by John Ballantyne
Originally published in News Weekly, June 19, 2004
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) is famous as the English poet who wrote Kubla Khan and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but today is almost forgotten as one of the greatest political thinkers of his time.
He was the first conservative to advocate social and political reforms as a means of maintaining a stable and cohesive society. He warned against the dangers of unchecked industrialisation, criticised the then prevailing ideology of the unfettered free-market, and called for far-reaching reforms to give the poor a greater stake in the economy.
The philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill ranked Coleridge’s influence as a political thinker as equal to that of the famous social reformer, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). He called them ‘the two great seminal minds of England in their age’. He said:
‘… their readers have been few: but they have been the teachers of the teachers; there is hardly to be found in England an individual of any importance in the world of the mind, who (whatever opinions he may have afterwards adopted) did not first learn to think from one of these two.’ [J.S. Mill’s essay, ‘Bentham’, 1838].
Coleridge’s thought had a seminal influence on the social-welfare Toryism of Disraeli, the Christian Socialism of F.D. Maurice, and the thought of Newman, Kingsley, Thomas and Matthew Arnold.
Coleridge – along with the other Lake Poets, Robert Southey and William Wordsworth – had once been an ardent enthusiast for the French Revolution. But, also like them, he became disillusioned with its bloodthirsty excesses. After the French invasion of Switzerland, Coleridge declared: ‘I snapped my squeaking baby-trumpet of sedition, and the fragments lie scattered in the lumber-room of penitence.’ He thereupon became a follower of the most eloquent critic of the French Revolution, Edmund Burke.
(By this time, Coleridge had unfortunately become addicted to opium – then a legal drug. The addiction eventually killed him.)
Despite his new-found conservatism, Coleridge retained some surprisingly advanced views on social and economic matters. He criticised Burke’s assumption that society, as it then was constituted, tended naturally towards a stable equilibrium. Coleridge especially recognised the destabilising impact on society of industrialisation.
Burke’s mistake, argued Coleridge, was to dismiss revolutionary ideas as ‘having no charm but for robbers and assassins’. On the contrary, because of the all too real suffering of much of the population, revolutionary ideals often proved particularly attractive to ‘noble and imaginative spirits’.
To head off radical or subversive doctrines, it was not sufficient to be anti-revolutionary. One had to be prepared to offer a superior ideal with which to unite the nation. Moreover, substantial political and economic reforms were needed.
For a conservative philosopher, Coleridge was one of the English Establishment’s severest critics. J.S. Mill (himself a political radical) said that some of Coleridge’s remarks were ‘sufficient to make a Tory’s hair stand on end’. [J.S. Mill’s essay, “Coleridge”, 1840].
Coleridge’s approach to social and political questions is best understood by contrasting it with that of his near-contemporary, Jeremy Bentham.
Bentham was the founder of British utilitarianism, or philosophical radicalism, which held that all laws and practices should be evaluated simply according to whether or not they promoted utility, or the general happiness of the population. Bentham and his followers looked on laws and social institutions, not with veneration, but with a sceptical eye.
Coleridge too was disillusioned and critical with much of the world around him and did not question the need for quite radical reform, but he was hostile to Bentham’s approach. Utilitarianism, Coleridge argued, was the product of a rationalistic ‘mechanico-corpuscular’ philosophy, originating from Locke and Newton, which tended to undervalue the inner spiritual life of man and reduce him to a mere cog in a machine.
While Bentham had no hesitation in questioning, probing, chipping away and, if necessary, seeking to replace any time-honoured institution or creed which he judged did not contribute to utility, Coleridge’s instinct was to inquire why that particular institution or creed existed in the first place. If it had flourished for a long time, might this not be because it was somehow ‘founded either in the nature of things or in the necessities of our nature’? Coleridge believed that to find one’s way forward, one should first seek the best meaning and purposes of the old.
In his famous work, On the Constitution of the Church and State (1830), Coleridge argued that English civil society was the product of more than a paper constitution or a body of legislation. Of greater importance was the underlying principle, or idea, of the state, which Coleridge traced back to the time of King Alfred.
History, he said, had demonstrated ‘the continued influence of such an idea, or ultimate aim, on the minds of our forefathers, in their characters and functions as public men’. This idea existed ‘in the only way in which a principle can exist – in the minds and consciences of the persons, whose duties it prescribes, and whose rights it determines.’
Coleridge sought to achieve a harmonious balance of both permanence and progression. The landed aristocracy, he believed, provided permanence and stability, but the emerging middle classes and manufacturing interest had an important role to play too. They were increasingly acquiring the material means to enable them to resist encroachments upon their liberties so that, even without full parliamentary representation, they possessed a useful counterbalancing power with which to promote freedom.
But society’s long-term improvement, Coleridge believed, depended above all upon the spiritual, moral and cultural leadership of a national Church. In addition to its pastoral duties, the Church, in conjunction with the state, should maintain schools and teachers in every parish. ‘National education,’ he said, ‘and a concurring spread of the Gospel are the indispensable conditions of any true political amelioration.’ Special resident instructors should be ‘distributed throughout the country… to preserve the stores, to guard the treasures, of past civilization, and thus to bind the present with the past; to perfect and add to the same, and thus to connect the present with the future.’
Coleridge did not believe that the Anglican Church was anywhere close to performing this great task. Nor was he impressed by England’s political leaders who, he believed, were manifestly failing in their true national duties. He described England’s state policy of the previous half century as:
‘…a Cyclops with one eye, and that in the back of the head! Our measures of policy, either a series of anachronisms, or a truckling to events substituted for the science that should command them; for all true insight is foresight…
‘Mean time, the true historical feeling, the immortal life of an historical nation, generation linked to generation by faith, freedom, heraldry, and ancestral fame, languishing, and giving place to the superstitions of wealth, and newspaper reputation.
‘Talents without genius: a swarm of clever, well-informed men: an anarchy of minds, a despotism of maxims. Despotism of finance in government and legislation – of presumption, temerity, and hardness of heart in political economy… the wealth of the nation (i.e. of the wealthy individuals thereof, and the magnitude of the revenue) [substituted] for the well-being of the people.” [Coleridge, On the Constitution of the Church and State, London: J.M. Dent, 1972, p. 52.].
He was especially conscious of England’s worsening economic situation towards the end of the Napoleonic Wars. This period ushered in a severe deflation and slump, causing bank failures, bankruptcies, widespread joblessness, hunger and mass rioting. ‘It was,’ reported William Cobbett in 1812, ‘a state of confusion approximating a civil war.’
Coleridge rejected many of the doctrines of political economy, calling them ‘solemn humbug’. J.S. Mill, with equal courtesy, said that on economics Coleridge was an ‘arrant driveller’ and said ‘it would have been well for his reputation, had he never meddled with the subject.’
Deficient though Coleridge was in formal economic theory, he nonetheless had an uncanny understanding of the problem that lay at the heart of capitalism – the trade cycle. He described how the periodical ‘revolutions of credit’ propelled the economy into booms and slumps:
‘Disease, I say, and vice, while the wheels are in full motion; but at the first stop the magic wealth-machine is converted into an intolerable weight of pauperism!’ [Coleridge, On the Constitution of the Church and State, p. 50.].
Coleridge intuitively grasped that laissez-faire capitalism was not inherently self-regulating and that there were no natural economic forces working to bring about a benign equilibrium with job opportunities for all those willing and able to work. A century before Keynes, he suggested the radical idea that the government during a slump should spend more than it receives in taxes, thereby boosting the economy and lifting employment levels.
Coleridge stood for a regulated type of capitalism. He despised the sort of economic system which allowed people to be ‘mechanized into engines for the manufactory of new rich men’. In 1818, when supporting Sir Robert Peel’s Factory Children Bill, he asked a friend for ‘any other instances in which the legislature has…interfered with what is ironically called ‘free labour’? (i.e., dared to prohibit soul-murder and infanticide on the part of the rich, and self-slaughter on that of the poor!).’
At the heart of his vision lay a deep Christian conviction that the economy should benefit the many, not just enrich the few. Property was a sacred trust which imposed duties on its possessors. People were not expendable resources. Coleridge believed that no person should be treated as ‘a thing’ or used ‘merely as a means to an end’.
Coleridge warned his fellow-countrymen of what he called trespasses on ‘its own inalienable and untransferable property, the health, strength, honesty and filial love of its children.’ He said:
‘If we are a Christian nation, we must learn to act nationally as well as individually, as Christians . . .
‘Our manufacturers must consent to regulations; our gentry must concern themselves in the education as well as in the instruction of their national clients and dependants – must regard their estates as offices of trust, with duties to be performed in the sight of God and their country. Let us become a better people, and the reform of all the public grievances will follow of itself.’ [Coleridge, ‘A Lay Sermon (“Blessed are ye that sow beside all Waters!”)’, in Coleridge’s Poetry and Prose, ed. N. Halmi, P. Magnuson and R. Modiano, New York: W.W. Norton, 2004, pp. 371-72].
John Ballantyne is editor of News Weekly and a member of Edmund Burke’s Club (Aust) Inc.