‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Coleridge's Church and State: Scattered Thoughts

So, it’s proved a little harder than I thought it was going to, getting my Church and State thoughts in order (my read through of chapters 1-4 is here, and chapters 5-12 here). I think this is because it’s still my default critical attitude to take STC as a poet, rather than a political thinker. I have previously wondered: can he have coined the phrase ‘clerisy’ without being aware on some level of the rhyme with ‘heresy’? Is that a distraction, or a cunning piece of ironic wordplay? Or another fossilised thought from when I first read this book lo these many years since: there’s something compelling about writing a book setting out to nail-down the Constitution of Church and State when at the heart of your point is that none of the three words in the title have clear unambiguous meanings. After all, famously, Britain does not have a written Constitution: just a ragbag of parliamentary statute and judicial precedents.

And Coleridge himself notes that the word ‘State’ means both the entirety of the entity we might call ‘Britain’ including the church, and those aspects of entity we might call ‘Britain’ except the church. You might think that the very title of STC’s book means he is pointing to the second these, but it’s not as simple as that—the Church is not an add-on or extra to be bolted onto the State in Coleridge’s vision: it’s integral to it, historically, morally and practically. And as for defining the term 'Church'—why: Coleridge defines not one but three separate meanings for this word. There's the actual church (to which Coleridge belonged, and with whose congregants he worshipped of a Sunday), the ‘Church of Christ’, an other-worldly Platonic ideal, and a sort of tertium quid church that his book is kind-of about.

Indeed, given that it’s something of a cliché of Church and State studies that it is a complex and baffling text [‘the book is a perplexing mixture of political commentary, social theory, and historical analysis’; Peter Allen, ‘S. T. Coleridge's Church and State and the Idea of an Intellectual Establishment’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 46:1 (1985), 89] I was expecting to find my re-read a complexifying process. But actually it didn’t go down like that. The book is, I think, simpler than has been thought. The key, I think, is the ‘three churches’ idea. It is almost commonplace, in our Dawkinsy militant atheist times, to distinguish two aspects to religion. There’s religious beliefs as a set of metaphysical propositions to which the believer assents (assents in the strong, Newman sense of that word)—there exists a God, I have an immortal soul, God cares what I do in the world and so on. This is the level at which Dawkins engages: denying the truth of these beliefs. He thinks this is enough to pull-down the edifice of the Church; but as many people have pointed out ‘religious people’ are not individuals who are defined merely by a set of beliefs in their heads. They are also defined by membership of a particular community, and engagement with a particular social praxis. This is the second aspect of contemporary religion, about which Dawkins has almost nothing to say: not only attending church, but helping run the church jumble sale, running soup kitchens, meeting with friends for coffee, helping out and trying to live the values of your religion in the world. Coleridge certainly understood that the Church was these two things together. But one of the novelties of the Church and State volume is the way it is arguing for a third sense of ‘Church’, extramural to the sorts of things seen as ‘Churchy’. There are two main things here: one that we would nowadays call ‘general taxation and the welfare state’; and two that falls under the heading of education (primary, secondary, tertiary and research). In many ways, in the 21st-centry, these things are not ‘churchy’: they are not administered by the church (quite rightly not), not part of the usual duties of the church. Nor is STC saying that social workers, teachers and academics should be members of the church clergy. But he is saying that, even when they are not of the church, they are clergy-y. If you see what I mean. That there is something combined of a moulded church-ness and state-ness about this body of people he named ‘clerisy’.

This doesn’t bring us any closer to the most obvious question we surely want to pose of Coleridge’s Church and State: does it have anything to teach us today? Or is it a text of merely historical interest?

We can break this question into at least two, I think. One is: was Coleridge right? And right or not, is what he says still relevant today? Church and State makes a number of verifiable, or at least falsifiable, assertions and it is surely worth checking whether they are true or not. To pick out a couple: is his theory about the origin of the system of taxation as, essentially, religious tithes correct? (Short answer: no—taxation was a secular business in ancient Egypt and Persia; although titheing was also commonplace in the middle east). Whether this has any bearing on the real point STC is making—the advantages of disbursing tax income nationally in ways that are informed by a religious rather than secular rationale—is another matter.

What about the ‘clerisy’? Here matters get tangled. As I noted in the earlier post, one of the ways Coleridge’s clerisy idea developed is into the expansion of the university sector, not just to broaden educational opportunities for the citizenry but to furnish the nation with an intelligentsia. Given the glowing terms in which STC talks of ‘the clerisy’, it would be hard for any latter-day inheritor of the mantle—such as myself—to talk objectively about it. (We’re liable to say: ‘of course the State should pay for our upkeep—and pay us handsomely!’) But I don’t think Coleridge had, well, me in mind when he coined his term. It’s not just that I’m not religious, and that I’m part of a university system specifically set apart from the church. It’s that what we do (increasingly so, with the introduction of tuition fees) is simply not disseminated into every village and home of the realm.

This is one reason—a practical reason—why STC models the clerisy on the clergy. The clerisy’s job is to educate the nation, practically and morally; and to do that it needs to go into every village, even into every home. Priests already do that. My sense is that STC can’t imagine a secular organisation having that same access without it becoming a horrific secret-police-style invasion of privacy. (The 1820s, and the established of the Metropolitan Police Force, was a time when the French-style invasion of state apparatus of law, order and control into private life was fiercely debated and as fiercely opposed).

What about relevance? I want to limit this to the situation in the UK, simply to keep the discussion manageable; but that’s harder to do than it might otherwise be, since it is precisely globalisation that poses the biggest contemporary challenge to the argument Coleridge makes. Relevance becomes hard to assert.

It’s one thing to note how influential he was on the traditions of 19th-century Liberal and even Conservative political thought; it’s another to make the case for his continuing relevance. Indeed, it could be argued that the political world has changed since 1830 in ways that render Coleridge besides the point. It’s not just that the question of whether Catholics should be treated equally under the law is a dead one, for surely nobody would deny that they should. It is more to the point that two of the key salients of Coleridge’s discussion no longer obtain: first, religion is not the force it was—it no longer really makes sense, some might say, to talk of the UK as ‘a Christian nation’ for instance, partly because it is a much more ethnically and religiously diverse nation than it used to be, but also because Atheism has made so many inroads into popular belief. And secondly ‘we’ don’t really believe nations should be run by monarchs any more. The popularity of the House of Windsor has waned and waxed over the last few decades, hitting a low point immediately after the death of Diana (currently, and rather bafflingly to my eyes, the royal family is very popular); but nobody really thinks the Queen should be anything other than a figurehead. Coleridge proposes a checks-and-balances system of government of a particular kind, with the Upper House (‘tradition’) exactly balancing the powers of the lower (‘innovation’); but in the UK over the last century or so we have seen a steady erosion of the powers of the House of Lords, and an increasingly ‘Presidential’ style government by the Commons, which means the Cabinet, which means the P.M. This is not what STC would have wanted

This in turn leads to a question of whether the terms of the debate could be ‘transposed’ into a modern idiom. As it might be: STC talks about Catholics; today ‘we’ are more worried about—let us say—Muslims. But the questions are very similar: do Muslims ‘really’ belong to the UK, or is their allegiance necessarily to a foreign power in Mecca? Can they be trusted, or do they represent a sort of fifth-column within the state? Does ‘accepting’ them (whatever that means) weaken the identity of the UK as a Christian nation? This precise question was being asked in Parliament and the media earlier this year, actually -- and this very week the UK media has been full of pother about 'Muslim schools' in Birmingham supposedly 'indoctrinating' kids into Islam. The code-work here is 'radicalising'; which means (since it doesn't really mean, whatever UKIP think, literally 'turning-into-a-terrorist') 'un-Britishizing'. This in turn could lead to a particular reading of Church and State, or perhaps an argument as to its contemporary relevance, of the sort which I’m sure I can leave to the reader as an exercise. A modern-day Coleridgean would say: we need to rebalance the constitution, taking power away from the executive of the Commons—and the P.M. in particular—and rebooting the Upper Chamber in some way that empowers it; and we need a third element (a President, perhaps, if the monarch no longer has any political credibility) to adjudicate. And indeed, in one big way such a transposition has a lot to recommend it. The political landscape today is polarised between ‘conservatives’ and ‘progressives’ to a much greater degree than was the case in Britain in 1830, when ‘radical’ was (largely) a term of abuse, and liberalism was pretty much indistinguishable from old-school Toryism of the 1970s. In this world, where political commentators tend increasingly to pick a side and argue polemically from it, there might be something quite radical in the notion that a health body politic should have both these forces constitutionally balanced equally, with some notional arbiter (monarch, President, HAL-style computer, whatever) to ensure that the balance remains equal. I don’t know of any contemporary commentator who is arguing that.

There’s a very obvious objection to be made here. What Coleridge means by a Conservative is very different to what a voter in 2014 understands by the term. Indeed, the change wrought by the Thatcher-Reagan reconfiguration of ‘conservatism’ may be the biggest of all the socio-cultural changes between 1830 and now. For Coleridge a conservative is a landowner aristocrat who wants to conserve the old ways, and to resist any modification or amelioration of them. Theirs is an essential feudal view of the way society should operate. Coleridge opposes them to a set of merchants, financiers and professional classes who want to mobilise social change to maximize wealth-generation. This latter group sound very like modern-day Tories (and US Republicans). It’s hard to deny, in fact, that in the terms that Coleridge puts forward, the ‘Commons’ won—they swept the board in fact. They are the only game in town. This (my notional neoColeridgean might say) has proved a pretty mixed blessing; and there it would be to the good if we re-instituted some politically structural way of putting the breaks on unfettered ‘growth’. According to this reading, the contemporary relevance of Church and State would be a matter of replacing the ‘Barons’ of Coleridge’s original design with—let’s say—the Greens of today: a political force premised upon the notion that we have to rein-in change, ‘progress’ and unregulated capitalism in order to preserve something absolutely valuable, the land itself. The problem here, I think, is that the Greens, though certainly popular, are too marginal a force in contemporary politics.

But stop a moment. Is ‘transposition’ into contemporary terms of reference the way to talk about this text? Put it another way: are monarchism, anti-Catholicism and the church all so passé? The news has recently been full of the abdication of Juan Carlos I of Spain, a monarch in exactly the sense that Coleridge would have understood the term who did exactly what Coleridge, in Church and State, says a monarch should do—after Franco’s death in 1975, he restrained the Falangist authoritarian party and brought the progressive democratic party back into the political arena. As for anti-Catholicism—this, it seems to me, is an immensely deep-rooted prejudice in British cultural life. It is not, of course, that active discrimination against Catholics is any longer a feature of the law of the land. But it’s pervasive in a way people looking from outside sometimes find hard to credit. Charles II converted to Catholicism on his deathbed in 1685: he was, actually, functionally a ‘Catholic’ in his private beliefs; but after the Restoration he kept that to himself, believing that the British people would simply not accept rule by a Catholic. His openly Catholic brother James succeeded him, and lasted barely 3 years before the Brits chased him out in a revolution still called ‘Glorious’, replacing him with a foreigner whose chief merit was his Protestantism. Does this have any contemporary relevance? Have we ever had a Catholic Prime Minister? (Answer: oh no). No Catholic has ever so much been leader of the Conservative or Labour parties—though Jews have held both positions. Tony Blair was a Christian, who steered clear of religion in his political dealings—Alastair Campbell famously said ‘we don’t do God’—and was an Anglican communicant throughout his term as PM. His wife, though, was Catholic; and almost as soon as Blair stepped down from being Prime Minister he himself converted. You think that timing was coincidental?

To judge by their dominance of the categories of ‘historical fiction’ and ‘screen drama’, the three historical periods which which contemporary Brits are most fascinated, or perhaps obsessed, are: the Tudors (all those sexy woman in elaborate dresses running the risk of getting their elegant swan-white necks chopped by the axe-man); the Victorians—everything from neo-Dickensian tales of urchins and prostitutes, to Steampunk and its variants—and World War 2. Putting the last one on one side for a moment, what is it that links the previous two? Outwith living memory, but times of national ‘belief’ that hinge, in crucial though largely hidden ways, on the relationship between Englishness and Protestantism, in contra-distinction to Catholicism. Henry VIII’s creation of the Church of England is the horizon of all those sexy Tudor stories. The emancipation of Catholics in 1829 is the context for (to return to the matter in hand) Coleridge’s Church and State.

‘Religion?’ you say. ‘No, no: class is the crucial thing. Or ethnicity.’ I don’t know. The main focus for the question of Catholicism was Ireland; and Ireland is still a live political issue—even after the Good Friday agreement and the reduction (though not cessation) of hostilities. ‘The Troubles’ shaped my own upbringing, in London in the 1970s as the IRA planted bombs to kill people like me. And the key question here is: why was it Irish nationalists who did this? There have been equally earnest Welsh and Scottish nationalist movements—the latter may be about to engineer an independent Scotland. But the Tartan Army never mobilized the way the IRA did. What this says to me is that these movements were not about ‘celtic-ness’, or about mere hostility to ‘England’, in both of which Scotland and Wales were surely as energised as was Ireland. They are about religion: wholly Protestant Wales, largely Protestant Scotland.

Some 1830 context. The Jacobite rebellion of 1746 had been a sectarian as well as a Tory-political attempt to revolution; and Scotland suffered oppression in its aftermath, up to and including legislative strictures. But by the early 1900s Scotland was more-or-less re-assimilated into the UK, with the enormous success of Scott’s novels throwing a Romantic glamour over the land. The Irish equivalent would be the Irish Confederate Wars, a full century earlier (dragging on through the 17th-century until the Battle of the Boyne in 1690). A hundred years earlier! Yet the reaction from the mainland was both much more severe and long-lasting. Here’s a quick summary of the anti-Catholic ‘Penal Laws’ (mostly enacted after 1690’s Battle of the Boyne, although some predate that battle): exclusion of Catholics from most public offices; a ban on intermarriage with Protestants (repealed 1778); Catholics barred from owning guns or serving in the armed forces (repealed in the Militia Act of 1793); Catholics not permitted to be MPs (not repealed until 1829); Catholics excluded from voting (until 1793); not permitted to study at Trinity College Dublin (repealed 1793); Catholics excluded from the legal professions and the judiciary (repealed, respectively, 1793 and 1829); on a Catholic’s death his legatee could benefit by conversion to the Protestant Church of Ireland; a ban on converting from Protestantism to Catholicism ‘on pain of forfeiting all property estates and legacy to the monarch’ and ‘imprisonment at His Majesty’s Pleasure’; a ban on Catholics buying land under a lease of more than 31 years (repealed 1778); a ban on custody of orphans being granted to Catholics on pain of a £500 fine; a ban on Catholics inheriting Protestant land; Roman Catholic lay priests permitted to preach only after registering to do so according to the terms of the Registration Act of 1704 (but seminary priests and Bishops could not do even this until 1778); when allowed, Catholic churches to be built only from wood, not stone, and away from main roads; ‘no person of the popish religion shall publicly or in private houses teach school, or instruct youth in learning within this realm' upon pain of twenty pounds fine and three months in prison for every such offence’ (repealed in 1782). Is that enough context?

STC thinks that what holds societies together is always an idea. By this he means something halfway between the conventional sense of ideals or notions inside the heads of the many citizens (what a Marxist-influenced thinker might call ‘ideology’)—and a more specifically teleological truth: an idealised destination or aim or purpose. For him the crucial question is not whether laws can be framed to repeal these anti-Catholic oppressions; it is whether British Catholics can buy-in to the idea of being British, rather than French, Roman and whatever else. And his answer to that question is implicit in his three churches. The first of those three is different depending on whether one is a Protestant or a Catholic Church; the third of those three (presumably; for who can fathom divine Providence?) will see the erasure of all petty doctrinal differences over transubstantiation or whatever else. But it is the second, the medial church, that is the crucial battleground.


  1. Fascinating stuff. You could have extended the Irish chronology forward; there's a clear line back from contemporary terrorism legislation to the 1973 Emergency Powers Act (NI), and from there to the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act 1943, the Restoration of Order in Ireland Act 1920 and ultimately to An Act for the Suppression of the Rebellion which still unhappily exists within this Kingdom, and for the Protection of the Persons and Properties of His Majesty’s faithful subjects within the same (1799). And note the word 'still'!

  2. Quite right, Phil. One thing these scattered thoughts don't do (but which I'll try and do at some point) is tease out the implication of this. Because this massively influential political document happened to be written when it was, in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars (Hoche's attempt to land a large French invasion force in Ireland in 1796 was only foiled by bad weather; and really shook British confidence), at a time when (1829: establishment of the Metropolitan Police) there was anxiety at and hostility to the creation of a 'French' style policing and surveillance force ... this means that ideas like the clerisy, the structural balance of progress and restraint in parliamentary politics and so on are all strangely yet intimately tied up with anti-Catholic thought.

  3. ... which means it's possible to trace the thread of this deep ambivalence about 'Catholicism' through the key texts of 19th-C liberal and Christian socialist thought: Thomas Arnold, Matthew Arnold, John Stuart Mill, F D Maurice, right up to Eliot's Idea of a Christian Society in 1939. And beyond.