A Wise Prophet Faces Backwards: Coleridge’s Prophetic Conservatism


Alan Gregory


(Coleridge Bulletin New Series 14, Autumn 1999, pp.26-32)



WILLIAM BLAKE looked forward to the time when all the Lord’s people would be prophets.[1] As is well known, Coleridge’s political hopes, at least in his maturity, were rather less expansive.  However, The Statesman’s Manual, published in 1816, is something of a call for prophets.  The candidates for the job are “the Learned and Reflecting of all Ranks and Professions, especially among the Higher Classes:” those in a position to discern solid truth under the shifts of time and come up with political wisdom.  To this elect, Coleridge proposes the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, as “the STATESMAN’s BEST MANUAL.” He argues that reading the signs of the times and examining Scripture for guidance in matters of national politics and economy requires that we recognize and understand the prophetic.  When schooled in the nature of prophecy, the “statesman” may take up the mantle of the seer and read history “in the spirit of prophecy.”[2]

       The object of my brief remarks here is to point out what Coleridge makes of “prophecy” in his Lay Sermons and to show the mutation that it undergoes at his hands.  More particularly, I want to draw attention to the political motive behind Coleridge’s attempt to preserve and manage the interpretative category of “prophecy.” In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, “prophecy” was a contested concept.  Not only were prophetic claims disputed but also the nature of prophecy itself.  Joseph Priestley undoubtedly thought Richard Brothers unacceptably chummy with the Almighty but, more importantly, he rejected the understanding of prophecy taught by this millenarian enthusiast.  Contests over prophecy were implicated in conflicts of political aspiration and proposal.  During the 1790’s and again in the second decade of the 19th century, even Joanna Southcott’s relatively apolitical millenarianism alarmed a government nervous of potential sedition.  Other interpreters of prophecy, of course, were more evidently disturbing, Priestly, for instance, and, later, William Sharp who was involved with the “demagogues” assaulted in A Lay Sermon.[3] Prophecy, however, was not the preserve of radicals alone, conservatives also applied Biblical prophecy and apocalyptic in judging contemporary events, whether with disapproval, warning, or celebration.  Coleridge’s own career illustrates—rather famously—both a radical and a more




conservative appropriation of prophecy.  What is interesting about Coleridge, however, is that, in shifting from one to the other, he does more than reorient Biblical texts toward new political concerns.  Rather, Coleridge reworks the category of prophecy in such a way as to exclude his earlier, radical self.   Nathaniel Halhed, Parliamentary supporter of Richard Brothers, urged the need “to read the modern history of Europe in the prophetic records of the Old and New Testaments.”(Ibid.  64.)  At first sight, this is precisely what is advocated by the author of The Statesman’s Manual, however, by 1816, Coleridge had so reinterpreted “prophecy” as to fling Halhed’s version of prophetic politics beyond the hermeneutical pale. 

       In arguing the Bible’s claim to inform present political reflection, Coleridge, as I've suggested, adopts “prophecy” as his principle interpretative category.  The “highest formula” in Scripture, he tells us, is the prophetic declarative “AS SURE AS GOD LIVES.” (LS`21) Political wisdom begins by turning to the Bible as an “imperative and oracular” book. (LS18) Other Biblical genres, the histories, for instance, are thus subsumed under the prophetic, “prophecy” becoming, as it were, the form of forms in Coleridge’s political reading of Scripture.[4]

       How, then, does Coleridge understand prophecy? In a marginal note on Eichorn’s commentary on Revelation, Coleridge dismisses “prognosticating Commentators,” those who define prophecy as a complex of predictions.[5] Coleridge is rejecting here not only a popular view but one formerly held by himself.  In the 1795 Lectures on Revealed Religion, Coleridge had celebrated the force of prophetic truth precisely in the “accomplishment of predicted Events.” Such accomplishments, he announced, are “permanent testimonies” to revealed truth.  By 1816, however, the “prognosticating” view of prophecy seemed too restrictive of the significance of prophetic statements as well as of the category of prophecy itself.  Also, “prognostication” involved a demonstrative mode of apologetics that objectified Christian truth at the expense of its essential subjective appropriation.  So, instead of defining prophecy in terms of prediction, Coleridge now redefined prediction in terms of prophecy.  “Should you not feel,” he asks his readers, “a deeper interest in predictions which are permanent prophecies because they are at the same time eternal truths?” True prophecy is permanent prophecy and so not exhausted in a single point of fulfillment, ready for entry in the evidentiary ledger favoring Christianity.  Permanent prophecies are “eternal truths.”

       Whether in the form of oracle, proverb, psalm, or historical narrative, prophecy, Coleridge argues, represents nature and history under the formative dynamism of divine “ideas.” It discloses, therefore, the creative agency of God




who “at Once the Ground and the Cause, . . . alone containeth in himself the ground of his own nature, and therein of all natures.” (Ibid.  32.) In the sphere of history, the “eternal truths” of prophecy announce the powers of the moral world, those ideas, such as “freedom” and, indeed, “property,” that shape and inform human agency.  Precisely because these ideas are eternal truths, determinative of the nature of humanity as made in the image of God, their announcement in Biblical narrative and imagery, empowers foresight and political guidance: it illuminates the future.  Prophecy is the truth of reason in oracular and symbolic form.  “It follows,” Coleridge claims, “that what is expressed in the inspired writings, is implied in all absolute science.  The latter whispers what the former utter as with the voice of a trumpet.” (SM 19)

       Coleridge universalizes the application of prophecy.  The Bible is a “system of symbols,” it embodies the formative powers of history, represents their ultimate unity, and thus names what is truly significant in the changes of time.  Biblical prophecy, therefore, is not restricted to a sacred history within history—announcing the coming of Christ, for instance—but becomes a means for recognizing all history as prophetic.[6] Comprised of symbols, Scripture has both specificity, its histories, for instance, recount a particular stretch of time, and ideality the parts revealing the wholeness of eternal purpose.  Furthermore, as a system of symbols, Scripture confronts the reader with a totality, containing all that is essential for historical interpretation, “teaching the science of the future in its perpetual elements.”[7]

       Coleridge has pressed a theory of symbols to serve a classical doctrine, that of the sufficiency of Scripture.  In the process, though, “prophecy” has been given a peculiar twist.  Not only does the Bible contain all things needful for salvation but it also undermines all radical claims to historical novelty.  Prophecy takes the so-called surprises of history, those purportedly novel developments that call for unprecedented, revolutionary action, and it deflates them of their originality.  The prophet exposes the surprises of history as always already within the circle of embodiment, always already symbolized and available for recognition.  This differs markedly from the teaching of populist millenarians whose claims were often based on the conviction that the proper meaning of biblical prophecy was hidden until a privileged time of charismatic unveiling and enactment.  For Coleridge, however, Scripture is proof against the charms and terrors of the new.  Read in “the spirit of prophecy,” history appears as a seamless garment of meaning.  There are no real surprises: the themes of time are anticipated.  In Scripture, they have their symbolic statement, the rest is variation.  Prophetic foresight comes “facing backwards.”

       Not surprisingly, The Statesman’s Manual includes a strenuous denunciation of Jacobin politics.  Part of Coleridge’s polemic involves pitting prophecy against claims to revolutionary novelty.  It’s not that the Hebrew Scriptures




 predict the French revolution, it’s rather that they symbolize the moral logic that, in Coleridge’s view, is once again played out within the dynamics of political change and Jacobin Terror.  Now, this characterization of prophecy with its polemical deployment is the conservative pole of Coleridge’s biblical hermeneutics.  Considered on its own, however, it leaves him with far too tight an account of historical unity and thus also a very reductive view of the significance of historical change.  His response to these problems depends upon an account of the symbol. 

       Coleridge’s treatment of symbolism imparts to his interpretative theory a mobility and a dynamism upon which depends his capacity to represent history both as a unity, the formative powers of which are already known, and as a reality involving significant change.  In The Statesman’s Manual, Coleridge argues that “ideas” or “principles” are the true motor forces of history.  Change, development, progress all occur under the impact of their “seminal power.” History is only apprehended as intelligible—transparent to the mind—insofar as its 'facts' are related to ideas and recognized as symbols.  Thus, the individual entity or event becomes “translucent” to, and representative of, the universal.  Not all facts can or will be recognized in this way or with the same degree of illuminative capacity: the disclosive power of the biblical histories, for instance, possesses an especial force and adequacy.  All symbols, however, reveal those ontological relations between particular and universal that constitute history’s intelligibility.  Unless one is to be satisfied with 'mere chronicle', a darkened routine of one damn thing after another, all “facts” must be set in relation to the ideas they symbolize, whether as successful embodiments or as corruptions.[8]

       The relation of particular and universal that is revealed in the symbolic involves a tension.  In one of his Schellingite moments, Coleridge writes, “An IDEA in the highest sense of the word, cannot be conveyed but by a symbol; and, except in geometry, all symbols of necessity involve an apparent contradiction.” (BL I 156) As “Educts of the Imagination,” symbols incorporate “the Reason in Images of the Sense.” Ideas, however, precisely because they are divine formative powers, “partaketh of infinity” and are, therefore, “untranslatable into any Image, unrepresentable by any particular Object.” (SM 23) Symbols participate in their truths, they do not comprehend them.  Furthermore, ideas transcend their representatives along the axis of time, they contain, as Coleridge puts it, “an endless power of semination. (Ibid 24) The productive power of the ideal is to continually exceed its embodiments.  In referring to ideas, symbols always anticipate further symbolizations.

       This account of the symbolic relationship between the ideal and its embodiments imparts a distinctive dynamism to Coleridge’s conservative




political philosophy.  His theology of history and his biblical hermeneutics commit him to the view that the future is governed by those formative powers disclosed prophetically in Scripture.  The Bible, he insists  “contains a Science of Realities: and therefore each of its Elements is at the same time a living GERM, in which the Present involves the Future.” (Ibid. 49). This philosophy of history is also, however, hostile to the suggestion that responsibility under these formative powers can be achieved through the mere preservation of the forms—institutions, ideologies, social practices—of the past.  Ideas exceed their embodiments: that is the energy of history.[9] Faithfulness to the idea of a political constitution, for instance, cannot be identified simply with the preservation of a particular set of institutions.  Given the continual changes of human affairs, the many forces that bear down upon them and that modify the realization of moral ideas, institutional configurations will have to change.  Thus, Coleridge came to revise his view of commerce and, in the later treatise On the Constitution of Church and State, appealed to “roads, canals, machinery, the press, the periodical and daily press, the might of public opinion” as a new social form contributing to that balance of permanent and progressive forces central to the idea of a constitution. (C&S 29).

       Coleridge attempted, then, to liberate prophecy from an identification with prediction.[10] William Paley provides us with a particularly reductive example of the apologetic argument from predictive prophecy.  Paley’s theology is one of Coleridge’s favorite targets not least because of its influence upon Anglican clergy.  The Archdeacon’s A View of the Evidences of Christianity, had reached twenty-four editions by 1816 and was on its way to achieving official status within the Cambridge curriculum.[11] According to Paley, prophecy professes “to describe. . .  future transactions and changes in the world.” Their apologetic value increases with the exactness of their detail, Isaiah 53 providing a prime example of Christologically demonstrative prediction.[12] Paley’s account is cautious and limited to prophecies concerning Christ.  Many others, of course, extended the predictive argument to include events of ecclesiastical history, past and future.[13]

       Either way, the emphasis fell on evidence for the truth of Christianity and for God’s wise government of time, the latter an encouragement to trust and




repentance in the present.  Coleridge’s “system of symbols” discourages the reductive measure of prophecy according to detailed fulfillments in favor of reading the present by way of those endlessly seminating “divine ideas” diversely symbolized throughout Scripture and continually embodied in history.  Coleridge thus urges his statesmen “to study history in the same spirit, as that in which good men read the Bible!,” that is, to read history, “in the spirit of prophecy.” (LS 123-4).  Reading history in the spirit of prophecy, however, returns us to the political implications of the prophetic and, in particular, to prophecy as an element in the rhetoric of radicalism.

       Coleridge understands that if the Bible is to be the statesman’s “best guide,” then interpretation must avoid a determinacy that overly restricts the range of application.  Against argument from evidences, Coleridge’s critique of the “prognosticating commentators,” argues for a considerable extension of both the category and applicability of prophecy.  On the other hand, though, his appeal to “permanent prophecies” that are “eternal truths,” is an attempt to demarcate and control the limits of legitimate application.  After all, prognostication could be more than Paleyean apologetic, it could also inspire denunciation of the powers that be in favor of the new order to come.

       Among a good many possible examples, I offer Joseph Priestley’s fast day sermon, preached in 1794, and, at the time, appreciated by Coleridge.  Priestley deploys prophecy and apocalyptic to denounce Protestant and Catholic church establishments, to condemn the hostilities against France, and to summon men and women to a pure Unitarian Christianity in anticipation of Christ’s imminent return.  For Priestley, a crucial note in discerning the signs of the times is the unprecedented character of present events.  He returns to this frequently.  “When,” he asks, “have we seen, or heard of, such anger and rage in nations, such violence in carrying on war, and such destruction of men, as at this very time?” Present events are the “great calamities, such as the world has never yet experienced” but which are known “from the language of prophecy.” So the abolition of nobility in France, hitherto unthinkable, fulfills the prediction in Revelation 11.3 that “seven thousands” of “the names of men” would be slain.  The dramatic novelty of these contemporary crises demands their identification as prophetic fulfillments.  And what, Priestley asks, “could be more unexpected than the events of any one of the last four years?”[14] History culminates in the unprecedented: this is what marks the design of God’s providence.

       Argument from the unprecedented, however, is precisely what Coleridge opposes.  His statesmen are to hold themselves  above “the guesses of star-gazers” and to reject the passion for “something new, .  .  .wholly new and out of yourselves.” His wise find no contradiction “in the union of old and new,” contemplating “the ANCIENT OF DAYS,” they acknowledge and rest upon eternal truths.  (SM 7, 25). The symbolization of these eternal truths is the




burden of prophecy and the ground of a prophetic reading of history.  In rejecting the common predictive understanding of prophecy, Coleridge opposed its politically seditious employment across the social range from Priestley to Brothers and the Southcottians.  His theory of symbols both undercuts an apocalyptic reading of history and mutes the eschatological dimension of prophecy.

       “Prophecy,” in Coleridge’s treatment, moves closer to what in the C20th century would be described as belonging to the genre of “wisdom.” The eschatological dimension of prophecy, however, the importance in prophetic literature of the new and unprecedented is, though in different ways, insisted upon by the bulk of both the 18th century commentary Coleridge read and the theological and historical studies of the late 20th century.  Given this, one of the nice ironies of the Lay Sermons is that, according to Coleridge, prophecy warrants the triumphant, and politically reassuring, conclusion that, when faced with Hone, Cobbett, Hunt and all dreadful demagogues, we may “say to ourselves: this is no new thing under the sun.”[15] The wise prophet faces backwards.

[1]   Numbers 11.29, given for instance, in the preface to Milton.

[2]   This is part of the original title for The Statesman’s Manual which, according to Coleridge, was omitted by the printer, LS 32.

[3]          On Brothers, Southcott, and Sharp, see J. F. C. Harrison, The Second Coming: Popular Millenarianism 1780-1850 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1979).

[4]   At one level, this is a classical move and analogies to it may be found, for instance, in the Pauline epistles for instance.  Over against biblical and patristic tradition, however, Coleridge’s reinterpretation and privileging of “prophecy” is distinctive, among other ways, in incorporating a Romantic theory of the symbolic as opposed to the classical notion of typology.

[5]   M II 516.  For a helpful discussion of Coleridge and Eichorn, see C.  Burdon, The Apocalypse in England: Revelation Unravelling, 1700-1834 (New York: St.  Martin’s Press, 1997) 143-52.

[6]   Natural history is to be read in this way also.  Thus, nature is “prophetic up the whole vast pyramid of organic being,” C&S 176.

[7]   SM 8, my emphasis.

[8]   Although the occurrence of the term 'symbol' with reference to non-biblical events and institutions is fairly rare, M.H.  Abrams’ claim that Coleridge applies the term 'symbol' only “to objects in the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature” is inaccurate, see M.H.  Abrams, The Correspondent Breeze (New York: Norton, 1984) 221.

[9]   In practice, Coleridge is much more cautious about political change than might be anticipated from this aspect of the doctrine of ideas.

[10]             Again, this seems to approach a position closer to earlier Patristic and Reformation readings of the Hebrew ScripturesIt does so, however, within a very different intellectual and political context, of which the struggle over doctrines of historical progress and novelty is one important indicator

[11]             It became an official text for examination in 1822D. L. LeMahieu, The Mind of William Paley (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1976) 162-63.

[12]             The discussion of prophecy in the Evidences provides a nice example of Coleridge’s interpretative shiftPaley identifies Isaiah 53 as a writing “declaredly prophetic” and, therefore, of greater value than “an historical or devotional composition, which, because it turns out to be applicable to some future events, or to some future situation of affairs, is presumed to be oracular.” For Coleridge, biblical histories do not “turn out” to be prophetic, they are prophetic in themselves and call to be read as such.

[13]             One example, well known to Coleridge, of course, is David Hartley’s treatment of eschatology in Observations on Man.  David Hartley, Observations on Man, 6th edition (London: Thomas Tegg & Son, 1834), 549-558For readings of the Revelation of StJohn the Divine as predictive prophecy from Newton to Irving, see Burdon, op. cit..

[14]             Joseph Priestley, “The Present State of Europe compared with Antient Prophecies; preached on the fast-day in 1794,” Two Sermons (Philadelphia, 1794) 23, 36, 49, 54.

[15]             LS 150Coleridge attributes “this is no new thing under the sun” to Isaiah—it’s actually from Ecclesiastes!