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The Proem to Henry More's 'The Praeexistency of the Soul.'

Henry More's The Praeexistency of the Soul is a learned piece which requires a learned commentary.(1) Sometimes his allusions to the Classics are distorted by more modern intermediaries,(2) sometimes the concatenation of two motifs is an index of the source from which he drew them.(3) The opening lines, however, appeal directly to the Greeks:

Rise then Aristo's son! assist my Muse Let that hie spright which did inrich thy brains With choice conceits some worthy thoughts infuse Worthy thy title and the Readers pains. And thou, O Lycian sage! whose pen contains Treasures of heavenly light! with gentle fire, Give leave a while to warm me at thy flames That I may also kindle sweet desire In holy minds that unto highest things aspire.

Hunter, taking Aristo as a form of Ariosto, pleads that Spenser can be called the latter's son because he took him for his model, and that More in turn was an imitator of the English poet.(4) But Spenser did not maintain the pre-existence of the soul, and More would not abuse the name Aristo, which, being that of Plato's father,(5) was probably more familiar to him than Ariosto's. In urging Plato to justify his title, More insinuates that the name Aristo is derived from the Greek superlative [Greek Text Omitted], meaning 'excellent' or 'best'. He was not to first to cite this etymology, for Plato in his most famous work makes Socrates employ the patronymic [Greek Text Omitted], to congratulate Aristo's sons on an excellent reply.(6)

Such collusion with the ancient sources can be illustrated also by the mention of Cippus later in the poem;(7) misreading or forgetfulness elsewhere bred such imposters as 'the Proconnesian man that Atheus hight'.(8) In the second half of the opening stanza, it would seem that some such error has obscured the intended reference. No one from the region of Asia Minor known as Lycia is reported to have held the cardinal thesis of More's poem; but its most illustrious champion after Plato was Plotinus, who is named by More himself in the following stanza (stanza 2.8: 'Aread thou sacred soul of Plotin dear'). The founder of Neoplatonism is said by his biographer Eunapius to have come from an Egyptian town called Lyco;(9) but as Eunapius notes with pride, the first life of Plotinus, written by Porphyry, says that the latter told his pupils nothing about his place of origin.(10) The location of the town was uncertain even in antiquity,(11) and it is possible that the use of the epithet 'Lycian' here by Henry More was not so much an error as a wilful mystification on the part of one who believed that the great philosopher had liked to make a riddle of his birth.

M. J. EDWARDS Christ Church, Oxford

1 I have quoted the proem from the accessible edition of W. B. Hunter, The Spenserian Poets (Salt Lake City, 1977), 404. Hunter's annotations are intended only for the general reader. My footnotes here refer mainly to Classical sources; it may be hoped that the continuing publication of annotated translations of Ficino by Michael Allen will eventually make it easier to identify More's Renaissance intermediaries. Many Classical works will of course, have been consulted by More at first hand.

2 Thus stanza 46.1 recounts the apparition of 'a walking skeleton in Bolonia'. According to the younger Pliny, this revenant appeared in Athens to the philosopher Athenodorus (Epistles, VII.27); Lucian puts the tale into the mouth of Arignotus, a Pythagorean charlatan, and locates the event in Corinth (Philopseudes, 30).

3 Thus stanzas 31-2 juxtapose the story of Jacob and Laban with the tradition that children may bear the features of objects contemplated by their mothers while in childbirth. Jerome reports this tradition at Quaestiones Hebraicae in Genesim, 7, to elucidate Jacob's ruse. The passage in Quintilian which he cites as his authority is lost, and More is therefore likely to have been in Jerome's debt.

4 Hunter (n. 1 above), 404, n. 1.

5 See Apologia, 34a for Plato's use of the patronymic with reference to himself.

6 Republic, 368a, the most elaborate play, though the association with the word aristos is made most succinctly at 580b9.

7 Stanza 33.1: 'Things far more wonderful than Cippus saw.' Cippus, a Roman general who discovers that he has horns, is introduced by Ovid solely as an example of great amazement at Metamorphoses, XV.565. The Classical authorities (Ovid and Valerius Maximus, III.6.5) do not explain the horns as a result of Cippus' having watched a bullfight, but prefer the incompatible explanation that they portended his elevation to the status of a king if he entered Rome.

8 Stanza 79.4. The name of the man is usually given as Aristeas (Herodotus, IV.54 etc.), but here it appears to represent the Greek word [Greek Text Omitted] ('godless'). In Origen's Contra Celsum, II.28, his name is juxtaposed with the Greek word [Greek Text Omitted] ('without gods'), and at III.30 it is asserted that he is no [Greek Text Omitted].

9 Eunapius, Vitae Philosophorum, p. 6 Boissonade. See J. Bidez, Vie de Porphyre (Ghent, 1913), appendix 3.

10 Via Plotini, 1.1.

11 Though the Byzantine Lexicon called the Suda identifies it with Lycopolis. Hunter's suggestion (404 n. 2) that Apollo is hinted at is not implausible, since Pythagoras, a model for Plotinus, was styled the Hyperborean Apollo, and Apollo himself speaks the oracle in praise of Plotinus in Porphyry, Vita Plotini, 22.
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Author:Edwards, M.J.
Publication:Notes and Queries
Date:Jun 1, 1997
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