Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 968
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 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.
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