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Infinite Love and the Limits of Neo-Scholasticism in the Poetry and Prose of Thomas Traherne

  • Paul Cefalu
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Abstract

While it is generally recognized that Thomas Traherne’s philosophical and theological outlook is informed by a range of classical and early Christian worldviews, most commentators have focused on the Neo-Platonic and mystical elements in his work, usually citing as evidence for Traherne’s Platonism the many excerpts in his Commonplace Book from Ficino, Henry More, and Hermes Trismegistus. For example, in a recent collection of essays focusing on the influence of Platonism in English Renaissance literature, Sara Hutton argues that “the rapturously rhapsodic character of Traherne’s writing, his visionary account of the mundane and his repeated use of dominant images, particularly of light and sight, invite a mystical interpretation.” 1 Traherne’s Platonism and mysticism, however, have proved difficult to reconcile with his Aristotelianism and scholasticism, particularly his preoccupation with such metaphysical concepts such as potency, act, form, matter, substance, and habit, all of which figure centrally in Christian Ethicks, the Centuries, and his most famous poems. Faced with integrating Traherne’s scholasticism with his Platonism, critics have often hedged by describing him as an eclectic in whose work Platonism predominates.

Keywords

Substantial Form Creaturely World Perfect Actuality Divine Goodness Agent Intellect 
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Notes

  1. 1.
    Sarah Hutton, “Platonism in some Metaphysical Poets: Marvell, Vaughan and Traherne,” in Platonism and the English Imagination, eds. Anna Baldwin and Sarah Hutton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 167.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    H.M. Margoliouth, ed., Thomas Traherne: Centuries, Poems, and Thanksgivings (Oxford: Clarendon, 1958), 114–15. Hereinafter all cites will be provided within the text.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    See John E. Trimpey, “An Analysis of Traherne’s ‘Thought’s I,’” Studies in Philology 18 (1977), 94–95.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    A.L. Clements, The Mystical Poetry of Thomas Traherne (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969), 65.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Ibid., 72.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Ibid., 87.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Ibid., 87–88.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Traherne’s account of his childhood corruption does have a Stoic atmosphere. In the Tusculan Disputations Cicero writes that “the seeds of virtue are inborn in our dispositions and… as things are, however, as soon as we come into the light of day… we at once find ourselves in a world of iniquity amid a medley of wrong beliefs, so that it seems as if we drank in deception with our nurse’s milk; but when we leave the nursery to be with parents and later on have been handed over to the care of masters, then we become infected with deceptions so varied that truth gives place to unreality and the voice of nature itself to fixed prepossessions.” See Cicero, Tusculan Disputations, trans. J.E. King (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1943), 226.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education: The Educational Writings of John Locke, ed. J. L. Axtell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968), 239.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., 235.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    David Hartley, Observations on Man, ed. T. L. Huguelet (Gainesville, FL: Scholars Facsimiles and Reprints, 1966), 81.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    This is what we find in Clements’ book on Traherne and the mystical tradition. It should be noted, however, that K.W. Salter, one of Traherne’s best critics, does talk in some detail about the Thomistic influence on Traherne, although Salter makes no substantial mention of Traherne’s particular assimilation of Thomistic ethics. See K. W. Salter, Thomas Traherne: Mystic and Poet (London: Edward Arnold, 1964), 33–37.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Gladys I. Wade, ed., The Poetical Works of Thomas Traherne (New York: Cooper Square, 1965), 28.Google Scholar
  14. 16.
    Cited in Etienne Gilson, Being and Some Philosophers (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1952), 24.Google Scholar
  15. 17.
    Ibid., 39.Google Scholar
  16. 18.
    Cited in Sir David Ross, Aristotle (London: Methuen, 1964), 165.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., 166.Google Scholar
  18. 20.
    For an argument that Aristotle associated substance with form separate from matter, see Edwin Hartman, Substance, Body and Soul: Aristotelian Investigations (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977). For a rebuttal of Hartman’s argument see Thedore Scaltsas, Substances and Universal in Aristotle’s Metaphysics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994), 246–49.Google Scholar
  19. 21.
    Aquinas defines substance in De Entia et Essentia as follows: “Relinquitur ergo quod nomen essentiae in substantiis compositis signigicat id quod ex materia et forma componitur.” Cited in Etienne Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas (New York: Octagon Books, 1983), 445.Google Scholar
  20. 23.
    Anthony Kenny, Aquinas (New York: Hill and Wang, 1980), 60.Google Scholar
  21. 25.
    The paraphrase of Aquinas’s description of the manner in which existence is conferred on the form-matter composite is taken from this very useful monograph on Thomistic metaphysics, Benignus Gerrity, The Relations Between the Theory of Matter and Form and the Theory of Knowledge in the Philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America, 1936), 35. Aquinas’s description appears in the Summa Contra Gentiles, II, c. 54: “In substantiis autem compositis ex materia et forma est duplex compositio actus et potentiae; prima quidem ipsius substantiae, quae componitur ex materia et forma; secunda vero, ex ipsa substantia iam composita et esse.” In Gilson’s terms, “in concrete substances which are the object of sensible experience, two metaphysical compositions must be ranged according to profundity: the first, that of matter and form, constitutes the very substantiality of the substance; the second that of the substance with its act of existing, constitutes the substance as ‘being’ because it makes it an existing thing.” See Gilson, Christian Philosophy, 34.Google Scholar
  22. 29.
    Nathaniel Culverwell, An Elegant and Learned Discourse of the Light Nature, eds. Robert A. Greene and Hugh MacCallum (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971).Google Scholar
  23. 30.
    For Aquinas’s account of cognition see Summa Theologica I, 75–89. I have based this brief summary on accounts of medieval theories of cognition presented in Robert Pasnau, Theories of Cognition in the Later Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 1–27; and John J. Jenkins, Knowledge and Faith in Thomas Aquinas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), ch. 4.Google Scholar
  24. 31.
    Thomas Traherne, Selected Poems and Prose, ed. Alan Bradford (New York: Penguin, 1991), 336.Google Scholar
  25. 32.
    Saint Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Contra Gentiles, in The Basic Writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas, ed. Anton C. Pegis (New York: Random House, 1945), ch. xvii, p. 27. Subsequent references will be cited in text.Google Scholar
  26. 33.
    For Plotinus, unlike Traherne, the virtues serve to purge one’s associations with degraded matter. In the first Ennead, Book VI, Plotinus writes that “according to the ancient (Platonic or Empedoclean) maxim, ‘courage, temperance, all the virtues, nay, even prudence are but purifications’…. And indeed, what would real temperance consist of, if it be not to avoid attaching oneself to the pleasures of the body, and to flee from them as impure, and as only proper for an impure being? What else is courage, unless no longer to fear death, which is mere separation of the soul from the body?” Plotinus: Complete Works, vol. 1, ed. Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie (London: George Bell and Sons), 49.Google Scholar
  27. 34.
    Thomas Traherne, Christian Ethicks, eds. Carol L. Marks and George Robert Guffey (New York: Cornell University Press, 1968), 150.Google Scholar
  28. 35.
    Ibid., 19.Google Scholar
  29. 36.
    Ibid., 22.Google Scholar
  30. 37.
    Ibid., 25.Google Scholar
  31. 38.
    Aquinas’s exposition on the nature of habit appears in The Summa Theologica I–II, Questions 49–89. The most extensive Renaissance commentary on the scholastic theory of habitus is Francisco Suarez, Metaphysical Disputation XLIV, which can be found in Francisco Suarez, Disputaciones Metafisicas, Vol. VI, eds. Sergio Rabade Romeo, Salvador Caballero Sanchez, et al, (Madrid: Editorial Gredos, 1964), 345–520.Google Scholar
  32. 40.
    See Frederick Copeleston, A History of Philosophy, vol. 2, Medieval Philosophy, Part II: Albert the Great to Duns Scotus (Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1962), 71.Google Scholar
  33. 42.
    The most extensive Lacanian assessment of Traherne and desire can be found in A. Leigh De Neef, Traherne in Dialogue: Heidegger, Lacan, and Derrida (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1988), esp. 115–38. See also Gary Kuchar, Divine Subjection: The Rhetoric of Sacramental Devotion in Early Modern England (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2005), passim ch. 4.Google Scholar
  34. 43.
    Pseudo-Dionysius, The Divine Names, in Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, trans. Colm Luibheid (New York: Paulist, 1987), 79–80.Google Scholar
  35. 46.
    On Badiou’s theory of the void, see Alain Badiou, Being and Event, trans. Oliver Felt ham (London: Continuum, 2005), 52–59. For excellent introductions to Badiou’s set-theoretic nomenclature, see Peter Hallward, Badiou: A Subject to Truth (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), esp. chs. 4 and 5; Alain Badiou, Infinite Thought: Truth and the Return to Philosophy, trans. and eds. Oliver Feltham and Justin Clemens (London: Continuum, 2004), 1–33; and Jason Barker, Alain Badiou: A Critical Introduction (London: Pluto, 2002), ch. 2. For an exemplary application of Badiou’s ontology to political theology, see Regina Schwartz, “Revelation and Revolution,” in Theology and the Political: The New Debate, eds. Creston Davis, John Milbank, and Slavoj Ž ižek (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005), 102–24.Google Scholar
  36. 47.
    Eric L. Santner, On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life: Reflections on Freud and Rosenzweig (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 90.Google Scholar
  37. 48.
    Traherne, Christian Ethicks, 79.Google Scholar
  38. 49.
    Ibid., 80.Google Scholar
  39. 50.
  40. 51.
    Ibid., 83.Google Scholar
  41. 52.
  42. 53.
    Ibid., 82.Google Scholar
  43. 54.
  44. 55.
    Ibid., 51–52.Google Scholar
  45. 56.
    Ibid., 136.Google Scholar
  46. 57.
    Ibid., 141–43.Google Scholar
  47. 58.
    Giorgio Agamben, The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, trans. Patricia Dailey (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005), 97–98.Google Scholar
  48. 59.
    Ibid., 108–109.Google Scholar

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© Paul Cefalu 2007

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