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ELH 68.4 (2001) 929-963

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Coleridge's Polemic Divinity

Mark Canuel

I. The Watchman's Organized Dissent

The modern age's "love of knowledge," as Samuel Taylor Coleridge describes it in the first issue of The Watchman (his ill-fated newspaper issued for less than three months in the spring of 1796), did a great deal to weaken the traditional social authority of established religion. But it also did a great deal to sustain the life of religions. The philosophy of the modern age did not simply disenchant the world: it did not, that is, replace ancient mythologies with empirical truths, religion with science. In fact, the "love of knowledge" was significant--and it earns a privileged place in Coleridge's initial conceptualization of The Watchman--for enhancing rather than suppressing the visibility of religious beliefs and the dissension among them. 1

The claim I am ascribing to Coleridge first arises in this issue of the newspaper in connection with a story--also told by the likes of Godwin and Hume--about the defeat of Constantinople by the Turks. As a consequence, we are told, learned Greeks were driven West into Europe, an event that happily coincided with the invention of printing. 2 That story does, in fact, look very much like a uniform movement from darkness to light: "The first scanty twilight of knowledge was sufficient to shew what horrors had resulted from ignorance." But it is also true--and certainly more interesting--that what Coleridge really sees in this series of events is less a uniform growth of "knowledge" than a decline of any such uniformity: a decline brought about by the interdependent growth of the media and facilities for learning and the growth of religious disputation. The "diffusion of truth," he contends, "was aided by the Lutheran schism"; "literary exertion" was inspired by "the keen goading of religious controversy" (CW, 2:9).

My contention throughout this essay will be that The Watchman pursues an interest sustained throughout Coleridge's long career as a writer of poetry, philosophy, theology, literary criticism, and political commentary: an interest in how modern (British, liberal) society [End Page 929] exists not in spite of, but because of, doctrinal disagreement. To frame the concerns of Coleridge's writing in this fashion is to emphasize its relation not only to the Two Acts of 1795 against Treasonable Practices and Seditious Meetings, to which the periodical's "Prospectus" explicitly refers, but also primarily to the issue of religious toleration which predates, circumscribes, and conditions treatments of the issue of free speech and freedom of association during the period. 3 As Coleridge continues in this number of The Watchman to describe the "diffusion of Knowledge," he characterizes it as the proliferation of religious sects--"the progress of Methodists, and other disciples of Calvinism"--rather than the consolidation of reason. "The most thorough-paced Republicans in the days of Charles the First were religious Enthusiasts," he continues to observe. Religious dissent acquires a positive value in his account because "the very act of dissenting from established opinions must generate habits precursive to the love of freedom" (CW, 2:12-13).

But even more intriguing is a fundamental paradox that emerges in these pages. Coleridge insists that "freedom" is demonstrated by dissent and also by society's internal organization of dissent, an organization that furnishes dissent with a distinctive and discernible shape. While the expression of religious belief may provide individuals with personal opportunities for "self-government," it also--in an even more important way--depends upon a facilitating pattern of social movement. For The Watchman attends not only to the varieties of personal belief as causes of the "diffusion of Knowledge," but also to the communal structures that regulate--while also producing and enhancing--dissension. The "diffusion of Knowledge" is thus attributed, for example, to a government that protects persons from "the attacks of others," to the "institution of large manufactories" accommodating members of different parties, and to "book societies established in almost every town and city of the kingdom" (CW, 2:13-14). In other words, Coleridge imagines The Watchman's affiliations...


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