Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s romantic conservatism is passionate, incisive, and high-minded. His notion of the “Idea” is persuasive in regard to how it exists in human society, and he lit the way to resolving the ever-present conservative tension between theory and practice.
The life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, if tumultuous and at times disastrous, was a beautiful exercise in intellectual honesty and the pursuit of the Truth. Like his fellow Lake Poets, Coleridge was an early enthusiast for the ideals of the French Revolution, but over time acquired a deeply conservative disposition that led him to reject his youthful fancies. Unlike his compatriots, though, Coleridge developed a remarkable philosophical conservative cast of mind, and this is highly evident in On the Constitution of the Church and State, According to the Idea of Each. In this undeservedly obscure treatise Coleridge produced a wonderful argument on the nature of “Ideas,” and how they exist in our world. In doing so, he rescued the good name of philosophy from the excesses of the Enlightenment, and he lit the way to resolving the ever-present conservative tension between theory and practice.
Given his position in intellectual and literary history, Coleridge was somewhat of an oddity: He was a major figure in the inception of the Romantic movement, one that was defined by emotion and emancipation. On the other hand, he was extremely cerebral—Keats took him to task for lacking the “negative capability,” as Coleridge was always trying to maintain a metaphysical certitude in his pursuits. However, as a conservative, Coleridge is brilliant in uniting the mind with the heart, and went further than Burke in making philosophy palatable to conservatives. His concept of the “Idea” elevated the arguments of Burke to a new plane: He described an Idea as a “conception of a thing, which is not abstracted from any particular state, form, or mode, in which the thing may happen to exist at this or that time, nor yet generalized from any number or succession of such forms or modes, but which is given by the knowledge of its ultimate aim” (3). An Idea is known through its telos, but it is not separate from reality. Indeed, Ideas manifest themselves in time and can take on unique characteristics. Coleridge’s Ideas help to reconcile higher philosophy with a conservative’s epistemic skepticism: The nature of the “good life” can be reasoned about regarding politics and the ends of things, but this reasoning cannot be divorced from lived experience. Like the newer fact-value distinction, the division of theory and practice during the 18th century was a grave error, and it was inevitable that the theory of rights led to the practice of the guillotine. From the beginning, modern rationalism had failed to recognize the variegated nature of society, the tension between the universal and the particular, and the spiritual existence of man. The failures of the philosophes were also the failures of the young Coleridge, who was initially bewitched by their casuistry.
But as an older man, Coleridge decried the partisans of the “rights of men,” who mistook their universal abstractions for the actual rights of Englishmen. Thus, he noted that “[i]t is the chief of many blessings derived from the insular character and circumstances of our country, that our social institutions have formed themselves out of our proper needs and interests” (17). There is a universal, knowable Idea of the state, but here one can see that the Idea may unfold in a specific manner, such as being conformable to the peculiar nature of the English. The unfolding of the Idea is much like the evolution of the common law: It is informed by universal principles of justice as reasoned out by generations of human communities, but it is also sensitive to the idiosyncrasies of the English people. The unwritten constitution of the English had emerged through centuries of collective reasoning and experience, not through the a priori abstractions of a few hubristic men. Thomas Paine quipped that a country only has a constitution if one could put it in his pocket; Coleridge saw the folly inherent in such a claim, for one could not abrogate, or easily compartmentalize, the reason of the ages. Even America’s Constitution, though written, wasn’t based on the reason of the day: It was deeply indebted to its British predecessor, which Hamilton had called the “best in the world.”
Now, in his Biographia Literaria, Coleridge made a distinction between the “Understanding,” which he termed the “mere reflective faculty” as it only deals with human experience, and “Reason,” which he understood as being able to apprehend the Idea of the human and the truths that accompany it. In On the Constitution, Coleridge makes a similar distinction between ideas and conceptions, the latter being “a conscious act of the understanding, bringing any given object or impression into the same class with any number of other objects, or impressions, by means of some character or characters common to them all” (4). For Coleridge, this was the worldly reason employed by Enlightenment thinkers—they failed to understand fundamental truths about our existence, and so the “period which how far it deserved the name, so complacently affixed to it by the contemporaries, of ‘this enlightened age,’ may be doubted” (6). Their mechanistic philosophies, attacks on free will, and deist rejections of Christianity were faulty from the beginning, because of their failure to recognize true ideas. Coleridge noted that whether you are speaking to a student or a neighbor on the existence of free will, amidst other ideas, you must
attend to their actions, their feelings, and even to their words: and you will be in ill luck, if ten minutes pass without affording you full and satisfactory proof, that the idea of man’s moral freedom possesses and modifies their whole practical being, in all they say, in all they feel, in all they do and are done to; even as the spirit of life, which is contained in no vessel, because it permeates all. (10)
Like Dr. Johnson, Coleridge (if more eloquently) growls, “we know our will is free, and there’s an end on it.” The existence of God, the soul, free will, and original sin, among other ideas, are necessary realities, and failing to recognize them permanently hobbles our ability to reason properly and neglects the Ideas present in our world. The philosophes of the last century fell into this trap, and Coleridge’s Europe was then living the results.
And what happens when Ideas are replaced with mere conceptions? “Rights of nature [substituted] for the duties and privileges of citizens. Idealess facts, misnamed proofs from history, grounds of experience, &c., substituted for principles and the insight derived from them. State-policy, a Cyclops with one eye, and that in the back of the head!” (68). The loss of Ideas means a loss of imagination, and the bonds of society are shattered by misguided calls for rights. One of the best examples from the 18th century of this is the social contract, in its various forms. When Ideas were mixed up with conceptions or history, Coleridge noted that we ended up with the “Ouran Outang theory of the origin of the human race” (68). He abominated Rousseau’s theory of the social contract, calling it “a pure fiction, and the conception of such a fact an idle fancy. It is at once false and foolish” (5). Rousseau (and Locke) muddled Ideas with history and idealess theory, and so are led down a faulty path.
Coleridge noted, though, that if “you say the idea of an ever-originating social contract, this is so certain and so indispensable, that it constitutes the whole ground of the difference between subject and serf” (7). This rings strongly of Burke’s “partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection,” a contract that is eternal and all-encompassing. In being held together by the “mystic chords of memory,” it endows the present with a reverence for the dead and a solicitude for the unborn. Hence, we see how it is connected to no single moment in time: Every day, in every interaction, the contract manifests itself and is only properly understood when we recognize that the existing generation was not the first to inhabit this land and will not be the last. Locke and Rousseau, however, made government a simple transaction arising from self-interest, and the result was, and still is, deadening: “the true historical feeling, the immortal life of an historical Nation, generation linked to generation by faith, freedom, heraldry, and ancestral fame, languishing, and giving place to the superstitions of wealth” (68-9). Modern conservatives often revere Locke, but Coleridge viewed him as just another mechanistic philosopher who had “understanding,” but no Ideas.
Coleridge’s romantic conservatism is altogether passionate, incisive, and high-minded. His notion of the “Idea” is extremely persuasive in regard to how it exists in human society, and this conception allows him to bludgeon Enlightenment thinkers from the materialists to the deists for their utter lack of ideas. The moral imagination of the sage of Highgate swims against the tide of modernity and, perhaps even better than Burke, apprehends the character of a more responsible philosophy, one in which society is not constantly under the scrutinizing eye of discontented intellectuals but is understood through its ancient heritage and natural end. After reading Coleridge, we find ourselves much like the wedding-guest in his “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”: “He went like one that hath been stunned, / And is of sense forlorn: / A sadder and a wiser man, / He rose the morrow morn.”
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
The featured image is a portrait of Samuel Taylor Coleridge at age 42, a copy by James Curnock (1812-1862) after the original by Washington Allston. It has been brightened for clarity and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.