The Cambridge Platonists in henry Fielding’s christian Platonic history of tom jones

By James Bryson

In 1956, a young scholar by the name of Ralph W. Rader, who would go on to become Professor of English Emeritus at the University of California Berkeley, noticed an affinity between a passage in Henry Fielding’s Amelia and Ralph Cudworth’s True Intellectual System of the Universe, where Fielding describes the deism of one of his characters, Mr. Booth, whose rejection of the doctrine of divine providence appears to border on outright atheism. Fielding does not mention Cudworth by name, but cites Samuel Clarke (1675-1729), perhaps a better known figure to his contemporary readership, as his theological authority. Rader points out that Fielding’s mention of Clarke here is no reason to assume that he is the only or most importance influence in this crucial passage in the novel, before revealing his important discovery.  Rader argues that it is a highly likely that Fielding must have had Cudworth particularly in mind at this moment of the novel, because he quotes, as Cudworth does, from the late antique poet Claudian to illustrate the unstable spiritual state of the man who denies God’s providence. This is made all the more likely by the fact that Fielding owned a copy of Cudworth’s True Intellectual System (1678).

Fielding scholarship acknowledges the importance of the Cambridge Platonists for the theological background of the novelist’s literary works, mediated particularly by latitudinarian divines like John Tillotson and Issac Barrow, but judgements vary about how Fielding would have felt about their theological attitudes broadly understood.  Fielding scholars rightly emphasize deism as a regular target in his novels.  Deism takes on two principal forms, for Fielding – it is either of an intellectual or sentimental stripe.  Shaftesbury, who Fielding references in his writings and correspondence, is considered an example of the latter, and the Cambridge Platonists – as the intellectual ancestors of Samuel Clarke, Matthew Tindal, and Thomas Chubb – of the former.  This is at odds with Rader’s discovery that shows Fielding put Cudworth in service of orthodoxy, and with the work of the eminent 20thcentury Fielding scholar Martin Battestin, who accepts the influence of Cambridge Platonism on Fielding’s mature Christian theistic worldview.  More recently, in an unpublished but brilliant and wide-ranging essay, entitled ‘Conversion: Ontological & Secular from Plato to Jane Austen’ (available on, the great Platonist scholar Wayne Hankey accepts Battestin’s judgement about Cudworth’s influence on Fielding, and he develops the implications of his critical insights by showing how Fielding’s Christian Platonism bears itself out in the spiritual education of his heroes and heroines, most notably in his magnum opus, The History of Tom Jones (1749). Hankey shows how Fielding’s is a kind of romantic representation of the ancient neo-platonic doctrine of providence.  Fielding’s theology is latitudinarian and his psychology the product of a Christian Platonic vision of human nature, a nature that is sinful but capable of reformation through the exercise of faith and preparation for the reception of grace through confession and repentance.

The dialectical ‘history’ of divine providence in Jones led another Platonic critic to take notice.  Samuel Taylor Coleridge numbered Tom Jones as one of the ‘three most perfect plots ever planned’. Fielding may have had Coleridge’s beloved Plotinus to thank for his narrative vision. Battestin suggests the mediation of Cudworth here, who elaborates on the Plotinian comparison of human beings to actors on the stage in God’s epic poem, a spiritual exercise designed to help the human soul make sense of evil in the world, while offering it a way of understanding our place in his cosmic drama.  Battestin cites the following passage from Cudworth’sTrue Intellectual System:

The Evolution of the World, as Plotinus calls it, is ἀληθέστερον ποίημα, a Truer Poem, and we men Histrionical Acters upon the Stage, who notwithstanding insert something of our Own into the Poem too; but God Almighty, is that Skilful Dramatist, who always connecteth that of ours which went before, with what of his follows after, into good Coherent Sense; and will at last make it appear, that a Thred of exact Justice did run through all, and that Rewards and Punishments are measured out in Geometrical Proportion. (TIS, 1678, pp. 879-880)

Here we have another characteristic element of Platonic tradition on which the Cambridge Platonists insisted, that, as Henry More put it, the ‘purgative course is previous to the illuminative’.  In his popular handbook on moral philosophy, Enchiridion Ethicum (1668), originally composed into Latin, but posthumously translated into English as An Account of Virtue (1690), More charts a course for the soul to the life of virtue, exhorting us to examine the meaning of our naturally hedonistic tendencies, which must be reformed by reason in cooperation with what Shaftesbury will call the ‘moral sense’, and what More calls the ‘divine spark’ hidden but animating the life of every human soul. More of the role of the ‘spark’ in Fielding’s history in a moment.

Fielding intends his history as a literary version of the Platonic spiritual itinerarium of the soul, called by beauty to the acquisition of virtue.  In the Dedication to Tom Jones, he writes:

I declare that to recommend goodness and and innocence hath been my sincere endeavour in this history. This honest purpose you have been pleased to think I have attained; and to say the truth, it is likeliest to be attained in books of this kind; for an example is a kind of picture, in which virtue becomes as it were an object of sight, and strikes us with an idea of loveliness, which Plato asserts there is in her naked charms…Besides displaying that beauty of virtue which may attract the admiration of mankind, I have attempted to engage a stronger motive to human action in her favour, by convincing men, that their true interests directs them to a pursuit of her.

Tom Jones ought to be read as a self-consciously Platonic history of love. Love is perhaps the most important theme in the writings of the Cambridge Platonists and their circle, in large part because it is a topic that goes to the heart of philosophy, theology, and religion, blurring the boundaries between and within these disciplines and practices.  Love, for example, is a central theme in their moral philosophy, Trinitarian theology, and interpretation of scripture. It should go without saying that love is the central theme of the Renaissance and ancient literature in which the Cambridge Platonists, like Fielding, were steeped.

Fielding is explicit about the role ‘true philosophy’ plays in the formation of his protagonists. Tom’s love interest is his neighbour, Sophia Western. Tom comes to love Sophia, recognised to be the most beautiful woman in the country round, for the goodness and beauty of her character, not her flesh. This is much to the astonishment of the otherwise all-knowing narrator himself, familiar with Tom’s frequent capitulation to the temptations of the flesh.

Fielding draws on Neoplatonic theories of beauty to explain the education Jones receives by falling in love with Sophia, both the person and the idea.  Fielding argues in a persistently Platonic way. His hope, he claims in the Dedication, is to make the ‘good man wise’. Although occasioned by a person, reminiscent of Diotima’s ladder in Plato’s Symposium, Jones is in love with the idea of Sophia – both literally in the case of Sophia herself and metaphorically insofar as he his driven by an intuitive sense of his need for a spiritual education, in spite of his voracious fleshly appetites.  In Sophia, as in Squire Allworthy, whose chief virtue is his ‘goodness’, there is a meeting of the person and the idea.  By the end of the romance, through dialogue with goodness and union with beauty and virtue through the attainment of wisdom – represented concretely in his friendship with his benevolent father Allworthy, and in his marriage to Sophia Western – Jones achieves the perfection of his spiritual education in the world:

Whatever in the nature of Jones had a tendency to vice, has been corrected by continual conversation with this good man, and by his union with the lovely and virtuous Sophia. He hath also, by reflexion on his past follies, acquired a discretion and prudence very uncommon in one of his lively parts. (XVIII, 13)

As many critics recognise, the plot of Fielding’s history is driven by the mystery of Tom’s parentage. Again, this is another trope surrounding love in the Platonic tradition that goes back to the Symposium,  picked up by Plotinus and his Renaissance commentators.  Is love divine or human, a god or a daimon?  Is Aphrodite, the goodess of love, to be contemplated at a distance, or is she the earthly rather than heavenly goddess who concerns herself principally with romance? Or perhaps love is a term better applied to friendships, or religious or filial devotion than to romance?  Plato suggests an alternative parentage to the heavenly and earthly Aphrodite, drawing our attention to another genealogy that holds love is a spirit (daimon) born of a marriage between  Poros or Penia – plenty and poverty.  As perhaps the greatest living scholar of Renaissance philosophy Thomas Leinkauf argues, love is a mixing and mixed virtue.  Tom Jones embodies all of these mysterious contradictions, only resolved by the divine goodness who watches over him and those whom he loves, deserving or not.  All of his characters are lovers or pursue loves of various kinds.  These pursuits demonstrate a lack but they also inspire an astonishing level of resourcefulness. 

Fielding deploys another Platonic theme by making the contemplation of death an important way of educating his characters.  Facing death is crucial for Fielding because it lays character bare. The impending death of Squire Allworthy and the public reading of his will, for example, reveal devotion in Jones and avarice in his villainous counterparts. Death also demonstrates the priority of the Christian religion over and above philosophy.  In language that echoes the title of Anne Conway’s great treatise, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy  – the central message of which is God’s overflowing love for his creation – Fielding puts the following words into the mouth of Square, the deist philosopher, who, in the face of death, converts to Christianity:

I have somewhere read, that the great Use of Philosophy is to learn to die.  I will not therefore so far disgrace mine, as to shew any Surprize at receiving a Lesson which I must be thought to have so long studied. Yet, to say the Truth, one Page of the Gospel teaches this Lesson better than all the Volumes of antient or modern Philosophers… I would not here throw the horrid censure of atheism, or even the absolute denial of immortality, on all who are called philosophers. Many of that sect, as well antient as modern, have, from the light of reason, discovered some hopes a future state; but, in reality, that light was so faint and glimmering, and the hopes were so uncertain and precarious, that it may be justly doubted on which side their belief turned. 

In a much more extensive way than Conway, Cudworth famously classifies philosophers as theists or atheists and demonstrates themes and lines of argument in ancient and modern philosophical theism and atheism.  It is hard not to hear echoes of Cudworth’s magnum opus in passages of this kind.

There is another Platonizing strand at work in Fielding’s literary imagination that we find most thoroughly developed in Henry More, although it is a central theme for the Cambridge Platonists and their circle.  Fielding refers to Jones as one of the ‘sparks’ in his history, language that evokes the high medieval and patristic tradition of deification. In the work of Jacob Boehme (1575-1624), to which More dedicated a lengthy work, the divine spark that lies in every human soul is drawn out by the heavenly Sophia, the feminine personification of Christ. The most proximate source of this tradition for Fielding may have been Issac Barrow (1630-1677), a contemporary of More and Cudworth, who many scholars argue was influenced by More’s speculative theology. Fielding also owned the works of Clement of Alexandria, another source of deification for the Cambridge Platonists. Fielding was attracted to the idea that we are good by participation in the heavenly realm of true goodness. Platonism comes to him by many channels and is essential to his moral vision.

Fielding takes aim at the same philosophical and theological targets as his Cambridge Platonist forbearers, and highlights the most important feature of their Platonizing world view – the primacy of goodness, wherein the divine omnipotence is drawn out and channeled by the divine wisdom.  Jones’s tutors are a deist philosopher, Square, a champion of the ‘rule of right’ and the ‘eternal fitness of things’, and a Calvinist theologian, Thwackum, a voluntarist and scriptural literalist.  For all the learning of the one and severe piety of the other, neither man lives by the principles he espouses.  (The conversion of Square at the end of the history, noted above, is followed by a confession to his villainous behaviour towards Jones).  These characters mirror their benevolent counterparts, Squire Allworthy, best known for his ‘goodness’, and Jones himself, whose reckless behaviour is continuously overlooked because of his personal charm, but above all owing to his charitable spirit. Allworthy, however, although the local magistrate, never had a formal education, so for all of his good will, he lacks the sophistication required to impose moral order in his jurisdiction. Worse than this, he puts those in his charge in material and spiritual danger, including Jones, who, like his adopted father, must be educated by the world because his teachers are morally corrupt.

The work of providence, therefore, is Fielding’s overarching concern, given the frailty of good men and the vicious and virtually unreformable nature of the bad.  In his Christian epic, a self-conscious response to Milton’s Paradise Lost(another great work of Christian and Cambridge Platonic theology, as I argued here: all are redeemed who would be redeemed, and those who would not are consigned to the abyss of the oblivion they choose.  As the great Renaissance Platonist Marsilio Ficino points out in his commentary on Plato’s Symposium, forgetfulness and lust are the principal psychological effects of elevating the material above the spiritual.  Fielding owned a copy of Ficino’s edition of Plato’s Omnia Opera, which included his influential commentary on the Symposium, a neo-platonic reading of the cooperation of love and beauty in the soul in search of divine goodness.

Because Fielding is so deeply committed to a Christian Platonic account of love as the principle of human happiness and flourishing, I am reluctant to endorse Professor Hankey’s interpretation of the picture that Jones and his great successor Jane Austen paint i.e. that in the Protestant Platonism of the 18thand early 19th centuries the felicitous marriage of the gentry replaces the transcendent telos of the spiritual journey, characteristic of its ancient and medieval forerunners. Hankey judges that:

The secularization and humanization of the human and cosmictelosand the means to it goes much further when we move from the culmination of conversion as contemplative or ecstatic union with the Divine Good, True, and Beautiful to felicity as marriage of the Protestant gentry. It is evident that such an incredible representation of matrimony must depend on its filling in for the transcendent divine goal of the ancient and medieval quest. (Hankey, ‘Conversion’)

In response to this interesting and provocative judgement, let us consider the concluding passage of Fielding’s history:

To conclude, as there are not to be found a worthier man and woman, than this fond couple, so neither can any be imagined more happy.  They preserve the purest and tenderest affection for each other, an affection daily increased and confirmed by mutual endearments, and mutual esteem. Nor is their conduct towards their relations and friends less amiable, than towards one another.  And such is their condescension, their indulgence, and their beneficence to those below them, that there is not a neighbour, a tenant or a servant, who doth not most gratefully bless the day when Mr Jones was married to his Sophia. (Book XVIII, ‘Chapter the Last’)

Marriage is the end of Fielding’s history, not its beginning or middle.  Like Dante’s Commedia, which Hankey juxtaposes with Fielding’s Jones, the pilgrims are moved by and towards love as end from a growing awareness of its overflowing power, an end with which they must cooperate and ultimately will, but do not and cannot determine. This felicity in love that Tom and Sophia enjoy, Fielding insists, cannot be accomplished without the oversight of a transcendent providence.  Here the Christian religion and its two great commandments remain fully intact, shaping the sense and sensibility of the age.  Hankey conflates secularity with Protestantism, and limits the possibility of a cultural sensitivity to the role of transcendence in human destiny to a pre-Reformation and ahistorical golden age of contemplation. Interestingly this reading is characteristic of some recent Cambridge Platonist scholarship, as well as a Christian post-modern theology which informs this scholarship, a theology which longs for a return to the pre-modern and laments the Protestant modernity they regard as responsible for so many modern ills, traceable to a conflation of the religious and the moral that culminates in ‘secular’ ethics of Kant and the correlative destruction of metaphysical religion.

Fielding should not be read as a stage along the way towards such developments.  At an important moment in Tom’s travels, shortly after he is cast out of his home, having renounced his claim on the woman he loves in a hope to preserve her honour, and robbed of what little money he had to start a new life for himself – by a man whom he believed a dear friend no less – Tom declares his willingness to fight for the ‘Protestant Religion’.  Lest this become confused with non-conformism, Tom qualifies this by explaining that religious zeal does not exclude love for King and country, even if it represents a higher vocation:

I think no man can engage in a nobler cause than that of his religion; and I have observed in the little I have read of history, that no soldiers have fought so bravely, as those who have been inspired with a religious zeal for my own part, tho’ I love my King and Country, I hope, as well as any man in it, yet the Protestant interest is no small motive to my becoming a volunteer in the cause. (VII, 12).

Religion and God in this Protestant context still transcend a purely ‘secular’ world view.  Moreover, love itself is necessarily communal in the Christian Platonic vision Fielding and the Cambridge Platonists propound; by no means is felicity limited to married aristocrats, just as for the medieval Christian Platonist, the experience of the beatific vision does not require mastery of Aquinas’ Summa or Proclus’ Elements of Theology.  On the contrary, the health and good will of the community requires marriage and the family as its beating heart. As is made clear in the quotation above, Fielding is careful to point out that Jones and Sophia are no less loving towards their friends and community than they are devoted to their matrimonial union.  Here there is mutual indwelling of individuals and community made possible by an institution grounded in love, rightly called ‘the state of holy matrimony’.

These concluding words of Fielding’s epic insist on the overflowing and sacred nature of love between Sophia and Jones, which confers benefits on their friends and the wider community acquainted with them.  The stability of their marriage reflects the character of the divine providence which made it possible, an indefatigable and irresistible divine persistence which human folly repeatedly attempts to frustrate.  This is not a replacement of the transcendent aim of the ancient and medieval spiritual quest, but a product of the same conviction in the operation of the transcendent in the human community. This reflects the theology of divine love and goodness championed by Cudworth.  Given his deep investment in the work of loving providence, Fielding must have been struck by the following passage from Cudworth’s True Intellectual System, deeply sensitive to love in her many and universal aspects:

For it is nothing but φιλοκαλία, or the Love of Pulchritude, as such, which though rightly used, may perhaps Wing and Inspire the Mind, to Noble and Generous Attempts, and beget a scornful disdeign in it, of Mean, Dirty, and Sordid things; yet it is capable of being abused also, and then it will strike downward into Brutishness and Sensuality. But at best it is an Affection, belonging only to Imperfect and Parturient Beings; and therefore could not be the First Principle of all things. Wherefore we see no very great reason, but that in a Rectified and Qualified sence, this may pass for true Theology; That Love is the Supreme Deity and Original of all things; namely, if by it be meant, Eternal, Self-originated, Intellectual Love, or Essential and Substantial Goodness, that having an Infinite overflowing Fulness and Fecundity, dispenses it self Uninvidiously, according to the best Wisdom, Sweetly Governs all, without any Force or Violence (all things being Naturally subject to its Autority, and readily obeying its Laws) and reconciles the whole World into Harmony. For the Scripture telling us, that God is Love, seems to warrant thus much to us, that Love in some rightly Qualified sence, is God.

Concluding thoughts:

A question lingers. If Fielding’s Christian Platonism is traceable to the unifying vision of love, beauty and goodness in the writings of the Cambridge Platonists, why do Fielding scholars classify them as deists? One reason possible reason for this is Fielding’s distaste for the idea that it is possible to argue one’s way towards moral insight by employing proofs analogous to those of Euclidean geometry. Indeed, both Cudworth and More appear to write treatises that proceed in this way. To the casual reader, More’s Enchiridion Ethicum and Cudworth’s Eternal and Immutable Morality could seem like works which argue that moral certainties can be rationally deduced.  Indeed, More and Cudworth have acquired a reputation in contemporary histories of moral philosophy as early-enlightenment figures who believed morality to be a strictly rational affair, prioritising the role of ‘head’ above ‘heart’ in the formation of moral judgements.

This is not the space to show how this caricature is virtually the complete opposite of the truth.  Instead, I would like to suggest an alternative target in Fielding’s mind, a contemporary of our Cambridge men and women: one Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677).  Interestingly, Fielding was in possession of a copy of the works of Spinoza, whose Ethics purports to proceed according to ‘geometric demonstration’ based on the Euclidean model. Spinoza anticipates a Nietzschean attitude to the moral life, since he places God beyond good and evil, a necessary consequence of a system that prioritises the intellectual but static nature of reality, rather than its intelligibility and transcendent origins, as the Cambridge Platonists do.  For both Cudworth and More, their ethical vision requires a ‘super-intellectual’ perspective, reflected in the moral life itself and available to the human soul through is transcendent essence as an image of God.  The Cambridge Platonists place mind (Nous) over and above discursive reason (dianoia), which means that all human beings have access to moral and spiritual insight as transcendent creatures, regardless of their rational capacities.  Scripture can also reveal divine truths because the fundamental principle of the created world is its intelligibility. In this Platonizing world view, God can make himself understood.

If deism is the belief in the possibility of a purely rational or natural theology understood in the narrow sense, one can only surmise that the Cambridge Platonists here are known by their reputation not their writings.  This is a general problem with the history of philosophy in the seventeenth century.  Both ‘materialists’ like Hobbes and ‘empiricists’ like Locke emphasize the importance of revelation and comment extensively on scripture in their writings.  The Cambridge Platonist interest in Cartesian dualism was born of their conviction that the Frenchman had opened up a space for a metaphysics of the spirit in the wake of the materialist challenge of Hobbes and later Spinoza himself, as Douglas Hedley reminds us in a recent post:  The difference between the Platonist and the Christian, as Professor Hedley points out, is an emphasis on the uniqueness on the body, rather than on the soul. The Cambridge Platonist defence of the immortality of the soul, a doctrine of indisputably Platonic provenance, grows out of their Christian belief in the resurrection of the body, even if this must be a spiritual body not one of the flesh.  Tom Jones is Platonic in this specifically Christian sense.  Jones is a young man immersed in his body – a principled hedonist, whose mind needs to be brought into alignment with the ‘spark’ of divinity in his heart. Importantly his relation to Sophia – both as person and idea – is always and necessarily pure. For Fielding the divine spark remains pure, but sentimentalism is not enough.  Mind and heart must operate in tandem for God to make himself present to the human soul.

Deism would have been impossible for the Cambridge Platonists. To their eyes,  philosophical reflection and scriptural revelation, metaphysics and ethics, philosophy and poetry are necessarily complementary pursuits for the spiritual health of the soul.  Moreover, religion, they insist, opens up the space for the philosophical reflection they hold dear: it precedes, accompanies, and is the capstone of the speculative philosophical life. It is no accident that the first work of the Cambridge Platonist school is a cycle of ‘Christian Platonical’ poems, nor should it surprise us that the Platonizing poetry of Edmund Spenser, read to Henry More by his father as a boy, laid the groundwork for Henry More’s spiritual conversion to Christian Platonism. His Psychozoia, the first of his poems, is a figura of his mystical metanoia.

Returning to Rader’s observation at the outset of this post, for a literary man like Fielding, Cudworth’s approach to philosophy and theology would have been highly attractive.  The illustration and support of theological argument by lines of verse is typical of the Cambridge Platonist conviction that logos and mythos are complementary for philosophical and theological speculation and the spiritual itinerarium of the soul they serve. In Fielding, pace Hankey, contemplation has not disappeared, but gone underground. Platonic philosophical speculation has taken refuge from the  dry logic-chopping of 18thcentury scholasticism and the spiritually empty Enlightenment deism, and found safe harbour in the Christian allegory, epic, and novel, where it will refresh itself until its rebirth in the theologically inspired philosophy of German Idealism.  Those romantic philosophers also read the Cambridge Platonists, but that is another story!

Animals, Freewill, and Animal Freewill: A Development in Cudworth’s Freewill Manuscripts

By Matthew Leisinger

1. The Freewill Manuscripts

Ralph Cudworth’s ‘freewill’ manuscripts (British Library Additional Manuscripts 4978-4982) may be somewhat long and rambling, but they are far from incoherent. On the contrary, Cudworth’s substantive views appear to remain largely unchanged across the manuscripts, even if Cudworth constantly seeks new modes of expression. This fact is remarkable because, as Mark Burden explains in his recent and important blog post, the manuscripts may well have been composed over a relatively long period of time. In their substance, the (perhaps) early sketches of 4982(1) and 4982(3) appear largely to agree with the (perhaps) later and more polished 4978 (the posthumously published A Treatise of Freewill).

Of course, this proclamation of consistency begs refutation. Scholarship on Cudworth’s freewill manuscripts remains in its infancy. The task at this point is simply to understand what Cudworth’s views are, not to chart how those views might have developed over time. As scholarship progresses, however, developmental stories may begin to emerge. As the freewill manuscripts become more accessible (in part through the efforts of The Cambridge Platonist Project) and as more scholars follow Burden’s lead by taking seriously the complex textual and philosophical relations between the manuscripts, it may become possible to distinguish the motions of Cudworth’s thought against the fixed background of his understood philosophical commitments.

I wish to make a modest (and perhaps premature) contribution to this project by attempting briefly to point out one such apparent motion. My suggestion will be that Cudworth’s views about animals seem to have gone through three stages. Assuming that Burden’s relative dating of the manuscripts is roughly accurate, I will argue that Cudworth initially believed that animals lack freewill but then lost confidence in this belief and went through a period of indecision before later changing his mind and adopting the contrary opinion that animals do indeed possess at least a kind of freewill.

2. Freewill, Animal and Moral

In order to see this motion in Cudworth’s thought, we need first to establish some fixed background as a frame of reference. To this end, allow me to provide a cursory and dogmatic sketch of Cudworth’s account of freewill.

Continue reading Animals, Freewill, and Animal Freewill: A Development in Cudworth’s Freewill Manuscripts

God, the soul and immateriality

By Douglas Hedley

The momentous legacy of Plato shapes the interests and obsessions of the Cambridge Platonists. Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff noted that for ancient Greek culture ‘God’ is not a proper name. The ‘divine’ is an adjective predicating power and immortality, whether of divinities as distinct as those of Parmenides or Epicurus. Plato was the first Greek philosopher to define the divine as immaterial, and the Cambridge Platonists are committed to theological immaterialism. Hobbes’ denial of the immaterial was, for them, clearly atheism. Yet this presupposes the ancient Platonic identification of deity with the immaterial. Hobbes could quite reasonably object that many theists have rejected immaterialism. However, Descartes’ substance dualism evidently opens up a space for the Cambridge Platonists in their controversy with Hobbes (and later Spinoza). If the new science threatened to expunge spiritual or immaterial aspects of the cosmos preserved in the Aristotelian-medieval synthesis, Descartes offers a way out of the materialist impasse.  The enthusiasm for Descartes among the Cambridge men is unintelligible apart from their Platonism, the attack on contemporary atheism, and the identification of deity with immateriality. 

The preface of Cudworth’s The True Intellectual System of the Universe reveals a deep debt to book 10 of Plato’s Laws. In that work Plato defines the atheist as  not merely denying divine existence but providence. An atheist can also hold to the pernicious view that the gods can be bribed: 

Whereas these Three Things are, (as we conceive) the Fundamentals or Essentials of True Religion. First, That all things in the World, do not Float without a Head and Governour; but that there is a God, an Omnipotent Understanding Being, Presiding over all. Secondly, That this God being Essentially Good and Just, there is […], Something in its own Nature, Immutably and Eternally Just, and Unjust;and not by Arbitrary Will, Law, and Command onely. And Lastly, That there is Something […], or, That we are so far forth Prin­ciples or Masters of our own Actions, as to be Accountable to Justice for them, or to make us Guilty and Blame-worthy for what we doe Amiss, and to Deserve Punishment accordingly (TIS, preface).

We can see in this passage the significance of God’s goodness and providence ‘a Head and Governour’ for the refutation of atheism. The Platonic identification of the Divine as immaterial should not be overlooked. It was decisive for Augustine’s conversion to Christianity. Augustine tells us that he learned from the ‘books of the Platonists’ that God is immaterial, and thus the concept of God could be disentangled from the problems afflicting a material deity. Plato, however, also thinks that human beings are immaterial, i.e. souls. Whatever the modifications of this principle in the Phaedo, the Phaedrus or the Republic, this is the basic message of these dialogues. It was also the official orthodoxy of a Platonic school that employed Alcibiades I as the introductory text to philosophy, a text where the identification of the self with the soul is explicit and foundational. This could not be acceptable to Christians who maintained the resurrection of the body, and was ultimately unacceptable to Augustine in his Retractions. When Aquinas says ‘anima mea non est ego’ (I am not my soul), he is attacking the traditional Platonic identification of the human person with the soul. As devout Christians, More and Cudworth cannot simply ignore, or reject, the Creed.

The immortality of the soul is a key topic for the Cambridge Platonists, and it is linked to their interest in defending divine providence against contemporary ‘atheists’. Henry More devotes an entire treatise to the problem. Yet the Cambridge Platonists reveal their colours by proposing a version of the Neoplatonic-Origenistic theory of the soul vehicle or spiritual body. They wish to hold on to the thoroughly Platonic principle that ‘only like knows like’ and that the soul has an ontological kinship with the transcendent immaterial first principle or God. But they also want to insist that the individual human soul needs a body, albeit a spiritual body. It is a mistake to see this as crypto materialism. It is rather the attempt to resolve an ancient tension within the Christian Platonic tradition.

Ralph Cudworth’s Freewill Manuscripts: A Roadmap to Dating and Analysis

By Mark Burden

In the preface to his True Intellectual System of the Universe: The First Part (1678), Ralph Cudworth explained that he originally intended ‘onely a Discourse concerning Liberty and Necessity’ before broadening his scheme to take account of the ‘Tripartite Fatalism’ of Democritean Fate (material necessity and atheism), the Divine Fate immoral and violent (arbitrary, omnipotent will), and the Divine Fate moral and natural (intrinsic necessity as a series of causes without contingency). The True Intellectual System as published, in which Cudworth attempted to confute ‘All the Reason and Philosophy of Atheism’, represents the contents of the first part of this three-way scheme. It is often said that much of the contents of the remaining two parts can be found in five volumes of Cudworth’s unpublished manuscript writings, now held by the British Library, known collectively as the ‘freewill’ manuscripts (Add MSS 4978-4982). However, as we shall see, several of these manuscript writings probably predate Cudworth’s decision to prioritise discussion of Democritean materialism, and are perhaps better described as part of his original plan for a ‘Discourse concerning Liberty and Necessity’; thus, it may not be quite true to Cudworth’s intention if we refer to them as drafts for the projected second and third parts of the True Intellectual System. Only one brief fragment, Add. MSS 4982(2), provides any clear evidence of the continuation of the three-part design outlined by Cudworth in his preface; this section refers directly back to the opening pages of Part One before developing a discussion of arbitrary divine will as encountered in Calvin and his successors, so we can be reasonably confident that it constitutes an early draft of the opening section of the projected second part of the work.

The five volumes of Cudworth’s freewill manuscripts consist of eight fragmentary drafts, as follows:

Continue reading Ralph Cudworth’s Freewill Manuscripts: A Roadmap to Dating and Analysis

‘Dr. More the Controvertist’ and ‘Dr. More the Philosopher’: The composition and reception of Henry More’s “Exposition of the Seven Epistles to the Seven Churches” (1669)

By Mark Burden

If we believe the author’s own account, the composition of An Exposition of the Seven Epistles to the Seven Churches (1669) came as something of a personal surprise to Henry More. Even during the printing process, he remained anxious about the text’s likely reception:  a new ‘prophetic’ exegesis of Revelation chapters 1-3 was likely to be seen by many as unnecessary at best and hubristic at worst. The most obvious destination for readers seeking an explication of the final book of the Bible was Joseph Mede’s Works (not least in the edition of 1664, prepared for publication by More’s friend John Worthington), while those wishing to know More’s views needed to look no further than his recently-published Divine Dialogues (2 volumes, 1668). In his preface to the Exposition, More sought to mask his anxiety about the text under the shady cloak of ambivalence, asserting that his sudden decision to write it had been as ‘unexpected’ to him as its publication would be to some of his readers: after all, he had ‘never yet affected to bestow my pains on these kind of Subjects’, and had thought that the publication of his analysis of the Book of Revelation in the second volume of the Divine Dialogues (dialogues 4 and 5) had rendered him ‘secure . . . from ever being engaged’ in writing on the same topic again. Furthermore, he claimed that until quite recently he had felt that the correct literal and moral interpretation of the early chapters of Revelation was too obvious to require the ‘needlesse labour’ of a further exposition.

More’s apparent self-surprise at the composition of the Exposition should not be taken entirely at face-value: he and his Cambridge colleague Ralph Cudworth had been discussing the prophetic books of the Bible for many years, and Cudworth was to leave behind him a huge pile of unpublished manuscript papers on Daniel following his death in 1688. Neither can More have seriously considered that there was unanimous agreement among Protestants about the correct moral interpretation of Revelation chapters 1-3. And yet More’s Exposition is a crucial text in his oeuvre, marking a decisive turn away from his earlier philosophical output towards the publication of a string of works on Daniel and Revelation. Equally importantly, it included as a lengthy second part More’s most condensed and closely-argued attack on ‘Popish’ ceremony, his ‘Antidote against Idolatry’, a work which – as we shall see – swiftly became embroiled in political as well as theological commentary.

Continue reading ‘Dr. More the Controvertist’ and ‘Dr. More the Philosopher’: The composition and reception of Henry More’s “Exposition of the Seven Epistles to the Seven Churches” (1669)

The Place of Reason in Culverwell’s Elegant and Learned Discourse of the Light of Nature

Jon Thompson

Categorising Nathaniel Culverwell’s 1652 An Elegant and Learned Discourse Concerning the Light of Nature is no easy task. Written as a series of lectures for Emmanuel College Cambridge, the book was published and given its title after Culverwell’s premature death. In relation to the Cambridge Platonist movement, Culverwell displays an unreserved admiration for the Platonic tradition’s emphasis on the development of practical and theoretical reason as part of the ascent to God; but Culverwell also rejects crucial Platonic tenets like innate ideas. Regarding the Christian religion, Culverwell seeks to challenge the Socinian rejection of traditional divine mysteries on the basis of individual reason; on the other hand, Culverwell provides perhaps the earliest systematic defence in English of the use of reason in religious and moral matters. When it comes to Culverwell’s place in the history of philosophy, puzzles emerge there as well. On the one hand, Culverwell imbibed as deeply as possible at the wells of Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, and Suarez – rather than his more ‘modern’ peers such as Descartes; on the other hand, one of Culverwell’s most significant contributions may be his influence upon the Father of modernBritish philosophy – John Locke. As von Leyden has rightly noted, Locke’s early Essay on the Law of Nature– with its inchoate emphasis on the use of ‘the light of reason’ in repelling the excesses of religious enthusiasm and superstition – seems to have been significantly influenced by Culverwell’s Discourse. The final puzzle about Culverwell is whether his thought is of fundamentally scholarly or contemporary political and religious significance. For, although Culverwell is a relatively unknown thinker who arguably shares more with the Medieval than the Modern mind, he occupied an age in which conflicts of ideology and religion had threatened to tear his nation and culture apart. So perhaps Culverwell’s defence of the moderate and moderating use of reason speaks to us more urgently than we might at first imagine.

This blog is certainly not the outlet for addressing all these fascinating questions about Culverwell’s thought. And much scholarly work yet deserves to be done on Culverwell. Rather than focusing on the above puzzles, I would simply like to introduce the Discourseby outlining what I believe is at the heart of Culverwell’s project – the conviction that reason is a gift of God which proceeds from, and returns to, the Origin of all created intellects. Culverwell adopts Benjamin Whichcote’s favourite biblical text (and that of the Cambridge Platonists in general) as the organising metaphor of his entire Discourse: ‘The understanding of a man is the candle of the Lord’ (Proverbs 20:27). The titles of Culverwell’s chapters put flesh on this basic starting point: ‘The Light of Reason is a Diminutive Light’, a ‘Derivative Light’, a ‘Certain Light’, and (most importantly) ‘an Ascendant Light’.

Continue reading The Place of Reason in Culverwell’s Elegant and Learned Discourse of the Light of Nature


In my last blog, I referred to  Brooke Foss Westcott (1825–1901) and the foundation of St Stephen’s College in Delhi. I mentioned him in relation to his profound and open debt to the Cambridge Platonists. This remarkable scholar was  responsible for the Greek New Testament text sometimes referred to as the  Westcott and Hort text or the WH, because it was edited by Westcott  and Fenton John Anthony Hort (1828–1892) from 1853 until its completion in 1881. F J H Hort was, like Westcott, a great admirer of the Cambridge Platonists. And Hort saw the Cambridge Platonists as belonging to a longer Alexandrian Christian tradition. This can be seen by visiting Emmanuel chapel today and the collection of Church figures accorded to a plan devised by Hort and executed in 1884. Hort was a fellow of Emmanuel from 1872 to 1892. The windows in the chapel were originally plain but Hort’s elective affinities can be seen in his choice of Images of Benjamin Whichcote, John Smith and Peter Sterry.  These seventeenth century figures are presented as the  intellectual and spiritual heirs of Origen and Eriugena. Today any visitor to the chapel can see Hort’s vision of the Cambridge Platonists as the great Early Modern heirs of Alexandrian Platonism. Information about these chapel widows can be found at:


Some further reflections on Brucker’s classification of Henry More as a ‘Platonico-Cabbalist’

I noted in an earlier post that the historian of philosophy Johann Jacob Brucker, writing in the 1730s and 1740s, distinguishes More’s ‘Platonico-Cabbalism’ from Cudworth, Gale, and Burnet’s ‘Alexandrian’ form of Platonism in his characterisation of their position. This must certainly reflect the fact that More had gained an early reputation in continental Europe for his engagement with the Cabbala. It is noteworthy that one of the first publications of note addressing More’s work on the continent, the Herborn Lutheran professor Samuel Andreae’s Examen Generale Cabbalae Philosophicae D. Henrici More (Herborn, 1670) is a critique of More’s Conjectura Cabbalistica (London, 1653), with which he was familiar in the English. More responded to Andreae’s critique in the scholia to his Opera Omnia (London, 1679), which in turn attracted a response from Andreae (then at Marburg) in his Epistola apologetica, ad virum eruditissimum & celeberrimum Henricum Morum (Marburg, 1684). Johannes Franciscus Buddeus, in a 23 page section of his Introductio ad historiam philosophiae Ebraeorum (Halle, 1702) discusses More’s Conjectura Cabbalistica before passing to a consideration of his later Cabbalistic writings. Buddeus notes that these later Cabbalistic texts (those which would be published within Christian Knorr von Rosenroth’s Kabbala denudata (Sulzbach and Frankfurt, 1676) and More’s Opera Omnia) were written between 1672 and 1678, after a period of almost twenty years during which More did not touch on Cabbalistic themes, with the two periods being punctuated by the Andreae-More exchange. Buddeus notes that More was a pioneer in attempting a modern harmonisation of the Cabbala with Christian philosophy, as does Paul Berger (another critic) in his Cabbalismus Judaico-Christianus detectus (Wittemberg, 1707), who classes him together with Johann Stephan Rittangel – according to Berger, a convert from Judaism, although this has been contested – and Knorr von Rosenroth as the first to attempt such a modern harmonisation. Somewhat later Brucker also acknowledges the pioneering nature of More’s engagement with the Cabbala and refers to the Andreae-More exchange. Evidently More’s association with Cabbala became quite entrenched. For instance, the entry CABALE, (Philos.) in the first edition of Diderot’s Encyclopedie (1751) contains the following: ‘Henri Morus & Van-Helmont (Knorrius, Cabala denud. tom.I.) sont les deux savans qui ont les premiers débrouillé le cahos de la philosophie cabalistique’ (p.480). Such characterisations extend into the nineteenth century. The extent to which More’s early reputation in continental Europe was bound up with his engagement with Cabbalism has still to be established, but it certainly seems to have been an important strand and to some extent to have eclipsed his reputation as an anti-Cartesian. 

(with thanks also to Mark Burden for drawing my attention to the Andreae-More exchange)

Cudworth and liberal Christianity in the Bengal Renaissance

The Tattvabodhini Patrika “The Truth-enlightening Journal” was one of the most influential organs of the Bengal Renaissance. It was the expression of the ideas of a group around Debendranath Tagore called the Tattvaranjini Sabha or the Society of Those Who Delight in Truth. The context was one of intense proselytizing in colonial Calcutta and the society or Sabha was pursuing the soi-disant Father of modern India Rammohan Roy and vision of a renewed Vedantic theism and the Brahmo Samaj was disrupted by the death of Rammohan Roy in Bristol in 1833. Faced with the prospect of answering the challenge of evangelicals like Alexander Duff, whose combination of educational institutional activity and Christian zeal, rather paradoxically ignited a vigorous response from the Hindu reformers, Tattvabodhini Patrika published Debendranath’s own interpretations of the Upanishads alongside extracts from Rammohun’s translations of the Upanishads. In the face of the  Christian missionary critiques of Hinduism as pantheistic, monistic, and idolatrous religion, in 1864 we find the following instructive passage in which Cudworth is cited as pioneer of comparative religion:

“Our reverend friends maintain that it was Christ who first revealed correct notions of religion to mankind, and that they did not possess them before his appearance. Now this is a statement contradicted by all history.

I would recommend Gentleman to your attentive perusal the “Intellectual System of the Universe” by old Dr Cudworth, whose liberal Christianity the revered gentlemen in question would do well to imitate. This book contains innumerable proofs of the existence of correct notions of the godhead prevailing among the ancient Greeks and Romans.”

The author wishes to infer that Indian monotheism too contains correct ‘notions of the godhead’, and reading Cudworth can furnish a path to such an insight. Why do we find a reference to the Cambridge Platonists, old Dr Cudworth and his ‘liberal Christianity’? These figures of the Bengal elite do not want to fall into the arms of the Enlightenment agnosticism of Hume and Gibbon, the spiritual mentors of the East India Company. Cudworth represents that Alexandrian strand of Christianity that happily drew upon pagan Hellenic thought, and what might be called a more fluid or mystical monotheism as opposed to the exclusive monarchical theism of High Protestant or Catholic orthodoxy. I am using the language of John Kenney. Exclusive theism concentrates upon numerical singularity and the more inclusive theism of Hellenic Monotheism, where the stress is laid upon the ultimacy and unity of the supreme principle. Much of Cudworth’s True Intellectual System of the Universe, in particular the enormous fourth book, is devoted to showing that monotheism in this more fluid sense was the foundational religion of the Egyptians and the rest of the ancient world, and this primordial monotheism lapsed into polytheism and pantheism.  It is no accident that one of Cudworth’s liberal Christian successors B.F. Westcott (1825-1901) should have been a driving force behind the foundation of St Stephen’s College in Delhi. Westcott was a great admirer of Plotinus and Origen, and he viewed the Cambridge Platonists as the real successors of the Alexandrians in the modern world.  
My thanks to Ankur Barua for referring me to the Tattvabodhini Patrika passage.

Douglas Hedley

The English Reception of Henry More: A Bibliography, c.1640-1700

Mark Burden has recently uploaded an extensive bibliography of English language texts, c.1640-1700, which mention Henry More and his writings by name. It is hoped that this list will make it easier to research More’s English reception. The list may be found here, on the Cambridge Platonist Research Group website:

Cambridge Platonism in Milton’s Paradise Lost: Materialism, Evil, and The Christian Cabbalah

James Bryson

      Scholars of early modern Platonism have long recognized that a Platonic caste of mind might just as easily express itself poetically as through philosophical argument, and indeed that poetry and philosophy will yield to and include one another depending on the spiritual requirements of the task at hand. For the Platonist, poetry and philosophy have a common business because both are engaged in the art of interpretation, whether it be divinization, psychology, natural philosophy, or the reading of a sacred text. In this post, I will be talking to you about a version of this Platonizing tradition in seventeenth century England, called the Christian Cabbalah as it expressed itself in Milton’s (1608-1674) Paradise Lost, which has been rightly dubbed a poetic counterpoint to the philosophical theology of the Cambridge Platonists, especially to the Caballistic Platonism of Henry More (1614-1687). Milton likely knew More personally and he almost certainly would have watched his career unfold with great interest given how closely their theological, philosophical, literary interests would have been allied.  In the most substantial recent treatment of Milton’s philosophical context, however, Stephen Fallon argues that Milton was not a Platonist, since he rejected the metaphysics of transcendence championed by the Platonic tradition in favour of an ‘animist materialism’, and he downplays Milton’s interest in the tradition of Christian Cabbalism because of its association with the Platonizing writings of Jacob Boehme, More among other Platonizing writers. Interestingly, Fallon argues that Milton’s worldview is much closer to More’s pupil Anne Conway (1631-1679) who is traditionally considered  a member of the Cambridge Platonist group, and who, ironically, went further down the Cabbalistic road as it was practised in Jewish communites at the time than did More towards a metaphysical monism that her teacher could not accept and from which path he urged her to turn back.

      Fallon’s excellent study has brought about a kind of consensus regarding Milton’s materialism – even Milton’s wikipedia page at the time of posting cites it! Fallon argues that the poet held a uniquely heretical position, making God and angels part of a materialistic continuum that rejected creatio ex nilhilo in favour of a creatio ex deo, in response to the challenge posed by Hobbesian materialism, a position which may be briefly summarized as follows: that since all is matter in motion, free will is an illusion because all choices we make take their origins from the physical causes that precede them.  

Continue reading Cambridge Platonism in Milton’s Paradise Lost: Materialism, Evil, and The Christian Cabbalah

Dampening Enthusiasm

(James Bryson)

At the moment, I am transcribing a fascinating text by Henry More, entitled Enthusiasmus Triumphatus, or a Discourse on the Nature, Causes, Kinds and Cure of Enthusiasm. It was originally published in 1656, but the Project has decided that, for our digital sourcebook, we ought to include the later edition of the treatise, published in More’s Collected Works(1662), because of crucial changes, notes, and additions which More made to the earlier edition of the text. It is significant that More published the 1656 version anonymously but that by 1662 version he was clearly happy to claim authorship of this polemical treatise. More’s decision to include it in his collected works may say something about the political climate at Cambridge after the Restoration in 1660, following the purge of puritan fellows at the university. Although not exactly synonymous with Puritanism, ‘Enthusiasm’ was a term of abuse more likely to be directed at Puritans than high churchmen.

Although published under a pseudonym, the 1656 version of More’s essay on enthusiasm is a bit more playful than the 1662 edition. Most notably, in 1656 More included a Preface poking fun at a character called ‘Mastix’ who personifies enthusiasm.  Mastix has two principal and related defects: he is impervious to reasoned argument and has no sense of humour. The first criticism would seem intuitive, the second not so much so. An enthusiast irrational? Sure, that makes sense. But why no sense of humour? More does not think the enthusiast has a sense of humour, because he has ‘martyred’ his passions. Again, this may seem a strange thing to say about an enthusiast who, at first blush, doesn’t appear to have any trouble at all channeling the passionate side of life. If any thing, you’d think the enthusiast’s problem is that he’s too passionate, not that he’s killed his passions off. Not so, says More. In fact, this is precisely the problem with the enthusiast – he’s what we might think of today as a religious fanatic or fundamentalist whose passions have the double-effect of clouding his judgement and narrowing his emotional repertoire. The enthusiast gives up a well-rounded emotional life for the sake of a self-righteous attitude towards the world. It is in this sense that More thinks the enthusiast ‘martyrs’ his passions, or better, he martyrs most of his passions, in order to disproportionately exalt or indulge his passionate righteousness.

Continue reading Dampening Enthusiasm

Benjamin Whichcote and the Puritans, 1644-1660

(By Mark Burden)

Benjamin Whichcote’s presence in the historiography of seventeenth-century English thought rests chiefly on an influential claim, propagated in slightly different forms by Ernst Cassirer (Die platonische Renaissance, 1932) and James Deotis Roberts (From Puritanism to Platonism, 1968), that he is the ‘father of Cambridge Platonism’. Supporters of this view can point to some intriguing if somewhat imprecise comments by Whichcote’s near-contemporary, the pro-Williamite bishop Gilbert Burnet, who recalled that Whichcote ‘set young students much on reading the ancient Philosophers, chiefly Plato, Tully, and Plotin’ (Burnet (1724), I, 187). Burnet, who did not know Whichcote well, nevertheless made a series of other claims which have received much less attention. Whichcote, he stated, had previously achieved ‘great credit with some that had been eminent in the late times’, but had chosen to use these connections with the Puritan regime to ‘protect good men of all persuasions’, being ‘much for liberty of conscience’. Theologically, he had urged his students to consider religion as ‘a seed of a deiform nature’, and as ‘a doctrine sent from God, both to elevate and sweeten humane nature’ (Burnet (1724), I, 186-7). The extent of Whichcote’s incorporation of Platonic doctrines in his surviving (and posthumously-published) corpus of sermons remains the subject of considerable debate. However, my aim in the following essay is to explore another aspect of Burnet’s remarks: Whichcote’s connections, whether intentional or otherwise, with Puritan intellectuals in the period before the Restoration. What I hope to show is that Whichcote’s writings need not simply be categorised as ‘Platonist’, or even (to use a later term) ‘Latitudinarian’; while the term ‘Puritan’ sits uneasily in relation to Whichcote’s early works, it is nevertheless the case that his writings have a much more complicated relationship to Puritan thought (itself a very difficult category) than has been previously recognised.

Whichcote’s embroilment in the theological controversies of the 1640s and 1650s was an inevitable consequence of his determination to make an intellectual name for himself in the febrile atmosphere of civil war Cambridge, when he was already in his thirties. Continue reading Benjamin Whichcote and the Puritans, 1644-1660

Some earlier reflections on Cudworth’s Platonic credentials

(By David Leech)

As I noted in my last blog, the term ‘Cambridge Platonism’ is a British mid-nineteenth century coinage, but our research is indicating that the category preexists it, since there is a tradition of picking out at least Cudworth, More and Whichcote as Platonists-from-Cambridge since the 1730s (and perhaps further back). How did authors in this tradition characterize the Platonism of these figures they picked out as ‘Platonists’?

In the case of Cudworth, Johann Jakob Brucker characterises him as a Platonist in his Kurtze Fragen aus der Philosophischen Historie of 1735 (as had Johann Lorenz Mosheim shortly before). In a chapter entitled ‘Were there also admirers of the Platonic philosophy in the seventeenth century?’, he distinguishes explicitly between those who took a merely historical interest in the ‘system’ of Platonism – he deals with these authors in a separate chapter – and those who actually embraced Platonic principles (‘die Platonische principia hochgehalten haben’ (656)). Brucker includes in this class Jan Marek Marci (1595-1667), but also notes that the ‘Platonic theology’ especially found patrons in Cambridge, mentioning in particular (Theophilus) Gale, Cudworth, and More. Of Cudworth, he notes that in natural philosophy he embraced atomism, but in metaphysics and theology he followed Plato and the later Platonists, especially Plotinus, noting a Platonic influence on his doctrines of the Trinity and plastic nature (662-663).

But Brucker’s characterisation of Cudworth as a Platonist is a mere sketch. By contrast, in a later engagement with Cudworth in Johann Gottlieb Buhle’s Geschichte der neuern Philosophie seit der Epoche der Wiederherstellung der Wissenschaften (1801) the author goes to greater efforts to characterize the nature of his Platonism. In a chapter entitled ‘The history of Platonism in England in the seventeenth century’, Buhle, whose principal sources are Brucker and Mosheim, provides a fairly lengthy summary of Cudworth’s distinctive philosophical positions, noting his Platonic credentials in particular, namely: that his plastic nature is identical with the Platonic world soul (666); that the essences of things are eternal and these are the Ideas, therefore a thinking substance containing these Ideas must have eternally existed (669); that his defence against Hobbes of the existence of innate ideas came out of the ‘Platonic school’ in which he had been formed (670-671)); and his theory about the origin and nature of knowledge was also Platonic (672). In fact Buhle says that Cudworth’s entire philosophy is, in its essentials, Platonism (‘in der Hauptsache, barer Platonismus’ (672)). Continue reading Some earlier reflections on Cudworth’s Platonic credentials

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