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Christian Hengstermann, University of Münster

Translating Henry More’s Opera Omnia

The Sourcebook contains the first English translations of several of More’s major philosophical prose works originally published in his three-volume Opera Omnia of 1675–1679. Among the works translated are his widely-studied Epistolae Quatuor ad Renatum Des-Cartes, his equally influential critiques of the German mystic Jacob Boehme’s Aurora, the Dutch rationalist Baruch de Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus and the early English panpsychist Francis Glisson’s Substantia energetica and a range of minor texts mostly published as appendices to earlier works. In breadth and scope, the Sourcebook, thus, constitutes the first major translation project devoted to the prolific Henricus Morus and his fellow Cambridge Platonists since the English translations of the Enchridium Metaphysicum and the Confutatio published by Alexander Jacob in the early and mid-90s. The Latin prose works selected and translated for the Sourcebook showcase the remarkable range of More’s metaphysical interests as well as his extraordinary literary gift and talent in a great variety of genres. The guiding principles of the translation project are meant to preserve More’s distinct style and tone, while also rendering his philosophical argument into readable contemporary English prose.

Henry More is a Neo-Latin writer of extraordinary versatility. He started his career as a poet who traced his intellectual development in moving Latin lyrical verse. Such was More’s early mastery of the Latin tongue that he could readily express in it his most intimate feelings and moods at the times of intense intellectual and spiritual crises to which his verse, composed in various classical metres, bears impressive witness. The hendecasyllabic lines of the early Monocardia, written shortly after his conversion, detail the gradual awakening of the boniform ideal of God’s universal love for all of creation in the poet’s own perturbed spirit:

Quae vis nunc agitat meas medullas 

Et cor, molliculo ferire motu

Ceptat? percutiunt novi furores

Mentem, concipio novos amores.

Ah ! nunc me fluidos abire in igneis

Totum sentio?

What power is it that stirs my bowels

And begins to hit my heart with gentle motion?

New furies shake my mind. New loves I feel.

Oh, do I not feel now that I am being wholly

Dissolved Into streams of fire?[1]

Not surprisingly considering his deep elective kinship with the Dutch and Italian humanists a century prior, More excelled, above all, in letter writing. Quite a few of his early and later Latin treatises take the literary form of letters addressed to fellow philosophers and friends, including his handbook of Cartesianism in the Epistola ad V.C., the critique of Boehme in an Epistola privata ad amicum and the refutation of Spinoza in the Ad V.C. epistola altera. An early example is his correspondence with Descartes. His early letters in particular are downright adulatory in tone. Henricus Morus Anglus is obviously at pains to impress the admired French philosopher. The beginning of the first letter is a classic example of a polished Latin captatio benevolentiae:

Equidem ausim asseverare me haud minùs exultâsse in recognoscendis intelligendísque præclaris tuis Theorematis, quàm ipse in inveniendis, æquéque charos habere atque deamare pucherrimos illos ingenii tui fœtus, acsi proprius eos enixus esset animus. Quod & certè fecisse aliquo modo mihi videtur, exercendo sese atque expediendo in eosdem sensus ac cogitationes, quos generosa tua mens præconcepit, & præmonstravit. Qui sanè quemadmodum istiusmodi sunt, ut, cùm intellectui judicióque meo adeò sint congeneres, ut non sperem fore ut incidam in quicquam conjunctum magìs ac consanguineum, ità sanè à nullius ingenio alieni esse possint, cujus itidem ingenium non sit à recta ratione alienum.

“Indeed, I may well go so far as to say that I exulted as much in understanding and adopting your celebrated doctrines as you did in discovering them and that I hold these most beautiful children of your mind as dear as though my own mind had given birth to them. And in a way I do in fact view myself as their author, having reached and striven for those very same ideas and thoughts which your great mind had conceived and demonstrated before me. They correspond to my own thought and judgement so closely that I cannot possibly hope to find anything that accords more fully with my own mind, nor indeed can they be at odds with anyone else’s unless they are estranged from right reason.”

The Sourcebook translation stays faithful to the self-conscious grandiloquence of the young More’s ornate captatio, reproducing the biological metaphor of the author’s and Descartes’ minds giving birth to the same notions and the stylistic devices of classical Latin rhetoric, notably the use of parallelisms in the eulogy of the revered philosopher’s copious literary production. Another characteristic example of More’s Latin letter writing is the beginning of his Epistola privata on Jacob Boehme. However, whereas his letter to Descartes is reverential in tone, the one to an unnamed friend, probably Lady Anne Conway, is characterized by genuine affection and warmth:

Quòd Epistolam hanc, eò ab amico invitatus, scripserim, neminem credo, qui optimum & nobilissimum Amicitiæ commercium intellexerit, mihi vitio unquam versurum. Ut verò publici juris facerem, quod primùm privatæ solummodò satisfactioni destinatum est, hac in re me fateor meipsum reperire magìs obnoxium: Non quòd rem ullam Heterodoxam mihi visus sim hîc tradidisse; (Neque enim mihi conscius sum me hac in Epistola quicquam affirmâsse, quod universali Doctrinæ Ecclesiæ in temporibus suis Symmetris, ullo modo repugnet. Nec certè quando errores J. B. emendo, intelligi volo ità absolutè & dogmaticè definire, ac si certus essem, quid sibi vellet in hisce Spiritûs sui parturitionibus, sed potiùs, id quod nos subinnuimus verisimilius esse quàm quod ipse videtur planè & apertè indicare; sed ad indubias Doctrinæ Apostolicæ Regulas omnia esse expendenda.

“I believe that no-one who knows about the ties of our most wonderful and noble friendship will ever find fault with me for writing this letter at this friend’s invitation. However, I admit that I may seem more blameworthy in publishing what was originally meant for the latter’s private satisfaction only, but not because I believe I have written something heterodox. Indeed, I cannot see that I have taught anything that conflicts with the universal doctrine of the church in its symmetric times. Nor, certainly, do I want to be misunderstood as though when correcting the errors of J.B., I meant to provide absolute and dogmatic definitions or were certain myself about the meaning of what his spirit has brought forth. Instead, we present what seems to us more probable than his apparently clear and explicit assertions, though everything must likewise be subjected to the indubitable rules of the apostolic doctrine. Hence, as regards this, I believe myself sufficiently safe from anybody’s cavils.”

Our translation seeks to reproduce both the amicable tone of the letter and the technical vocabulary. While hardly intelligible on a first reading, geometric expressions like “symmetric times”, by which he qualifies the pristine early era of church history, are an integral part of More’s rationalist philosophical style.

To the warmth of friendship expressed in his personal letter corresponds the heartfelt passion of several of his detailed expositions of the Neoplatonist Deity intuited by what More, with a Greek and Latin concept of his own coinage, chose to call the soul’s boniform faculty. In the letter about the Teutonic philosophy, More outlines his mature system in Latin prose that is downright poetic in character. It is very much akin to the religious poetry of his youth:

“Hypostases heîc utriusq; Trinitatis alteræ alteris per manifestam ἀντιστοιχίαν respondent, ☉ SolSaturno, JupiterMercurio, Venus Marti: Cùm Trinitas universalis Naturæ sit quasi umbratilis projectio Trinitatis puræ Divinitatis per Divinam Animam, ut in Arbore super Fluvii ripam posita quæ suam umbram in aquam projicit, Ramorum summi infimi fiunt in projectione, sed respondent alteri alteris, debitámque inter se gerunt similitudinem: Sicsive Abyssus Physicarum monadum Solis imaginem refert sive Supremi Boni, quod Platonici Τ'αγαθὸν appellant.”

“Here the hypostases of the two trinities correspond to one another in a clear ἀντιστοιχία,[5] ☉ (the sun) to ♄ (Saturn), ♃ (Jupiter) to ☿ (Mercury), and ♀ (Venus) to ♂ (Mars). The trinity of universal nature is like a shadowy projection of the Trinity of pure divinity through the divine soul. It resembles a tree standing above the bank of a river which projects its shadows into the water with the highest of its branches being the lowest in the projection, while the latter correspond to the former and bear a necessary similarity to them. Likewise, the ♃ or abyss of physical monads reflects the image of ☉, the sun, or the supreme good, which the Platonists call τἀγαθόν.”

The Sourcebook translation tries to do justice to the poetic character of this key passage in More’s exposition of his own mature system. At the same time, the rather long periods, clearly modelled on classical Latin, have been consistently broken down here and in other passages for the sake of legibility.

While More was clearly adept at expressing admiration and friendship and extolling God’s sublimity in beautiful Latin prose, he also had a gift for polemics which he over-indulged in a number of places. Many of the works translated into English here are polemical in genre, containing detailed refutations of rival metaphysical accounts. Depending on the adversary targeted, More’s tone varies from genial and gentle satire to acerbic denigration. Thus, while More admires Jacob Boehme’s sincere piety, he rejects his misguided metaphysics, comparing the Teutonic philosopher to a child on his grandfather’s lap. Though deeply critical, his satire upon pious Boehme nevertheless evidences his genuine affection for the Teutonic philosopher:

Quídve est cur Deus graduales emergentias ac tentamina Ingenii, prout in nova Nativitate exurgit, sufflaminet, quæ suum Pueritiæ statum habet, perinde atque illa in Natura? Et quis, obsecro, Pater aut Avus Philosophicas ægrè ferret Filii Nepotísve sui garritiunculas circa seipsum, quanquam in puerili sua confabulatione, niger ejus pileus tramosericus pro naturalis capitis parte accipitur, longáque barba quæ inter loquendum toties se motitat, præcipuum sermonis ejus instrumentum à puero declaratur? Ità sanè existimare possumus Patrem nostrum cœlestem æquè parum offendi erroribus filiorum suorum, qui virtute novæ Nativitatis fervidum erga eum amorem habent ac desiderium cognitionis naturæ illius, cogitationésque suas in pueritia circa eum occupantes, in multos crassos errores incurrunt. Quam conditionem primùm fuisse autumo Jacobi Behmen, qui Ætherem cæruleum Stellásque pro parte Dei Patris accepit, cùm tamen nè bactreatum quidem illius sint Nocticapitium. Sic sanè dum puer erat, cogitavit scripsítque ut puer. Postea verò intellectus ejus ad magìs puram ac spiritualem Deitatem penetravit.

“Or why should God hinder the gradually emerging first attempts of our mind, as it comes to be in our new birth, which has its own state of childhood very much like that in nature? Or which father or grandfather, I beseech you, would take exception to his son or grandson’s first philosophical babblings, even though, in his childlike chatter, the boy mistakes his half-linen black cap for a natural part of his head and takes his long beard, which constantly moves while he is speaking, for his principal instrument of speech? In a similar fashion, we may assume, our heavenly Father takes little offence at the errors of his children who, thanks to their new birth, feel both a passionate love for him and a yearning for knowledge of his nature, but are subject to a good many gross errors in the reflections they undertake upon him in their infancy. Jakob Boehme, I claim, was first in this state when he took the azure ether and the stars to be a part of God the Father, even though they are not even his silver nightcap. Thus, when he was a little boy, he certainly thought and wrote like a little boy. Afterwards, however, his intellect attained to a purer and more spiritual Deity.”

The passage, for all its condescension in the middle part, is a remarkable specimen of the wit and vigour of More’s later Latin prose. It abounds in rhetorical questions meant to arouse the reader’s sympathy for Boehme’s childlike attempts at a metaphysical system of the Divine. Moreover, it is a remarkable testimony to More’s aplomb as a Neo-Latin writer that the term nocticapitium, i.e. “nightcap”, is his own coinage. More’s is a near-native mastery of the Latin tongue which he self-confidently shows off in an extensive, albeit witty and well-meaning, critique of a fellow mystic and metaphysician. Again, the Sourcebook translation tries to reproduce More’s somewhat affected language. Whilst his critique of Boehme is altogether gentle and not without sincere sympathy, the author is at times relentlessly scathing in his critique in other works. A notable example is his invective against Spinoza whom he denigrates in vicious polemics:

Quod igitur feci, & certè inter legendum videbar mihi album quendam Diabolum philosophantem vel potiùs concionantem audire. Dum enim justitiam & charitatem tantopere inculcat omnia alba videntur, & concionator candore quodam splendoréve Angelico circumfundi; dum verò eum subinde insinuare observo imò apertè profiteri, nullam habendam esse rationem veritatis in rebus Religionis sed oboedientiæ tantùm, fœdi Cacodæmonis vocem exhorreo. Sed videamus breviter quid sit quò tendant hæc duo Capita. Atque horum prius quidem ostendit Scripturam non nisi simplicissima docere (hæc enim crambe bis cocta hîc rursus nobis obtruditur) solámque obedientiam intendere, nec de Divina natura aliud docere quàm quod homines certâ vivendi ratione imitari possunt.

“This is exactly what I did and while reading them, it certainly seemed to me that I was listening to some bright devil philosophizing or rather making a speech. For when he drives home justice and love so much, everything seems bright, the speaker bathed in angelical brightness and splendour However, when after that I read his suggestion, or rather blunt statement, that ‘we must not consider truth in matters of religion, but only obedience’ (13,9, p. 172), I shudder at the very voice of this despicable evil demon! But let us take a quick look at the aim of these two chapters. The first of the two shows that Scripture teaches only ‘simplest matters’ (13,1, p. 167) – for this is the warmed-up cabbage that he forces upon us here once again – and only aims at obedience, nor does it teach anything else about the divine nature other than ‘what men can imitate in a clear way of life’ (13,8, p. 170).”

Again, our English rendering the rhetorical excess so typical of early modern philosophical debate, while also ensuring that the philosophical line of argumentation is not lost in overly long English sentences.

The Sourcebook translations are intended to broaden the number of principal works readily accessible to More scholars. To this end, the Sourcebook translations, as well as providing first English versions of several of More’s best and most important prose works, contain brief introductions. The goal of these introductions is twofold. For one thing, they are meant to outline the historical context of the work translated. More subjected the most influential philosophical and theological currents of thought to in-depth critique, thereby engaging in, or even helping spark off, several major controversies of early modern European intellectual history. For another, the introductions provide first brief philosophical analyses of the newly-translated writings, summarizing the arguments and detailing their place in More’s early and mature metaphysical systems.

[1] Monocardia (Philosophical Poems, 151).

Cite as: Translation Methodology,, accessed 2024-07-12.