England’s Most Underrated Political Philosopher

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For those in search of a politics defined by more than material concerns, Coleridge is an indispensable guide.

Earlier this week, Aeon published a fantastic essay by the scholar Peter Cheyne about Samuel Taylor Coleridge considered as a philosopher. Coleridge is one of those historical figures who looks a lot different when viewed through the eyes of posterity than he did to his contemporaries. We remember him now mostly as a young, opium-addled poet of wild-eyed genius — the author of “Kubla Khan” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” But he spent more of his public life as a philosopher and a political thinker than he did as a poet. His two seminal political works, The Statesman’s Manual and On the Constitution of the Church and the State, were among the most famous and revered treatises in all of Regency-era England. As Cheyne observes, the effect of these books “was so impressive that John Stuart Mill named Coleridge as one of the two great British philosophers of the age — the other being Jeremy Bentham, Coleridge’s polar opposite.”

Coleridge’s reputation as a political thinker has receded over the past 200 years primarily because his philosophical priors have been rejected by both the Left and the Right in favor of the “polar opposite” principles of the other thinkers to whom Cheyne alludes.

To grossly oversimplify millennia of intellectual history, the main question that Western philosophy has sought to answer since its Greek inception is this: Are things to be explained ultimately in terms of mind or in terms of matter? In other words, is the material world we encounter through our five senses to be explained by appealing to some transcendent mind, idea, or consciousness that constitutes the source and ground of its being, or are minds, ideas, and consciousness purely material themselves? What is the ultimate reality at which all explanation terminates — the mental or the physical? Many readers will, at some point, have seen Raphael’s famous fresco The School of Athens, which illustrates this storied dispute by showing Plato pointing upward toward the world of ideas and Aristotle pointing downward at the world of the senses.

For the last few hundred years, the more transcendental, Platonic approach to reality has been mostly absent from politics in the Western world. The classical liberalism of John Locke and his contemporaries, which dominates most of our institutional arrangements, was aggressively opposed to this way of viewing things. Locke’s philosophy of mind (which America’s Founding Fathers held in even higher esteem than his treatises on government) held that human consciousness was a blank slate upon which the material world impressed itself through the five senses. These impressions, he thought, allow us to generalize from particular experiences, making abstract thought possible. In spite of the fact that Locke himself was a devout Christian, his first principles are unwaveringly materialist. Taking our experience of the physical world as his starting point, he formulated a philosophy of the human mind that made the world of thought and consciousness a by-product of material forces.

The political significance of Locke’s anti-Platonism can’t be overstated. As with his thinking on esoteric philosophy, material factors dominated his thinking on politics. Property and commerce became his chief concerns, and the protection of these twin pillars of material prosperity the chief priorities of the classical liberalism he espoused. The whole tradition of British empiricism that followed on from Locke is defined by this prioritization of the physical over the spiritual and the transcendent. Thomas Jefferson, a devoted Lockean, said: “It does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” That claim is characteristic of this cast of mind.

Coleridge is probably the most notable opponent of this Lockean tradition that the English-speaking world has produced. As Cheyne notes in his essay:

The British empiricism of John Locke, David Hume and David Hartley was itself at odds, Coleridge pointed out, with a deeper heritage of British thought. “Let England be,” he pronounced, “Sidney, Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton, Bacon, Harrington, Swift, Wordsworth,” who represent the idealising and proto-romantic tradition that he identified as “the spiritual platonic old England.” Coleridge rallied that “spiritual platonic” tradition to oppose the philosophies of empiricists and hard-headed expounders of “common-sense” such as Samuel Johnson, Erasmus Darwin, Hume, Joseph Priestley, William Paley and William Pitt, “with Locke at the head of the Philosophers and [Alexander] Pope of the Poets.”

Coleridge’s “spiritual, Platonic old England” had been almost entirely supplanted in Great Britain by the time he came to write his political tracts. The specter of Locke, and of the Scottish Enlightenment that followed him, held more and more sway over the sceptered isle with the passing of the years since the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

The same was not true, however, on the Continent. In his wonderful little book on the great French thinker, Tocqueville, Larry Siedentop points out how the different language used by British and continental thinkers early in the 19th century to describe the emergence of the modern world revealed their different philosophical priors. The Lockean empiricists in Britain described the new world emerging out of the Enlightenment as a “commercial society,” whereas continental idealists like Tocqueville and Maine de Biran described it as a “democratic society.” The Lockeans emphasized the changing method of distributing material goods across society, whereas the Europeans emphasized the changing way in which the “lower orders” of society came to think about themselves and the role they wished to play in governing themselves. “Commercial society” is a material term; “democratic society” is a transcendental one.

Coleridge threw his lot in with the Continental thinkers. He believed he could use the resources of Platonic philosophy to explain how and why the civilizational catastrophe of the French Revolution came about. It was his view that the “hunger-bitten and idea-less philosophy” of empiricism left people only with particulars and abstractions. When political passions are aroused, he argued, people become discontented with particular, specific facts and rush to connect them to some general abstraction that allows drastic and violent action to be taken.

We can still see how this operates today. In our current political climate, when an African American is shot by a white police officer, neither Left nor Right shows any inclination to wait for the granular facts of the case before pronouncing on it. The situation is always absorbed by both sides into preexisting, abstract political frameworks. In The Statesman’s Manual, Coleridge explains how the Jacobins exploited a similar ideological impatience:

In tranquil moods and peaceable times we are quite practical. Facts only and cool common sense are then in fashion. But let the winds of passion swell, and straitway men begin to generalize; to connect by remotest analogies; to express the most universal positions of reason in the most glowing figures of fancy; in short, to feel particular truths and mere facts, as poor, cold, narrow, and incommensurate with their feelings.

What better explains the festering of our “post-truth” politics today than the fact that we have each begun “to feel particular truths and mere facts, as poor, cold, narrow, and incommensurate with” our feelings. This dangerous proclivity for abstraction and allegory was, according to Coleridge, a disastrous but inevitable reaction on the part of the masses to the rich’s exclusive concern for their own particular interests. As the scholar Daniel Fried writes of the wealthy and powerful readership to whom The Statesman’s Manual was addressed: “They are not tempted to bold abstractions but to narrow self-interest. Their political impulse is to oppose reform on the basis of their own individual financial interests, and thus absorbed with the particular, they refuse to consider the general interests of the nation.”

The binary between physical particulars and abstract universals that was set up by Locke’s philosophy of mind was therefore, in Coleridge’s eyes, a mutually reinforcing dialectic that led inevitably to the carnage of the French Revolution. The rich and the powerful, by attending exclusively to their own particular, material interests, engender a reaction on the part of the masses, who appeal to abstract universals in order to vindicate their grievances against the rich. Carried away with these generalizations, the poor proceed to guillotine the rich, no longer seen as particular individuals but as examples of an abstract class of oppressors.

So, what kind of politics does Coleridge propose? To the material particular and the vague abstraction he opposes his idea of the symbol. According to Coleridge,

a Symbol is characterized by a translucence of the Special in the Individual or of the General in the Especial or of the Universal in the General. . . . It always partakes of the Reality which it renders intelligible; and while it enunciates the whole, abides itself as a living part in that Unity, of which it is the representative.

This language can sound very arcane and complicated to 21st-century ears, but what he’s basically saying is that symbols are both particular and universal at the same time. They therefore cut across the binary between the particular and the abstract established by Lockean philosophy. Symbols are particular things that represent universal things of which the particulars are nevertheless a part. The greatest example of this, for Coleridge, was the incarnation of God as proclaimed by Trinitarian Christianity. The particular man Jesus Christ is, in the realist and most literal sense, the universal God. The sacramental role played by the Christian religion in investing the quotidian particulars of everyday life with universal meaning therefore played a huge and critical role in Coleridge’s mind in staving off political radicalism. As he wrote in Appendix C to The Statesman’s Manual, the Christian religion is “a power that represents the concentration of all in each — a power that acts by contraction of universal truths into individual duties, as the only form in which those truths can attain life and reality.”

This “contraction of universal truths into individual duties” acts as a safeguard against sordid material greed on the one hand and abstract ideological frenzy on the other. It shatters the false binary imposed by Enlightenment empiricism and endows ordinary life with extraordinary significance, making face-to-face relationships rather than political conflict the locus of the transcendent in human life. For those in search of a politics defined by more than material computation, Coleridge is an indispensable guide. Retrieving his work from obscurity and recovering his perspective would lead us toward a culture defined by duty and charity rather than strife. To take a step in that direction, we need only eyes to see the Earth and all that’s in it as living, pulsating symbols of the divine.


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