Cambridge Platonists

views updated Jun 27 2018


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 .


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

Cambridge Platonists

views updated May 29 2018


A group of 17th-century English Protestant thinkers, so named because of their connection with Cambridge University and the presence of certain Platonic elements in their teaching. In religion they were "latitudemen," standing, as Matthew Arnold says, "between the sacerdotal religion of the Laudian clergy and the notional religion of the Puritans," and in their theology they emphasized conduct rather than doctrine. Since some of them continued to hold office at the university during the time of the Commonwealth, they were considered suspect after the return of the Stuarts in 1660. However, as a contemporary account given by "P.S." (Symon Patrick?) puts it, "they were glad to conform to the Church after the Restoration." The same author also defends their attitude toward rites and ceremonies since "they do highly approve that virtuous mediocrity which our Churches observe between the meretricious gaudiness of the Church of Rome, and the squalid sluttery of fanatic Conventicles," adding that they subscribed to the Thirty-nine Articles, were attacked by both Papists and Presbyterians and were unjustly accused of "liberty of conscience," that is, licentiousness in their private lives. "But there is another crime, which cannot be denied, that they have introduced a new philosophy; Aristotle and the schoolmen are out of request with them," since they had taken up with the atomical or Cartesian doctrine.

The principal representatives of the school are Benjamin Whichcote, who is generally regarded as its founder, John Smith, Henry More and Ralph Cudworth.

Benjamin Whichcote. Whichcote (16091683) entered Emmanuel College, a Puritan foundation, in 1626, was ordained as an Anglican priest and held high places in the university under the Puritans. After he was deprived of the provostship of King's College in 1660, he spent his remaining years as a rector, first in country places and later in London. His Select Sermons were published with a notable introduction by Shaftesbury in 1698 and Several Discourses by John Jeffrey (4 vols., 170107). In "The Malignity of Popery" he gives the essence of "the reformed religion" by way of contrast to asserted doctrines and practices of the Church of Rome. In various other sermons he presents what may be called a theory of natural religion, writing that "the State of Religion lyes, in short, in this; A good Mind, and a good Life. All else is about Religion, and hath but the place of Means or an Instrument." He advances the teleological and moral arguments for God's existence and shows in various ways that "it is more Knowable that there is a God, than any thing else is knowable." For Whichcote "the great Rights" are: (1) God is to be worshiped and adored; (2) there is a difference between good and evil; and (3) good is to be done, evil avoided. Elements of scholasticism are plentiful in his work, as evidenced by many particular terms, ideas and axioms and his theories of truth, objective morality, faith and reason, intellect and will and freedom.

John Smith. A philosophically more important and appealing figure is John Smith (161652), a student of Whichcote's at Emmanuel and later dean of Queens' College. His full development as a thinker and writer was cut off by an early death, but his posthumous Select Discourses (1659) show him to have been a man of wide learning, considerable intellectual power, originality of thought and expression, genuine spiritual perception and great sincerity. He stands apart from Whichcote, More and Cudworth because of the absence of bigotry and intolerance from his writing and especially from More because of his sane and rational attitude toward superstitious beliefs and practices. More truly Platonic than others in the group, Smith's cast of mind may also be described as Plotinian and Augustinian. Accordingly, he gives particular attention to the soul and advances four arguments for its immortality, namely, (1) from its incorporeity, indivisibility, powers and operations; (2) from the distinction between man's free and "automatical" actions; (3) from mathematical notions, which are "the true characters of some immaterial being, seeing that they were never buried in matter, nor extracted out of it: and yet these are transcendently more certain and infallible principles of demonstration than any sensible thing can be"; and (4) from man's clear and stable ideas of truth.

On the existence and nature of God, Smith's doctrine is both ambitious and original, since he holds that he would "not so much demonstrate that He is, as what He is." From a study of his own being man can arrive at conceptions of "the most perfect mind and understanding," and God's omnipotence, "almighty love," eternity, omnipresence and absolute freedom. Smith has many fine passages on God's nature and relations to the universe and man and on "the Excellency and Nobleness of True Religion." One of the best of these is on man's true happiness as found in God. He has, or should have, a place in the history of English prose; his works are filled with memorable phrases and he may be regarded as a pioneer in the aphoristic style of writing and preaching that has been popular in more recent times. In addition to Scripture, he cites innumerable authorsGreek, Roman, patristic and medieval, as well as contemporaryand the influence of others, for example, of St. francis de sales, is apparent.

Henry More. More (161487) ranks with Cudworth as the most famous of the Cambridge Platonists. Although raised a Calvinist, he rebelled against predestinarianism while a student at Eton. At Christ's College he was a fellow student of John Milton and became a master of arts and fellow in 1639. His studies of Aristotle, Julius Scaliger, G. Cardano and others ended, he says, in "mere scepticism" and he turned to "the Platonic writers, Marsilius Ficinus, Plotinus himself, Mercurius Trismegistus and the Mystical Divines." After taking Anglican orders, he received two benefices but gave them to friends; later he declined two bishoprics and the deanery of St. Patrick's and provostship of Trinity College, Dublin, preferring to spend his life in Cambridge. He had a wide circle of friends and many correspondents, among them Descartes, the younger Van Helmont, William Penn, John Norris, Baron Knorr and Joseph Glanvill. He was a voluminous writer on philosophy and theology and produced some verse.

Philosophy. To a basic philosophy derived from Aristotle and the scholastics More added elements drawn from Plato, the Neoplatonists and other sources. Making an early acquaintance with Descartes, he first had an extravagant admiration for his doctrine, but later showed himself to be anti-Cartesian in metaphysics and finally doubted that there is anything mechanical in nature. Incorporeal substance is for him the object of metaphysics; the universe is "one huge Animal," or if it lacks sense, which lack is not proved, "one monstrous Plant"; all nature, he says, is pervaded by "the spirit of nature," or "a plastical power"; space is an objective reality endowed with divine attributes. At the same time, he advances a doctrine of monads: bodies are composed of indivisible physical monads, and can be dissolved back into them by God's power, while spiritual substance is a "metaphysical monad."

In psychology and epistemology More labors to refute Hobbes and other materialists and to establish the reality of the soul, which has both preexistence and immortality. At death the soul leaves its "terrestrial vehicle," "glides into the free air," and enters first into an "aereal" and later into an "aethereal or celestial vehicle." The mind is never a tabula rasa but possesses innate ideas; the secondary qualities of bodies are in the perceiver rather than in things. In ethics More develops a doctrine of conscience under the name of "the boniform faculty," which he says is "the best and divinest part the celestial particle of the soul," but here as elsewhere in his ethics he has nothing new that is of value.

Theology. More's theodicy is elaborate but unreliable. Leaving undeveloped the basic proofs for God's existence, he gives first place to his statement of the ratio Anselmi and advances so extravagant a statement of the proof from order as to discredit teleology. Further arguments are adduced from man's innate idea of God, the nature of the soul, morality, "miracles," namely, accounts of ghosts, witchcraft, demonism and the like, and man's religious instincts. In religion More is important chiefly for his strong Protestantism, in which he holds that treason against any Protestant prince or opposition to Protestantism is both civil treason and religious heresy. The Church of Rome is the kingdom of anti-Christ and "the mystery of iniquity." In his attack More spares nothing: the Church's doctrine, history, claims, morals, ceremonial, members, leaders and head were all assailed. So savage is his hatred that he was found extreme even in an age when like attacks were common among such diverse groups as Anglicans, dissenters and freethinkers.

More must be rated low both as a philosopher and a theologian. His work is marred by such intense bigotry and superstition as to bring injury on various valid doctrines, especially in theodicy and rational psychology. His attempts at novelty are abortive and his work must be characterized as a mélange of doctrines taken from the Greeks, the scholastics, Jewish cabalists, Protestant theology, Sacred Scripture and contemporary science. His books were read in colonial New England and helped to prepare the way for the sordid events at Salem.

Ralph Cudworth. Cudworth (16171688), a student and later fellow of Emmanuel College, had prestige and power under Cromwell but promptly wrote verses welcoming Charles II back home. His chief works were The True Intellectual System of the Universe, finished in 1671 but delayed in publication by opposition at court until 1678; and the posthumously published Confutation of the Reason and Philosophy of Atheism (1706); Treatise concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality (1731); and Treatise of Freewill (1838). The True Intellectual System is a vast work, itself a part of a vaster unfinished project, worthyin conception at leastof comparison with some of the great systematic works of earlier centuries. It may be divided into five parts: (1) a refutation of atheism, (2) the true idea of God, (3) proofs for the existence of God, (4) the natural distinction between good and evil, and (5) freedom of will. First giving the arguments for atheism, he perhaps, as Dryden says, states them better than he refutes them. Although he rejects the Anselmian and Cartesian arguments, he gives one based on the idea of God and others from contingency, order and the character of knowledge.

Famous for his theory of a plastic nature, Cudworth describes it as a lower faculty of some conscious soul, or itself a kind of inferior life or soul, an immaterial, incorporeal substance that is the divine art embodied in nature, a shadowy imitation of mind and understanding, analogous to mental causality, acting for ends but unconscious of them. It is an instrument used by God and it operates according to laws imposed by him. Analogies to ancient theories of a world soul and to later doctrines like those of Schopenhauer, Bergson and E. von Hartmann are evident. Certain anticipations of Kantian doctrines in theodicy and on space and time as mental forms, the categories and the unknown "thing in itself" may also be found in Cudworth.

Cudworth is almost a great philosopher. Along with pronounced intellectual abilities and immense learning, he unites many past and contemporary strains, makes some contributions of his own and anticipates certain future developments. His purposes are good, but he fails in some of his means since his great learning is often uncritical, he overuses his authorities and is at times too severe in his judgments. Instances of these defects may be found in his account of atomistic philosophy, which he traced back to Moses. If he had advanced an extremist doctrine, as did Hobbes and Spinoza in his time, he would have been a more famous and influential, but less able, thinker. As it is, Cudworth ranks with Bacon, Hobbes and Locke in 17th-century English philosophy, and in certain respects is superior to them.

Related Thinkers and Influence. Other thinkers sometimes, but incorrectly, associated with the Cambridge Platonists are Nathaniel Culverwel (1615/181650/51), George Rust (d. 1670), Symon Patrick (16261707), Joseph Glanvill (163680), John Hales (15841656), John Norris (16571711) and Richard Cumberland (16311718). In addition to their relation to Kant and Locke, the Cambridge Platonists influenced particularly the third Earl of Shaftesbury (16711713). In religion the effects of their teaching were away from traditional doctrine and toward rationalism and a nondogmatic religion of morality. In philosophy they were dualists concerned with fundamental thingsGod, the soul, natural morality, free will and the epistemological problem. In some areas, they prepared the way for more radical doctrines of the 18th century.

See Also: british moralists; enlightenment, philosophy; platonism.

Bibliography: Sources. j. smith, Select Discourses, ed. h. g. williams (4th ed. rev. Cambridge, Eng. 1859). h. more, Opera omnia, 3 v. (London 167579). r. cudworth, The True Intellectual System of the Universe, tr. j. harrison, 3 v. (London 1845). Literature. f. c. copleston, History of Philosophy (Westminster, Md 1946) 5:5266. j. tulloch, Rational Theology and Christian Philosophy in England in the Seventeenth Century, 2 v. (2d ed. Edinburgh 1874). j. k. ryan, The Reputation of St. Thomas Aquinas Among English Protestant Thinkers of the Seventeenth Century (Washington 1948); "John Smith, 16161652: Platonist and Mystic," The New Scholasticism, 20 (1946) 125. e. cassirer, The Platonic Renaissance in England, tr. j. p. pettegrove (Austin 1953). b. willey, Seventeenth Century Background (New York 1950). j. a. passmore, Ralph Cudworth (Cambridge, Eng. 1951).

[j. k. ryan]

Cambridge Platonists

views updated May 17 2018


The Cambridge Platonists were a group of seventeenth-century thinkers, associated with Cambridge University, who drew on the neoplatonic tradition and contemporary philosophical developments in order to combat voluntarism, materialism, and determinism, and promote a tolerant and inclusive understanding of Christianity.

The core members of this school were active from the late 1630s through the 1680s, and were associated either with Emmanuel or Christ colleges. The central thinkers in the movement were Ralph Cudworth (16171688), Henry More (16141687), John Smith (16181652), and Benjamin Whichcote (16091683), their founding figure. Other close associates at Cambridge included Peter Sterry (16131672), John Worthington (16181680), George Rust (16261670), and Nathanael Culverwell (16181651). Beyond Cambridge, thinkers with connections to the school include John Norris (16571711), Joseph Glanvill (16361680), and Anne Conway (16311679). Leading latitudinarian divines, including Simon Patrick (16261707), John Tillotson (16301694), Gilbert Burnet (16431715), and Edward Stillingfleet (16351699), can also be considered disciples of the Cambridge Platonists.

Although the movement was centered in Emmanuel College, long a stronghold for Calvinistic Puritanism, it constituted a repudiation of what the Cambridge Platonists took to be a central feature of Calvinist thought, its voluntaristic understanding of morality as a creation of the divine will. Against this voluntarism, which the Cambridge Platonists perceived as offering an unacceptable account of God as arbitrary tyrant, they argued for a form of moral realism. Good and evil are "eternal and immutable"; moral distinctions are ontologically real and unchanging. Influenced by Renaissance neoplatonism (and thus interpreting Plato through the lens of Plotinus and later Christian Platonism), the Cambridge Platonists conceived of God as the Good, the form of forms. The goodness that God wills is an expression of God's own nature. Thus, while what is good is not good by virtue of being willed by God, eternal moral distinctions also do not serve as constraints on God's will.

The Cambridge Platonists declared themselves opposed to any separation of the realms of reason and faith, of the rational and the spiritual. By this they meant most fundamentally to assert that God's ways are fair, and in this sense reasonable. Rejecting the doctrine of predestination, they insisted that God's decrees are not arbitrary or unfathomable but are objectively just. The Cambridge Platonists were staunch defenders both of freedom of the will and freedom of conscience. If God is just in holding us responsible for our actions, then these actions must be up to us and freely chosen. Furthermore, faith is reasonable, and reason must be persuaded; it cannot be forced. On matters that reason cannot determine, the Cambridge Platonists advocated tolerance of a diversity of opinion. They worked for a policy of broad comprehension in the Church of England, minimizing core doctrines and emphasizing moral truths. Their theology thus resembles that of the Dutch Arminians, although arrived at independently.

Reason served for the Cambridge Platonists, as for so much of Renaissance neoplatonism, as a substantial link between the human and divine natures. Whichcote often wrote of reason as the "candle of the Lord." Discounting the impact of the Fall on human nature, the Cambridge Platonists were optimistic about the capacity of human persons to know God and eternal moral truths through reason. Human knowledge of various moral goods is a participation in God's own self-knowledge. Although there is a mystical aspect to the Cambridge Platonists' assertion that God is present within human persons through reason, they were critical of claims to private communications from God, which they condemned as "enthusiasm." Despite their emphasis on access to divine truth through reason, the Cambridge Platonists did not seek to undermine the authority of revealed truths. They did, though, tend to blur the boundaries between reason and revelation. So, for instance, they entertained the possibility that Plato's wisdom derived from Moses or other ancient Hebrews, and thus that pagan wisdom was indebted to revelation. But they also argued that pagan anticipations of revealed doctrines, including the trinity, might have derived from the powers of reason, God within.

If Puritan theology was the target against which the Cambridge Platonist movement took shape, the Platonists (particularly Cudworth and More) soon took on new foes, notably Thomas Hobbes. Like the Calvinists, Hobbes was a voluntarist, who made morality dependent on will. That for Hobbes morality was dependent on the will of the human sovereign rather than the will of God rendered his thought no less problematic in their eyes. Hobbes was also attacked for his materialism, which the Cambridge Platonists regarded as a dangerous form of atheism.

Initially, the Cambridge Platonists perceived René Descartes as a valuable ally against both materialism and the old scholastic Aristotelianism. The Cambridge Platonists were among the first English thinkers to read Descartes, and More carried on an extensive correspondence with him. Like Descartes, the Cambridge Platonists were dualists and they regarded a dualism of spirit and matter as indispensable for their defense of the spiritual realm against materialistic reduction. (More's friend and pupil Anne Conway, author of Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy [1692], parted ways with the Cambridge Platonists on this point, moving in the direction of a metaphysical monism).

The Cambridge Platonists came to think, though, that Descartes carried mechanistic explanations of the natural world too far. Arguing that matter is essentially passive and incapable of accounting for complex and orderly natural phenomena, they argued for a spiritual presence mediating between God and the physical universe. More termed this a Spirit of Nature or Hylarchic Principle, whereas Cudworth spoke of Plastic Nature. The eagerness to demonstrate the reality of immaterial substance reinforced in More and Glanvill a belief in witchcraft and a fascination with purported spiritual phenomena. Once seen as evidence of their credulity and backwardness, this feature of their thought is now understood as a further reflection of their support for the new experimental science. The Cambridge Platonists were familiar not only with the work of Hobbes, Descartes, and Benedict Spinoza, but also with Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle, and the Royal Society.

Whichcote's sermons were published by Anthony Ashley Cooper, third Earl of Shaftesbury. John Locke, Richard Price, and Thomas Reid were also indebted to the Cambridge Platonists, particularly Cudworth. Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz read both Cudworth and More, and Pierre Bayle critiqued Cudworth's Plastic Nature. Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Matthew Arnold all admired the Cambridge Platonists. The lasting significance of the Cambridge Platonists resides in their success in carrying forward the insights of the tradition of Christian Platonism through a creative rapprochement with the philosophical revolution underway during their time. Within the heavily empiricist cast of English philosophy, they introduced a distinctive form of idealism.

See also Cudworth, Ralph; Culverwel, Nathanael; More, Henry; Whichcote, Benjamin.


Beiser, Frederick C. "Cambridge Platonism." In The Sovereignty of Reason: The Defense of Rationality in the Early English Enlightenment. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Hutton, Sarah. "The Cambridge Platonists." In A Companion to Early Modern Philosophy, edited by Steven Nadler. Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell, 2002.

Patrides, C. A., ed. The Cambridge Platonists. Cambridge, MA: Havard University Press, 1970.

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

Jennifer A. Herdt (2005)

Cambridge Platonists

views updated Jun 08 2018

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).

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