While writing on such a grandiose personage, it’s hard to not aspire to touch on a great many magnificent things. And what numerous numbers there are! Ashamedly, I have not read much Coleridge before. I knew of him historically speaking, and what he was known for and with whom he hob-knobbed, but I had read little past “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and a few others. Then I landed his Aids to Reflection.
Brilliant, Completely brilliant. Plus, moving—and that last part is important!
As with any good collection of aphorisms—whether from Pascal, Erasmus, Joseph Joubert, Montesquieu etc.—a reader can be informed in all manner of things: philosophy, imagination, morality, spirituality etc. Coleridge covers … well, being human, which is fairly large. But for as many of the thick things he ponders on—often doing so in single sentences which extend for more than a quarter of a page—what has taken the precedence of my attention is my own self reflection. This might sound nice at first, however it wasn’t quite that for me.
If you are human, you have probably had the experience of reading something of an explanatory nature, say psychology, and then upon acquiring knowledge of a specific problem, your mind, quicker than greased lightning, speeds to a family member who “suffers” from this defection? “Oh, yah, [insert person] totally has a problem with being overly assertive,” or “wow, that’s why [insert name] can’t see why they do [insert annoying habit].”
While this demonstrates some ability to reflect, it’s just not quite as good as self reflection. James Schall, the Jesuit scholar, suggests that a true moralizer does not look outward with a critical eye towards the world and its apparent wrongs. No. The true moralizer first looks inside themselves and asks, “how am I making things worse. How am I seeing things wrongly. How am I judging the motivations of others askew”? (When I read this, I was, like, “ouch.”)
And so to Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection.
Right at the start he bangs away on the importance of reflection, on being able to be alone, on thinking, on pondering S L O W L Y. On not just being able to quickly recollect—that’s for novices, he chides. On and on he goes, and the whole time I was like, “yah,” you tell ‘em Coley! You tell modern day people in a age which worships speed of right and proper importance of careful rumination. I should have known that my ego was teetering too tall: like a Jenga tower with its middle hollowed out. Coleridge weighs down on me …
Too many take the ready course to deceive themselves; for they look with both eyes on the failings and defects of others, and scarcely give their good qualities half an eye, while on the contrary, in themselves, they study to the full their own advantages, and their weaknesses and defects, (as one says), they skip over, as children do their hard words in their lesson, that are troublesome to read; and making this uneven parallel, what wonder if the result be a gross mistake of themselves!
While reading Coleridge, this happened more than once for me. And, after the cutting, it was a grand thing. In this complex work, he covers a massive amount. But over and over I found his balancing blade revealing not only what I see at fault in others, but also in me. I highly recommend it. Just tread across the pages with a spirit of humility, because Coleridge’s wit and wisdom cuts everything that stands high.