Theology and Social Comment

All of this may seem a strange thing to say of one who was involved in politics, that most this-worldly of pursuits, all his life. Nonetheless, when we turn to this area of his thought, these metaphysical speculations will prove illuminating. The crowning text, after all, may have been occasioned by the Catholic Emancipation question, but it was announced as being On the Constitution of Church and State, According to the Idea of Each.74

Ideas present themselves to the understanding in two contradictory modes, but reason holds these together and grasps their essential unity, which is to say that every idea mirrors the alterity that is God. The ideal nation, then, can only be understood by holding together the State and the National Church. The idea of the state is also polar: "the two antagonist powers or opposite interests of the state ... Permanence and ... Progression."75 Permanence is vested in the land-owning classes, the "Barons"; progression is achieved by the merchants, manufacturers, and professions, or the "Franklins." There is thus something fundamentally right about a parliament of two houses, the Lords and Commons. The National Church is a third estate alongside these two, "the necessary antecedent condition" of them both. It is not necessarily Christian, although it is a boon if the clerks of the national church are ministers of the Gospel as well. Rather, it is the portion of the population who uphold, develop, and pass on the culture and civilization of the nation. Coleridge calls this class the "Clerisy." Those who labor in the universities, who produce and preserve the artistic heritage of the nation, who practice medicine - all are part of the clerisy, as are the schoolteacher and the pastor in every parish, whose job is to spread the most useful parts of the nation's culture to all its people. Theology, as the science which deals with morality and reality (in the ideas), is necessarily the head of this culture, the mistress-science, but much else is comprehended besides.

Within this conception of the nation, the monarch has a series of particular functions. Within the state, she or he is to be the fulcrum on which the balance between the barons and franklins turns - the mesothesis between the thesis of permanence and the antithesis of progression, to apply Coleridge's noetic pentad once more.76 Again, the monarch is to be head of the national church, as the nation's culture is concentrated and visible in him or her. This dual role is summed up in a conception only hinted at in Church and State, but made explicit in Coleridge's Notebooks: the monarch is the symbol of the nation, the visible particular in whom the eternal idea of the nation may be perceived and under-stood.77 As such, the "royal we" expresses a simple truth: in the king's majesty, the unity of the nation is present.78

This vision of the nation as an idea enables Coleridge to cut through much that is complicating in political theories; in his discussion of the "social contract," for example, he is able to acknowledge that no such contract has ever been made in history, and that even if it had, there would be problems enforcing it as the sole basis for the state. If, instead, we consider it to be a part of an eternally existent idea, the Nation, to which we all have some access, then the problem is much simpler: "no man, who has ever listened to laborers ... in any alehouse ... discussing the injustice of the present rate of wages ... will doubt for a moment that they are fully possessed by the idea."79

Coleridge's work on Church and State seemingly had little impact on the immediate debate about Catholic emancipation; it was, however, one of his more influential works, lauded by William Gladstone and F. D. Maurice in the next generation, and still by William Temple and T. S. Eliot in the next century. In this brief sketch I have tried to show that even in considering pressing political ephemera, Coleridge's thoughts were almost wholly shaped by his theological and philosophical commitments. It may be that his abiding interest in social issues, and the sense that there must be a connection between politics and religion, were what kept Coleridge's denigration of the world of temporal particulars from becoming too damaging: he would not separate his metaphysical speculations from the life that was around.

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