Connections with Coleridge #7—Laws, Ideas, and Truth

I have read through Treatise on Method completely three times, and parts of it more times than that. It was not an easy book to read, and I still don’t have all the Latin and Greek translated. One of the things that continues to excite me about the book is the way in which Coleridge synthesizes the thinking of two people who appeared on the surface to disagree.

Bacon and Plato are both concerned with the ability of the mind to comprehend and deal with knowledge. They both recognized that innate Ideas or absolute Truth—something transcendent—is the object toward which the mind strives. In fact, Coleridge says “the truths to be embraced are objective.” The biggest obstacle that stands between the mind of a thinker and the comprehension of those truths is, unfortunately, the human intellect itself, which is like a flawed mirror that cannot perfectly reflect the image before it. Bacon names the flaws “Idols” of the mind, which he calls “empty notions”—preconceived ideas, or prejudices, if you will. Plato calls the flaws “opinions” which he defines as “a medium between knowledge and ignorance.” In other words—we can be our own worst enemies and fail to perceive ideas unless we ruthlessly set aside our own cherished idols or opinions in service of Truth. Because, according to Coleridge, both Plato and Bacon did believe that the mind could be rectified in spite of its flaws.

But how do we do that? You might not be surprised that it involves a certain amount of humility. The unfortunate tendency of human intellect is to suppose that it is the yardstick to which truth—Natural and Divine—must submit to be measured. Coleridge calls that arrogance, and he is not wrong. The “corrector and purifier of all reasoning” is Truth—that is, the ability to perceive that Laws operate in the Cosmos to which we must only submit and can never alter or defy. Human reason must submit to Natural Law.

Look at the language they use:

It will not surprise us, that Plato so often denominates Ideas living Laws, in and by which the Mind has its whole true being and permanence; or that Bacon, vice versa, names the Laws of Nature,  Ideas. (p. 46)

Do the concepts of “ideas” and “laws of nature” sound familiar to you? If you have read Charlotte Mason carefully, they probably do. She founded her entire philosophy of education upon this premise. It is at this point in Coleridge’s book that he says:

A distinguishable power self-affirmed, and seen in its unity with the Eternal Essence, is, according to Plato, an Idea.

Charlotte Mason quoted that definition in Philosophy of Education, and I do not think it is a coincidence that  in the same section she complains:

One of our presumptuous sins in this connection is that we venture to offer opinions to children (and to older persons) instead of ideas. We believe that an opinion expresses thought and therefore embodies an idea. Even if it did so once the very act of crystallization into opinion destroys any vitality it may have had. (Philosophy of Education, p. 110)

Our object in education should always be the pursuit of Truth, not the propagation of our own opinions. Plato thought so. Bacon thought so. Presumably Coleridge thought so, and Charlotte Mason certainly did. Even though Bacon was primarily interested in science and Plato in philosophy, there is still that underlying unity in their method of approaching knowledge and seeking truth.

Far from differing in their great views of the education of the Mind, they both proceeded on the same principles of unity and progression; and consequently both cultivated alike the Science of Method, such as we have here described it. If we are correct in these statements, then may we boast to have solved the great problem of conciliating ancient and modern Philosophy. (p. 46-47)

That is a potent statement and a heady claim to be making. Small wonder Coleridge uses the word “boast” to describe it. And yet, I think it is clear that Charlotte Mason met him on this ground, and found in these ideas the confidence and certainty which her own experience illustrated as time went on. She urged these concepts in her earliest writings, and she waved them with a flourish in her final work. Whether they are ancient or modern is less important than that they are true. She called upon both ancient philosophers and her modern experience to testify to the laws she perceived.

I know this can feel like a lofty discussion that is beyond our grasp, but it is not. It boils down to the simple idea that there is truth, and we can know it. Everything else grows from there.

3 thoughts on “Connections with Coleridge #7—Laws, Ideas, and Truth

  1. Oh. Karen, I am loving your posts on Coleridge! Yesterday I was reading a chapter by Ruskin where he is presumably referring to Coleridge’s debate of the terms “subjective” and “objective”. Ruskin hates the terms, pointing to the extreme that German philosophers had taken them to…even to the point of concluding that nothing in the world exists apart from their perception of it. He says that kind of thinking leads to egotism and selfishness. He much prefers to say that something IS so or SEEMS TO BE so. A flower isn’t “blue” because of our eyes but because it was endowed with power from its Maker to appear blue every time we look at it. It switches the focus entirely! I was actually laughing out loud as I read, “…if you find that a thing which generally ‘does so’ to other people…does NOT so to you, on any particular occasion, you will not fall into the impertinence of saying, that the thing is not so, or did not so, but you will say simply (what you will be all the better for speedily finding out), that something is the matter with you. If you find that you cannot explode then gunpowder, you will not declare that all gunpowder is subjective, and all explosion imaginary, but you will simply suspect and declare yourself to be an ill-made match. Which, on the whole, though there may be a distant chance of a mistake about it, is, nevertheless, the wisest conclusion you can come to until further experiment.” Ha!! An ill-made match…doesn’t that say it all! There is truth! The problem is not with truth. The problem is with us and our limitations. Humbling!

      1. It’s Selected Writings of Ruskin put together by Dinah Birch, published by Oxford University Press. It’s just little tastes of his longer works which is a good introduction but also kind of frustrating. I read one chapter and am getting into his ideas and wondering how he’s going to develop them, and then it moves on to an excerpt from another book or lecture. All of his writings, as far as I can tell, are so rich with ideas that apply to much wider spheres than just art and architecture though!

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