Cumberland, Richard (1631–1718)

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Richard Cumberland, the bishop and moral philosopher, was born in London, the son of a London citizen. Educated at St. Paul's School, in 1648 he entered Magdalene College, Cambridge, where, distinguishing himself both by his scholarship and by his capacity for friendship, he was elected a fellow in 1656. He first studied medicine, but he finally decided to enter the church, accepting preferment in 1658 to the rectory of Brampton, Northamptonshire, and in 1667 to the rectory of All Hallows at Stamford, Lincolnshire. In 1661, Cambridge appointed him one of its twelve official preachers, and he kept in close touch with Cambridge intellectual life. Cumberland earned the reputation of being an exceptionally staunch Protestant. Report has it that the attempt of James II to reintroduce Roman Catholicism into England produced in him a dangerous fever. Such zeal did not go unrewarded under William III, and although quite without personal ambition, Cumberland was consecrated as bishop of Peterborough on July 5, 1691. He performed his episcopal duties with diligence until his death in 1718.

Jewish history was Cumberland's main interest. In 1686 he published An Essay towards the Recovery of the Jewish Measures and Weights. His domestic chaplain and son-in-law Squier Payne published in 1720 Sanchoniatho's Phoenician History, translated with a commentary by Cumberland. This monument of misplaced scholarly ingenuity derived its immediate inspiration from Hugo Grotius. With no qualms about the authenticity as history of Sanchoniatho's cosmogony, Cumberland devoted himself to identifying its personages with characters in the Old Testament. A sequel, Origines Gentium Antiquissimae; or Attempts for Discovering the Times of the First Planting of Nations, appeared in 1724.

Cumberland's sole philosophical work, De Legibus Naturae (1672), was designed, as the subtitle explains, as a refutation of Thomas Hobbesthe first full-length philosophical reply to Hobbes to be published. Written in an inelegant Latin, badly printed, ill-organized, intolerably diffuse, Cumberland's treatise did not attract much contemporary attention. In 1692, with Cumberland's approval, James Tyrrell prepared an abridgment and translation as A Brief Disquisition of the Law of Nature, hoping to draw attention to Cumberland's main ideas. But the abridgment was a poor one (in addition, Tyrrell's own views were mingled with Cumberland's) and failed in its main purpose. Eighteenth-century philosophers were more interested in Cumberland's work than his contemporaries had been; he anticipated their ambitions and preoccupations. A complete English translation was prepared by John Maxwell in 1727, and what has become the standard translation was published, with copious annotations by John Towers, in 1750. A French translation by Jean Barbeyrac (1744) ran into two editions.

Cumberland's point of departure is Grotius's De Iure Belli et Pacis (1625). Grotius, or so Cumberland interprets him, had based his demonstration of the existence and binding force of natural laws upon the consensus of civilized opinion. Very conscious of Hobbes, Cumberland sets out to supplement Grotius by demonstrating that natural laws are founded on "the nature of things," as distinct from the commands of sovereign rulers. To that extent Cumberland's aims coincide with Ralph Cudworth's, but unlike Cudworth he does not base his argument on Platonic metaphysics. Nor does he criticize, as did the Cambridge Platonists, the mechanical worldview; indeed, he wholeheartedly accepts it. He thinks of his approach as scientific and nonmetaphysical. He sets out to construct an ethics that, although Christian, is independent of revelation and, although demonstrating that morality is eternal and immutable, is based on "the evidence of sense and experience." These were to be the typical eighteenth-century specifications for a satisfactory moral theory.

Cumberland begins by arguing that there is a single natural law from which all moral laws can be derivedthe law, namely, that an agent secures his own good by the promotion of the good of the whole to which he belongs. If this single law is based on "the nature of things," if its truth can be demonstrated from experience, then, he thinks, morality rests secure. And, he argues, experience reveals to ushe draws upon his medical training to illustrate the pointthat the parts of a whole secure their own welfare only when they work for the good of the whole to which they belong. A bodily organ, for example, is at its healthiest when it is most effectively securing the health of the body. This truth men could recognize, so Cumberland argues against Hobbes, even in a state of nature. Thus, the foundation of moral laws is not the will of the sovereign.

Benevolence, Cumberland further maintains, is natural to humankind. Even brute animals, indeed, devote themselves to the welfare of their fellow brutes. A state of nature, therefore, would not be, as Hobbes suggested, a war of all against all; their human instincts, not the pressure of a sovereign will, lead men to cooperate with their fellow men in society. Certainly, Cumberland admits, men sometimes act in opposition to the good of the whole, just as an organ of the body will sometimes infect, rather than work toward the health of, the organism of which it forms a part. The fact remains, however, that the "natural impetus of man" is toward securing the common good, just as the general tendency of a bodily organ is to make the body healthier. The legislator's rewards and punishments, like medicine, are directed toward correcting abnormalities; they are not the original springs of moral action.

All moral concepts, Cumberland tries to show, are definable in terms of the single natural law that men secure their own welfare by pursuing the common good. An act is "naturally good" if by virtue of its own nature it tends toward the common good; it is "right" if it is the shortest way to that end; it is "morally good" if it conforms to the natural law. Particular virtues are similarly deducible from the obligation of pursuing the common good; to show that the common good ought to be our objective is at the same time to show that we ought to be law-abiding, just, temperate, and obedient to God.

Most of what were to be the leading eighteenth-century moral theories can be found somewhere suggested, if nowhere fully worked out, in De Legibus Naturae. Cumberland argues in detail that moral principles are analogous to the propositions of mathematics, and Samuel Clarke learned much from him on this point. Cumberland also sketches a moral calculus of the sort Francis Hutcheson was to employ; there are many resemblances between his moral philosophy and the third earl of Shaftesbury's; he has been described as the first systematic utilitarian; the organic theory of morality and of the state is conspicuous in his work; resemblances between Cumberland and Benedict de Spinoza are easy to detect.

Accounts of his moral philosophy differ widely, depending on which of the manifold tendencies in his thinking commentators stress. In Cumberland's own eyes, however, the crucial points are (1) there is a law of nature, defined as a proposition of "unchangeable truth and certainty which lays firm obligations upon all outward acts of behaving, even in a state of nature"; (2) this law enjoins upon us the pursuit of the common good and assures us that by pursuing the common good we achieve happiness and personal perfection; (3) observation of the world, including man's nature, demonstrates the truth of this law; (4) all other moral precepts are applications of the law of nature to particular forms of human action.

See also Cambridge Platonists; Clarke, Samuel; Cudworth, Ralph; Ethics, History of; Grotius, Hugo; Hobbes, Thomas; Hutcheson, Francis; Shaftesbury, Third Earl of (Anthony Ashley Cooper); Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de.


The best edition of Cumberland's De Legibus Naturae is John Tower's 1750 translation (Dublin), which also includes, as Appendix IV, Squier Payne 's Life of Cumberland, the main biographical source. For commentaries, see Frank Elsworth Spaulding, Richard Cumberland als Begründer der englischen Ethik (Leipzig: Fock, 1894); Ernest Albee, A History of English Utilitarianism (London: Allen and Unwin, 1902); Frank Chapman Sharp, "The Ethical System of Richard Cumberland, and Its Place in the History of British Ethics," in Mind 21 (83) (1912): 371398; James Clarke, Richard Cumberland and Natural Law: Secularisation of Thought in Seventeenth-Century England (Cambridge, U.K.: James Clarke, 1987); William Ewald, "The Biological Naturalism of Richard Cumberland." Jahrbuch fur Recht und Ethik (8 [2000]: 125141); Murray Forsyth, "The Place of Richard Cumberland in the History of Natural Law." Journal of the History of Philosophy (20 [1982]: 2342); M. A. Stewart, M. A., ed. English Philosophy in the Age of Locke (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

John Passmore (1967)

Bibliography updated by Tamra Frei (2005)

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Cumberland, Richard (1631–1718)

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