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Reference group
Cambridge Platonists (act. 1630s–1680s) were a circle of clergymen, mainly associated with Emmanuel and Christ's colleges in Cambridge, who, with the waning of Aristotelian influence in the English universities, called for a renewal of interest in the philosophy of Plato. The term ‘Cambridge Platonism’ was not, however, coined until the nineteenth century and it is potentially misleading. The school read Plato through the prism of the medieval and Renaissance tradition of Christianized Platonism, and they drew upon a larger body of Greek and Roman philosophers and moralists, such as Pythagoras, Plutarch, Plotinus, and Seneca. Furthermore, at least in the years immediately following the restoration of Charles II, there was no clear boundary between them and the movement known as latitudinarian, that is, tolerant of freedom of thought on religious questions. When ‘S.P.’ (probably Simon Patrick, rector of St Paul's, Covent Garden, and later bishop of Ely) wrote his Brief Account of the New Sect of Latitude-Men (1662), and bequeathed to church history the term ‘latitudinarian’, he called for ‘Platonick Philosophy’ to be admitted again to the Christian family (p. 24).

The Cambridge school and its associates

It is generally held that four men were at the heart of the Cambridge school. The progenitor was Benjamin Whichcote, fellow of Emmanuel from 1633, who became, after 1668, their most influential preacher as vicar of St Lawrence Jewry in London. The profoundest philosopher was Ralph Cudworth, fellow of Emmanuel from 1639 and master of Christ's College from 1654 to his death in 1688. The most prolific author was Henry More, fellow of Christ's from 1641. The fourth, John Smith, fellow of Queens' College, died young, in 1652. All except More had been undergraduates at the puritan stronghold of Emmanuel, Whichcote from 1626, Cudworth from 1630, and Smith from 1636. A number of other contemporaries may be regarded as Platonists: Nathaniel Culverwell, Peter Sterry, and John Worthington, all also of Emmanuel, Joseph Glanvill, and George Rust, fellow of Christ's (1649–59). Sometimes included is John Norris of All Souls, Oxford, and Bemerton, but he was more influenced by the thinking of René Descartes and became England's chief exponent of the philosophy of Nicolas Malebranche. Platonist affinities can also be found among some of the puritan dissenters, notably the Oxford man Theophilus Gale, and John Howe, briefly a student at Christ's; and also in the Quaker George Keith. The first generation of those now called latitudinarians acknowledged their debt to the Platonists: Gilbert Burnet, bishop of Salisbury, Edward Fowler, bishop of Gloucester, Simon Patrick, Edward Stillingfleet, bishop of Worcester, and archbishops of Canterbury Thomas Tenison and John Tillotson. Finally in this roll-call, a series of significant intellectual relationships involving leading women philosophers revolved around the Platonists: Henry More with Anne Conway, Viscountess Conway and Rillultagh; John Norris with Mary Astell; and Damaris Masham, Lady Masham (Cudworth's daughter) with John Locke.

Major texts

Several major texts of the school may be singled out. Many of the motifs that define the circle's philosophy, and the grounds for others' suspicion of it, were spelt out in 1651 in correspondence between Whichcote and his former tutor, the Calvinist Anthony Tuckney, printed in 1703. The circle's magnum opus was Cudworth's vast folio The True Intellectual System of the Universe (1678). Rebarbative in its burdensome erudition, it was an encyclopaedia of ancient wisdom brought to bear against the materialism and atheism of the modern world, signally that of Thomas Hobbes. Most of the group's books lacked the plain style in philosophy that characterized Francis Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, and Locke, and this tended to limit their influence. Henry More could be especially digressive and misty, and some of his writings are late flowerings of Reformation millenarianism and Renaissance cabbalism. The book of which Locke took special notice, in discussion with Masham, was Smith's Select Discourses, posthumously published in 1660. In moral philosophy the leading works are More's Enchiridion ethicum (1668; translated as An Account of Virtue, 1690) and Cudworth's posthumous Treatise Concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality (1731), the latter also being the group's most penetrating work of epistemology. More's Antidote against Atheism (1653) outlined a theory of natural theology. The most approachable epitomes of the circle's ideas are Whichcote's Aphorisms, first published in 1703, and Glanvill's sketch of a Platonist utopia, in the seventh of his Essays (1676).

Religion and reason

The group's starting point was Plato's doctrines of the soul, reason, and knowledge. On earth the soul—or mind—is a refugee, alienated from the universal divine mind, yet striving for reunion with it, and meanwhile trapped in the body and distracted and enslaved by human passions. The soul's great purpose is knowledge and contemplation of the divine, which can only be achieved through purification and transcendence of worldliness. Hence the search for truth is as much a moral as an epistemic task. It is also a religious task, for God is reason, the divine word or Logos. Reasoning is not an activity divorced from piety, it is a first step toward participation in the mind of God. There was an ascetic and sometimes mystical strain in this approach: More's and Masham's poetry speaks of yearning for freedom from the body in order to ascend to the divine. Locke, ever vigilant against ‘enthusiasm’, detected and disdained the ecstatic strain he found in Smith's Select Discourses. In epistemology the Platonists tended towards a doctrine of innate knowledge, holding, with Plato, that knowing is less cognition than recognition, an intuition of archetypal truths that subsist in the divine mind. The Platonists' favourite image was to call reason ‘the candle of the lord’. It is often said that Locke's famous assault on innate ideas in book 1 of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, first published in 1689, chiefly had the Cambridge Platonists in mind, but the issue is complicated, and the Platonists denied having a doctrine strictly of innate ideas, but rather of innate faculties.

Particularly striking is the Platonists' emphases on the capacities of natural reason, human free will, and native virtue. This was shocking to many, especially the Calvinists, for it seemed to subordinate biblical revelation to reason, to accent human merit above Christ's atonement, and to celebrate pagan philosophers above Christian saints. In contrast to the Calvinist deprecation of reason, the Platonists harmonized faith and reason, revelation and nature, as completely as they could. Reason, they said, is natural revelation. From the outset (in Tuckney's reproofs to Whichcote), the Platonists were suspected of Arminianism, or worse, Socinianism—that is to say, they held out the prospect of universal redemption by human striving, and they were in danger of regarding Christ chiefly as a moral teacher who merely reiterated the wisdom of the ancients. Calvinists denounced such tendencies with the word ‘moralism’, which they used pejoratively. Whichcote's retort was that the sum total of Christianity can be found in St Paul's epistle to Titus 2: 11–12: ‘For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men. Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we shall live soberly, righteously, and godly.’ The Platonists vigorously repudiated Calvinist predestinarianism, hating the notion that some people are eternally damned by God's arbitrary fiat. Together with early seventeenth-century anti-Calvinists like John Hales and William Chillingworth, they assisted in the great transformation of English theology by which, in the second half of the century, the dominance of Calvinism gave way to Arminianism.

Universal truth and the rejection of dogmatism

The Platonists believed that Christian truth partook of universal truth, that wise pagans had the essence of it, and that investigation of world religions would discover a commonality of truth. Luminescent shards of truth were scattered among the dross of historical accretions in individual cultures and creeds. Here was the idea of the philosophia perennis, the perennial philosophy implicit in all great systems of thought, and of the prisca theologia, the pure original truth, which Moses had possessed, and which had passed from him to the Egyptians and thence to Plato and the Greeks. (This could have eccentric consequences: Cudworth strove to find intimations of the doctrine of the Trinity in Plato.)

The Platonists' eirenicism resulted in an indifference to particular creeds and ceremonies amid the quarrels of English protestants. They hated sectarianism, creed making, heresy hunting, and the petty insistence that this or that form of ceremonial or church polity was jure divino—by divine right: they rejected, in the words of the title of one of Glanvill's tracts, the ‘vanity of dogmatising’. Consequently, they were ready to be ‘puritans’ in the 1650s, serving in the Cromwellian church, and ‘Anglicans’ in the 1660s, accepting the re-established regime of episcopacy and the Book of Common Prayer. They were sympathetic to the nonconformists who were repressed after the passage of the Act of Uniformity in 1662, yet they saw no point in the nonconformists' scrupulosity. Their indifference to institutional forms made them few friends, and many regarded them as lax time-servers. Cudworth, personally known to Oliver Cromwell in the 1650s, was lucky to survive as master of Christ's after 1660, and was embattled during the Restoration Anglican reaction.

Rejection of materialism and affirmation of ethics

Central to the Platonists as polemicists was their fear of the growth of ‘atheism’ in the form of philosophical materialism. They were in fact ambivalent about the new mechanical and atomist philosophies. Initially they welcomed Descartes's mechanical philosophy, not least because they were attracted to ideas of a perfectly law-governed universe, but they became fearful of its possibilities—which were only too fully confirmed in their reading of Hobbes. They thought it imperative to preserve a spiritualized theory of matter. In an important sense they were themselves ‘materialists’, for they rejected matter–spirit dualism, and regarded all things as belonging to a single continuum. Some matter is gross, some is ethereal; spirit is thin, purified matter. For More, spirit had extension, since everything must do so. Cudworth's doctrine of ‘plastic nature’ and More's ‘spirit of nature’, which both have affinities with the Platonic anima mundi (‘world soul’), were refutations of a mechanical universe of mere matter in motion. Such notions leaned toward hylozoism, the idea that nature is animated by a world-spirit. Cudworth's True Intellectual System provided a huge arsenal of arguments and historic opinions against mechanical materialism. So compendious was it, and so devoted to pagan wisdom, that, paradoxically, the Huguenot philosopher Pierre Bayle accused Cudworth of himself providing succour to atheists.

In ethics the school took its starting point from Plato's Euthyphro. Socrates asked, is a thing just because God commands it, or does God command it because it is just? The Cambridge Platonists emphatically took the latter view. The universe has a moral structure, and moral ideas have an eternal reality. This rationalist view tended towards a mathematical model: good and evil are a priori propositions. (And it is often said that the school influenced the hyper-rationalism of the theologian and philosopher Samuel Clarke, 1675–1729.) On this view, God necessarily chooses that which is good; it is necessary for him since he has perfect wisdom. The Platonists preferred to emphasize divine omniscience over divine omnipotence, and they rejected utterly a conception of God as an arbitrary law-giver. A thing is not good because it is commanded by someone. They in turn rejected the view that the good ought to be done because there are (human or divine) rewards and punishments for so doing. An action is only good if it is done for the sake of goodness. To act from fear or obedience is to be slavish.

Later influence

The school may be said to reach its close with the death of More in 1687 and Cudworth in 1688. On the whole, the Platonists' overt influence on eighteenth-century philosophy was small. Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding carried all before it. Yet there was covert influence. Their presence is felt in the moral philosophy of Anthony Ashley Cooper, third earl of Shaftesbury, whose earliest publication was an edition of Whichcote's sermons (1698). Though, prima facie, their ethics was rationalist, there was a considerable Aristotelian and Stoic aspect to it—admittedly present chiefly in Cudworth's unpublished manuscripts—and this tenor had more in common, not with Clarke's rationalism, but with the preference of Shaftesbury and the Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume for an ethic of sensibility. Cudworth's System of the Universe received a European audience when it was abridged and serialized in Jean le Clerc's journal in Amsterdam in the early 1700s, and given a Latin edition by Johann Mosheim at Jena in 1733. Damaris Masham was instrumental in this revival of her father's work. The Cambridge Platonists' development of natural theology, their treatment of the universe as the harmonious emanation of the divine, prefigured the eighteenth-century emphasis on the ‘argument from design’: this influence was earliest felt in the ‘physico-theology’ exhibited by Thomas Burnet, erstwhile fellow of Christ's College, in his Sacred Theory of the Earth (1681) and by John Ray, former fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, in his Wisdom of God in the Works of Creation (1691). In later times the Cambridge Platonists have provided sustenance to the periodic revivals of Christian Platonism in the Anglican tradition, such as in the writings of (John) Frederick Denison Maurice and William Ralph Inge in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In a looser way Cambridge Platonist influence suffused the Arminian and latitudinarian spirit of eighteenth-century English churchmanship.

Mark Goldie


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