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Coleridge - On the Constitution of the State and Church

Friday, 21 Feb 2020

Coleridge on Dr John Dunn.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Fichte’s philosophical response to Spinozism was inseparable from his political response. The same was true of another leading figure and disciple of Fichte in the Romantic reaction - Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge’s most sustained presentation of politicised anti-spinozism was in his On the Constitution of the State and Church (CSC). From the outset in this polemical work, Coleridge stressed the power of imagination and ideas. Many people can conceive of what is meant by Church and State, he argued, but few possess the idea of either. This emphasis upon ideas was the bedrock of Coleridge’s politics, implying that all social constructs must originate in the mind of man as ideas, from the imagination. Man must not be subservient to entities that he confronts as pre-existent, or pre-supposed and external to him. Just as for Fichte, the state and other institutions were only what individuals think and make of them.

Like Fichte too, Coleridge’s turn against Jacobinism and the French Revolution was expressed as a re-evaluation of Rousseau’s Social Contract. Coleridge described the Social Contract as ‘at once false and foolish’. No two humans should ever be bound by a contract as though it had some pre-existent force and, thereby, eternal validity. Only as an idea can such a contract serve the interests of individuals, rather than oppress them.

But if instead of the conception or theory of an original social contract, 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, between a commonwealth and a slave-plantation. And this, again, is evolved out of the yet higher idea of person, in contra-distinction from thing; all social law and justice being grounded on the principle, that a person can never, but by his own fault, become a thing, or, without grievous wrong, be treated as such: and the distinction consisting in this, that a thing may be used altogether and merely as the means to an end; but the person must always be included in the end:

This clearly was a treatise against serfdom, even though written by Coleridge in the most rapidly advancing industrial nation of its day. There was no notion of economic progress necessitating political progress. He was writing in an early nineteenth century Britain, the epitome of Sarpi’s ‘Republick of Merchants’, truly behind enemy lines as a Romantic, and yet clearly he recognised the reality of a neo-feudalism in which individuals were treated as ‘things’ to be exploited.

Taking his lead from Fichte, Coleridge subverted Rousseau’s social contract, turning it instead into something which tends towards an ideal future, in which we contract freely with one another as autonomous individuals, each treating each always as an end in itself rather than as a means to an end. For such an ‘idea’ to be realised, individuals had to be transformed from ‘things' into human beings. And taking his cue from Fichte, Coleridge would place national education at the heart of the humanising process.

Coleridge presented the idea of a new National Church, which would have a secular role in providing an educative and cultural lead. Let us be clear at this point that Coleridge offered a new ‘idea’ here, and not some re-hashing of the Church of England. ‘My object’, wrote Coleridge, ‘has been to present the idea of a National Church, not the history of the Church established in this nation’. The new National Church would

diffuse through the whole community and to every native entitled to its laws and rights, that quantity and quality of knowledge which was indispensable both for the understanding of those rights, and for the performance of the duties correspondent.

All ‘natives’ would be summoned to an education that enabled them to participate in society as free autonomous individuals. They would be transformed from ‘things’ to persons. This would be the humanising process. At the heart of the humanising process would be a diffusion of:

materials of national education the nisus formativus of the body politic, the shaping and informing spirit, which, educing or eliciting the latent man in all the natives of the soil, trains them up to be citizens of the country, free subjects of the realm.

‘Nisus formativus’ means the forming force, the formative urge; and ‘educing’ (Latin: educo ‘I lead out, I draw out; I raise up, I erect’; via e ‘from, out of’; and duco ‘I lead, I conduct’). Through a combination of leadership and educing (Fichte’s terminology was translated as summoning, but had similar connotations), the ‘latent man’ would emerge from his former bestial and sub-human state.

© John Dunn.

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