25 June 1802
Henry Crabb Robinson, Frankfurt sur le Maine, to Mary Hays, 22 Hatton Garden, London, 25 June 1802.1
Frankfurt Sur le Maine 25th June 1802.
My dear Friend –
Your letter of the 27th February was a most acceptable present, And would not have been so long unanswered, but for the unsettled Life I have led ever since – We travellers can only correspond by fits & starts – Your Letter was doubly wellcome in relieving me from the uneasiness your previous Silence had occasioned – I have now to regret the loss of an interestg Letter, but that is of little weight against the assurances of that Friendship & Esteem which lead you to write to me – Your “factless” & “matterless” Letter pleases me precisely because it has so little “matter” compared with the Spirit which breathes thro’ the whole And because you have spoken more of the permanent “sentiments” which form your Character than of the facts or Anecdotes which have occured since my Absence – I shall imitate your Example – And shall fill my paper in commenting not on the words of your Letter but on the Frame of Mind under which it is written. You say “you are altered” you “have done with Systems” & you are a “complete Sceptic” I will give you credit for all but the indifference You try to persuade yourself that you are indifferent because unfortunately – the System you formerly adopted led to unhappiness – your heart & your head were always at war your philosophy & your feelings have ever been fighting you are tired of the contest & in despair cry out I am indifferent – I too am altered – in having become acquainted with a System of Philosophy which has opened tome all the Ugliness of that I once embraced And which gives me hope of acquiring that peace & resignation which we see under a different Form & name makes the common Man often so happy. I suspect that the course of our study has been nearly the same And that you have not any more than myself, ever been intimately or well acquainted with any system than those of Locke Hartley & Priestley – Hume Helvetius & Godwin2 – It is certain that these writers are far enough from being alike in their conclusions & in their first Principles And yet they have the common character of Empiricism That is, they all proceed from the principle commonly called that of Locke, that all our intellect. Notions are abstractions from or have their Source in sensation – A Notion so fundamentally false that it is impossible any system of morals, any scheme of the Universe, any Speculations concerng the first Cause & a possible future Existence – can ever succeed which is raised on it – Till I came here it never once occurred to me to question this first principle – I was therefore as it were benumbed & confounded by the first Notions of the Kantian Philosophy And after in my supreme ignorance laughing at the gross Nonsense & stupidity of the whole Body of German Philosophy I no sooner attempted to examine a little out of Curiosity & Amusement into this – German Folly that I felt as if I were fallen from the Clouds – I am scarcely yet recovered – I cannot see the Way before me – but I can see the utter nothingness of the whole English & French School And I have had unspeakable pleasure in contemplatg the possiby of arrivg at ease & satisfacn on points on which I feel so much of my happiness depends – You will smile at this as youthful Extravagance but I beg you to think a Moment seriously on the influence which your Opinions have had on your Feelings And I believe you will trace much of your unhappiness to them. It is unfortunate for me that I cannot state this, without taking for granted (for it wod be ridiculous to attempt in a Letter proving the first principles of Philosy) many things which your System will lead you to deny, tho’ I flatter myself that a “still small voice”3 within you (By the bye a better authority than all the syllogisms & categories put together) will confirm what I say. I am persuaded that as we are born with Organs for fulfilling all the bodily Functions which are developed with the growth of the body, so we are born with certain moral & intellectual – (call them what you please –) qualities or inclinations or tendencies – which indeed are not exempt from the influence of the accidents of Life – but which have still an essential existence independent of the accidents that call forth the expression of them – (I do not mean to write a metaphysically correct, but a popular Letter therefore I speak of these qual.s in the plural) – And one of the most significant expressions of this intellectual Instinct, is the thirst of speculation – the history of Mankind shews that it has ever been the first effort of curious & inquisitive Intellect – it developes itself in all young Minds of any value And in some shape or other is found in all Men – The inventors of religion have availed themselves of this principle And have contrived to make an Outlet for the Mind. It is an old saying of the Mathematician that there is no royal road to Geometry4 – Positive religion is the royal to Philosophy – It is a shorter cut by which the practical Ends & results are attained – or rather It is the cutting of the Gordian Knot – Now No one has denied that the conclusions of Christianity are devoutly to be wished – The Kantian Philosophy is an attempt to attain these with a severity of method and proof which is not surpassed by those evinced in the mathematical Sciences – A very large proportion o the thinking Men here believe that it is deflected – Not personally by Kant, but by others who have carried his critical principles further & more consistently into effect – I have already said how I stand in relation to these new Systems. – But I find I have insensibly wandered away from the point I had in view I was about to state that the thirst of truth – And why shod I not say all at once? of Beauty & Goodness are innate propensities – a priori qualities which are the Foundn of all our Notions of the true and the good & the Fair – As I said before I abstain from all Argumentation – I am also persuaded that the intenseness of these moral duals5 like those of the Senses varies in Individuals – And that as we find persons whose physical Senses are so dull that they serve for little more than to keep the animal body alive, who eat not to please the palate but to fill the belly, whose ear conveys articulate Sounds but no musical notes – So others have so feeble a moral & intelll Sense that the natl love of the true the good & the beautiful shews itself only in faint approbation of these principles as they appear in the concrete in daily life – Such people are complete & indifferent sceptics but the higher & finer the intellect & moral sense, the more hard to still in this hungry Soul – And therefore my Friend I repeat it again I give you no Credit for indifference. You were endowed by Nature with very acute Sensibility You were “brought up in domestick retirement & simplicity” – You have never lost the genuine purity of your character in a bustling active Life And yet you have seen enough of Life to be witness to all the evils of Society – You have contrasted the Principle of good within you against the Practice of common Men, you are conscious (in spight of your scepticm) that there is such a thing as truth – that it perhaps remains like the Algebraists = x And yet you can be indifferent to all the great Questions which interest the Head & the Heart! Nothing is of importance you say but what is “connectd with individual happiness” – As if it were possible for a cultivd Intellect like yours to confine itself to anything individual – If such be really your state of Mind I cant but consider it as a diseased State, it is so contrary to all the superior qualities of your heart & mind that nothing but personal Suffering or the baneful influence of a poisonous system of Metaphysicks (which as your intellect is strong must therefore have a stronger hold on your understandg) could bring you into such a state. It is the result of this same Philosy when it operates on Minds less noble & good than yours to destroy all the humane feelings & to generate selfish indifference to the welfare of Society – I say it is the result of this same Philosy. I here speak of an ideal Phily which indeed has been exhibited in a few French Books but which happily few Persons have strength enough of intellect to embrace in all its bearings and ties & in its entire consistency. It may be worth while to sum up the leading Doctrines of this Philosophy. It denies a supreme moral governour of the Universe, in the dogma of Atheism: It denies a moral principle in the assertion that self-love is the constant & sole Motive of Action – It denies a moral power, in the positive dogmatic assertion of necessity – And Morals are hence a Nonentity. It denies the immutability of Truth in making all our intellectual conceptions to depend on the accidental Sensations we have experienced: It denies even an intellectual Principle for it asserts Materialism Hence Mind & Truth too are a Nonentity – That nothing valuable may be left: it denies too the principle of beauty for that too has a sensible Origin – Is not this a blasphemous denial of the Holy Trinity of Reason the True the Good & the Fair? Is not all that renders life of any value or Interest annihilated? Has the System any other than the satanic merit of perfect consistency “Evil! be thou my good” is the spirit of the whole – And in the Harmony of the whole we see “The strong antipathy of bad to good”6 Nothing is left but dead unconscious Organisation & Mechanism In a word it is a brutal System And yet it is but the natural inevitable Consequence, the legitimate & logical unshaken consistency: It is the genuine offspring of Empiricism; or rather it is the System of Locke, fullgrown
If I proceed thus, you will complain that I write a dissertation not a Letter – Far from meaning to do this, the greatest Fault one can commit in Letter-writing whose essence is personal reference – I have been led to these reflections merely by thinking on you & reperusing your Letter – Systems of Philosophy have it is true little actual & personal influence in common Life – but you Live in solitude – Thought is your habit, Speculation your pleasure – In the Reflections suggested by the Events of your Life you have if I mistake not no source of delight – A Survey of Life as we see it, is to every feeling Mind now peculiarly distressing: The publick Events of the last two years have dashed all our romantic hopes of the immediate reformation of Society – We see in the country which we had in fancy laid out as the Seal of this new Utopia – all the old follies & vices systematically set up again – not indeed so egregiously disgusting in their form as before, but in a way that makes it probable, they will regain their former ascendency7 – What is now left to a Mind like yours, when we add the adoption of a System – only in its leading features – resembling that I have described? Nothing but melancholy discontent & a wavering between indifference & despair accords to the turn of the Mind – Are you sure that the Philosophers of ancient Times of which the poets & philosophers have left us such splendd Fragments is a mere Vision & Caprice? Can you be sure that the voice within you – the “God within the Mind” is a mere senseless Sound And that the Notions of true, good, beautiful, wise, just &c which unquestionay we have – are mere fantastic random Notions which chance has given us, which have no necessary intelll Source, nor lead to any great purpose? I will not attempt to detail the Philosophy of Kant but I will state one or two leading Thoughts; they will give you a general Notion of his Theory – 1st He refutes the Lockean Principle by merely observing that we have Notions in us which are not the Copies of any external Sensation or Object – & which we therefore must suppose have an origin in our essential intellectl character that is a priori as to their Principle, tho’ not called forth or excited till we have experience
2 he lays down an important & hitherto strangely overlooked difference between Knowl[edg]e or Insight, which can only arise where the General a priori Concepn meets with a correspondent particular object – As in the Mathematicks And a Belief or Presupposition to which the Laws of thinking compel us – witht our yet knowing the objects believed in – he shews that these different Feelings as to certainty & strength of Conviction are alike – He begins by destroying (and therefore was first considd as the most entire of sceptics) all the common argums for the pretendd Demonstration of the Being of God, the Immaterialy of Soul, Freedom &c But he does not merely shew that the Argums are insufficient to prove these great Dogmas – he demonstrates the absolute impossibility of our making any demonstrative Assertions whatever And thus destroys both the dogmatic Atheists & Theists & Sceptics at one blow. He maintains with Berkeley an ultimate Idealism And shews that all Reasonings from or abot a physical or natural World, is futile & useless – We know only that we have certain sensats & Ideas &c cannot possibly get beyond them What the objects are in themselves independently of our Sensats – is an unanswerable Question – And yet we must assume that our Sensations have an adequate cause – But natural Sensations & physical objects are not all that occupy us. We have a Moral & intellectual Sense a Notion of Duty & Justice, which no external objects could convey, which have no relation whatever to pleasure or pain (which belong to Sensuality) & on which he raises a demonstrated Theory of rational morals rational religion & rational aestheticks (the science of taste) He shews how the world of intellect is essentially distinct & separate from the world of Sense (ie Sensualy Sensation) And thus opens a door to the admission of Ideas the most consolatory the most joyful conceivable – he shews that our Ideas of Cause & Effect being drawn only from the sensible World, ought not to be carried to the Intelll World – And that therefore the Freedom of the Will (– With you & with me, hitherto the point on which we had the utmost confidence – I for my part was so confident that it was some Months before I cod even understand Kants Reasoning) is thinkable, supposing no contradiction and hence proveable by our Consciousness – You will smile perhaps to hear that the Notion of Liberty by us so laughd at & ridiculed is the cornerstone of the whole german philosophy And made to be the Basis of Poetry & the Fine Arts – But enough I wished only to intimate to you in general terms that “there are more things in Heaven & Earth than are dreamt of in your Philosophy”8 – poor Comfort you will say for the Kantian Philosophy is a locked up Treasure – It is true Kant is the first modern who has brought this intellectual System into form – The learned dispute abot the more or less of it which Pythagoras & Plato professed. It is the favorite Notion that the secret Philosy of the ancient Greeks was no other And one of the modern Critical Philosophers is about to translate Plato & to shew that we are now approachg to a true Understg of the commonly called mystical books of the Ancients9 – But even among english Writers you will find fragments of this System – And the practical Result of this Letter is a Wish – that as you say you are “thinking over the same thoughts & feeling the profitable at all time to the Understanding) you wod set about a course of reading the reverse of what has employed for 9 or 10 years – And even those books which as works of consistency & systematical Worth are inferior to those of our old school – viz the Scotch Doctors Beattie Reid &c10 I suspect witht having read their books that they have had a sort of presentimt of the Truth, but that they have not known how to prove & state it I am inclined to think that it is with Respect to the two great Schools of Philosophy the empirical (or sensual or material) And the scientific (or intellectual a prior) As between the good & the bad in a moral sense And it was said by a great Authority that the Children of Darkness are wiser than the Children of light11 – As to morals I much recommend you to a Writer I have myself learned to esteem in german Translation & german Criticism – Lord Shaftesbury – perhaps the first British Classick – Berkeley & Hutcheson12 too wod pave the way to more just Ideas than those Writers themselves laid down – And perhaps you wod do well even to look into Taylors platonic Translation.13
Will you excuse the Stile of this Letter – I fear it will sound almost preceptorial & yet no one feels less so than myself – I feel what I write strongly And tho’ Thought has [ ] to the Opins of this Letter, I have in the Composition of it been more governed by Feeling than Reason – do not therefore attempt to reason on one expression or statemt which would probably be but an incorrectness of Word, but read the whole as containg only one Sentiment & one Thought.
I have I find answered the Spirit of your Letter – the Expression of your habitual Feelings indeed of your Character which composes the great part of your Letter is interesting to me, for it displays an amiable object And one, in which I am personally interested – I am likewise gratified by the four anecdotes you have related – Any Information respectg Coleridges work on the Kantian Philosophy will be very acceptable14 – I never wished so much to have the capacity of writing as now – The german Writers are so far advanced above us in speculative philosophy & in Literature that a person professed only of the mechanical acquisition of Style cod be a great benefactor to english Literature by incorporatg the leadg Works of Genius & Science into our Language – But I every day feel less ability & more desire to make the Attempt If I cod communicate any thing worth Mr Fenwicks Acceptance they wod be at his Service But in the first place presumg he spoke in reference to his periodical Work – I am profoundly ignorant of all subjects connectd with Agriculture & the kindred Sciences – As to Literary Intelligence – I have seen [perhaps] a dozen of the greatest Characters here – for half an hour but wod not trust myself even to describe their Persons – I have no Anecdotes of them tho’ I shall in the future be more in the way of learning News of that sort – You probably saw a year or two since a vilely written article in the Mon: Mag: on the Weimar Literature – I think lowly enough of myself but in the sinking of Talent as well as in the depths of Hell I find there is no absolutely lowest –
I have just seen the 3d & 4th Vols of Phillips Public Characters15 – That such Books can be written & read is truly astonishg – How I despise the quackery of bookmaking how I reverence the Art! But I am disposed to contradict myself & say such Volumes are the absolutely lowest deep of journeyman Bookmaking Reading as I do here, only the Masterpieces of German Literary [sic] I am in danger of becoming unjust to our native Works – I lately received Wordsworths Lyrical Ballads 2 Vols – Genius is not dead nor asleep He is an original & true poet but I find the 2d Vol hardly equal to the first –16
I shall leave Frankfurt in a Month or two & I mean to reside at Jena a year in order to acquire a scientific insight into the german Philosophy17 – This is at present the Fountain head of the newest Philosophy It is a consolation to me when my Friends seem not to condemn my mode of Life – I am not sure I am right in thus living for myself, for I have little hope of making my Studies ultimately useful for others – but I am still much further from yielding to the common arguments of common people against my Line of conduct – I am honest at least in my Wishes & Intentions & do not mean if I can help myself to be a mere lumberer of the Earth – and yet one is in Danger of becoming it, when one leads a life of study that has no distinct object or end – But this is an old Topick amidst my unpleast Feelings when I think of myself, it is a Consoln to me when I think of my Friends – Every Letter like yours reconciles me somewhat to myself –
You will write to me I trust before long & send your Letter as before to Messrs Rutt and Jameson – I can accot for the loss of your Letter only by supposg the Direction was illegible – A Letter from another Friend was sent to an Italian Col here, & recovered only by Accident – With Compts to Mr & Mrs Fenwick & your Family I subscribe myself
Your sincere Friend
H. C. Robinson
P.S. Since writg this Ltre wch has lain sometime I have been [asked] to undertake writg a series of Essys on Kant wch will perhaps appear in the Monthly Register (a new Magazine conductd by a friend of mine) In the first Essy I have copd18 some Things as appropriate to the Subt in genl tho’ written at first only for [myself] – I write this to explain what might otherwise have been unpleast for you to see – You will take no [notice of] this Circumstance to others.19
Address: Miss Hayes | No 22 (Mrs Coles’) | Hatton Garden | London
1 Crabb Robinson Archive, Bundle 6, XIII (c.), Dr. Williams's Library, London; Brooks, Correspondence 558-65. At present the original of this letter is missing from Bundle 6; it is the only letter in the collection to Hays not transcribed from the original manuscript.
2 A who’s who of 18th century philosophers: John Locke (1632-1706), David Hartley (1705-57), and David Hume (1711-76); Hays’s favorite philosopher at that time, Claude Adrien Helvétius (1715-71); and two contemporary figures Hays knew personally, Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) and William Godwin (1756-1836), the latter known to Robinson as well.
3 I Kings 19:12.
4 Attributed to Euclid, the great geometician from Alexandria during the reign of Ptolemy I (323-283 BC).
6 Lines are from Milton’s Paradise Lost, Book IV, l. 110; and from Pope’s Epilogue to the Satires, Dialogue II, l. 205.
7 Robinson is referring to the rise of Napoleon and the return of many of the oppressive measures used against the people once associated with the monarchical-aristocratical powers and the Reign of Terror.
8 Adapted from the famous line by Hamlet to Horatio in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act I, scene 5, l. 167-68.
9 Reference most likely is to the work of Thomas Taylor (1758-1835), a Platonic philosopher and translator of numerous works of Greek philosophy. Raised in a dissenting home, he studied for the ministry under Hugh Worthington at Salters’ Hall, London, but a precipitate marriage led to his taking a position as a bank clerk. He eventually found some patrons (among his friends with the sculptor John Flaxman, who later became a close friend of Robinson) whose financial generosity allowed him to pursue his philosophical studies. His first translation appeared in 1787, and by 1797 he had been dubbed 'the modern Platonist’. Crabb Robinson met Taylor before he left for Germany and just prior to Taylor’s appointment as assistant secretary to the Society of Arts in London, a post he maintained until 1806. By the last 1790s, Taylor’s translations of the major works of Platonism had influenced many of the Romantic poets, including Blake and Coleridge; thereafter his reputation waned, though in America he was championed by Emerson and other New England transcendentalists.
10 Two giants of the Scottish school of Common Sense philosophy: Thomas Reid (1710-96) and James Beattie (1735-1803).
11 Adapted from Luke 16:8.
12 Anthony Ashley Cooper, third Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713) was best known for his Charactisticks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711); George Berkeley (1685-1753) promoted subjective immaterialism in his important work Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge(1710); and Frances Hutcheson (1694-1746) who built upon both Locke and Shaftesbury in his famous work, A System of Moral Philosophy (1755).
13 See note above on Taylor.
14 See previous letter.
15 Richard Phillips, who had previously published both Hays and Robinson in the pages of his Monthly Magazine, published a series of volumes highlighting the lives of living writers and public figures titled Public Characters, which appeared in six volumes between 1798 and 1806. Volume 3 covered the years 1800-1801, and volume 4 1801-1802. Robinson appears unaware that Hays had previously published her biographical notice of Wollstonecraft in Phillips’s companion publication, The Annual Necrology, for 1797-8; including, also, various articles of neglected biography(1800), pp. 411-60; or that she also contributed a biography of Charlotte Smith to Phillip’s Public Characters for 1800-1801, pp. 42-64.
16 The second edition of The Lyrical Ballads appeared in 1800, in two volumes, published by Longman and Rees in London; only Wordsworth’s name graced the title page.
17 Robinson will reside at Jena for nearly three years, much of the time enrolled as a student at the university.
18 copied? composed?
19 Robinson would contribute a series of “Letters” on German Literature in the opening volumes of the Monthly Register and Encyclopedian Magazine, printed for John Wyatt of the Repertory Office at 103 Hatton Garden, the same street in which Hays was living at the time of the above letter. It only lasted for a little over a year and was edited by John Dyer Collier, future landlord of Robinson and father of his close friend, John Payne Collier (see Biographical Index). These include: “German Literature,” 1 (August 1802), 397-403; “Letters on the Philosophy of Kant, from an Under-Graduate in the University of Jena. No. I. Introductory,” 1 (August 1802), 411-16; “Letter from an Under-Graduate, at the University of Jena, on the Philosophy of Kant. No. II,” 2 (November 1802), 6-12; “Second Letter on German Literature,” 2 (November 1802), 26; “Third Letter on German Literature,” 2 (January 1803), 205-08; “On German Literature – Fourth Letter,” 2 (February 1803), 294-298; “On the Philosophy of Kant. By an Under-Graduate at the University of Jena. No. III,” 2 (April 1803), 485-488; and “On German Literature – Fifth Letter. More Distiches!!!!” 2 (April 1803), 492-93.