Visions of

We have already noted that in his concept of the Logos, Coleridge is postulating some sort of distinction in God - deus idem et alter, to borrow a favorite phrase of his. Here, in the idea of "alterity," distinction in unity, Coleridge found a paradigmatic case of how the one and the many did not need to be opposed, but could be held together. Earlier I did no more than list the jumble of ideas that feed into this concept: it is now time to outline Coleridge's analysis of the doctrine of the Trinity.

The heart of Coleridge's (mature) doctrine of God is the eternal self-actualization of primordial Will. Coleridge regards it as a truth available to philosophy that "Will" is more basic than any other term we might reach for,36 and so begins speaking of God in terms of "absolute Will." He combines this with a description of God borrowed from the Medievals, actus purissimus sine ulla potentia: all that God can possibly do, God does. Hence this absolute Will does not remain merely potent, but wills to be, becomes real, and this eternal act of self-realization is the Trinity. The first move in this self-realization is the existence of the Supreme Mind, but Mind cannot remain merely potent any more than the Will could, and so must also be active. The Supreme Mind thinks of itself - it is the only worthy object of its own thought - and so Mind begets the Supreme Idea, the Logos. The eternal self-realization of God demands, however, that God remain one, and so there is a third term, the unity which Mind and Idea, Father and Son, share, and that is the Spirit.37

Describing Coleridge's account like this could lead to a misunderstanding, and so it must be made clear that this act of self-realization is eternal. God is not one before he is Triune, is not Will before he is Father, Son, and Spirit. God's basic decision, the full content of God's own life, is eternally to be himself and another in the unity of a third. The Father's eternal begetting of the Son and spiriting of the Spirit is God's life, God's actus. To speak of primordial Will is a way of describing this, not a postulation of a reality behind the Trinity. This observation is important inasmuch as Coleridge regularly uses his four-membered tetrarchies38 as a logical scheme to describe God, and some of his commentators have queried his genuine commitment to Trinitarianism as a result.39

So Coleridge is not seeking to assert that God is one before He is triune. In speaking of the primacy of will, Coleridge is, however, making a claim concerning the unity of the Trinity. To assert that Father, Son, and Spirit are homoousios is, according to Coleridge, to assert that the Three Persons are united in willing their own life.40 In describing the Trinity in these terms, Coleridge is following a broadly Augustinian tradition: the psychological analysis is not borrowed from the master, but certainly stands in broad continuity with Augustine's approach in the later books of De Trinitate, and to identify God primarily with will rather than intellect, is to side with the medieval Augustinians over the Dominican Thomist tradition. Coleridge is also firmly within the Christian tradition in linking divine unity with a single act of willing.41 The account is speculative, but speculative theology has a long and at times noble history within Christian theology, particularly in those parts of the tradition most influenced by Platonism. In any case, whilst Coleridge insists on at least two occasions that the Trinity is indeed a necessary speculative idea, he also insists that Christian revelation demands that we believe this.42

Mention of speculative theology leads to a different criticism, however, which must be addressed: where, in this account, does the Gospel narrative feature? Coleridge's suggestion, made more than once, that Plato knew and understood God's triune being43 points to a decisive detachment of God's internal life from the life of Jesus of Nazareth. This is a problem: the doctrine of the Trinity, we must insist, represents the defeat of Greek philosophy, and not its consummation - although we so insist only whilst always recognizing that the doctrine's particular formulation owes much to the philosophical tradition.44 Coleridge, in a tradition of Christian Platonism that stretches back to Origen, finds adequate resources for the doctrine of the Trinity in the general concept of God, without any need to have heard the name of Jesus. Let us immediately acknowledge that, thus formulated, this criticism is too harsh; Coleridge is (like Origen, and Henry More, and the rest of the tradition) using the philosophy to serve the faith.45 By the end of this exposition, however, it will be a version of this criticism that is decisive.

To make the point, we might briefly compare Coleridge's account to Barth's doctrine of God in volume 2 of the Church Dogmatics.46 There, too, the realization of will ("decision" is Barth's term) is central. For Barth, however, God's decision is first election, which is to say his decision is first to be the Jewish man Jesus Christ. The logic may then follow Scripture: the doctrine of the Trinity is no more than what must be said about God if the chief actor of the Gospel narratives is who he is claimed to be - if Jesus Christ is Lord.47 This matters, finally, because it establishes those things that Platonisms, however Christian, cannot establish: materiality, particularity, historicity - for Coleridge, no less than for Origen, these were problems, and so we hunt in vain for any serious Christology amongst the Logosophia.48 Indeed, Coleridge clearly felt the need to defend the possibility that the perfect unity that is God's own life may give rise to that which is particular and evil without willing either evil or particularities.

This defense is constructed in terms of the divine ideas. I will trace the most sustained exposition of this, in the Opus Maximum manuscript,49 in some detail because it is so revealing of both the strengths and the weaknesses of Coleridge's appropriation of the Christian Platonist tradition. Under a chapter title, "On the Divine Ideas," Coleridge begins by stressing the sharpness of the problem: philosophy can only deal with ideas, which are reached "by abstracting from time." So the reality of history and matter is problematic, and must be argued for: "The passage from the absolute to the separated finite, this is the difficulty which who shall overcome? This is the chasm which ages have tried in vain to overbridge."50 Lest anyone think that this is metaphysical irrelevance, Coleridge states that this must be done to find "standing room." Once again, it is the free personal existence of human beings that is at stake.

So, the traditional Christian Platonic construction begins: the Logos is the Idea idearum,51 not just the Father's eternal adequate idea of himself, but that in which every other idea in the divine mind is contained. If there are such distinct ideas, then, precisely because God is idem et alter in the unity of the Spirit, they can and must be really distinct without ever being separated. This, however, raises the question of the ontological status of these ideas: eternal self-actualizing Will is indeed sine ulla potentia, and so whatever is willed is actual, and whatever is not willed is not even potential. The ideas thus apparently must be eternally actual; Coleridge will not balk at such terms as "uncreated forms" or "eternal truths, powers & intelligences."52 Whence, then, derives the possibility of change, and so of a temporal history? "[T]he Ideas are necessarily immutable, in as much as they are one with the <co->Eternal Act, by which the absolute Will self-realised begets its Idea as the other self."53

At this point, however, Coleridge thinks there is a problem in his logic: these ideas can only be real in God, yet God is simple, and so no particular can be real within him. The solution, suggests Coleridge, is that the ideas, whose essence is again will, each will to be only in the being of God. This solves more than the immediate logical problem, however, since it raises the specter - the potential -for an idea not to so will, but to will its own particular existence to be elevated above the universal.54 The idea which so wills would be a "god-less self, this false and contradictory self, a lie from the beginning and the father or fountain of all lies,"55 but the potential so to be now exists within the account Coleridge is giving, and with it the possibility for both particularity and change.

This potential and possibility needs further explication, however. Only God is, and so willing not to be in God is very simply willing not to be. The potential raised is indeed spectral. We see this in our own failures, suggests Coleridge, as we observe the fundamentally contradictory and self-destructive nature of evil actions. This is perhaps the point to note that Coleridge was very serious about human depravity, and indeed, rather dismissive of those who were not.56 His own experiences, perhaps, of failing as a husband, of losing a friend in Wordsworth, and of becoming addicted to opium, which all came together in his personal crisis of 1813, made him rather impatient with the naive liberalism which, then as now, found traditional Christian teaching on original sin to be pessimistic and oppressive. Coleridge knew, after all, that even Kant recognized the radical evil in human beings and took it seriously.57

Back to the exposition: ideas only exist actually insofar as they will themselves to have no actuality other than in God, who is universal and utter actuality. There is, however, the possibility of a change. Coleridge regards these two statements as epistemologically distinct: the first describes eternal and universal actuality, and so is a truth of the reason, and so the only direct evidence for it can be the very idea itself; the second is a question of history and so empirical. As such it is in the realm of the understanding, and so only the fact of the fall from perfection can establish its possibility. If it is observable that evil exists, then there has indeed been a fall from perfection and so such a fall was possible.58

Coleridge believes that it is demonstrable both that evil exists and that it is not eternal; both Manichaeism (used as a cipher for any dualism asserting the equal eternal existence of good and evil) and fatalisms that assert there is no evil, only blind chance, can be demonstrated to be inadequate.59 Evil has come into being, but not by God's will: rather, it is "in the strictest sense of the words, self-originated, self-originant."60 Thus we may conclude that it is indeed the case that some of the eternal ideas willed to be other than eternally one with God, and so the possibility of change and corruption became actual.61

A second manuscript chapter of this work is a comparison of what has gone before with the system of Plotinus, seeking to show that Coleridge's own views are decisively different,62 which they are, although hinting (as I have noted above) that Plato had grasped the doctrine of the Trinity in all important points.63 I have spent so much time on this one chapter because it is not well known, and it is arguably as powerful an attempt to derive a broadly Origenistic theology as has been written in the English language.

To what extent is this an adequate solution to the problem of the one and the many? The unity of the world is hardly in danger here; that is established by the unity of God. Coleridge tries hard also to establish the particularity of the world. The ideas which make up the world's particularity are real and distinct, so much so that Coleridge reaches for language that has often been considered dangerous within the Christian tradition to describe them: "eternal," "uncreated," and the (admittedly Scriptural) assertion that "ye shall be as gods." The extent to which there is a genuine particularity established here may appear more doubtful, however: the will to be particular is the will to not be, and the source of all evil.

The question raised is the nature of created particularity: what Coleridge denies is our ability to be isolated individuals, where an "individual" is defined as the self that remains when separated from God and other people. That self is, as Coleridge's arguments demand, precisely nothing: any sort of orthodox Christian account of the doctrines of creation and providence will assert the same, even if the relational ontologies that have become popular in the last few decades are not accepted. The particularity that remains possible under this scheme is to have distinct being within the loving embrace of God, to find self precisely in surrendering self to him. The Christian Platonist tradition is often criticized for not taking particularity seriously enough, but, in Coleridge's hands at least, this understanding of God leads rather straightforwardly to an account of human particularity that carries the sorts of nuances that any properly Christian theology would demand.64

We must, however, criticize Coleridge's account here on a different score: particularity is established, but whence materiality? This is perhaps a dangerous question: Coleridge did not write the remaining chapters of the work, and so we have to guess to a certain extent where the argument is going. A comparison with Origen at this point is very tempting, however: a very similar vision of a heavenly fall is present, as a result of which materiality and historicity would enter the world as unfortunate remedial necessities. This impression is strengthened by things Coleridge did write elsewhere: "Christianity is especially differenced from all other religions," we are told in the first appendix to the Statesman's Manual,65 "by being grounded on facts which all men alike have the means of ascertaining." Coleridge is referring to a felt need for salvation, and so his point is not as bizarre as it may seem out of context, but still, is it really the case that the particular histories of Jesus Christ, of Israel before him, and of the apostolic mission after him, are not at least a part of what Christianity is "grounded on"? Coleridge's disdain for the Unitarian celebration of the historical and the particular66 - of those things accessible to the understanding -has gone too far here.

Again, very early in Coleridge's account of Christian spirituality in the Aids to Reflection, there is an almost wholly negative evaluation of the physical world. "[O]ur outward circumstances" are "cast and moulded" in "the form of the World, which is evermore at variance with the Divine Form (or idea)." Just so, in our work of "forming anew the Divine Image in the soul," we are generally to "suppose the World at enmity with our design."67 A few pages later we are told that we are to aspire finally to "spiritual" acts which "have an especial reference to the Timeless, the Permanent, the Eternal."68 The Christian is, it seems, to escape this time-bound material existence, and find his way back to the eternal ideas which eternally adore God; "to," in Coleridge's language, "lose and leave behind his dividual [sic] phantom Self in order to find his true Self in that distinctness, where no division can be - in the eternal I am, the ever-living Word, of which all the Elect ... are but the fainter and fainter Echoes!"69

Coleridge knows that the Gospel history is central, of course, and he will even assert it from time to time. Later in the Aids he describes "the Gospel" as "a History, a series of Facts and Events related or announced. These ... at the same time are, most important doctrinal Truths; but still Facts."70 In the Confessions, again, Coleridge discusses bodily resurrection, and so identifies Christianity with the "mid-point, in which the Historical & Spiritual meet." So it must have a history, composed in part of phenomena of nature and in part of the miraculous -"phenomena in Nature that are beyond Nature."71 The Incarnation is similarly the union of opposites: "Eternity in the form of Time ... = the absolute to the conditional, or the Real to the Apparent."72 As such, the Incarnation provides the possibility for God to take seriously the imperfect material and temporal realm: God can only love this world "as it is contained in" Christ.73

This is hard-won, however. The uncomplicated celebration of creation at the beginning of Scripture - or in the Lyrical Ballads - is not what we see here. The allusion to Plato's cave, made in "The Destiny of Nations," before he ever met Wordsworth, is a far better indication of his attitudes than the linkage of their two names in discussions of the early Romantic movement. At the end of his life, Coleridge was still looking beyond the world to the realm of the Ideas, and finding it a struggle to link this world to that one in Christ.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment