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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

§ 9. More’s Song of the Soul

But, long before Enchiridion Ethicum appeared, More was already a voluminous author, and as conspicuous for his daring as was the master for his caution. Taking for his maxim the heroic sentiment of Cicero—rationem quo ea me cunque ducet, sequar—he proposed that, in order to counteract alike the scepticism hatched in Paris and the “enthusiasm” rampant in Rotterdam, the Christian teacher should call in the aid both of the pagan philosopher of the past and of the scientific philosopher of the present. But nothing, he held, could be of worse augury for the Christian faith than that its recognised expounders should be seen rallying to the support of what the voice of reason had demonstrated to be untrue. So early, accordingly, as 1647, in his Song of the Soul, he had openly confessed himself the disciple of Plato and Plotinus, as restorers of oriental traditions of a remote and probably inspired philosophy, boldly proclaiming that

  • … if what’s consonant to Plato’s school
  • (Which well agrees with learned Pythagore,
  • Egyptian Trismegist, and th’ antique roll
  • Of Chaldee wisdome, all which time hath tore
  • But Plato and deep Plotin do restore)
  • Which is my scope, I sing out lustily;
  • If any twitten me for such strange lore,
  • And me, all blamelesse, brand with infamy,
  • God purge that man from fault of foul malignity.
  • Although, consequently, the fate of Galileo was still a warning to the scientific world, the poet’s conviction that the Ptolemaic theory was destined ultimately to give place to the Copernican was no less candidly expressed. After apostrophising those
  • Blest souls first authours of Astronomie!
  • Who clomb the heavens with your high reaching mind,
  • Scaled the high battlements of the lofty skie,
  • To whom compar’d this earth a point you find,
  • he proceeds to compare their assailants to those “fabled Giants,” who, piling Pelion upon Ossa, themselves, in turn, strove, “with raging wind,” “to clamber up to heaven.”
  • But all in vain, they want the inward skill.
  • What comes from heaven only can there ascend.
  • Not rage nor tempest that this bulk doth fill
  • Can profit aught; but gently to attend
  • The soul’s still working, patiently to bend
  • Our mind to sifting reason, and clear light
  • That strangely figur’d in our soul doth wend,
  • Shifting its forms, still playing in our sight,
  • Till something it present that we shall take for right.
  • And, finally, the following rebuke of the persecutors of Galileo probably went home to the consciences of not a few readers who were still, perhaps, hesitating to express their open assent:
  • O you stiff-standers for ag’d Ptolemee,
  • I heartily praise your humble reverence
  • If willingly given to Antiquitie;
  • But when of him in whom’s your confidence,
  • Or your own reason and experience
  • In those same arts, you find those things are true
  • That utterly oppugne our outward sense,
  • Then are you forc’d to sense to bid adieu,
  • Not what your sense gainsayes to holden straight untrue.
  • The Song of the Soul (the poem from which the above extracts are taken) is in five books, each prefaced by an “Address to the Reader,” wherein the author discusses, in plainer prose, that phase of his subject with which the book itself is especially concerned, thus successively dealing, though very briefly, with those several problems which suggest themselves in connection with the theory of the soul’s independent existence—its life, immortality, sleep, unity and (in opposition to the theory of the fabled Lethe) its memory after death.