The philosophy of Samuel Taylor Coleridge



THIS famous book, of which the full title is Aids to Reflection in the Formation of a Manly Character on the Several Grounds of Prudence, Morality and Religion, was published in 1825. It consists chiefly of comments on selected passages, especially from the writings of Archbishop Leighton. Coleridge's comments have a special value from his learning and sagacity and from his abandonment of the Unitarian principles in which he was originally trained and adoption of sounder doctrines, and this book represents the mature thoughts of the profoundest thinker of his day.

[INTRODUCTORY APHORISMS - COLERIDGE - FROM 'AIDS TO REFLECTION']

IT is the most useful prerogative of genius to rescue truths from the neglect caused by the very circumstance of their universal admission. Truths, of all others the most awful and interesting, are too often considered as so true that they lose the power of truth, and lie bedridden in the dormitory of the soul.

There is one sure way of giving freshness and importance to the most commonplace maxims--that of reflecting on them in direct reference to our own state and conduct, to our own past and future being. A reflecting mind, says an ancient writer, is the spring and source of every good thing. As a man without forethought scarce deserves the name of man, so forethought without reflection is but a metaphorical phrase for the instinct of a beast.

In order to learn, we must attend; in order to profit by what we have learnt, we must think. He only thinks who reflects.

To assign a feeling and a determination of their will as a satisfactory reason for embracing or rejecting an opinion is the habit of many educated people; to me, this seems little less irrational than to apply the nose to a picture and to decide on its genuineness by the sense of smell.

In attention we keep the mind passive; in thought we rouse it into activity.

An hour of solitude passed in sincere and earnest prayer, or the conflict with and conquest over a single passion or 'subtle bosom sin,' will teach us more of thought, will more effectually awaken the faculty and form the habit of reflection, than a year's study in the schools without them.

Never yet did there exist a full faith in the Divine Word which did not expand the intellect, while it purified the heart; which did not multiply the aims and objects of the understanding, while it fixed and simplified those of the desires and passions. 'Give me understanding,' says David, 'and I shall observe Thy laws with my whole heart.'

It is worthy of especial observation that the Scriptures are distinguished from all other writings pretending to inspiration by the strong and frequent recommendations of knowledge and a spirit of inquiry. The word 'rational' has been strongly abused of late times. This must not, however, disincline us to the weighty consideration that thoughtfulness and a desire to rest all our convictions on grounds of right reasoning are inseparable from the character of a Christian. He who begins by loving Christianity better than truth will proceed by loving his own sect and church better than Christianity, and end in loving himself best of all.

[REFLECTIONS RESPECTING MORALITY]

SENSIBILITY, that is a constitutional quickness of sympathy with pain and pleasure, is not to be confounded with the moral principle. Sensibility is not even a sure pledge of a good heart. How many are prompted to remove those evils alone which by hideous spectacle or clamorous outcry are present to their senses and disturb their selfish enjoyments? Provided the dunghill is not before their parlour window, they are well contented to know that it exists, and perhaps is the hotbed on which their own luxuries are reared. Sensibility is not necessarily benevolence.

All the evil of the materialists is inconsiderable beside the mischief effected and occasioned by the sentimental philosophy of Sterne and his numerous imitators. The vilest appetites and the most remorseless inconstancy towards their objects, acquired the titles of the 'heart,' 'the irresistible feelings,' 'the too-tender sensibility'; and if the frosts of prudence, the icy chain of human law, thawed and vanished at the genial warmth of human nature, who could help it? It was an amiable weakness!

At this time the profanation of the word 'love' rose to its height; the muse of science condescended to seek admission at the saloons of fashion and frivolity, rouged like a harlot and with the harlot's wanton leer. I know not how the annals of guilt could be better forced into the service of virtue than by such a comment on the present paragraph as would be afforded by sentimental correspondence produced in courts of justice, fairly translated into the true meaning of the words and the actual object and purpose of the infamous writers.

Do you in good earnest aim at dignity of character? I conjure you, turn away from those who live in the twilight between vice and virtue. Are not reason, discrimination, law and deliberate choice the distinguishing characters of humanity? Can anything manly proceed from those who for law and light would substitute shapeless feelings, sentiments, impulses, which, as far as they differ from the vital workings in the brute animals, owe the difference to their former connexion with the proper virtues of humanity?

Remember that love itself, in its highest earthly bearing, as the ground of the marriage union, becomes love by an inward fiat of the will, by a completing and sealing act of moral election, and lays claim to permanence only under the form of duty.

All things strive to ascend, and ascend in the striving. While you labour for anything below your proper humanity, you seek a happy life in the region of death.

Unless above himself he can Erect himself, how mean a thing is man!

[PRUDENTIAL APHORISMS]

WITH respect to any final aim or end, the greater part of mankind live at hazard. They have no certain harbour in view, nor direct their course by any fixed star. But to him that knoweth not the port to which he is bound, no wind can be favourable; neither can he who has not determined at what mark to shoot, direct his arrow aright.

It is not, however, the less true that there is a proper object to aim at; and if this object be meant by the term happiness, the perfection of which consists in the exclusion of all hap [i.e. chance], I assert that there is such a thing as summum bonum, or ultimate good. What this is, the Bible alone shows certainly, and points out the way. 'In Cicero and Plato' says Augustine, 'I meet with many things acutely said, and things that excite a certain warmth of emotion, but in none of them do I find these words, "Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest!"'

In the works of Christian and pagan moralists it is declared that virtue is the only happiness of this life. You cannot become better but you will become happier; you cannot become worse without an increase of misery. Few men are so reprobate as not to have some lucid moments, and in such moments few can stand up unshaken against the appeal of their own experience. What have been the wages of sin? What has the devil done for you?

Though prudence in itself is neither virtue nor holiness, yet without prudence neither virtue nor holiness can exist.

Art thou under the tyranny of sin, a slave to vicious habits, at enmity with God, a fugitive from thy own conscience? Oh, how idle the disputes whether the listening to the dictates of prudence from self-interested motives be virtue, when the not listening is guilt, misery, madness and despair! The most Christian-like pity thou canst show is to take pity on thy own soul. The best service thou canst render is to show mercy to thyself.





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