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Praying for Virtue in the Culture of Persuasion

The eminent English divine Henry More (1618-1647), like many of his Protestant forebears, believed that piety is an essential part of moral philosophy, that is to say, that moral philosophy is not a secular discipline. The individual who seeks true virtue, More believed, would not be satisfied until he discovers the ultimate source of virtue and goodness in God. Virtue was a very important concept for those living in the ‘Culture of Persuasion’ brought about by the Reformation as it was for Medievals. Yet, in the culture of persuasion virtue became symbolic of persuasion itself, as authors such as Marsilio Ficino and Erasmus argued that Christian magistrates and clerics should secede from violence for the sake of virtue. Humanists in the Renaissance and Reformation believed that only virtue, rather than violence or coercion, could bring about true persuasion, both by establishing exemplars of peace and by creating boundaries in which peace could be established. And not just any civic virtue could do this. Rather, piety and humility, coupled with a robust liberal arts education, were thought to be the key to persuasion and the spread of Christianity.

Henry More argues similarly for the persuasion of non-Christians rather than coercion, having himself come to meet with the Jewish representative Menassah ben Israel in 1655 when Cromwell contemplated the question of their readmission into England. In the passage below More speaks of prayer as a persuasive power that is likened unto an image. This metaphor arises from the shift of agency that emerged within the culture of persuasion toward the individual within a gathered community. The perception of the audience, now turned toward the gathered body rather than the corpus verum upon the altar, permits More to describe the prayer for virtue as a description of God’s delight toward those who pray for virtue. Rather than a medium for the sake of provoking prayer, the prayer for virtue is the image. These prayers, says More, are like lights that attract God’s goodwill toward the pious. Only by means of prayer are the pious enabled to approach true virtue because prayer itself is a participation in God whereby the pious “breath back nothing but that which is Celestial and Divine.”

Henry More on Prayer & Virtue

That we do by Ardent Prayers contend, that God would pour into us a sufficiency of strength, for the Acquisition of Virtue. No Mortal ought to be asham’d to Beg, and to accept from Him so Divine a Gift, from whom he had also his Being. For we dare Affirm, that whoever pretends to Virtue, without Imploring it at God’s Hand, will only catch the empty Shadow thereof. Cicero observ’d “That no Man could be Great, but as Illuminated by some Ray, or Inspir’d by some Breath from Heaven.”1. And if nothing be of a more Heavenly Nature than Virtue, ’tis then impossible to have it without the Help of God.

NOR must any Man wonder, that we annex Prayers unto Moral Philosophy; since we have already made Piety an Essential part thereof. Epictetus, Plato, Antoninus, and other Philosophers, have done the like. And here let us observe the words of Hierocles, who has in this Part exceeded the rest:

‘Tis not enough (says he) with Promptitude and Vigor, to enterprize that which is Laudable, as if the success were wholly in our Power, and without need of assistance from God. No, we mustImplore the Divine Aid; and not onely Implore it, but endeavour also to Obtain by our Industry, what we ask in our Prayer. For otherwise we make Virtue as it were a sharer in Atheism and Hypocrisie; or else render our own Prayers Ineffectual. The first of which by its Impiety would take away the very Essence of Virtue, and the latter by Stupidity would extinguish the Nature of Prayer.2

Let us hereunto add that saying out of Socrates mentioned by Xenophon, “That every Undertaking should begin with a Recommendation thereof to the Gods;”3 and that of Cicero, “That the Rise and Source of all our Actions be founded with the Immortal Gods.” Likewise that of Plato in his Timaeus, “That whatever work we take in hand, be it great or be it small, never to begin without first Invoking of God.”4 And lastly that excellent Saying of Epictetus, as to the Government and subduing of the Affections; He says:

This is in truth a great Conflict, and a work merely Divine. Wherefore think upon God, and call upon his Holy Aid and Assistance; just as the poor Mariners do, in a sinking Condition, upon Castor and Pollux. For what greater Tempest can there be, than what ariseth from violent Imaginations, such as toss and distract Reason, and by which it is in danger of shipwrack? 5

As this Sentence is of moment to the Point in hand; so it appears how many of the other Philosophers insisted upon fervent Prayer: For we do not onely hereby acknowledg him, who is the Fountain of all Virtue; but we own, that ’tis God onely, that can Bless, and Crown all our Endeavours for it with Success.

HOWEVER ’tis not here understood, that those are the most Efficacious Prayers which are the Longest, or the Loudest, or the most Eloquent; but rather those short and frequent Ejaculations, which the Soul, after long and convincing thoughtfulness, sends up to Heaven: Such, I mean, as are attended with sighs and a vehement Yerning after God and Virtue. For by such pious Anxiety, we exercise and rarifie the Blood and Spirits; we pour into them new supplies of pure and hallow’d Air; we corroborate and augment our inward Sentiments of Heaven, and send up our Prayers, as in a Chariot of Light or Fire. So that as, in these fervent and holy Pantings, we do (in a sort) draw God into the Soul; we do, in like manner, breath back nothing but that which is Celestial and Divine.6

  1. De Naturâ Deorum, l. 2.
  2. In Aurea Pythagorae Carmina.
  3. Xenophan, de Administratione domestica.
  4. De Legibus I.2.
  5. Arrian, Comment. l. 2. c. 18.
  6. Henry More, An account of virtue, or, Dr. Henry More’s abridgment of morals put into English, (London: Printed for Benj. Tooke, 1690) 206, 207.

By Eric Parker

Eric Parker (PhD McGill University) is the editor of the Library of Early English Protestantism (LEEP) at the Davenant Institute. He lives in the deep South with his wife and two children, where he is currently preparing for ordination to the diaconate in the Reformed Episcopal Church.

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