Whichcote, Benjamin (1609–1683)

views updated


Benjamin Whichcote, the guiding spirit of the Cambridge Platonists, was born at Whichcote Hall, Stoke, Shropshire, of "an ancient and honourable family." He was admitted to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in 1626 and in 1633 was elected a fellow of Emmanuel. Whichcote was renowned as a college tutor for the number and the character of his pupils, who included John Smith and John Worthington, and for the personal attention he paid to them. Ordained deacon and priest in 1636, he was in the same year appointed Sunday afternoon lecturer at Trinity Church in Cambridge, a post he held for nearly twenty years and by virtue of which he exerted considerable influence on the moral and religious life of Cambridge. At a time of violent, dogmatic theological controversy, his sermons were a fervent plea for liberality and toleration. It was his habit to speak from notes; he introduced into pulpit oratory a new, vigorous, colloquial, epigrammatic style in contrast to the traditional formal discourse. Various versions of his Sunday lectures, reconstructed from notes, were published after his death in 1683 and constitute his most substantial work.

In 1643 he temporarily left Cambridge to become rector of North Cadbury in Somerset, where he married. The following year he was invited back to Cambridge to become provost of King's College, the former provost having been ejected by the Puritan Parliament. He accepted only after great hesitation and secured special provision for the support of the former provost. Alone among the newly appointed heads of colleges, he refused to subscribe to the National Covenant, by which he would have sworn to support Calvinist forms of church government and doctrine. He secured a similar exemption for the fellows of his college. In 1650 he was elected vice-chancellor of the university.

His influence at Cambridge was now at its height and aroused considerable alarm among his more orthodox Calvinist colleagues. Especially alarmed was his former tutor at Emmanuel, Anthony Tuckney. In July 1651 Whichcote preached a commencement sermon as vice-chancellor that provoked a lively controversy between Whichcote and Tuckney in the form of letters. Tuckney accused Whichcote of laying too much stress on reason and too little on faith, of being unduly influenced by pagan ideas and by the Dutch Arminians, of being too tolerant of unorthodoxy. In reply Whichcote denied that it is possible to emphasize reason unduly, reason being "the candle of the Lord." Faith not founded on reason was mere superstition. His own ideas, he maintained, derived from meditation rather than from reading; he knew little or nothing, he said, of the Arminians (this is scarcely credible) but was not ashamed of having learned from Plato. As for tolerance, the Christian's duty is to regard with charity the views of other Christians, however mistaken he takes them to be, and to minimize rather than to exaggerate differences. Reason, tolerance, the minimizing of differencesthese qualities were characteristic of Whichcote personally and were central to his moral and religious outlook.

With the restoration of Charles II, Whichcote was dismissed as provost of King's College. He complied with the Act of Uniformity and was permitted to preach, finally becoming vicar of St. Lawrence Jewry, London, where he is buried. In London as in Cambridge his sermons, especially those he delivered regularly in the City at the Guildhall, attracted congregations considerable in both quality and numbers. He died as a result of a cold contracted while visiting Ralph Cudworth at Cambridge.

Whichcote wrote nothing. He was essentially a teacher who needed the inspiration of an audience that was physically present. His views have to be extracted from his correspondence, his sermons, and the aphorisms set down in his manuscripts. His leading ethical principle was that actions are good and bad, right and wrong, in their own nature, not because they are commanded or forbidden; the goodness of an action derives from its conformity with the nature of things as apprehended by reason. In his own teaching this principle is invoked against the Calvinist doctrine that moral laws are simply expressions of God's will, but his pupils were able to turn these principles against Thomas Hobbes's doctrine that moral laws are expressions of the will of the sovereign. Whichcote initiated the rationalistic tendency in British ethics, which runs through Cudworth, Samuel Clarke, and Richard Price to our own times. But there is nothing dry or formalistic in his rationalism; his emphasis is not on obedience to rules of conduct but on affection and spontaneity. He thought of religion and morality as liberating rather than as imposing rules.

In theology his influence encouraged the development of the characteristically "liberal" point of view, with its emphasis on goodness rather than on creeds. He thought that the Calvinists, in treating as of central importance questions of creeds, government, and ritual, made the same mistake as the high church Anglicans to whom they were so bitterly opposed. These were matters about which men should be left free to differ, choosing whatever forms and formulations help them to live better lives. This was the side of Whichcote's teaching that caught the attention of the third earl of Shaftesbury, who edited a volume of Whichcote's sermons in 1698; historically, it issues in eighteenth-century deism and nineteenth-century liberal theology, as represented, for example, in the work of Matthew Arnold, a great admirer of the Cambridge school.

See also Cambridge Platonists.


In 1685 there appeared in London Select Notions of that Learned and Reverend Divine of the Church of England, Dr. Whichcote, described as being "faithfully collected from him by a pupil and particular friend of his"; the Select Sermons were edited with a preface by the third earl of Shaftesbury in 1698. Several Discourses, edited by John Jeffrey, was published in 1701 (London); Jeffrey also edited the first edition of Moral and Religious Aphorisms, published in 1703 (Norwich), and a sermon, On the True Nature of Peace in the Kingdom or Church of Christ (1717). The most useful edition of the discourses is The Works of the Learned Benjamin Whichcote, D.D. (Aberdeen, 1751); for the aphorisms see Moral and Religious Aphorisms, edited by Samuel Salter (London, 1753), which also includes the correspondence with Tuckney. There is a modern edition of the Aphorisms with an introduction by Dean Inge (London, 1930). Ernest Trafford Campagnac, The Cambridge Platonists (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1901), contains considerable selections from Whichcote.

other recommended works

Davenport, Paul M. Moral Divinity with a Tincture of Christ: An Interpretation of the Theology of Benjamin Whichcote, Founder of Cambridge Platonism. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1972.

Gill, Michael B. "The Religious Rationalism of Benjamin Whichcote." Journal of the History of Philosophy 37 (2) (1999): 271300.

Greene, Robert A. "Whichcote, the Candle of the Lord, and Synderesis." Journal of the History of Ideas 52 (4) (1991): 617644.

Greene, Robert A. "Whichcote, Wilkins, 'Ingenuity,' and the Reasonableness of Christianity." Journal of the History of Ideas 42 (1981): 227252.

Patrides, C. A., ed. The Cambridge Platonists. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Roberts, James D. From Puritanism to Platonism in Seventeenth Century England. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1968.

John Passmore (1967)

Bibliography updated by Tamra Frei (2005)