Friday 10 May 2024

More Table Talk

Here are some more excerpts from Coleridge's Table Talk. It's just a small selection but what seem to me to be the most interesting pieces and most relevant to our day.

Plotinus was a man of wonderful ability, and some of the sublimest passages I ever read are in his works.

Plotinus is indeed sublime but he lacks one thing which is the knowledge of Christ.


I was amused the other day with reading in Tertullian, that spirits or demons dilate and contract themselves, and wriggle about like worms.

Makes sense.


Luther has sketched the most beautiful picture of the nature and ends and duties of the wedded life I ever read. St. Paul says it is a great symbol, not mystery, as we translate it.

A symbol, presumably, of God and Creation.


Why need we talk of a fiery hell? If the will, which is the law of our nature, were withdrawn from our memory, fancy, understanding, and reason, no other hell could equal, for a spiritual being, what we should then feel, from the anarchy of our powers. It would be conscious madness — a horrid thought ! 

Perhaps this is what hell is. When the will has so turned against God that it starts to disintegrate. Madness must ensue.


An ear for music is a very different thing from a taste for music. I have no ear whatever; I could not sing an air to save my life; but I have the intensest delight in music, and can detect good from bad. Naldi, a good fellow, remarked to me once at a concert, that I did not seem much interested with a piece of Rossini's which had just been performed. I said it sounded to me like nonsense verses. But I could scarcely contain myself when a thing of Beethoven's followed. 

I understand this, being in the same boat with regard to ear and taste.


Galileo was a great genius, and so was Newton ; but it would take two or three Galileos and Newtons to make one Kepler. It is in the order of Providence, that the inventive, generative, constitutive mind — the Kepler — should come first ; and then that the patient and collective mind — the Newton — should follow, and elaborate the pregnant queries and illumining guesses of the former. The laws of the planetary system are, in fact, due to Kepler. There is not a more glorious achievement of scientific genius upon record than Kepler's guesses, prophecies, and ultimate apprehension of the law of the mean distances of the planets as connected with the periods of their revolutions round the sun. Gravitation, too, he had fully conceived; but, because it seemed inconsistent with some received observations on light, he gave it up, in allegiance, as he says, to Nature. Yet the idea vexed and haunted his mind.


Bacon, when like himself — for no man was ever more inconsistent — says, "Prudens quaestio dimidium scientiae". 

This is from Roger not Francis. Translation: To ask the proper question is half of science. 


It is a melancholy thing to live when there is no vision in the land. Where are our statesmen to meet this emergency ?

If he could have lived now!


Is the House of Commons to be re-constructed on the principle of a representation of interests or of a delegation of men? If on the former, we may, perhaps, see our way; if on the latter, you can never, in reason, stop short of universal suffrage; and in that case, I am sure that women have as good a right to vote as men. 

This is from 1830. I'm not sure if it is in favour or against universal suffrage. It depends on what he means by 'if on the former we may see our way'. But see further excerpts below for more light on this.


Rousseau, indeed, asserts that there is an inalienable sovereignty inherent in every human being possessed of reason; and from this the framers of the Constitution of 1791 deduce that the people itself is its own sole rightful legislator, and at most dare only recede so far from its right as to delegate to chosen deputies the power of representing and declaring the general will. But this is wholly without proof; for it has been already fully shown that, according to the principle out of which this consequence is attempted to be drawn, it is not the actual man, but the abstract reason alone, that is the sovereign and rightful lawgiver. The confusion of two things so different is so gross an error, that the Constituent Assembly could scarce proceed a step in their declaration of rights without some glaring inconsistency. Children are excluded from all political power; are they not human beings in whom the faculty of reason resides? Yes! but in them the faculty is not yet adequately developed. But are not gross ignorance, inveterate superstition, and the habitual tyranny of passion and sensuality, equally preventives of the development, equally impediments to the rightful exercise, of the reason, as childhood and early youth? 

Democracy by putting the unit (one person, one vote) above its actual capacity (reason) clearly prioritises quantity over quality. This is its fatal flaw.

The principle on which the whole system (of democracy) rests is that reason is not susceptible of degree.

The above comment in a nutshell.


Necker, you remember, asked the people to come and help him against the aristocracy. The people came fast enough at his bidding; but, somehow or other, they would not go away again when they had done their work. I hope Lord Grey will not see himself or his friends in the woeful case of the conjuror who, with infinite zeal and pains, called up the devils to do something for him.  They came at the word, thronging about him, grinning, and howling, and dancing, and whisking their long tails in diabolic glee; but when they asked him what he wanted of them, the poor wretch, frightened out of his wits, could only stammer forth,  " I pray you, my friends, be gone down again!" At which the devils, with one voice, replied, " Yes! yes! we go down! we go down  — But we take you with us to sink or to drown! "

A warning to those who open the door to mass immigration from 3rd world countries in order to boost their own power, popularity and/or wealth.


The malignant duplicity and unprincipled tergiversations of the specific Whig newspapers are to me detestable. I prefer the open endeavours of those publications which seek to destroy the church: there is a sort of honesty in that which I approve, though I would with joy lay down my life to save my country from the consummation which is so evidently desired by that section of the periodical press. 

Tergiversation is 1: evasion of straightforward action or clear-cut statement: equivocation. 2 : desertion of a cause, position, party, or faith. Merriam Webster definition. This refers to the bad faith of large sections of the left. Bad faith is often a sign of wrong motivation.


The darkest despotisms on the Continent have done more for the growth and elevation of the fine arts than the English government. 

 A perennial complaint.


So long as Rubens confines himself to space and outward figure — to the mere animal man with animal passions — he is, I may say, a god amongst painters. His satyrs, Silenuses, lions, tigers, and dogs are almost godlike; but the moment he attempts anything involving or presuming the spiritual, his gods and goddesses, his nymphs and heroes, become beasts, absolute, unmitigated beasts. The more I see of modern pictures, the more I am convinced that the ancient art of painting is gone, and something substituted for it, — very pleasing, but different, and different in kind and not in degree only. Portraits by the old masters are pictures of men and women: they fill, not merely occupy, a space ; they represent individuals, but individuals as types of a species. Modern portraits — a few by Jackson and Owen, perhaps, excepted — give you not the man, not the inward humanity, but merely the external mark.

Wait for the 20th century!


As there is much beast and some devil in man; so is there some angel and some God in him. The beast and the devil may be conquered, but in this life never destroyed. 


O. P. Q. in the Morning Chronicle is a clever fellow. He is for the greatest possible happiness for the greatest possible number, and for the longest possible time! So am I; so are you, and every one of us, I will venture to say, round the tea-table. First, however, what does O. P. Q. mean by the word happiness and, secondly, how does he propose to make other persons agree in his definition of the term? Don't you see the ridiculous absurdity of setting up that as a principle or motive of action, which is, in fact, a necessary and essential instinct of our very nature — an inborn and inextinguishable desire? How can creatures susceptible of pleasure and pain do otherwise than desire happiness ? But what happiness ? That is the question. The American savage, in scalping his fallen enemy, pursues his happiness naturally and adequately. A Chickasaw or Pawnee Bentham or O. P. Q., would necessarily hope for the most frequent opportunities possible of scalping the greatest possible number of savages for the longest possible time. There is no escaping this absurdity unless you come back to a standard of reason and duty, imperative upon our merely pleasurable sensations. Oh ! but, says O. P. Q. I am for the happiness of others. Of others! Are you indeed ? Well, I happen to be one of those others, and, so far as I can judge from what you show me of your habits and views, I would rather be excused from your banquet of happiness. Your mode of happiness would make me miserable. To go about doing as much good as possible to as many men as possible, is indeed an excellent object for a man to propose to himself; but then, in order that you may not sacrifice the real good and happiness of others to your particular views, which may be quite different from your neighbour's, you must do that good to others which the reason, common to all, pronounces to be good for all. In this sense your fine maxim is so very true as to be a mere truism. 

The problem with this Benthamite utilitarianism which Coleridge rightly condemns is that we rarely know what constitutes true happiness or where it lies.  If heaven is the real home of happiness, which it is, then everything that may lead to heaven is good and everything that does not do that or leads away from it works against happiness.


Demagogues always appeal to men as men; and, as you know, the most terrible convulsions in society have been wrought by such phrases as Rights of Man, Sovereignty of the People, &»c., which no one understands, which apply to no one in particular, but to all in general. The devil works precisely in the same way. He is a very clever fellow; I have no acquaintance with him, but I respect his evident talents. Consistent truth and goodness will assuredly in the end overcome everything; but inconsistent good can never be a match for consistent evil. Alas, I look in vain for some wise and vigorous man to sound the word Duty in the ears of this generation. 

The devil is a clever fellow until you are wise to his wiles and then he is a total idiot. But he does know how to bait a hook.


The English public is not yet ripe to comprehend the essential difference between the reason and the understanding — between a principle and a maxim — an eternal truth and a mere conclusion generalized from a great number of facts. A man, having seen a million moss-roses all red, concludes from his own experience and that of others that all moss-roses are red. That is a maxim with him— the greatest amount of his knowledge upon the subject. But it is only true until some gardener has produced a white moss-rose, — after which the maxim is good for nothing. Again, suppose Adam watching the sun sinking under the western horizon for the first time; he is seized with gloom and terror, relieved by scarce a ray of hope that he shall ever see the glorious light again. The next evening, when it declines, his hopes are stronger, but still mixed with fear; and even at the end of a thousand years, all that a man can feel is a hope and an expectation so strong as to preclude anxiety. 

It seems to me that this is an important difference between religion and science; one deals with eternal truths while the other is based on conclusions generalized from a great number of facts.


I never from a boy could under any circumstances feel the slightest dread of death as such. In all my illnesses I have ever had the most intense desire to be released from this life, unchecked by any but one wish, namely, to be able to finish my work on Philosophy. Not that I have any author's vanity on the subject.

A fitting comment to end this group of extracts and something to which we should all aspire. 



Bruce Charlton said...

I too feel a fascination with Coleridge that brings me back over and again, despite that I find him difficult to read, and to understand.

I get a strong sense of a really superior mind at work - which was, indeed, the view of the best of Coleridge's contemporaries - especially those who had conversed with him (or rather, listened to him speak! He was often a near-monologist), even from his teenage school years at Christ's Hospital, London.

Of course, Coleridge was also a deeply and tragically flawed man - and yet, when all has been said against him (which is much); it is hard to doubt that he was profoundly good (God-aligned) in his real nature, and one of few who saw earliest and most clearly the future needs and duties of Western Man.

William Wildblood said...

The tragic flaw being the drug addiction, do you mean?

Regarding being a monologist, there is a record of a conversation with Charles Lamb. "I think, Charles, you never heard me preach," said Coleridge once. " My dear boy," replied Charles Lamb, "I never heard you do anything else!"

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - e.g. Drug addiction, alcoholism with frequent drunkenness, (all-but) abandoning his wife and children (who were looked after by Southey); and he self-destructively curtailed his (historically vital) close-friendship with Wordsworth over a maliciously misreported comment.

Plus the fact he almost never finished anything (not even two of his best poems: Kubla Khan and Christabel)!

(I've read several biogs of C. (plus some of Wordsworth) - including the very well-researched and detailed two volume edition by Richard Holmes. Owen Barfield's intellectual "biography" - What Coleridge Thought is absolutely superb, and was important to my Christian understandings - but it's a very tough read.)