Date of Award

Spring 2021

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Renaissance Studies

First Advisor

Rogers, John


This dissertation assesses the English revival of the metaphysical Platonic doctrine of the soul’s preexistence against the backdrop of the philosophical, cultural, and religious changes that defined seventeenth-century intellectual life. The reemerged doctrine of preexistence was the last important gasp of strict metaphysical dualism, and through the writings of its defenders, the idea became incorporated into the primary philosophical innovations of modernity, scientific materialism, democratic equality, and what Charles Taylor calls exclusive humanism. But preexistence did not persist in seventeenth-century life only in philosophical argument, but in literary creations and ideas with practical human import. Between 1640 and 1740, Henry More, Anne Conway, Thomas Traherne, and the anonymous author of Præexistence (1714) express the idea of preexistence in poetry, philosophical and scientific prose, and even social polemic. This dissertation thus looks at the affective content of ideas, understanding William James’s point that behind all philosophy are affects and feelings, not merely logical sequences. Henry More (1614-1685), the Platonist author who introduced the doctrine of preexistence to England, in his texts negotiates the gap between Christian orthodoxy and his own belief in the soul as a spiritual entity equivalent to God. Chapter One “Henry More and the Possibility of Metaphysical Poetry” analyzes how this negotiation appears through More’s strategic deployment of allegory modeled on Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and his explosive metaphor of the soul as a “ray” of the divine sun. Lying between the sociopolitical poles of high and very low-church Protestantism, More’s metaphorical praxis promotes preexistence to convey the individual’s power to save herself without the intermediaries of church hierarchy and scripture, a radical position his most perceptive Calvinist contemporaries criticized and his most radical followers expanded and developed. Indicative of the growing influence of materialism—promoted by Thomas Hobbes and Margaret Cavendish, More’s immediate student Anne Conway (1631-1679) departs from More’s strictly immaterialist version of preexistence and envisions a composite spirit-matter soul, most similar to the animist materialism of John Milton. Chapter Two “The Very World: Early Modern Metempsychosis as Proto-secularism” examines Conway’s semi-material soul and the complex process of soul transmigration that expands human identity from an individual and anthropocentric singularity to a composite non-human entity that shares a deep kinship with all physical nature, living and otherwise. In Conway’s account, the soul is not separate from but a part of physical nature. At the same historical moment when preexistence theology incorporated materialism, the poet and Anglican divine Thomas Traherne (1636-1674) envisions a version of preexistence verging on philosophical idealism. Chapter Three “Visions of Eternal Being in Thomas Traherne’s Writing” examines the idealized conception of an eternally self-existing soul in Traherne’s Centuries of Meditation. Unlike the previous authors who define their terms with metaphysical precision, Traherne falls back on the appearance of eternality—the transcendence of time—that characterizes certain perceptive and meditative moments of consciousness. Patiently describing such moments when the soul becomes subject and object of mental experience simultaneously, Traherne displays a human soul incapable of non-existence, harm, or distraction, a position that transcends individual interest and embodies aesthetic universality. Immateriality confronts materiality in the works of the Deists who believe in preexistence, as shown in Chapter Four “Gnostic Deists: Preexistence after Milton.” The author of the Milton imitation, Præexistence (1714), paradoxically combines a metaphysical belief in the preexistent soul with hostility toward Christian theology. Displaying the shipwreck of spiritual humanism upon the shores of skeptical materialism, the author of this poem and other contemporary Deist authors present life as unredeemed suffering, emblematized by the preexistent soul as a hapless divine entity stuck inside a permanently suffering body. This paradox exemplifies the spiritual crisis of Enlightenment modernity, one that cannot justify the spiritual aspirations of human beings but simultaneously cannot abandon those aspirations. Complexly expressed in literary images, metaphors, paradoxes, and new ideas and affects, this mythology draws human life to the absolute center of cosmic import and transforms the individual from a subject of the creator God into a semi-divine, self-authorizing figure, born in eternity and unlimited in scope and agency. Seen in historical perspective, the revival and dissemination of the doctrine of preexistence is thus both a refuge from Enlightenment and an espousal of Enlightenment principles. Preexistence theology inaugurates affects and ideas, such as materialism, individualism, nihilism, and pessimism, that are nevertheless anti-secular in the etymological sense, unlinking human experience and identity from the saeculum, the Christian age between Incarnation and Last Judgment. As an emergent theology without religious mediators, the preexistence theology of the seventeenth century anticipates similar spiritual revolts in Romanticism and the New Age movement.