Romanticism and the Human Soul

October 29, 2013

Most of us know Samuel Taylor Coleridge as the English Romantic poet and author of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. We may not be aware that he was also an important English theologian who significantly influenced the New England Transcendentalist movement in America. Coleridge and Ralph Waldo Emerson were both trained as Unitarian ministers and as men of God they were deeply concerned with the nature of the human soul.

Many of us might imagine the human soul to be a phantom-like inner being that contains our conscience and moral fiber. If we do, we might be surprised to learn that some forward thinking 19th century theologians like Coleridge and Emerson had a much more universal understanding of the soul.

For Coleridge the soul was a living dimension of the universe from which all life flows. Coleridge’s vision of the soul was so powerful that it ignited the imaginations of the American Transcendentalists and influenced the later development of American Pragmatism.

“LIFE is the one universal soul,” Coleridge writes, “which, by virtue of the enlivening Breath, and the informing Word, all organized bodies have in common, each after its kind.” All beings are enlivened by this soul and yet Coleridge bestows a special honor to man for in addition to being animated by the soul, “God transfused into man a higher gift…a soul having its life in itself. And man became a living soul. He did not merely possess it, he became it. It was his proper being, his truest self, the man in the man.”

Coleridge’s vision was of a universal soul that was the true nature of humankind and in the soul he said, “nothing is wanted but the eye, which is the light of this house, the light which is the eye of this soul, this seeing light, this enlightening eye, is Reflection.”

Underneath all of the universe and underling all human beings is a self-subsisting soul. How can we picture such a soul? It seems best to imagine it as a field of pure knowing that all human beings exist within and which is the true source of our awareness. Coleridge called this soul Reason.

When Ralph Waldo Emerson later famously wrote, “I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.” Coleridge’s notion of the soul was being evoked. Emerson, spoke of the soul as “the background of our being” and explained “From within or from behind, a light shines through us upon things.”

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