Christian Platonism

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Henry More

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CAMBRIDGE Platonist Henry More (1614 – 1687) studied Plato and Plotinus, Hermeticism and Christian Cabalism. A prolific writer, he produced, among other things, a marvelous set of poems collectively titled A Platonick Song of the Soul.  The set includes four poems, all written in the poetic style of Spenserian stanzas (named after Edmund Spenser, whose most notable work was the Neoplatonic allegory, The Fairie Queen): Psychozoia, Psychathanasis, Antipsychopannychia and Antimonopsychia. The word “Soul” in the title refers both to the individual human soul and the Platonic world soul. Strongly influenced by Marsilio Ficino’s Platonic Theology, they explore many themes of Platonism and Neoplatonism, including metaphysics and ethics.

More is known for having attained certain elevated states of consciousness. He explained in an autobiographical passage how in early life he had an insatiable desire for secular learning, but eventually this left him empty.

But after taking my Degree, to pass over and omit abundance of things (…) [i]t fell out truly very happily for me, that I suffer’d so great a disappointment in my studies. For it made me seriously at last begin to think with my self; whether the knowledge of things was really that supreme felicity of man; or something greater and more divine was: or, supposing it to be so, whether it was to be acquir’d by such an eagerness and intentness in the reading of authors, and contemplating of things; or by the [purging] of the mind from all sorts of vices whatsoever.

Also unhappy with the strict Calvinist doctrines of his childhood, he characterized his general state of mind in a short poem titled, Aporia (i.e., puzzlement or impasse):

Nor whence, nor who I am, poor Wretch! know I:
Nor yet, O Madness! Whither I must goe:
But in Grief’s crooked Claws fast held I lie;
And live, I think, by force tugg’d to and fro.
Asleep or wake all one. O Father Jove,
’Tis brave, we Mortals live in Clouds like thee.
Lies, Night-dreams, empty Toys, Fear, fatal Love,
This is my Life: I nothing else do see.

He further explained how he then investigated various religious writings that discuss the moral and intellectual purification that are a prerequisite for an authentic spiritual life:

Especially having begun to read now the Platonick Writers, Marsilius Ficinus, Plotinus himself, Mercurius Trismegistus; and the Mystical Divines; among whom there was frequent mention made of the Purification of the Soul, and of the Purgative Course that is previous to the Illuminative; as if the Person that expected to have his Mind illuminated of God, was to endeavour after the Highest Purity. ”

But amongst all the Writings of this kind there was none, to speak the Truth, so pierced and affected me. as that Golden little Book, with which Luther is also said to have been wonderfully taken. viz. Theologia Germanica [note: a 14th work on Christian mysticism influenced by Meister Eckhart and Pseudo-Dionysius].

After his conversion and purification,  which lasted several years, he enjoyed certain exalted states of consciousness, described by himself and his biographers.

More knew and had scholarly debates with alchemists like Thomas Vaughan (the twin brother of metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan), and evidently considered the real purpose of alchemy to be to effect a religious transformation of consciousness.

And that insatiable desire and thirst of mine after the knowledge of things was wholly almost extinguish’d in me, as being sollicitous now, about nothing so much as a more full union with this Divine and Coelestial Principle: the inward flowing Well-spring of Life eternal. With the most fervent prayers breathing often unto God, that he would be pleas’d throughly to set me free from the dark chains, and this so sordid captivity of my own will.

But here openly to declare the thing as it was; when this inordinate desire after the knowledge of things was thus allay’d in me, and I aspir’d after nothing but this sole purity and simplicity of mind, there shone in upon me daily a greater assurance than ever I could have expected, even of those things which before I had the greatest desire to know. Insomuch that within a few years, I was got into a most joyous and lucid state of mind, and such plainly as is ineffable; though, according to my custom, I have endeavoured to express it, to my power, in another stanza of eight verses.

The poem More refers to here is called Euporia (fullness):

I come from Heav’n; am an immortal ray
Of 
God; O joy! and back to God shall goe.
And here sweet Love on’s wings me up doth stay.
I live, I’m sure; and joy this Life to know.
Night and vain dreams be gone: Father of Lights,
We live, as Thou, clad with Eternal Day.
Faith, Wisdom, Love, fix’d Joy, free winged
Might,This is true Life: All else death and decay.

His, biographer, Richard Ward, supplies some examples of More’s religious experiences:

When yet early in the morning he was wont to awake usually into an immediate unexpressible life and vigour; with all his thoughts and notions raying (as I may so speak) about him, as beams surrounding the centre from whence they all proceed.

He was once for ten days together, no where (as he term’d it) or in one continued fit of contemplation: during which, though he eat, drank, slept, went into the hall, and convers’d, in a measure, as at other times; yet the [thread] of it for all that space was never once, as it were, broken or interrupted; nor did he animadvert (in a sort) on the things which he did.

And he hath been heard likewise unaffectedly to profess; that his thoughts would often-times be as clear as he could almost desire: and that he could take them off, or fix them upon a subject in a manner as he pleas’d. So that he himself seems plainly to have got that Chimical Art spoken of in his Ethics [Enchiridion ethicum, 1667] of making the volatile fixum, et fixum volatile, the volatile fix’d and the fix’d volatile; upon which some promise themselves, it seems, such wonderful matters: that is, he had reduc’d his spirits (as he there goes on) to a sufficient tenuity and volatility; and could yet at the same time, fix them steadily, at his pleasure, upon any object he had a mind to contemplate. Which things are notwithstanding (I conceive) to be understood with their reasonable qualifications. It was pleasant, he said, to go quick in a man’s thoughts from notion to notion, without any images of words in the mind. And elsewhere [Preface, An Explanation of the Grand Mystery of Godliness, 1660] he speaks more particularly of the exceeding great pleasure of speculation, and that easy springing up of coherent thoughts and conceptions within: And how that the lazy [i.e., relaxed] activity (as he there calls it) of his mind, in compounding and dissevering of notions and ideas in the silent observation of their natural connexions and disagreements, was as a holy day, and sabbath of rest to his soul. His very dreams were often regular, and he could study in them. And the constitution of his spirits was moreover such, if I may be allow’d to mention it, that he could on design sometimes, by thinking upon distant external objects, bring them as to his view; and thus continue, or disolve them for a time, at pleasure.” Source: Richard Ward, Life of Dr. Henry More, 1710, pp. 41−43.

More’s own experiences are important in understanding his own understanding of godliness, or as patristic writings call it, theosis (divinization).

References

Crocker, Robert. Mysticism and enthusiasm in Henry More. In S. Hutton (ed.), Henry More (1614-1687) Tercentenary Studies, 137-55. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1990.

Grosart, Alexander Balloch (ed.). The Complete Poems of Henry More. Edinburgh University Press, 1878.

Henry, John, Henry More, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), < https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/henry-more/ >.

Hutton, Sarah (ed.); Crocker, Robert. Henry More (1614–1687): Tercentenary Studies. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1990.

Jacob, Alexander. Henry More: A Platonick Song of the Soul. Bucknell University Press, 1998.

Leech, David. Henry More: Bibliography. Cambridge Platonist Research Group. 2017. < https://cprg.hypotheses.org/bibliography/henry-more >

Ward, Richard. The life of the learned and pious Dr. Henry More. London: Jos. Downing, 1710; modern edition (eds. S. Hutton, C. Courtney, M. Courtney R. Crocker, R. Hall) Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2000; ebook: Springer, 2013.

Art: Henry More (detail), by William Faithorne; etching and line engraving, 1675. National Portrait Gallery NPG D22865.

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Catholicism and Transcendentalism: The Christian Consciousness

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Christian Consciousness 280x280The important 1967 encyclical of Pope Paul VI, Populorum progressio (On the development of peoples) called for, among other things, a new transcendental humanism (§16, §20). In May 2011, Pope Benedict XVI, addressing the faculty of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, renewed the call for “a new, integral and transcendent humanism.”

Precisely such a transcendental humanism can be found articulated with great depth, insight, and beauty in the literature of the 19th century American Transcendentalists and Unitarians, many of whom were Christian. I believe that modern Roman Catholics would do well to examine this literature.  It is a treasure-trove of ideas and inspiration, and the ‘old religion’ expressed in a form uniquely suited to the American mind.

As an example, below are excerpts from an 1859 discourse by Octavius B. Frothingham, ‘The Christian Consciousness, Its Elements and Expression’.  (O. B. Frothingham, Christian Consciousness. Philadelphia, 1859; pp. 3—33).

* * * *

I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit. (John 15:5a)

“HAVE you ever fairly mastered this thought: That once upon a time, eighteen hundred years ago, what we call Christianity was all gathered up in the person of a single man, who lived and breathed like other men, in the far-off land of Judea, — when Christ was Christianity, and all the Christianity there was on earth? … In that remote corner of the earth, Jesus of Nazareth stands alone, uncomprehended by the few who love him, despised or feared by the few who love him not, unheeded by the many who see in him nothing by which he can be distinguished from common humanity; solitary in person, and solitary in spirit, having little in common with his generation; solitary, with his great Religion folded in the secret place of his own heart. The mighty Truths which the world hail as revelations and build up into confessions, are his private thoughts. The creative forces which have wrought such moral results, and even something like a transformation in the sentiments of the most elevated portion of mankind, are the silent affections of his heart. The regenerating principles which have effected so much towards the growth of a new order of humanity, are the deep convictions of his individual conscience; and profoundly hidden in the experiences of his soul, are the spiritual laws that have since purified the piety and re-constructed the worship of millions of men. In that one peculiar being, as in a seed, [Christendom lies latent.] … The seed fulfils the conditions of all growth. It falls into the ground and dies.

“Ere long the fruit it was to bear, begins to appear. Little clusters of people like grapes on a vine are found in cities both near and remote from the place where he lived. They cling to each other. They grow together as if united by a common life, and attract the notice of all men by the singularity of their worship and behavior…. To them existence is not what it was; the world is not what it was; new thoughts occupy their minds; fresh affections, making old things seem distasteful, are yearning after congenial intercourse; an awakened moral sense abhors the practices in which they had before innocently engaged, and makes another order of the world necessary to their peace and satisfaction; strange hopes have taken hold on their souls; strange aspirations and purposes, which have altered their whole attitude towards their generation. They are one in the sympathy of a common Faith, Hope, and Charity. And what has begotten in these people, this new and singular spirit? They have seen, heard, conversed with, the men to whom this Jesus had communicated himself through some subtle influence which they could neither explain to themselves nor to others. They had no insight into his motives or intentions. Up to the very last hour of his life, they indulged a hope, which all his life long he had been laboring to dispel. His immortal ideas they failed to grasp, while they clung to his less significant words with a tenacity that nothing could loose. Yet, through all their stupidity and prejudice, his spirit had found its way to theirs. His being had bathed them like an atmosphere; had refreshed them like another climate. His character had shed itself like an aroma from his person, and penetrated invisibly to their natures’ roots. The mild radiance of his presence, the beaming of his face, the glance of his eye, the accents of his voice interpreting to their hearts words which their understanding could not apprehend, the indescribable serenity of his mien, so holy and so gracious, all expressed and imparted the spiritual life that was in him, so that when he died, that life was in various forms reproduced in those that knew him, according to their degree of susceptibility. And these, again, borne like seeds on the breath of the Spirit, spread the divine contagion even to distant lands, and made the attributes of the inward Christ visible in multitudes of communions, some of which knew him not, even by name.

“You will understand now what I mean by saying that Christianity was LIVED into the world. It was not built up by any skill in organizing establishments. It was not planted by sheer force of authoritative teaching. Men were not drilled into it, nor indoctrinated into it; they were BORN into it. It came to them as inspiration comes, and the effect of its coming was a new CONSCIOUSNESS, a new motive force, an original stamp of mind, and style of character. In a word, there was another life in the race….

“Christianity, let me repeat, was LIVED into the world. As a life, it reproduced and extended itself.   Its tendency, at least, nowhere completely fulfilled, it is true, but everywhere pushing against the obstacles in its path, was to re-animate and re-construct human relations….

“We have heard much lately about the Christian ‘CONSCIOUSNESS,’ as distinct from particular forms of belief or modes of thought; a general state of mind and affection that belongs to all genuine Christians alike, the partaking of which makes one a Christian, the lack of which makes one to be not a Christian; a prevailing and determining spirit, which, having the hidings of its power far down among the roots of human nature, distributes a secret but vital and quickening influence all through the substance of the moral and spiritual being, and diffuses abroad an aroma too delicate to be caught and imprisoned in symbolical books and sacred confessions, yet powerful enough to impress every spiritual sense and stimulate every spiritual desire. I believe there is such a spiritual Consciousness, common to all Christians, and distinguishing them from all who are not Christians more clearly than divines have ever succeeded in doing, while, at the same time, it prevents Christians, however artificially divided among themselves, from falling out finally with one another; a spiritual Consciousness which is nothing more or less than the mind of Jesus organizing itself in humanity….

“These are thoughts, vast, deep, shadowy. They are not dogmas; they are not opinions. They are spoiled and clipped by logical definition. They are spiritual truths, addressing themselves to the higher reason, which each may define for himself who can, or may innocently leave in the indistinctness which the soul best loves. They are inferences from what the Christian regards not as a notion but as a fact, a fact of inward assurance, a great conviction, that abides as a cornerstone, immovable in the deep soil of his heart. They are his translation into thought of a feeling that is deeper than all thought and runs before it.”

* * * *

One must read this material selectively. Along with sublime thoughts are a few prejudices and errors – many American Transcendentalists and Unitarians rejected, along with the harsh doctrines of Calvinism (from whence these movements evolved), many fine and noble elements of traditional Christianity.  For example, Frothingham writes,

“Put the intervening centuries by. Let your imaginations brush away, like so much dust on a window-pane, the vast Church that stands between you and him. Disappear, pope, cardinal, and priest; cathedral, chapel, shrine, altar, vestments, symbol, cross and goblet, keys and dove; vanish, creeds of every complexion, sects of every name.”

That is, in his appeal to  readers that they consult directly their Reason, Conscience, and intuitions for direct evidences of God, he goes further to question the validity of certain external forms of religion.  But remember that if we demand perfection of our saints, we shall have no saints. Despite certain prejudices, many of which are understandable if one considers the historical context, there is much that is saintly in these writings.

This caveat notwithstanding, there are times reading this literature that I am struck with a conviction that, in it, the prisca theologia, the ancient and venerable religion, reached its highest level of literary expression, before the radical materialism of the 20th century eclipsed the spiritual senses.  It remains there, providential, evidence of the action of the Holy Spirit in history, for us to consult and build upon.

This Old World religion, brought by the Puritans to New England and developed in the rich soil of village life in colonial America, I recognize as the same spiritual tradition in essence and fundamentals that was transmitted to me by Catholic sisters and priests at the parochial schools I attended as a child.

I should certainly try to follow up this post with more detail about the 19th century American Christian Transcendentalists and Unitarians.  One note of general interest to add here is that there is a direct literary and ideological connection between these writers and the Cambridge Platonists of the 17th century.  Besides Frothingham, some names of particular interest are William Ellery Channing, James Freeman Clarke, Francis Henry Hedge, and Abiel A. Livermore; but there are dozens more.

Additional Readings

Frothingham, Octavius B. Transcendentalism in New England. New York: Putnam, 1876.

Gardiner, Harold C. (Ed.). American Classics Reconsidered: A Christian Appraisal. New York: Scribner, 1958.

Howe, Daniel Walker. The Cambridge Platonists of Old and New England. Church History, 57, No. 4 (Dec., 1988), pp. 470-485. Reprinted as Ch. 7, ‘The Platonic Quest in New England’ in: Daniel Walker Howe, Making the American Self, 189-211. Oxford University Press, 2009 (orig. 1997).

Livermore, Abiel A. Discourses. Boston: Crosby, Nichols & Co., 1854.

Wells, Ronald V. Three Christian Transcendentalists: James Marsh, Caleb Sprague Henry, Frederic Henry Hedge. Columbia University Press, 1943.

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