Connections with Coleridge #8—A short history of the education of mankind

Having established the importance of Method and Idea and Truth, and the need for human intellect to submit itself to something greater than itself, Coleridge launches into something like a “History of the Development of the Intellect.” It’s a curious thing, but before we look at it, I have to share a bit from Charlotte Mason.

A Medieval Conception of Education—This idea of all education springing from and resting upon our relation to Almighty God is one which we have ever laboured to enforce. We take a very distinct stand upon this point. We do not merely give a religious education, because that would seem to imply the possibility of some other education, a secular education, for example. But we hold that all education is divine, that every good gift of knowledge and insight comes from above, that the Lord the Holy Spirit is the supreme educator of mankind. (School Education, p. 95)

This idea—that the Holy Spirit is the educator of mankind, not just of individuals—is something Charlotte Mason mentions on different occasions, and none of them brief enough for me to reproduce as a single quote here. But, in the longer section of School Education which I quoted above, she says that “education is a world business, that the lessons of the ages have been duly set, and that each age is concerned, not only with its own particular page, but with every preceding page.” The idea is that from age to age, mankind as a whole is being progressively educated, and she truly believed “that the teaching of science is the new teaching which is being vouchsafed to mankind in our age.” At the same time, I am keenly aware that she was looking backwards (to that medieval concept of education) with a desire to retain something important.

It is interesting to read this history of the “education of mankind” (beginning with man before the flood), in light of Coleridge’s “boast” that his explanation of Method “solved the great problem of conciliating ancient and modern Philosophy.”  Like Charlotte Mason, he links the present to the past. Coleridge quotes Bacon: “The antiquity of time was the youth of the world and of knowledge.” (emphasis mine)

—Obedience of the will was the first lesson, and moral lessons dominated those who “walked with God,” although there was an opposite willful “Method” developed on purpose in which “every imagination of the thoughts of the heart was only evil continually.”

—After the Flood, such people abandoned cultivation in favor of civilization, built cities, and from the Idols/Opinions of their mind they made physical idols to worship.

Following the youth of knowledge came its later youth and approaching young manhood:

— “Providence, as it were, awakened men to the pursuit of an Idealized Method.” Coleridge suggests the Greek philosophers were informed either from “the inspired writings of the Hebrews” or by the graciousness of God who allowed a “dawning of Truth in their own breasts.”

—The Idealized Method matured and manifested itself in philosophy and in art. While they developed art to a high degree in literature, painting, architecture, sculpture, music, and more, they all but ignored the investigation of Physical laws and phenomena.

—Christianity was born in this era, introducing into the intellectual fabric of mankind the Idea of a person, and the value of a person over other things.

Next, according to Coleridge (who says he prefers to mostly skip Rome and the Middle Ages) comes a great epoch in the education of Mankind—the Reformation, and I find it interesting that he names the Reformation, and not the Renaissance, as the thing that produced “striking and durable effects.”

—This era produced a strong desire for a new approach to learning that did investigate the physical world, and Bacon was the “completely successful” conduit for a new Method. This was also the Enlightenment, and when reading Coleridge, I think we have to understand that he was not yet far enough removed from it to observe its full effects, as we can today, some 200 years later.

—Bacon’s new Method, Coleridge asserts, is the same Method used by Plato—Bacon applied an Ideal System (the belief in Truth and the ability to search it out) to external nature which Plato had previously applied to intellectual pursuits. In, this, I think he was correct, and I do not think it is Bacon’s fault that modern thinkers abandoned the pursuit of absolute Truth.

And Coleridge concludes:

It is only in the union of these two branches of one and the same Method that a complete and genuine Philosophy can be said to exist. (p. 51)

Without a doubt, Bacon produced thinkers who led us to our contemporary ideas about science, but Coleridge is adamant—they misunderstood him. They were misled into thinking that only knowledge derived from the senses was legitimate, and thus was born the materialism that Charlotte Mason so deplored.

That’s my little summary of “the history of the education of Mankind” as Coleridge suggests it. While Charlotte Mason is still more explicitly Christian, I think she mostly assents to this concept, especially because she repeatedly refers to Coleridge’s claim that ideas are given to minds prepared (by God) to receive them. She calls it “the magnificent idea that all knowledge (undebased) comes from above and is conveyed to minds which are, as Coleridge says, previously prepared to receive it.” (Philosophy of Education, p. 322)

I might as well say here that I am not entirely convinced of this “progression.” There is an underlying evolutionary bias (which Charlotte Mason shared with Coleridge) that things develop from simple to more complex. The idea that the men of Adam’s and Noah’s day—men who could live and learn for hundreds of years—had a lesser education or less knowledge than we do seems to me absurd on the face of it. Who could build an Ark today? Or a pyramid? How about that complicated Mayan calendar? No, the ancient world had knowledge we can scarcely comprehend, and we are the ignorant children who think we know more than we do. Our illusion is supported by the technology that both enlightens and blinds us, gives with one hand and takes with the other. And I’m as clueless as anyone about where all this will take us. That’s why I’m reading and trying to learn, and hoping we can help each other figure a few things out.


4 thoughts on “Connections with Coleridge #8—A short history of the education of mankind

  1. Our CM study group was just reading last night in “Parents and Children” where CM refers to Coleridge and his example of Columbus discovering America to illustrate that a Power higher than nature herself reveals certain things to certain men at certain times. You see this idea pop up a lot from that era. I’m thinking of the J. Paterson Smyth commentaries too. He’s always talking about “God’s schoolroom” in reference to the idea of progressive revelation. I do believe in progressive revelation as the word of God has unfolded divine truth to mankind…God speaking in various ways at various times and that sort of thing. But you are so right that we are lagging behind our ancient counterparts in so many ways and have lost altogether so much of the knowledge they possessed. If we can remember that, perhaps we can stay humble enough to learn new things God has for us in our time.

  2. I appreciated the rounded view in your last paragraph! This blog series has been fascinating – thank you so much for sharing it with us all, Karen.

    Philippa Nicholson, London UK

  3. I got behind on these and now I’m slowly catching up and looking forward to your new series… Your narrations of Coleridge’s ideas are so interesting

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