37.  [This “aphorism” is an extended essay on “Sensibility” in 9 numbered paragraphs with excurses.]


  1. If Prudence, though practically inseparable from Morality, is still not to be confounded with the Moral Principle; still less may Sensibility, that is, a constitutional quickness of Sympathy with Pain and Pleasure, and a keen sense of the gratifications that accompany social intercourse, mutual endearments, and reciprocal preferences, be mistaken, or deemed a substitute for either. Sensibility is not even a sure pledge of a GOOD HEART, though among the most common meanings of that many-meaning and too commonly applied expression.

[Shorter Oxford Dictionary Vol 2. p.1940: 1. the power of sensation or perception; the specific function of the organs of sense.                1b. philosophy: power or faculty of feeling; capacity of sensation and emotion as distinct from cognition and will, 1838.

2.  emotional consciousness; recognition of a person’s conduct, or of a fact or conditions of things 1751.

3. quickness and acuteness  of apprehension or feeling; sensitiveness; keen sense of something.   3b. emotional capacity

3c. liabiity to feel offended by or hurt by unkindness, or lack of respect; susceptibilities.         4. In the C18th and early C19th: capacity for refined emotion; delicate sensitiveness of taste; also, readiness to feel compassion for suffering, and to moved by the pathetic in literature and art. {cf Jane Austen: Sense and Sensibility}]

ii) Sensibility …ought not to be placed in the same rank with Prudence…the Sensibility, I mean, here spoken of, is for the greater part a quality of the nerves, and as a result of individual bodily temperament.

iii) Prudence is an active Principle, and implies a sacrifice of Self, though only to the same Self projected as it were, to a distance. But the very term Sensibility, marks its passive nature; and in its mere self, apart from Choice and Reflection,  it proves little more than the coincidence or contagion of pleasurable or painful sensations in different persons.

 iv) …the occurrence of excessive and unhealthy sensitiveness is so frequent, as even to have reversed the meaning of the word, “nervous”. How many are there whose sensibility prompts them to remove those evils alone, which by hideous spectacle or clamorous outcry are present to their senses and disturb their selfish enjoyments. Provided the dunghill is not before their parlour window, they are well contented to know it exists, and perhaps as the hotbed on which their own luxuries are reared. Sensibility is not necessarily Benevolence. Nay, by rendering us tremblingly alive to trifling misfortunes, it frequently prevents it, and induces an effeminate Selfishness instead. 

[I think this is Coleridge’s version of the current (2018) phrase “first world problem”.]

Coleridge adds [a portion of?] his own poem:

pampering the coward heart,

With feelings all to delicate for use,

Sweet are the Tears, that from a Howard’s eye

Drop on the cheek of one who lifts the earth:

And He, who works me good with unmoved face,

Does it but half. He chills me, while he aids.

My Benefactor, not my Brother Man.

But even this, this cold benevolence,

Seems Worth, seems Manhood, when there rise before me

The sluggard Pity’s vision weaving tribe,

Who sigh for wretchedness yet shun the wretched,

Nursing, in some delicious soilitude,

Their slothful Loves and dainty Sympathies.

  1. “Howard’s eye”  refers to the philanthropist and prison reformer John Howard (1726-90).

v) Lastly, where virtue is, Sensibility is the ornament and becoming Attire of Virtue. On certain occasions it may almost be said to become virtue. But sensibility and all the amiable Qualities may likewise become, and too often have become, the panders of Vice and the instruments of seduction.

vi) So must it needs be with all qualities that have their rise only in parts and fragments of our nature. Sin which at first gratifies only part of our nature, may finally pervade the whole of it. A man of warm passions may sacrifice half his estate to rescue a friend from prison; for he is naturally sympathetic, and the more social part of his nature happened to be uppermost. The same man shall afterwards exhibit the same disregard of money in an attempt to seduce that friend’s wife or daughter. Men sometimes act exceptionally. “Notable virtues are sometimes dashed with notorious vices, and in some vicious tempers have been found illustrious acts of virtue; which makes some observable worth in some actions of Demetrius, Antonius, and Ahab, as are not to be found in Aristides, Numa or David.”  [Sir Thomas Browne: Christians’ Morals.

vii) All the evil achieved by Hobbes and the whole school of Materialists will appear inconsiderable, if it be compared with the mischief effected and occasioned by the sentimental philosophy of STERNE, and his numerous Imitators. The vilest appetites and the most remorseless inconstancy towards their objects acquired the titles of the Heart, the irresistible Feelings, the too tender Sensibility; and if the Frosts of Prudence, the icy chains of Human law, thawed and vanished at the genial warmth of Human Nature, who could help it? It was an amiable weakness?

viii) Abour this time, too, the profanation of the word Love rose to its height. The French Naturalists, Buffon and others, borrowed it from the sentimental Novelists: the Swedish and English philosophers took the contagion; and the Muse of Science condescended to seek admission into the Saloons of Fashion and Frivolity, rouged like a Harlot, and with the Harlot’s wanton leer.

ix) Do you in good earnest aim at Dignity of Character? By all the treasures of a peaceful mind, by all the charms of an open countenance, I conjure you O youth! turn away from those who live in the twilight of Vice and Virtue. Are not Reason, Discrimination, Law, and deliberate Choice, the distinguishing Characters of Humanity? Can aught, then worthy of a human being, proceed from a Habit of Soul which would exclude all these and (to borrow a metaphor from Paganism) prefer the den of Trophonius to the Temple and Oracles of the God of light? Can anything manly, I say, proceed from those who for Law and Light, would substitute shapeless feelings, sentiments, impulses, which, as far as they differ from the vital workings in the brute animals, owe the differences to their former connexion with the proper Virtues of Humanity; Remember, that Love itself, in its highest earthly Bearing, as the ground of the marriage union, becomes Love by an inward FIAT of the Will, by a completing and sealing act of Moral election, and lays claim to permanence, only under the form of DUTY.  [cf Marriage Encounter: Love is a decision!]

[Coleridge adds to this aphorism a note in which he is negative about the English and French decision to have marriages celebrated universally by the Civil Magistrate, and leaving the religious   Covenant and sacramental Pledge to the parties themselves. He believes this decision is not reverential to Christianity. He argues that It might be a means of preventing many unhappy Marriages, if the youth of both sexes had it early impressed on their Minds that Marriage contracted between Christians is a true and perfect Symbol of Mystery…symbolical of the union of the Soul with Christ the Mediator, and with God through Christ…[Marriage] is not retained by the Reformed Churches as one of THE sacraments…Marriage does not contain in itself an open profession of Christ, and it is not a Sacrament of the Church but only of certain individual members of the Church….THIS IS A GREAT MYSTERY …Coleridge goes on to reflect how little claim so large a number of cohabitations have to the name of Christian marriages.]