Continuing on with the themes that I have been addressing lately, I was recently reading a very interesting book by Mario Praz, a Italian scholar of English Romanticism, entitled The Hero In Eclipse In Victorian Literature. He has an interesting discourse concerning the move of the first generation of Romantic from a radical to a conservative paradigm. Much has been made out of this issue over the years. But while I agree that Wordsworth and Southey clearly turned into conservatives, I have always been reluctant to make the same judgment concerning Coleridge. (As indeed other writers have. Basil Wiley for example contended that Coleridge was the precursor to modern ‘socialism’ or the welfare state)
I have thought a lot about why I think Coleridge is different from many of his contemporaries. Like many of his peers, Coleridge harbored a great deal of fear concerning the threat of the mob which was so evident in the years after the Revolution in France. But fear of violence does not a conservative make. But this begs the question, or course, ‘what constitutes a conservative?’ I have thought about this question in relation to a thinker and poet like Coleridge and it is a very interesting problem. In the end I have concluded that Coleridge may have believed that social change should be gradual and that the there is a certain amount to be feared from revolutionary upheavals, but this didn’t make him a conservative. What really constitutes a conservative in the modern era (and by this I mean the post-enlightenment), is a belief, often hidden or unspoken, that the world is essentially a meritocracy.
There are various breeds of conservative ideology but I think the vast majority of conservatives share this basic outlook, even if they are reluctant to admit it in public. Some conservatives will pay lip-service to different programs of equalization but in the end they really think that people are where they are because of their merit. Coleridge wasn’t’ a conservative because he never embraced this notion. Coleridge, perhaps because of his own weaknesses, recognized that there are many reasons that one might achieve above or below their possible merit. This also explains why many people become more conservative as they get older; because as they reach a certain level of achievement they are easily convinced that it is precisely their merit that has taken them there. This is exactly why Southey and Wordsworth, Coleridge’s friends and contemporaries became conservatives, while Coleridge himself did not. This ideology is more easily embraced in a modern democracy because there is less in the way of traditional power and tradition that keeps people from achieving their goals. However, what non-conservatives realize is that in a milieu of democracy and capitalism, it is one’s ability to sell oneself, regardless of actual ability in one’s field, that brings you to ‘success’ in our society. One could be the greatest piano player in world, for example, but without the right sales and or connections, all this merit will be for naught. But conservatives want us to believe, particularly in today’s context, that even if some are born with more wealth than others, we all basically have the same opportunities and if we ‘make’ it or fail to ‘make’ it, it is our merit that counts. And conservatives have managed to sell this fabrication well enough that they can even begin to chip away at programs that help to eliminate barriers to success because so many are convinced that we are already operating in a meritocracy so we don’t need, unions, women’s rights organizations, legal defense funds to challenge potentially discriminatory laws, free universal education, etc, etc. Of course, one might argue that men like Stephen Harper, for example, don’t really believe that we live in a meritocracy but that they are using this falsehood to sell their capitalist agenda. Perhaps, but this is neither here nor there. The fact is that many people do buy this ideology and it has become the cornerstone of much of what constitutes conservative ideology.