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Martianus Capella, The Apotheosis of Philologia

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Sandro Botticelli, Venus and the Three Graces Presenting Gifts to a Young Woman, 1483–1486.

BOOK II of Martianus Capella’s On the Marriage of Philology and Mercury (De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii) continues the mythical introduction to the work (the previous post discusses Book I).  Before she can marry Mercury, Philologia (love of study) must ascend to heaven.  In preparation for this she is greeted and praised by a succession of goddesses and other divinities, including Phronesis (her mother), the Seven Muses, Philosophy, the Graces, the Virtues, Immortality, and Astrae. The speeches of the Muses, especially noteworthy, are presented below.

Modern writers criticize Martianus for what they call his ‘turgid prose’ and elaborate descriptions.  But this is seeing him through the lens of narrow rationalism.  May we instead adopt a post-rationalist worldview, and accept that he is either (1) using art intentionally to convey a fuller message, or (2) that he just might be inspired, whether by some divine power, the collective unconscious, or both?  May we in the 21st century regain an appreciation for the prophetic sense?

In Book III Martianus himself addresses his critics:

[221] Once again in this little book the Muse prepares her ornaments and wants to tell fabricated stories at first, remembering that utility cannot clothe the naked truth; she regards it as a weakness of the poet to make straightforward and undisguised statements, and she brings a light touch to literary style and adds beauty to a page that is already heavily colored. (Stahl et al, p. 64).

Criticisms notwithstanding, the purpose of the myth in the first two books seems as explicitly religious as it is momentous: Martianus is suggesting that Philologia — this quality of love of study, of scholarship, of yearning to understand the meanings of things — is something divine.  And it seems likely he considers this a means of gradual ascent of the mind (nous) in a manner consistent with Platonism and Neoplatonism.

Small wonder, then, that this work exerted such a profound influence on education and consciousness in the West for 1000 years after he wrote, from the fall of  the Roman Empire to the Renaissance.  His message should be heard again today.  The purpose of Liberal Arts education is neither utilitarian, nor merely to make a ‘good and productive citizen.’  It is part of the far more significant process of divinization, of ‘assimilation to God insofar as possible.’

Two details concerning the following should be noted.  First, the Seven Muses are not the same as the Seven Liberal Arts, which are treated in the remaining seven books.  Second, Martianus deviates somewhat from how other writers interpret each Muse.  The English translation of Stahl et al. has been lightly edited.

[117] BEFORE the door, sweet music with manifold charms was raised, the chorus of assembled Muses singing in well-trained harmony to honor the marriage ceremony. Flutes, lyres, the grand swell of the water organ blended in tuneful song and with a melodious ending as they became silent for an appropriate interval of unaccompanied singing by the Muses. Then the entire chorus with melodious voices and sweet harmony outstripped the beauty of all the instrumental music, and the following words were poured forth in notes of sacred song:

Ascend into the temples of heaven, maiden, deserving of such a marriage;
your father-in-law Jupiter asks you to rise to the lofty stars.”

[118] Then, while the others kept quiet a moment, URANIA (Muse of astronomy) began:

“With trust in the divine will and without disputing,
Behold the assemblies of the stars,
And the sacred vaults of the heavens;
You formerly studied what cause whirled the interdependent spheres,
Now as their leader you shall assign causes to their sweeping motions.
You shall perceive what is the fabric that connects their circuits,
What bond encompasses them,
And what huge spheres are enclosed within a curving orbit;
You will see what drives on and what delays courses of the planets,
Which rays of the sun inflame the moon or diminish its light,
What substance kindles the stars in heaven,
And how great are the bodies which heaven spins around,
What is the providence of the gods, and what its mode of operation.

Ascend into the temples of heaven, maiden, deserving of such a marriage;
your father-in-law Jupiter asks you to rise to the lofty stars.”

[119] Then sang CALLIOPE (Muse of epic poetry):

“Always a friend to the favoring Muses,
For you Magnesian rivers and the fountain of Pegasus have poured your drink,
For you the Aonid peak [Mount Helicon], green with garlands, puts forth its leaves, while Cirrha prepares violets;
You know how to chant prophecies to the sweet Muses,
And to play the lyre of Pindar,
And at your word the strings and the sacred plectrum,
Know how to pour forth the Thracian song.
Light of our lives, praise always our sacred songs,
And approve the music that we play.

Ascend into the temples of heaven, maiden, deserving of such a marriage;
your father-in-law Jupiter asks uou to rise to the lofty stars.”

[120] Thus sang POLYMNIA (Muse of rhythm and poetic meter):

“You have been exalted and, though recently of mortal blood,
Are now endowed with godhead;
At last you reap the rewards of your efforts:
The shining sky, the abodes of the gods, and the companionship of Jove.
You are used to combining and dispersing a variety of sounds,
According to the rules of rhythm,
To assessing then which syllable, marked with the macron,
Is pronounced with circumflexion,
Which with the mark of brevity the micron curves;
To assessing melodies and tones and tunes and all such knowledge,
And all that can, when the mind is urged to it,
Gain the heights of heaven.

Ascend into the temples of heaven, maiden, deserving of such a marriage;
your father-in-law Jupiter asks you to rise to the lofty stars.”

[121] Thus sang MELPOMEME (Muse of sacred theater):

“You are accustomed to sing tragic songs for the theater,
Or wear the boot of comedy and echo the songs,
Which under your care we offered when sweet music aided us;
Now to you, maiden, our champion and our expositor,
Made immortal by the theme of your song, to you I sing.
For I am happy to adorn your bridal chamber,
And may my garlands be acceptable in your service.
May you ever seem worthy of an Olympian wedding,
Ever fairer than the other gods.

Ascend into the temples of heaven, maiden, deserving of such a marriage;
your father-in-law Jupitet asks you to rise to the lofty stars.”

[122] Thus sang CLIO (Muse of history and rhetoric):

“You sound forth in the guise of the rhetorician,
And set free by your passion the man accused.
You link together contrary sentiments,
Building up sophisms by heaping together arguments,
Now binding something together by the rule of grammar,
Clever at using your gift of fine speech,
To play with words that by their double meaning destroy the ordinary sense;
Now gaze upon the starry threshold of the sky,
And enjoy the holy whiteness of heaven,
For it is precious to see that in its true light.

Ascend into the temples of heaven, maiden, deserving of such a marriage;
your father-in-law Jupiter asks you to rise to the lofty stars.”

[123] Next spoke ERATO (Muse of lyric and love poetry):

“O famous maiden, to whom the palace of the Thunderer is open,
Source of the arts, rightly is the world subject to you,
Since it was from the beginning apprehended by your rational principles.
Why the sacred lightning flashes,
Whence the echoing thunder sounds,
What drives the moisture through the opening of the sky when the storm clouds gather,
What is brought back by the clearness of spring when the rain clouds march away,
Why the circle of the year spins round to end all the hurrying centuries
—we avow that secrets unknown to others are known to you alone.

Ascend into the temples of heaven, maiden, deserving of such a marriage;
your father-in-law Jupiter asks you to rise to the lofty stars.”

[124] Then sang TERPSICHORE (Muse of dance and chorus):

“I am delighted, dear maiden, that through this honor you gain a sight of the stars!
Your industry and the genius of your nature have won this for you.
That wakeful concentration of yours bestowed this honor on your lucubrations.
Having toiled day and night on the sacred writings,
And knowing the future and being ready to learn,
You have understood what the Stoics offer in their sacrifices when the flame puffs from the kindling.
For without misgivings, with unhesitating utterance,
You anticipate what the smoke tells on the flaming altars of the Sabaeans,
What message is brought by air thick with the ash of incense,
Or what the sure signs foretell by prophetic voices.

Ascend into the temples of heaven, maiden, deserving of such a marriage;
your father-in-law Jupiter asks you to rise to the lofty stars.”

[125] Then EUTERPE (Muse of flute music) began:

“O maiden, our guide to skillful prophecy,
Who could ascend to heaven and bring down to pure souls,
The sacred teachings by which they were able to know themselves,
And by which they discerned
And saw with a clear light the decrees of fate and the countenances of the spirits,
And who allotted stars to be the minds of Plato and Pythagoras,
And who has ordered ephemeral creatures,
To behold the decree of heaven with all obscurity removed:
Rightly ascend to the senate of the Thunderer,
You who alone are fit to be married to Mercury.

Ascend into the temples of heaven, maiden, deserving of such a marriage;
your father-in-law Jupiter asks you to rise to the lofty stars.”

[126] Then THALIA (Muse of comedy and pastoral poetry) spoke:

“O blessed maiden, who take up the marriage bond,
Amid such a singing of the stars,
And with such approval from the universe,
Become a daughter-in-law of the Thunderer.
Of which god are you to become the wife?
He alone on wandering wing, alert for sudden storms,
Flies out beyond the stars of the universe,
And when he has crossed the straits on high, returns to Tartarus.
He alone is able to wield his famous staff before the chariot and white horses of the high father;
He alone gladly restores the fortunes of Osiris as he falls,
Whom the father of the gods knows to be weighed down by the life-giving seed he has discovered;
To Mercury his stepmother gladly gave her milky breast;
His powerful caduceus counteracts dread poison;
And when he speaks, all venom is dissolved.
He is learned among the gods; but this girl is still more learned.
Now, now the arts are blessed, which you two so sanctify,
That they allow men to rise to heaven and open to them the stars,
And allow holy prayers to fly up to the clear sky.
Through you the mind’s intelligence, alert and noble, fills the uttermost depth,
Through you proven eloquence brings everlasting glory.
You bless all subjects, and you bless us, the Muses.”


Cristante, Lucio; Lenaz, Luciano. Martiani Capellae: De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii. Vol. 1, Libri I – II. Bibliotheca Weidmanniana, 15.1. Hildesheim: Weidmann, 2011.

Stahl, William Harris; Johnson, Richard; Burge, E. L. The Marriage of Philology and Mercury. Columbia University Press, 1977.

Willis, James (ed.). Martianus Capella: De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii libri IX. Leipzig: Teubner, 1983. (Critical edition of Latin text.)

1st draft, 1 Apr 2020

Martianus Capella’s Fable of the Marriage of Philologia and Mercury

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Sandro Botticelli, A Young Man Being Introduced to the Seven Liberal Arts (detail), 1483–1486.


MARTIANUS CAPELLA, an early 5th century North African writer, is most famous for a work titled, On the Marriage of Philology and Mercury (De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii).  Virtually ignored today, this work had vast influence on education for next 1000 years and shaped the curriculum of the Middle Ages. The first two books, an introduction, present an allegorical fable involving the marriage of Mercury and Philology (love of study.).  Subsequent chapters discuss, one by one, the seven traditional liberal arts (Grammar, Dialectic, Rhetoric, Geometry, Arithmetic, Astronomy and Music), supplying a compendium of existing knowledge on each.

Even less modern attention has been given to the introductory fable than to the work as a whole.  However the former merits our attention as an imaginative and creative attempt to explain the purpose of liberal education by means of a psychological allegory.  As a work of art and an expression of the collective unconscious, the fable is not dated. Indeed, the daring style — precisely because it’s so unconventional by modern standards — deserves our attention that much more.The allegory has two parts, called the Betrothal and the Marriage. Part 1 — psychologically more interesting — is supplied below.  This is taken (in abridged and edited form) from the English translation of Stahl, Johnson and Burge.  Except for Mercury, names of the gods are changed from their Latin to Greek forms.

Readers may notice similarities to the story of Cupid and Psyche, from the Metamorphosis (Golden Ass) of Apuleius.  That is not merely coincidental, as Martianus consciously emulated his illustrious predecessor Apuleius, a fellow native of Madaura (in what is now Algeria).Philology, as already noted, means the love of study, and Mercury — known both for his role as communicator and mediator, as well as for his quickness — is a familiar symbol for the intelligence.

Rather than over-analyze the charming story, I’ll trust the author’s creative instincts and let art itself appeal to readers’ imaginations to suggest psychological meanings. Overall, the story might be understood as suggesting that education in the Seven Liberal Arts is more than merely expedient; it also serves to elevate and harmonize the mind. In that sense it (just as Plato suggests in the Republic), supports ones moral and spiritual development. Indeed, insofar as it helps realize Man’s greatest potentials, it serves the entire Universe and contributes to cosmic harmony.

[5] MERCURY was moved and excited by the reciprocity of love among the gods; at the same time he saw what was clear to many people—love and marriages are universally celebrated. So he too decided to get married. His mother had encouraged him in this inclination when, on his yearly journey through the zodiac, he greeted her in the company of the Pleiades.

[6] Because of the importance of the venture, he pondered a great deal on whom he ought to marry. He himself ardently desired Wisdom, because she was prudent and holy, and purer and fairer than the other maidens. However Wisdom was like a foster sister of Athena and seemed inseparably devoted to her, as though having espoused virginity; he accordingly decided not to marry Wisdom, as this would offend Athena, his own sister.

In the same way, the splendid beauty of Prophecy inflamed his desires. She was nobly born, being the elder daughter of Forethought, and her farsighted and penetrating wisdom commended her to him. But at that very time, as it happened, she went of her own accord to young Apollo and, unable to endure her inordinate passion, she became his lover.

[7] He wanted then to ask for Psyche, the daughter of Endelechia [World Soul] and Sol, because she was extremely beautiful and the gods had taken great care over her education. On the day of her birth the gods, being invited to a celebration, had brought her many gifts. Jupiter, in fact, had placed on her head a diadem which he had taken from his favored daughter Eternity; Juno had added a band for her hair, made from a gleaming vein of pure gold. Athena loosed from her tunic the flame-red veil and breastband and, herself a virgin holy and wise, draped the virgin in the very mantle from her own bosom. Apollo also, carrying his laurel branch, showed her with that wand of foresight and prophecy the birds, the bolts of lightning, the motions of heaven itself and the stars. Urania with gentle kindness gave her a gleaming mirror which Wisdom had hung in Urania’s rooms amongst her gifts—a mirror in which Psyche could recognize herself and learn her origins. Hephaestus kindled for her ever-burning flamelets; she would not then be oppressed by gloomy shadows and blind night. Aphrodite had given to all her senses every kind of pleasure. Mercury himself had given her a vehicle with swift wheels in which she could travel at an astonishing speed, although Memory bound it and weighed it down with golden chains. So now Mercury, his earlier hopes frustrated, sought in marriage Psyche, wealthy as she was in the gifts of heaven and richly adorned by the gods. But Virtue, almost in tears and clinging fast to him, confessed that Psyche had been snatched from her company into the hand of Cupid the flying archer, and was being held captive by him in shackles of adamant. (See ‘Cupid and Psyche’ by Apuleius):

[8] So the happiness of the destiny he had planned eluded Mercury, because of the marriages of these maidens; and there did not readily seem to be anyone else who might fittingly be chosen as Zeus the Thunderer’s daughter-in-law. Virtue therefore suggested that he give the matter further thought; he ought not decide anything without the advice of Apollo; he was not meant to wander far from his company, since, as Mercury traveled through the signs of the zodiac, Apollo never permitted him to be further than one month’s journey away from himself. And so it was decided that Mercury go to his brother, Apollo, wherever he might be.

[9] Then, as usual, he gave his caduceus to Virtue, so that she could penetrate the secret parts of the world with him, and with equal swiftness could break into the more remote quarters of heaven. He himself bound on his feet his golden sandals and they made a thorough search for Apollo. They looked for him in temples where oracles poured forth in evasive ambiguity and where, by the slaughter of animals and the separation of their entrails, the viscera declared foreordained events; and in places where it was the custom for a lottery to be drawn and for prophecies to be told.

[10] But in these leading shrines and these deserted caves they found nothing of Apollo except only a few leaves of withered laurel and half-torn fillets outside the cave of the sybil of Cumae. Even through the paths of air where Apollo usually guided the varied flights of birds and the cries they uttered, and formed omens in their fleeting wings, they looked for him without success. Indeed Apollo, patron of the Pythia, distressed by contact with those who sought his advice, had long ago given up his reputation as a prophet. They pursued him to Helicon, Delos, Lycia. In one place they found old laurel and withered ivy, in another a rotting tripod, sandals stiff with mildew, and an account of prophecies lying between them.

[11] At length they learned by rumor that the rock of Parnassus rejoiced in the presence of Phoebus, although from there too it was said that he had later moved to an Indian mountain’s secret crag, shrouded in perpetual clouds. Yet Mercury and Virtue visited the Delphic temple (by way of Cirrha on the Gulf of Corinth) and the sacred cave’s prophetic hollows. In it there stood about all the impending vicissitudes of the ages, in their order: the fortunes of cities and nations, of all their kings, and of the entire human race.

[20] When Pythian Apollo saw them approach from afar, conversing thus, and realized from the first glance the reason for their coming, he rose from the throne on which he was sitting and bade the Muses meet them. Although they seemed to hasten in service to Mercury, they moved with measured pace. When his brother had been brought to sit with him and join him in his work, Apollo first began:

[21] “When their minds tremble with apprehension in perilous times, or their destiny is unknown and unsettled with the future insecure, let the race of men consult the gods, because anxiety without knowledge of the truth makes them hesitant, uncertain prospects weary them; but to us foreknowledge is permitted, for us there is no hesitation. What the gods decide is law; heaven’s decisions cause us no wistfulness, for necessity is whatever is pleasing to us. But because you have not yet settled upon a choice, you want to have my advice. You thus associate me with all your desires, and you make up your mind with my advice.

[22] “There is a maiden of ancient lineage, highly educated and well acquainted with Parnassus; upon her the constellations shine in close proximity; no hidden region can conceal from her the movements of the stars through Tartarus, nor can thunderbolts hide from her the will of Zeus: she beholds under the sea the nature of wave-born Nereus. She knows your circuits through the several kingdoms of your brothers: ever watchful, with unsparing toil she penetrates the secrets of knowledge, so that with her patient learning she can anticipate all that it is given to gods to foreknow. Indeed, very often she has rights over us, impelling gods under compulsion to obey her decrees; she knows that what no power of heaven can attempt against Jove’s will, she can attain. Sublimity may cost dear: and the crowning consideration is that either of you is a fitting match for the other.”

[23] Virtue was delighted at these words of Apollo, recognizing that he proposed for marriage a paragon of a maiden; nevertheless, to be sure that there was no detraction from the dignity of the prospective brides mentioned earlier, she asked this one’s name. When she learned that it was Philologae whose espousal Apollo was urging, she was seized with such joy and enthusiasm that she behaved with less severity of deportment than was her wont. She called to mind that Philologae was her own kinswoman, a patroness of Prophecy, who had been so well commended, and most generous to Wisdom in giving her valuable ornaments. In addition, said Virtue, Psyche, who at first lived a primitive sort of existence, has been so refined by Philologae that whatever beauty and embellishment Psyche had she acquired from the polish Philologae gave her; for the maiden had shown Psyche so much affection that she strove constantly to make her immortal. Therefore they must not delay— and indeed she knew that the Cyllenian was swift in action. Having heard the words of Apollo, Mercury replied:

[24] “Lord of the laurel, splendor of the gods, certain it is that our concord comes from our kinship, and that you, my fellow-god, bring to pass whatever you and I together find to approve. I am never more ready to give up my own will, more happy to obey orders than when your caution and judgment prompt me to obey the Delian oracle. “I think it is sacrilege to regard the Delian utterances as ambiguous, and I forgo my own decision, whatever it was. It is therefore all the more appropriate that the I gladly obey these celebrated pronouncements when he is ordered to enter into matrimony. Try then, Delian Apollo, to ensure that Zeus should give the same decision, that he should give willing approval; for you are used to moving his will, you are alert to influence his predispositions; get him to approve your commands; I pray that his holy will has shone upon what has begun.”

Book I continues, informing us that Zeus not only confirms the choice of Philologae as Mercury’s bride, but is overjoyed at the prospect. He duly commands all the Olympian gods to commence festivities and prepare gifts. Book II continues with an elaborate description of the marriage ceremony. Accompanying the bride are her handmaids, the seven Liberal Arts, to which the remaining books are devoted.


Apuleius. Cupid and Psyche. William Addington (tr.); John Uebersax (ed.). 2018.

Cristante, Lucio; Lenaz, Luciano. Martiani Capellae: De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii. Vol. 1, Libri I – II. Bibliotheca Weidmanniana, 15.1. Hildesheim: Weidmann, 2011.

Gersh, Stephen. Middle Platonism and Neoplatonism: The Latin Tradition. Vol. 2. University of Notre Dame Press, 1986. (Ch. 8. Martianus Capella, pp. 597−646.)

Stahl, William Harris; Johnson, Richard; Burge, E. L. The Marriage of Philology and Mercury. Columbia University Press, 1977.

Willis, James (ed.). Martianus Capella: De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii libri IX. Leipzig: Teubner, 1983. (Critical edition of Latin text.)

1st draft, 24 Mar 2020

On the Six Levels of Contemplation – Richard of Saint-Victor

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Seraphim, Petites Heures de Jean de Berry (14th century)

CHRISTIAN mystics have an elaborate system for classifying contemplative experience. In fact, possibly it’s too systematized; at least I personally have never been able to fully understand it. Accordingly, I’d like to de-mystify (no pun inteded) things by going back early in the tradition, to when this effort to classify and arrange experiences was getting started: systematized, but perhaps not overly so.

To begin then, in the 12th century, Richard of St. Victor proposed a classification of contemplative experience into six ascending grades. The six forms of contemplation are associated with the six winged seraphim in Isaiah’s famous vision (Isaiah 6:1–3). His system strongly influenced St. Bonaventure, who, a century later proposed his own six-fold classification of contemplative experiences.

Richard’s classification is not simply derived from experience (i.e., phenomenological observation), but also relies on a theoretical premise. Specifically, he sees the human mind as having three divisions: (1) sense perception and sensory imagination; (2) discursive reasoning or ratiocination (Latin: ratio; Greek: dianoia); and (3) pure intellection (i.e., immediate intuitive grasp; Greek: noesis). From this three-fold division he derives his six ascending grades of contemplation, as follows:

  1. Sense experience alone. Example: contemplating natural beauty for its own sake; a purely aesthetic experience.)
  2. Sense experience combined with reasoning. Example: contemplating natural beauty, and then thinking about what it implies (e.g., a providential and wise Creator).
  3. Reasoning guided by imagination. Example: admiring a flower and considering how its unfolding petals correspond to human mental development.
  4. Reasoning alone. Example: noticing some process within ones own mind, and that leading to some further self-insight.
  5. Insight above, but not contrary to ratiocination. Example: an insight into some aspect of God’s nature or being that conforms to logic.
  6. Insight above and contrary to or completely uninterpretable by ratiocination. Example: an insight into some aspect of God’s nature or being that is beyond or contradicts logic.

This discussion appears in The Mystical Ark (Benjamin Major) 1.6.

The arrangement is systematic, but not overwhelmingly so. He emphasizes that contemplation is something fluid and dynamic. That is, during contemplation the mind moves freely among these levels. He likens things to a hawk or kestrel that flies higher or lower, sometimes hovering, sometimes diving, sometimes returning for a second look, and so on. This is an intriguing analogy not only because of its aptness, but also because it’s likely an insight derived from his own contemplative practice (level 3 contemplation).

In Book 5 he supplies another classification concerning contemplation at the highest levels, noting that one may experience (1) expansion (dilatio), (2) elevation (sublevatio), and finally (3) ecstatic loss (alienatio) of consciousness.

Benjamin, youngest of Jacob’s 12 sons, is, for Richard, is a symbol of contemplation. He basis this on the Vulgate version of Psalm lxvii.: Ibi Benjamin adolescentulus in mentis excessu: “There is Benjamin, a youth, in ecstasy of mind.” (whereas the modern English Bible reads: “Little Benjamin their ruler.”)

His two works, Benjamin Minor (The Twelve Patriarchs) and Benjamin Major (The Mystical Ark) consider the ascetical/moral preparation for contemplation, and contemplation itself, respectively.

At the birth of Benjamin, his mother Rachel dies, and Richard writes: “For, when the mind of man is rapt above itself, it surpasseth all the limits of human reasoning. Elevated above itself and rapt in ecstasy, it beholdeth things in the divine light at which all human reason succumbs. What, then, is the death of Rachel, save the failing of reason?” (Benjamin Minor 73).

So in sum, we can see that Richard’s ‘system’ (if that’s a fair term to apply) is a felicitious combination of knowledge derived from experience and dialectic. As such it represents, arguably, a remarkably high level of synthesis between experience, creative imagination, insight and rational analysis.

A century later Scholasticism would be in full swing, the balance leaning progressively more and more (up to this day!) towards intellectual analysis (or perhaps we should say, towards a dissociation of rationalism and mysticism).


Richard of Saint-Victor. Omnia opera. Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. MIGNE (Paris 1878–90) 196.

Zinn, Grover A. (tr.). Richard of St. Victor: The Twelve Patriarchs, The Mystical Ark and Book Three of The Trinity. Paulist Press, 1979.

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
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).


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.), < >.

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. < >

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.