Who's Who

Henry More; & Sleepless Souls

Published in History Today 1992
  • Henry More: Magic, Religion And Experiment
    A. Rupert Hall   Blackwell, 1990 - xii + 304 pp. - £30
  • Sleepless Souls: Suicide In Early Modern England
    Michael MacDonald and Terence R. Murphy - Clarendon Press, 1990 - xvi + 383 pp. - £40

Suicidal acts are particular, anecdote captures their particularities, and no one can doubt their reality, one striking concomitant of which in Early Modern England was the folk belief in the malevolence of the ghosts of suicides. On the other hand, the soul's existence, survival and immortality are of universal extension, they transcend circumstance, and are by no means immune to doubt.

The empirical, anecdoted reality of ghosts (of whatever provenance) was used by some writers to demonstrate the reality and immortality of the soul. Rupert Hall's new book is an engaging intellectual biography of the Anglican apologist and leading Cambridge Platonist, who, up to as late as 1681, used stories of ghosts and witches to establish the reality of spirits and the immortality of the soul. More's philosophy was therefore a late manifestation of the accentuation of popular beliefs that MacDonald and Murphy's researches on suicide show - contrary to some interpretations of the Reformation - was an important feature of the 'religious psychology' of the reformers.

Hall has sensible things to say about the role of witches and ghosts in a chapter on More's anti-Sadducean crusade against undiluted mechanistic materialism. Yet immortality, qua theological doctrine, does not loom large in HalI's study, because he is concerned principally with the scientific aspects of More's thought. This is the second in a series of Blackwell Science Biographies, the first being Peter Bowler's Darwin, the others being forthcoming biographies of Davy, Ampere, Galileo, Kepler, von Liebig, Lavoisier, and (again by Hall) Newton. At first sight Henry More stands out like a sore thumb in this company.

He made no scientific discoveries, and was very much a sleeping Fellow of the Royal Society. But More was 'an intelligent critic [in the constructive sense] of the scientific movement of his time' (p. 243), and this is the important central theme that Hall pursues through thoughtful accounts of More's Platonist background, his important critiques of Descartes' philosophy, his own philosophy and his doctrine of spirit, his relation to Royal Society experimentalists, and the delicate perennial question of his possible influence on Isaac Newton's concepts of space, time, and force.

A few weaknesses are worth noting. More was not a cabbalist, nor is it certain that he had a working knowledge of Hebrew, as Hall claims (pp. x, 6). In fact he misunderstood and mistrusted the authentic Cabbala. Insufficient attention to the socio-political influences on More's work unnecessarily creates difficulties in accounting for the change around 1660 from More the philosopher to More the theologian (p. 122), and licences a somewhat hurried mention of More's survival as a Fellow of Christ's College throughout both Interregnum and Restoration (pp. 88-89). The dust-jacket claims incorrectly that this biography is 'the first book-length treatment' of More. Half-a-dozen book-length treatments of various aspects of More's thought preceded this one, the earliest of them being Richard Ward's biography, which appeared in 1710. Neither does immortality per se loom large in Sleepless Souls (Oxford Studies in Social History), probably because (as I might mischievously observe) none of the sleepless souls called to witness, and none of the apologists for suicide, seem to have favoured self-murder as the only quick way of actually testing the immortality claim.

The case for and against suicide rested on prior philosophical, theological, or demotic beliefs: it was not seen as the supreme experimentum crucis to decide between competing views on the soul's survival or immorality. Of course, there cannot be many who would relish the prospect of deciding the matter at such existential cost to themselves, while leaving the rest of us none the wiser. Unlike immortality, suicide is a social phenomenon with identifiable causes and motives, and which therefore bears social meanings that change with historical context. Using a vast array of sources, and mercifully avoiding 'the Durkheimian fixation with the suicide rate', MacDonald and Murphy chart the social meanings of suicide over the period 1500-1800.

They explore the social construction of suicide and its punishment in terms of religious and philosophical doctrines, elite and popular beliefs, and political forces, notably the changing relationships of authority during the Tudor period and again during the mid- and later seventeenth century. Though sometimes stylistically unexciting, Sleepless Souls is rich in documentary detail and in historical insights that have implications outside its restricted theme.

There is an excellent chapter on the role of the press in the secularisation of suicide: not necessarily sources of reliable information, newspapers show what people knew and believed about suicide, and how they interpreted suicide reports. And intending suicides learned from those reports how to compose a suicide note... The strangely-named 'Bibliography' lists only manuscripts and periodicals. The footnotes make good the deficiency, but foraging through footnotes for bibliographical data is not a soothing exercise.

The Index is too selective to be dependable. The erratum slip confesses to an intriguing inadvertence on p. 29: for '?????' read 'laity'.

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