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More, Henry (1614–87)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DA058-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved August 03, 2021, from

Article Summary

The English philosopher Henry More was one of the leaders of the movement known as Cambridge Platonism. Like his Cambridge colleague Ralph Cudworth, More elaborated a constructive metaphysics which, although deeply informed by the new philosophy and science of the seventeenth century, recovered what More saw as an ancient truth or ‘cabbala’. The articulation of this truth was an exercise of reason, guided by innate notions or inherent, God-given cognitive propensities. More’s ultimate aim as a philosopher was religious or ethical. His ‘one main Design’, he explained, was ‘The knowledge of God, and therein of true Happiness, so far as Reason can cut her way through those darknesses and difficulties she is encumbred with in this life’ (1662: iv). Among the central themes of the ancient truth More rediscovered and defended were the existence of a God whose leading attributes are wisdom and goodness; the immateriality and immortality of the human soul (the hope of immortality being, as More explained in the Preface to his poem Psychathanasia (1642), ‘the very nerves and sinews’ of religion); a dualism of active spirit and passive matter that differed significantly from the dualism of Descartes, despite More’s early enthusiasm for (and continuing engagement with) Cartesianism; the animation of matter by an immaterial but unthinking spirit of nature; and the existence of an infinite, substantial space, really distinct from matter, in which God is everywhere present and everywhere potentially active.

More’s appeals to experiment in defence of the spirit of nature provoked criticism from Robert Boyle. His doctrine of infinite, substantial space was (in the opinion of some historians) an important influence on Isaac Newton. Space seems, on More’s portrayal, to be something divine; this troubled George Berkeley, who thought that by assigning space the ‘incommunicable’ or unshareable attributes of God, More in the end encouraged the atheism he worked so hard to defeat.

More is usually represented as a rationalist in religion: ‘I conceive’, he once wrote, ‘Christian Religion rational throughout’ (1662: iv). It is important to distinguish, however, between More’s appeal to reason as a writer defending Christianity, and his appraisal of reason’s role in an ordinary Christian life. More was conscious of living in ‘a Searching, Inquisitive, Rational and Philosophical Age’, and he saw it as his duty to serve God by ‘gaining or retaining the more Rational and Philosophical’ of his contemporaries in the Christian faith (1664: 482). Rational and philosophical genius was not, however, required of every Christian: although More’s accounts of faith vary somewhat from work to work, they typically call not for a rational assessment of argument and evidence, but for moral purity, and for a belief in (and devotion to) a relatively short list of ‘essentials’. More sought a statement of these essentials that would reach across Protestant sectarian divides. He also defended a liberty of conscience or religion that was, he said, the natural right of every nation and every person. It was, however, a liberty that could be forfeited, and More thought it had been forfeited by some (atheists, for example, and at least some Catholics and Muslims) who might be found claiming its protection.

Citing this article:
Winkler, Kenneth P.. More, Henry (1614–87), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DA058-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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