What is good will?—& a notable daughter, Sara Coleridge

Is Good Will Our Greatest Power?

By Nancy Huntting

With a consideration of aspects of the life of Sara Coleridge, daughter of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 

Sara Coleridge (1802-1852)

I learned that every person has the possibility of two kinds of power—the power that arises from good will, which is equivalent to our deepest desire to like the world; and the power that comes from having contempt for the world, hurtful to our own and other people’s lives. For the first time Aesthetic Realism has shown that good will is not the self-sacrificing thing most people have thought, but the greatest power a human being can have.

“It is only when good will is seen as aesthetics that its strength is seen,” explains Eli Siegel in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known #121:

Good will can be described as the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful…. Good will is a true mingling of kindness and exactness or severity; in other words, good will is aesthetics…. Aesthetics is the original engineering of the world.

The conscious idea of having good will for people never occurred to me.  “Contempt is a sign of strength to people,” Eli Siegel said in an Aesthetic Realism class in 1974, “it is synonymous with strength.  Is that so with you?” Mr. Siegel asked me. Yes, it was.  But I learned through my study of Aesthetic Realism that the chief reason women feel bad is because they don’t have good will.

What I present tonight is about the power a woman can have if she has good will for the first representatives of humanity she meets—her parents—and how this is crucial to having the power as human beings we were meant to have. I will be speaking about what I learned, and about what a woman is learning now in Aesthetic Realism consultations.

I will also show how a daughter in history wanted to have good will for her father. I came to know of the importance of Sara Coleridge, the daughter of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, through two great lectures Eli Siegel gave about her in 1971. I will be presenting only some aspects of a life that was very full and valuable. And her power for good arose centrally from the choice she made about her father. Women today can learn from her and how Eli Siegel saw her.

Where Our Idea of Power Begins

As a little girl I remember feeling powerful getting praise from my parents and other people, and thinking I was smarter than anyone.  Mr. Siegel explains in his lecture Aesthetic Realism and the Past:

Usually a child has more power in the family than he has elsewhere….a child…thinks it runs everything and the rest of life is spent not giving that up, and being miserable and still preferring not to give it up.

Thinking you should run everything is awfully conceited and is also contempt for everyone else, yet women go after this kind of power, and I did.

Very early I felt I succeeded in outsmarting and managing my mother.  At night I made her chase me to get me to go to bed.  Then, the lights out and everything quiet, I would call her and insist I had to have a glass of water.

My father would praise how pretty I looked, and take me on his lap to eat an orange together, but he was mostly busy with his work and didn’t wait on me.  I let him know I preferred him to my mother, and I felt he preferred me.  When I was 13 he bought a horse for himself and me, and the two of us would go riding together, yet we couldn’t really seem to talk to each other.

In an Aesthetic Realism class in 1974 when Eli Siegel asked me what was the saddest time in my life, I said it was when my father died of cancer at the age of 56.  With tremendous kindness, Mr. Siegel enabled me to see a purpose I had with my father which was hurting my life still.

Mr. Siegel asked me if in my relations with men I had wanted a man to feel dependent on me? I said I wasn’t sure, the men I liked were very independent.  “Did you want to change that though?” he asked me, “Are you angry at Mr. Reynolds because he declared independence?”  Yes, I was.

Eli Siegel.  Did you feel you’d been unfair to your father?
Nancy Huntting.  Yes, I was.
ES  Why?
NH  I wasn’t interested enough in him.
ES  Why were you so sad, if you weren’t interested?
NH  He was my idol.
ES  Do you see that’s contradictory? Did you want him in some way subservient to you?
NH  Yes.
ES  Can the words “not interested enough” mean “I don’t have enough power over him?”

I realized that Mr. Siegel was right, and it was a revelation to me: I’d felt my father was too independent—not enough at my beck and call. The power I wanted over men, I saw, had begun early.

I wanted to be everything to a man, I was in competition with anything else he was interested in.  I learned from Aesthetic Realism it was because the power I wanted was contempt—to have a man subservient to me—that I could never feel I deserved to be cared for.  “The greatest suspicion of men,” Mr. Siegel explained in this class, “is that in some way they don’t understand, a woman is trying to have them weaker.”

Mr. Siegel was enabling me to change my purpose with men from one of ill will to good will.  He asked me to write “A Day in the Life of Donald Huntting” for the purpose of thinking about my father more accurately, with good will.  The thought we’ve had about a mother and father is where our thought about people as such began.  When we see what’s wrong with it, and what kind of thought we can really respect ourselves for, we can change.

Thought About a Father

Samuel Taylor Coleridge by James Northcote, 1804
Samuel Taylor Coleridge by James Northcote, 1804

Sara Coleridge had a father who, as Eli Siegel once described Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “was a force for beauty in England.”  He wrote some of the greatest poetry in the English language, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” “Christabel,” “Kubla Khan.” He dealt with some of the largest subjects in the world so importantly—philosophy, religion, and especially, poetry and the poetic imagination. And too, there was, as Mr. Siegel put it, exactly and respectfully, his “wish to get away from the world through using laudanum, after seeing that it had alleviated his pain.”

Sara Coleridge felt deeply hurt, Mr. Siegel showed, because of her father’s absence from home—he never formally separated from his wife, but travelled and lived with friends.

“There was a constant feeling in Sara Coleridge,” said Mr. Siegel, that she and her father had been unjustly separated and while she tried to understand it, she also was angry.”  No one has understood this important relation of a father and daughter as Eli Siegel did.  Mr. Siegel explained:

When Samuel Taylor Coleridge gave attention it was real attention, it was sincere, but he forgot he gave it….What I imagine is that he was so concerned with thoughts of his, that he wasn’t too interested in his youngest daughter.  So we have a father deeply affecting a daughter and getting away from her too easily….What’s a daughter to do with that?  That she succumbed to anger and bad imagination there I feel is true.

But also, Mr. Siegel continued,

From what I know of Sara Coleridge’s life, she had a great desire to make sense of her father.  It is one of the greatest daughter-father hopes.

Thirteen years after Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s death, Sara Coleridge wrote an introduction and editorial notes for an 1847 edition of her father’s Biographia Literaria.  In this historic work are passages by Coleridge that, Mr. Siegel said, “are as near as English literature had gotten to saying poetry was the oneness of opposites.”  The power that is in poetry and all art, Eli Siegel was the first person to explain, is the power we want in our lives all the time—the oneness of opposites.

Sara Coleridge’s introduction is 140 pages long, and it is powerful—I have never read anything by a daughter of a father like it. Mr. Siegel said that Coleridge “couldn’t get away from the idea that he had sinned,” and “I think if Coleridge had seen how his daughter wanted to see him [in her introduction], he would have gotten more of the feeling that he was redeemed.”  I was moved by this statement of Sara Coleridge:

Of this I am sure, that no one ever studied my Father’s writings earnestly and so as to imbibe the author’s spirit, who did not learn to care still more for Truth.

Good Will Is the Oneness of Kindness and Criticism

Good will is the one purpose that makes our minds work well. “Good will is the deepest instinct,” Mr. Siegel explained, “and the highest point in intellect in a person.” He writes in TRO 71, “Good Will Is Waiting”:

One definition of good will is the oneness of kindness and criticism in a person’s mind.

Sara Coleridge’s introduction is a oneness of kindness and critical exactness. Coleridge has passages in the Biographia Literaria which are his translations from the German philosopher Schelling—but some are not quoted as such and appear as if they are part of his own thought. An article in Blackwood’s magazine in 1840 charged him with defrauding Schelling of his due, and though the author admits he does not believe there was intentional plagiarism, he writes anyway as if Coleridge were, as Sara Coleridge describes it, an “artful purloiner and selfish plunderer.”

Sara Coleridge did the work to find and footnote the origin of these passages in the German; she was learned, and Mr. Siegel says, “she was a sleuth.”  She is passionate and exact as she explains though there is criticism of her father as to how the uncredited passages came to be, Coleridge describes his debt to the work of Schelling in the Biographia Literaria, and in fact did a great deal to have Schelling valued truly.

She quotes her late husband, Coleridge’s literary executor, who said of Coleridge, “in thinking passionately of the principle, he forgot the authorship.” And she says: “.…no attempt is here made to justify my Father’s literary omissions and inaccuracies….I would only maintain that this fault has not been fairly reported or becomingly commented upon.”

Sara Coleridge is seeing something crucial in good will—that there were two distinct things working in her father, and both need to be seen exactly, not one used to obliterate the other, which is ill will, and what most people do.  She continues, “Marked gifts are often attended by marked deficiencies.”  She is passionate about not letting people use the faults they find in Coleridge to lessen what was sincerely good and great.

In his lecture, Eli Siegel read this important passage she writes about her father:

His heart was as warm as his intellectual being was lifesome and active,—nay it was from warmth of heart and keenness of feeling that his imagination derived its glow and vivacity, the condition of the latter, at least, was intimately connected with that of the former.

“This will be the keynote of criticism in the future,” said Mr. Siegel, “kindness and love will be seen more valuably one with keenness and intellect.”

“What Was He to Himself?”

In Eli Siegel’s poem “Ralph Isham, 1753 and Later” there is the question, “What was he to himself?”

I think this is one of the greatest, kindest lines of poetry, and I believe in the history of good will between people they are among the most powerful words ever written.

It was when I was asked, in an Aesthetic Realism consultation, about my father, “What did he have most against himself?” that I began to feel I could know him—the feelings inside, which I hadn’t granted existence.  Pain in families will end when people ask and try to answer this question.

Jane Marston studies Aesthetic Realism in consultations, and it was clear from her first consulta­tion the person she was angriest with was her father.  She was raised mostly by her mother, she said; when she was a girl, her father left her mother for another woman.

When we asked what she thought her father felt at that time, she was short and uncomfor­table in her answer.  “I saw he was guilty and angry,” she said.

We asked: “Do you see your father’s feelings as real?  Do you think if he felt he was wrong, and felt guilty, against himself, that you should respect that?”

Jane Marston: Yes, that’s true.  Mostly I think of his anger.

We asked Miss Marston to write a monologue of her father at the age of 18, and try to think what his hopes and his fears were then.  She brought the monologue to her next consultation, and read what she had written about her father’s thoughts as he dressed to go to a dance:

My jacket is too short…I want to belong…The guys like my sense of humor—girls like it when I goof around, but I hate being something I’m not.  And I don’t even know who I am.

“Do you think your father is still trying to know who he is?” we asked.  “Do you think you have given men the right to have a question about who they are…this enormous question that you know you have?”  “Not enough,” Miss Marston answered.

Consultants.    Do you think your father, now, is for himself or against himself?
Jane Marston.    I don’t know him that well—it’s probably a combination.
Consultants.   Do you want him to think more of himself, or less of himself?
Jane Marston: I want him to think more of himself.
Consultants. Do you think you’ve used your father and the pain you saw your mother have to keep your distance from the world?
Yes, she said.
We asked how she felt writing the monologue.  “I feel better,” she said.
Consultants: Do you feel proud? To write [this way] about your father is a major event in your life, because you tried to think about the insides of a person you used to hate the world. You’re going to give the world a second chance.

Good Will Has Lasting Power

Sara Coleridge did have a hard time because the father whose warmth of heart she truly loved and respected so much, also wanted to forget the persons who meant the most to him.  I believe the way Sara Coleridge had resentment about her father’s absence had to do with the difficulty sleeping and ill health that plagued her from early childhood, and her death after a long illness at the age of 49. But her life has deep value because in such a large way she did try to understand her father and what he went through.

Toward the conclusion of her introduction she asks for honesty from the critics. I am impelled to say, this is what Eli Siegel has been denied by the press and literary world:

I have endeavored to give the genuine impressions of my mind respecting [my father], believing that if reporters will but be honest, and study to say that and that alone, which they really think and feel, the color, which their opinions and feelings may cast upon the subject they have to treat of, will not finally obscure the truth.

Commented Mr. Siegel:

What Ms. Coleridge is saying here is that you need to have good will to be a critic. The critic always has to hope that he meet something good. At the same time, in order to be just to your hope, you have to make sure you don’t want to be deceived.

In a letter she wrote to her husband, Mr. Siegel said, is her greatest writing:

“She is saying in a sweet way, that once there has been good will for a person, love that is honest, it can be seen as part of the permanent being of the world, and can’t be destroyed.”

Sara Coleridge writes:

Will death at one blow crush into endless ruin all our mental growths as an autumnal tempest prostrates the frail summer-house…? Surely there will be a second spring when these firm and profuse growths shall flourish again…. how utterly impossible it is to reconcile the mind to the prospect of the extinction of our earthly affections…

Mr. Siegel explained:

If it’s honest love, it’s immortal, you cannot feel it otherwise….There is a notion that if the world ever comes to something honest, honest, honest, honest, honest, it couldn’t let it die. In the largest sense honesty is the beauty of beauty itself. The more it’s honest and beautiful, the more it has to be immortal. This is what Sara Coleridge is dealing with.

This is about the power a woman hopes to have. Eli Siegel wanted to see the value of persons of the past, in this instance a woman so unknown, and made it possible for us, of the present, to understand ourselves.