Coleridge and the end of Christian economics
by Gwydion M. Williams
In the 18th century, there was good reason to think that society was outgrowing Christianity. One person who certainly saw things that way was Adam Smith. Those who suppose that the collapse of ‘family values’ started in the 1960s or the 1920s or the 1900s, or that the rot set in with Darwinism revealing our identity as just another animal, should take a good look at what the ‘prophet of capitalism’ was saying some two hundred years ago, in an epoch that now seems to us very stable and restrictive :-
‘In pastoral countries, and in all countries where the authority of the law is not alone sufficient to give perfect security to every member of the state, all the different branches of the same family commonly chuse (sic) to live in the neighbourhood of one another. Their association is frequently necessary for their common defence. They are all, from the highest to the lowest, of more or less importance to one another… The remotest members of the same tribe claim some connection with one another; and, where all other circumstances are equal, expect to be treated with more distinguished attention than is due to those who have no such pretensions. It is not many years ago that, in the Highlands of Scotland, the Chieftain used to consider the poorest man of his clan, as his cousin and relation. The same extensive regard to kindred is said to take place among the Tartars, the Arabs, the Turkomans, and, I believe, among all other nations who are nearly in the same state of society in which the Scots Highlanders were about the beginning of the present century.
‘In commercial countries, where the authority of the law is always perfectly sufficient to protect the meanest man in the state, the descendants of the same family, having no such motive for keeping together, naturally separate and disperse, as interest or inclination may direct. They soon cease to be of importance to one another; and, in a few generations, not only lose all care about one another, but all remembrance of their common origin, and of the connection which took place among their ancestors. Regard for remote relations becomes, in every country, less and less, according as this state of civilisation has been longer and more completely established. It has been longer and more completely established in England than in Scotland; and remote relations are, accordingly, more considered in the latter country than the former, though, in this respect, the difference between the two countries is growing less and less every day.’ (The Theory of Moral Sentiments, VI.ii.1.12 to VI.ii.1.13. Pages 222 to 223 of the Glasgow edition. Emphasis added.)
Oddly enough, Smith does not ask if this process is still going on. He never raises the issue of whether the family ties of his day would one day seem as odd to future Britons as Highland clan ties seemed to him.
People in the 18th century had an understanding of ‘family’ that stretched well beyond the nuclear family that is favoured nowadays. Does this not suggest an ongoing process, a logical consequence of civilisation and commercial society? Smith noticed it in his own day, and we in ours. And the cause is exactly the same thing – a freer and more mobile society loosening bonds of kinship that were once an absolute necessity.
Smith may have taken the situation of his own day to be the ‘end of history’, at least as far as family values were concerned. Alternatively it is possibly that Smith did foresee and chose not to say. Quite what value he personally put on family ties is hard to judge. His own father died before he was born, so he was raised in a one-parent family, a set-up that seems to have done him no harm. For much of his life he lived with his mother and with a female cousin, outliving them by only a few years. He never married, even after he had a sufficiently large and secure income which would have made marriage the normal option for a man of his class and standing. He did however go through the formality of adopting one of his nephews as his heir, a procedure that few people today would bother with.
I’ve no idea whether or not Smith would have been dismayed by the vast weakening of family ties that has occurred since his time. We know much less about him than we might wish. His friends carried through a very thorough destruction of his personal papers, letters, unfinished or unpublished works etc. He had asked them in his will to do exactly that. An equally thorough destruction was carried out on the personal papers of his close friend David Hume, as requested in Hume’s his own will. Hume was always a major intellectual influence, possibly even the true inventor of the ideas that Smith developed and wrote up in The Wealth of Nations.
Precisely because we have so little of Smith or Hume beyond the published works, we can not tell very much about their private feelings. The destruction need not imply anything sinister or odd, and indeed one of Smith’s surviving letters does give a perfectly innocent and plausible explanation, a protection of the literary reputation by destroying second-rate or unfinished items. Replying to a friend who wished to publish some of Hume’s letters as part of a posthumous biography, Smith said ‘many things would be published not fit to see the light to the great mortification of all those who wish well to his memory. Nothing has contributed so much to sink the value of Swifts work as the undistinguished publication of his letters; and be assured that your publication, however select, would soon be followed by an undistinguished one.’ (Correspondence, letter 181.)
Whatever his private life or view of the family, Adam Smith was certainly no believer in Christian doctrine, except in a purely formal and nominal sense. And Hume was widely recognised as a covert underminer of conventional beliefs about God. This was true even when Smith read one of Hume’s books as a student at Oxford, long before he got to know the man himself. Hume was quintessentially a spreader of doubt to those who had previously been solid in their faith. He had actually been sent from Glasgow to Oxford with a view to a career in the Church of England. But in a fit of youthful rebellion he rejected this schema and became instead a Moral Philosopher and founder of the doctrine of Free Trade.
(If anyone doubts my word on Smith and Hume, let them check what was said about him by The Times of 24th July 1790, conveniently quoted in in C.R.Fay’s Adam Smith. ‘The Church seemed an improper profession, because he had early become a disciple of Voltaire in matters of religion.’ Voltaire had said ‘If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him’ – a shade closer to atheism than Smith’s own candid views. But The Times was clearly signalling to those ‘in the know’ what Smith had really believed.
The Times also says ‘Dr Smith’s system of Political Economy is not essentially different from that of Count Verri, Dean Tucker and Mr Hume; his illustrations are chiefly collected from the valuable collection sur les arts et metiers’. This last is better known as Diderot’s encyclopaedia, the main source of Smith’s famous example of pin manufacture. Diderot was second only to Voltaire in undermining 18th century Christianity and spreading Enlightenment values.
People today have lost their sense of community. This was the result of greed, arrogance and folly by our former ruling class, a process that has been going on for more than two hundred years. Britain in the 18th century was under no pressure to start the Industrial Revolution. It was already the richest part of Europe – though not as rich as China, according to Adam Smith. Since no one in China cared what was happening in such a far-away place as Britain, and no part of Europe was able to compete, a more gradual and gentler industrialisation would have been a perfectly sensible option.
We ourselves may or may not be glad that there was no ‘Industrial Evolution’ that would have preserved 18th century values and used the new possibilities of production with more restraint. But it is certain that no one back then would have let the new forces develop unchecked had they fully known what it would lead to.
As it happened, a large proportion of the ruling class chose to plunge into an unknown future, to unleash the forces of trade and industry without regard for the consequences. The only possible stabilising force in 18th century Britain was Church of England Christianity. A lot of the ruling class were Deists, sceptics or lapsed Puritans who had sold out their ideals for very large amounts of cold cash. And this ruling class formed a strange alliance with various Puritan or Nonconformist sects, who also accepted no responsibility for maintaining a society that they saw as hopelessly lapsed, wicked and un-Christian. Nonconformity in religion was a logical basis for economic non-conformity, given that the attempt to remake Britain on Puritan lines had been defeated.
There were other factors. The Industrial Revolution is most commonly held to have started in the early 1760s. This matches nicely with the Seven Years War, 1756 to 1763, which included the ‘wonderful year’ of 1759, the point at which British world hegemony became definite. The whole process of war and high taxes was highly successful economically, whatever one might think of it morally. And there was a further advance of British industry during the Napoleonic Wars. Also the brief surge of economic prosperity after the Great World War, before speculation and ‘sound financial management’ pushed the world into the Great Slump. And the sustained and utterly unprecedented prosperity after World War Two and all through the Cold War, an epoch that is now ending.
There was a time when society might have been consolidated on some other basis. Britain might have modernised and industrialised while still remaining a Christian country. There were many who wanted to keep it Christian, not in the sense of restricting or persecuting other religions, but simply by treating its own official creed with a greater degree of seriousness. As one writer put it, in the economic depression just after the end of the Napoleonic Wars :-
‘If we are a Christian nation, we must learn to act nationally, as well as individually, as Christians. We must remove half-truths, the most dangerous of errors (as those of the poor visionaries called Spenceans) by the whole truth.’
The writer was Samuel Taylor Coleridge, mostly remembered now for his poetry, which seemed very strange and irregular in his own day. For a long time, his philosophical writings counted for at least as much as the poems. But his challenge to act seriously as Christians was not taken up. Society moved in other directions, turning his philosophy into an historic curio.
The de-Christianising of Britain was not due to any lack of perception on Coleridge’s part. Writing in 1817, shortly after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, he was quite able to see the alternatives. Back then, Robert Owen was still a philanthropic mill-owner rather than a political reformer, and nothing resembling modern socialism had yet emerged. The very word was not coined until the 1830s. The Spenceans, though soon superseded by new political movements, were the nearest British equivalent to modern socialism at the time he wrote.
Nor was the Social Left alternative all he saw. In a pamphlet that he wrote with Wordsworth on the early stages of Napoleon’s war in Spain, he correctly noted that something new had begun. Previously the French army had been fighting other armies, and won easy victories. Now they were fighting a whole people, and such a war was almost impossible to win. He did not use the term guerrilla, which had its origin in that conflict. But he grasped the essential concept in a way that eluded many subsequent observers. (The Americans in Vietnam, for instance.)
On economics, Coleridge was equally perceptive. He was hopelessly disorganised in his own personal life and private finances. But, as is so often the case, he was able to understand wider issues even though detailed matters slipped out of his grasp.
‘For taxation itself is a part of commerce, and government may be fairly considered as a great manufacturing house, carrying on in different places, by means of partners and overseers, the trades of the ship-builder, the clothier, the iron-founder etc. As long as a balance is preserved between the receipts and the returns of government… so long as does the wealth and circumstantial prosperity of the nation (its wealth, I say, not its real welfare) remain unaffected, or rather they will appear to increase in consequence of the additional stimulus given to the circulation itself by the reproductive action of all large capitals, and through the check which taxation, in its own nature, gives to the indolence of the wealthy in its continual transfer of property to the industrious and enterprising.’ (Coleridge, A Lay Sermon. 1817. Included in Political tracts of Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley. White, R. J. (editor). Cambridge at the University Press, 1955. Page 74.)
‘It was one among the many anomalies of the late war, that it acted, after a few years, as a universal stimulant. We almost monopolised the commerce of the world. The high wages of our artisans and the high price of agricultural produce intercirculate. Leases of no unusual length not seldom enabled the provident and thrifty farmer to purchase the estate he had rented. Everywhere might be seen roads, railways, docks, canals, made, making, and projected; villages swelling into towns, while the metropolis surrounded itself, and became, as it were, set with new cities. Finally, in spite of all the waste and havoc of a twenty years’ war, the population of the empire was increased by more than two millions!’ (Ibid, p 75-76)
‘Nevertheless, it was a truth susceptible of little less than mathematical demonstration, that the more, and more suddenly, the revenue was diminished by the abandonment of war-taxes, the greater would be the disturbance of the balance: so that the agriculturist the manufacturer, or the tradesman (all in short but annuitants and fixed stipendaries) who during the war having paid as five and fifteen, would shortly have less than ten after having paid but two and a half.
‘But there is yet another circumstance which we dare not pass by unnoticed. In the best of time – or what the world calls such – the spirit of commerce will occasion great fluctuations, some falling while others rise, and therefore in all times there will be a large sum of individual distress. Trades likewise have their seasons, and at all times there is a very considerable number of artificers who are not employed on the average more than seven or eight months in the year…’ (Ibid, p 76 – 77)
‘I am not ignorant that the power and circumstantial prosperity of the nation has been increasing during the same period, with an accelerating force unprecedented in any country… By facilitating the means of enterprise, it must have called into activity a multitude of enterprising individuals and a variety of talent that would otherwise have lain dormant… We shall, perhaps, be told too that the very evils of this system, even the periodic crash itself, are to be regarded but as so much superfluous steam ejected by the escape pipes and safety valves of a self-regulating machine: and lastly, that in a free and trading country all things find their level…
‘… it would be less equivocal and far more descriptive of the fact to say that things are always finding their level: which might be taken as the paraphrase or ironical definition of a storm… But persons are not things – but man does not find his level. Neither in body nor in soul does the man find his level!’ (Ibid, p 102)
‘Am I disposing of a bale of goods? The man whom I most love and esteem must yield to the stranger who outbids him; or if it be sold on credit, the highest price, with equal security, must have preference.’ (ibid, p 111)
‘Within the last sixty years, or perhaps a somewhat larger period (for I do not pretend to any nicety of dates, and the documents are of easy access, there have occurred at intervals of about twelve or thirteen years each, certain periodic revolutions of credit. Yet revolution is not the precise word. To state the thing as it is, I ought to have said, certain gradual expansions of credit ending in sudden contractions… in mercantile language, a crash…’ (Ibid, page 101)
Sixty years from 1817 is 1757, quite close to the commonly accepted date for the start of the Industrial Revolution. The editor of the 1955 edition correctly notes that Coleridge was perceptive enough to ‘include in his survey of the contemporary discontents a vivid description of what we now call ‘the trade cycle’.’
Coleridge understood a lot of what was going on in the Britain of his day. And he asked the ruling class to act as if they were serious about their Christianity. But of course they never had been, and never were. Coleridge in his conservative phase was unwilling to face up to this. The ‘top people’ wanted a religion that would make no real demands on them, and that was unwise. If the ruling class is visibly exempt from the sanctions of religion, and if they visibly continue to prosper, why should the rest of the society go on believing?
A wiser and more far-sighted ruling class would have made a better pretence of Christian virtue. They would have been preserving their own future, and Britain as we now know it would never have come into existence. But given frequent reassurances by the free traders that all was well, why should they bother?
The attempt by the Roman Catholic Church to rally anti-capitalist forces under its own banner in the late 19th century was never very likely to succeed. Just the fact of it being under the papal banner put off a lot of people who might have rallied to some more ecumenical message. The sort of thing that Coleridge offered a basis for, but which never really got its act together.