Dampening Enthusiasm

(James Bryson)

At the moment, I am transcribing a fascinating text by Henry More, entitled Enthusiasmus Triumphatus, or a Discourse on the Nature, Causes, Kinds and Cure of Enthusiasm. It was originally published in 1656, but the Project has decided that, for our digital sourcebook, we ought to include the later edition of the treatise, published in More’s Collected Works(1662), because of crucial changes, notes, and additions which More made to the earlier edition of the text. It is significant that More published the 1656 version anonymously but that by 1662 version he was clearly happy to claim authorship of this polemical treatise. More’s decision to include it in his collected works may say something about the political climate at Cambridge after the Restoration in 1660, following the purge of puritan fellows at the university. Although not exactly synonymous with Puritanism, ‘Enthusiasm’ was a term of abuse more likely to be directed at Puritans than high churchmen.

Although published under a pseudonym, the 1656 version of More’s essay on enthusiasm is a bit more playful than the 1662 edition. Most notably, in 1656 More included a Preface poking fun at a character called ‘Mastix’ who personifies enthusiasm.  Mastix has two principal and related defects: he is impervious to reasoned argument and has no sense of humour. The first criticism would seem intuitive, the second not so much so. An enthusiast irrational? Sure, that makes sense. But why no sense of humour? More does not think the enthusiast has a sense of humour, because he has ‘martyred’ his passions. Again, this may seem a strange thing to say about an enthusiast who, at first blush, doesn’t appear to have any trouble at all channeling the passionate side of life. If any thing, you’d think the enthusiast’s problem is that he’s too passionate, not that he’s killed his passions off. Not so, says More. In fact, this is precisely the problem with the enthusiast – he’s what we might think of today as a religious fanatic or fundamentalist whose passions have the double-effect of clouding his judgement and narrowing his emotional repertoire. The enthusiast gives up a well-rounded emotional life for the sake of a self-righteous attitude towards the world. It is in this sense that More thinks the enthusiast ‘martyrs’ his passions, or better, he martyrs most of his passions, in order to disproportionately exalt or indulge his passionate righteousness.

Enthusiasm looks a lot like what we might think of as psychological delusion, as one contemporary scholar, Daniel Fouke, points out (Fouke, Daniel C. The Enthusiastical Concerns of Dr Henry More: Religious Meaning and the Psychology of Delusion. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1997.) More locates pride at the root of enthusiasm, because, at bottom, the enthusiast seeks the ‘admiration of men’, so that what initially looks like an excess of passionate enthusiasm – what we might call ‘good or positive energy’ – is, on closer inspection, born of a deep melancholy, a spiritual sickness that is also corporeal in its origins and psychosomatic in its affects.

More follows Descartes’ claim that the passions originate in the body. At the time he wrote and edited this essay, More considered Descartes a philosophical ally in a kind of culture war against the dangerous excesses of enthusiasm. More was deeply impressed by the Descartes’ treatise Les passions de l’âme(1649), a work to which the Frenchman drew More’s attention in their correspondence, and which More read in its Latin translation (1650) in the Luxembourg Gardens during a visit to Paris after Descartes died.

Another reason that More was so fascinated by enthusiasm was that he recognized an enthusiastic disposition in his own personality, itself rooted melancholy, from which his Christian Platonism ultimately rescued him.  Much is made of the philosophical arguments More puts forth in defence of Christian theism against putative atheism, but ultimately he sees atheism as a spiritual disease that can and, to a certain extent, does take root in every human soul. More’s battle with the atheist is fought on two fronts, both intellectual and spiritual, with the former ultimately  subordinate to the latter.

Although More sees Descartes qua public intellectual as his most important modern ally in his quarrel with this or that enthusiast and with enthusiasm generally as the spiritual malaise du jour, in Enthusiasmus Triumphatushe relies most heavily on Aristotle for his powers of psychological observation. More is especially intrigued by Aristotle’s account of melancholy in his (possibly pseudonymous) treatise, the Problems. The trouble with melancholic temper is the way it emerges from its depressed condition; the melancholic personality achieves unsustainable spiritual highs to the point where it deludes itself into thinking itself divinely inspired.  In such a state, the melancholic soul becomes dangerous – even deadly. Its imagination has run amok and is prone to ‘suspicion, jealously, and zeal’.  The melancholic soul behaves much like a drunkard whose high spirits can turn sinister on a dime, often resulting in a voracious sexual appetite, so that those who suffer from melancholy, More explains, very often advocate institutionalizing polygamy or even practice it. Reality itself is treated as a kind of dream by the enthusiast, in which the sober rules by which the rest of us live only serve to confirm that it is he who sees farthest. This brings us to the final, worrying symptom which More flags up: the enthusiast prophesies an imminent millennial future in which he will be the messiah. A serious business, to be sure!

Enthusiasm’s finds its remedy in a mixture of humility, temperance and reason, but it is sometimes difficult to identify the patient in need. To tell the difference between the genuine charismatic and the darker nature of the dangerous kind of enthusiast in need of this tripartite antidote is no small task. More suggests we watch such people who seem to be touched with enthusiasm very closely – the dangerous sort of enthusiast will ultimately betray himself by his proud, extravagant, and irrational conduct.  The ‘nature, causes, kind and cures’ of enthusiasm are many and sundry, but no enthusiast is beyond God’s reach; More consoles his readers with this final thought in an otherwise harrowing account of what he sees as a deeply concerning and widespread spiritual disease.