The Medieval Mystic Behind Coleridge's Imagination

Developing a Counter-Enlightenment Mind

Coleridge’s famous definition of the imagination in his Biographia Literaria rejects John Locke’s understanding of the mind as a tabula rasa, a blank slate upon which experience impresses, though we find the empiricist view extending back to classical thought (see Plato’s Theaetetus and Aristotle’s De Anima). Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) supposes that the mind is a “white paper void of all characters, without any ideas,” a passive slate void of agency or a priori knowledge until acted upon by the external world. Coleridge, who was an increasingly Christian Neoplatonist, abhorred Locke’s static conception of the mind and attributed the decline in English philosophy and theology to the popularity of empiricist modes of thinking.

Under Locke’s view, the imagination can only be produced by a synthesis of what the individual has already seen and experienced. Coleridge’s indebtedness to German Idealists like J.G. Fichte and, especially, Friedrich von Schelling has often been acknowledged, but, perhaps even lesser known is his debt to the ninth-century Irish mystic, John Scotus Eriugena.

John Scotus Eriugena

In his Periphyseon, often called simply De divisione naturae, Eriugena analyzes the essence of nature and its manifestation within the universe through a dialogue between master and disciple. Drawing on his Christian Platonist predecessors in the east such as Gregory of Nyssa, Dionysius the Areopagite, and Maximus the Confessor, Eriugena is concerned primarily with being as it is and explores the spiritual source of nature and its correlation to things and thought. In Book IV, Chapter 7 of De divisione naturae, Eriugena defines the human mind as being formed eternally within the divine: “For I understand the substance of the entire man to be no other than his idea in the mind of the artificer who knew all things in himself before they were made; and that very knowledge is the true and only substance of those things which are known, since they subsist formed most perfectly in it eternally and immutably.”
The earliest evidence of Coleridge reading Eriugena is a letter written in 1803. On July 2nd of that year, Coleridge wrote to Robert Southey, “I have received great delight & instruction from Scotus Erigena” (Collected Letters 506), and that Christmas he had asked Southey for “Thomas Aquinas & Scotus Erigena.”
By 1810, he was already exploring Eriugena’s understanding of nature in relation to imagination. In March, we find an early adumbration of what would later be published in the Biographia. He writes, “I wish very much to investigate the connections of the Imagination with the BildungstriebImagiatio = imitation vel repititio Imaginis—Per motum? Ergo, et motuum—The Variolae—generation—Is not there a link between physical Imitation & Imagination?” (CN III Entry 3744). The formula reflects a condensed consideration on imagination and imaginative repetition. In context, we can read Coleridge’s “primary Imagination,” the “repetition in the infinite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM,” as a more developed elaboration of Eriugena’s concept of nature as theophany, and the human mind as something that is created and creates.
Even before Coleridge had read Eriugena, his earlier writings are full of anticipations. In his 1795 Lecture on the Slave Trade, Coleridge writes “The mind must enlarge the sphere of its activity, and busy itself in the acquisition of intellectual ailment. To develope the powers of the Creator is our proper employment—and to imitate Creativeness by combination is our most exalted and self-satisfying Delight.” For Coleridge, the agency of the mind depends on its ability to imitate the creative power of the divine. He continues, “The noblest gift of the Imagination is the power of discerning the Cause and Effect, a power which when employed on the works of the Creator elevates and by the variety of its pleasures almost monopolizes the Soul. We see God everywhere—the Universe in the most literal Sense is his written language.” The mind and its imaginative powers actively shape our conception of the eternal world. Readers of the German Idealists will be quick to recognize the similarities between Fichte’s early systems and Coleridge’s reciprocal understanding of the mind and the world. Coleridge’s “Universe” as God’s “written language” correlates with Eriugena’s notion of creation as theophany, a profoundly spiritual revelation.

Further Exploration

Students of Coleridge’s poetic theory will find these traces of Eriugena worth considering. Coleridge, in Essay VI from “On the Grounds of Morals and Religion,” writes, “It is the sense of a principle of connections given by the mind, and sanctioned by the correspondence of nature. Hence the strong hold which in all ages chemistry has had on the imagination… we find poetry, as it were, substantiated and realized in nature: yea, nature itself disclosed to us, Geminam istam naturam, quae fit et facit, et creat et creatur, as at once the poet and the poem!” The Latin, translated as “that duel nature, which is made and makes, both creates and is created,” is a direct quotation from Eriugena’s De divisione naturae, and the phrase often reappears in Coleridge’s letters and notes.
It is also worth noting that the marginalia from Coleridge’s copy of De divisione naturae (currently held by the British Museum) were used in his later essays, most prominently in the Philosophical Lectures. Coleridge admired the pantheistic proclivities of Eriugena, but, as evident in his later work, he was cautious of the moral and religious implications if applied to the highly rationalized religion of the times. Students of Coleridge’s theology will also find a fruitful discussion on Coleridge’s Trinitarianism in light of his readings of Eriugena, as they often have found in his readings of Spinoza and Schelling.
The past century of Coleridge scholarship has yielded many fruitful, though often belabored, studies on the influences of the German Idealists on Coleridge, particularly his poetic theory and shift from Unitarianism to Trinitarianism. However, few studies have been devoted specifically to the connection between Coleridge and Eriugena (see below for further reading). Perhaps, as scholarship moves forward, the rules of Coleridgean imagination and counter-enlightenment theology should be further examined in light of Eriugena and other early and medieval Christian Platonists.

Works Cited

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Collected Letters. Ed. Earl Leslie Griggs. 6 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1956-1971.
Coleridge, S.T. Notebooks. Ed. Kathleen Coburn and Merton Christensen. 4 vols. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1957-1990.
Poetical Works, ed. J.C.C. Mays, The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 16 (Princeton University Press, 2001)
Erigena, Johannes Scotus, John Joseph. O’Meara, and I. P. Sheldon-Williams. Periphyseon: The Division of Nature. Montréal: Bellarmin, 1987.

Further Reading:

Douglas Hedley’s Coleridge, Philosophy, and Religion (2000) provides considerations on Coleridge’s neo-platonic inclinations concerning Unitarianism and Platonic Idealism. Hedley attributes some of Coleridge’s thoughts to Eriugena.
The recent Eriugena, Berkeley, and the Idealist Tradition (2006), edited by Stephen Gersh and Dermot Moran, is an excellent volume of essays, which explores the definitions of idealism(s) from early Platonic philosophies to nineteenth century philosophical movements.
Alfred K. Siewer’s article “Cooper, Coleridge, and Re-Imagining a Native Cosmology” employs an erudite discussion about cosmology in Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner and highlights the influences of Eriugena and other non-Scholastic Christian writers.