Of English writers of the early nineteenth century, none has so sustained and well-documented an engagement with Spinozan metaphysics as Coleridge. Encountering Spinoza's monism both indirectly, through works contributing to the pantheism controversy of the 1790s, and directly, in intensive study of a collected edition of Spinoza's works in 1812-13, Coleridge repeatedly identified the Dutch philosopher with Christianity, particularly in his personal conduct, while deploring the moral implications of his supposed denial of free will. This ambivalent response to Spinoza is reflective of a fundamental and persistent tension in Coleridge's own thought between his attraction to a metaphysical monism, as the basis for postulating the unity of subject and object, and his desire to affirm Trinitarian Christianity.
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Coleridge’s reception of Spinoza is interesting historically both for what it contains and for what it does not contain. Let me begin with the latter. One of his most significant contributions to the intellectual life of nineteenth-century Britain was to serve as a conduit, from German exegetes such as Johann Gottfried Eichhorn, of the so-called higher criticism of the Bible (see Shaffer, Harding). It might be taken as a sign of how thoroughly this historico-philological analysis of scripture, which provoked the first anti-Spinozan polemics in England in the 1670s because it rejected the normative assumption of divinely inspired authorship, had been assimilated by the early nineteenth century that Coleridge himself passed almost in silence over Spinoza’s seminal contribution, in the Tractatus theologico-philosophicus, to the development of the higher criticism. But in fact Coleridge’s aim of reconciling contextualizing exegesis with a belief in divinely inspired prophecy was incompatible with Spinoza’s consistent rationalism, which rejected the possibility either of special knowledge on the part of the prophets or of any supernatural agency in the composition of scripture (Spinoza, Opera 3: 155).
When he alluded to the Tractatus in the Aids to Reflection, Coleridge was tellingly selective in his recollection, invoking Spinoza by way of differentiating theological mystery from logical absurdity: “I abide by a maxim, which I learnt at an early period of my theological studies, from Benedict Spinoza. Where an Alternative lies between the Absurd and the Incomprehensible, no wise man can be at a loss which of the two to prefer” (338-39). Coleridge was probably referring to Spinoza’s refutation of the claim that scripture never expressly contradicts itself (Opera 3: 184), but he could not have endorsed Spinoza’s conclusion in the same chapter of the Tractatus that reason and theology have separate domains, the former concerned with truth and wisdom (ratio regnum veritatis, & sapientiae), the latter with piety and obedience (Theologia autem pietatis, & obedientiae). Although Coleridge was careful to specify, in the work of biblical hermeneutics composed in 1824 and published posthumously under the title Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit, that he understood inspiration not as divine dictation but as the revelation of the truths that the scriptural writers expressed of their own accord and by their own means, even this qualified affirmation of inspired authorship implied, as Coleridge himself acknowledged, the “inappellable authority” of “whatever is referred by the sacred Penmen to a direct communication from God” (SWF 1130-31).
Equally noteworthy, if unsurprising, is the absence in Coleridge’s response to Spinoza of reference to the programmatic concerns that are now identified with the radical Enlightenment, such as the advocacy of religious tolerance, freedom of speech, and democracy. These political commitments will have been no more congenial to Coleridge, as his disillusionment with the course of the French Revolution gradually hardened into a reactionary conservatism, than the uncompromising rationalism of Spinoza’s biblical interpretation. Hence the restrictedness of Coleridge’s interest to the metaphysical aspects of Spinozism, by which term I mean a congeries of monistic philosophical systems which he or others of his time happened to label Spinozistic, not excluding Spinoza’s. Although he shared with radical Enlightenment figures some of their enthusiasm for Spinozism, the narrow focus of Coleridge’s attention, especially with respect to the Spinozan corpus itself, was more characteristic of his late-Enlightenment and Romantic-era contemporaries in Germany whose responses to Spinoza were shaped by the so-called Pantheismusstreit, the prolonged controversy of the 1780s and 1790s involving many prominent German intellectuals, including Moses Mendelssohn, J. G. Herder, Goethe, and indirectly Kant.
As for my title, the word ecumenical has two principal meanings: the more general one is belonging to the whole world, while the more specific one is belonging to the whole Christian world, or universal church. I shall address the question of how Spinoza was, as interpreted by Coleridge, ecumenical in the narrower sense. Throughout the first three decades of the nineteenth century, Coleridge sought repeatedly to identify Spinoza in one way or another with Christianity and to rescue him from the prolonged anathematization that already by the end of the seventeenth century had made his name synonymous with the word atheism. Lecturing on philosophy in London in March 1819, Coleridge informed his auditors that “the theologic hatred of his name is one of the most incomprehensible parts of philosophic researches; for Spinoza was originally a Jew, and he held the opinions of the most learned Jews, particularly the Cabalistic philosophers. Next, he was of the most pure and exemplary life, and it has been said of him, if he did not think as a Christian, he felt and acted like one” (Lectures 1818-1819 578-9).
To be sure, Spinoza’s early biographers had given some licence to the attempt to associate him with Christianity: Johann Colerus, whose biography was reprinted in the edition of the works that Coleridge annotated (Spinoza, Opera omnia 2: 591-665), quoted Spinoza’s reassurance to his Lutheran landlady that her religion was a good one and she needed no other to be saved (Colerus 41-42), while Pierre Bayle, in his Dictionary, reported that Spinoza had “publicly profest Christianity, and frequented the Assemblies of the Mennonites, or those of the Arminians of Amsterdam” (2799). In the Tractatus theologico-politicus Spinoza himself, albeit in an exposition of scripture, referred to Jesus as Christ and to his teachings as the assumption of divine wisdom in human nature (Opera 3: 20-21), thereby prompting his correspondent Henry Oldenburg to request a clarification of his Christological views (Opera 4: 304).
But as Coleridge will have known at least by November 1813, having read and extensively annotated a set of the Opera omnia which included the correspondence with Oldenburg, Spinoza understood the resurrection of Christ to be merely allegorical (Opera 4: 328), and confessed that the notion of the Incarnation seemed no less absurd to him than the squaring of a circle (Opera 4: 309). Moreover, Coleridge never claimed that Spinoza had actually been a practising Christian, or that his metaphysics were finally conformable to Trinitarianism—on the contrary, he observed consistently and regretfully that they were not. Indeed, this was the case even before the year of his most intensive study of Spinoza: when, for example, he borrowed the Opera omnia from his friend Henry Crabb Robinson in November 1812, Coleridge, according to Robinson’s diary, “kissed Spinoza’s face at the title-page, said his book was his gospel, and in less than a minute added that his philosophy was, after all, false. . . . Did philosophy commence in an it is instead of an i am, Spinoza would be altogether true; and without allowing a breathing-time he parenthetically asserted, ‘I, however, believe in all the doctrines of Christianity, even of the Trinity’” (Robinson 1: 112).
All the stranger, then, that Coleridge should have sought to mitigate Spinoza’s supposed errors on the grounds of his proximity to Christianity, as he did in his philosophical lecture of March 22, 1819: “And if we come at last to the man’s own professions and service, I have no doubt they were [sincere]; … that not only the immediate publishers of Spinoza’s writings, but that Spinoza did think that his system was identical with but that of Christianity, on so subtle a point that at least it was pantheism, but in the most religious form in which it could appear” (Lectures 1818-1819 580). Why the importunate appeals to his Christian mode of life; the fierce denunciations of his detractors as less Christian, or at least no more orthodox, than Spinoza himself; the insistence that “that right Track was glimmering before him, just as it pleased Heaven to remove” (SWF 610)—which suggests a certain carelessness on the part of the infinite intellect? The most plausible answer, I think, is to be found in Coleridge’s conflicted attraction to philosophical monism.
Though large in number and diverse in medium—notebooks, manuscript fragments, marginalia, letters, public lectures, published books—Coleridge’s comments on Spinoza are relatively restricted in content and remarkably consistent. Their interest consists less in their exegetic value, for indeed they do not constitute a sustained analysis of the philosophical writings, than in their illustration, on the one hand, of the complexity of Spinoza’s Rezeptionsgeschichte and, on the other hand, of a fundamental, unresolved conflict of Coleridge’s own intellectual life. To the extent he sought to assimilate Spinoza to Christianity, or at least maintained that the two were not absolutely incompatible, Coleridge confirmed the applicability to himself of the observation he attributed to an unnamed Englishman of his acquaintance: “I never yet knew . . . a single person, whom Spinoza had ever converted to his way of thinking; but I know half a dozen at least who have converted Spinoza to theirs!” (SWF 620).
Coleridge’s view of Spinoza remained consistently conflicted and characterized by special pleading from about 1803 to his death in 1834, as Richard Berkeley has observed (Coleridge 41-42). But he had become interested in Spinoza even earlier, certainly by the late 1790s, when he was espousing Unitarianism and consequently had no reason to be preoccupied with Spinoza’s relation to Christian orthodoxy. The evidence from this period is somewhat sparser than for the richly documented later years of Coleridge’s life, and seemingly contradictory. A letter of July 30, 1797, in which Coleridge tells Robert Southey that he is “sunk in Spinoza” and remains “as undisturbed as a Toad in a Rock” (CL 1: 534), implies that he was reading the philosopher’s works at that date, whereas a letter of June 7, 1800, to the chemist Humphry Davy implies that he was planning to do so but had not yet had the opportunity. When, in a letter of Christmas Eve 1799 to Southey, Coleridge professes himself a Spinozist, he does so jokingly: “My Spinosism (if Spinosism it be and i’ faith ’tis very like it) disposed me to consider this big City [Bristol] as that part of the Supreme One, which the prophet Moses was allowed to see” (CL 1: 551). Eighteen years later, in an anecdote about the government spy sent to monitor him and Wordsworth in the summer of 1797, Coleridge again made a joke of his Spinozan interests, but this time in order to insinuate the insignificance of his former political radicalism: “At first [the spy] fancied, that we were aware of our danger; for he often heard me talk of one Spy Nozy, which he was inclined to interpret of himself, and of a remarkable feature belonging to him; but he was speedily convinced that it was the name of a man who had made a book and lived long ago” (BL 1: 194). Admittedly that anecdote is too contrived to be entirely plausible, although the spy of course was real and the feeble pun on Spinoza’s name had appeared in Coleridge’s notebooks as early as 1799 (CN 1: 422).
However unreliable the evidence from Coleridge himself concerning his early engagement with Spinozan or Spinozistic thought, it is supplemented by that from Clement Carlyon, an Englishman who met Coleridge in Göttingen in 1799 and described their conversations in the first volume of his autobiography of 1858. Not only were “the doctrines of Spinoza” said “to prevail . . . among the literati of the North of Germany” (i.e., Lutheran Germany), the scandalized Carlyon recalls, but they were frequently discussed by Coleridge, who explained to his friends that the “great principle of Spinozism is, that there is nothing properly and absolutely existing but matter, and the modifications of matter; among which are even comprehended thought, abstract and general ideas, comparisons, relations, combinations of relations” (194). As a recreation of conversations conducted almost four decades earlier, Carlyon’s extract will not bear close analysis. But taken in conjunction with the “concentrated definition of Spinozism” that he attributes to Coleridge, namely that “Each thing has a life of its own, and we are all one life” (Carlyon 193), the reference to “combinations of relations” suggests that the source of Coleridge’s 1790s version of Spinozism was less likely Spinoza’s works themselves than Joseph Priestley’s elaboration of David Hartley’s associationism (Perry 112-16).
Whereas Hartley himself, fearful of having to abandon the idea of the immaterial soul, had been unwilling to commit himself fully to a materialist theory of consciousness, Priestley had no compunction about doing so, arguing that man is composed of a single substance comprising both material and mental attributes (1: xix-xx). Coleridge will have been initially attracted to Priestley’s theory because it seemed to resolve the problem of mind-body dualism, as Hartley’s qualified materialism manifestly did not. A letter of 1794 to Southey makes Coleridge’s allegiance explicit: “I go farther than Hartley and believe the corporeality of thought—namely, that it is motion” (CL 1: 137).
What followed from this materialist explanation of thought was a materialist explanation of divinity. For if, Priestley reasoned, we cannot account for our own thought except in terms of the properties and powers of matter (since to do otherwise would be to admit an insuperable dualism), then still less can we account for God in other terms (since to do so would be to deny the distinction between the immaterial and the material). The “Divine Being” (Priestley’s preferred term for the deity) and the world are not essentially different because he, or it, could not act upon the world if he were not also in some sense material; and everything that exists and happens in the world must be owing to him: “matter is, by this means, resolved into nothing but the divine agency exerted according to certain rules” (Priestley 1: 39). And if, Priestley continued with studied casualness, “every thing is really done by the divine power, what material objection can there be to every thing being the divine power” (1: 40)? Just as the individual consciousness is one with the world, so the world is one with God. In “Religious Musings” (1794) and in his contribution to Southey’s Joan of Arc (1795), Coleridge versified the Priestleyan conception of divinity and its implication for human self-understanding: “’tis God / Diffus’d thro’ all, that doth make all one whole,” he explained in “Religious Musings” (CPP 25 [lines 139-40]), and “’Tis the sublime of man, / Our noontide Majesty, to know ourselves / Parts and proportions of one wond’rous whole!” (lines 135-37). Hence the effusion of Joan of Arc:
PW 1: 223 [2.442-45]; cf. Piper 32
Glory to Thee, Father and Earth and Heaven!
All-conscious Presence of the Universe!
Nature’s vast ever-acting Energy!
In will, in deed, Impulse of All to all.
Priestley published the first edition of his Disquisitions relating to Matter and Spirit in 1777 and the second, from which I have been quoting, in 1782. One notable addition to the second edition is a sentence expressly dissociating Priestley’s monism from Spinoza’s: “Nor indeed, is making the deity to be, as well as to do every thing, in this sense, any thing like the opinion of Spinoza; because I suppose a source of infinite power, and superior intelligence, from which all inferior beings are derived; that every inferior intelligent being has a consciousness distinct from that of the supreme intelligence, and that they will for ever continue distinct” (1: 42). Notwithstanding this disclaimer, of which he may in the event have been unaware, Coleridge evidently did consider Priestley’s metaphysics to be a kind of Spinozism, and he became increasingly critical of it in the latter half of the 1790s because of what he considered its lack of self-consistency and its unsatisfactory provision for explaining the existence of evil. (He also grew dissatisfied with his own “Religious Musings,” fearing, he acknowledged, that it could “easily be misconstrued into Spinosism” [CL 3: 467].) Precisely by trying to reduce thought to matter, and thereby transforming matter into “a mere modification of intelligence,” as Coleridge later elaborated in the Biographia Literaria, Priestley had undermined his own stated position: “He stript matter of all its material properties; substituted spiritual powers; and when we expected to find a body, behold! we had nothing but its ghost! the apparition of a defunct substance” (BL 1: 136).
Already in March 1796, when he was still calling himself a necessitarian, Coleridge confided in a letter his difficulty reconciling Priestley’s theism with his materialist monism: “How is it that Dr Priestley is not an atheist?—He asserts in three different Places, that God not only does, but is, every thing. But if God be every thing, every Thing is God: —which is all, the Atheists assert—” (CL 1: 192). The pressure of that question grew more insistent in the following years, and finally intolerable in April 1799, when Coleridge, then attending lectures in Göttingen, received word that his infant son Berkeley had died back in England. In a consolatory letter to his wife he wrote, “But the living God is every where, & works every where—and where is there room for Death? . . . I confess that the more I think, the more I am discontented with the doctrines of Priestley” (CL 1: 482). This reflection augurs a crucial turning-point in Coleridge’s intellectual life, after which he was no longer prepared to accept what Thomas McFarland unkindly called Priestley’s “bargain-basement Spinozism” (169).
After returning from Germany in July 1799 with a good command of the language, Coleridge, while maintaining an interest in British theologians, devoted himself increasingly to the study of Continental, particularly German, philosophers, from Fichte and Kant in the first decade of the nineteenth century to Schelling and various Naturphilosophen associated with Schelling in the second decade. A serious, if as yet unspecific, interest in Spinoza manifested itself in Coleridge’s plan, sketched out in notebook entries of November 1799 and October 1803, to compose a poem on the Dutch philosopher that would address the possibility of multiplicity, or “multeity” to use Coleridge’s own word, within unity:
If I begin a poem of Spinoza, thus it should begin/
I would make a pilgrimage to the burning sands of Arabia, or &c &c to find the Man who could explain to me there can be oneness, there being infinite Perceptions—yet there must be a oneness, not an intense Union but absolute Unity. . .CN 1: 556; cf. 1: 561
Coleridge did not in fact write a poem about Spinoza, but by the end of the decade he recognized in Spinoza’s monism the only intellectually viable alternative to Kant’s transcendental idealism: “Only two Systems of Philosophy – (sibi consistentia) possible 1. Spinoza 2 Kant, i.e. the absolute & the relative, the κατ’ οντα, and the κατ’ ανθρωπον. or 1 ontological, 2 the anthropological” (CN 3: 3756). That is one of three notebook entries devoted to Spinoza in the spring of 1810, and the defensiveness on Spinoza’s behalf in the others (one of which I shall discuss presently) indicate that he felt himself on the horns of a dilemma, compelled but reluctant to make a choice and therefore taking provisional refuge in a fudge. Here, then, we can mark the beginning of his Christianization of Spinoza, an effort that, however implausible in itself, becomes comprehensible when considered in the broader context of Coleridge’s intellectual life.
In the first volume of the Biographia Literaria, Coleridge presented his philosophical investigations up to 1815, the year he dictated the work, as a search for “a total and undivided philosophy” (BL 1: 282-3) in which, on the one hand, the original identity of subject and object could be assumed as the ground of knowledge, and, on the other hand, free will could be assumed as the ground of ethics. Retracing his path from associationism and materialism (“unintelligible”) through Cartesian dualism (“long since exploded”) and hylozoism (“the death of all rational physiology”) to Fichte’s subjective idealism (“crude egoismus”) and finally to Schelling’s identity philosophy, in the last of which he finds for the time being a “genial coincidence” with his own conclusions (BL 1: 160), Coleridge distinguishes two broadly opposed classes of philosophical system, the realist and the idealist.
Appropriating Coleridge’s own homelier designations for these classes from the remark to Crabb Robinson that I quoted earlier, Thomas McFarland argues that Coleridge was able to settle the competing claims of the principles of “it is” and “I am” only by foregoing systematic philosophy for an emotional commitment to Trinitarian Christianity. In this account, the conflict Coleridge described in the Biographia, that “my head was with Spinoza, though my whole heart remained with Paul and John” (BL 1: 201), contained within itself the eventual resolution to his fundamental philosophical dilemma. But insofar as Kant’s critical philosophy, by opposing philosophical dogmatism and excluding metaphysics from the realm of knowledge, urged Coleridge towards his confessio fidei, the “Trinitarian resolution,” as McFarland calls it, amounted to a victory for the philosophy of “I am”: “Christianity, as an expansion of the ‘I am,’ was Coleridge’s lifelong commitment, in philosophical as well as religious terms” (251). To McFarland, whose attitude towards Coleridge is rather like that of a spectator shouting encouragement to an exhausted runner in the final stretch of a marathon, the concept of the Trinity not only anchored Coleridge’s “complete system . . . in an extramundane ground without abandoning the reality of the natural world,” but deepened his understanding “of the ‘I am’ starting-point” (227).
Attractive as this interpretation is in its neatness, it exaggerates the clarity of Coleridge’s distinction between the “it is” and “I am” philosophies, and hence between Spinozism and Christianity. To be sure, McFarland follows Coleridge himself in tending to treat the classification pantheist as a natural kind, and hence self-explanatory, which is why he can refer to “the pantheist tradition” with no more self-reflexivity than Coleridge displays in collocating “the Proclo-plotinian Platonists” and “their Spinosistic imitators, the nature-philosophers of the present Germany” under the rubric of pantheism (Marginalia 3: 909; cf. CN 3: 4497). Both in this respect are the indirect heirs of Bayle, who began his article on Spinoza by declaring that “the substance of his Doctrine was the same with that of many Ancient and Modern Philosophers, both in Europe and in Eastern Countries” (2782). A more restricted conception of pantheism, or at least one that did not in effect serve as the hermeneutic instrument of an inherited prejudice, might have spared Coleridge some of the intellectual quandaries he suffered when he read thinkers to whom he was attracted but of whom he thought he ought not to approve. Still, his response to Spinoza himself was often more complex than McFarland acknowledges.
It would be consistent with the account of a Trinitarian resolution to the choice between realism and idealism if Coleridge, having been content to call himself a Spinozist in his Unitarian youth, and probably before having read Spinoza, had then been at pains to reject Spinozism in his Trinitarian maturity, and especially after having read the philosopher’s works. But the facts do not conform so tidily to that narrative. Consider, for example, a comment on F. H. Jacobi’s Über die Lehre des Spinoza, the book (first published in 1785, though Coleridge read the expanded second edition of 1789) which inaugurated the Pantheismusstreit by revealing that the much-admired, recently deceased playwright Lessing, an exemplary figure of the German Enlightenment, had professed himself a Spinozist in private conversations with Jacobi. Jacobi’s own primary concern had been neither Lessing nor Spinoza, but rationalism, of which he took Spinoza’s Ethics to be the most perfect expression. Assuming the universal applicability of the principle of sufficient reason, a consistent rationalism must be deterministic and fatalistic, Jacobi asserted, and thus incompatible with the belief in a self-caused God and the freedom of the will. Spinozism could not therefore be dismissed as a harmlessly obscure and incoherent metaphysical doctrine, for in fact it made manifest the atheism latent in all rationalist philosophy. Thus its espousal by someone considered a representative of Enlightenment, an assessment with which Jacobi did not disagree, was a sign precisely of the Enlightenment’s moral bankruptcy.
Now one would expect Coleridge to have found this a compelling argument, not least because he had rejected Priestley’s necessitarianism on account of its ethical implications. But instead Coleridge sought either to defend the Dutch philosopher from the charge of atheism or, when he himself made the same charge, to qualify it strongly. Responding to Jacobi in the margin of Robinson’s copy of Spinoza’s works (rather than in his own copy of Über die Lehre des Spinozas), Coleridge insisted, with regard to the finite causality affirmed in the Ethics, according to which every finite thing is determined by an infinite series of finite causes,
If these finite Causes can be said to act at all, then that on which they act has an equal power of action—: and even as tho’ all in God essentially, we are yet each existentially individual, so we must have freedom in God in exact proportion to our Individuality. It is most necessary to distinguish Spinosism from Spinosa—i.e. the imaginary consequences of the immanence in God as the one only necessary Being whose essence involves existence, with the deductions from Spinosa’s own mechanic realistic view of the World. Even in the latter, I cannot accord with Jacobi’s assertion, that Spinosism as taught by Spinosa, is Atheism/ for tho’ he will not consent to call things essentially disparate by the same name, and therefore denies human intelligence to the Deity, yet he adores his Wisdom. . . . It is true, he contends for Necessity; but then he makes two disparate Classes of Necessity, the one identical with Freedom Liberty (even as the Christian Doctrine, “whose service is perfect Freedom”) the other Compulsion = Slavery. . . .Marginalia 5: 207-8; cf. Jacobi 118
Coleridge seems here to infer from proposition 28 of book 1 of the Ethics a distinction that Spinoza did not explicitly make, between absolute or logical necessity and merely causal necessity. The essential is that which, as an attribute of substance or an infinite mode from which a law of nature follows, could not be otherwise, whereas the existential is that which, although the result of a particular series of causes, is not itself necessitated by the general features of the universe and could conceivably, given a different casual series, be otherwise. From this possibility of the contingency of particularities in the universe—a possibility whose admissibility is still contested among interpreters of the Ethics (see, e.g., Curley 49-50, and Bennett 74-66)—Coleridge comes as close as he was ever to do in detecting in the Ethics a provision for individual freedom of will, such freedom being the basis of the individual’s expression, through moral action, of a love of God. Having identified this mitigation of Spinoza’s necessitarianism, Coleridge is momentarily content to explain away the rest by reference to the contemporary philosophical context: “But never has a great Man been so hardly and inequitably treated by Posterity, as Spinosa—No allowance made for the prevalence, nay, universality of Dogmatism & the mechanic System in his age” (Marginalia 5: 208). Evidently Spinoza’s necessitarianism followed necessarily from his philosophical milieu.
The observation of Spinoza’s refusal to concede personhood to God, even in a metaphorical sense, anticipates what would soon become Coleridge’s fundamental objection to Spinoza’s metaphysics. But his special pleading on behalf of that metaphysics did not cease after he had returned the Opera omnia, now heavily annotated, to Crabb Robinson in November 1813. The differentiation of Spinozan monism from conventional pantheism figures in the Biographia, where Spinoza is unexpectedly aligned with the theosophist Jakob Böhme and the Quaker George Fox, “mystics” whom Coleridge credits with having enabled him “to skirt, without crossing, the sandy deserts of utter unbelief” (BL 1: 149-50). To McFarland this means no more than that both Böhme and Fox were, like Spinoza himself, representatives of the errant philosophy whose temptations Coleridge successfully resisted (245-46, 249-51). That is the negative version of an interpretation to which Frederick Beiser would offer the positive counterpart: what McFarland and Beiser share is the broad understanding of pantheism characteristic of the late Enlightenment itself. To Beiser the linking to Spinoza of Böhme and Fox, both of whom express their inner conviction of God’s presence, would be perfectly comprehensible because he regards the rise of Spinozism in the German radical Enlightenment as the secular reassertion of the Protestant Counter-Reformation: if Spinoza had undermined the authority of the Bible, he had also preserved the possibility of realizing Luther’s ideal of the immediate subjective experience of God. Indeed Spinoza enhanced that possibility, Beiser argues, precisely because he removed the obstacles of a transcendent deity and a difficult sacred text (50-52).
Coleridge’s Spinoza, however, is not secular, and if not exactly Protestant, is trying to be so. His connection with the mystics, then, likely consists in Coleridge’s sense that the geometric demonstration of the unity of God and nature demanded an affective supplement, which is exactly what the mystics, with their intuition of the divine presence, supplied. This interpretation would also account for Coleridge’s frequent references to Spinoza’s system as a “Skeleton of the Truth” (e.g., Friend 1: 54n; CL 4: 775). Just as Kant, in the third Critique, conceded to aesthetic judgment the possibility of enabling a transition in thinking from knowledge to morality, thus making the suprasensible ideas of reason real in the sensible world, so perhaps Coleridge hoped that feeling would make intuitable what reason had established to be necessary. In other words, the mystics’ feeling might make Spinoza’s “dry Bones live” (CL 4: 548). If that is correct, then the pairing of Fox and Böhme with Spinoza—a pairing that Coleridge made on at least two occasions in addition to that in the Biographia—would attest to the same need that found expression in Coleridge’s theorization of the natural symbol in which sign and meaning are ontologically connected, that is, the aesthetic objectification to the subject of its theoretically posited unity with the world of objects (see Halmi). To the extent that a Spinozistic monism permitted the assumption of the primordial unity of subject and object in the infinite substance, it promised a solution to the impasses represented by Kant’s dualism and Fichte’s subjectivism.
Nonetheless, the logic of Coleridge’s alignment of Spinoza with the “mystics” is peculiar, for he concedes on the one hand that the thought of the latter “is capable of being converted into an irreligious Pantheism”—a point he makes also in his marginalia on Böhme—and insists on the other that Spinoza’s Ethics is not “in itself and essentially . . . incompatible with religion, natural or revealed” (BL 1: 152). Are we meant to conclude that the ostensibly atheist Spinoza is actually more amenable to religious belief—or more specifically, provides a more compelling assurance of the divine presence in the world—than the avowedly religious mystics? It is as if, having skirted the desert with Böhme and Fox, Coleridge were now prepared to plunge into it in search of Spinoza.
Perhaps he was engaging in the rhetorical equivalent of a bait-and-switch tactic, transferring the association with pantheism from Spinoza to the Christian mystics in order to render the contemplation of Spinoza’s system more acceptable. If so, it is a strategem to which he would resort again in letters condemning “Modern Calvinism” as a kind of Spinozism that lacks “the noble honesty, that majesty of openness, so delightful in Spinoza, which made him scorn all attempts to varnish over fair consequence” (CL 4: 548), and Unitarianism (which he had long since disavowed) as “far, very far worse … than the Atheism of Spinoza” (CL 6: 893). Better a wolf in wolf’s clothing. “Why in the instance of Spinoza alone,” Coleridge fumed in a manuscript note of 1817-18, “should [it] be thought suspicious to extract the medicinal and praise what is praise-worthy? Or is he fixed at the summit of the temple of Heterodoxy as a Conductor, which attracting all the Lightning of our Odium Theologicum towards itself procures an immunity for the Fabric at large . . . ?” (SWF 616). What he meant by “the Fabric at large” is explained by a notebook entry in which he contrasted Spinoza favourably with “the Voltaires, Humes, and the whole mob of popular Infidels”—Hume in particular deserving such opprobrium because, in the Treatise of Human Nature, he had mischievously invoked Spinoza’s “universally infamous” doctrine of the single substance in order to ridicule the idea of the immortality of the soul (240-41). Yet as Richard Berkeley has noticed, Coleridge’s appeals to Spinoza’s Christian virtues are curiously irrelevant, in that they do not pertain to the content of his metaphysics except in excusing its errors as the consequence of his purported innocence (“Providential” 8-9, Coleridge 46).
An extraordinary passage from a note Coleridge left in manuscript serves synecdochally to illustrate this point. Composed in 1817-18, the note draws on Colerus and defends Spinoza by referring not only to his saintly life but to his rebarbative writing style, calculated to ward off casual seekers of heterodoxy:
Consult his Life by Colerus, who knew Spinoza personally, lived near him, and collected his materials on the Spot. Himself a strictly orthodox Divine, he speaks of Spinoza’s Opinions . . . with at least sufficient Horror: but he did not therefore omit to refute every charge, every calumnious rumour, against his Character as a man: and . . . he records the blameless innocence of his Life, his inobtrusive sincerity and his solicitude not to disturb, nay, his anxiety to second, the unquestioning faith and pious exercises of the simple-hearted. . . . Nay, he expressed not only his doubts, but his reluctance to the publication of his MSS . . . in the most innoxious way, namely, in Latin & in the driest, austerest, and most inattractive form, adopted from the method of Geometry, and so free from the least wanton offence against the feelings of his age and [country], so reverential in his use of terms held in reverence by others, that Ludovicus Meyer, the Editor, appears to have seriously believed the tenets of his Master to be in all essentials co-incident with the doctrines of Christianity, as declared in the Gospel of John, and the epistles of St Paul: nor do we possess any satisfactory proof, that Spinoza himself thought otherwise.SWF 610
Coleridge’s defence is thus founded on two distinct claims: first, that in his innocence and single-minded philosophical rigour, Spinoza formulated a metaphysical doctrine without regard to its implications for the foundations of morality; and second, that the resultant “errors” of this doctrine were venial in nature. Variations of this defence, as we have seen, recur throughout Coleridge’s later writings, and as late as 1830 he is supposed to have expressed his conviction that Spinoza “was on the borders of truth, and would no doubt had he lived had attained it” (TT 1: 557).
In the event, however, Coleridge’s enduring attraction and insurmountable objection to Spinoza’s metaphysics were both rooted in its demonstration of the logical necessity of the single substance. This dilemma found expression in a characteristically Coleridgean footnote to a letter of 1815 to the publisher John Gutch:
Spinoza’s is a World with one Pole only, & consequently no Equator. Had he commenced either with the natura naturata, as the Objective Pole, or at the “I per se I” as the Subjective Pole—he must necessarily in either case have arrived at the Equator, or Identity of Subject and Object—and thence instead of a God, = the one only Substance, at which all finite Things are the modes and accidents, he would have revealed to himself the doctrine of The Living God, having the Ground of his own Existence within himself, and the originating Principle of all dependent Existence in his Will and Word.CL 4: 548
While satisfying what reason demanded, the dissolution of subject-object dualism, Spinozan monism denied what morality required, a voluntaristic conception of God. For once Coleridge had determined that the only possible guarantor of the free will of individual humans was that of a transcendent but personalized deity, he could never fully accept Spinoza’s allegedly unipolar conception of God. Referring in a note of c. 1817-18 to the “unica Substantia infinitis Attributis” as defined in the Ethics (although that particular formulation is never used in the work), Coleridge lamented that Spinoza’s “error consisted not so much in what he affirms, as in what he has omitted to affirm or rashly denied . . . that he saw God in the ground only and exclusively, in his Might alone and his essential Wisdom, and not likewise in his moral, intellectual, existential and personal Godhead” (SWF 609). In short, the Ethics lacked the theoretical basis for an ethics.
As we saw earlier, it follows from the distinction between the essential (unconditionally necessary) and the existential (contingently necessary)—a distinction that Coleridge himself, with perhaps excessive interpretive generosity, conceded to the Ethics—that the Spinozan God, as the eternal actualization of the universe, need not impinge upon the temporal actualization of events, so that individual qua finite mode might indeed possess the freedom to actualize itself. But to Coleridge this possibility, to the extent that he seriously entertained it, was insufficiently consolatory because it excluded the existential from the deity itself: the infinite substance required the supplement of an absolute will. Accordingly, Coleridge sought in the abortive Opus Maximum, the broad aim of which was to reconcile faith with reason, to demonstrate the necessary existence of the divine will. But insofar as that will was conceived by analogy to human will—“the same power but in a higher dignity,” as Coleridge himself asserted (OM 11)—the Coleridgean God exhibited exactly the anthropomorphism that Spinoza had ridiculed in the appendix to part 1 of the Ethics. What Coleridge wanted, finally, was an infinite substance with a human face.
In that respect, his self-contradictory Christianization of Spinoza was consistent with his engagement with systematic philosophy generally, and particularly with Schelling’s. The fundamental conflict in Coleridge’s mature intellectual career was, as Christoph Bode has accurately summarized it, the systematic incompatibility of his religious convictions with “the philosophical materials [he] assembled from various sources to give substance to his own deliberations or to impress his audiences and readership” (610). The true object of the special pleading that Coleridge conducted on Spinoza’s behalf was not the Dutch philosopher, therefore, but the Highgate sage himself. For it was Coleridge’s persistent, if unrealized and indeed unrealizable, hope to become himself the Christian Spinoza, giving Christianity a systematic philosophical foundation while deriving systematic philosophy from a Trinitarian conception of a personalized God. The wistful hope of squaring the circle, so to speak, in a philosophically coherent and religiously satisfying way continued to manifest itself in Coleridge’s statements about Spinoza to the end of his life. While acknowledging in a notebook of March 1832, “If like Spinoza, I had contemplated God as the infinite Substance (Substantia Unica) as the incomprehensible mindless, lifeless, formless Substans of all Mind, Life and Form—there would be for me neither Good nor Evil – Yet Pain, & Misery would be—& would be hopeless” (CN 5: 6659), Coleridge could nonetheless express in a letter of the same month, without obvious irony, the hope of encountering Spinoza’s spirit in heaven, “with St. John and St. Paul smiling on him and loving him” (CL 6: 893). The implication, which hardly needed to be stated, is that Coleridge himself hoped to be present at the occasion, equally smiling and smiled upon.
If Coleridge was consistently drawn to dichotomizing, to the extent that his most enduring contributions to critical theory are the distinctions he formulated himself or adapted from others (e.g., imagination vs. fancy, imitation vs. copy, organic vs. mechanical form, symbol vs. allegory), he was just as consistently unable to constrain his thought by a dichotomous logic. Having identified two mutually exclusive intellectual positions, he might try simultaneously to adopt both while nonetheless accepting the truth of their mutual exclusivity. Coleridge’s engagement with Spinoza is one example of such a situation, the “it is” and “I am” circling each other endlessly, the finite modes, one might say, of his infinite irresolution.
- A longer version of this essay was published under the same title in Spinoza beyond Philosophy, ed. Beth Lord (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2012), 187-207. It is abridged and reprinted here by kind permission of the publisher.
Nicholas Halmi is University Lecturer in Romantic Literature at Oxford University and Margaret Candfield Fellow of University College, Oxford. He is the author of The Genealogy of the Romantic Symbol (2007), editor of the Norton Critical Edition of Wordsworth's Poetry and Prose (2013), co-editor of the Norton Critical Edition of Coleridge's Poetry and Prose (2003), and textual editor of Coleridge's Opus Maximum (2002).
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