Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Damascius in the "Religious Musings" (1796)

These 437 lines of blank verse are young Coleridge rather self-consciously attempting a ‘major’ poem; a lengthy Akensidean meditation on Christian themes written, as its subtitle notes, at Christmas 1794 (though not published until 1796). The poem is, I'd say, interesting rather than successful. William Empson called Religious Musings  ‘hard for us to take seriously today’, which is right I think, although he also noted that ‘Charles Lamb thought the Musings the greatest religious poetry since Milton’. Others amongst Coleridge's friendship group were less impressed. John Thelwall, for instance, thought it ‘the very acme of abstruse, metaphysical, mistical [sic] rant, & all ranting abstractions and metaphysic and mysticism are wider from true poetry than the equator from the poles’ [Warren Gibbs, ‘An Unpublished Letter from John Thelwall to S T Coleridge’, Modern Language Review 25 (1930), 86]. Coleridge replied vigorously enough (‘why so violent against metaphysics in poetry? Is not Akenside's The Pleasures of Imagination [1744] a metaphysical poem?’); and when Robert Poole wrote praising the poem but regretting that it wasn't written ‘more on the level of human understanding’ Coleridge wrote back, slightly haughtily: ‘the Poem was not written for common Readers’ [Collected Letters, 1:207].

Today I'm focusing on one small thing. When Religious Musings was first published, in Poems (1796), Coleridge included various footnotes after the eighteenth-century didactic manner. When he reprinted the poem in 1797 he deleted many of the more politically incendiary of these annotations (his political views were starting to shift, even at this early stage) but he added a new note to ‘line 35’.

The Greek, Το Νοητον διηγηκασιν εις πολλων Θεων ιδιοτητας (printed, as you can see, thus, without accents or breathings—it should be τὸ νοητὸν διηγήκασιν εἰς πολλῶν Θεῶν ἰδιότητας) means: ‘they divided the νοητός into many individuated gods’, where the νοητός [from νοέω, ‘I perceive, I think out’] means ‘that which is conceivable, perceptible, intelligible, comprehensible’. Coleridge's note attributes this (correctly) to the Neoplatonic philosopher Damascius, but incorrectly suggests it's from the De Mysteriis Aegyptiorum, a book actually by a Neoplatonist from a different, earlier generation, Iamblichus. And in fact Coleridge's error of attribution (it was first noticed by Ian Wylie in his Young Coleridge and the Philosphers of Nature 1990) is kind-of understandable, I think. STC came across the Greek when reading Cudworth's The True Intellectual System of the Universe (1678), that huge and influential work of Anglican theology, a Coleridgean favourite. Cudworth includes a chapter on the Egyptians in which he argues that Egypt was originally a nation of monotheists, worshiping ‘one supreme and universal Numen’ [1:4], but that later Egyptian and Greek religious practice broke this unity into myriad pagan godlings. Here's the relevant bit, with the Greek from which, you can see, Coleridge culled his line.

To be honest it's not clear to me that Coleridge ever actually did confuse Damascius and Iamblichus, since (as you can see) Cudworth doesn't attribute the passage to a specific title but rather to ‘Damascius's principle MS’. Most of Damascius' work, including his titles, has been lost to us; it's perfectly possible he wrote a book under the title On the Egyptian Mysteries, which is, after all, what he's talking about here. Cudworth's Greek comes from a fragmentary piece of early 6th-C Damascius, quoted at length but without sufficient context by Photius in the 9th-C, and now generally reconstructed by scholars under the hypothetical title The Life of Isidore, or sometimes The Philosophical History. Not that Coleridge was likely to have known that.

‘As quoted’, say Nicholas Halmi, Paul Magnuson and Raimonda Modiano, ‘the sentence seems to refer to the proliferation of pagan gods, but the Unitarian Coleridge could have intended it to apply to the Christian trinity.’ I wonder about that; it seems a little super-subtle to me. The emphasis of this passage is more Cudworthian, surely. We know that Coleridge was reading not the 1678 original text of Cudworth, but Thomas Birch's 1743 abridged edition of the work; and the frontispiece of that edition draws out one of Cudworth's main aims (the defense of faith and disproof of atheism):

Apologies for the slightly wonky scan, there. But you can see: the Sun of Reason shining on both the victorious theists and the confused atheists.

This is surely the image behind Coleridge's ‘Holy with power/He on the thought-benighted Sceptic beamed/Manifest Godhead, melting into day/Floating mists of dark idolatry’.

In other words the poem is celebrating the birth of Christ as the moment when the originary monotheism of humanity was restored, rescued from the fogs of pagan polytheism into which it had fallen. That this sunlight, piercing the fog of idolatory, was actually the moment when the Jewish monotheos disclosed itself into the world as a plurality of divine identities (Father and now Son) seems to me a striking and rather pleasing irony. To be clear—I know that the Christian orthodoxy is that the trinity always existed, from the beginning of time, as Father-Son-Spirit and the very first Christmas Day was merely the moment when one aspect of this holy triad manifested in the material world, but still.
             Holy with power
He on the thought-benighted Sceptic beamed
Manifest Godhead, melting into day
What floating mists of dark idolatry
Broke and misshap'd the Omnipresent Sire:
And first by FEAR uncharm'd the drowséd Soul
Till of its nobler nature it 'gan feel
Dim recollections; and thence soar'd to HOPE.
Strong to believe whate'er of mystic good
Th'ETERNAL dooms for His IMMORTAL Sons.
From HOPE and firmer FAITH to perfect LOVE
Attracted and absorb'd: and center'd there
GOD only to behold, and know, and feel,
Till by exclusive Consciousness of GOD
All self-annihilated it shall make
GOD its Identity: God all in all!
We and our Father ONE! [Religious Musings, 33-51]
The passage enacts what it describes: the singular identity of the unitary ‘Godhead’, the ‘Omnipresent Sire’, has been obscured for many generations by the ‘floating mists of dark idolatry’, which ‘broke’ it into seeming ‘misshapen’ fragments—each worshipped as gods by the pagans—that is reconciled to true monotheistic trinitarianism (pace Halmi, Magnuson and Modiano) by Christ's birth, which draws the variegated ‘dim recollections’ through HOPE to FAITH and LOVE, through a kind of contra-centrifugal process, thrice-specified because it is trinitarian, ‘attracted and absorb'd: and center'd’ back to the, again thrice-named capitalised GOD, whose presence enables another triadic process, ‘to behold, and know, and feel’ the ‘all-in-all’ oneness of us and God.

How did this lapse into paganism happen in the first place? According to Coleridge, the problem was ‘FEAR’, a hypothesis he takes from Cudworth's book. The True Intellectual System suggests that polytheism was what happened ‘when the Minds of Men strongly possess'd with Fear, especially in the Dark, raise up the Phantasms of Spectres, Bug-bears, or Affrightful Apparitions to them’, events they think ‘to be Objects really existing without them, and so call them Ghosts and Spirits, whilst they are indeed nothing but their own Phancies’:
So the Phantasm or Phancy of a Deity (which is indeed the Chief of all Spectres) created by Fear, has upon no other Accompt, been taken for a Reality. From the Fear that proceeds from the Ignorance it self, of what it is that hath the Power to do men Good or Harm, men are inclined to suppose and Feign to themselves, several kinds of Powers Invisible, and to stand in awe of their own Imaginations, and in time of Distress to invoke them, as also in the time of an expected good Success, to give them thanks, making the Creatures of their own Fancies, their Gods... This (we say) was the first Original of that Vulgar Belief of Invisible Powers, Ghosts, and Gods. [Cudworth, True Intellectual System, 1.2]
One last note. I think there's another piece of wordplay going on in this passage, one that is mediated via the Damascian Greek quoted in STC's 1797-added footnote: the shift, that is to say, from the mists of Idolatry at the beginning of the passage to the triumphant restoration of God as Identity at its end, via Damascius's ἰδιότητα. Now Coleridge was not a dunce. He understand that the English word idolatry derives not from the Greek ἰδιότητα (which means: ‘property, characteristic, attribute, status’) but from the quite different source, εἴδωλον (eidōlon, “idol”) + λάτρις (latris, “worshipper”). But by the same token he surely knew that Identity comes from exactly that source. That in other words, buttressing his verse-paragraph with this particular Damascian, Cudworth-derived footnote licenses the reader to navigate from the ghost or phantom εἴδωλον of fear-inspired idolatry back to the true divine ἰδιότητα, the identity of A = A that is the perfect union of father, son and holy ghost, in which we, redeemed in Christ, can find our all-in-all. None of this needs to draw on Damascius's Neoplatonism, and none of it is incompatible with trinitarianism (Coleridge's relationship to Unitarianism, evem at this early stage in his intellectual career, was always complicated). It is, more simply, a Coleridgean elision of the obscure many into the sunbright one.