It is interesting to contrast and compare various academic views as to how Transcendentalism began in post-colonial America, including contemporary anthologies of American literature. Early academic works such as F.O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance (1941), Ronald V. Wells’ Three Christian Transcendentalists: James Marsh, Caleb Sprague Henry and Frederic Henry Hedge (1972), John J. Duffy’s Coleridge’s American Disciples: The Selected Correspondence of James Marsh, (1973), and Robert E. Spiller’s Literary History of the United States (1974). Matthiessen gives one line on two separate pages to Marsh, while discussing Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection’s contribution to American Transcendentalism as a prelude to Emerson’s thought, describing Coleridge as “the most immediate force behind American Transcendentalism” (6-7), and Transcendentalism itself as “romanticism in a Puritan setting” (104). Wells’ more complete study of American Transcendentalism seeks to correct the impression that Transcendentalism is solely a secular movement:
We have been accustomed to evaluate the contributions of transcendentalism, as representative of an American school, by the works of Emerson, Thoreau, and other more prominent and secular leaders of the movement. Theodore Parker is generally presented as the synthesis of transcendentalism and the Christian ministry, and he is justly known as the chief embodiment of Christian transcendentalism. It is even a common impression that he is the only such embodiment, but in this study three of his colleagues, Marsh, Henry and Hedge, less known, are considered for the significant philosophical contribution which they made to transcendental theology. Marsh was the much beloved leader of a Vermont version of transcendentalism, a tradition which lasted locally for almost a century. (1)
John J. Duffy’s study of Marsh reinforces Wells’ theological study of Transcendentalism independently, while giving a decent biography of James Marsh, as well as a look at his thought and how Aids to Reflection contributed to American Transcendentalism, including much of Marsh’s personal correspondence.
Spiller acknowledges Aids to Reflection briefly as a “secondary source” for the movement, again as a prelude explaining Emerson’s understanding of Reason and Understanding in terms of his own religious experience rather than in terms of a national religious experience. In 1982 Peter Carafiol, Fulbright-Hays Professor of American Literature at the University of Regensburg in Germany, came out with a book dealing solely with James Marsh and Aids to Reflection entitled Transcendent Reason: James Marsh and the Forms of Romantic Thought which gives a thorough background in how religion and the philosophical thought of Coleridge caused Marsh to print the American edition of Aids to Reflection, discusses how the Transcendentalist movement began in Vermont, and not Concord or Boston.
The 1989 edition of The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 1, 3rd Edition, leaves out Marsh, while giving a nod to Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection in terms of Emerson’s own faith, and his own understanding of Reason and Understanding, and also discusses in an abbreviated fashion the religious temperament of Boston, mentions William Ellery Channing as a leader of Boston Unitarianism, but includes none of Channing’s writings, nor any excerpted material from Aids to Reflection; the four sentence background is again only a prelude to the literature of Emerson.
The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 1 (1998) does not discuss Transcendentalism in terms of Marsh, Coleridge, or religion at all, but discusses the movement in terms of “the revolutionary impulses of Romanticism, with its emphasis on openness to nature and feeling, its idea of grand individual selves set free–or at least capable of being set free–from the constraints of tradition and decorum, with its view of society as a set of illegitimate constraints on free development of the self” (1561-62). While this description is not entirely wrong, it is certainly incomplete.
The most recent anthology, The American Tradition in Literature, (2007) gives an excellent discussion of Transcendentalism, in more detail, in terms of religious and social change in New England, discussing the movement in terms of “a fertile conjoining of New England Unitarianism and romanticism” (865), but does not mention Marsh or Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection at all, not even in terms of Emerson’s thought.
The questions that come to mind immediately is given what academia knows about Marsh, Coleridge and the contribution of Aids to Reflection, given that academics such as Matthiessen, Carafiol and Duffy have acknowledged that the movement began in Vermont, and not Boston or Concord, why there are such gaps of knowledge in the sections of the anthologies given over to Transcendentalism which are the foundation of undergraduate English survey courses; secondary to this question is why as the years progress in our examination of the above anthologies and academic works, why Coleridge and Marsh gradually drop out of the discussion altogether.
All of the anthologies give the impression that Transcendentalism began in Boston/Concord, and seem very selective as to whether to bring anything of the religious background of the movement into the discussion or not. In other words, what students learn is completely at the mercy of the English department in the texts it selects for its survey courses. Due to the fast pace which survey courses tend to be subject to, it is understandable that not everything can be discussed; however, it seems a great disservice to both the amount of research and work that scholars have done on the subject, and to students in academia that this research does not seem to trickle down to the undergraduate level.
Let us proceed then, to fill in the gaps; to discuss where the American Transcendentalism movement began, the religious foundations of the movement, a discussion as to why the great theological and philosophical contributions of James Marsh and Samuel Taylor Coleridge through Aids to Reflection to the movement were important, culminating in the more secular contributions of Emerson and Thoreau to Transcendentalism. James Marsh is a transitional figure embodying the unity he so passionately sought in education and religion; as Peter Carafiol so notes in Transcendent Reason: James Marsh and the Forms of Romantic Thought, Transcendentalism was a cultural outburst of the nineteenth century to its intellectual ‘origins’ in American Puritanism. At once more Puritan than Emerson’s works and more Romantic than Jonathan Edwards’s, Marsh’s writings identify the gap between, a gap which the myth of national identity had been designed to cover over. Attempts to make connections between Puritan and Transcendentalist, to identify their shared essence, have generally been tenuous, depending for their coherence on impressionistic appeals to temperamental affinities, or at best on thematic or stylistic similarities between texts written by different authors at different times and places. In his Janus-faced embodiment of Puritan and Romantic, expressing both, yet blind to the divisions within himself, Marsh dramatizes the distinctions and hence the relationships between them. (xiii)
The Beginnings of American Transcendentalism
The American Transcendentalist movement began in Vermont, not Concord, and not Boston. Lewis S. Feuer, in his article “James Marsh and the Conservative Transcendentalist Philosophy: A Political Interpretation,” which appeared in the March 1958 edition of The New England Quarterly places the origination of the movement in Burlington, Vermont in 1829 headed by Marsh, who had just published the first American edition of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection. Feuer also notes the religious patina of Vermont Transcendentalism:
The Vermont transcendentalists have always been a sort of enigma in the history of American thought. The idealistic philosophy in nineteenth-century America had its beginnings at the University of Vermont in Burlington. But the story is obscure. What were the relations between the Vermont and Concord transcendentalists? What was the original impulse which led to the search for the transcendentalist philosophy? The story, as I shall try to reconstruct it, is one of an ultimate discord which was latent in the transcendentalist metaphysics, and which its applications made manifest. In November, 1829, the young president of the University of Vermont, James Marsh, thirty-five years old, published the first American edition of the Aids to Reflection written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The book, which began with a long “Preliminary Essay” by Marsh himself, soon became the “Old Testament of American Transcendentalism.” Encouraged by the success of his first book, Marsh published two years later in 1831 an edition of Coleridge’s Friend: A Series of Essays to Aid in the Formation of Fixed Principles in Politics, Morals, and Religion. Ralph Waldo Emerson, then in his latter twenties, studied these books carefully. He wrote that he was reading “Coleridge’s Friend with great interest; Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection with yet deeper….” Bronson Alcott, pursuing his schoolmaster’s vocation at Germantown, Pennsylvania, found in them a new revelation…Frederic M. Hedge, among the first in the inner transcendentalist circle, welcomed the Aids to Reflection “as a very valuable work,” and judged its “distinctions between prudence and morality, and between natural and spiritual religion” to be “sound and important.” Readers would be grateful to James Marsh, he said, not only for his editorial work, but also to the “valuable dissertation” which he had prefaced to the book. Marsh, he added, “has evinced a philosophical talent of his own which we cannot but hope will some day be employed in more extensive undertakings.” (3-4)
Ronald V. Wells states that “the appearance of this book became the rallying point for a constructive attack on both Lock and Scottish common sense thinkers who are now known as the transcendentalists” (Three Christian Transcendentalists 18). Carafiol also adds that “the whole of Marsh’s work incarnates the intellectual flux that gave rise to Transcendentalism and figures forth the profound consequences of Transcendental thought” (Transcendent Reason xiv). Marsh’s thought is that of philosophical idealism, rooted in his conservative Congregationalist background, straddling the line between orthodoxy and Romanticism. He is the figurehead of a conservative Transcendentalism that sought to preserve orthodoxy in the quest to unite the warring factions of Congregationalism and Unitarianism.
Emerson, on the other hand, is the figurehead of the more liberal, and much more secularized Concord/Boston Transcendentalists, a group that formed in 1836 during the bicentennial celebration of Harvard University (Gura 50), who sought, while discussion religious and philosophical issues of their day, to, in the words of Orestes Brownson, to “democratize religion and philosophy…he walked shoulder to shoulder with other liberal Christians who derived from Romantic philosophy and religion the impetus to reinvigorate their faith and work toward a realization of more democratic ideals” (53). The space between these two groups, the book that unites them, Aids to Reflection, the book that Marsh saw as a healing force, fell victim to differing interpretations; what Marsh saw as the answer to the problems of stale orthodoxy Emerson saw as a route to a uniquely American mysticism in which man could be freed from the bonds of religion entirely because where the Puritans saw humanity as subject to God, Emerson saw humanity as gods. The unity that Marsh so desired instead served to simultaneously divide the two groups.
There is controversy amongst the major scholars of Marsh about Marsh himself; whether he was a major thinker or a minor one, whether he relied too heavily on Coleridge, or not enough. All seek to defend Marsh as a thinker on his own merits, as do scholars of Coleridge. Carafiol believes that Marsh was no Transcendentalist (Transcendent Reason xv), and while a pivotal figure, he is simply a marginal one who understood what Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection had to offer American religion; John J. Duffy believes that James Marsh was a disciple of Coleridge as evidenced by the title of his book Coleridge’s American Disciples: The Selected Correspondence of James Marsh, while Wells denies that Marsh would ever have thought himself a disciple of Coleridge at all (TCT 18). Because of the lack of autobiographical works of Marsh, all of these scholars, have had to rely heavily on Joseph Torrey, James Marsh’s great friend and biographer. One can readily see that all three of these major scholars of Marsh have differing interpretations of Torrey; yet Torrey states unequivocally that Marsh was a disciple of no one, and that his thought was wholly original based on his interdisciplinary education:
From his familiarity with the writings of Coleridge, and the high respect which he ever felt and expressed for Coleridge’s authority in matters of this sort, it has been hastily inferred that he was no more than a disciple of that great master. It would be a mistake, however, to suppose that the opinions of Dr. Marsh were taken up immediately from any particular author or school. Submission to the authority of great names was something wholly alien from the character of his mind: although no man was more modest in the estimation of his own powers, or more ready to confess his obligations, in all cases where he had been benefitted by others. It may be said of him with greater justice than of many who have laid far higher claims to originality that his system was the result of his own profound meditation, and one to which he was irresistibly led, in endeavoring to construct for himself a consistent and connected whole, out of the materials of his knowledge. He acted upon his own maxim, laid down at the beginning of the “Preliminary Essay” that “it is by self-inspection only, we can discover the principle of unity and consistency, which reason instinctively seeks after, which shall reduce to a harmonious system all our views of truth and being, and destitute of which, all the knowledge that comes to us from without, is fragmentary, and in its relation to our highest interests as rational beings, the patch-work of vanity. (112-113)
Torrey’s evaluation of Marsh’s originality of thought raises its own questions: what is Torrey’s intent? A major consideration is that he wished to memorialize a man who he greatly admired and thus show him as a great man in the best possible light, in his own right, a man who endlessly searched for truth in all that he studied and learned, a man who sought to unify knowledge with “the development of his spiritual being” (Torrey 116), not a man who rested in the shadow of Coleridge. It would seem that because there is no autobiography of Marsh that Marsh falls victim to what Whitman in Leaves of Grass wittily observed about biographies:
When I read the book, the biography famous,
And is this then (said I) what the author calls a man’s life?
And so will some one when I am dead and gone write my life?
(As if any man really knew aught of my life,
Why even I myself I often think know little or nothing of my real life,
Only a few hints, a few diffused faint clews and indirections
I seek for my own use to trace out here.) (9)
Thus it becomes necessary to dig deeper; to look at the religious controversy of the time; and to look at Marsh’s “Preliminary Essay” on its own terms, and Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection on Coleridge’s terms in order to put the pieces together and understand Transcendentalism as a whole; thus, like Marsh’s aim to unify dissenting sects, this thesis aims to unify the study of American transcendentalism. Religion was the foundation of Transcendentalism; religious orthodoxy; and it is to this we will now turn.
In order to properly understand how influential Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection as well as Marsh’s “Preliminary Essay” was to American Transcendentalism, it is necessary to review the impasse to which American theology had come to, that set the stage for the cultivation and growth of America’s reflection upon human nature and destiny, topics entwined in the nation’s introspection upon itself. New England, (and by extension, America post-Revolution), home to Puritanism, was fast outgrowing such authoritarian orthodoxy; yet paradoxically, that same Puritanism via Jonathan Edwards also anticipated and prepared New England for transcendent theology. Ever on the borderline between orthodox and mystic, Jonathan Edwards has unfortunately been rather underrepresented in the academy as well. His most anthologized work, the sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” may be representative of the Puritan sermon model, but is not representative of Edwards himself. Like Marsh, Edwards was keenly interested in uniting the head with the heart as he expressed so eloquently in “The Nature of True Virtue.” Dr. Mark Noll, in his introductory essay to the Yale University Jonathan Edwards Center website summarizes Edwards’ philosophy of the heart:
The unifying center of Edwards’s life was the glory of God experienced as an active, harmonious, ever unfolding source of absolutely perfect Being marked by supernal beauty and love. The dynamic activity of the Godhead, especially as manifest in the Trinity, was ever in the forefront. Against many of the optimistic opinions of his century, Edwards defended Calvinistic convictions about the lost-ness of humanity and the need for divine grace to initiate redemption. Yet with the spirit of his age, Edwards also promoted an affectational view of reality in which “the sense of the heart” (one of his favorite phrases) was foundational for thought and action alike. The cast of Edwards’s mind was relentlessly intellectual-“many theorems, that appeared hard and barren to others, were to him pleasant and fruitful fields, where his mind would expatiate with peculiar ease, profit and entertainment,” was the way his friend and student, Samuel Hopkins, put it (Ethical Writings, 401). As a result, Edwards delighted in abstruse metaphysical questions almost as much as in theological or biblical challenges. In this respect, Edwards shared much with his near contemporaries, the Catholic Nicholas Malebranche and the Anglican George Berkeley, both of whom also developed forms of theistic idealism in response to what they perceived as the philosophical drift of their age. Edwards was fascinated by the discoveries of Newton and his successors. Yet, fearing the threat of materialism in such work, he argued that the laws of science were not self-subsisting. Rather, they were products of God’s self-conscious intellectual activity. Edwards was not threatened by these discoveries because he felt they revealed the regularity, harmony, and beauty of the Divine Being. A division between the spiritual and the material was as uncongenial to Edwards’s thought as it was commonplace in the Enlightenment more generally. To Edwards, progress in science showed more about the character of God than it did about the character of the physical universe. His solution to the Newtonian challenge was a strong dose of philosophical idealism: “that which truly is the substance of all bodies is the infinitely exact and precise and perfectly stable idea in God’s mind, together with his stable will that the same shall gradually be communicated to us, and to other minds, according to certain fixed and exact established methods and laws” (Scientific and Philosophical Writings, 344).
Edwards’s ethics showed the same concern for establishing God as the foundation. Behavior that was moral in the strictest sense of the term arose, in his view, only from a heart regenerated by God’s mercy. This case was made fully in The Nature of True Virtue, which was published posthumously in 1765, but it was also a persistent theme in much of his other work. Edwards agreed with contemporary British moralists like Francis Hutcheson that humans possessed a natural capacity for recognizing morality and following the internal “moral sense.” But he also contended that this kind of morality was inevitably prudential, pragmatic, and, ultimately an expression of self-love. Such socially useful behavior fell far short of true virtue, since “’tis evident that true virtue must chiefly consist in love to God, the Being of beings, infinitely the greatest and best of beings” (Ethical Writings, 550). Soon after Edwards died, his intellectual descendents turned away from the affectional idealism of his philosophy to forms of common sense realism. (http://edwards.yale.edu/research/about-edwards/philosopher)
Common sense realism satisfied the head, but required no heart; and Marsh, like Edwards, tied moral behavior to a regenerative heart; “the man must become what he knows; he must make his knowledge one with his own being; and in his power to do this, joined with the infinite capacity of his spirit, lies the possibility of his endless progress” (Torrey 115). Further, Marsh believed that as a philosopher and a Christian, that the “ultimate ground of truth must also be a living ground. The soul, as a living and life-giving principle, could not be satisfied with abstractions, nor its hollow cravings be stilled with unsubstantial shadows and barren formulas. The great question with him as not alone what is truth? but, what is that which imparts to truth its living reality; which connects knowing with being; and in the clear perception and contemplation of which, the whole aggregate of our knowledge begins to reduce itself to the form, not merely of a systematic, but of an organic unity?” (Ibid.) In this, Marsh is a mirror of Coleridge as described by John Stuart Mill in Mill’s essay “Coleridge:”
The influence of Coleridge, like that of Bentham, extends far beyond those who share in the peculiarities of his religious or philosophical creed. He has been the great awakener in this country of the spirit of philosophy, within the bounds of traditional opinions. He has been, almost as truly as Bentham, ‘the great questioner of things established;’ for a questioner need not necessarily be an enemy. By Bentham, beyond all others, men have been led to ask themselves, in regard to any ancient or received opinion, Is it true? and by Coleridge, What is the meaning of it? The one took his stand outside the received opinion, and surveyed it as an entire stranger to it; the other looked at it from within, and endeavored to see it with the eyes of a believer in it; to discover by what apparent facts it was at first suggested, and by what appearances it has ever since been rendered continually credible-has seemed, to a succession of persons, to be a faithful interpretation of their experience. Bentham judged a proposition true or false as it accorded or not with the result of his own inquiries; and did not search very curiously into what might be meant by the proposition, when it obviously did not mean what he thought true. With Coleridge, on the contrary, the very fact that any doctrine had been believed by thoughtful men, and received by whole nations or generations of mankind was part of the problem to be solved, was one of the phenomena to be accounted for. (100)
As has been shown throughout, the driving force of Marsh’s thought and faith was unity of philosophy and religion, in order to engender a unified, living religious spirit in individuals. This he hoped to accomplish through the distribution of Aids to Reflection. Previously in this thesis it has been noted that up to this point in time, there was a dearth of American or English literature that would engender any kind of a spiritual awakening. This is something that Marsh noted, and sought to do something about:
How little, Marsh said, “of the literature that falls in the way of young people, and of that which is most fascinating, is what we could wish in this respect, (viz. its religious influence.) The works and life of Sir Walter Scott leave the reader, to say the least, indifferent to religious principle; those of Charles Lamb are certainly no better; and with all the high aspirations of Wordsworth, there is much in his writings that is more favorable to an undefined naturalism or pantheism than to the truth of the gospel. The fact is, I fear, that the Christian world has, of late, enjoyed too much worldly prosperity for the spiritual interests of the church itself, and our Christianity hangs so loosely upon us, that we are in danger of forgetting and denying both the Father and the Son. We want men, who, comprehending the philosophy and the spirit of the age, have at the same time the spirit, the active zeal and the eloquence of Paul. The young men about Cambridge and Boston among Unitarians, and to some extent among others, I have no doubt, will adopt the “spiritual philosophy” so called against Locke and Edwards; and will they stop with the Eclecticism of Cousin? As the young men of education go, so goes the world. The popular religious works, and the general style of preaching among all classes and denominations, have too superficial and extraneous a character to protect speculative minds at all against the philosophical dogmas and criticisms with which our popular literature is so abundantly furnished. We need either a deeper and more heartfelt and heart-protecting practical piety, or else a more vigorous and profound philosophical spirit, in the interest of truth, and armed for its defence. We ought indeed to have both; but how are we to obtain them?” (Torrey 123-124)
The answer came in the form of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his odd collection of the aphorisms of English divines, mostly comprised of aphorisms of Anglican Archbishop Robert Leighton, with Coleridge’s commentary throughout entitled Aids to Reflection in the Formation of a Manly Character, on the Several Grounds of Prudence, Morality, and Religion, Illustrated by Select Passages from our Elder Divines, Especially from Archbishop Leighton.
Aids to Reflection
Fundamentally, Marsh and Coleridge were progressive conservatives. Both sought to revitalize orthodoxy rather than secularize Christianity. Torrey remarked that Marsh’s religious beliefs were no different than that “professed and taught by the early reformers,” (120), and a reading of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, Anima Poetae, and Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit is enough to convince the reader that Coleridge was no Emerson; he did not come to destroy the Scripture, but to relate an operative Christianity in which the Word, Christ, is the identity, the driving, living highest force unifying the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit and the Church, the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit, and the Church are coordinate, Christ the Word, the Holy Spirit synthesizing in the preacher, and the preacher being the physical unifying force between the Scriptures and the Church (the earthly messenger):
Prothesis: Christ the Word
Thesis Mesothesis, or the Indifference Antithesis
The Scriptures. The Holy Spirit The Church
This Coleridge calls the “hand of God in the World” (Confessions iii). The driving force behind the hand of God in the World is the logos, the word, “living word,” encapsulated in John 1:1, and Genesis 1; the word that creates, and makes flesh, the word that breathes life and makes humans living souls. This is more than just metaphor; for Coleridge too realized the lifelessness of religion in England during his time, and like Marsh, strove to unify Christianity with philosophy, through reflection upon living words, through the living Word:
But you are likewise born in a CHRISTIAN LAND: and Revelation has provided for you new subjects for reflection, and new treasures of knowledge, never to be unlocked by him who remains self-ignorant. Self-knowledge is the key to this casket; and by reflection alone can it be obtained. Reflect on your own thoughts, actions, circumstances, and -which will be of especial aid to you in forming a habit of reflection-accustom yourself to reflect on the words you use, hear , or read, their birth, derivation, and history. For is words are not THINGS, they are LIVING POWERS, by which the things of most importance to mankind are actuated, combined and humanized. Finally, by reflection you may draw from the fleeting facts of your worldly trade, art, or profession, a science permanent as your immortal soul; and make even these subsidiary and preparative to the reception of spiritual truth, “doing as the dyers do, who having first dipt their silks in colours of less value, then give them the last tincture of crimson in grain.” (ATR xix)
It is by reflection that truth is ascertained; reflection is the bridge between the head and the heart. For Marsh as well, as outlined in his “Preliminary Essay” to Aids to Reflection, individual reflection upon the contemplative words of the English divines in the work, to reveal to the reader the truth of our being as created (and creative) individuals put on earth by God, is the highest, and central ideal of the work:
Now it is not too much to say, that most men, and even a large proportion of educated men, do not reflect sufficiently upon their own inward being, upon the constituent laws of their own understanding, upon the mysterious powers and agencies of reason, and conscience, and will, to apprehend with much distinctness the objects to be named, or of course to refer the names with correctness to their several objects. Hence the necessity of associating the study of words with the study of morals and religion; and that is the most effectual method of instruction, which enables the teacher most successfully to fix the attention upon a definite meaning, that is, in these studies, upon a particular act, or process, or law of the mind-to call it into distinct consciousness, and assign to it its proper name, so that the name shall thenceforth have for the learner a distinct, definite, and intelligible sense. To impress upon the reader the importance of this, and to exemplify it in the particular subjects taken up in the Work, is a leading aim of the Author throughout; and it is obviously the only possible way by which we can arrive at any satisfactory and conclusive results on subjects of philosophy, morals, and religion. The first principles, the ultimate grounds, of these, so far as they are possible objects of knowledge for us, must be sought and found in the laws of our own being, or they are not found at all. The knowledge of these, terminates in the knowledge of ourselves, of our rational and personal being, of our proper and distinctive humanity, and of that Divine Being, in whose image we are created. “We must retire inward,” says St. Bernard, “if we would ascend upward.” It is by self-inspection, by reflecting upon the mysterious grounds of our own being, that we can alone arrive at any rational knowledge of the central and absolute ground of all being. It is by this only, that we can discover that principle of unity and consistency, which reason instinctively seeks after, which shall reduce to an harmonious system all our views of truth and of being, and destitute of which all the knowledge that comes to us from without is fragmentary, and in its relation to our highest interests as rational beings but the patch-work of vanity. (xxiv-xxvi)
Coleridge, Marsh, Psychology and the Human Mind in Aids to Reflection
Inherent in Marsh’s and Coleridge’s words is, like Marsh’s loose organization of the University of Vermont, a deep faith in the individual reader to interpret Coleridge’s work for a deeply psychological religious conversion experience, anchored by philosophy and propelled by literature. Reflection is not for the faint of heart in the thought of Marsh and Coleridge; it is not an excursion to be taken lightly. To be propelled to the depths of one’s own being is often a frightening journey, the end of which cannot be seen with perfect clarity. It takes faith to begin such an inward journey; faith in oneself, and faith in something greater than oneself to look into the mirror which Marsh and Coleridge hold up in the form of Aids to Reflection, and dare to look upon the reflection of oneself in the mirror of divinity. Marsh knew the difficulty years before he undertook to publish the first American edition of Aids to Reflection. In a letter to his wife, July 1st, 1821, Marsh confided to his wife:
The simple, unlearned Christian, who knows only his Bible, and daily reads that with an unquestioning confidence in the more simple truths which he reads, and which he that runs may read, may well be, in some respects the envy of the puzzled though learned man of books. He goes on in the even tenor of his way, with his head at ease, and his heart unmoved, but by the feelings of penitence and love. He knows nothing of the ten thousand distracting questions, the harrowing doubts and maddening skepticism, that dry up the heart and seethe in the brain of the unfortunate student, who has ventured to pass the consecrated limit of his traditional faith, and look back upon it with the cool eye of critical investigation…no wonder they choose the upper air, and leave unruffled the abyss below…But woe to the daring and ill-starred adventurer who plunges into the metaphysic depths of controversial theology! Well may he ponder his voyage; for it is little less difficult than that of our great adversary when he passed ‘the throne/Of chaos, and his dark pavilion spread/Wide on the wasteful deep.'” (Torrey 44-45).
Coleridge was no stranger to the difficulties of the spiritual inward journey either; Rime of the Ancient Mariner is the ultimate archetypal journey to the abyss within, with no clear comfort of absolution after the journey has been made. Ross Woodman, in his article “Literature and the Unconscious: Coleridge and Jung,” in The Journal of the Society of Analytical Psychology makes the observation that “the experience of letting oneself drop into the seething life below the threshold of consciousness is enacted over and over again in the work of the major Romantics” (363). He discusses this theme in terms of Wordsworth’s “awful power” of the Prelude, Shelley’s “suicidal plunge” into the fire “for which all thirst” in “Adonais,” and Coleridge’s “deep romantic chasm” of “Kubla Khan” (364).
The divinity of humanity is revealed in the creative process–for Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley and Coleridge–in the creative use of words. Yet the plunge into the awful abyss is also sublime, for in the plunge is the faith in the later subjugation of the shadow side; the sublimity in the exorcism of the fear of looking into the mirror. In the Bible, Jonah is swallowed up by the whale; Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are thrown into the fiery furnace; all come out the other side humbled, egos subjugated, praising God. Tied to redemption for all of the Romantics is how humanity interacts with the nature that humans are a part of; God’s creation without is subject to the free will of the created people of God who reside within it. Wordsworth escapes the industrialized deadness of the cities to walk amongst the living meadows in his beloved Lake District; Shelley wandered through his hauntingly beautiful Europe, Keats drank from his “fountain of immortal drink/Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink,” in “Endymion,” and Coleridge contemplated the “supreme beauty” of Christ in terms of the nature which surrounded him in “Religious Musings.” It is only when the Mariner who has been doomed to the psychic nightmare of “Ancient Mariner” looks kindly on the sea serpent (thus sublimating ego in favor of conscience) that redemption becomes even a hope to the Mariner; those who are Dead in Life are lost forever. Yet the ego is never really sublimated, for the Mariner is doomed (or blessed) to repeat his tale over and over again in the endless tortured ecstasy of creative process.
More than this, the beauty of the natural world for the Romantics is a mirror of the beauty of “something” that Marsh calls the “distinctively spiritual in man,” that intellectual Lockean empirical a priori philosophy alone cannot hope to reveal, but which can be apprehended and explained by Christian philosophy. Marsh states in his essay on psychology, included in Torrey’s memoirs of Marsh: “The phenomena of our inward life, on the other hand, can be known only by reflection upon our own consciousness, and cannot be exhibited under the relations of space, or explained by reference to the modifications of extension, form and motion in the material organs” (31). (Marsh’s study of psychology would make an interesting topic for further study; the influence of Coleridge is readily apparent in this lengthy treatise; Marsh, ever the champion of unity, links psychology to geometry, biology, physiology, and anthropology. This where the philosophy of Locke and the Scottish “Common Sense” philosophy breaks down. In the “Preliminary Essay” to Aids to Reflection Marsh quotes Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria when he says
He [Coleridge] proves that “the scheme of Christianity, though not discoverable by human reason, is yet in accordance with it; that link follows link by necessary consequence; that Religion passes out of the ken of Reason only where the eye of Reason has reached its own horizon-and that Faith is then but its continuation.” Instead of adopting, like the popular metaphysicians of the day, a system of philosophy at war with religion, and which tends inevitably to undermine our belief in the reality of any thing spiritual in the only proper sense of that word, and then coldly and ambiguously referring us for the support of our faith to the authority of Revelation, he boldly asserts the reality of something distinctively spiritual in man, and the futility of all those modes of philosophizing, in which this is not recognized, or which are compatible with it. He considers it the highest and most rational purpose of any system of philosophy, at least of one professing to be Christian, to investigate those higher and peculiar attributes, which distinguish us from the brutes that perish-which are the image of God in us, and constitute our proper humanity. It is in his view the proper business and the duty of the Christian philosopher to remove all appearance of contradiction between the several manifestations of the one Divine Word, to reconcile reason with revelation, and thus to justify the ways of God to man. (xxxi-xxxii)
It is here that Marsh provides the reader with the key to Aids to Reflection–the distinction between nature and free will and between the understanding and reason (ibid). What Marsh calls “the science of words” (xxiv) is fundamental to “reconcile reason with revelation” and unify humanity with their Creator. Marsh also links the science of words with the study of psychology and metaphysics. In comparing empirical psychology with what he terms “rational psychology” (metaphysics of being):
We cannot, for this reason, adopt the method pursued by some writers, of commencing with the inward, and as it were central, powers of life in the soul, in order to show in our progress, the relation of the various phenomena to these as their origin. This view may be taken with advantage by those already accustomed to reflection and familiar with the facts, but would be necessarily unintelligible, in the commencement of the study. We must then, first observe and analyze with care those things which can be most easily designated…Hence one of our greatest obstacles to the progress of knowledge here, is the vagueness of the language relating to the subject, and the difficulty of one’s determining the precise distinction, which another has intended to mark by a particular word. Connected with the difficulties of the language belonging to the subject, we must bear in mind the fact so often noticed, that all the terms which designates facts of our inward consciousness, were originally metaphorical in this use of them, and in their literal signification applied to objects of the outer world…Another consideration of importance here is, that while terms are vague and fluctuating, they lead much more unavoidably to indistinctness and misapprehension in our views of the facts designated by them, than in the study of physical science. Chemists may employ different terms to the same substance, and yet perfectly understand each other in regard to it…In other words, our language here is nearly inseparable from the theory which we adopt; and we cannot speak of facts of our inward consciousness, without betraying by our language, the system by which we express our views of their nature and relations….Yet with all the difficulties which attend the pursuit of this study, the interest and importance of it are such as amply repay the labor which it imposes. As an introduction to logic and metaphysics, a knowledge of psychology is indispensable. It lays open to us, and teaches us to observe and contemplate with ever growing admiration, that inner world of our own consciousness, which, rightly understood, is far more wonderful than all the phenomena of the world without. It reveals to us, in a word, our own being, the power by which we are actuated, and the laws of nature by which we are governed. (243-247)
For Marsh, the act of reflection is a way to “view” scientifically and metaphysically, the activities of the soul on an external and internal level. Unlike Locke, who thinks that there are “things in themselves” we cannot know, Marsh, by comparing the human soul to a plant in order to describe the soul on a physical external level both humans and plants are affected by external circumstances: the human thirsts, the plant thirsts; plants and humans need food in order to grow. The second meaning of “soul” to Marsh is when he describes what separates the human “soul” from the plant-the plant has no knowledge of morality; it must do as it was created to do according to the laws of nature; whereas the human has the ability to make decisions contrary to nature, we have a state of consciousness about self, and we have the faculty of the will to make determinations about our life and goals.
Most importantly, Marsh observes that “it is this power of voluntary self-inspection and self control which places man above nature, even his own nature, and constitutes him a free and responsible agent, and the deliberate resolves of his will, made, that is, in the exercise of his understanding, his own acts. The brute is incapable of conscious and deliberative resolve; and what it does is therefore the product of the power of nature working in it, and cannot be imputed to its own work (269). Marsh also links imagination to the soul, in a Coleridgean sense, making the distinction between the primary and secondary imaginations linked to the inward life of the soul, and thus, to religious experience. Similarly, for Coleridge, as Stephen Prickett notes in his book Coleridge and Wordsworth: The Poetry of Growth:
The ‘defensive positions’ of inward religious experience are themselves the product of a particular view not so much of religion, but primarily of the human mind; a view which succeeded in bringing together both the inwardness of religious experience and his recognition of his own apparently tortuous and rambling associative logic. Coleridge saw the human mind itself as essentially a myth-making and symbolizing structure. We can see the movement of his thought from his earliest poems through his literary criticism and political pamphleteering to his final philosophic and religious position as the history of his attempt to produce a satisfactory formulation for this basically intuitive concept of the mind. (176)
Aids to Reflection, then, aims to support the reader so that the reader does not become lost in the abyss of the mind. With Leighton and Coleridge as teachers, and Aids to Reflection the guide, a sort of biblio-Virgil, guiding the reader into gentle contemplation of the self, during the descent, to arise to the other side a new person in Christ. Marsh goes out of his way to describe Aids to Reflection in his “Preliminary Essay” as an “instructive and safe guide to the knowledge of what it concerns all men to know” (xxvi, emphasis mine). It is safe because the English divines have traversed the same road that the reader is about to. It is safe because of the running commentary that Coleridge provides throughout Aids to help the reader along in interpretation. It was also safe for a reason that perhaps Marsh did not know but would certainly sympathize with; Coleridge had walked the walk before, wavering between skepticism and faith. According to Ben Brice, in Coleridge and Scepticism:
Throughout 1814 and 1815, Coleridge fitfully struggled with theological questions of Election, Predestination, Free Will, and Atonement. In a letter to Joseph Cottle written in April 1814, Coleridge quotes with evident relief the ‘true Divine, Archbishop Leighton’ for whom faith in the spiritual fruits of prayer was accompanied ‘not by Reasons and Arguments; but by an inexpressible kind of Evidence, which they only know who have it’. According to John Beer, Leighton’s writings ‘were assisting Coleridge’s fight for spiritual survival at this time’. This was partly a consequence of Leighton’s ability to reconcile St. John and St. Paul, so as to speak ‘of the inward light in a way that accorded with Christian Platonism while also affirming the depravity of man and his need for redemption.’
Coleridge discovered that unlike his Mariner, he did not have to go through his journey to the abyss alone. In Marsh’s apologia–his “Preliminary Essay” to Aids to Reflection, Marsh assures readers that the guide is safe-in reading we are not alone in our wavering faith, we are not alone in our fear of the abyss that lives within all of us; simply-we are not alone. If the reader can be subject to willing suspension of disbelief in reading fiction or poetry, then in reading Aids to Reflection the reader can be subject to the same, thus bringing the reader around to willing belief. The work of the poet-priest is thus extrapolated into Aids to Reflection:
The poet, described in ideal perfection, brings the whole soul of man into activity, with the subordination of its faculties to each other, according to their relative worth and dignity. He diffuses a tone and spirit of unity that blends and (as it were) fuses each into each, by that synthetic and magical power, to which we have exclusively appropriated the name of imagination. This power, first put in action by the will and understanding, and retained under their intermissive, though gentle and unnoticed, control (laxis effertur habenis) reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities: of sameness, with difference: of the general, with the concrete; the idea, with the image; the individual, with the representative; the sense of novelty and freshness, with old and familiar objects; a more than usual state of emotion, with more than usual order; judgment ever awake and steady self-possession, with enthusiasm and feeling profound or vehement; and while it blends and harmonizes the natural and the artificial, still subordinates art to nature; the manner to the matter; and our admiration of the poet to our sympathy with the poetry. “Doubtless,” as Sir John Davies observes of the soul (and his words may with slight alteration be applied, and even more appropriately, to the poetic IMAGINATION)…Finally, GOOD SENSE is the BODY of poetic genius, FANCY its drapery, MOTION its LIFE, and IMAGINATION the SOUL that is everywhere, and in each, and forms all into one graceful and intelligent whole. (Biographia Literaria 12-13)
Coleridge links the imagination to the soul. Only the imaginative soul can reconcile oppositions. Only the soul can reconcile the head and the heart. Just as the poet must invest the natural objects of his poetry with emotion so that the reader may have sympathetic feelings, so Coleridge’s commentary throughout Aids to Reflection functions to invest the aphorisms with the necessary refinements in defining Leighton’s words in order to invest the words of Leighton with the clearest, highest possible meaning for the reader. Coleridge states in Aphorisms I-III:
In philosophy equally as in poetry, it is the highest and most useful prerogative of genius to produce the strongest impressions of novelty, while it rescues admitted truths from the neglect caused by the very circumstances of their universal admission. Extremes meet. Truths, of all others the most awful and interesting, re too often considered as so true, that they lose all the power of truth, and lie bed-ridden in the dormitory of the soul, side by side with the most despised and exploded errors.
II. There is one sure way of giving freshness and importance to the most common-place maxims-that of reflecting on them in direct reference to our own state and conduct, to our own past and future being. III. To restore a common-place truth to its first uncommon luster, you need only translate it into action. But to do this, you must have reflected on its truth. (ATR 1)
Already the word “reflection” is being used again and again; reflecting takes on a multitude of definitions in just two usages–the first usage is meditation concurrent with comparison of our being in the past and present, with the possibility of our being in the future. Without ever saying so, the symbolism is of a mirror in which one looks into the soul, and how one uses a mirror to reflect the sun outward to the external world beyond. Indeed, in Aphorism IV (2), Coleridge brings us the actual mirror to show the difference between “Reflection and Fore-thought.” He brings us the actual “eye, which is the light of this house, the light which is the eye of the soul” in Aphorism IX (4). Prickett adds that “in using the image of a reflecting mirror, Coleridge is determined to clear it of all passive and mechanistic associations. Behind the idea of ‘reflection’ there is a theory of imitation analogous to that of artistic ‘mimesis’…This process of artistic reproduction is turned inwards to what Coleridge defines as the ‘authentic documents’ of certain ‘states of consciousness.’