Leibniz and More’s Cabbalistic Circle

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


Leibniz was more than thirty years the junior of Henry More. The two men were never acquainted, nor did they correspond. But Leibniz had two friends who were members of what I am referring to as More’s ‘circle’ — a group of people with a common enthusiasm for the Cabbala and a particular interest in the project for translating the Zohar into Latin that reached its fruition when the Kabbala denudata was published in 1677 and 1684. These friends were Francis Mercury van Helmont (1618–1699) and Christian Knorr von Rosenroth (1636–89). These men — the younger van Helmont in particular — discussed More with Leibniz and doubtless contributed for better or worse to the formation of his opinions about More. But Leibniz also had access to More’s writings. He made notes on the Enchiridion ethicum of 16681 and on the manuscript of a French translation of the Immortality of the Soul that appeared in 1677.2 He acquired More’s Opera omnia in 1679 and this gave him access to the Enchiridion metaphysicum, some part of which he remembered.3 He also read some of More’s Cabbalistic writings4, either in the Opera Omnia or (more probably, as we shall see) in the Kabbala Denudata.


French Translation Striking Point Opus Omnia Corporeal Substance Academy Edition 
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  1. 1.
    G.W. Leibniz, Textes inédits, ed. G. Grua, 2 vols. (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1948), 2:570–71 (hereafter cited as Grua). Grua suggests Leibniz’s notes were made in the period 1672–76.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Grua, 2:509–11. A Latin translation by von Rosenroth was published by van Helmont in Rotterdam in the same year. The French translation by Briot was dedicated to the then Duke of Hanover who would naturally have sought Leibniz’s opinion of it. See Section 3 of the paper for a discussion of the most detailed point in Leibniz’s notes.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Leibniz’s familiarity with the phrase ‘hylarchic principle’ seems to have derived from reading this piece. He made frequent critical references to this principle which he describes in the Nouveaux Essais as ‘an inscrutable and implausible’ hypothesis intended to explain ‘the weight and elasticity of matter as well as other wonders found in it.’ (Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Sämtliche Schriften und Briefe (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1923-continuing), Series VI, vol. 6:344 (hereafter cited as Academy edition).Google Scholar
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    He read at least the beginning of More’s Fundamenta philosophiae where the Cabbalistic ‘axioms’ discussed in Section 2 of the paper are to be found.Google Scholar
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    W. Feilchenfeld, “Leibniz und Henry More.” See also S. Hutin, Henry More, 194–7; idem, “Leibniz a-t-il subi l’influence d’Henry More?”Google Scholar
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    For instance Marjorie Nicolson, Conway Letters, 453–6; Carolyn Merchant, “The Vitalism of Anne Conway”; and Anne Conway, Principles, ed. Loptson, 3 (hereafter cited as Loptson). Loptson professes that his prime intention is to present Conway’s philosophy as ‘of considerable interest and importance’ in its own right and not ‘to shed light on the origins of Leibniz’s philosophy.’ But he cannot resist the inference from the fact that Leibniz ‘read the work some time in the 1690s’ to the claim that ‘it is reasonable to see a major influence on and contribution to the mature development of the philosophy of the monadology form this source.’ (Loptson, 1) I shall explain why I think this inference is not reasonable in Section 2 of this paper. One point of convergence between Leibniz’s and Conway’s metaphysics is discussed in Section 3.Google Scholar
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    The evidence suggests that More did indeed occupy such a position and found it uncomfortable. His letters to Anne Conway (see, for instance, Conway Letters, pp. 220 and 324) reveal his unwillingness, even under some pressure, to write a sequel to his Conjectura Cabbalistica. At the same time he gave her to believe that he still had Cabbalistic thoughts that he was willing to share in the context of Ragley. He was probably never the enthusiast that some of his earlier writings made him appear and perhaps not as hostile as his later writings suggest. Leibniz refers to him as a ‘Platonist,’ an ‘Anglican theologian,’ as ‘well-meaning’ and ‘learned.’ More is misguided in his opposition to mechanism, Leibniz implies. But his other qualities made it acceptable to mention More. Van Helmont, unlike More, was a cause of scandal to the religiously orthodox and Leibniz’s diplomatic sensibilities would have made him aware of the dangers of appearing to associate himself with van Helmont in such a way as to be tarred with the same brush.Google Scholar
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    It is unfortunate in some ways that Foucher de Careil published these remarks under the misleading title Réfutation inédite de Spinoza since they are not primarily intended as a critique of Spinoza. There is an extended discussion of Spinoza, occasioned by the fact that Wachter compared him to the Cabbalists. These ‘animadversions’ on Wachter’s Secret Philosophy of the Hebrews constitute one of Leibniz’s main writings on the Cabbala.Google Scholar
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    Leibniz first used the term in a letter towards the end of van Helmont’s stay at Hanover in 1696. He used it in an important article entitled “On Nature Itself, or On the Inherent Force of Created Thing,” Acta Eruditorum, September, 1698, See Loemker, 504.Google Scholar
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    Leibniz seems to have been drawn much earlier to an alchemical basis for belief in the resurrection of the body, that every body contains a ‘flower of substance’ as a kind of vital indivisible core or seminal principle into which it contracts when subjected to dissolution and from which it can be regenerated. He wrote a memorandum on this subject for his employer, Duke Johann Friedrich, in 1671 (Academy edition, II: 1:117). This ‘florem substantiae’ has many of the characteristics of the later monad, but in 1671 belief in it would have been little more than a predeliction shared by Leibniz and his alchemical friends and patrons.Google Scholar
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    The Akademie editors cite the English translation of J. Crull published in Amsterdam in 1692 in connection with Leibniz’s remark: The Platonic philosophy of the Countess of Conway, approved by other English people, is in many respects to my liking/ (Academy edition VI: 6:47f.)Google Scholar
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    What Leibniz wrote was: ‘I have drawn you attention before to respects in which I differ a little from Locke and I would be pleased one day to have your opinion. My views in philosophy come quite close to those of the Countess of Conway, and take the middle way between Plato and Democritus’, since I believe that everything takes place mechanically, as Democritus and Descartes would wish, contrary to the opinion of More and his like; and at the same time everything happens according to a vital principle and following final causes, everything being full of life and of perception, contrary to the opinion of the followers of Democritus.1 (Gerhardt, 3:216f.)Google Scholar
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    Academy edition, VI 6:47.Google Scholar
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    Leibniz wrote, ‘...the laws of nature...derive from principles higher than matter, although in the material realm everything does happen mechanically. The spiritualizing authors I have just mentioned [including Conway, van Helmont and Morel] went wrong about that with their “archei”...’ (Academy edition VI: 6:72).Google Scholar
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    This contrast is drawn in a number of ways by Leibniz in memoranda written for Sophie in the 1690s in which he offered his opinion of van Helmont. Sometimes it is between ‘sublime thoughts’ and ‘adequate proofs’ (Academy edition, I: 10:58), at other times between ‘fine ideas’ and ‘solid foundations’ (Academy edition, I: 11:20). It is not a technical distinction but an attempt to express both how he and van Helmont agreed about philosophical matters and where he could claim to be more truly a philosopher, in searching for ‘sure proofs’ etc.Google Scholar
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    Especially in Section 9. See ed. cit. at n. 25 above, p. 47.Google Scholar
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© Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht 1990

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  • Stuart Brown

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