Skip to main content
Select Source:

Cambridge Platonists

CAMBRIDGE PLATONISTS

CAMBRIDGE PLATONISTS. The Cambridge Platonists are so called because they were all educated at the University of Cambridge and were all indebted to Platonist philosophy. The senior member of the group was Benjamin Whichcote (16091683), and its most important philosophers were Henry More (16141687) and Ralph Cudworth (16171688). The group also included Peter Sterry (16131672), John Smith (16181652), Nathaniel Culverwel (16191651), and John Worthington (16181671). Their younger followers included George Rust (d. 1670), Anne Conway (16311679), and John Norris (16751711).

Cambridge Platonism may be defined not so much by a strict set of doctrines as by a loose framework of values and philosophical preferences. This Platonism was of the syncretic model familiar since the Renaissance, which was open to other strands of thought, including, in this case, new developments in science and philosophy, in particular Cartesianism and the experimentalism of the Royal Society. While the Cambridge Platonists' individual writings exhibit marked differences of emphasis and style, the major premise of their thinking is the compatibility of reason and faith and the view that the human mind is equipped with the principles of knowledge and morality. Their tolerant Protestantism, underpinned by a liberal theology of grace, is matched by an optimistic view of human nature, according to which human beings are capable of self-improvement through the exercise of reason and free will. These views set them in opposition to the dogmatic Calvinism of their day, as well as to the philosophical determinism of Thomas Hobbes and Baruch Spinoza. The main themes of their writings were the defense of the existence of God and of the immortality of the soul and the formulation of a practical ethics for Christian conduct. They propounded a philosophy of spirit, according to which mind or soul is antecedent to matter, the truths of the mind are superior to sense-knowledge, and spirit is the main principle of causal agency. The most distinctive accounts of the latter are More's hypothesis of the spirit of nature and Cudworth's analogous hypothesis of plastic nature. The fullest and most systematic exposition of their philosophy of spirit is set out in More's Of the Immortality of the Soul (1659) and Enchiridion Metaphysicum (1671; Manual of metaphysics). Cudworth never completed his main work, The True Intellectual System of the Universe (1678). Nonetheless this substantial volume is a compendious philosophy of religion, which surveys ancient philosophy as a philosophia perennis ('perennial philosophy'). It broaches a number of themes more fully treated in Cudworth's unpublished writings "On Liberty and Necessity" and his posthumously published Treatise concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality (1731). The Treatise is the most comprehensive statement of innate-idea epistemology by any seventeenth-century philosopher. The most accessible summary of the ethos and assumptions of Cambridge Platonism is John Smith's posthumously published Select Discourses (1660). More also took care to communicate his philosophy in more popular works like his Philosophical Poems (1647) and Divine Dialogues (1668). Nathaniel Ingelo's romance Bentivolio and Urania (1660) contains an outline of their views for popular consumption.

Despite difficulties occasioned by the upheaval of contemporary political events, the legacy of the Cambridge Platonists was far-reaching. On the religious front, they inspired the Latitudinarians who adopted a nonrestrictive approach to matters of doctrine within the Church of England. In philosophy, More and Cudworth were read by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, while their British adherents included Lord Shaftesbury, Richard Price, and Thomas Reid. The works of More, Cudworth, and Whichcote continued to be printed well into the eighteenth century.

See also Cartesianism ; Church of England ; Descartes, René ; Hobbes, Thomas ; More, Henry ; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm ; Spinoza, Baruch .

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Primary Sources

Conway, Anne. The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy. Translated by Taylor Corse and Allison P. Coudert. Cambridge, U.K., 1996.

Cragg, Gerald R., ed. The Cambridge Platonists. New York, 1968.

Cudworth, Ralph. A Treatise concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality. Edited by Sarah Hutton. Cambridge, U.K., 1996.

. The True Intellectual System of the Universe. London, 1678.

Culverwel, Nathaniel. An Elegant and Learned Discourse of the Light of Nature. Edited by Robert A. Greene and Hugh MacCallum. Toronto, 1971.

Ingelo, Nathaniel. Bentivolio and Urania. London, 1660.

More, Henry. A Collection of Several Philosophical Writings. London, 1662.

. A Collection of Several Philosophical Writings of Dr. Henry More. Cambridge, U.K., 1662. Reprinted 1978.

. H. Mori Cantabrigiensis Opera Omnia. London, 16751679. Latin translation of all More's theological and philosophical works.

Patrides, C. A., ed. The Cambridge Platonists. London, 1969.

Smith, John. Select Discourses. New York, 1978.

Secondary Sources

Darwall, Stephen L. The British Moralists and the Internal Ought, 16401740. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1992.

Hutton, Sarah. "Lord Herbert and the Cambridge Platonists." In British Philosophy and the Age of Enlightenment, edited by Stuart Brown. Vol. 5 of Routledge History of Philosophy. London and New York, 1995.

Hutton, Sarah, ed. Henry More (16141687): Tercentenary Studies. Dordrecht, Netherlands, 1990.

Passmore, John Arthur. Ralph Cudworth. Cambridge, U.K., 1951.

Rogers, G. A. J., J.-M. Vienne, and Y.-C. Zarka, eds. The Cambridge Platonists in Philosophical Context: Politics, Metaphysics, and Religion. Dordrecht, Netherlands, 1997.

Scott, Dominic. Recollection and Experience: Plato's Theory of Learning and Its Successors. Cambridge, U.K., 1990.

Sarah Hutton

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Cambridge Platonists." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Encyclopedia.com. 14 Dec. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Cambridge Platonists." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 14, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/cambridge-platonists

"Cambridge Platonists." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Retrieved December 14, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/cambridge-platonists

Cambridge Platonists

Cambridge Platonists, group of English philosophers, centered at Cambridge in the latter half of the 17th cent. In reaction to the mechanical philosophy of Thomas Hobbes this school revived certain Platonic and Neoplatonic ideas. Chief among these was a mystical conception of the soul's relation to God and the belief that moral ideas are innate in man. Although tending toward mysticism, the school also stressed the importance of reason, maintaining that faith and reason differ only in degree. The assertion of the founder of the school, Benjamin Whichcote, that "the spirit in man is the cradle of the Lord" became the motto for the entire movement. Other leading members were Ralph Cudworth, Henry More, and John Smith.

See G. R. Cragg, ed., The Cambridge Platonists (1968); E. Cassirer, The Platonic Renaissance in England (tr. 1953, repr. 1970).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Cambridge Platonists." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 14 Dec. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Cambridge Platonists." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 14, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/cambridge-platonists

"Cambridge Platonists." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 14, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/cambridge-platonists

Cambridge Platonists

Cambridge Platonists. A group of Anglican philosophical theologians who flourished between 1633 and 1688. Prominent among them were Benjamin Whichcote (1609–83), John Smith (1618–52), Henry More (1614–87), and Ralph Cudworth (1617–88). They found in Platonism and the Greek Fathers a rational philosophical structure that enabled them to distance themselves from contemporary enthusiasm, whether Puritan or High Church, by submitting the claims of revelation to the bar of reason by which we participate directly in God's Logos (word, reason).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Cambridge Platonists." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Encyclopedia.com. 14 Dec. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Cambridge Platonists." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 14, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/cambridge-platonists

"Cambridge Platonists." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Retrieved December 14, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/cambridge-platonists