Monday, September 17, 2012

Unique Memoir

Biographia Literaria: Biographical Sketches of my Literary Life & Opinions
Biographia Literaria: 
Biographical Sketches of my Literary Life

"I never object to a certain degree of disputatiousness in a young man from the age of seventeen to that of four or five and twenty, provided I find him always arguing on one side of the question." -- Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, Chapter 1

Samuel Taylor Coleridge completed his Biographia Literaria on September 15th in 1815. A sort of intellectual autobiography, the Biographia contains reflections on wide range of philosophical and literary issues. The work is long and seemingly loosely structured, and although there are autobiographical elements, it is not a straightforward or linear autobiography. Instead, it is meditative, with numerous essays on philosophy. In particular, it discusses and engages the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling. Being fluent in German, Coleridge was one of the first major English literary figures to translate and discuss Schelling, in particular.The concluding paragraph is a speculation on the connection between reason and religious faith, the two a continuum “even as the day softens away into the sweet twilight, and twilight, hushed and breathless, steals into the darkness.” The final sentence contains the sort of ringing (though often obscure or wandering) prose that can be found throughout:
"The upraised eye views only the starry heaven which manifests itself alone: and the outward beholding is fixed on the sparks twinkling in the awful depth, though suns of other worlds, only to preserve the soul steady and collected in its pure act of inward adoration to the great I AM, and to the filial WORD that re-affirmeth it from eternity to eternity, whose choral echo is the universe."
I was reminded of the similarity of the quote above to one of Kant's most frequently quoted passages.  Here is a brief excerpt selected by Paul Guyer:

"In what may be his single most famous passage, the first sentence of which was even inscribed on his tombstone, Immanuel Kant concluded his Critique of Practical Reason (1788) thus: "Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. I do not seek or conjecture either of them as if they were veiled obscurities or extravagances beyond the horizon of my vision; I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my existence. The first starts at the place that I occupy in the external world of the senses, and extends the connection in which I stand into the limitless magnitude of worlds upon worlds, systems upon systems, as well as into the boundless times of their periodic motion, their beginning and continuation. The second begins with my invisible self, my personality, and displays to me a world that has true infinity, but which can only be detected through the understanding, and with which . . . I know myself to be in not, as in the first case, merely contingent, but universal and necessary connection. The first perspective of a countless multitude of worlds as it were annihilates my importance as an animal creature, which must give the matter out of which it has grown back to the planet (a mere speck in the cosmos) after it has been (one knows not how) furnished with life-force for a short time."*

Biographia Literaria by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Princeton University Press, 1985 (1817).

*Guyer, Paul. "Introduction: The starry heavens and the moral law." The Cambridge Companion to Kant and Modern Philosophy. Ed. Paul Guyer. Cambridge University Press, 2006. Cambridge Collections Online. Cambridge University Press. 

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