Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Modern Religion of Conscience Open Access

Mathes, Adam (Spring 2020)

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When read as a variant of Fichte’s philosophical psychology and philosophical theology, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1825 Aids to Reflection is an exercise in developing a habit of mind that can discern the distinction between freedom of the will and genuine freedom. I argue that freedom of the will is a type of negative freedom qualified as a capacity to choose independent from constraints, which I differentiate from genuine freedom, which is a type of positive freedom qualified as the alignment of oneself with the ordering of God. By guiding the reader through a progressive series of reflective practices, Coleridge assists the reader in moving from a condition of self-estrangement (described as spiritual dearth and aridity) to one of self-acquaintance, (described as richness and wholeness). Coleridge responds to the possibility of relating psychology to faith by fashioning a method of rational self-realization and placing it in service to spiritual cultivation. For these reasons, Aids to Reflection stands in the Christian theological tradition that finds knowledge of God related to—if not disclosed through—self-knowledge. Moreover, as a work concerned with the relation of freedom and subjectivity for the sake of religion, Aids to Reflection also belongs within the family of discourse described as the modern religion of conscience.

           I make this argument primarily through expository readings of Coleridge’s major prose and religious writings of roughly 1817 to 1825. Secondarily I interpret The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and “The Wanderings of Cain” as illuminating some of the challenges Coleridge hoped to resolve through his method of spiritual cultivation.

Table of Contents

I. Introduction                                                                                                                  1


           A Note on Writing with Coleridge                                                                       12


II. Chapter 1 – Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Modern Religion of Conscience        21

A Time of Competing Rationalities                                                                     23

           The Modern Religion of Conscience                                                                   26

           Loss and Isolation                                                                                                 34

           The Mariner and Cain in Disorientation                                                              38

           Conclusion                                                                                                            48

III. Chapter 2 – Biographia Literaria and Fichte’s Principles of Subjectivity              53

Principal Themes                                                                                                  54

A Note on Sources                                                                                                58

The Activity of the Mind and the Structures of Self-Consciousness                   62

Imagination and Subjectivity                                                                               77

Drive Structures                                                                                                    83

Conclusion                                                                                                            93

IV. Chapter 3 – Rational Self-Realization as Spiritual Cultivation: “Essays on the Principles of Method”                                                                                                                            97

Instability in the “Essays on the Principles of Method”                                        99           

           What is Method?                                                                                                 103

Method, Religion, and Faith                                                                                111

Conclusion                                                                                                          122

V. Chapter 4 – Aids to Reflection: The Christian Faith is the Perfection of Human Intelligence



From Disorientation to Orientation                                                                      129


           Method of Ascent                                                                                                 133


           Structure and Overview of Aids to Reflection                                                                  137


           Human Intelligence                                                                                               144


           Conclusion                                                                                                            149

VI. Chapter 5 – Freedom and Captivity                                                                         152

           Reason as the Light of Faith                                                                                 153

           Coleridge’s Speculative Theology                                                                       160

           Freedom and Captivity in the Mariner and “Cain”                                              172

           Conclusion                                                                                                           184

VII. Conclusion                                                                                                               185

           The Mediation of the Understanding                                                                   187

           The Pentads                                                                                                          199

           Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Modern Religion of Conscience                     208

VIII. Bibliography                                                                                                          213

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