Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1504
First published: 1825
Edition used: Aids to Reflection. New York: Cosimo Classics, 2005
Subgenres: Meditation and contemplation; spiritual treatise; theology
Core issues: God; morality; Protestants and Protestantism; reason; self-knowledge
Aids to Reflection is considered one of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s most influential theological writings. His purpose is not only to revise Anglican orthodoxy and revive the writings of seventeenth century divines such as Archbishop Robert Leighton, whose writing on spiritual truth and religion Coleridge thought invaluable, but also to reveal the shortcomings of many religious and spiritual tenets and beliefs of contemporaries, especially those associated with evidence writing (particularly the work of Archdeacon William Paley), Socinianism (or Unitarianism), and rational theology, three religious trends that Coleridge alleged to be undermining Anglican orthodoxy.
Coleridge begins his treatise by explaining that his intention is didactic in nature; he hopes that his readers will be largely young intellectuals aspiring to greater reflective spiritual discipline, particularly those entering a clerical life. He sets forth various objectives in his preface: to acknowledge the value of words; to establish and distinguish the meanings of prudence, morality, and (spiritual) religion; to authoritatively differentiate between reason and understanding; and to do all of this within the context of a specifically Christian framework. Aids to Reflection is the result of the amalgamation of the author’s personal transcendental philosophy with more traditional Protestant doctrine. Above all, he stresses the importance of thinking, particularly reflective thinking, considering its end, self-knowledge, to be the individual Christian’s duty and purpose. Religion, Coleridge asserts, is the ultimate reality of life.
Aids to Reflection is written primarily in an aphoristic style, with the aphorisms categorized according to prudence, morality, or spirituality. Many of the aphorisms are derived from the work of Anglican divines such as Robert Leighton, Jeremy Taylor, Richard Hooker, and Henry More; however, some of Coleridge’s own aphorisms are interspersed throughout the text. Coleridge’s lengthy commentary on the work of the divines dominates the latter half of the book, particularly the section entitled “Aphorisms on That Which Is Indeed Spiritual Religion,” and it is this work that highlights Coleridge’s significance as a religious thinker.
Coleridge’s aphorisms are loosely organized into the tripartite division of prudence, morality, and spiritual religion, though there is some overlap, particularly in the moral aphorisms, some of which would also fit in the division of spiritual religion. However, the three are closely related, as each successive religion builds on the former. Prudence, according to Coleridge, is necessary for there to be both moral and spiritual religion. Prudence enables virtue and holiness; though it is lesser than morality, it is still necessary, as it functions as a protector of virtue and a preventer of the sensual (“Thou shalt not”).
Beyond religious prudence is religious morality, which refers to the transformation of the conscience and the heart by religious faith. This transformation is essential for the full development of spiritual religion. In this second stage of religious development, religion truly becomes a matter of personal conviction and commitment.
Spiritual religion, the highest level of religious attainment, is primarily concerned with reason and the will. For Coleridge, the will is the ultimate transcendent, transcending nature and the laws of cause and effect. Coleridge’s approach refutes doctrines of Calvinism as espoused by the American philosopher Jonathan Edwards, who promulgated the notion of a completely passive will. Coleridge’s active view of the will encourages a decidedly more cooperative relationship with the divine.
All of Coleridge’s methods and assertions in Aids for Reflection are aimed at subverting the popular trends of evidence writing and rationalism in theology in the early part of...
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the nineteenth century. Evidence writing worked to “prove” Christian beliefs and mysteries, using the idea of their “reasonableness” as proof of their veracity. Paley, Coleridge’s theological archrival, wrote what is considered to be the most well known of these,Evidences of Christianity (1824). Coleridge abhorred this type of religious writing, finding it denied the spiritual and active aspects of religion and faith. Coleridge hoped to revitalize religion not by explaining or “proving” all its dogma, but rather by encouraging thinking and reflection on the Christian dogmas and mysteries through not a spiritual but a rational context.
Coleridge makes a distinction between reason and understanding in Aphorism 8 of the “Spiritual Religion” section. Though the influence of Immanuel Kant’s critiques of reason is implicit, this precise distinction is unique to Coleridge, and he uses understanding in connection with his more negative arguments against the uninspired theology of his day, while reason is posited in connection with his positive arguments; it is the organ of a more intellectual, reflective theology. Reason precipitates complete awareness of the self and its freedom.
Coleridge ends Aids to Reflection by looking closely at some specific Christian beliefs and how they are matters of spiritual religion and thus are suited to be objects of the reason and cannot be sufficiently considered through Paley’s philosophy. Coleridge offers a discussion of the concept of Original Sin in relation to the will and grounds his argument in the etymology of the word “original,” concluding that since the sin is “original” it must have its “origin” in the individual will; that is, it is something derived internally, not something externally inflicted or inherited. With this view, Coleridge once again found himself at odds with Calvinist theology.
Coleridge’s idea of a free and active will is crucial to understanding his theology as put forth in Aids for Reflection. The individual will is independent of a higher power, he argues, because that higher power (the spirit) would communicate only with a free will. Coleridge believed that religion, particularly Christianity, was not merely a belief system, but also a way of life, a “living process,” and so it is by the will and the reason that human beings are rendered capable, through reflection, of fully realizing their spirituality. It is this effect that Coleridge hopes his aphorisms will have on the serious reader.
As a didactic and spiritual treatise, Aids to Reflection aimed to guide those looking for a more theological and spiritual Christianity than that offered through strict adherence to orthodoxy, or an overreliance on rationalism to “explain” the Christian mysteries.
Coleridge’s condemnation of contemporary divinity is striking, but especially so is his call for a revised theology and the challenge for greater reflection on spirituality. He casts himself as singular among his contemporaries, a lone prophet heralding a need for revitalization of doctrine that merely follows the letter of the law rather than the spirit.
Coleridge holds that the two greatest mysteries of Christianity are Original Sin and redemption. His linguistic argument concerning Original Sin as originating with the individual will requires that individuals alone take responsibility for their sins. Yet it is still a mystery, and its concept is not unique to Christianity—a similar philosophy can be found in almost every patriarchal faith. Yet it is Christianity alone, Coleridge concludes, that provides redemption from the power of sin. Through Christ’s voluntary sacrifice for the sins of humanity, the power of sin is conquered by the power of the spirit, and thus though the individual will is separate from this higher spirit, the will and the spirit become partners through the saving grace of the redemptive spirit.
Redemption, for Coleridge, is something truly transcendental. Since the Resurrection of Christ, redemption has been an overriding state; that is, it is not something that occurs at a certain point, but rather is an ongoing condition of the Christian soul. It is the absolute that complements the reason of the individual will, and it is what enables the will to cooperate with the higher spirit. The transcendental redemption is a purifying and personal experience, and so it is most important for the true Christian to attest to the truth of religion, rather than “prove” the redeeming power of Christ through the evidence of miracles. These evidences, Coleridge vehemently argues, must not be substituted for the truth of Christian grace, which is realized through reflection and by reflection cooperating with the higher spirit of God.
Sources for Further Study
- Boulger, James D. Coleridge as Religious Thinker. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1961. A thorough examination and analysis of the growth and scope of Coleridge’s theology, in both poetry and prose, published and unpublished. Extensive coverage of Aids to Reflection. Contrasts ideas in Aids to Reflection to those in Coleridge’s theological Notebooks (1957-1986) and his Opus Maximum. Places Coleridge’s theology within the context of his contemporaries.
- Hipolito, Jeffrey. “’Conscience the Ground of Consciousness’: The Moral Epistemology of Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection.” Journal of the History of Ideas 65, no. 3 (2004): 455-474. Situates Coleridge’s theology within the greater Kantian philosophy of morals.
- Perkins, Mary Ann. “Religious Thinker.” In The Cambridge Companion to Coleridge, edited by Lucy Newlyn. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Provides a brief overview of Coleridge’s religious development within his writing, with particular emphasis on his influence on later philosophers and theologians.