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!