Greek Myths, Christian Mysteries, and the Tautegorical Symbol

By Halmi, Nicholas | Wordsworth Circle, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Greek Myths, Christian Mysteries, and the Tautegorical Symbol


Halmi, Nicholas, Wordsworth Circle


Anyone who has attended an academic conference will be able to sympathize with the audience of the lecture delivered at the Royal Society of Literature on May 18, 1825. What the members of the society heard that day, a lecture announced and eventually published under the title "On the Prometheus of Aeschylus," not only lasted an hour and twenty-five minutes but never referred to a single line of Aeschylus's play and consisted largely of assertions such as the following, in which the liberal admixture of Greek and Latin terms is representative: "The sum, stated in the terms of philosophic logic, is this: First, what Moses appropriated to the chaos itself: what Moses made passive and a materia subjecta et lucis et tenebrarum [underlying matter of both light and dark], the containing prothemenon (1) [something posited before] of the thesis and antithesis; this the Greek placed anterior to the chaos: the chaos itself being the struggle between the hyperchronia, the ideai pronomoi [ideas prior to law] as the unevolved unproduced prothesis of which idea kai nomos (idea and law), are the thesis and antithesis (I use the word 'produced' in the mathematical sense, as a point elongating itself to a bipolar line)" (Shorter Works and Fragments [1995], 1273). The following day the lecturer himself expressed, in a letter to his nephew, "remorseful Sympathy with the Audience, who could not possibly understand the 10th part--For let its merits be what they may, it was not a thing to read, but to be read by" (Collected Letters [1956-71], 5:461). At the risk of anticlimax I shall reveal that the lecturer was Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the occasion of the lecture his election to the Royal Society of Literature. Although membership entailed an obligation to address the society every year, that requirement was evidently waived in Coleridge's case, for he delivered no successor to his inaugural lecture.

It is understandable that someone who had reason to be anxious about his reputation should have wanted to impress a distinguished audience with his erudition. It is also likely, as Anthony Harding has concluded (The Reception of Myth in English Romanticism [1995], 248-50), that Coleridge sought to ingratiate himself with that audience, consisting as it would have of precisely the educated upper class to whom he had sought to address himself in his lay sermons of 1816-17, in the hope of fostering the development of what he called the clerisy, a class of people who would provide intellectual and moral leadership for the nation. Both Coleridge's subject and his hermetic presentation of it were consistent with this broader ideological aim, which he would propound explicitly in On the Constitution of the Church and State (1830). With its complicated syntax, recondite scholarly references, frequent use of un-translated Greek and Latin, and casual assumption of the listeners' equal familiarity with the Bible, Greek mythology, and ancient mystery religions, Coleridge's lecture in effect sought to perform the very function that it attributed to Aeschylus's play, that of conveying a profound religious truth to a select few while disguising it from the multitude. If the "secret doctrines of the mysteries" had to be protected from the "debasing influences" of polytheism in ancient Athens (1277), then those same doctrines had to be protected from materialism and Palyean natural theology in modern London.

What were those doctrines? A passage Coleridge incorporated into his lecture from the 1818 edition of his miscellany The Friend summarizes his conviction that the Greek mystery cults, guided by divine providence, communicated a philosophically inflected form of Mosaic monotheism and thereby protected the Greeks from the worst effects of their popular religion: "The earliest Greeks took up the religious and lyrical poetry of the Hebrews; and the schools of the prophets were, however partially and imperfectly, represented by the mysteries derived through the corrupt channel of the Phoenicians. …

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