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A Tract for the Times

The Friend

by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, edited by Barbara E. Rooke
Bollingen Series LXXV:4, Princeton University Press, 2 volumes, 1,371 pp., $20.00

First of all gratitude to Kathleen Coburn, the editor, and the Bollingen Foundation, the sponsors, of the sorely needed Collected Works of Coleridge; then to Professor Barbara Rooke, the editor of The Friend, which is the first of the works to appear.

The periodical essays that make up this strange miscellany belong to the most troubled period of Coleridge’s life. “Dejection,” the last of the great poems, was written in 1802; Biographia Literaria, the critical work by which he is still best known, came out in 1817. Between these dates, apart from the time spent in Malta (1804-5) as private secretary to Sir Alexander Ball, the British High Commissioner in Malta, Coleridge was almost continuously beset with troubles, domestic and financial. Occasional journalism, occasional lectures, and help from friends barely supplied his own needs and those of his family. Besides, there was the strong inner drive to get his own ideas—his thoughts about metaphysics, religion, and the world at large—into some sort of order. Periodical essays might keep the wolf from the door, and the sense of an audience would perhaps provide the incentive to regular work that he needed so badly. As early as 1804 he had thought of bringing out a series of essays with the resounding title of

Consolations and Comforts from the exercise and right application of the Reason, the Imagination, and the Moral Feelings, addressed especially to those in Sickness, Adversity, or Distress of Mind, from Speculative Gloom etc.

It was not, however, until the summer of 1809—and then in spite of almost insuperable difficulties—that the first number of his paper The Friend finally appeared. Twenty-seven numbers were issued before the project had to be abandoned in March, 1810. The periodical was reissued in book form in 1812, and, with major changes, in a three-volume edition in 1818.

The first of the two volumes now before us contains the definitive text, Coleridge’s reworking of the original publication, with its tidying-up, omissions, and additions, of which the most important is the restored “Treatise on Method,” so sadly mangled when it came out in the Encyclopaedia Metropolitana for which it had been commissioned. Volume II contains the text of The Friend as it first appeared in 1809 and 1810, together with notes on subscribers, collation tables, and other useful information. Lavish footnotes give printed and manuscript variants; |quotations are traced to their sources and translated.

In a long Introduction Miss Rooke tells the heroical-tragical-comical story of Coleridge’s attempt to keep his periodical going, traces the history of The Friend to the “rifacimento” of 1818, indicates its effect on such nineteenth-century figures as Frederick Denison Maurice, and adds—all too briefly—some comments of her own on Coleridge’s “toughness of mind” which went with his openness of imagination. In short, Miss Rooke has done a splendid piece of work. The price of these two handsome volumes is very high, however: in view of the standard of editorial care and of production it is hard to see how it could be otherwise. But Coleridge is not meant only for the well-to-do; he is meant for students, many of them poor, and The Friend, until now virtually unobtainable, is essential reading. Is it too much to hope that the publishers will consider a cheap reprint of Volume I, perhaps a paperback containing nothing but a shortened Introduction, the text, and a few essential footnotes?

That The Friend is essential reading is not self-evident to everyone who reads it. Even Professor McFarland, who rightly holds that Coleridge’s work is “unified by a group of organizing ideas,” admits that “to enter upon the study of his mind is to wade into a morass. Coleridge is a writer almost unique in his special, combination of allusiveness, fragmentariness of statement, complication of interests, and neurotic inability to attend to the demands of formal presentation.”1 This certainly applies to The Friend, and the task of exposition is not made easier by the Coleridgean voice, earnestly preaching or exhorting in a tone not always easy to distinguish from the tone when his mind is really engaged. There are defects in abundance—unnecessary digressions, ejaculations, occasional obscurities. So the admirer must accept the challenge to say simply and clearly why this hodge-podge of a book—if you can call it a book—is important for others besides the professionals.

It seems best to attempt an answer to the doubters by first pointing to the essays on political philosophy. Since in the Coleridgean world everything is connected with everything else this can lead rather far. These essays, it is true, get off to a wobbly start, for although Reason in Coleridge is an honorific term and Understanding is often pejorative, Coleridge is here mainly intent on exposing the inadequacies of, and offering an alternative to, “the politics of pure reason.” The difficulty disappears as soon as we see that he uses “reason” in two different senses. Reason as the supreme activity of the mind—constantly veering toward the “completing power” of the imagination—is the source of principles and ideas regarded as powers of growth in the integrated human being. The application of reason in this sense to social and political issues results in prudence—not “the vulpine prudence of the understanding,” which is narrowly calculating and self-regarding, but the intellectual virtue that mediates between universal principles and the needs of particular times and circumstances.

Reason in the secondary sense is “rationalized understanding”; it attempts to generalize from a selection of observed phenomena, producing “laws” analogous to those of science. Coleridge is concerned to show what happens when reason in this sense is used as a tool of political analysis or as a guide to action. Hobbes had had his own rigid scheme, based on an inadequate conception of human nature, which Coleridge effectively exposes. But the real danger was (and is) nearer at hand, in the ruthless application of “the politics of pure reason” or “legislative geometry” by men who believed they had a blueprint for human happiness, and that “whatever is not everywhere necessary, is no where right.” “By this system the observation of Times, Places, relative Bearings, History, national Customs and Characters, is rendered superfluous…and by the magic oracles of certain axioms and definitions it is revealed how the world with all its concerns should be mechanized, and then let go on of itself.”

Coleridge’s arguments against “Jacobinism” demand to be read in full. They are the more effective because he was not a mere anti-Jacobin: his aim was not denunciation but understanding. He has some notable pages on the “panic of property” and “the errors of the Aristocratic party…full as gross, and far less excusable.” And he warned his readers that “in recoiling with too incautious an abhorrence from the bugbears of innovation, they may sink all at once into the slough of slavishness and corruption. Let such persons recollect that the charms of hope and novelty furnish some palliatives for the idolatry to which they seduce the mind; but that the apotheosis of familiar abuses…is the vilest of superstition.”

But his warnings against what in a later century would be known as “substitutism” are still valid: the triumph of a party claiming a mathematical certainty for its own program—and therefore representing the will of the people if only the people knew their own minds—leads inevitably to tyranny (“an ever-neighbouring tyranny” he called it in a Courier essay, with an eye on the dictator’s police state), in which the true meaning of a State—a body politic composed of individual members with their own personal and interpersonal needs—would be sacrificed to an abstraction.

Now this contains the sublime philosophy of the sect of Economists (sc. physiocrats). They worship a kind of non-entity under the different words, the State, the Whole, the Society, &c. and to this idol they make bloodier sacrifices than ever the Mexicans did to Tescalipoca.

The Jacobins spared no human hecatomb to build the pedestal for their Truth…. The counterpart to their absolute faith in a metaphysical idea was their absolute distrust of living people.

The last quotation is from Trotsky.2

Not that Coleridge preached political inactivity or acquiescence in the corruptions of society. It was simply that with reason restored to its proper sphere—the working of the individual mind and conscience—prudence, knowledge, and a feeling for man as man would show what particular fields called for energetic action (e.g., child labor in factories). But since politics would continue to be a welter of competing interests, men of intellect—les clercs—would in the long run be most politically effective if they devoted their energies to “that most weighty and concerning of all sciences, the science of EDUCATION.” “Can we wonder,” he said, contemplating the understandable outbreaks of violence in the oppressed classes, “that men should want humanity, who want all the circumstances of life that humanize?”

Education, in fact, is what The Friend is all about: not education as mere instruction, the filling of empty buckets, but education as the awakening of “the principle and method of self-development.” His aim, as he said of Plato, was “not to assist in storing the passive mind with the various sorts of knowledge most in request…but to place it in such relations of circumstance as should gradually excite the germinal power that craves no knowledge but what it can take up into itself, what it can appropriate, and re-produce in fruits of its own.”

Coleridge himself valued the restored “Essay on Method” (the substance of Section the Second, which also lurches toward its true beginning) “more than all [his] other prose writings.” I find this valuation hard to accept, although the philosophical sermon that he preaches is, in essentials, an admirable one. Method, or appropriate order, is necessary not only for the pursuit of truth but for creative living: fragmentariness in life is the equivalent of incoherence in expression, for both alike are destructive of meaning, which is a function of relationship.

But method does not mean formal arrangement (“confusion and formality are but the opposite poles of the same null-point”): the method that makes for life must proceed from an informing principle or power of growth, for what it seeks to clarify is “a truth originating in the mind, and not abstracted or generalized from observation of the parts.” “Mental initiative,” therefore, is necessary to all method: even in the humbler forms of classification, “some antecedent must be contributed by the mind itself; some purpose must be in view; or some question at least must have been proposed to nature, grounded, as all questions are, upon some idea of the answer.”

Modern science would, I suppose, accept this view of the creative hunch. Where moral and metaphysical truth is concerned, Coleridge holds, we must go further. The “laws” by which we live must be capable of progressive and ever-widening application: common to all men, they only reveal themselves in the individual consciousness with all its tensions and necessary polarities. How do we reach them? Negatively, by clearing away the “idols,” distortions of prejudice, and so on; positively, by recognizing that perception of essential truth depends on the integration of the mind’s diverse powers, including not only the intellect but sympathy, conscience, and will. In ultimate matters the truth, in Christian terms, is one with the way: truth and being are correlative.

Certainly we can’t ignore the essays on method; but the reader who goes to them for the quintessence of Coleridge’s thinking is likely to be irked or baffled. What Coleridge has to teach us is not neatly parceled but scattered throughout The Friend. Miss Rooke quotes F. D. Maurice: “Its merit is, that it is an enquiry, that it shews us what we have to seek for, and that it puts us into a way of seeking.” It is as important to get the truth of this recognized as it is difficult to substantiate it in a short review. Summarize these scattered but interlinked aperçus and you sound leadenly preceptorial. Ponder them—above all in the context of some compelling interest—and you go a very long way indeed in the practice of the difficult art of thinking.

Like his modern exponent I. A. Richards, Coleridge is especially concerned with the internal blockages to a genuinely free activity of the mind—ranging from arrogance (which has an important essay to itself) to the sloth that is content with indistinct and confused conceptions: these tyrannize over our feelings and substitute emotionally charged opinions for steady principles. The correlative to the “habituation of the intellect to clear, distinct, and adequate conceptions concerning all things that are the possible objects of clear conception” is simply the willingness to listen to others:

Our minds are in a state unsusceptible of Knowledge, when we feel an eagerness to detect the falsehood of an adversary’s reasonings, not a sincere wish to discover if there be truth in them.

Every speculative error which boasts a multitude of advocates has its golden as well as its dark side.

The two splendid essays on tolerance (Section the First, XI-XII) link the healthy functioning of mind and the healthy functioning of society. “God has ordained us to live in society, and has made the progressive improvement of all and each of us depend on the reciprocal aids, which directly or indirectly each supplies to all, and all to each.” The imagination, we remember, is also a reconciling power, though only those who have a strong sense of unavoidable tensions and polarities are able to steer “reconciling” away from any suggestion of mere compromise. Tolerance, which does not mean the absence of firm conviction, is as necessary for life and creativeness in society as it is in the internal economy of the individual.

What prevents these admirable guidelines from degenerating into moral-intellectual commonplace (“truths…considered as so true that they lose all the powers of truth, and lie bed-ridden in the dormitory of the soul”) is Coleridge’s power of engaging the reader’s own mind. He invites you not only to examine the grounds of his principles but to test them by putting them to work in your own experience, for it is out of shrewdly observed experience—diverse, but all bearing on some central insight—that they have emerged.

He is often accused of wandering when he does not wander. Take as a characteristic example Essay V, in which he may perhaps seem to be freewheeling. The basic assumption is that “Truth is self-restoration.” Therefore, since “the duties which we owe to our own moral being, are the ground and condition of all other duties,” pious frauds are as bad as the indistinct conceptions that prevent us from knowing ourselves. This leads into an account of the resentment we all feel when we are deceived. (“With whomsoever we play the deceiver or flatterer, him at bottom we despise.”) Then—

Every parent possesses the opportunity of observing how deeply children resent the injury of a delusion; and if men laugh at the falsehoods that were imposed on themselves during their childhood, it is because they are not good and wise enough to contemplate the past in the present, and so to produce…that continuity in their self-consciousness, which Nature has made the law of their animal life…. Men are ungrateful to others only when they have ceased to look back on their former selves with joy and tenderness. They exist in fragments. Annihilated as to the Past, they are dead to the Future, or seek for the proofs of it everywhere, only not (where alone they can be found) in themselves.

In short, the essay is bringing to light the relation between what Erikson calls “basic trust” and the formation of a stable core of the personality which can afford to accept itself in all its stages of growth; and in its concern that the growing mind shall not be “set at strife with itself” it anticipates a good deal of contemporary psychiatry and child psychology. Indeed whenever Coleridge touches on the education of the young he demands the attention of those whose professional concerns make them aware of the undue emphasis that our age puts on education as training or as adjustment to social norms.3

With all this goes a wealth of aphorisms and asides that must strike any reader with a sense of their timeliness. Here is one for “the ecological decade”

Natural calamities that do indeed spread devastation wide…are almost without exception, voices of Nature in her all-intelligible language—do this! or cease to do that!… What need we deem unattainable, if all the time, the effort, the skill, which we waste in making ourselves miserable…were embodied and marshalled to a systematic war against the existing evils of nature…. As Man, so the World he inhabits.

And this for a world obsessed with “productivity”: Coleridge is speaking of the necessary balance between Trade and Literature, or, as we might say, between technology and the humanities:

As is the rank assigned to each in the theory and practice of the governing classes, and, according to its prevalence in forming the foundation of their public habits and opinions, so will be the outward and inward life of the people at large…. That under the ascendancy of the mental and moral character the commercial relations may thrive to the utmost desirable point, while the reverse is ruinous to both, and sooner or later effectuates the fall or debasement of the country itself—this is the richest truth obtained for mankind by historic Research: though unhappily it is the truth, to which a rich and commercial nation listens with most reluctance and receives with least faith.

That needs little translating for the 1970s. I don’t happen to regard topicality or immediate “relevance” as the sole criterion for an intellectual work, but with all its faults The Friend is very much a tract for the times—and, I suspect, for all times.

  1. 1

    Thomas McFarland, Coleridge and the Pantheist Tradition (Oxford University Press, $9.95), p. viii. This is an opportunity to recommend this very remarkable study of Coleridge’s religious thought, its place in the main stream of European philosophy from Spinoza to the nineteenth century, and its relevance for the present. Only a trained philosopher could attempt a formal assessment; but since Professor McFarland’s erudition in many fields is matched by a rare power of crisp and lively exposition, and since the issues raised are very much alive today, it is not only a philosopher’s book. No student of Coleridge can afford to ignore it.

  2. 2

    Quoted by Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed: Trotsky 1879-1921 (Oxford University Press, 1954), p. 91. “Substitutism” means the substitution of a party for the working classes, of the party organization for the party, of a central committee for the organization, and of a dictator for the committee; see Deutscher op. cit. and The Prophet Unarmed, both passim. Deutscher also brings out the fluctuations and inconsistencies in Trotsky’s own views.

    The basic error, it may now seem, lay in the claim that he endorsed in his History of the Russian Revolution, that in 1917 the Bolsheviks, although a minority, “really represented” the proletariat of the future, for “in certain conditions the part is incomparably greater than the whole.” For the dictatorial tendencies inherent in Leninism see Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution and Leninism or Marxism (Ann Arbor Paperbacks).

  3. 3

    Wordsworth’s contribution to The Friend, “Answer to Mathetes,” also needs to be rescued for the educator from the oblivion that seems to have overtaken it.

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