Culverwel, Nathanael (1618?–1651?)

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Nathanael Culverwel, the religious and moral philosopher commonly if rather misleadingly described as a Cambridge Platonist, was probably a son of Richard Culverwel, rector of St. Margaret's, in London, although neither his parentage nor the date of his birth is certain. He certainly grew up in a Calvinist atmosphere. In 1633 he was admitted to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he encountered the teachings of Benjamin Whichcote, the spiritual leader of Cambridge Platonism. Ralph Cudworth was slightly junior to him as an undergraduate at Emmanuel but was elected to a fellowship three years before Culverwel's election in 1642. John Smith was of the same generation. Culverwel's contemporaries refer in somewhat obscure terms to troubles that beset him in later life; these may have included some sort of mental breakdown. He died not later than 1651.

Culverwel published nothing during his lifetime. Shortly after his death, however, William Dillingham prepared for publication a discourse titled, in Culverwel's typically metaphorical style, Spiritual Opticks: or a Glasse discovering the weaknesse and imperfection of a Christians knowledge in this life (1651). This was sufficiently suc-cessful to encourage Dillingham to proceed to the pub-lication of a manuscript by Culverwel, composed, Dillingham says, about 1646, which was obviously intended, although incomplete, to be a bookAn Elegant and Learned Discourse of the Light of Nature. In the same volume Dillingham included a number of Culverwel's sermons. Prefixed to the Discourse is an essay by Culverwel's brother Richard that asserts that in its present form the Discourse is somewhat misleading, since the praise of reason which it contains was to have been followed by another section in which the limitations of reason would have been more strongly insisted upon. That judgment is borne out by the tone of Culverwel's sermons, which are severely Calvinist.

The Discourse, as it stands, is an elaboration of Whichcote's favorite quotation (from Proverbs 20:27), which Culverwel translates as "The understanding of a man is the candle of the Lord." Insofar as it is critical of those who "blaspheme reason," the Discourse is written in Whichcote's spirit. However, its philosophical tone is in many respects Aristotelian rather than Platonic; Culverwel sharply criticizes the "fanciful ideas" of "the Platonists," under which heading he almost certainly includes his Emmanuel colleagues. (None of them had yet published, so that althoughunusually for his timeCulverwel makes precise references to such near-contemporaries as Lord Herbert of Cherbury, Lord Brooke, and Sir Kenelm Digby, he could not refer to the Cambridge Platonists in similarly definite terms.) When Culverwel speaks with enthusiasm of Plato, it is of the Laws or the Republic rather than of John Smith's favorite, the Phaedo ; quite unlike Smith or Cudworth he rarely pays any attention to the Neoplatonists. On the other hand, he writes with great approval not only of Aristotle but also of the Scholastics, especially Thomas Aquinas and Francisco Suárez, and even of Francis Bacon, to whom the Platonists were generally strongly opposed.

He differs from the Platonists on four crucial points. The first is epistemology; he disagrees with them, as he puts it, about "the time at which the candle of the Lord is lighted." It is true that at an early stage in the Discourse (Ch. 7) he writes: "There are stamped and printed upon the being of man some clear and indelible principles, some first and alphabetical notions, by putting together of which it can spell out the law of nature," a passage which it is natural to read as a defense of innate ideas. Later, however, in Chapter 11, he argues quite explicitly against the doctrine of innateness, even in the modified form in which Platonists like Cudworth held it. First principleswhich he describes as having "so much of certainty in them, that they are near to a tautology and identity"arise, he argues, "from the observing and comparing of objects"; these principles are not inherent in our minds. He strongly criticizes Plato and René Descartes in Chapter 14 for "too much scorning and slighting" of sensations. Sensation, he admits, is no more than "the gate of certainty," but only through this gate can certainty enter the soul. Otherwise, the soul would remain "a blank sheet."

Second, he criticizes the Platonist tendency to diminish the gap between human and divine by treating the human soul as having a degree of divinity, as being, insofar as it is rational, an ingredient in divine reason. The candle of the Lord, he argues, is lit by God but is no part of God's light. God's light is like the sun; a candle is but a wavering, imperfect light even when it is at its brightest. Men cannot hope to be godlike, the ideal the Platonists set before themselves.

This is connected with the third point of difference. Culverwel continued to be a Calvinist; he continued to believe, therefore, that no human being is worthy of salvation. In a sermon titled "The Act of Oblivion," addressed to a congregation presumed to belong to the elect, he says that God "might have written thy name in his Black Book, with fatal and bloody characters, and made his justice glorious in thy misery and damnation"; God had chosen otherwise because he so chose, not because any members were deserving of a higher destiny. If God has chosen to save Socrates, he argues, this can only be because God gave a private revelation to him, not because Socrates was a worthy man. God may well have chosen to save Aristophanes rather than Socrates. God's decrees, Culverwel insists, are absolute; it is ridiculous to suppose that a man can save himself from the damnation decreed for him merely by exercising an act of choice, by choosing to be good. Nothing could be further from the spirit of Cambridge Platonism than Culverwel's unmitigated Calvinism.

Finally, and this again is connected with his Calvinism, Culverwel's emphasis as a moral philosopher is on law rather than on reason. He agrees with the Platonists, it is true, that some acts are good in their own nature and that some relationships are peculiarly just and rational; however, the performance of such acts, he argues, does not constitute a moral good. Essentially, he says, morality is a matter of obedience to rule, and there can be rules only when there is a lawgiver. The obligatoriness of moral laws depends upon the fact that they are commanded by God. Even though the lawgiving is itself a rational act, even though moral laws are based upon the lawgiver's apprehension of "the eternal relations of things," even though it is by our reason that we discover their nature, command, not reason, is still the foundation of morality. A capacity for obeying rules, he suggests, is the distinguishing mark of a rational being; moral rules apply to men, not to animals, just because men are capable of following rules. But human rationality does not in any way constitute the obligatoriness of the rules.

Following Hugo Grotius, Culverwel devotes a great deal of attention to the concept of a natural law and its relation to the laws of nations. In the Discourse, as his argument proceeds, the importance of law comes more and more to the fore, and the importance of reason recedes, although Culverwel takes the two to be intimately connected. For Culverwel, as for so many of his antirationalist successors, Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac is the crucial case. This was decreed, and the decree had to be obeyed, he argues, even though it goes against all our concepts of a rational morality; "the candle durst not oppose the sun."

One can discern a tension in Culverwel's work between his Calvinism and the Platonism he had learned from Whichcote. A very similar tension between empiricism and rationalism, between the concept of law and the concept of reason, is manifest in John Locke, and it is more than likely that Locke was strongly influenced by Culverwel's Discourse, most obviously, but by no means exclusively, in the Essays on the Law of Nature, which he wrote in 1660.

See also Aristotelianism; Aristotle; Bacon, Francis; Cambridge Platonists; Cudworth, Ralph; Descartes, René; Grotius, Hugo; Herbert of Cherbury; Locke, John; Neoplatonism; Plato; Platonism and the Platonic Tradition; Socrates; Suárez, Francisco; Thomas Aquinas, St.; Whichcote, Benjamin.


The best edition of the Elegant and Learned Discourse of the Light of Nature is edited by John Brown, with a critical essay by John Cairns (Edinburgh: Constable, 1857). The sermons, including Spiritual Opticks, can be read in the 1652 edition of the Discourse (London: John Rothwell; reprinted, 1654). There are extracts in John Wesley, Christian Library, Vols. IXX (London, 18191827); and Ernest Trafford Campagnac, The Cambridge Platonists (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1901).

See also William Cecil de Pauley, The Candle of the Lord, Studies in the Cambridge Platonists (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1937); A. C. Scupholme, "Nathanael Culverwela Cambridge Platonist," in Theology 38 (225) (1939); Wolfgang von Leyden, John Locke: Essays on the Law of Nature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954); Jay G. Williams, "Nathaniel Culverwel (1619?1651?)," in British Philosophers, 15001799 (Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 252), edited by Peter Fosl (Farmington Hills, MI: Thomson Gale, 2002); and the bibliography to the Cambridge Platonists entry.

John Passmore (1967)

Bibliography updated by Tamra Frei (2005)