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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

XI. Platonists and Latitudinarians

§ 7. His Life and Habits

The second son of a gentleman of fair estate at Grantham, the genius of Henry More ran counter alike to parental admonitions and to the bias which his home education was designed to impart, for his father was a rigid Calvinist. He tells us, however, that the latter would often in winter evenings read aloud Spenser’s Faerie Queene to his elder brother and himself; while, in his conversations with the two lads, he frequently “commended philosophy and learning.” At the age of 14, Henry was sent to Eton—“for the perfecting of the Greek and Latin tongue,” as Richard Ward, his biographer, tells us; who also states that the boy’s master would, “at times, be in admiration at his exercises.” Such language, in relation to the Eton of the seventeenth century, can only be interpreted as implying a special facility in Latin verse composition, varied, occasionally, by translations from Latin authors, and may be regarded as affording an explanation of the fact of More’s superiority as a classical scholar over the rest of the “Platonists”; when in advanced years, he turned this to account by translating his English treatises into Latin, fondly anticipating that they were destined to as wide a popularity on the continent as they had met with in England. From Eton, he went up to Cambridge, where, in his seventeenth year, he was admitted a pensioner of Christ’s college. This was in December, 1631; and it was in the following July, that John Milton, having proceeded M. A., finally quitted Cambridge. Brief as was the period of their joint residence in college, More can hardly fail to have heard a good deal of his illustrious compeer, as one of the most notable students of the society, and already famed as the writer of some exceptionally clever occasional verses; but whether they became personally acquainted must be considered doubtful. During the next quarter of a century, however, Christ’s college became distinguished by the enthusiasm with which some of its fellows embraced the doctrines of Descartes; and, in 1654, the celebrated Ralph Cudworth was elected master of the society. More himself, who was three years Cudworth’s senior, succeeded, in due course, both to a fellowship and a tutorship, and continued to reside in college to his death. “His pupils,” says Ward, “much admired the excellent lectures he would deliver to them, of Piety and Instruction, from the chapter that was read on nights in his chamber”; his seniors recognised the value of the example he set, by his regular attendance at chapel and at “the publick ordinances” of the church; while the persistent refusals with which he put aside all offers of preferment disarmed the criticism of those who might otherwise have been his rivals in the unceasing pursuit of pelf or place in the wider world without. Ultimately, however, he became essentially a recluse and an ascetic, although he fully understood “the benefit of exercise and the fresh air,” and paid particular attention to his diet; and, as a fish diet did not suit his constitution, he, during Lent, often dined in his own chamber. When no longer occupied as a tutor, the monotony of his life was relieved, to some extent, by visits to the country seat of one of his former pupils, Edward, viscount Conway. Ragley, retired from the ordinary haunts of men, with its woods and shady walks, was an ideal retreat for one of More’s highly imaginative temperament; and in its recesses, he tells us, “the choicest theories” of one of his most noteworthy treatises, that entitled The Immortality of the Soul, were conceived. Lady Conway also became his pupil, of whom his biographer gives us the following account:

  • She was of incomparable parts and endowments, … and between this excellent person and the Doctor there was, from first to last, a very high friendship; and I have heard him say, that he scarce ever met with any person (man or woman) of better natural parts than the lady Conway. She was mistress of the highest theories, whether of philosophy or religion, and had, on all accounts, an extraordinary value and respect for the Doctor,—I have seen abundance of letters that are testimonies of it.… And as she always wrote a very clear style, so would she argue sometimes, or put to him the deepest and noblest queries imaginable.