than Expediency ever yet called up!’⁴⁷
The explicit target of this last remark is Hume’s History of Eng-
land which, according to Coleridge, records ‘this historian’s cool
systematic attempt to steal away every feeling of reverence for every great name by a scheme of motives, in which as often as possible the efforts and enterprizes of heroic spirits are attributed to this or that paltry view of the most despicable selfishness’.⁴⁸ Coleridge despised Hume’s work for a number of reasons, but chief among them, by his own account, was the fact that Hume had ‘devoted his
⁴⁵ In Copy G of The Statesman’s Manual, 18. ⁴⁶ Ibid. 18–19.
Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825 171
life to the undermining of the Christian religion’ and represented ‘the founders and martyrs of our church and constitution’ as ‘fanatics and bewildered enthusiasts’.⁴⁹ Coleridge undoubtedly recognized that his own work, concerned as it was with the ‘genuine enthusiasm of morals, religion, and patriotism’ and claiming spiritual possession of an ‘intuition of ultimate principles alone’, would have withered beneath Hume’s scornful and worldly gaze.⁵⁰ Yet he also believed that his distinction between the divine image of Reason and the ‘creature- ly’ Understanding could provide a patriotic, Christian antidote to Humean philosophy. According to Coleridge, Hume was ‘the main pioneer of that atheistic philosophy, which in France transvenomed the natural thirst of truth into the hydrophobia of a wild and homeless scepticism’.⁵¹
The Coleridgean faculty of Reason must be understood as a mys- tical inoculation against the ‘atheistic philosophy’ and ‘homeless scepticism’ of Hume. Coleridge mobilizes his distinction between the regenerate (Reason as the imago Dei) and the unregenerate aspects of human intelligence, in order to exclude Hume, the atheist, from further discussion. He effectively refuses to fight on com- mon ground with his opponent, or even to admit to sharing the same intellectual faculties. The perception of ‘ultimate principles alone’, Coleridge insists, belongs to those possessed of an ‘unde- graded human spirit’. Hume, the ‘Elias of that spirit of Anti-Christ’, is too sceptical, corrupt, and fallen to be worthy of a thorough refutation.
That Coleridge should set his own ‘undegraded human spirit’ against Hume’s ‘homeless scepticism’ is, I think, a paradoxical mea- sure of how little distance separated them.⁵² After 1813, Coleridge had a particularly acute sense of his own spiritual degradation and corruption (partially due to his dependence on opium), and he was far less secure in his religious convictions than he appeared to be in some of his major prose works. In The Statesman’s Manual, Coleridge always connects Hume’s scepticism with his atheism and alleged
⁴⁹ Ibid. ⁵⁰ Ibid. 23. ⁵¹ Ibid. 22.
⁵² For a recent account of the influence of the ‘spectre of Hume’ on Coleridge’s
thought, see Cairns Craig, ‘Coleridge, Hume and the Romantic imagination’, in
L. Davis, I. Duncan, and J. Sorensen (eds.), Scotland and the Borders of Romanticism
172 Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825 spiritual degradation; perhaps, this was a condition of psychological ‘homelessness’ and doubt that Coleridge not only recognized, but also intimately understood.
Hume acted as a scapegoat, I would suggest, for all that was unacceptable in Coleridge’s own thought. Norman Fruman noted that in Biographia Literaria, Coleridge accused Locke, Hume, and others of plagiarism. It is, as Fruman pointed out, at least ‘psychologically suggestive’ that Coleridge should accuse Hume of plagiarism in a work in which he famously plagiarized the writings of Schelling and others.⁵³ Coleridge’s accusations suggest not only a considerable degree of intellectual defensiveness on his part, but also the possibility that he actually partly identified with the scepticism, atheism, and ‘degradation’ of Hume.
In a sympathetic reading of Coleridge’s distinction between Reason and the Understanding, Thomas McFarland argues that Coleridge ‘was able to concede Locke and Hume their claim to ‘‘understanding’’, while retaining for his own religious purposes the superior conception of ‘‘reason’’ ’.⁵⁴ I suggest that, while establishing this enviably neat distinction between the faculties was undoubtedly an ambition for Coleridge, it was incompatible with another great ambition of his intellectual and religious life, which was to integrate the faculties of Reason and Understanding by placing the Philosophical Imagination and its symbol-making power in a sacramental ‘intermundium’ between them. The understanding and the senses (and their avatars: Locke, Newton, and Hume) could never be fully rejected by Coleridge and never fully integrated within his own philosophical and religious project:
The histories and political economy of the present and preceding century
partake in the general contagion of its mechanical philosophy, and are the
product of unenlivened generalizing Understanding. In the Scriptures they are
the living educts of the Imagination; of that reconciling and mediatory power,
which incorporating the Reason in Images of the Sense, and organizing
(as it were) the flux of the Senses by the permanence and self-circling
energies of the Reason, gives birth to a system of symbols, harmonious
⁵³ N. Fruman, Coleridge: The Damaged Archangel (London, 1972), 78.
⁵⁴ Thomas McFarland, Romanticism and the Heritage of Rousseau (Oxford, 1995),
Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825 173
in themselves, and consubstantial with the truths, of which they are theconductors.⁵⁵
Coleridge introduces one of his most celebrated definitions of the symbolic imagination (that ‘reconciling and mediatory power’) in vehement opposition to the probabilistic empiricism successful- ly practised by Boyle, Locke, Newton, and Hume (an ‘unenlivened generalizing understanding’). Comparing the ‘histories and political economy of the present and preceding century’ with the ‘Sacred History’ contained within the Bible, Coleridge dismisses contempo- rary historiographical techniques for being tainted by the ‘general contagion of its mechanical philosophy’. Once again, it is notable that Coleridge should refer to the ‘general contagion’ of mechanical philosophy, as if it were a virulent germ in contact with but also repulsed by his own healthy religious self.
In his dusty record of the dead past, the contemporary historian (a polemical involute of Hume, Locke, Gibbon, and Condillac) can present only an allegorical ‘shadow-fight of Things and Quantities’, filled with sophistries and the ‘hollowness of abstractions’. In the ‘Sacred History’ of the Bible, on the other hand, events and persons are ‘living educts of the imagination’, organized in a mystical, participatory relationship with spiritual truths. Symbolic objects, whose form corresponds to the intermediate faculty status of the Imagination, incorporate ‘Reason in images of the Sense’ directing the gaze through fleeting, particular incidents to the perception of transcendent truths. Whereas twenty pages earlier Coleridge had scorned the senses, placing them in a radical antithesis to the realm of Spirit, they are now thought to be capable of ‘incorporating’ spiritual truths in sensible images, and providing the supersensible with an earthly vehicle. In his Biblical exegesis, at least, Coleridge inverts the iconoclasm of the Kantian sublime, claiming that Ideas of Reason can in fact be represented in and through images of space and time.
According to Coleridge’s paradoxical formulation, the Imagination (a faculty both human and divine) organizes (‘as it were’) the aesthetic ‘flux of the Senses’ according to a typological schema presented by the faculty of Reason, giving birth to a harmonious ‘system of
174 Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825 symbols’ that are ‘consubstantial with the truths, of which they are the conductors’. Symbols are miraculous and sacramental objects, according to this theory, since they represent coordinated points of intersection between temporal objects and events and timeless spiritual truths: ‘The truths and the symbols that represent them move in conjunction and form the living chariot that bears up (for
us) the throne of Divine Humanity.’⁵⁶ A fideistic affirmation of
Reason and God has, for the moment, swept aside the ‘apparent contradiction’ of the Schellingean symbol. How the finite and infinite may be reconciled in images of sense is no longer an appropriate or even possible question for the ‘creaturely understanding’ to ask.
In his characterisation of symbols as being ‘consubstantial with the truths, of which they are the conductors’, Coleridge deliberately recalls the sacramental theology of Martin Luther.⁵⁷ According to Luther, the substance of the blood and body of Christ and the substance of the bread and wine were both equally present in the sacrament of the Eucharist. In a famous though obscure definition, he argued against Catholics, Calvinists, and Zwinglians that the blood and body of Christ are present ‘in, with, and under’ the elements of bread and wine, after the sacred words of institution are uttered: ‘this is my body, this is my blood’.⁵⁸ Luther rejected what he regarded ⁵⁶ Coleridge, Lay Sermons, 29.
⁵⁷ Luther’s conception of the Eucharist was articulated through a series of polemical
pamphlet attacks directed against the Zwinglians between 1525 and 1528, which
threatened the doctrinal and political unity of Protestantism. Philip of Hesse arranged
a meeting between Luther and Zwingli at the colloquy of Marburg on 1 Oct. 1529.
Zwingli attacked Luther’s conception of the Eucharist on the grounds that, if Christ
was ‘at the right hand of the Father’ in heaven, he could not also be present in the
elements of blood and wine in the Eucharist. Luther based his arguments on the
words of institution, insisting that the words: ‘this is my blood, this is my body’ must
be taken literally. On Oct 4 Luther compiled a list of fifteen articles of faith (based
on the Swabach articles which had been drawn up prior to the Colloquy), at the
bequest of Philip of Hesse. Surprisingly, the Zwinglians accepted fourteen of them,
although they failed to reach a full agreement concerning the fifteenth article on the
nature of the Eucharist. This show of doctrinal unity did not last long, however;
after the Colloquy, Zwingli again rejected the Lutheran conception of the Eucharist.
Finally, at the Diet of Augsburg (1530), Zwinglians and Lutherans presented separate
confessional statements articulating the same unresolved differences apparent atMarburg.
⁵⁸ As Luther explained with an analogy from the forge: ‘Consider how the two
Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825 175
as the ‘sacrificial’ character of the Catholic Mass and doctrine of transubstantiation, by which the substance of the bread and wine were said to be entirely transformed into the body and blood of Christ in a perpetual re-enactment of Christ’s sacrifice. Equally, Luther rejected the radical Zwinglian conception of the Eucharist as being no more than a ‘memorial’ meal in which the elements of bread and wine merely recall or metaphorically represent Christ’s redemptive sacrifice, but do not in any way change into or exist alongside His real presence. As a kind of medium between literal and metaphoric truth, Luther’s doctrine of ‘consubstantiation’ provided a useful model for Coleridge’s theory of symbolism. As Nick Halmi argues:
By appealing to the notion of participation, or identity of substance, to
efface the distinction between representational function and ontological
content—between meaning and being, in other words—Coleridge, like his
German contemporaries who conceived the symbol along very similar lines,
was responding to a double burden of the Enlightenment. That burden
consisted on the one hand in an anxiety about the nature of represen-
tation generally, an anxiety precipitated by the invidious differentiation in
eighteenth-century aesthetics of natural from artificial signs, and on the other
hand in the renunciation of sensory intuition—saving the phaenomena—as
the foundation of scientific theorization. To rephrase the problem in the
form of a question: how can we be sure that nature is naturally meaningfulto humanity? ⁵⁹
In his discussion of the symbols present within the Bible, Coleridge tried to overturn an absolute division between the ‘flux’ of temporal
and fire: why is it not much more possible for the glorious body of Christ to exist that
way in all parts of the bread’s substance?’ Luther, De captivitate Babylonia ecclesiaepraeludium (1520), Werke (Weimar, 1883–), vi. 510.
⁵⁹ Nick Halmi, ‘When is a Symbol Not a Symbol? Coleridge on the Eucharist’,
The Coleridge Bulletin: The Journal of the Friends of Coleridge, 20 (2002), 85–6.
Halmi argues that Coleridge’s Lutheran theory of the ‘consubstantial’ symbol in the
The Statesman’s Manual was in tension with other of his reflections on sacramental
theology. In discussions of the Eucharist, Halmi argues, Coleridge tended to reject
both the Catholic doctrine of ‘transubstantiation’ as well as the Lutheran doctrine of
‘consubstantiation’, since both doctrines committed them to a heretical doctrine of
divine ubiquity. Halmi comments as follows, ‘Though perhaps unfair to Luther, this
objection to the concept of divine ubiquity suggests that Coleridge regarded symbols
consumed at the altar as somehow different from symbols beheld through the window.
What remains unclear … , however, is whether he conceived the Eucharist to be one
176 Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825 objects arranged and classified by the faculty of Understanding, and the intuition of permanent spiritual truth by the faculty of Reason. But this division in faculties marked a pervasive division in post-Enlightenment culture, as far as Coleridge was concerned, between the secular and materialist impulses of the philosophes, and those who, like himself, claimed a form of mystical communion with supersensual truths. This cultural division mapped on to a self-division in Coleridge’s thinking, between that part of him that recognized no medium between matter and spirit, and that part that could only perceive spirit through the physical contours of the natural world. This ambivalence in his thinking finds its way into his exegesis of the Bible.
Like Luther, Coleridge wished to preserve both the physical singu- larity and the temporal successiveness of certain objects and persons within the unfolding Biblical narrative, while claiming that they also
embodied and represented a systematic body of spiritual truths dis-
closed to humanity within its more-than-metaphorical pages: ‘in a secondary yet in more than a metaphorical sense, the Sacred Book is worthily intitled the WORD OF GOD’ (my italics).⁶⁰ The ‘content’ of the Bible presents us, therefore, with a ‘two-fold significance’; we encounter, like Heraclitus, a ‘stream of time continuous’, but we also encounter that same stream of life, like Plato, as a moving ‘symbol of eternity’ in which the past, present, and future unite inside its encircling eddies:
In the Scriptures therefore both Facts and Persons must of necessity have
a two-fold significance, a past and a future, a temporary and a perpetual, a
particular and a universal application. They must be at once Portraits and
Ideals … . In the Bible every agent appears and acts as a self-subsisting
individual: each has a life of its own, and yet all are one life. The elements of
necessity and free-will are reconciled in the higher power of an omnipresent
Providence, that predestinates the whole in the moral freedom of the integralparts.⁶¹
Coleridge’s exegesis of the Bible in The Statesman’s Manual relies upon a Neoplatonic understanding of the relationship between tem- poral and eternal realities. Douglas Hedley has recently drawn atten- tion to this aspect of Coleridge’s thought, arguing that ‘[u]ntangling
Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825 177
the web of idealistic and Neoplatonic tenets and concepts is very important in understanding Coleridge’s philosophy of religion’.⁶² In his interpretation of the Bible, Coleridge wants to preserve a literal sense of scripture: adverting to ‘Facts’, ‘self-subsisting individual[s]’ and the ‘temporary’ aspect of Biblical events; but he also recognizes the ‘perpetual and … universal application’ of such events, imputing to them a palimpsest of typological and tropological (the Bible is a perpetual guide to morality) meanings. Like the lesser example of characters in a Shakespearean drama, the lives of individuals recorded within the Biblical narrative are both ‘Portraits and Ideals’, Coleridge argues. They are temporal, unique, morally uncoerced individuals, while remaining parts of a predestined, providential whole: a drama orchestrated by God from eternity. Coleridge’s central distinction between the ‘creaturely understanding’ and the regenerate faculty of Reason serves to distinguish (at this point in the book, at least) between those who are capable of comprehending the eternal wis- dom contained within the Bible and those who are restricted to the apprehension of mundane historical events. Coleridge’s exegetical technique can be traced back to the allegorical methods of Christian Neoplatonists, such as Origen and Augustine.⁶³
While Origen (c.185–254) was generally regarded with some sus- picion by later medieval thinkers (his belief, for instance, that souls ‘pre-existed’ prior to embodiment and that salvation must extend even to Satan, were condemned as heresies by the Council of Con- stantinople in 543), his method of interpretation, set out below in a commentary on the Song of Songs, was nevertheless to have an enormous impact on the development of medieval allegoresis:
Paul the apostle teaches us that the invisible things of God are understood
by means of the things that are visible, and that the things that are not seen
are beheld through their relationship and likeness to things seen. He thus
shows that this visible world teaches us about that which is invisible, and
⁶² Douglas Hedley, Coleridge, Philosophy and Religion (Cambridge, 2000), 12.
See also Hedley, ‘Cudworth, Coleridge and Schelling’, Coleridge Bulletin, 16 (2000),63–70.
⁶³ Perkins argues that there are ‘striking parallels’ between Coleridge’s Logos
doctrine and that of Origen. She suggests that ‘[h]is system owes much, too, to his
reading of Augustine, of Scholastic and Reformation theology, and to the work of the
178 Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825
that this earthly scene contains certain patterns of things heavenly. Thus it
is to be possible for us to mount up from things below to things above, and
to perceive and understand from the things we see on earth the things thatbelong to heaven.⁶⁴
Origen’s Neoplatonic understanding of the relationship between visible and invisible things made possible, Peter Harrison argues, ‘an elaborate semiotics of the natural world, in which every visible feature of creation corresponded to some reality in the unseen heavenly realm’.⁶⁵ The idea that ‘visible things have some invisible likeness and pattern’ in the heavenly realm, and that it is possible to infer the dimensions of an invisible world from isomorphic patterns in the world of visible things, proved to be enormously influential among Origen’s equally influential successors. Ambrose of Milan (c.339–97), for instance, taught that ‘Heaven and earth, are the sum of the visible things which appear not only as the adornment of this world, but also as a testimony of invisible things’.⁶⁶ This hermeneutic, textual understanding of the natural world employed interpretative principles that were drawn from the parallel study of scripture.⁶⁷
In his Commentary on the Song of Songs, Origen makes this connection between scripture and the natural world explicit: ‘This relationship [between the invisible and the visible] does not obtain only with creatures, the Divine Scripture itself is written with wisdom of a rather similar sort.’⁶⁸ In Origen’s system of allegorical interpre- tation, Scripture has three senses pertaining to the body, soul, and
⁶⁴ Origen The Song of Songs, Commentary and Homilies, tr. R. P. Lawson (London,
1957), 218; quoted in P. Harrison, The Bible, Protestantism and the Rise of NaturalScience, (Cambridge, 1998), 16.
⁶⁵ Harrison, The Bible, 17.
⁶⁶ Ambrose, Hexameron, 1. 4. 6 in Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC, 1947–),xlii. 15–16; quoted in Harrison, Bible, 17.
⁶⁷ Harrison provides a fascinating account of the way in which Augustine later
recast Origen’s system of interpreting the language of scripture and nature. Arguably it
is Augustine’s method of allegorical interpretation that captures Coleridge’s sense that
the natural world is an ‘intelligible language’ of divinity: ‘[a]ccording to Augustine,
multiplicity of meaning is a function of things, and not words. There exist different
layers of meaning in scripture not because the words used are equivocal, but because
the things to which the words refer bear multiple meanings. Origen’s scheme of
interpretation was thus recast: the literal sense of scripture is to be found in the
univocal meaning of words; the spiritual sense, in the various meanings of the objectsto which words refer’; Ibid. 28.
Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825 179
spirit of its interpreter. The ‘body’ of Scripture, its literal sense, refers to a discrete historical reality that Scripture purports to describe (for instance the exile of the Israelites from Egypt in the Old Testament book of Exodus), and this level of knowledge may be all that the ‘simple carnal man’ can attain to. The moral sense or ‘soul’ of Scripture (also known as the tropological sense) ‘communicated to more advanced individuals how life was to be lived’, Harrison argues.⁶⁹ For instance, a thousand years after the death of Origen, Dante Alighieri interpreted the moral sense of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt as indicating ‘the turning of the soul from the sorrow and misery of sin to the state of grace’.⁷⁰ The highest sense of scripture, the allegorical sense, referred to certain ‘timeless theological truths’ contained within the Bible, which could only be communicated to those spiritually sophisticated enough to correctly decode and interpret them. Dante, for instance, regarded the ‘allegorical signification’ of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt as referring typologically to ‘the Redemption by Christ’.
Paul Korshin argues that the influence of Origen, and the other early Church fathers, also proved decisive in the development of
typological interpretations of the Bible:
The early Fathers, most notably Origen, were not content to leave typology
as they found it. They expanded its scope considerably, so that many Old
Testament events became, for them, prefigurations of the life of Christ: they
interpreted many of the smallest details of the Pentateuch as types of the
Church, the spiritual life, the sacraments, and—significantly—of post-New
Testament Christian history. The early Fathers, in broadening the contexts of
typology far beyond what the New Testament had presented, were attracted by
the probative possibilities of prefiguration: to look back over the documents
of the past and to find in them prophecies that had been fulfilled since the
writing of those very documents made them seek ever more zealously fortypes of Christianity whose mere hints were now established fact. ⁷¹
A more proximate source for Coleridge’s exegesis of the Bible is the ‘postfigurative’ technique of correlative typology developed by Pro- testant reformers in the sixteenth century.⁷² Korshin defines this form
⁶⁹ Harrison, The Bible, 19.
⁷⁰ Dante Alighieri, ‘Letter to Can Grande’; quoted in R. Allers, ‘Microcosmos fromAnaximandros to Paracelsus, Traditio, 2 (1944), 328–9.
⁷¹ Paul Korshin, Typologies in England, 1650–1820 (Princeton, 1982), 30.
180 Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825 of typological interpretation as follows: ‘[t]his analogizing, … most commonly involves implied parallels between such Old Testament figures as Moses, Joshua, and David, and contemporary monarchs, statesmen, and other worthies’.⁷³ Correlative typology is a postfig- urative technique of interpretation, since Old Testament types are apparently fulfilled by anti-types after the ‘life and works of Jesus’.⁷⁴ Coleridge clearly aligns himself with this Protestant technique of cor- relative typology in The Statesman’s Manual. Recommending his own postfigurative interpretations of certain Biblical episodes to sundry statesman, sovereigns, and legislators, Coleridge warns:
[W]ould you stand degraded in your own eyes; if you betrayed an utter
want of information respecting the acts of human sovereigns and legislators?
And should you not much rather be both ashamed and afraid to know
yourselves inconversant with the acts and constitutions of God, whose law
executeth itself, and whose Word is the foundation, power, and the life ofthe universe? ⁷⁵
Coleridge clearly draws a parallel between the Bible and that ‘other book’, the natural world. The Bible can be consulted as a guide to contemporary political events, because the Word revealed in the Bible is equally the ‘foundation, power, and life of the universe’.
A L L E G O RY A N D S Y M B O L I S M Coleridge’s famous distinction between allegory and symbolism in
The Statesman’s Manual is really designed to preserve a distinctionbetween two radically different forms of allegorical interpretation.
His critique of allegory is directed exclusively at those contemporary,
literary practitioners of the art for whom an allegory is merely ‘a
translation of abstract notions into a picture-language which is itself
⁷³ Ibid. As Peter Harrison argues, ‘typological reading is as much a way of
understanding history as of interpreting texts. Just as allegory implied a certain
symbolic view of natural objects, so typology carried with it a conviction about the
nature of historical events: allegory is to do with things, typology with people andevents.’ Harrison, The Bible, 131.
Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825 181
nothing but an abstraction from objects of the senses’. An allegory, according to his polemical definition, consists of certain ‘abstract notions’ (products of a generalizing and empirical understanding) which ‘the fancy arbitrarily associates with apparitions of matter’ (my italics) to form an ‘unsubstantial’ picture-language.⁷⁶ The arbitrariness of the connection between the form and meaning of an allegory is of central significance to Coleridge. The fact that an abstract concept is encoded within a randomly contrived picture-language by the allegorist, provides Coleridge with a means of apotheosizing the uncontrived, absolute status of the symbol, whose spiritual meaning is indissolubly connected to its material form. A literary allegory is just a picture-language abstracted ‘from objects of sense’, which the allegorist selects as a means of representing certain ‘abstract notions’ for the amusement of his audience. A symbol, however, is divinely instituted, and must be discovered by the pious exegete, in the pages of the ‘Sacred History’.
The ephemeral picture-language of allegory, stranded within an exclusively literary domain, precariously rests between opaque physi- cal objects and ‘unenlivened’ empirical concepts. There is no intrinsic ‘likeness’ between the form and the meaning of an allegory; in fact, the only non-arbitrary connection we may posit exists between the apparitional picture-language of its compositional elements and the physical objects from which those elements were first abstracted. But a symbol, according to Coleridge, ‘always partakes of the Real- ity which it renders intelligible’ and is characterized, famously, by the ‘translucence of the Eternal through and in the Temporal’.⁷⁷ Coleridge introduces his concept of symbolic ‘translucency’ here without acknowledging that on several occasions earlier in the book he had characterized the material world as an obstructive medium that was to be swept away to prevent the ‘interception’ of ‘spiritual light’. The question of whether or not ideas of Reason may be incorporated in images of sense is never clearly resolved within the text.
When Coleridge has faith in the symbol, he describes it occupying a sacramental interspace between the eternal and the temporal, the physical and the spiritual. His polemical definition of contemporary allegory, alternatively, suggests a post-Newtonian vision of the world
182 Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825 in which obdurate matter has no genuine point of contact or analogy with a spiritual realm. The theological voluntarism characteristic of the experimental philosophers clearly lies behind Coleridge’s defini- tion of allegory. Calvin, Boyle, Locke, and Newton all stressed the radical contingency of the created order in relation to its divine Cre- ator. The natural world is certainly the product of the divine will, but it is not expressive of the divine essence. The created order is therefore a perfect ‘allegory’ of God, according to theological voluntarists, since the language of nature has an entirely arbitrary relationship to its divine referent. Turning from the text of nature to human practition- ers of this disenchanted art, Coleridge argues that the formal elements of the genre have only a contingent connection to the meanings they bear, and their sensible, quasi-conceptual form is generated by the dry, abstractive tendencies of the mundane understanding.
Once again the lines of conflict between Coleridge and his age are clearly drawn. He sets a mechanistic conception of the universe and an empiricist model of the mind against a logocentric conception of the universe and a regenerate faculty of Reason. Contemporary allegory is treated as the literary effect of a fallen culture; it is an entirely fictional genre where wit, rather than wisdom, and metaphor, rather than truth, are the allegorist’s secular, hermeneutic gifts. As Halmi observes:
If eighteenth and nineteenth-century definitions of allegory are generally
more restrictive than earlier ones, this restrictiveness follows from both a
narrower conception of allegory’s purpose and a wider conception of its
audience. Just as the signifier is to be effaced by the signified in the case of the
sign, so the narrative is to be effaced by the moral in that of allegory: meaning
becomes the only story. … [C]ertain regulations were established to ensure
that it would perform this task; it had to be obviously fictional, so as to direct
the reader’s mind to what it really meant; and it had to be self-consistent,with no intermixture of allegorical and non-allegorical characters.⁷⁸
⁷⁸ N. Halmi, ‘From Hierarchy to Opposition: Allegory and the Sublime’, Compar-
ative Literature, 4 (1992), 337–60, 353. As many critics have noted, Halmi included,
18th cent. critics like Addison were particularly perturbed by Milton’s introduction
of the allegorical figures of ‘Sin’ and ‘Death’ into the narrative of Paradise Lost. As
Steven Knapp brilliantly observes, ‘Milton’s ‘‘Sin’’ and ‘‘Death’’ struck eighteenth
century readers as ‘‘Gothic’’ intruders into the essentially realistic and classical world
Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825 183
That allegory had become ‘obviously fictional’ in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries partly explains Coleridge’s repeated valorization of the symbol. The symbol is introduced in The Statesman’s Manual in order to conserve the sacramental status of two interpenetrating texts, the Bible and the more problematic ‘book of nature’, in order to affirm, in an increasingly sceptical age, the sacred function of interpretative allegoresis. To understand Coleridge’s ambivalent attitude towards Biblical hermeneutics and the symbolic character of the natural world, it is necessary to examine his own reading of the ‘book of nature’:
If you have accompanied me thus far, thoughtful reader! Let it not weary
you if I digress for a few moments to another book, likewise a revelation
of God—the great book of his servant Nature. That in its obvious sense
and literal interpretation it declares the being and attributes of the Almighty
Father, none but the fool in heart has ever dared gainsay. But it has been the
music of gentle and pious minds in all ages, it is the poetry of all human nature,
to read it likewise in a figurative sense, and to find therein correspondencies
and symbols of the spiritual world. … For never can I look and meditate on
the vegetable creation without a feeling similar to that with which we gaze at
a beautiful infant that has fed itself asleep at its mother’s bosom, and smiles
in its strange dream of obscure yet happy sensations. … It seems as if thesoul said to herself: from this state hast thou fallen! ⁷⁹
Coleridge’s consideration of the spiritual significance of the natural world, hidden away in an appendix to the main text, is far less confident than his treatment of the symbolism present within the Bible. Turning to nature, Coleridge for the first time acknowledges the indispensable role of the ‘creaturely understanding’ which, from the ‘obvious sense and literal interpretation’ of nature, can declare ‘the being and attributes of the Almighty Father’. In a move that I will shortly explain, Coleridge asserts the validity of natural theology in securing certain necessary truths about God through natural
their contagious effect on the ostensibly literal agents with which they interacted.
The trouble with Milton’s power to transform abstract concepts into animated beings
was not merely its inherent primitiveness and irrationality, but its reversibility: once
the boundaries between literal and figurative agency were erased, it seemed that
nothing would prevent the imagination from metaphorising literal agents as easily as
it literalised metaphors’; Knapp, Personification and the Sublime: Milton to Coleridge(Cambridge, MA, 1985), 2.
184 Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825 reason. However he also seeks, as suggested in the passage just quoted, to ‘read’ nature in a poetic or ‘figurative sense’ and to ‘find therein correspondencies and symbols of the spiritual world’. While these ambitions are happily elided in the same paragraph, Coleridge becomes trapped between two different approaches to attaining spiritual knowledge through the contemplation of the natural world.
An empirical method of reading the ‘book of nature’ (natural theology) is present within his approving reference to the ‘obvious sense and literal interpretation’ of the natural world from which the being and attributes of God may be inferred. A Neoplatonic conception of allegory lingers within his equally approving reference to the ‘correspondencies and symbols of the spiritual world’ that exist, in a ‘figurative sense’, in nature. Coleridge initially suggests that it is ‘the poetry of all human nature’ to ‘read’ nature in a ‘figurative sense’, implying that it is the mind itself that attributes a
metaphorical significance to the objects it contemplates. In the same
sentence, however, he also seems to claim that the mind discovers (‘finds therein’) those ‘correspondencies and symbols of the spiritual world’ (my italics) in nature itself. When Coleridge gazes at nature through the creaturely ‘eyes’ of his understanding, using the methods of natural religion, he finds evidence for ‘the being and attributes of the Almighty Father’, but only metaphors of ‘the spiritual world’. If he gazes at nature through the ‘eyes’ of regenerate Reason, however, he discovers symbols of that ‘spiritual world’ within the very fabric of nature. While Coleridge had previously scorned the ‘creaturely understanding’ for its ‘literal’ understanding of Biblical history, this same worldly and defective faculty of cognition is now being relied upon to provide the most secure and unambiguous evidence for the existence and attributes of God. To the ‘eye’ of the understanding, the natural world offers only ‘figurative’ or poetic representations of the ‘spiritual world’, while its literal, ‘obvious sense’ unambiguously
declares the ‘being and attributes of God’.
The popularity (and apparent success) of natural theology in deter- mining the existence and attributes of God forced Coleridge, I think, to read the ‘book of nature’ in a ‘literal sense’, and to deny to objects in the natural world the same symbolic significance that he happily ascribed to events and agents within the Bible. In a sense,
Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825 185
his regenerate faculty of Reason in studying the ‘Sacred History’ of the Bible—in order to invest that text with the higher levels of spiri- tual significance that natural reason (the ‘creaturely understanding’) would deny—while using his ‘creaturely’ understanding to study the book of nature, and secure the existence and attributes of God through natural theology and the argument from design. But Coleridge was inevitably confronted with severe difficulties in reconciling the two texts of nature and the Bible. After all, the events recorded within the Bible pertain to events that are meant to have occurred within the domain of nature and which, furthermore, are meant to predict future events within that same natural domain. If historical events can be read in their scriptural context as symbolic interpenetrations of mundane and spiritual realities, why, when Coleridge turns from the Bible to the book of nature, does he discover only metaphorical ‘correspondencies and symbols of the spiritual world’? In a marginal note added to Copy G of The Statesman’s Manual, Coleridge acknowl- edged that ‘[a]t the time I wrote this Work, my views on Nature were very imperfect and confused’.
This confusion was only increased when, having recognized that his interpretation of the two texts were incompatible, Coleridge attempted to show that the ‘undivided Reason’, which he had all along ‘endeavoured to contra-distinguish from the Understanding’,
could actually discover ‘correspondencies and symbols of the spiritual
world’ in nature. In effect, Coleridge retracted what he had written only two pages before:
I seem to myself to behold in the quiet objects, on which I am gazing, more
than an arbitrary illustration, more than a mere simile, the work of my own
Fancy! I feel an awe, as if there were before my eyes the same Power, as that
of the Reason—the same Power in a lower dignity, and therefore a symbol
established in the truth of things. I feel it alike, whether I contemplate a single
tree or flower, or meditate on vegetation throughout the world, as one of thegreat organs of the life of nature.⁸⁰
Like his 1805 notebook entry describing the moon above Valetta harbour in Malta, Coleridge here vacillates between attributing a metaphorical or a symbolic significance to objects in the natural
186 Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825 world. The observation begins in a familiar idiom of uncertainty and equivocation (‘I seem to myself to behold’) as Coleridge attempts to distinguish, once again, between those objects that are merely allegorical projections of the self (‘more than an arbitrary illustration, more than a mere simile’), and those sacramental symbols that are ‘established in the truth of things’. According to the terms of this passage, objects in nature have both a horizontal and a vertical significance for the self that is contemplating them. Reflecting on flowers, trees, and ‘vegetation throughout the world’, Coleridge senses the ‘same Power, as that of Reason—the same Power in a lower dignity, and therefore a symbol established in the truth of things’. Natural objects, according to the premise of his argument here, are correlative symbols of the self that contemplates them.
Flowers, plants, and the whole of organic nature are products of an archetypal communicative intelligence (Logos) that is mirrored in a ‘higher dignity’ by the faculty of human Reason. Subject and object, therefore, mirror one another horizontally. Reason is also a regenerate image or likeness of God; therefore, those same flowers and plants that horizontally mirror the self contemplating them (though in a ‘lower dignity’), also vertically mirror the wisdom, power, and providence of God.
Coleridge involved himself in a deep paradox by deciding to appeal to this regenerate notion of Reason when considering the ‘sacred history’ of the Bible, while turning to the premises of natural theology in his consideration of the ‘book of nature’. As I argued in Chapter 2, natural theology in the eighteenth century operated within an ontological and epistemological framework dictated by the overwhelming explanatory success of Newtonian science. The being and attributes of God were secured by an a posteriori appeal to the mechanical order and teleological design of the universe from which, by probabilistic reasoning, the intelligence and power of the deity might be legitimately inferred. These arguments were so popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that William Paley’s A
View of the Evidence of Christianity (1794), and Natural Theology:
or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected
from the Appearances of Nature (1802), with their celebrated images
of a clockwork universe and divine watch-maker, were still required
Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825 187
scientific reading on Cambridge University undergraduate courses at the beginning of the twentieth century.
The trouble with this form of reasoning, from Coleridge’s perspec- tive, was that its ontological and methodological assumptions were overwhelmingly and reductively materialist, concerned ‘exclusively’, as he suggested in his definition of the faculty of Understanding, ‘with the quantities, qualities, and relations of particulars in time and space’.⁸¹ According to this materialist and empirical framework of enquiry, in which causal–mechanical explanations of natural phe- nomena were paramount, the notion of finite objects intersecting with eternal spiritual truths or bearing semantic layers of tropological and typological significance was manifestly absurd. The Understand- ing might establish certain truths about the being and attributes of God from the intricate, material ordering of the universe; but these truths, established by empirical reasoning from material effects to probable immaterial causes, entirely excluded the textual concept of the symbol that Coleridge had established in his reading of the Bible.
This explains, I think, the vacillation and ambivalence we find in Coleridge’s consideration of the natural world. He draws upon the authority of contemporary forms of natural theology in order to advance certain theses that natural reason and the ‘creaturely under- standing’ would instinctively reject as metaphorical or allegorical illusions: ‘I feel an awe, as if there were before my eyes the same Power, as that of the Reason—the same Power in a lower dignity, and therefore a symbol established in the truth of things’ (my ital- ics). Attempting to effect a seamless transition from post-Newtonian natural theology to Neoplatonic mystical contemplation, Coleridge is left half-describing, half-disavowing his own symbolic visions. He finally resorts to the regulative Kantian ‘as if’ in order to propose, and then immediately qualify, a theory of symbolism that is entirely at odds with the materialist premises of contemporary theology and natural science. Coleridge affirms a sacramental theory of symbolism in the context of the Bible, which he cannot affirm when he turns to the poetry of the natural world. His Neoplatonic interpretation of the Bible is ultimately irreconcilable with his cherished Kantian principle
⁸¹ Ibid., appendix B, p. 59.
188 Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825 prohibiting the embodiment or representations of spiritual truths in images of space and time. At the very end of the last appendix (E) to
The Statesman’s Manual, Coleridge describes the ‘highest problem of
philosophy’ as follows:
[T]hat which is neither individual (i.e. a sensible Intuition) nor gener-
al (i.e. a conception) which neither refers to outward Facts nor yet is
abstracted from the Forms of perception contained in the Understand-
ing; but which is an educt of the Imagination actuated by the pure
Reason, to which there neither is or can be an adequate correspondent
in the world of the senses—this and this alone is = An Idea. Whether
Ideas are regulative only, according to Aristotle and Kant; or likewise
Constitutive, and one with the power and Life of Nature, according to
Plato, and Plotinus … is the highest problem of Philosophy, and not part ofits nomenclature.⁸²
Like Kant in the Critique of Judgment, Coleridge defines an Idea (negatively) as that ‘to which there neither is or can be an adequate correspondent in the world of the senses’. This statement, while consistent with his earlier assertion that in nature one can ‘read’ only ‘figurative’ intimations of Reason and the spiritual world, is inconsis- tent with the central exegetical principle guiding his interpretation of the Bible: namely, that certain finite objects and events are ‘consub- stantial’ with a harmonious system of spiritual truths of which they are the ‘conductors’. By reverting to Kantian premises at the very end of the book, Coleridge again posits the kind of intractable gulf between matter and spirit that his sacramental theory of symbolism had been designed to bridge and overcome.
A I D S TO R E F L E C T I O N
The conscience is neither reason, religion, or will, but an experience (sui
generis) of the coincidence of the human will with reason and religion.
It might, perhaps, be called a spiritual sensation; but that there lurks
a contradiction in the terms, and that it is often deceptive to give a
common or generic name to that, which being unique, can have no fairanalogy.⁸³
Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825 189
[S]piritual truths can only spiritually be discerned. This we know from
Revelation, and (the existence of spiritual truths being granted) Philosophyis compelled to draw the same conclusion.⁸⁴
Throughout 1814 and 1815, Coleridge fitfully struggled with theolog- ical questions of Election, Predestination, Free Will, and Atonement. In a letter to Joseph Cottle written in April 1814, Coleridge quotes with evident relief the ‘true Divine, Archbishop Leighton’ for whom faith in the spiritual fruits of prayer was accompanied ‘not by Reasons and Arguments; but by an inexpressible kind of Evidence, which they only know who have it’.⁸⁵ According to John Beer, Leighton’s writings ‘were assisting Coleridge’s fight for spiritual survival at this time’.⁸⁶ This was partly a consequence of Leighton’s ability to reconcile St John and St Paul, so as to speak ‘of the inward light in a way that accorded with Christian Platonism while also affirming the depravity of man and his need for redemption’.⁸⁷ In the context of the shame and torment of his hopeless drug addiction, Coleridge insisted upon the absolute transcendence of God and the corruption of the human will and natural reason (doctrines also associated with St Augustine and Calvin). He also managed, like Leighton, to combine these prin- ciples with faith in the possibility of revealed spiritual truth, and justification by faith alone. As Beer concludes:
Recognition of the complete infirmity of his own will had driven him more
forcibly towards the affirmations of St Paul concerning the transcendence
of God and the inability of sinful man to approach him by way of his own
reason and volition alone; yet continuing awareness of his own intelligential
powers drew him to reflect on the possibility that inner revelation could alsobe ministered to by propitious circumstances.⁸⁸
Having recognized the ‘complete infirmity of his own will’, the ‘transcendence of God’, and the ‘inability of sinful man to approach him by way of his own reason and volition’, Coleridge turned to ‘inner Revelation’ as a source of spiritual knowledge and comfort.
This decision to abandon natural reason as a means of acquir- ing religious knowledge forced him, however, into commitments
⁸⁴ Coleridge, Aids to Reflection, 77. ⁸⁵ Coleridge, letter to Cottle, 27 Apr. 1814, CL iii. 478–9.
⁸⁶ Coleridge, Aids to Reflection, editor’s introduction, p. xlvi. ⁸⁷ Ibid., p. li.
190 Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825 of faith that robbed him of his ability to communicate with his audience and age. He fell into one of the ingenious traps set by Hume in the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. As I dis- cussed in Chapter 2, Hume emphasized the limits and frailty of human reason (and natural religion) in order to disingenuously recommend a path of revealed truth that would end, he evidently hoped, in apophatic silence and agnosticism. In Aids to Reflection Coleridge confronts, but cannot resolve, certain Humean problems surrounding the description and verification of transcendent spir- itual truths. If his religion, like his poetry, entailed a necessary ‘suspension of disbelief’ and a corresponding commitment of faith, it also robbed him of his ability to articulate and share his spiritual insights.
In Aphorism VI of the ‘Moral and Religious Aphorisms’, Coleridge discusses Romans 8: 26, in which St Paul discusses the nature of prayer and claims that ‘the Spirit aid[s] our infirmities’.⁸⁹ In analysing this verse, Coleridge notes that the ‘Spirit’ may ‘act on the Will by a predisposing influence from without … in a spiritual manner, and without suspending or destroying its freedom’, and that it may also act ‘in the will; that uniting and becoming one with our will and spirit, it … may intercede for us ‘‘with groanings that cannot be uttered’’ ’.⁹⁰ Coleridge asks that ‘the due force and full import be given to the term
unutterable or incommunicable, in St Paul’s use of it’; and he goes
on to note that ‘the subject, of which it is predicated, is something which I cannot, which from the nature of the thing it is impossible that I should, communicate to any human mind … so as to make it in itself the object of his direct and immediate consciousness’.⁹¹ The dangers of religious enthusiasm were eminently containable, according to Coleridge’s judicious definition of the phenomenon, because the operations of the Spirit occur in or on individuals, who have no means of communicating them to others, ‘so, indeed, must it be with all Truths, and all modes of Being that can neither be counted, colored, or delineated. Before and After, when applied to
⁸⁹ ‘Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should
pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession [for us] with groaningswhich cannot be uttered’; Romans 8: 26.
Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825 191
such Subjects, are but allegories, which the Sense or Imagination supplies to the Understanding’.⁹² This is the central insight of Aids to Reflection. Spiritual truths and supersensual insights are essentially incommunicable because they can
‘neither be counted, coloured or delineated’. Coleridge will provide sensuous translations of these spiritual truths, carrying them over into allegories of space and time for the benefit of his readers; but he will also bluntly deny the adequacy of such allegorical images, presenting them as mental toys that must finally be put away in order to directly countenance spiritual truths. But what are these spiritual truths? Coleridge cannot say: he can only translate because ‘spiritual truth can only spiritually be discerned’ and ‘what we cannot
imagine, we cannot, in the proper sense of the word, conceive’.⁹³
Here, Coleridge walks into the Humean and Kantian impasse of agnosticism. If the ‘Spirit’ cannot ‘in the proper sense of the word’ be ‘conceived’ then Coleridge will be incapable of even indicating its existence, let alone describing its nature. He will have to resort to allegories whose adequacy he will deny in the same breath as they are uttered. Modiano has noted this oscillation between agnosticism and anthropomorphism in Coleridge’s religious thought in her discussion of the symbol:
While Coleridge clearly subscribed to the Christian view of a loving and
intelligible God, he was equally intent upon maintaining the sense of God’s
mystery and incomprehensibility, for to presume complete knowledge of God
would be to commit the religious heresy of equating God with the created
world, and the equally unpardonable heresy of overestimating the capacity
of human reason. The more Coleridge emphasized the transcendence of the
infinite ‘I AM’ and the craving of a self-conscious subject to attain access, if
not full knowledge of, the Absolute, the more likely it is that he would tend
to divest the symbol of its ties with the phenomenal world and ultimatelydiscard the symbol altogether.⁹⁴
Attempting to defend himself against any prospective charge of religious enthusiasm, Coleridge asserted not only that ‘Spirit’ cannot be communicated to others (‘even … a person under the same con- ditions as myself’), but also that the individual purportedly under the
⁹² Ibid. ⁹³ Ibid.
192 Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825 influence of ‘Spirit’ cannot directly perceive its presence: ‘It cannot be the object of my own direct and immediate Consciousness; but must be inferred. Inferred it may be from its workings; it cannot be perceived
in them.’⁹⁵ ‘At the porch and threshold of Revealed Truth’, Coleridge
seems to have already argued himself into agnosticism.⁹⁶ Anticipating the problems attached to this allegorical process of conveying spiri- tual truths in earthly language and images, Coleridge pre-emptively attacks his many future critics for failing to appreciate the difficulty of the task he had set himself in Aids to Reflection:
[T]he foreseen risk which I run of exposing the volume at large to the
censure which every work, or rather which every writer, must be prepared
to undergo, who, treating of subjects that cannot be seen, touched, or in any
other way made matters of outward sense, is yet anxious both to attach to,
and to convey a distinct meaning by, the words he makes use of—the censure
of being dry, abstract, and (of all qualities most scaring and opprobrious to
the ears of the present generation) metaphysical; though how it is possible
that a work not physical, that is, employed on Objects known or believed
on the evidence of the senses, should be other than meta-physical, that is,
treating on Subjects, the evidence of which is not derived from the Senses, is
a problem which Critics of this order find it convenient to leave unsolved.⁹⁷
Coleridge quite rightly censures those who would expect a transparent and concrete description of spiritual matters. Indeed, he goes on to mock those enthusiasts who ‘lay claim (or at least look forward) to an inward perception of Spirit itself and of its operating’.⁹⁸ Those sharing such ‘Pretensions to the Supernatural’, as he icily puts it, suffer under the same delusion in thinking that ‘the Spirit is made the immediate Object of Sense or Sensation’.⁹⁹ Coleridge’s attack on enthusiasm is motivated by a desire to deflect any similar charge being directed at his own work. Enthusiasm, in which ‘the Spirit is made the immediate Object of Sense or Sensation’, is an anthropomorphic delusion as far as Hume, Kant, and Coleridge are concerned.
Coleridge imagines a future reviewer, in the style of Swift’s Tale
of The Tub, referring derisively to the: ‘Compiler of the Aids to
Reflection, and Commenter on a Scotch Bishop’s platonico-calvinistic commentary on St. Peter … whose peculiar Talent lies in fixing tropes
⁹⁵ Coleridge, Aids to Reflection, 79. ⁹⁶ Ibid. 78. ⁹⁷ Ibid. 81.
Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825 193
and allegories to the letter, and refining what is literal into
and mystery’.¹⁰⁰ This piece of auto-criticism seems cruelly
apt and prophetic if we recall Coleridge’s two stated aims for his work: first, to describe things ‘that cannot be seen, touched, or in any way made matters of outward sense’ and, second, ‘to convey a distinct meaning by, the words he makes use of’. If Coleridge is to describe supersensual things in ordinary language, surely he will find himself, to quote Swift, ‘refining what is literal into figure and mystery’.
In Aphorism VII of the ‘Moral and Religious Aphorisms’, Coleridge attempts to describe the ‘proper and natural Effect’ of the healing ‘Spir- it’ of Romans 8:26, which signifies an individual’s ‘Reconcilement’ with God:
The proper and natural Effect, and in the absence of all disturbing or
intercepting forces, the certain and sensible accompaniment of Peace (or
Reconcilement) with God, is our own inward Peace, a calm and quiet temper
of mind. And where there is consciousness of earnestly desiring, and of
having sincerely striven after the former, the latter may be considered as aSense of its presence.¹⁰¹
Coleridge is careful to differentiate between the operations of ‘Spirit’ on the Will—which can never be directly perceived or conceived—and the Pauline ‘Effects’ of that ‘Spirit’, which may be known by inference as a feeling of ‘inward Peace’ and ‘a calm and quiet temper of mind’. While Coleridge rejects unequivocally the notion that the actions of the ‘Spirit’ may be known directly and without mediation, he does allow for what he calls ‘a spiritual
Sense’ belonging to a ‘[m]edial Organ in and by which our Peace
with God, and the lively Workings of his Grace on our Spirit, are perceived by us’. Coleridge’s sudden allusion to spiritual sensations at this point (Kant called them Geistesgef¨uhls) looks both dubious and opportunistic. Aware that ‘Spirit’ and the felt ‘effects’ of spirit seem different in kind, he introduces a ‘Medial Organ’ to bridge the gap between them. In trying to connect the supersensible actions of ‘Spirit’ with our ordinary feelings, however, Coleridge threatens to collapse the distinction between matter and spirit that he has tried all along to maintain.
¹⁰⁰ Ibid. 81–2 (Swift, Tale of a Tub (1704), §xi, 196).
194 Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825 The ‘spiritual sense’ Coleridge refers to, is drawn from the writings of the Cambridge Platonist John Smith, whose Select Discourses (1660)
Coleridge was reading at the time of writing Aids to Reflection. In The
True Way or Method of Attaining to Divine Knowledge, Smith begins
with the following statemen: ‘[w]ere I indeed to define Divinity, I should rather call it a Divine Life, than a Divine science; it being something rather to be understood by a Spiritual sensation, then by any Verbal description’.¹⁰² This opening sentence could stand as the epigraph or abstract of Aids to Reflection. Coleridge’s notion of a ‘regenerate’ faculty of Reason owes a great deal to his reading of Smith and Cudworth. While Smith’s Christian Platonism chimed perfectly with Coleridge’s attempts to assert the existence of a spiritual sense, the Select Discourses are written from the perspective of one who is in receipt of divine grace and Election, and Smith reminds his readers, almost obsessively, that the vast majority of the human race are excluded from this benign Platonic vision of God in nature:
Those filthy mists that arise from impure and terrene minds, like an
Atmospheare, perpetually encompass them, that they cannot see that Sun of
Divine Truth that shines about them, but never shines into any unpurged
Souls; the darkness comprehends it not, the foolish man understands it
not. All the Light and Knowledge that may seem sometimes to rise up in
unhallowed mindes, is but like those fuliginous flames that arise from our
culinary fire, that are soon quench’d in their own smoak … . While we lodge
any filthy vice in us, this will be perpetually twisting up it self into the thread
of our finest-spun Speculations … like the wanton Ivie twisting itself about
the Oak, it will twine about our Judgments and Understandings, till it hathsuck’d out the Life and Spirit of them.¹⁰³
Like Boyle and Locke, Smith reconciles the two paradoxical halves of the Calvinist inheritance as he attacks the corruption of fallen natural reason, while exercising his own faculty of regenerate Reason in its place. Warming to his theme, Smith notes that divine truths are ‘too often smothered, or tainted with the deep dye of mens filthy lusts’ and that ‘[s]uch as these doe but spider-like take a great deal
¹⁰² John Smith, ‘The True Way or Method of Attaining to Divine Knowledge’,
Select Discourses (1660), in C. A. Patrides (ed.), The Cambridge Platonists (London,1969), 128.
Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825 195
of pains to spin a worthless web out of their own bowels, which will not keep them warm’.¹⁰⁴ Adverting constantly to the ‘earthly dregs of Sense and Passion’ and the ‘Birdlime of fleshly Passions and mundane Vanity’, which obscure divine truths from mankind’s fallen vision, Smith concludes with an image that hauntingly recalls, or rather predicts, Coleridge’s description of the moon from his 1805 notebook. Smith writes:
We cannot here see … in Speculo lucido here we can see but in a glass, and that
darkly too. Our own Imaginative Powers, which are perpetually attending
the highest acts of our Souls, will be breathing a grosse dew upon the pure
Glasse of our Understandings, and so sully and besmear it, that we cannotsee the Image of the Divinity sincerely in it.¹⁰⁵
Smith’s writings could provide comfort for Coleridge only in his most sanguine moods, when he too believed that he was in receipt of divine favour.
The introduction of a special ‘medium or organ’ by which our ‘Peace with God is conveyed’ at this point in Aids to Reflection invites the sceptical possibility that Coleridge’s ‘spiritual sensations’ are
affectively indistinguishable from our ordinary sensations, and that the
‘Peace’ which communion with the Spirit affords is no different from the ‘peace’ that even a convinced atheist sometimes feels. Coleridge is also no doubt aware that he has failed to explain how ‘spirit’ and ‘sensation’ can interact (a version of the Cartesian mind–body problem) and his invention of a ‘Medial Organ’ to make this problem disappear, seems like a desperate refuge from scepticism. There is also, finally, the significant problem of his usage of oxymoronic language, and the fact that the phrase ‘spiritual Sense’ legitimately opens him up to the charges of enthusiasm and incoherence that he had levelled at others. All of these compounded difficulties force Coleridge to make a series of assertions, counter-assertions, qualifications, and disclaimers:
We will not therefore condemn this mode of speaking, though we dare not
greatly recommend it. Be it, that there is, truly and in sobriety of speech,
enough of just Analogy in the subjects meant, to make this use of words,
if less than proper, yet something more than metaphorical; still must we
196 Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825
be cautious not to transfer to the Object the defects or the deficiency of
the Organ, which must needs partake of the imperfections of the imperfectBeings to whom it belongs.¹⁰⁶
Religious language can neither be condemned nor recommended. It is ‘less than proper’ yet ‘more than metaphorical’; it contains ‘enough of Just analogy’, but partakes of the ‘imperfections of the imperfect Beings to whom it belongs’. Coleridge displays his ambivalent loyalty to both analogy and disanalogy in this passage. We cannot literally possess a ‘spiritual sense’, Coleridge argues, but unless the realm of spirit can in some sense be felt or perceived then we have forfeited any mode of access to it.
Aphorism VII of the ‘Aphorisms on Spiritual Religion’ discusses the ‘language of the Gospel’, introducing themes that Coleridge had previously discussed at length in The Statesman’s Manual. Rather than making a distinction between symbols and allegories, the con- trast Coleridge now draws is between analogous and metaphorical language: ‘Analogies are used in aid of Conviction: Metaphors, as means of Illustration’.¹⁰⁷ Coleridge’s theory of metaphor in Aids to
Reflection is, I would argue, almost identical to Kant’s theory of
symbolism and analogy in The Critique of Judgment. Kant argued that we can obtain an indirect (symbolic) and analogical understanding of God, by transposing the relational ‘form’ of our reflection upon the relationship between human beings and the artefacts they make (the relation of cause to effect) onto the relationship which God would have to the world if he is taken to be its creator (the rela- tion of transcendent cause to earthly effect). According to Kant, the traditional attributes of God, such as his ‘understanding, will etc.’, only have objective reality with reference to ‘worldly beings’.¹⁰⁸ It is an empirical knowledge of our own psychological makeup that we project into a void of sensibility. Kant accepts the practical necessity of producing a regulative, symbolic representation of God, but he rejects as anthropomorphic the idea that we should ever ascribe objective reality to such self-made representations, or fall into the delusion that they offer knowledge of what God is in himself. As the following passage demonstrates, Coleridge’s theory of metaphorical language
¹⁰⁶ Coleridge, Aids to Reflection, 88. ¹⁰⁷ Ibid. 205.
Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825 197
in Aids to Reflection is distinguishable from Kant’s theory of analogy and symbolism only in so far as it refers to language rather than to mental images or representations:
Of metaphorical language … let the following be taken as instance and
illustration. I am speaking, we will suppose, of an Act, which in its own
nature, and as a producing and efficient cause, is transcendent; but which
produces sundry effects, each of which is the same in kind with an effect
produced by a Cause well known and of ordinary occurrence. Now when
I characterize or designate this transcendent Act, in exclusive reference to
these its effects, by a succession of names borrowed from their ordinary
causes; not for the purpose of rendering the Act itself, or the manner of the
Agency, conceivable, but in order to show the nature and magnitude of the
Benefits received from it, and thus to excite the due admiration, gratitude
and love in the Receivers; in this case I should be rightly described as speakingmetaphorically.¹⁰⁹
Just as he had de-synonymized allegory and symbolism in The
Statesman’s Manual, so Coleridge now de-synonymizes analogous
and metaphorical language in Aids to Reflection, in order to try and safely exorcize the ghosts of Kantian subjectivism and Humean scepticism. According to Coleridge, metaphorical language should be employed and interpreted in a self-conscious manner. When a transcendent ‘Act’ of ‘Spirit’ is described with reference to its empirical effects through ‘a succession of names borrowed from their ordinary causes’, we can avoid confusing God’s nature and our own by maintaining that there is a perceived similarity only in the effects of their respective activities and no similarity in terms of their respective causes. To return to the argument from design, human artefacts and natural objects have observable similarities, which enable the natural theologian to produce a metaphorical image of God in which he is described as being like a human craftsman. The similarity of the respective effects of human and divine activity, however, does not entitle us to claim any objective similarity with respect to the relative ‘causes’ of those observed effects. This would be to confuse a metaphor with an analogy, according to Coleridge:
[T]o confound the similarity, in respect of the effects relatively to the
Recipients, with an identity in respect of the causes or modes of causation
198 Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825
relatively to the transcendent Act or the Divine Agent, is a confusion of
metaphor with analogy, and of figurative with literal; and has been and
continues to be a fruitful source of superstition or enthusiasm in Believers,and of objections and prejudices to Infidels and Sceptics.¹¹⁰
The metaphorical language of the Bible, Coleridge argues, is an accommodation to the frailty of human reason. The transcendent ‘Acts’ of God that created the universe ex nihilo cannot be directly understood through the exercise of our natural reason and ‘creaturely understanding’. Divine creativity can only be figuratively illustrated by natural reason, by inference from certain similarities perceived to exist between human artefacts and the natural world. A metaphor is ‘confounded’ with an analogy, if we are led by the perceived similarity in the effects of human and divine agency, to posit the ‘identity’ of their respective causes. This would be an example of the most flagrant anthropomorphism as far as both Kant and Coleridge are concerned.
Coleridge makes a decisive break away from Kant, however, in his discussion of the analogous language of the Gospel: ‘The language is analogous, wherever a thing, power, or principle in a higher dignity is expressed by the same thing, power, or principle in a lower but more known form.’¹¹¹ The word ‘expressed’ bears a heavy semantic burden in this definition. In one literal and obvious reading, for instance, Coleridge’s definition of analogy is basically identical to his definition of metaphor. Discussing an analogy from the Gospel of St John: ‘That
which is born of the Flesh, is Flesh; that which is born of the Spirit
is Spirit’ (3: 6), Coleridge argues that ‘[t]he latter half of the verse
contains the fact asserted; and the former half the analogous fact, by which it is rendered intelligible’.¹¹² This definition of analogy is not obviously distinct from his definition of a metaphor, particularly as the verse quoted from St John seems to posit an absolute gulf between ‘flesh’ and ‘Spirit’. An analogy, like a metaphor, just provides a means of rendering otherwise unknowable facts intelligible; so where, a Kantian might ask, is the essential difference between the two? The answer seems to be that, in the example taken from the Gospel of St John, one is literally born again ‘of the Spirit’. Spiritual birth is ‘the fact asserted’, and natural birth is a symbol, rather than a metaphor, of this
Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825 199
process. Natural birth is a symbol of spiritual rebirth: it is therefore ‘Consubstantial’ with the spiritual truth it renders ‘intelligible’:
If any man choose to call this metaphorical or figurative, I ask him whether
with Hobbs and Bolingbroke he applies the same rule to the moral attributes
of the Deity? Whether he regards the divine Justice, for instance, as a
metaphorical term, a mere figure of speech? If he disclaims this, then I
answer, neither do I regard the words, born again, or spiritual life, as figures
or metaphors. I have only to add, that these analogies are the material,
or (to speak chemically) the base, of Symbols and symbolical expressions;
the nature of which as always tautegorical (i.e. expressing the same subject
but with a difference) in contra-distinction from metaphors and similitudes,
that are always allegorical (i.e. expressing a different subject but with aresemblance) … . ¹¹³
The challenge Coleridge issues to his reader, here, is only effective against those who, like him, consider God to be literally ‘Just’, in the sense that ‘Justice’ is part of the essence of God, and not a property metaphorically ascribed to Him on the basis of a quality only literally shared by certain exceptional human beings. Human justice and the process of natural birth are symbols of divine Justice and spiritual Birth because they participate in a spiritual principle, which they also represent (according to the Nicene Creed, Christ though ‘made flesh’, was ‘of one substance’ (homoousion), with the Father).
Symbols and ‘symbolical expressions’ are ‘always tautegorical’, because they express the ‘same subject but with a difference’. Natural birth is analogous to spiritual birth because it ‘expresses’ the same power, ‘or principle, in a lower but more known form’. Natural birth embodies and ascends towards a spiritual power or principle that correlatively descends to intersect with its finite ‘conductors’. Symbols are ‘consubstantial’ with the spiritual truths that they embody, because they are worldly and spiritual events at one and the same time. This is, of course, the ‘difference’ between a symbol and the truth that it represents, according to Coleridge. A finite symbol can intersect with an eternal truth without ceasing to be finite: it sustains an ‘internal’ difference that allows it to manifest and mean eternal things, while remaining a temporal and finite event. To ‘see’ natural birth as a symbol of spiritual rebirth, one must ultimately have faith in Reason
200 Between Flesh and Spirit, 1815–1825 (‘The Reason in all its decisions appeals to itself, as the ground and substance of their truth’) and faith in what the eyes of Reason see: ‘Reason is indeed much nearer to Sense than to Understanding: for Reason … is a direct Aspect of Truth, and inward Beholding, having a similar relationship to the Intelligible or Spiritual, as sense has to the Material or Phenomenal’.¹¹⁴
A symbol or symbolical expression, it now seems, is no more or less than a metaphor one has faith in. Reason has faith in its own ability to penetrate through the veil of matter to the kernel of spiritual truth it contains. The sceptic is quite entitled to point out that Coleridge has not demonstrated how flesh and spirit may interpenetrate, or even conclusively shown that there is any essential difference between metaphorical ‘likenesses’ and analogous truths. Coleridge finds himself in the same situation he was in when gazing up at the moon in Malta, twenty years before. Is the moon an actual symbol of the self and heavenly things, or is it just a metaphorical mirror in which he sees only himself looking? Coleridge decides finally that this problem cannot be solved by natural reason, but by faith and revelation alone. Like Calvin and Hume before him, Coleridge recommends faith and revelation as a refuge from the philosophical despair of Simonides:
I would disturb no man’s faith in the great articles of the (falsely so called)
Religion of Nature. But before the man rejects, and calls on other men to
reject, the revelations of the Gospel and the Religion of all Christendom,
I would have him place himself in the state and under all the privations
of a Simonides, when in the fortieth day of his meditation the sage andphilosophic Poet abandoned the Problem in despair.¹¹⁵
¹¹⁴ Coleridge, Aphorisms on Spiritual Religion B, viii. 223–4.¹¹⁵ Coleridge, Aphorism on Spiritual Religion, ix. 239.
In his ‘Sonnet: To Nature’, Coleridge explores many of the ideas considered in this book. The date of the poem’s composition is still uncertain, but given the many verbal echoes of ‘Tintern Abbey’ that are present within it, I suspect that it was composed just after Wordsworth’s concluding poem to the 1798 edition of the Lyrical
Ballads: It may indeed be phantasy, when I Essay to draw from all created things Deep, heartfelt, inward joy that closely clings;
And trace in leaves and flowers that round me lieLessons of love and earnest piety. So let it be; and if the wide world rings In mock of this belief, it brings Nor fear, nor grief, nor vain perplexity. So will I build my altar in the fields, And the blue sky my fretted dome shall be,
And the sweet fragrance that the wild flower yields,Shall be the incense I will yield to Thee, Thee only God! and thou shalt not despise Even me, the priest of this poor sacrifice.¹
¹ Coleridge, ‘Sonnet: To Nature’, (1820? 1797–8?), Poetical Works, ii. 992–3. Lines
6–8 of the poem (‘So let it be … perplexity’) recalls, variously, lines 50–1, 60–1,
and 93–5 of Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’ (‘If this / Be but a vain belief, yet
oh! how oft, … With many recognitions dim and faint, / And somewhat of a sad
perplexity, … The still, sad music of humanity, / Not harsh nor grating, though of
ample power / To chasten and subdue’. Wordsworth, ‘Lines written a few miles above
Tintern Abbey, on revisiting the banks of the Wye during a tour, July 13, 1798’ in
R. L. Brett and A. R. Jones, Wordsworth and Coleridge: Lyrical Ballads (London, 1991),
202 Conclusion The first five lines of the poem contain a series of multivalent terms (‘Essay’, ‘draw’, ‘trace’, and ‘leaves’) that serve to deliberately blur any meaningful distinction between the act of discovering a religious significance in nature, and the act of projecting a religious significance
on to nature, by describing it poetically. The verb ‘to essay’, which
according to the Oxford English Dictionary, can mean to put a person or object to proof and trial, or to test the nature or excellence of a substance, initially suggests that the poet is a sceptical inquisitor of the landscape surrounding him, striving to discern a religious language in the forms of nature. But ‘essay’, taken as a noun, can also mean a first effort in learning or practice; or, more commonly, a rough draft or copy, which suggests that the poet is a pious exegete of its divine language.
The poem, in fact, is both an active ‘trial’ of the visible language of divinity in nature, and an approximate first attempt to render that visible language in words and poetic form. This deliberate semantic ambiguity continues with the word ‘draw’. Like ‘essay’, it means to actively extract or elicit information from someone or something, but it also has the more obvious sense of a pictorial ‘copy’ or tracing of something or someone. Similarly, the word ‘trace’ means to follow or pursue someone or something, but also to copy by following the lines of an original drawing.² Finally, the noun ‘leaves’ can refer both to the flowers and leaves he is attempting to ‘draw’ or ‘trace’ in the poem, and the actual paper upon which the poem is written. In fact, all the words he uses contain a faint trace of their objects and a faint trace of each other.
This deliberate blending of the separable notions of ‘writing’ on and ‘reading’ from the language of nature is consonant with the Logos doctrine, which finds in human words a fallen, finite echo of the divine word of God in creation. However, as the first line of the poem clearly indicates, Coleridge is alert to the possibility that his claimed discovery of the language of God in nature may be only a projected ‘phantasy’ of his own earnest wish to find it there. If, as I suspect, the poem was written before ‘Dejection: An Ode’ (1802), then the hope expressed in lines 5–7, ‘[d]eep, heartfelt, inward joy that closely clings; / And trace in leaves and flowers that round me
lie / Lessons of love and earnest piety’, is answered by the dejection of lines 80–1 of the later poem: ‘[f]or hope grew round me, like the twining vine, / And fruits, and foliage, not my own, seem’d mine’. In between these two poems, Coleridge wrote the celebrated letter to William Godwin, in March 1801, in which he declared that the poet was dead in him:
The Poet is dead in me—my imagination (or rather the Somewhat that
had been imaginative) lies, like a Cold Snuff on the circular Rim of a Brass
Candle-stick, without even a stink of Tallow to remind you that it was once
cloathed & mitred with Flame. That is past by!—I was once a Volume of
Gold Leaf, rising & riding on every breath of Fancy—but I have beaten
myself back into weight & density, & now I sink in quicksilver, yea, remain
squat and square on the earth amid the hurricane, that makes Oaks andStraws join in one Dance, fifty yards high in the Element.³
Written when Coleridge was attempting to escape from a love- less marriage into a hopeless love-affair with Sara Hutchinson, and consoling himself with ‘abstruse research’ in pure mathematics and optics, he tells Godwin that while he had once been ‘a Volume of gold leaf, riding & rising on every breath of Fancy’, his life and work had assumed the ‘weight & density’ of the inert, impenetrable matter he was now deliberately studying.⁴ Once again, intelligible organic forms and their answering poetic descriptions are both still present in the words ‘Volume’ and ‘leaf’; but the idea of a ‘volume’ of poetry is quickly abstracted into the bare physical quantities of a Newtonian universe, whose study has left him ‘squat and square on the earth’. Finally, there is a distant but apposite poetic allusion to John Donne’s ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’, which suggests that Coleridge is still on the lookout for adequate poetic conceits to symbolize his divided loyalties in love, philosophy, and poetry, even as he writes his own obituary as a poet.⁵
³ CL, Mar. 1801, ii. 713–17.
⁴ For more information on the ‘abstruse researches’ of 1801, see N. Vickers,
‘Coleridge’s ‘‘Abstruse Researches’’ and the Dejection Crisis’, in Coleridge and the
Doctors (Oxford, 2004), 109–33.
⁵ ‘Our two souls therefore, which are one, / Though I must go, endure not yet /
A breach, but an expansion, / Like gold to airy thinness beat’ (21–4). John Donne,
‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’, John Donne: Selected Poetry, ed. John Carey
204 Conclusion In an 1865 essay on Coleridge, later collected in Appreciations
(1888), Walter Pater described Coleridge’s work, and life, as having a representative value at the end of the nineteenth century. Coleridge’s work, and Pater’s mournful summary of his poetic achievement, still has a representative value today:
More than Childe Harold, more than Werther, more than Rene himself,
Coleridge, by what he did, what he was, and what he failed to do, represents
that inexhaustible discontent, languor, and homesickness, that endless regret,
the chords of which ring all through our modern literature. It is to the
romantic element in literature that those qualities belong. … Coleridge, with
his passion for the absolute, for something fixed where all is moving, his
faintness, his broken memory, his intellectual disquiet, may still be rankedamong the interpreters of one of the constituent elements of our life.⁶
⁶ Walter Pater, ‘Coleridge’ (1865), Appreciations, With An Essay on Style (1888), 52.
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Abrams, M. H. 134 Bacon, Francis 21 n. 42 absolute double predestination 25, Barnes, Jonathan 94 n. 2
29–30 Barth, J. Robert 104 Account of Sir Isaac Newton’s beauty, and morality 89–91
Beer, John 189 Philosophical discoveries, An (Maclaurin) 107–8 Bentley, Richard 54–5, 113 Berkeley, George 109 n.
Adamic reason 12–16 Advices in Judging of Things Said to Beversluis, John 19 n. 34
Bible Transcend Reason (Boyle) 34 agnosticism 191, 192 Coleridge’s exegesis of 175–7, and anthropomorphism 7, 72–81 187–8
Coleridge and 191, 192 correlative typology 179–80 Aids to Reflection (Coleridge) 11, 41, Biographia Literaria
149, 189–93, 195–200 (Coleridge) 81–2, 88, 150, 152, metaphorical language, theory 159 n. symbolism, theory of 81–2, 88 of 196–8
Airey, Henry 17 n. 29 plagiarism accusations 172 Bono, James J. 53, 54 Akenside, Mark 109 n. allegory 180–3, 184, 186, 190–1 Bouswma, W. J. 17 n. 28 Bowles, William 104–5 Ambrose of Milan 178 analogy 67–8, 81, 196 Boyle, Robert 4, 32–41, 49 and metaphor 197–9 epistemological piety 32, 35 triadic, of Logos doctrine 150 language of nature 37 anamnesis (divine recollection) 94 latitudinarianism 40 Answer to ‘A Letter to Edward Long philosophical scepticism 40
Fox, M.D.’, A (Coleridge) 40 theological voluntarism 32–3, 39
Burgh, James 125 Answer to Mr Clarke’s Third Defence of His Letter to Mr Dodwell, An Butler, Joseph 70
(Collins) 113 anthropomorphism 191, 198 Calvin, John 5–6, 10, 11–26 and agnosticism 7, 72–81 absolute double predestination 25,
Appendix to the First Part of the 29–30
Christian Virtuoso, An on Fall 16, 18–20 (Boyle) 35, 36 on natural theology 12, 16, 18–20,
Appreciations, With An Essay on Style
22 (Pater) 204 post-lapsarian views 3–4 Aquinas, St Thomas 5 providence, doctrine of 24–5 Arnulfus Provincialis 18 n. 30 on reason 12, 13–14 atheism 72 n. 50, 81, 111–12 on sin 24 Coleridge’s arguments on the soul 12–14 against 113–14 and theological voluntarism 27–31 Auerbach, Eric 95
Calvinistic and Socinian System
224 Index to Coleridge and Scepticism
Censor’s Valedictory Speech (Locke) 44–5 Charlesworth, Max 64 n. 29
Cheyne, George 107 Christian Virtuoso (Boyle) 38–9 Cicero, Marcus Tullius 22, 23, 73 n. 52 Clarke, Samuel 113 Club of Honest Whigs 125 Cohen, Ted 61 n. 20, 89 n. 93 Coleridge, George 134–5, 137–8, 145 Coleridge, Samuel Taylor 27 auto-criticism 192–3 and Boyle 40–1 and Calvin 11 on companionship 143 direct experience vs self-conscious explanation 99 on Eucharist 174–5 on fallen nature of Man 149–50 fictional autobiography 139–40 and Hume 7, 170–2, 190 influences on 194–5, 201 and Kant 7–8, 82–3 on Luther 155–64, 174–5 on metaphor (theory of) 196 metaphorical language, theory of 196–8 opium addiction 150 on political history 165–6 subject-object relations 98, 103, 104 Unitarian beliefs 116–17, 136 see also correspondence; notebooks; poems Collins, Anthony 67 n., 113
Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle (Calvin) 18–19, 23–4 Commentary on John (Calvin) 14–15 Commentary on Romans (Calvin) 16,
26–7 Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles
(Calvin) 20–1 Commentary on the Song of Songs
(Origen) 177–8 Conciones ad Populum
(Coleridge) 119 n., consubstantiation 175, 199 correspondence (Coleridge) 2, 41–3,
82 with brother George 134–5, 137–8, 145 n. 77 with Cottle 189 with Estlin 81 with Godwin 43, 144, 203 with Gooden 82–3 with Hutchinson 144 n. with Poole 41–3 with Roberts 150 with Sotheby 102 n. 15, 104–5 with Thelwall 41, 42 with Wedgwood 44 with Wordsworth 148–9
Cottle, Joseph 189 creation ex nihilo 111, 113 Critique of Judgment (Kant) 7, 82, 83,
85–7, 90–1, 196 beauty and morality 90–1 Critique of Practical Reason (Kant) 85,
90 Crusius, Christian August 86 n. 86 Cudworth, Ralph 107, 115, 136, 137, 141 Cupitt, Don 79 n. 64
Dante Alighieri 179 De Natura Deorum (Cicero) 23 De Oratore (Cicero) 73 n. 52 Deason, Gary 39 Democritus of Abdera 157 Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion
(Hume) 6–7, 53, 60, 61, 62 n. 24, 72–81, 107–8, 190 Diogenes Laertius 22, 23 Discourse of Things Above Reason, A
(Boyle) 34–5, 36 Dissenters 125 & n. 50 divine possession (enthusiasm) 157, 158, 159 n., 191–2 divine recollection (anamnesis) 94 Donne, John 203 Dowey, Edward 21–2 Duns Scotus, John, see Scotus, John
Duns dynamical sublime 84–9 Election and Elect 40, 47, 117–20, 122–3, 125, 143
Index to Coleridge and Scepticism 225 Calvin on 3–4, 23–4 and language of God 13 in ‘Religious Musings’ 135, 136
Elliot, Gilbert 80 n. 66 Engel, Mary Potter 13 n. 13 Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, An (Hume) 6,
65–72, 167 enthusiasm/enthousiasmos (divine possession) 157, 158, 159 n., 191–2
Epicureanism 65–6, 69–72, 76 natural order, theory of 114 epistemological piety 3–4, 111 Boyle and 32, 35 of Locke 41–51
Essay Concerning Human Understanding, An (Locke) 48–51, 67 n. Estlin, John Prior 81 Eucharist 48, 174–5 fanaticism 88–9, 157, 159 n. fictional autobiography 139–40 Fielding, Henry 138 n. 71 Flew, Anthony 73 n. 51 Force, James 53 n. 2, 54 France, perceived threat from 128–31 Francke, August Hermann 86 n. 86 Franklin, Benjamin 125 Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature, A (Boyle) 36–7 French Revolution 125, 126, 134 Friend, The 155 Fruman, Norman 172 Fuller, Andrew 10–11 Funkenstein, Amos 31 Gabbey, Alan 46 n. 111 Galen 22, 23 Gaskin, J. C. A. 57 unique cause objection 71–2 Gassendi, Pierre 32
Gerrish, Brian 17 27 Al-Ghazzali 22 Gifford, William 131, 132 God essential attributes of 15–16, 17, 20, 22, 28, 29–30 language of 137, 144 God, existence of argument from design 54–63, 64–5, 69, 76–7, 78, 108–9, 114 argument from induction 60–1 regularity argument 55–7 teleological argument 57–8 Godwin, William 43, 144 n., 203
Gooden, James 82–3 gravity 112–13 Halmi, Nick 175, 182 Hamilton, Paul 154 Harrison, Peter 178, 179, 180 n. 73 Hartley, David 109 n., 157 n. 19 Hedley, Douglas 97, 176–7 history, political 165–6 History of England (Hume) 64, 170 Home, David 70 n. 46 Hume, David 4, 6–7, 52, 107–8, 190 anthropomorphism/agnosticism fork 7, 72–81 and Coleridge 7, 170–2, 190 correspondence with Elliot 80 n. 66 correspondence with Home 70 Epicureanism 65–6, 69–71, 76 on miracles 167–8 natural religion 63–72 on Newton 64 unique cause objection 71–2 Hutchinson, Sara 144, 145
Hutton, Sarah 53 n. 2 hypotyposis 89–93 idealism 154 idolatry 111, 166
Boyle on 36–7 Kant on 87, 88, 92 Locke on 47, 48 sublime and 87 imagination 8 Coleridge and 99–100, 101–3, 106,
150–3, 155–64, 190–1 pathological 155–64
226 Index to Coleridge and Scepticism
Lectures on the History of Philosophy (Coleridge) 27, 44, 77–8, 82, 89
McFarland, Thomas 172 McGrath, Alister 27–8 Maclaurin, Colin 107–8 Mann, Peter 122 Marshall, John 46 n. 111 metalepsis 138 metaphors 184 and analogy 197–9
Lucian 22, 23 Luther, Martin 155–64 consubstantiation 175 Devil, vision of 155–60, 162, 163 and Eucharist 174–5 Lutheran Pietism 86
Philosophy 44–5 Logos ( oγoς ) doctrine 1–2, 94, 96, 110, 111, 170 triadic analogy 150
Locke, John 4, 67 n., 114–15 epistemological piety 41–51 on idolatry 47, 48 Journal 48 on polytheism 47, 48 resignation as Censor of Moral
Letter Concerning Toleration, A (Locke) 48 Lindsey, Theophilus 125
Lectures 1795 on Politics and Religion, see Conciones ad Populum Leighton, Archbishop Robert 189
Deity, indivisible Principles of 110–11 epistemological piety 111 idolatry 111 inspiration for 108–9 Logos doctrine 110, 111 nature as language 109–11 predestination 117 vice/virtue 122 n. 48
imagination (cont.) symbolic 173–4 and understanding 90 imago Dei 5, 12, 17, 78, 79 and reason 170, 171
(Coleridge) 53, 107–15, 116, 127 a posteriori argument from design 108–9, 114 atheism 111–12
172–3, 174, 176 Lectures on Revealed Religion
‘Ghosts and Apparitions’ 160–2, 163–4 ‘Luther and Rousseau’ 155–7, 158 language 1 of God 137, 144 of Gospels 198–9 metaphorical 196–8 of nature 1–2, 6, 37 religious 195–6 Lardner, Nathaniel 116 n. 39 latitudinarianism 40 Lay Sermons (Coleridge) 168–9,
Kaufman, Dan 45 n. 110 Keen, Susanne 139, 140 n. Kippis, Andrew 125 Knapp, Steven 182 n. Kooy, Michael John 82 n. 75 Korshin, Paul 179–80 Landing Place, The (Coleridge)
90–1, 196 Coleridge and 7–8, 82–3 dynamical sublime 84–9 on idolatry 87, 88, 92 objective subreption 83 on reason 84, 85–6 sublime, theory of 7–8, 83–9 on symbolism 88 symbolism, theory of 89–90 transcendental idealism 154
Introduction to the New Testament (Michaelis) 115 irony 73 n. 52 Johnson, Joseph 128 Judah Helevi 22 Kant, Immanuel 58 n. 12, 64 n. 29,
Institutes of the Christian Religion (Calvin) 10, 11–13, 16, 17 n. 28, 18 n. 30, 21, 29
Coleridge’s theory of 196–8
Index to Coleridge and Scepticism 227 Millican, Peter 63 n. 27 Milton, John 125–6, 182 n. miracles 166–8 Modiano, Raimonda 87 n. 88, 97–8,
100, 191 Moral and Political Lecture, A
(Coleridge) 122 Moral and Political Lectures
(Coleridge) 122–3, 132 morality, and beauty 89–91 Morgan, John 40 Mossner, E. C. 63, 64–5 natural religion: Hume’s critique of 63–72 natural symbolism 96 Coleridge’s theory of 12, 150, 154 natural theology 186–7 Calvin on 11–12 post-lapsarian 16, 18–20, 22 pre-lapsarian 14–16 and symbolism 30 see also nature: book of nature book of 17, 110, 183–6; see also natural theology language of 1–2, 6, 37, 109–10
Nehamas, Alexander 73 n. 52 Newton, Isaac 42, 52, 53–4, 64, 114–15, 125 and argument from design 54–63 and argument from induction 60–1 atheism, arguments against 113–14 correspondence with Bentley 54–5,
58–9, 113 correspondence with Oldenburg 60 on experimental philosophy 59–60 first rule of reasoning 112 on gravity 112–13 hypotheses 58–60, 112 rules of reasoning 54, 115 world processes 55–7
Nominalists 31 notebooks (Coleridge) 2–3, 10, 102 n.
106, 144 n., 147 form 1 Malta entry 94, 97–10, 153, 162–3 Nuttall, A. D. 95 objective subreption 83 Ockham, William of 5, 27, 29, 30 Oldenburg, Henry 60 opera Dei 17 Opticks (Newton) 57, 62 Origen 177–9 original sin 3, 117 n. 40, 135–6,
137–8 ‘outness’ 97–8, 156, 158–9, 161–2 Paine, Thomas 114 Paley, William 186–7 Paradise Lost (Milton) 125–6, 182 n.
Pater, Walter 204 pathological imagination 155–64 Patton, Lewis 122 Perkins, Mary Anne 96, 177 n. 63 Perry, Seamus 135 n. 62 Philosophical Investigations
(Wittgenstein) 163 Philosophical Principles of Religion: Natural and Revealed
(Cheyne) 107 philosophical scepticism 40 philosophy, experimental 41–2, 59–60 pietism 86 poems (Coleridge) 127, 128–47
‘Dejection: An Ode’ 43, 136, 145–7, 202–3 ‘The Eolian Harp’ 146 n. 80 ‘Fears in Solitude’ 128, 129–32,
133, 136 ‘France: An Ode’ 128, 132–4, 136 ‘Frost at Midnight’ 128, 133, 138–44 ‘The Pains of Sleep’ 158 n. 22 ‘Religious Musings’ 116–28, 135,
136, 137 ‘Sonnet: To Nature’ 201–3 polytheism 47, 48 Poole, Thomas 41–3 Popkin, R. H. 22–3 predestination 25, 29–30, 117 Price, Richard 125 Priestley, Joseph 109 n., 116 n. 39, 117
228 Index to Coleridge and Scepticism
Sotheby, William 102 n. 15, 104–5 souls 12–14, 17 Spener, Phillip Jakob 86 n. 86 Spirit 192–4 Statesman’s Manual, The
Table Talk (Coleridge) 149 Taylor, Jeremy 11 Thelwall, John 41, 42, 128 theological voluntarism 4–6 Boyle and 32–3, 39
175, 187 Coleridge’s doubts about 1–3, 4, 8 Kantian 89–90 symbols 173–4, 183
Coleridge’s theory of 1–4, 8, 88–9, 96–8, 175, 187 natural 96, 150, 154 natural theology and 30 of moon 94, 97–101 sacramental nature of 1–2, 104, 154 Shakespeare as symbol 102 symbolism, theory of 88–9, 96–8,
Summa Theologiae (Aquinas) 5 n. superstition 120, 137–8, 166 symbolic hypotyposis 89–93 symbolic imagination 173–4 symbolism 81, 181, 183
Sterne, Laurence 138 n. 71 Stillingfleet, Edward 72 n. 50 Stoeffler, F. E. 86 n. 86 Stuart, Daniel 132–3 sublime dynamical 84–9 and idolatry 87 Kant’s theory of 7–8, 83–9
(Coleridge) 149, 164–80, 185 exegesis of Bible 176 ideas 188 symbols in 183
Some Considerations about the Reconcileableness of Reason and Religion (Boyle) 32
Principia: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, The (Newton) 58, 59, 60–1, 62, 112 providence: Calvin’s doctrine of 24–5
(Calvin) 23–4 Schelling, F. W. J. 154 Schlegel, Friedrich 139 n. 72 Schreiner, Susan 14 n. 16 Scotus, John Duns 5, 27 Sedgwick, James 11 n. 7 Select Discourses (Smith) 194 senses 148, 172, 173 in Scripture 178–9 Servetus, Miguel 11 Sextus Empiricus 22 Shakespeare, William 101–4, 106–7 sin noetic effects of 16–24 original 3, 117 n. 40, 135–6, 137–8
Rogers, G. A. J. 61–2 St Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians
Election and Elect 117–20 predestination 117 superstition 120 vice/virtue 120–2, 123–4 revelation 26–7 Rivers, Isabel 65 n. 34, 73 n. 52, 80 Roberts, Thomas 150
Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason (Kant) 92 ‘Religious Musings’ (Coleridge) 116–28
Reasonableness of Christianity as Delivered in the Scriptures, The (Locke) 45–6, 48 ‘Regulae Philosophandi’ (Newton) 54, 115
Reardon, B. M. G. 27 reason 168–71, 184–5, 186, 199–200 Adamic 12–16 and imago Dei 170, 171 Kant on 84, 85–6 natural 25, 30–1 and theological voluntarism 32–41 and understanding 171, 172, 175–6
Calvin and 27–31 and created order 182 and reason 32–41 Toland, John 67 n. transcendental idealism 154
Index to Coleridge and Scepticism 229 True Intellectual System of the Universe, Westfall, R. S. 61 n. 20 The (Cudworth) 107 Wittgenstein, Ludwig 163
Wojcik, Jan 32, 33 n. 75, 39 Wolff, Christian 86 n. 86 Ulmer, William 118 n. 41 Wordsworth, William 10 n. 3, 145–6 understanding 175–6, 184–5, 187, and Coleridge, comparison
190–1 with 95–6 and imagination 90 Coleridge on 153–4 reason and 171, 172, 175–6 Coleridge’s correspondence and senses 172, 173 with 148–9
‘Tintern Abbey’ 201 vice/virtue 120–4, 130 Wylie, Ian 125 n. 50 Zammito, John 86 n. 86, 93
Wedgwood, Josiah 44 Zwingli, Huldrych 174 n. 57 Wendling, Ronald C. 96 n.