Aids to Reflection Summary
by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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Aids to Reflection Summary

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

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...

(The entire section is 1,119 words.)