Category Archives: Coleridge

Connections with Coleridge #5—In Pursuit of Method

The book Treatise on Method proposes a certain approach to knowledge that seems to have appealed to Charlotte Mason. I am not going to pretend that I completely comprehend Coleridge and can fully explain him to you (he is out of my league—although I understand him more as I read more–and I’m awed that Charlotte Mason not only understood but extracted and followed his principles); however,  I hope to give you at least a glimpse of his thinking. Because he was working on an Encyclopedia, he had in mind the entire scope of knowledge that man can apprehend:  everything from the contemplation of a circle to the observation of things like electricity—still not fully understood in his lifetime.

He postulates the necessity of discovering the Laws (capitalized like that) which are based upon Ideas, and which alone can lead to true Method. This is a very contemplative process, removed from the messy laboratory process of hypothesis and experiment that we associate with science, but there is a fundamental link which I think we could express as connection (or perhaps relation). Whatever methods the human mind pursues, the search is always for unity and connection even when diversity and difference appear on the surface.

By way of illustration, what do water and flame, the diamond, charcoal, and sparkling champagne have in common? According to Coleridge, this is the Law that a “Chemical Philosopher” would labor to discover. They are varieties of “one form”—carbon. They are very different things on the surface, but to the discerning mind, there is a unity.

And, he further postulates, the same philosophic principle that underlies the approach to chemistry applies to poetry. That is—that different things may be conceived of as varieties of “one form” within the mind of a poet. By way of example for that, he gives us Shakespeare: “the lunatic, the lover, and the poet” suggest each other to Theseus. This is what simile, metaphor, and analogy are all about—finding similarities between different things for the sake of poetic comprehension and connection.

I think this is just the concept that captured Charlotte Mason’s attention and informed her approach to education across decades of reading, teaching, experimenting, writing, philosophizing, but above all, living. Things are not separate. Everything is connected by an underlying, unifying Law, whether we have yet perceived it or not. Education, is, in fact, a process of apprehending and actualizing as many relations as possible. This is “method:”

Method, we have seen, demands a knowledge of the relations which things bear to each other, or to the observer, or to the state and apprehension of the hearers. (p. 26)

Where the habit of Method is present and effective, things the most remote and diverse in time, place, and outward circumstance, are brought into mental contiguity and succession, the more striking as the less expected. (p. 31)

In my own more limited understanding, this is what I was trying to express when I presented the concept of “synthetic thinking,” in Consider This. Coleridge tells us that a critic is quick to point out the surface differences or problems in a work of genius, but he shows us that this is little more than an illustration of the fact that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

A very slight knowledge of Music will enable anyone to detect discords in the exquisite harmonies of Haydn or Mozart; and Bentley has found more false grammar in the Paradise Lost than ever poor boy was whipped for through all the forms of Eton or Westminster; but to know why the minor note is introduced into the major key, or the nominative case left to seek for its verb, requires an acquaintance with some preliminary steps of the Methodical scale, at the top of which sits the author, and at the bottom, the critic. (p. 32)

In other words—perceiving essential unity is more important than minutia. The whole is greater than the sum of its (perhaps imperfect) parts. Coleridge uses Shakespeare (and by extension, all “Works of the higher imagination”) at length to illustrate his thesis, but then he shifts to his real point which is the ground where Charlotte Mason meets him:

To Philosophy properly belongs the Education of the Mind: and all that we have hitherto said may be regarded as an indication (we have room for no more) of the chief Laws and regulative Principles of that education. (p. 36)

When I remember that Charlotte Mason refers to this work of Coleridge’s in the first volume she published, and again—at even greater length—in the final volume she wrote about education, I cannot doubt that the ideas she found here were fundamentally integrated into all her work on the subject. Education is, indeed, a science of relations, and Coleridge intends to show us some of those relations. I hope you’ll stick with me as we explore those ideas further. I think you’re going to be surprised.

Connections with Coleridge #4—Dipping into Method

Coleridge says that his principles have been “drawn from the purest sources of Philosophy, ancient and modern.” It reminded me of Charlotte Mason herself, who didn’t mind so much whether a source was old or new so much as she cared that it was an example of “purest philosophy,” and she never hesitated to shape her life according to the philosophy and principles she believed in.

For example, Coleridge considered the way a methodical mind should approach time. Time is divided into days and hours, and regularity and punctuality and “everything like clockwork” strike us as virtues. But Coleridge tells us that the “man of Methodical industry” is not content merely to mark time:

He realizes its ideal divisions, and gives a character and individuality to its moments. If the idle are described as killing time, he may be justly said to call it into life and moral being, while he makes it the distinct object not only of the consciousness, but of the conscience. He organizes the hours, and gives them a soul: and to that, the very essence of which is to fleet, and to have been, he communicates an imperishable and a spiritual nature. (p. 13)

I find this passage remarkably similar to the descriptions I’ve read of the way that Charlotte Mason ordered her own time day by day, and the way she ordered the time of the college at Scale How  and encouraged families to order theirs. Time was a valuable resource, and every bit of it should be used profitably and gratefully. Methodically. And since method is primarily about relations, time should be used relationally.

But at Scale How time was to be respected, given to the thing or person claiming it rightfully. Then there would always be time, without over-pressure or distraction. This sense of time value was hard to achieve but it bore the test of experience during the two years’ training. What an effort of faith it all was to one so slow to read, to write and to think. It did not seem possible to find a moment for everything, yet if no time was wasted there was plenty of it and no hurry. (The Story of Charlotte Mason by Essex Cholmondeley, p. 150)

As I work through this series, I continue to receive pops of illumination that weren’t there before. The reason  this methodical and relational approach makes a difference is that it shows us meaning. That’s the “imperishable and spiritual nature” of something as fleeting as time. When the minutes are gone, their meaning remains. They meant something, and so their effect lives on.

While reading through Treatise on Method, I occasionally felt that I was reading Charlotte Mason herself. Sometimes that was because Coleridge’s key ideas echoed Charlotte Mason’s (or, more correctly, hers probably echoed his):

And is not he the truly virtuous and truly happy man, who seizing first and laying hold most firmly of the great first Truth, is guided by that divine light through all the meandring and stormy courses of his existence? To him every relation of life affords a prolific Idea of duty ; by pursuing which into all its practical consequences, he becomes a good servant or a good master, a good subject or a good sovereign, a good son or a good father ; a good friend, a good patriot, a good Christian, a good man! (p. 14)

And sometimes, it feels like Charlotte Mason simply because she quoted whole paragraphs from this book:

“We can recall no incident of human history that impresses the imagination more deeply than the moment when Columbus on an unknown ocean first perceived that baffling fact, the change of the magnetic needle. How many instances occur in history when the ideas of nature (presented to chosen minds by a Higher Power than Nature herself) suddenly unfold as it were in prophetic succession systematic views destined to produce the most important revolutions in the state of man! The clear spirit of Columbus was doubtless eminently methodical. He saw distinctly that great leading idea which authorised the poor pilot to become a ‘promiser of Kingdoms.’ ” (From Philosophy of Education, p. 106, but quoting from pages 14-15 of Treatise on Method.)

Are you getting a glimpse of the way that method/relations provide meaning? “Every relation of life affords a prolific Idea of duty.” When we perceive relations it awakens our sense of connection and responsibility. We are moved to act because we care (“it’s not how much does the youth know, but how much does care?”) Relations gives us reasons for behaving in certain ways. This is the process by which virtue is fostered in the human heart. Columbus was certainly motivated by the ideas and relations that he perceived!

Throughout this book we find evidence after evidence of the strong influence it had on Charlotte Mason’s thinking. The central theme of the book, of course, is the concept of method, by which is meant the clear progress of thought toward a definite end. It implies a series of relationships that are linked, one into another, as progress is made step-by-step. There is no sphere of human experience that remains untouched by these ideas. As Coleridge discusses the effect of method in the study of botany and chemistry, we see glimmers of the ideas that informed Charlotte Mason’s approach to every study. What Coleridge means by “method” is both so deep and so broad, it could take your breath away. It is nothing less than the living action of the human mind in accordance with principles and laws which the mind alone can perceive: relationship, on both a macro and a micro scale—relationship that will not allow a person to remain a passive learner, unmoved by what he sees. Charlotte Mason beheld these ideas and carried them with her throughout decades of educational endeavors.

I know this discussion gets weighty, which is one reason I’ve spent two years with this book before venturing into it, but I’m glad I finally started. It’s a further relationship to interact with other people over the ideas (even on a blog), and that further relationship breathes new life into the ideas I’ve been pondering. Thanks for being a part of it!

Connections with Coleridge #3.5—A Speculative Detour

So, I’ve written this whole series in advance and scheduled it to post weekly. I usually do that with these blog series so I don’t panic about deadlines. But then, I often tweak them before they go live, so there is an element of freshness, too. I was working on the most recent post, trying to include some examples of how specific subjects fit into Coleridge’s concept of Law and Theory being the two kinds of relationships, when I started to notice something.

The chapter is called “Principles of the Science of Method.”

Coleridge says

We discover, that there is a Science of Method; and that that Science, like all others, must necessarily have its Principles.

And as I quoted before:

The relations of things form the prime objects, or, so to speak, the materials of Method.

Under the heading of Law, Coleridge tells us we find the “Pure Sciences” which also form the groundwork of the “Mixed Sciences.” Under the heading of Theory, we find the “Scientific Arts” (like medicine). In fact, after a while, it hurts my eyes to read all the words with Capital Letters.

But then, I noticed something. In addition to equating Method with relations, Coleridge uses the word Science a lot. And a light bulb with a question mark appeared over my head. (I’m pretty sure.) I started to wonder…

Relations. Science. Science of Relations?

I have read every word of the CM series over and over again, and I have never found a place where Charlotte Mason explains why she uses the word science in her principle “education is the science of relations.” She explains relations at length, but science not at all. I gave up long ago, and figured that science was just a Victorian buzzword that she used to call attention to the importance of relations.

But perhaps not? Maybe Coleridge and his Capital Letters so impressed the idea of a Science on her mind while she was reading about the relations of Method that she associated the two words in her own mind, and so the expression “science of relations” might have its roots here in Treatise on Method. Surely it’s possible? The idea itself, certainly, originated here, and Charlotte Mason made that fairly clear with her quotes and references to this work. But the expression “science of relations?” Did that also originate here?

We’ll never be able to say so definitely, because she didn’t say so, and I don’t think I encountered the exact phrase “Science of Relations” in this book. But maybe. Maybe. It’s not a huge leap to change “science of method” to “science of relations” when you’ve already defined method as relations.  It was an interesting speculation, and I thought I’d share it with readers of this series as a sort of “thinking-out-loud” bonus post.

I hope this little detour won’t break the train of thought linking one post to the next, and I hope you’re enjoying Coleridge-the-philosopher, and that the next time you read “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” you’ll remember him for more than just that poem. In the meantime, Coleridge, Coleridge everywhere.

Connections with Coleridge #3—Law and Order

Beginning with this post, we’re really going to dig into the book by Coleridge that Charlotte Mason quoted on so many occasions. The title is Treatise on Method, and in good rhetorical form, Coleridge jumps right into the topic by defining his term. This work was originally intended as the introduction to a new Encyclopedia (though it also appeared as a series of articles in his periodical, The Friend), so that context is considered as well:

As Method is thus avowed to be the principal aim and distinguishing feature of our publication, it becomes us at the commencement, clearly to explain in this Introduction what we mean by that word; to exhibit the Principles on which alone a correct Philosophical Method can be founded; to illustrate those principles by their application to distinct studies and to the History of the Human Mind; and lastly to apply them to the general concatenation of the several Arts and Sciences, and to the most perspicuous, elegant, and useful manner of developing each particular study. Such are the objects of this Essay, which we conceive must form a necessary Introduction to a Work, that is designated in its title from the place whence it originates, — Encyclopedia Metropolitana ; but claims from its mode of execution to be also called “a Methodical Compendium of Human Knowledge.”

(I include this lengthy quote in part to give you a taste for the flavor of this book. Consider yourself warned.)

Coleridge goes on to describe the Greek origin of the word “method,” which means a way or a path, which by extension includes the concept of progress or a transition from one step to the next step. This why Charlotte Mason asserted that “method implies a way toward an end.”

It’s tempting to quote Coleridge further, but you wouldn’t thank me, and even my self-proclaimed interested readers (more than three!) might decide they’d rather scroll through facebook than wade through Coleridge. So let me narrate.

Coleridge says that method implies a unity as well as a progression. The central working factor that actually supplies this unity is the human mind. Without method, there is chaos. The mind develops an orderly understanding out of the chaos by pursuing the relations that exist between things (does that sound familiar?).

Coleridge says:

We may, therefore, assert that the relations of things form the prime objects, or, so to speak, the materials of Method; and that the contemplation of those relations is the indispensable condition of thinking Methodically.

We are only up to page 3 of Treatise on Method, and here is already a startling thing. The idea that underpins Method is relations. As in,  “Education is the science of relations.” We’ve heard this before.

Coleridge goes on to say that the relations the mind will discover between things are of two kinds—one kind is Law, and the other is Theory, but Law = Truth (absolute Truth, with a capital T), and he is going to go on to say that Truth = Idea, in the purest sense of the word—Charlotte even quotes this bit:

“The idea may exist in a clear, distinct, definite form, as that of a circle in the mind of a geometrician.” (Parents and Children, p. 36)

So, a law is an absolute truth the mind perceives, and a theory is an idea that allows action to be taken upon the basis of the law, allowing for the relation of cause and effect.  Within these two kinds of relations—law and theory—all the different areas of knowledge can be placed. Things that are concerned with Law alone are “Pure Sciences”–morality, justice. “Mixed sciences” are founded upon Law, but include some Theory, and here you have things like Mechanics and Astronomy. Pure Theory includes studies that Coleridge calls “Scientific Arts,” among which we find things like Medicine and Chemistry, which are based on the cause and effect of certain actions taken with Law in mind. Coleridge explains at great length, with Shakespeare as Exhibit A, that the relations between Law and Theory include the Fine Arts, where we find things like the “law of taste.” I would be lying if I told you I understood it all, but I get glimmers. Reading through this section, I know that Charlotte Mason read and it understood it better than I do, because I keep bumping into familiar sentences that she has quoted. For example, “From the first, or initiative Idea, as from a seed, successive Ideas germinate.”

In the light of all this, Charlotte Mason’s principle that “education is the science of relations” is thrown into a new light—a wider, broader conception than is immediately evident.

Coleridge tells us that the “laws of mind” are analogous to the “laws of arithmetic and geometry.” That is precisely what Charlotte Mason thought.

The universe of mind, as the universe of matter, is governed by unwritten laws of God; that the child cannot blow soap bubbles or think his flitting thoughts otherwise than in obedience to divine laws. (Home Education, p. 39)

All of Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy rests upon her premise that she is articulating laws that are inherent and perceivable within the universe, and developing methods with those laws as her starting point. This is why all of the principles work together as an integrated whole, and why I entitled my last book In Vital Harmony.

Charlotte Mason’s claim is that her work is based upon these laws that are Truth.

My endeavour in this and the following volumes of the series will be to sketch out roughly a method of education which, as resting upon a basis of natural law, may look, without presumption, to inherit the Divine blessing.  (Home Education, p. 41)

I do not think it is coincidental that Charlotte Mason urged “method” in her educational writing. She referred to this work of Coleridge at the beginning and the end of her long career, and I think we can safely say that this work had a strong influence on her thinking. It will be interesting to pursue some of the ideas that are contained in this treatise on “method,” so I hope you’ll stick with me through the rest of the series.

Connections with Coleridge #2—Introducing Treatise on Method

In the first post in this series, I mentioned that Charlotte Mason quoted Coleridge in several of her books. The book from which the quotes are taken is  Treatise on Method by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Before I read Charlotte Mason, my exposure to Coleridge was limited to “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan.” I thought of him as a poet whose mind was somewhat addled by opium.

But Charlotte Mason called him a philosopher and “great thinker,” and until I read this book, I never knew why. Also, until I read the book, I never realized how profoundly his ideas informed Charlotte Mason’s thoughts about educational philosophy. He is there in Home Education when she urges method over system, and he is still there in Philosophy of Education, written over 30 years later. Coleridge, and this book in particular, fundamentally influenced her thinking.

It has long been an interest of mine to read the things that Charlotte Mason read, and a few years ago, I finally acquired a copy of Treatise on Method. I cannot recommend that you rush right out and buy a copy of your own to read immediately. I had to read it twice in the first place (thank goodness it’s not that long!) to understand what he was saying, and the fact that the book is full of untranslated Latin and Greek quotations (in the Greek alphabet) adds to the difficulty.

But because Charlotte Mason obviously thought so much of this book, I persevered, and in this blog series, I want to share some of the insights I gleaned. There are key ideas in this book that lie at the very heart of Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy—many things that a student of Charlotte Mason will find interesting and enlightening.

Besides the concept of method (as opposed to “system”), Coleridge turns his attention to some things that a reader of Charlotte Mason will already be familiar with.

She made it a principle that “education is a life” and assured us that “the life of the mind is sustained upon ideas.” (Philosophy of Education, p. 25)  When reading her books, she refers explicitly to Coleridge to support her thinking on this—look at all these quotes:

Coleridge treats in more detail those definite ideas which are not inhaled as air but are conveyed as meat to the mind:—

“From the first or initiative idea, as from a seed, successive ideas germinate.” “Events and images, the lively and spirit-stirring machinery of the external world, are like light and air and moisture to the seed of the mind which would else rot and perish.” “The paths in which we may pursue a methodical course are manifold and at the head of each stands its peculiar and guiding idea. Those ideas are as regularly subordinate in dignity as the paths to which they point are various and eccentric in direction. The world has suffered much in modern times from a subversive and necessary natural order of science . . . from summoning reason and faith to the bar of that limited physical experience to which by the true laws of method they owe no obedience. Progress follows the path of the idea from which it sets out requiring however a constant wakefulness of mind to keep it within the due limits of its course. Hence the orbits of thought, so to speak, must differ from among themselves as the initiative ideas differ.” (Philosophy of Education, p. 107-08)

In this book, I’ve been startled to bump into some specific illustrations that I had found first in her volumes, but which she appears to have borrowed from Coleridge. For example, I’ve always been fascinated by this picture of mistaking movement for progress:

Do we not confound progress with movement, action, assuming that where these are there is necessarily advance? Whereas much of our activity is like the waves of the sea, going always and arriving never. What we desire is the still progress of growth that comes of root striking downwards and fruit urging upwards. And this progress in character and conduct is not attained through conditions of environment or influence but only through the growth of ideas, received with conscious intellectual effort. (Philosophy of Education, p. 297)

That passage immediate came to mind when I came across this paragraph in Treatise on Method:

Still less is to be expected, toward the Methodizing of Science, from the man who flutters about in blindness, like the bat; or is carried hither and thither, like the turtle sleeping on the wave, and fancying, because he moves, that he is in progress.

I was a little disappointed that Charlotte Mason left out the turtle! It’s just a little thing, but because the experience of familiarity was repeated again and again as I read Coleridge’s book, I could not help but see that I was reading something that had fed her mind and informed her ideas across many decades.

If you are interested in the way that Charlotte Mason was influenced by other thinkers, I think you will enjoy this blog series. I’m getting started slowly on purpose, because this may not be something you’ve seen before. If you want to know Coleridge as a philosopher—as Charlotte Mason understood him—and not just a slightly deranged poet, here is your chance. Just by reading this blog series, you’ll be joining The Great Conversation. That’s how it works. You’re reading this, and I’m writing about Charlotte Mason. Charlotte Mason shared some of Coleridge’s ideas, and she wrote about him. In his Treatise on Method, Coleridge wrote about some other thinkers and philosophers (I’ll tell you about them later), and so we are all linked together in a chain of thinking and learning. Glad to have you along for the ride!

Thank you for all the comments last week–that was wonderful. I’m delighted for the interest. Feel free to chime in with your thoughts or reactions any time!


Connections with Coleridge #1—A nod from Charlotte Mason

This is the first post of a blog series I have contemplated for a long time. I fear my topic is of great interest to perhaps three people, and if you are one of those three, I hope you will appreciate the effort I’m making. But if I am wrong, and the three are as many as thirty, I would be delighted to know it. I don’t know if even thirty people will be interested. But I have hope, because the ideas I’m going to write about are relevant to every person. They matter.

Here’s my hook: Charlotte Mason was interested in these ideas. Not only was she interested in them, but they shaped her life’s work. If you are interested in the educational philosophy and methods of Charlotte Mason, and are implementing her ideas in the education of your children, then these ideas of Coleridge’s are already swirling around you in some diaphanous form, and wouldn’t it be nice if they took shape and solidified, so you could get a firm hold on them?

On page 8 of Home Education—right at the very beginning of her writing about education—Charlotte Mason wrote:

Method implies two things—a way to an end, and a step by step progress in that way. Further, the following of a method implies an idea, a mental image, of the end or object to be arrived at. What do you propose that education shall effect in and for your child?

She goes on from there to discuss the concept of method at some length, and to differentiate between a method and a system. It’s quite important to her.

In A Philosophy of Education (p. 334), she wrote:

The mind demands method, orderly presentation, as inevitably as it demands knowledge; and it may be that our educational misadventures are due to the fact that we have allowed ourselves to take up any haphazard ordering that is recommended with sufficient pertinacity.

But no one can live without a philosophy which points out the order, means and end of effort, intellectual or other.

In the same book (p. 107-08), she quotes extensively from a particular book by Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

“The paths in which we may pursue a methodical course are manifold and at the head of each stands its peculiar and guiding idea. Those ideas are as regularly subordinate in dignity as the paths to which they point are various and eccentric in direction. The world has suffered much in modern times from a subversive and necessary natural order of science . . . from summoning reason and faith to the bar of that limited physical experience to which by the true laws of method they owe no obedience. Progress follows the path of the idea from which it sets out requiring however a constant wakefulness of mind to keep it within the due limits of its course. Hence the orbits of thought, so to speak, must differ from among themselves as the initiative ideas differ.”

She had referred to this same passage and concept much earlier in her writing, in Parents’ and Children (p. 279):

It is unnecessary to go further into details; every subject has its living way, with what Coleridge calls ‘its guiding idea’ at the head, and it is only as we discover this living way in each case that a subject of instruction makes for the education of a child. No neat system is of any use.

In other words, both early in her writings and again at the very end of her life, Charlotte Mason called attention to a particular book written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I think we can be fairly certain that the book influenced her thinking about education, and particularly about the relationship between ideas and the mind. I’ll share the title of the book and begin talking about those ideas next time, but in the meantime, remember—method matters.

There are ten parts to this series—look for them on Thursdays!