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Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s most sustained reflection on the political implications of organic life emerged not in the radical 1790s but in his later political prose. In Theory of Life (1816), Coleridge attempted to reconcile his attraction to proto-evolutionary thinking with his own religious concerns. This careful balancing act reappeared as a central fixture in his later political thought. The discontinuities evident in the analogy he drew between political life and the “sinuous” line of evolution point toward the necessity of developing a nuanced understanding of Coleridge’s organic thought, one that avoids an oversimplified exportation of aesthetic theory into the political realm.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge holds a central place in the story about the cross-fertilization of romantic science, poetry, and politics in the 1790s.1 In that revolutionary decade, political and scientific apprehensions of the world merged in what he enthusiastically hailed as “the Fraternity of universal Nature.” Coleridge and Robert Southey dreamed of a communal life on the banks of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania and made plans to “pantisocratize the Earth.”2 Their utopian bid was premised on Coleridge’s optimistic conjecture that from all the ills of the world “sprang heavenly Science; and from Science Freedom.”3 Under the sway of a similar impulse, William Wordsworth followed William Godwin in attempting “to probe / The living body of society / Even to the heart.”4 These radical attempts to “anatomize the frame of social life” and uncover the principle of its organization were sociological versions of John Thelwall’s effort—just a year before he was arrested for high treason in 1794—to isolate a “Vital Principle” that could animate “the dull inertion of created matter”: “[T]hat principle, whose presence, under such a variety of forms, is constantly presenting itself to the researches of the philosopher!—whose agency, in so many of the phenomena of Nature, we are daily detecting! and which, perhaps, will one time be discovered to be the real principle by which all heat and action are originally generated and maintained!”5 Thelwall was fascinated by the political fantasy of harnessing the vital power that might allow action and agency to be “generated and maintained.” In Coleridge’s early thought, however, life was more politically obscure. In 1796, defying attempts to materialize or politicize what he [End Page 647] regarded as an inherently religious question, Coleridge hesitated before a conundrum that was at once scientific and metaphysical: “I do not know what to think about it—on the whole, I have rather made up my mind that I am a mere apparition—a naked Spirit!—And that Life is I myself I!”6

Looking past this familiar narrative, I dwell on the intersection of three later texts that are often regarded as divergent in both their projects and their contexts: Theory of Life (1816), The Statesman’s Manual (1816), and On the Constitution of the Church and State (1829).7 In emphasizing the convergence of political and natural philosophic considerations in Coleridge’s later prose, I advance two interrelated arguments. At a foundational level, I contend that Coleridge’s most significant reflections on the political implications of organic life emerge not in the radical 1790s but under what he called the “dynasty” or “golden age” of the understanding.8 Thelwall might have sparked his early reflections on vitality, but Coleridge’s Theory of Life—his most sustained and speculative meditation of the essence of biological life—was a direct response to the acrimonious debate surrounding “the nature and essential laws of vital action” that rocked the Royal College of Surgeons in 1816 (p. 486). Like most of Coleridge’s writing, Theory of Life was prompted not only by circumstance and exigency but also by more indirect means. Reactionary changes in Britain’s intellectual climate worked alongside Coleridge’s own shifting philosophical position to give rise to his renewed interest in the concept of life. In “The Eolian Harp” (1795), Coleridge celebrated an organic connection that linked “animated nature” to “the Soul of each, and God of All.”9 By 1816, this unified notion of “organic process” had been tempered by his growing recognition of an opposition or discontinuity between nature and spirit (TL, p. 541).10

On a larger level, I contend that Coleridge’s proto-evolutionary attempt to isolate the nature of human life was integral to his reflections on Britain’s own “self-evolving Constitution” (CS, p. 96). In this sense, Coleridge’s organic conception of political existence stands as a compelling precursor to recent interest in the politicization of bare life. In characteristic fashion, Coleridge’s natural philosophical preoccupations seeped past Theory of Life to inform his later, less radical political writing. In this essay, I foreground his own growing awareness of the complex stakes implicit in linking politics with life—stakes that have only been heightened by the coercive biopolitics of the twentieth century. By positing a connection between the ascent of life and Britain’s ancient constitution, Coleridge unsettled his position in the spectrum of life [End Page 648] in order to understand how life precedes the government it also fosters. His own thought anticipates contemporary critiques of the way in which natural life both enters into and organizes the political sphere, but it also stands as a trenchant early version of Giorgio Agamben’s resonant claim: “In the ‘politicization’ of bare life—the metaphysical task par excellence—the humanity of living man is decided.”11 In critical terms, Coleridge’s spirited interrogation of various conceptions of life substantiates Alastair Hunt and Matthias Rudolf’s recent contention that Romanticism was “a formative moment in the modern genealogy of biopolitics.”12 At the same time, his hesitancies and uncertainties affirm their insight that the predominant force of Romanticism in that genealogy was one of resistance.13

In rethinking Coleridge’s place in biopolitical discourse, I follow other scholars who have drawn attention to the intricate connections he forged between proto-evolutionary science and political speculation. Pamela Edwards offers one precedent for such an approach, arguing that Theory of Life “provides the interpreter of Coleridge with a master key to the basic ideas that shaped all of his later works of the late 1810s and the 1820s.”14 In a similar vein, Tilottama Rajan has described Coleridge’s transference of “the physiological notion of constitution as the inherence of parts in a whole to the political sphere” as a prime example of “organicist ideology.”15 But, as Rajan herself notes, a tendency to evade the complexity of Coleridge’s own “organicism” has resulted in its nebulous signification, an ambiguity that can all too easily prompt an oversimplified exportation of aesthetic theory into the political realm.16 Despite the fact that the “wide chasms” and incommensurate terms in Coleridge’s Theory of Life are as telling as its continuities (CS, p. 15), the leap from his organic aesthetics to his politics often results in a neglect of the discontinuities that he saw as attendant upon the body politic as it “develops itself from within.”17 Tidy aesthetic formulations of his organicist ideology break down on political ground. Statements such as Coleridge’s dictum in his Lectures on Belles Lettres (1812)—“Such is the life, such the form”18—risk ossifying an outcome or isolating it from the “birth-struggle and the growing pains” that correspond to its political formation (CS, p. 23).

Surprisingly, many of Coleridge’s insights on vitality from Theory of Life were recycled in On the Constitution of the Church and State, a treatise born out of a different political moment.19 In that culminating political work, Coleridge politicizes the vital or “vivifying principle” not as evidence of human progress and [End Page 649] perfectibility but as the frank acknowledgment of what, citing Martin Luther, he called “that other world which now is” (CS, pp. 177–8). This was hardly a static or inflexible position. Transporting an evolutionary idea from Theory of Life into a new context, he described the correspondence between “the Body Politic” and “the Body Natural” as one of the most “commensurate” and “pregnant” metaphors in the language: “[The] term constitution in the body politic, as in bodies natural, expresses not only what has been actually evolved, but likewise whatever is potentially contained in the seminal principle of a particular body, and would in its due time have appeared but for emasculation or disease” (CS, pp. 85 and 72). If there were leveling political implications to Thelwall’s view that life was dependent upon a preexisting structural organization, Coleridge ultimately came to understand political organization as the processual outcome or unfolding of life itself. Life was not something that could be manipulated for political ends but rather the ground out of which political existence would gradually evolve. Much like the British constitution itself, life was “a power which discloses itself from within as a principle of unity in the many” (TL, p. 510). In On the Constitution of the Church and State, Coleridge emphasized this priority of life over organization, asserting that while “the vital functions are the result of the organization … this organization supposes and pre-supposes the vital principle” (p. 20). He discerned, however, that the primary impediment to the realization of this vital power lay in the difficulty of recognizing it. To this end, his Statesman’s Manual advocates not social reorganization but a revolution of mind, a heightening of consciousness and discourse that rejects mechanistic political economy and its foundation in an “unenlivened generalizing Understanding” in favor of “communion with life” and “life-breathing philosophy.”20

The various preoccupations of Coleridge, Southey, Wordsworth, and Thelwall in the 1790s were all representative of a political radicalism that Isaiah Berlin has characterized as holding “nature to be not only what there is—the sum of things—a living organism or an elaborate machine, but in some extraordinary fashion a source of purposes and orders and ideals.”21 Nature as a source of overt political meaning was nowhere more manifest than in the infamous debate over the substance and origins of vitality and life, but this intellectual conflagration continued to rage in Britain long after the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars terminated in what George Gordon, Lord Byron called “one general malcontent.”22 [End Page 650]

In dwelling on the complexities and fluidities of Coleridge’s analogy between political life and what he variously describes as the “continuous” or “sinuous” line of evolution, I argue that a renovated or nuanced concept of organicism necessitates a return to Coleridge’s politicization of life itself.23 After briefly surveying his perspective on proto-Darwinian evolution, I map out the two contradictory accounts of human life that Coleridge advances in Theory of Life—one in which human life exists in an uninterrupted continuum with nature and one in which human life is separate from nature and created in the image of God. In the second half of the essay, I describe how Coleridge’s political thought registers this central discrepancy. In particular, I suggest that he saw the organicism of Britain’s “self-evolving Constitution” as capable of mediating or at least accommodating these two discordant explanations of human existence. While I look past the 1790s to his most seasoned political views, I nevertheless follow David Fairer’s recent study of Coleridge’s early work by subverting “theories of organic unity” in order to encounter Coleridge in his effort to discover “coherence and continuity in human experience”—his struggle to organize, idealize, and unify.24


The exact parameters of Coleridge’s conception of evolution are shifting, non-Darwinian, and notoriously difficult to plot. Nevertheless, the sense of a progressive unfolding or successive “Revelation of Nature” looms large as a crucial pattern in his later political and natural-philosophical thought (TL, p. 551). Though Coleridge followed Aristotle in viewing man as a political animal, he decisively dismissed what Charles Darwin would later call The Descent of Man (1861). Yet the implications of such an idea continued to haunt disparate areas of his mature thought.26 In his Philosophical Lectures (1818–19), for example, Coleridge rejected the idea that humanity had “progressed from an Ouran Outang state” at the same time that he clearly if inadvertently linked human evolution to the formation of a political state: “I could say more on this subject with reference to an opinion which has, strange to say, become quite common even among Christian people, that the human race arose from a state of savagery and then gradually from a monkey came up through various states to be man, and, being man, to form a state, and, being states, to improve upon them, and so, by a certain train of regular experience, to explain all things as they now exist.”27 [End Page 651]

While reacting against an ethos of endless improvement and perfectibility, Coleridge makes the negative assertion that the origin of the human in nature is intrinsically related to the human overcoming of it. Evolution, in other words, entails the process by which human culture elevates itself out of and above the state of nature. As Anthony John Harding has argued, Coleridge’s account of “the perfection of what is potential in all of Nature” entwines narratives of natural and moral history: “the situatedness of the human means simultaneously thinking two different processes, along two different time-scales.”28

Though Harding is not interested in the political per se, his argument attempts to account for the particular significance of the human as the culmination but also the apotheosis of nature’s progressive ascent—a process that Coleridge imagined as the successive and increasingly more complex reconciliation of life’s opposite “counter-powers” (TL, p. 530). Coleridge himself recognized in Theory of Life that the position of the human at the “apex of the living period” entailed a recapitulation or “syllepsis” of life’s ascendency, one that had more than natural implications: “In social and political life, this acme is inter-dependence; in moral life it is independence; in intellectual life it is genius. Nor does the form of polarity, which has accompanied the law of individuation up its whole ascent, desert it here. As the height, so the depth. The intensities must be at once opposite and equal. As the liberty, so must be the reverence for law. As the independence, so must be the service and submission to the Supreme Will!” (pp. 550–1). What Coleridge describes as the superaddition of self-consciousness in the image of the “infinite I am” becomes the foundation for his attempt to “reduce all knowledges into harmony”—“to connect by a moral copula natural history with political history.”29 William Blake might well call Coleridge’s method here mischievous, for Coleridge emphasizes the moral freedom and possibility that man accrues as the teleological goal of the ascent of life only to invoke once more what he called the formative polarity of that process.30 This polarity was to a certain degree a manifestation of what James Engell has described as Coleridge’s endeavor to unite “the study of the natural world and the establishment of universal, ahistorical laws” with the “knowledge and exploration of the human spirit caught up in history and dependent on will, genius, and moral action.”31 But it was also a recognition that human civilization is founded upon and embroiled in “polarity, or the essential dualism of nature” (TL, p. 518). [End Page 652]

When Coleridge identifies the political state as an “organic whole,” he grounds it in “the unceasing polarity of life, as the form of its process, [with] its tendency to progressive individuation as the law of its direction” (TL, p. 533). Yet in the polar structure of life, this tendency toward more intensive levels of individuality moves in tandem with a propensity for association and connection. In Coleridge’s terms, the “tendency to individuate cannot be conceived without the opposite tendency to connect” (TL, p. 517). The polar structure of life thus stands as an apt emblem for the originary moment of government, where individual protection and right hang in the balance with association and its consequent duty. Like a magnet, both life and the state subsist in their unity and strife.

While never expressed in quite so explicit terms, Coleridge’s proposition amounts to something like this: if organic life and the state are characterized by a similar form and process, then any “analogy of being”—rooted, as Harding suggests, in the logic that upholds an “argument from design”—becomes de facto an analogy of political being.32 This was, of course, a seductive idea for a thinker who held the Bible to be “the best guide to political skill and foresight,” but a perilous one if the analogy ultimately failed to sustain the designer (LS, p. 3).33 Rather than take Coleridge’s analogy for granted, I trouble its equilibrium and, in what follows, approach each side of the equation in its turn.


When Thelwall proposed that life was dependent on the conjunction of a specific physiological organization with the stimulus of an “electrical fluid,” he was taking issue with John Hunter, the famed physiologist who had attributed life not to an organism’s physical arrangement or organization, but to an ethereal quality inherent in its blood.34 Though Hunter died in 1793, public dissension over the interpretation of his vital theory made the question of life a controversial focal point of romantic science. Best known as a catalyst for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), the Hunterian debate involved a prolonged dispute between two distinguished surgeons, John Abernathy and William Lawrence.35 In 1814, Abernathy developed Hunter’s views in a public lecture before the Royal College of Surgeons, arguing that in the “great chain of living beings, we find life connected with a vast variety of organization, yet exercising the same functions in each.”36 [End Page 653] Like Hunter, he held life to be entirely independent of physical organization, but he rejected the idea that life could somehow be explained by the blood itself. For Abernathy, life was a “subtile, mobile, invisible substance”—a mystical stimulus that was “superadded” to plant or animal matter much as “electricity is to various substances with which it may be connected.”37 In a sharply contrasting position, William Lawrence adopted a purely empirical perspective to argue that life was solely a product of physiological organization. He dismissed Abernathy’s explanation as an unscientific “hypothesis or fiction” and chided him for invoking “the mysterious aid of higher and imaginary beings” to explain difficult phenomena.38

The multiple postures in the debate ultimately emphasize the singularity of Coleridge’s concern. Though he shared Abernathy’s sense that life was independent of organization, he firmly rejected the notion that the vital principle could be reduced to a mere electrical current. At the same time, he was equally skeptical of Lawrence’s strict empiricism and its exclusion of “the immediate operation of the divinity.”39 In this sense, Theory of Life entertains the synthesis of two divergent positions. In an attempt at reconciliation, Coleridge drew a distinction between a comprehensive or indivisible “account” of life, and an “explanation” of life that resulted from approaching it as the product of all its progressive forms (TL, pp. 503–4).

At a basic level, Coleridge asserts that an account of life necessitates seeing “into the principle of its possibility, and from that principle to evolve its being” (TL, p. 503). Much like his attempt to formulate “the true Idea of A Constitution,” he holds that such an account must eschew abstraction “from any particular state, form, or modes” as well as generalization “from any number or succession of such forms or modes” (CS, p. 12). In this vein, Coleridge looks to isolate a principle of life that includes “its ultimate aim” (CS, p. 12) but is at once “its ground or cause” (TL, p. 503). His response is characteristic: “And to this, in the question of Life, I know no possible answer, but God” (TL, p. 503).

Simple though it may be for Coleridge to designate God as both the source and ultimate endpoint of life—God as the Logos, the Creator, and the Evolver40—his explanation of the various interceding permutations of this life is more evasive:

In the present instance, such an explanation would consist in the reduction of the idea of Life to its simplest and most comprehensive form or mode of action; that is, to [End Page 654] some characteristic instinct or tendency, evident in all its manifestations, and involved in the idea itself. This assumed as existing in kind, it will be required to present an ascending series of corresponding phenomena as involved in, proceeding from, and so far therefore explained by, the supposition of its progressive intensity and of the gradual enlargement of its sphere, the necessity of which again must be contained in the idea of the tendency itself.

(TL, pp. 504–5)

Explaining life necessitated charting a progressive or ascending tendency whose goal was nevertheless inherent in its source—and yet for Coleridge, this progression occurred not “in time” but in “the order of nature” (TL, p. 503). In other words, an explanation of life resembles a core sample of the ground of its potentiality—a representation of synchronic stratification rather than a diachronic record. As Trevor Levere observes, however, “the metaphors with which Coleridge described the ascent of powers, and their culmination in the ascent of life, become increasingly historical.”41 Indeed, it becomes difficult to imagine how action, procession, “gradual enlargement,” and progress can occur anywhere other than in the temporal realm.

This inherent tension in Coleridge’s synchronic representation of life gives rise to a larger difficulty—an obstacle or impasse in life’s ascent that generates significant political, moral, and religious ramifications. In pondering the evolution of life from the ground of its being, Coleridge claims that the seminal idea of life should itself contain “the necessity of this progression and of these ascending gradations” (TL, p. 505). In other words, “the power which comes forth and stirs abroad in the bird, must be latent in the egg” (TL, p. 517). Tracking the continuous realization of life from this common and primordial source, Coleridge describes life as it is manifested in a scale of “organic nature”—its hierarchical progression from an early intimation in metals and crystals on through corals, mollusks, vegetables, insects, fish, animals, and, finally, humankind. He takes great pains to accentuate “the evident continuity of the life of Nature” (TL, p. 537).

At the same time, however, this evolution or “gradual enlargement” of a “mysterious ground”—even a divine ground—cannot in the end account for the unique position of the human within the natural as “a living soul” made in the image of God (TL, pp. 504 and 506). From the outset of his hierarchical description, Coleridge maintains that revelation, the authority “of all countries, [End Page 655] and of all ages,” and the wide and unbridgeable “chasm” between man and brute all inform his conviction that humankind is distinctly separate from the continuum of nature: “[Since] I have a rational and responsible soul, I think far too reverentially of the same to degrade it into an hypothesis, and could not be blind to the contradiction I must incur, if I assign that soul which I believe to constitute the peculiar nature of man as the cause of functions and properties, which man possesses in common with the oyster and the mushroom” (TL, p. 501).42 Coleridge is equally seduced by two potentially contradictory accounts of the human position. On the one hand, he holds that nature is “prophetic up the whole vast pyramid of organic being” (CS, p. 176)—that there is some unmistakable quality predicative of the human in the oyster and mushroom, and that man himself stands as a kind of “compendium of Nature” (TL, p. 551). On the other hand, he adamantly recognizes an unbridgeable gap through which “self-consciousness and self-government” are divinely superadded to whatever is natural in man—a task in which nature does “not assist as handmaid under the eye of her sovereign Master” (TL, p. 550). Prophecy does not guarantee realization or connection, but its invocation here points to the complexity of Coleridge’s position, one in which the alignment of the prophetic with nature destabilizes a religious concern.

This split in Coleridge’s Theory of Life exemplifies what Arthur Lovejoy described as a dawning eighteenth-century recognition of the implications of a “principle of continuity”—the ominous awareness “that man can be supposed to differ psychologically or physically from the nearest so-called non-human species only infinitesimally.”43 Alexander Pope, for example, had acknowledged that the “unsuperable line” or “nice barrier” between human reason and animal instinct ensured they would be “[f]or ever sep’rate, yet for ever near!”44 Coleridge himself preferred to imagine the ascent of life as a series of steps in a ladder with “evident interspace[s]” rather than as “links in a suspended chain” (TL, pp. 537 and 509). Forced to accommodate the unique position of the human, however, his schematic of life’s progressive ascent starts to look more like what he describes in the Biographia Literaria (1817) as “the fragments of the winding steps of an old ruined tower.”45 Like his definition of the imagination in the Biographia Literaria, his account of human supervention does not readily yield itself to comprehensive philosophical derivation. As he suggests in The Statesman’s Manual, all that “we do or know, that in kind is different from the brute creation, has its origin in a determination of the reason to have faith and trust in itself” (LS, p. 18). [End Page 656]

The reality of a strong human exceptionalism—a recognition, in Charles Armstrong’s words, of “mankind’s deeper nature, a nature beyond nature”—stands as a central tenet in Coleridge’s Theory of Life.46 Indeed, he goes so far as to assert that the appearance of the human in nature ushers in a “new series beyond the appropriate limits of physiology” (TL, p. 16). At the same time, he consistently returns to the idea of an evolutionary paradigm whose ultimate outgrowths are included in the potential of its origin. In his analysis of “organic powers” appended to On the Constitution of Church and State, Coleridge remarks that “the highest must be presumed to inhere latently or potentially in the lowest, or this latter will be wholly unintelligible, inconceivable—you can have no conception of it” (CS, p. 179). One could argue that he is speaking of powers here rather than beings, but the patterns of Coleridge’s thought are often as revealing as their more specific content. In the same appendix to On the Constitution of Church and State, he also argues that “evolution as contradistinguished from apposition, or superinduction ab aliunde [from other sources], is implied in the conception of life” (p. 181).47 But it is precisely such a superinduction—indeed, nothing less than the superaddition of “self-consciousness and self-government” and the infusion of a “living soul”—that serves as the linchpin in Coleridge’s Theory, holding the threat of sacrilege at bay (TL, p. 550).

Anya Taylor has suggested that Coleridge “opposed [evolution] from the depths of his heart,” and Thomas McFarland similarly has described his investment in human exceptionalism as a clear-cut strategy, one that allowed him to “adopt the attractive features of evolutionary ascent” without confronting the startling religious “implications that Darwin would develop.”48 In Coleridge’s scheme, however, the precarious position of the human could hardly be so satisfactorily righted. His own recognition of the opposition between evolution and supervention draws attention to the paradoxical premises of his argument even as it unfolds; man is marked by an incomparable spiritual endowment, but his physical apogee owes something to the progressive realization of life in nature. Taylor suggests that Coleridge believed that the soul had “nothing to do with the bodily growth we share with oysters and mushrooms”—but if all life arises from God who is its ground, this continuum of the natural must also be inextricably linked with the continuum of the divine.49 At the end of the day, the difficulty of accounting for the difference between the human and the animal was less threatening to Coleridge than the necessity of reconciling their shared propensities. Walter Jackson Bate has [End Page 657] suggested that Theory of Life was thwarted by Coleridge’s failed attempt to construct a “union between Christianity and the Dynamic philosophy of nature,” but the diagnosis of failure might readily be reconceived as a growing recognition of a pressing reality.50

For Coleridge, the monumental impasse between the notion of man made in the divine image and that of man as the summit of a particular natural process becomes, at a more intimate level, a recognition that man is “in one part indeed the creature of Nature, but in another constituted above nature.”51 In Seamus Perry’s terms, the “anxious doubleness of the human, divided between Reason and Understanding, internalizes in microcosm the confrontation of godliness and naturalness that pervades the universe as a whole.”52 As plaguing as both the profound fracture in Theory of Life and the correspondent reality of a human “double constitution” become for Coleridge at the level of moral and theological speculation, the essential tension they manifest nevertheless comes to stand, at least analogically, as a generative and fundamental force in political life.53


In an early notebook entry of 1804, Coleridge recorded James Harrington’s assertion that as “the Form of a Man is the Image of God, so the Form of a Just Government is the Image of Man.”54 If Theory of Life shows Coleridge attempting to reconcile the duality of man as at once “the Image of God” and the product of nature, his later political prose captures his growing awareness that the “Form of a Just Government” must somehow manifest the “image” of this split. In On the Constitution of the Church and State, Coleridge makes it clear from the outset that the duties implicit in the idea of a social contract “arise out of the very constitution of our humanity, which supposes the social state” (p. 15). In other words, “the idea of an ever-originating social contract” is both predicated upon and “evolved out of the yet higher idea of person, in contra-distinction from thing” (CS, p. 15). With the idea of moral freedom implicit as its ground and its goal, Coleridge imagines the evolution of the state out of the wide chasm that separates man from “trees and animals [which] are things” (CS, p. 15). In both his natural and political histories, however, the permeable boundary demarcating the human consistently calls this distinction into question. Since “the very constitution of our humanity” is in actuality a double constitution, the life of the state is itself inflected by the split position of the human in the scale of life (CS, [End Page 658] p. 15). To borrow Agamben’s formulation, Coleridge ultimately concluded that “man is not a duality of spirit and body, nature and politics, life and logos, but is instead resolutely situated at the point of their indistinction.”55

Coleridge recognized the possibility of this impasse as early as 1816, asserting in Theory of Life that only in “the conciliating mid-point, or equator, does the Man live, and only by its equal presence in both its poles can that life be manifested!” (p. 551). In entertaining this split conception of life—and in refusing to create distinctions and thresholds that would make it possible to define life in terms of its absence—Coleridge dismissed a coercive model of biopolitics that Michel Foucault would later characterize as one that called an individual’s “existence as a living being into question.”56 For Coleridge, life was not subject to government but ultimately antecedent to it.

Coleridge was aware of how arduous this balance was to maintain and how simple it might be to fall away from the “conciliating midpoint.” He translated this awareness into a conviction that political life called for the careful balancing of two faculties, emphasizing not only the reason that signaled the proximity of the human with the divine, but also the understanding that derived from humanity’s intimate connection with nature, experience, and “the science of phaenomena” (LS, p. 59).57 Coleridge saw an excess of either faculty as potentially fatal to good government. One of the catalysts behind the composition of The Statesman’s Manual lay in his growing awareness of a national fixation on the understanding and its preference for “immediate utility, in exclusive reference to the gratification of the wants and appetites of the animal, the vanities and caprices of the social, and the ambition of the political” (LS, p. 74). Indeed, he went so far as to recognize that whole nations and governments could evolve out of the lower idea of a thing or animal, in contradistinction from a person: “Jacobinism betrays its mixt parentage and nature, by applying to the brute passions and physical force of the multitude (that is, to man as a mere animal,) in order to build up government and the frame of society on natural rights instead of social privileges, on the universals of abstract reason instead of positive institutions, the light of specific experience, and the modifications of existing circumstances” (LS, p. 64, emphasis added). For Coleridge, even the sovereignty of reason was insufficient armor against the animalistic side of man that Jeremy Bentham and the French philosophes carried into the public spotlight and the political realm. Coleridge matched this negative awareness [End Page 659] of the political hazards of human doubleness, however, with a corresponding and growing recognition that government was not just constituted by human subjects but was in itself responsible for the inculcation of humanity—for developing the faculties that “constitute the civilized man in contra-distinction from the barbarian, the savage, and the animal” and so qualify him to be “the free subject of a civilized realm” (CS, p. 74). Like his notion of biological life, Coleridge’s conception of the dynamics of political life moves toward an accommodation of that bifurcation by which human life is at once a sacrosanct end in itself and yet also part of a larger continuity or process.

In Theory of Life, Coleridge praised Hunter for surveying “the whole system of organized beings, from plants to man” under “one common law” (p. 529). The implication of a “common law” operating across an evolutionary and hierarchal spectrum in both natural and social life foreshadows his later claim that the idea of the constitution, like the idea of moral freedom, resembles “the spirit of life, which is contained in no vessel, because it permeates all” (CS, p. 18). The British constitution, like the vital principle it incorporated, was the result of “the gradual realization of [an] idea” (CS, p. 19). Since it was not an easily isolated principle or document, its various manifestations could only be understood in light of “its ground or cause” (TL, p. 503).

Looking past their shared intangibility, Coleridge found in the flexible mechanics of the constitution a method that approximated the organic process of life itself. The superlative freedoms guaranteed by the British constitution were not a divine dispensation realized at its origin but were rather predicated on its incorporation of polarity. In this sense, the constitution slowly achieved a kingdom of ends—but only through a gradual process kept in balance by a “due proportion of the potential (latent, dormant) to the actual Power” (CS, p. 95). Echoing Edmund Burke, Coleridge held that the unsurpassed freedom of the Englishman was the direct result of “the insular privilege of a self-evolving Constitution,” one whose “happy organization” could be attributed not to a preexisting “tree transplanted from Paradise” but rather to the grueling development of a seminal and obscure seed:

With blood was it planted—it was rocked in tempests—the goat, the ass, and the stag gnawed it—the wild boar has whetted his tusks on its bark. The deep scars are still extant on its trunk, and the path of the lightning may be traced on its higher branches. And even after its full [End Page 660] growth, in the season of its strength, “when its height reached to the heaven, and the sight thereof to all the earth,” the whirlwind has more than once forced its stately top to touch the ground: it has been bent like a bow, and sprang back like a shaft. Mightier powers were at work than Expediency ever yet called up—yea, mightier than the mere Understanding can comprehend!

(LS, p. 22)

Like the unfolding of life itself, the order and organization of the constituted state—scars and all—are the product of a power that “discloses itself from within as a principle of unity in the many” (TL, p. 510). To explain the potency of the constitution, Coleridge made metaphorical recourse to his speculation on vitality, but in both modes of thought he was implicitly channeling Burke, who had claimed in Reflections on the Revolution in France that the British constitution preserved “an unity in so great a diversity of its parts.”58

In this Burkean sense, Coleridge traced evolving manifestations of the constitution back to its ancient ground. In Aids to Reflection (1825), he depicted just such an originary moment: “Nature is a Line in constant and continuous evolution. Its beginning is lost in the Super-natural; and for our understanding, therefore, it must appear as a continuous line without beginning or end. But where there is no discontinuity there can be no origination, and every appearance of origination in Nature is but a shadow of our own casting. It is a reflection from our own Will or Spirit. Herein, indeed, the will consists. This is the essential character by which will is opposed to Nature, as Spirit, and raised above Nature as self-determining Spirit—this, namely, that it is a power of originating an act or state.”59 As in Theory of Life, the elevation of the self-conscious and self-determined will above nature results in a discontinuity that is also an origin—but here, that origin casts a shadow across nature without impeding its “constant and continuous evolution.” In On the Constitution of the Church and State, Coleridge clarified the explicitly divine nature of this willed discontinuity by citing William Hughes, a seventeenth-century writer who had imagined that the ancient constitution “might say of itself—When reason and the laws of God first came, then came I with them” (CS, p. 22). In other words, Coleridge held that the obscure origin of the constitution was integrally related to the central rupture that he had described in Theory of Life. [End Page 661]

In an 1820 letter to J. H. Green, Coleridge argued that a body’s organization was not static but had to be “continually reproduced.”60 This physiological insight squared with his recognition that a fixed principle was ultimately unthinkable without “the supposition of its progressive intensity and of the gradual enlargement of its sphere” (TL, p. 505). In On the Constitution of the Church and State, Coleridge expounded the political ramifications of this intuition, arguing that a “sound constitution of the Body Politic” required balancing “the free and permeative life and energy of the Nation” with those “organized powers brought within containing channels” (p. 85). In once again invoking polarity as a form of process, Coleridge described the state as a dynamic entity poised between “Permanence and Progress” (CS, p. 24). The commercial spirit had to stand as a necessary counterbalance to permanent landed interests. In more general terms, “ultimate Ends” had to exist in coordination with “such ends as are in their turn means to other ends” (CS, p. 123). Approximating in their cohesion a living organism, the atomistic existence of persons and powers “were so far interdependent that each is reciprocally means and end” (TL, p. 512). Approached from a different angle, this constitutional reciprocity of means and end reflected Coleridge’s conviction that government had to make room for the discordant doubleness of human nature itself.


For Coleridge, the life of the state was marked by the continual reconciliation of a timeless bequest of reason with its concomitant development in time. Coleridge privileged a dynamic model of the body politic that both “supposes and pre-supposes the vital principle,” one in which each new manifestation of a living power was seen as predicated in the progressive unfolding of life itself (CS, p. 20). Increasingly complex and more just embodiments of the state and its freedoms were seen as the manifest fruition of an anterior and potential life rather than the result of mechanized or external statecraft. As Coleridge himself described it, “The line of evolution, however, sinuous, has still tended to this point, sometimes with, sometimes without, not seldom, perhaps, against, the intention of the individual actors, but always as if a power, greater, and better, than the men themselves, had intended it for them. Nor let it be forgotten that every new growth, every new power and privilege, bought or extorted, has uniformly been claimed [End Page 662] by an antecedent right; not acknowledged as a boon conferred, but both demanded and received as what had always belonged to them, though withheld by violence and the injury of the times” (CS, p. 30). This evolving retrieval from a seminal constitutional source bears a resemblance to J. G. A. Pocock’s description of the ancient constitution and its common law tradition in which custom becomes “by definition immemorial, that which had been usage and law since time out of mind.”61 But the sinuous line of evolution points more specifically to the organic form of the state as both potential and process, a dynamic equilibrium in which the end of unity is gradually discovered through the multiplicity of the means themselves. Incorporating not only the activity of a higher power but also the substantiation of that power in time, Coleridge found in the qualified organicism of the political realm a sympathetic analog and practical explanation of his own bifurcated humanity.

Near the beginning of Theory of Life, Coleridge poses a paradigmatic question and characteristic answer: “What is life? Were such a question proposed, we should be tempted to answer, what is not Life that really is?” (TL, p. 506).62 For Coleridge, there were a thousand ways to tackle this query, with the frame of reference no less than that of the moral and physical universe itself. Like all of Coleridge’s own attempts, this essay purports to go no farther than the etymological bounds of the term in an attempt “to try”—to hazard an affinity between Coleridge’s vital theory and his vital political thought. One might see Coleridge’s own writing as an attempt to track this affinity through a process to its source, but he offers one clue regarding the stakes of all his striving. The apex of human life is achieved by the divine superaddition of “self-consciousness and self-government” (TL, p. 550). In a Table Talk entry from 1833, Coleridge makes the tantalizingly correspondent claim that “the necessity for external government to man is in an inverse proportion to the vigor of his self-government. Where the last is most complete, the first is least wanted.”63 Coleridge was deeply invested in the process of polarity and its progressive reconciliations, but his deepest imaginings looked toward a unity that might mark the end of that process. The power implicit in life was, for Coleridge, none other than the “steadfast frame of hope” (LS, p. 9). [End Page 663]

Jacob Risinger

Jacob Risinger is Assistant Professor of English at Ohio State University, where he is working on a book about British Romanticism and Stoic philosophy.


1. Nicholas Roe, for example, argues that “for a brief period in the 1790s it seemed that science, the poet’s imagination, and political and religious liberty were mutually cooperative and progressive” (introduction to Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Sciences of Life, ed. Roe [Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2001], pp. 1–21, 2).

2. Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Francis Wrangham, Surrey, 24 October 1794, in Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Earl Leslie Griggs, 6 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956), 1:120–1, 121.

3. Coleridge, “Religious Musings,” in The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, gen. ed. Kathleen Coburn, 16 numbers, Bollingen Series (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1969–2002), 16.1.1:171–91, 184, line 225.

4. William Wordsworth, The Thirteen-Book “Prelude,” ed. Mark Reed, Cornell Wordsworth (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1991), p. 290, book 10, lines 874–6, emphasis added.

5. Wordsworth, The Fourteen-Book “Prelude,” ed. W. J. B. Owen, Cornell Wordsworth (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1985), p. 224, book 11, line 280; and John Thelwall, “Essay, Towards a Definition of Animal Vitality,” in The Politics of Nature: William Wordsworth and Some Contemporaries, by Roe (Basingstoke UK: Palgrave, 2002), pp. 87–119, 119.

6. Coleridge to Thelwall, London, 31 December 1796, in Collected Letters, 1:293–5, 295.

7. Coleridge wrote Theory of Life in late 1816, but it was not published until 1848. See Coleridge, Theory of Life, in Collected Works, 11.1:481–557, 481. Subsequent references to Theory of Life, hereafter TL, are from this edition and will appear parenthetically in the text and notes by page number.

8. Coleridge, On the Constitution of the Church and State, in Collected Works, 10:5–185, 59. Subsequent references to On the Constitution of the Church and State, hereafter CS, are from this edition and will appear parenthetically in the text and notes by page number.

9. Coleridge, “The Eolian Harp,” in Collected Works, 16.1.1:231–5, 234, line 48.

10. In emphasizing the complexity of Coleridge’s own thought, I have opted not to explore the debts that Theory of Life owes to Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling and post-Kantian Naturphilosophie more generally. For more on this aspect of Theory of Life, see Tilottama Rajan, “The Unavowable Community of Idealism: Coleridge and the Life Sciences,” ERR 14, 4 (December 2003): 395–416; Raimonda Modiano, Coleridge and the Concept of Nature (London and Basingstoke UK: Macmillan, 1985), pp. 138–206, esp. pp. 200–2; and Robert J. Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2002), pp. 542–4.

11. Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1998), p. 8.

12. Alastair Hunt and Matthias Rudolf, “The Romantic Rhetoric of Life,” introduction to Romantic Circles Praxis Series: Romanticism and Biopolitics, ed. Hunt and Rudolf (December 2012): paragraph 1,

13. See Hunt and Rudolf, “Romantic Rhetoric,” paragraphs 1–4. [End Page 664]

14. Pamela Edwards, The Statesman’s Science (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2004), p. 151.

15. Rajan, “Organicism,” ESC 30, 4 (December 2004): 46–50, 47. See also Denise Gigante’s claim that organic form was “inherently political” and that “[Friedrich] Schiller, like his contemporary Coleridge, helped to found Romantic aesthetics on an organic model—and to articulate its sociopolitical implications” (Life: Organic Form and Romanticism [New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2009], p. 25).

16. Rajan’s call for engagement with the complexity of Coleridge’s organicism is important, but some ambiguity surrounding concepts such as “life” and “organicism” can hardly be avoided. As Ross Wilson has noted, recent studies of Romantic life science also risk oversimplifying the constellation of concerns held together by the term “life,” or at least risk ignoring the way in which the Romantic fascination with life was “not so much riven as fascinated by the paradoxes” that it entailed (introduction to The Meaning of “Life” in Romantic Poetry and Poetics, ed. Wilson [New York: Routledge, 2009], pp. 1–12, 9).

17. Coleridge, Lectures 1808–1819 on Literature, in Collected Works, 5.1:495.

18. Coleridge, Lectures on Belles Lettres, in Collected Works, 5.1:479–97, 495.

19. For an early account of how Coleridge’s philosophical preoccupations informed his political thought, see David Calleo, Coleridge and the Idea of the Modern State (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1966), pp. 28–46. In “The Unavowable Community,” Rajan briefly notes that ideas from Theory of Life are given “an exemplary place” in On the Constitution of Church and State (p. 402).

20. Coleridge, The Statesman’s Manual, in Collected Works, 6:3–52, 28; Coleridge, appendix C to The Statesman’s Manual, in Collected Works, 6:59–93, 76; and Coleridge, A Lay Sermon, in Collected Works, 6:117–230, 173. Subsequent references to The Statesman’s Manual and other Lay Sermons, hereafter LS, are from this edition and will appear parenthetically in the text and notes by page number.

21. Isaiah Berlin, “Politics as a Descriptive Science,” in Political Ideas in the Romantic Age: Their Rise and Influence on Modern Thought, ed. Henry Harby (London: Chatto and Windus, 2006), pp. 17–87, 62.

22. George Gordon, Lord Byron, The Age of Bronze, vol. 7 of The Complete Poetical Works of Lord Byron, ed. Jerome McGann, 7 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), pp. 1–25, 20.

23. Coleridge, Aids to Reflection, in Collected Works, 9:268; and Coleridge, CS, p. 30.

24. David Fairer, Organising Poetry: The Coleridge Circle, 1790–1798 (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2009), pp. 3 and 260.

25. Coleridge to J. H. Green, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, 25 January 1828, in Collected Letters, 6:723.

26. For a thoughtful approach to Coleridge on evolution, see James Engell, “Coleridge (and His Mariner) On the Soul: ‘As an Exile in a Far Distant Land,’” in The Fountain Light: Studies in Romanticism and Religion, ed. J. Robert Barth (New York: Fordham Univ. Press, 2002), pp. 128–51, 147–8. [End Page 665]

27. Coleridge to Wordsworth, Cavendish Square, London, 30 May 1815, in Collected Letters, 4:574; and Coleridge, lecture 7 of Lectures 1818–1819 on The History of Philosophy, in Collected Works, 8.1:303–36, 316–7.

28. Anthony John Harding, “Coleridge, Natural History, and the ‘Analogy of Being,’” HEI 26, 3–4 (2000): 143–58, esp. 146–7.

29. Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, in Collected Works, 7.1:304; Coleridge, Table Talk, in Collected Works, 14.1:3–499, 248; and Coleridge, Specimens of the Table Talk of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Henry Nelson Coleridge, in Collected Works, 14.2:1–304, 146.

30. See William Blake’s marginalia in Wordsworth’s Poems (1815) in Blake’s Poetry and Designs, ed. Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant (New York: Norton, 1979), p. 446.

31. Engell, pp. 132–3.

32. Harding, p. 144.

33. For Coleridge’s shifting perspective on the argument from design, see Colin Jager, The Book of God: Secularization and Design in the Romantic Era (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), pp. 93–7.

34. Thelwall, p. 119.

35. Richard Holmes notes that both John Abernathy and William Lawrence treated prominent literary figures in the period. In 1812, Coleridge consulted Abernathy for “a complex range of stomach complaints and subtle nervous afflictions” associated with his opium addiction. Between 1815 and 1818, Percy Shelley benefited from regular consultations with Lawrence. See Holmes, The Age of Wonder (New York: Pantheon Books, 2008), pp. 308 and 311.

36. Abernathy, An Inquiry into the Probability and Rationality of Mr. Hunter’s Theory of Life (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1814), p. 16. For a detailed summary of the Hunterian debate, see Trevor Levere, Poetry Realized in Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1981), pp. 45–52 and 215–9; Holmes, pp. 307–13; and Coleridge, TL, pp. 481–4. For a compelling discussion of the ideological implications of the debate, see Sharon Ruston, Shelley and Vitality (Basingstoke UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), pp. 24–73.

37. Abernathy, p. 39.

38. Lawrence, An Introduction to Comparative Anatomy and Physiology (London: Printed for J. Callow, Medical Bookseller, 1816), p. 174.

39. Lawrence, p. 175.

40. See Coleridge, The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Kathleen Coburn, 5 vols. (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1957–2002), 2:2546.

41. See Levere, “Coleridge and the Sciences,” in Romanticism and the Sciences, ed. Andrew Cunningham and Nicholas Jardine (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990), pp. 295–306, 303.

42. See Coleridge, On the Prometheus of Aeschylus (1825), in Collected Works, 11.2.1251–301. There Coleridge suggests, among other things, that nature “knows herself only, can only come to a knowledge of herself, in Man! And even in man, only as man is supernatural, above nature, noetic” (11.2:1285). See also 11.2:1266–9 and 1281.

43. Arthur Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea (Cambridge MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1933), p. 195.

44. Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man, vol. 3 of The Poems of Alexander Pope, ed. John Butt, Twickenham edn., 7 vols. (London: Routledge, 1963), pp. 6–166, 43, epistle 1, lines 228 and 223–4. [End Page 666]

45. Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, 7.1:303.

46. Charles Armstrong, Romantic Organicism: From Idealist Origins to Ambivalent Afterlife (Basingstoke UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), p. 67.

47. For another version of this argument, see Coleridge, TL, p. 533.

48. Anya Taylor, Coleridge’s Defense of the Human (Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 1986), p. 40; and Thomas McFarland, prolegomena to Opus Maximum, in Coleridge, Collected Works, 15:xli–ccxl, ccxvii. See also McFarland, pp. clxix–lxxx.

49. Taylor, p. 48.

50. Walter Jackson Bate, Coleridge (New York: Macmillan, 1968), p. 196.

51. Coleridge, lecture 6 of Lectures on the History of Philosophy, 8.1:253–300, 280.

52. Seamus Perry, Coleridge and the Uses of Division (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1999), p. 61.

53. Coleridge, lecture 6 of Lectures on the History of Philosophy, 8.1:280.

54. Coleridge, Notebooks, 2:2223.

55. Agamben, p. 153.

56. Michel Foucault, An Introduction, vol. 1 of The History of Sexuality, trans. Robert Hurle, 3 vols. (New York: Random House, 1990), p. 143.

57. For an account of the centrality of the understanding in Coleridgean politics, see Timothy Michael, “Coleridge, Hume, and the Principles of Political Knowledge,” SIR 49, 3 (Fall 2010): 445–75.

58. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. Leslie Mitchell (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1993), p. 33. See also Biographia Literaria, wherein Coleridge describes Burke as a “scientific statesman” whose “every principle contains in itself the germ of a prophecy” (7.1:191–2).

59. Coleridge, Aids to Reflection, 9:268.

60. Coleridge to J. H. Green, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, 25 May 1820, in Collected Letters, 5:47.

61. J. G. A. Pocock, “Burke and the Ancient Constitution: A Problem in the History of Ideas,” Historical Journal 3, 2 (1960): 125–43, 129.

62. In The Meaning of “Life” in Romantic Poetry and Poetics, Wilson notes that attempts to answer this prototypical Romantic question often took the form “not of clearly defined answers” but of “testimonies to the difficulty of responding to it” (p. 1).

63. Coleridge, Table Talk, 14.1:387. For a similar formulation see Notebooks wherein Coleridge suggests that the increased “influence of Religion” can render “positive Law, or Legislation” less necessary (4:5402). [End Page 667]

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