Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
This Enlightened Age
By Samuel Taylor Coleridge (17721834)
From Statesmans Manual
WHEN I named this essay a sermon, I sought to prepare the inquirers after it for the absence of all the usual softenings suggested by worldly prudence, of all compromise between truth and courtesy. But not even as a sermon would I have addressed the present discourse to a promiscuous audience; and for this reason I likewise announced it in the title-page, as exclusively ad clerum; i.e., (in the old and wide sense of the word), to men of clerkly acquirements of whatever profession. I would that the greater part of our publications could be thus directed, each to its appropriate class of readers. But this cannot be! For among other odd burs and kecksies, the misgrowth of our luxuriant activity, we have now a reading publicas strange a phrase, methinks, as ever forced a splenetic smile on the staid countenance of meditation; and yet no fiction! For our readers have, in good truth, multiplied exceedingly, and have waxed proud. It would require the intrepid accuracy of a Colquhoun to venture at the precise number of that vast company only, whose heads and hearts are dieted at the two public ordinaries, of literature, the circulating libraries and the periodical press. But what is the result? Does the inward man thrive on this regimen? Alas! if the average health of the consumers may be judged of by the articles of largest consumption; if the secretions may be conjectured from the ingredients of the dishes that are found best suited to their palates; from all that I have seen, either of the banquet or the guests, I shall utter my profaccia with a desponding sigh. From a popular philosophy and a philosophic populace, Good Sense deliver us!
At present, however, I am to imagine for myself a very different audience. I appeal exclusively to men, from whose station and opportunities I may dare anticipate a respectable portion of that sound book-learnedness, into which our old public schools still continue to initiate their pupils. I appeal to men in whom I may hope to find, if not philosophy, yet occasional impulses at least to philosophic thought. And here, as far as my own experience extends, I can announce one favourable symptom. The notion of our measureless superiority in good sense to our ancestors, so general at the commencement of the French Revolution, and for some years before it, is out of fashion. We hear, at least, less of the jargon of this enlightened age. After fatiguing itself, as performer or spectator in the giddy figure-dance of political changes, Europe has seen the shallow foundations of its self-complacent faith give way; and among men of influence and property, we have now more reason to apprehend the stupor of despondence, than the extravagancies of hope, unsustained by experience or of self-confidence not bottomed on principle.
In this rank of life the danger lies, not in any tendency to innovation, but in the choice of the means for preventing it. And here my apprehensions point to two opposite errors; each of which deserves a separate notice. The first consists in a disposition to think, that as the peace of nations has been disturbed by the diffusion of a false light, it may be re-established by excluding the people from all knowledge and all prospect of amelioration. O! never, never! Reflections and stirrings of mind, with all their restlessness, and all the errors that result from their imperfection, from the Too much, because Too little, are come into the world. The powers that awaken and foster the spirit of curiosity are to be found in every village; books are in every hovel. The infants cries are hushed with picture-books, and the cottagers child sheds his first bitter tears over pages which render it impossible for the man to be treated or governed as a child. Here, as in other cases, the inconveniences that have arisen from a things having become too general are best removed by making it universal.
The other and contrary mistake proceeds from the assumption, that a national education will have been realised whenever the people at large have been taught to read and write. Now among the many means to the desired end, this is doubtless one, and not the least important, but neither is it the most so. Much less can it be held to constitute education, which consists in educing the faculties and forming the habits; the means varying according to the sphere in which the individuals to be educated are likely to act and become useful, I do not hesitate to declare, that whether I consider the nature of the discipline adopted, or the plan of poisoning the children of the poor with a sort of potential infidelity under the liberal idea of teaching those points only of religious faith, in which all denominations agree, I cannot but denounce the so-called Lancastrian schools as pernicious beyond all power of compensation by the new acquirement of reading and writing. But take even Dr. Bells original and unsophisticated plan, which I myself regard as an especial gift of Providence to the human race; and suppose this incomparable machine, this vast moral steam-engine, to have been adopted and in free motion throughout the empire; it would yet appear to me a most dangerous delusion to rely on it as if this of itself formed an efficient national education. We cannot, I repeat, honour the scheme too highly as a prominent and necessary part of the great process; but it will neither supersede nor can it be substituted for sundry other measures, that are at least equally important. And there are such measures, too, as unfortunately involve the necessity of sacrifices on the side of the rich and powerful more costly and far more difficult than the yearly subscription of a few pounds! such measures as demand more self-denial than the expenditure of time in a committee or of eloquence in a public meeting.
Nay, let Dr. Bells philanthropic end have been realised, and the proposed modicum of learning have become universal; yet, convinced of its insufficiency to stem up against the strong currents set in from an opposite point, I dare not assure myself that it may not be driven backward by them and become confluent with the evils it was intended to preclude.
What other measures I had in contemplation, it has been my endeavour to explain elsewhere. But I am greatly deceived, if one preliminary to an efficient education of the labouring classes be not the recurrence to a more manly discipline of the intellect on the part of the learned themselves, in short, a thorough re-casting of the moulds in which the minds of our gentry, the characters of our future land-owners, magistrates and senators are to receive their shape and fashion. Oh, what treasures of practical wisdom would be once more brought into open day by the solution of this problem! Suffice it for the present to hint the master thought. The first man, on whom the light of an idea dawned, did in that same moment receive the spirit and the credentials of a lawgiver; and so long as man shall exist, so long will the possession of that antecedent knowledge (the maker and master of all profitable experience) which exists only in the power of an idea, be the one lawful qualification of all dominion in the world of the senses. Without this, experience itself is but a Cyclops walking backwards under the fascination of the past; and we are indebted to a lucky coincidence of outward circumstances and contingencies, least of all things to be calculated on in times like the present, if this one-eyed experience does not seduce its worshipper into practical anachronisms.
But alas! the halls of old philosophy have been so long deserted, that we circle them at shy distance as the haunt of phantoms and chimeras. The sacred grove of Academus is held in like regard with the unfoodful trees in the shadowy world of Maro that had a dream attached to every leaf. The very terms of ancient wisdom are worn out, or (far worse!) stamped on baser metal; and whoever should have the hardihood to reproclaim its solemn truths must commence with a glossary.