Henry More versus Robert Boyle: The Spirit of Nature and the Nature of Providence

  • John Henry
Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas/Archives Internationales d’Histoire des Idées book series (ARCH, volume 127)


Robert Boyle always protested his reluctance to engage in dispute about the validity of his experimental philosophy and its conclusions. Even so, of four significant attacks on his interpretation of various hydrostatical experiments he felt it necessary to respond publicly to three of them. These attacks came from the pens of Thomas Hobbes, Franciscus Linus and Henry More.1 It is fairly easy to see why Boyle should be so disturbed by the writings of both Hobbes and Linus. Hobbes had an international reputation as a philosopher and a national reputation as an atheist. On either count Boyle could not let it be seen that Hobbes’s interpretation of the physical world was more cogent than his own. Franciscus Linus, on the other hand, was a Jesuit priest and, perhaps more to the point in this context, he was a vigorous defender of scholastic Aristotelianism. Boyle and his confederates in English natural philosophy — the leading lights of the Oxford Experimental Club and later of the Royal Society — had not singled out anyone for more criticism than the contemporary Aristotelian, and it was as a representative of that breed that Linus had to be dismissed.2


Natural Philosopher Natural Theology Experimental Philosophy Philosophical Theology Free Enquiry 
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    Thomas Hobbes, Dialogus physicus de natura aeris, conjectura sumpta ab experimentis nuper Londini habit is in Collegio Greshamensi (London, 1661)Google Scholar
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  3. 1c.
    translated by Simon Schaffer in S. Shapin and S. Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air Pump, 345–91. Franciscus Linus, Tractatus de corporum inseparabilitate; in quo experimenta de vacuo, tarn Torricelliana quam Magdeburgica & Boyliana examinantur (London, 1661).Google Scholar
  4. 1d.
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  5. 1e.
    Boyle did not bother to reply to the criticisms of Sir Matthew Hale even though Hales’ strictures seem, to be as cogent as those of the other three: Sir Matthew Hale, Essay Touching...Fluid Bodies (1673)Google Scholar
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    Boyle did not bother to reply to the criticisms of Sir Matthew Hale even though Hales’ strictures seem, to be as cogent as those of the other three: Sir Matthew Hale, Difficiles nugae (1674).Google Scholar
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    For an excellent account of Boyle’s dispute with Hobbes see Shapin and Schaffer, Leviathan, which also includes briefer but very useful accounts of Boyle’s disputes with Linus and More, 156–69 and 207–24. On Linus see C. Reilly, “Francis Line, Peripatetic,” Osiris, 14 (1962): 222–53CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Latitudinarianism is often held to have stemmed from Cambridge Platonism and More is regarded as a leading light in both movements. On the links between natural philosophy and Latitudinarianism see Simon Patrick A Brief Account of the New Sect of Latitude-Men. Together with Some Reflections upon the New Philosophy (London 1662)Google Scholar
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    For another example of Boyle distancing himself from dubious theological opinions consider Boyle’s reaction to Henry Stubbe’s The Miraculous conformist, or an Account of Several Marvailous Cures Performed by...Mr. Valentine Greatarick (Oxford, 1666). There is an excellent account of this in N. H. Steneck, “Greatrakes the Stroker,” an article distinguished as one of the few studies to recognise that More and Boyle cannot be considered as part of a ‘supposed unity that exists within the Latitudinarian-Anglican camp’ (p. 176).Google Scholar
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    More, CSPW, “Preface General”, p. iv. As far as I know there is no study of More which brings out the very clear differences between his theological method and that of his Latitudinarian contemporaries. Most studies seem to regard More as unproblematically Latitudinarian in his outlook. This assumption, erroneous in my view, probably derives from S[imon] P[atrick] Brief Account (1660) which equates Cambridge Platonism with Latitudinarianism. For a recent account of Latitudinarianism which avoids the usual equation with Cambridge Platonism see H. R. Trevor-Roper, “The Great Tew Circle,” in his Catholics, Anglicans and Puritans: Seventeenth-Century Essays (London: Seeker and Warburg, 1987), 166–230Google Scholar
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    I hope to return to the issue of More’s relationship to Latitudinarianism in a future eassay. In the meantime I hope that the present paper will provide preliminary indications by showing the nature of More’s differences with the leading Latitudinarian layman, Robert Boyle. Edward Fowler, Principles and Practices of Certain Moderate Divines of the Church of England, abusively called Latitudinarians (London, 1670), reports a contemporary opinion of the Latitudinarians as ‘a company of men that are prepared for the embracing of any religion, and to renounce or subscribe to any doctrine...’ Of course, all such opinions are polemical but it is easy to see how such charges might stick to men like Tillotson, Taylor, Stillingfleet and Wilkins. It seems unlikely to have had any force against so intransigent a dogmatist in points of faith as Henry More, however. Far from easily renouncing any doctrine, More often insisted that he had demonstrated idiosyncratic aspects of his religious system on apodictic grounds. It is perhaps significant that Ward felt it necessary to defend More against the censure that he ‘was unreasonably addicted to some glorious Fancies and Opinions of his own,’ Life, 62–3.Google Scholar
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    More to Anne Conway, 17 March 1666, in Conway Letters, p. 269.Google Scholar
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  41. 22.
    More, “Letter to a Learned Psychopyrist,” in Glanvill, Saducismus (1682), 239. More to Richard Baxter, 10 February, 1682, in Dr. Williams’s Library, Baxter Letters vol. 3, f.284. More, “The Digression” (see n. 21 above), 186. I am grateful to the Trustees of Dr. Williams’s Library for allowing me to consult and quote from the Baxter Letters.Google Scholar
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    Robert Boyle, Hydrostatical Discourse, in Works, 3:597.Google Scholar
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    More to Boyle, 4 December 1671, in Boyle, Works, 6:615. On the dating of this letter, see Gabbey, “Philosophia Cartesiana,” 248.Google Scholar
  44. 25.
    Boyle, The Usefulness of Natural Philosophy (1663) in works, 2:45. For a full discussion of Boyle’s probabilistic experimental method see L. Laudan, “The Clock Metaphor” (see n. 3 above). For the historical context of this methodology and its wider significance in Boyle’s thought see the works cited in n. 15 above and n. 29 below.Google Scholar
  45. 26.
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    Ibid., 627–8.Google Scholar
  47. 28a.
    For indications of the suspicion of ‘rationalist’ arguments in late-seventeenth-century England, see above at notes 13 and 15, and the following. R. Hoopes, Right Reason in the English Renaissance (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962), 160–85Google Scholar
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    L. Mulligan, “‘Reason’, ‘Right Reason’ and ‘Revelation’”; and S. Schaffer, “Occultism and Reason,” in A. J. Holland (ed.), Philosophy, its History and Historiography (Dordrecht and Lancaster: Reidel, 1985), 117–43.Google Scholar
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    Robert Boyle, Some Considerations about the Reconcileableness of Reason and Religion (London, 1675), in Works, 4:164. It should be noted that Boyle offers here his thoughts about how reason and religion can be reconciled. He does not argue, as we have seen More do (at n. 16 above), that religion is a rational system. On Boyle’s scepticism, see L. T. More, Life of Boyle; van Leeuwen, Problem of Certainty, 91–106Google Scholar
  52. 29b.
    J. Golinski, “Scepticism and Authority in Seventeenth-Century Chemical Discourse,” in A. E. Benjamin, G. N. Cantor and J. R. R. Christie (eds.) The Figurai and the Literal: Problems of Language in the History of Science and Philosophy, 1630–1800 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1987), 58–82Google Scholar
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    S. Shapin, “Robert Boyle and Mathematics: Reality, Representation and Experimental Practice” Science in Context 2 (1988), 23–58.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Ibid., 3:628.Google Scholar
  57. 33.
    Ibid., 3:624, 601.Google Scholar
  58. 34.
    Reported by Henry Oldenburg in a letter to Spinoza, 3 April, 1663, in Oldenburg, Correspondence, 2:42. Boyle’s belief that ‘gravity’ and other ‘occult qualities’ are nonetheless ‘mechanical’ is by no means unique. Consider, for example, Robert Hooke’s attack on Henry More and his rejection of the Spirit of Nature on the grounds that ‘there is no need of any other Principles than the plain Mechanical principles, which supposeth every Terrestrial Body to have a Gravity in it,’ in Lampas; reprinted in R. T. Gunther, Early Science in Oxford, 15 vols. (Oxford, 1923–67), 8:184. For a fuller account of these views and their use in natural theology see Henry, “Occult Qualities.”Google Scholar
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    Boyle, Origin of Forms and Qualities, in Works, 3:48. For a fuller account of the links between Boyle’s acceptance of active principles and his theological beliefs, see Henry, “Occult Qualities,” 352–8.Google Scholar
  60. 36.
    I shall use the word ‘intellectualist’ to refer to More’s providential theology as it is least likely to be confused with another philosophical position. ‘Necessitarian’ is in some ways preferable since it conveys the sense that God must act according to necessity. Unfortunately, however, it is all too easily confused with philosophical (as opposed to theological) determinism and equated with denials of freedom of the will. More was a fully committed believer in the freedom of man’s will so he was not a philosophical necessitarian. He did believe, however, that God’s supreme goodness and the ‘eternal law’ of justice required God to give man free will. Paradoxically, therefore, God’s will was not free. Use of the word ‘rationalism’ is equally likely to confuse the reader. Besides, I have only seen this notion of Providence referred to as rationalist by one writer, M. B. Foster, “The Christian Doctrine of Creation and the Rise of Modern Science,” Mind 43 (1934): 446–68.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. 37a.
    The major studies of this kind of thinking are, A. O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1936; reprinted, New York, 1960)Google Scholar
  62. 37b.
    F. Oakley, Omnipotence, Covenant and Order: An Excursion in the History of Ideas from Abelard to Leibniz (Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell University Press, 1984)Google Scholar
  63. 37c.
    These can now be supplemented with A. Funkenstein, Theology and the Scientific Imagination from the Middle Ages to the Seventeenth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), chap. 3, 117–201. In referring to God as ‘He’ I am simply following the usage of More and Boyle.Google Scholar
  64. 38.
    More’s early revulsion for Calvinism on moral grounds is reported in the autobiographical part of the general preface to his Opera, translated in Ward, Life, 6–7. For early hints of intellectualist theology in More, see, for example Psychathanasia, bk. 3, canto 4, stanzas 21–2, in Poems, 178–9, CC, 2; and MG, 33.Google Scholar
  65. 39.
    Intellectualist theological views are introduced in the first dialogue, and constitute the whole of the second dialogue and much of the fourth.Google Scholar
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    More, DD, 2:24–5.Google Scholar
  67. 41.
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  68. 42.
    The running title of Glanvill’s Lux orientalis in More’s edition is: “Praeexistence of Souls A Key for Providence,” and chaps. 4, 7 and 8 are devoted to an exposition of intellectualist theology. Rust’s Discourse of Truth, was provided with a prefatory “Letter Concerning the Subject and the Author” by Glanvill in which we read, ‘the Subject is of great and weighty importance, and the Acknowledgement of the Truths here asserted and made good, will lay a Foundation for right conceptions in the Doctrines that concern the Decrees of God. For the first Errour, which is the gound of the rest, is, ‘That things are good and just because God Wills them so to be; and if that be granted we are disabled from using the arguments taken from natural Notions, and the Attributes and Perfections of the Divine Nature, against the Blackest and most Blasphemous Opinions...’ sig. N6r-y.Google Scholar
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    More, “Annotations upon Lux orientalis”, 47, 46–7. Rust Discourse, 166. The pagination of the two treatises and More’s two sets of annotations are all separate in this edition.Google Scholar
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    An important aspect of intellectualist optimism, made popularly infamous by Voltaire’s Candide (1759), is the notion that ‘everything is for the best’ or, as Pope put it in his Essay on Man (1732), ‘Whatever is, is right.’ There is no shortage of similar ideas in More’s writings. For instance, ‘For the nature of things is such that some Particulars or Individuals must of necessity suffer for the greater good of the Whole... whatsoever designed or permitted Evil there seems in Providence, it is for a far greater good, and therefore is not properly in the summary compute of the whole affairs of the Universe to be reputed evil, the loss in particulars being so vast a gain to the Whole,’ DD, 1:178–9. And, ‘...the lessening of Happiness in the one is the advancement of it in another.’ Ibid., 1:309.Google Scholar
  71. 45.
    This is an example of what Lovejoy calls the ‘principle of plenitude.’ Pope includes the notion in his Essay on Man: ‘...all must full or not coherent be,’ and ‘From Nature’s chain whatever link you strike,/Tenth, or ten thousandth, breaks the chain alike.’ See Lovejoy, Chain of Being, 60 and passim.Google Scholar
  72. 46.
    More, DD, 1:502. Glanvill’s exposition of pre-existence is also bound up with intellectualist theology (see n. 42 above). The concept of pre-existence is indispensable to More’s theodicy. Only this concept can clear ‘all the Difficulties touching the Moral evils of the world’ (ibid.). The argument runs: ‘Because supposing Humane Souls were created in the Morning of the World, and in such infinite Myriads, there has been time enough since that for as many and more then hitherto have peopled the Earth, to have transgressed so hainously before their entrance on this Stage, that by a just Nemesis measured and modify’d by the Divine Goodness it self they may be contrived into the worst and most horrid Circumstances, into the most squalid and disadvantageous condition and state living...’ (ibid., 1:503).Google Scholar
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    More, “Disgression,” 180–246, in Two Choice...Treatises. Google Scholar
  74. 48.
    It is important to note, of course, that denial of God’s omnipotence would be extremely heretical except where one is speaking of logical contradictions. This, presumably, was another reason for More’s repeated insistence that he had proved the major aspects of his philosophical theology, ‘with evidence no less than Mathematical’ (see n. 18 above). As Descartes pointed out to More, ‘we do not take it as a mark of impotence when someone cannot do something we do not understand to be possible, but only when he cannot do something which we distinctly believe to be possible.’ Descartes to More, 5 February 1649, in AT (NP), 5:273; translation quoted from A. Kenny (ed.) Descartes: Philosophical Letters, 241. Needless to say, disputes raged over what we can be said to ‘distinctly perceive to be possible.’ On these theological debates see Oakley, Omnipotence (n. 37 above). More was evidently so confident of the eternal truth of his own opinions that he gave God very little leeway. Descartes, by contrast, believed that even mathematical theorems are contingent upon God’s will. See Funkenstein, Theology (n. 37 above), 179–92.Google Scholar
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    Rust, Discourse of Truth, 181, in Two Choice...Treatises. More endorses Rust in his “Annotations,” 45, (ibid.): ‘if the measure of his [God’s] Providence be his mere Power, Will or Sovereignty no man living can tell what to expect in the conclusion. All true Believers may be turned into Hell, and the wicked onely and the Blasphemer ascend into the Regions of Blis. For what can give any stop to this but God’s Justice, which is a branch or mode of his Goodness?’Google Scholar
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    On voluntarist theology see Oakley Omnipotence; idem, “Christian Theology and the Newtonian Science: The Rise of the Concept of the Laws of Nature,” Church History 30 (1961): 433–57CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    E. M. Klaaren, Religious Origins of Modern Science: Belief in Creation in Seventeenth-Century Thought (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1977)Google Scholar
  78. 50c.
    R. Hooykaas, Religion and the Rise of Modem Science (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, and London: Chatto and Windus, 1972), 41–53Google Scholar
  79. 50d.
    S. Shapin, “Of God’s and King’s” (n. 7 above); and M. J. Osler, “Descartes and Charleton on Nature and God,” JHI 40 (1979); 445–56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. 51.
    Two Choice...Treatises, sig. N6v. More regarded this as ‘a sad principle’ (ibid.) and it clearly offended his moral sense. But it is perhaps worth remarking that another factor was surely involved. The notorious writings of Thomas Hobbes, in particular Leviathan (London, 1651), seemed to promote just the kind of arbitrary morality implicit in voluntarist theology. There is an interesting exchange between the interlocutors in DD, dialogue 4, which suggests a link in More’s mind between voluntarism and Hobbes’s ideas on sovereignty. The question is raised, ‘What species of Dominion or Power it is that he [God] thus universally excercises over the Creation?’ Cuphophron, who is a Cartesian, voluntarist and Latitudinarian (in so far as he holds ‘indifference in the greatest points of Religion’ [2:19]), suggests first of all that God rules with ‘absolute and unlimited Sovereignty.’ When he is accused of making God a tyrant, Cuphophron falls back on the voluntarist notion of arbitrary rule: God is ‘tied to no Law’ and ‘acts merely according to the suggestions and sentiments of his own heart.’ This notion is rejected in favour of Philotheus’s suggestion that ‘the Right of this absolute Sovereignty in God is founded’ in ‘permanent and immutable Goodness.’ Ibid., 2:21–25. There can be little doubt that concepts of sovereignty provide another dimension to the political implications of More’s writings and the reaction to them One might explore these implications along the lines drawn in Shapin, “Of Gods and Kings,” but I do not attempt it here.Google Scholar
  81. 52.
    Richard Baxter, Of the Immortality of Mans Soule, 33–4. For a fuller discussion of the polemic between More and Baxter, see Henry, “A Cambridge Platonist’s Materialism.”Google Scholar
  82. 53.
    Baxter, Immortality, 28–9. See Henry, “Medicine and Pneumatology” for a fuller discussion of Baxter’s argument about perceptive living matter, its source and its use in in his polemic with More.Google Scholar
  83. 54.
    Baxter, Immortality, 29. See also 63, 79–80, and 50–53. More repeatedly made the charge that Baxter’s attitude was ‘not only a Mistake but a Mischief because it undermined the enterprise of natural theology: More, “Letter to a Learned Psychopyrist” in Glanvill, Saducismus (1682), 198, 217, 239. But see also Baxter, op. cit., 32.Google Scholar
  84. 55.
    See above at notes 30, 33, 34 and 35.Google Scholar
  85. 56.
    Royal Society, Boyle MSS, vol. 7, fols. 113–4, quoted from R. M. Burns, The Great Debate on Miracles: From Joseph Glanvill to David Hume (Lewisberg), 54. See also, for example, Boyle, Works, 4:161. Such examples could easily be multiplied.Google Scholar
  86. 57.
    The best account of Boyle’s voluntarist theology is J. E. Maguire, “Boyle’s Conception of Nature,” JHI 33 (1972):523–42. See also Hooykaas, Religion (n. 50 above), 41–53; Oakley, Omnipotence (n. 37 above), 72–92; and Shapin, “Boyle and Mathematics” (n. 29 above). As always in matters of intellectual history there is no necessary connection between a voluntaristic view of Providence and empiricism. Descartes and Hobbes, the leading rationalist philosophers, also subscribed to voluntarism in theology. On Descartes, see Funkenstein, Theology (n. 37 above), 179–92.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  87. 58.
    Boyle The Usefulness of Natural Philosophy (1663), in Works 2:45.Google Scholar
  88. 59.
    Part of the difficulty with reason was held to stem from the fact that mankind was in a fallen state. Before the fall Adam might well have been able to arrive at the truth by the use of his reason. It was man’s reason which made him a creature ‘in God’s image.’ As a result of original sin, however, man’s reason was never to be trusted. See Glanvill, The Vanity of Dogmatizing: Or Confidence in Opinions Manifested in the Shortness and Uncertainty of our Knowledge (London, 1661), 1–16; and Charleton, “Prolegomena” (n. 13 above) sig. E3r-F14. Boyle even went so far as to deny the accuracy and universal applicability of natural laws on the grounds that to affirm either might imply that God too must obey these laws. On this important aspect of Boyle’s natural philosophy see Shapin, “Boyle and Mathematics.”Google Scholar
  89. 60.
    Boyle, Works, 4:162. See also 161.Google Scholar
  90. 61.
    Ibid., 163–4.Google Scholar
  91. 62.
    Boyle, A Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature (London, 1686), in Works, 5:158–254. Consider, e.g., 178–9.Google Scholar
  92. 63.
    Ibid., 178, 183, 211–15, 183. Another possible target is a group of so-called ‘Pagan naturalists.’ See J. R. Jacob, Robert Boyle and the English Revolution (New York: Franklin, 1977), 161–4. 169–70, 176.Google Scholar
  93. 64.
    Ibid., 172, 191.Google Scholar
  94. 65.
    Ibid., 253. McGuire, “Boyle’s Conception of Nature.” McGuire provides an excellent analysis of the Free Enquiry and is one of the few historians to have noticed that More is one of Boyle’s targets. But see also, Edwin McCann, “Was Boyle an Occasionalist?” in Holland (ed.), Philosophy, its History and Historiography, 229–31.Google Scholar
  95. 66.
    Boyle, Works, 5:179.Google Scholar
  96. 67.
    Ibid., 251.Google Scholar
  97. 68.
    Ibid., 195.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., 195–6.Google Scholar
  100. 71.
    Cudworth, Treatise Concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality (London, 1731).Google Scholar

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© Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht 1990

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  • John Henry

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