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

Henry More and John Norris talk Sensuality and Peter’s Denial of Christ

(By James Bryson)

In 1684-5 the Oxford Platonist John Norris (1657-1711) engaged Henry More in an intellectually rigorous and fascinating correspondence that is best remembered for its relevance to ethical topics. Norris first published the correspondence as a supplement to his ‘Moral Essay’ on The Theory and Regulation of Love (1688), shortly after More’s death in the same year, and did so, he tells us, at the insistence of mutual friends. In addition to his desire to publish the ‘Remains of so great and extraordinary a person’, Norris says that he included the correspondence with More in this publication because he believed the exchange vindicated his ‘Hypothesis concerning the Root of Liberty’, it having withstood the scrutiny of ‘so severe a Speculatist’ as the good Dr. More. Norris first tested his hypothesis in a sermon on Romans 12:3 which he dedicated and sent to More in or around the same time he issues his third letter to More in this particular chain of correspondence. Norris had published the sermon in full in his Miscellanies (1687, pp. 333-358), and he included his own paraphrase of the sermon’s argument as an appendix to the 1688 publication of his correspondence with More (pp.239-46). His reason for doing so was to provide the reader with some additional context and theoretical background for his arguments, which, of course, being in possession of a copy of the sermon, More himself would have had. In this post, I will focus on what is said in the correspondence itself rather than on the appendix or the sermon, each of  which provide helpful theoretical context, but they do not have a direct bearing on what’s most philosophically essential about the letters themselves: the implications of the philosophers’ respective moral psychologies.

W.J. Mander is the only modern scholar who has done more than note the existence of this correspondence and gloss its subject matter (The Philosophy of John Norris, OUP, 2009 p.152), and there has not yet been a careful appraisal of the philosophical details of the exchange. The principal philosophical points at issue are distinct but, as I will argue, ultimately related –  they are: a) the moral status of sensual pleasure; b) whether when taking moral decisions the soul ‘necessarily wills as she understands’, which is Norris’ own formulation, a position he attempts to defend against More’s objections to it. More’s objections are rooted in the Cambridge Platonist’s emphasis on the purification of the will as a necessary and primary condition for the moral life of the soul. Norris and More take as their test case Peter’s denial of Christ, a scriptural episode which they analyze and put in service of their respective arguments in subtle and creative ways.

Continue reading Henry More and John Norris talk Sensuality and Peter’s Denial of Christ

Editing the Cambridge Platonists – Some Initial Questions

(By Mark Burden)

The major objective of the Cambridge Platonists Project is to produce an online ‘Cambridge Platonism Sourcebook’ which will provide reliable selections of texts by Henry More, Ralph Cudworth, John Smith, Benjamin Whichcote, and Anne Conway; the ‘Sourcebook’ is designed to supersede previous anthologies. Our edition of Cambridge Platonist texts will be the first to include a strict adherence to the orthography and punctuation of the seventeenth and eighteenth-century copy-texts, the inclusion of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic characters, and the representation of printed marginalia, notes, and corrections. It will also make available a significant quantity of unfinished and manuscript writings; it will produce the first English translations of rare works in Latin in its reconstruction of their reception.

Initially, the Project’s guiding editorial principle was to select copytexts based on the first edition of a work, unless there were substantial additions or corrections to be found in a later edition. In practice, this principle is working reasonably well for texts by Henry More, most of which were published in his lifetime, usually under his editorial oversight. However, the situation for our other authors has proved more complicated. Whichcote’s writings were all printed posthumously, based on manuscripts of uncertain authorial integrity, and subjected to considerable editorial intervention and restructuring; the generally-accepted ‘best’ text is the 4-volume Works (Aberdeen, 1751), but we now know that this publication is an amalgam of two separate strands of Whichcote editorial practice, represented by the London editions of 1698 (the Select Sermons) and 1701-7 (the Select Discourses), which vary dramatically in structure and content. Cudworth’s True Intellectual System was published in his lifetime, but the status of early eighteenth-century editions, abridgments, and translations of the work have never been fully investigated. There are no recent studies of the relationship between the posthumously-printed edition of Cudworth’s Treatise of Eternal and Immutable Morality and the lost manuscript, meaning that the editorial principles and alterations made in preparation for publication have never been investigated. With the exception of a few brief pamphlets and the Treatise of Freewill, the remainder of Cudworth’s philosophical and theological writings have never been published; the relationship of the surviving manuscripts to Cudworth’s True Intellectual System, to his wider academic work as a Cambridge tutor, and to the exegetical work of Mede, More, Smith and others is very poorly understood. Smith’s Discourses were also subjected to considerable editorial rearrangement and condensation prior to their posthumous publication in 1660, while the original English text of Conway’s Principles has vanished, and we are reliant upon a later Latin text which was then translated back into English for what was initially a fairly small domestic market.

Continue reading Editing the Cambridge Platonists – Some Initial Questions

Some reflections on the category ‘Cambridge Platonism’

(By David Leech)

In a project on ‘Cambridge Platonists at the Origins of Enlightenment’ it is clear that the legitimacy of the category ‘Cambridge Platonism’ cannot simply be taken for granted, and it is a priority of ours to bring some needed clarity to the use of this category. There are several reasons why this matters. One is because while there is broad consensus about which figures constitute the ‘hard core’ of Cambridge Platonism, there has been less consensus about who else should be classed as a ‘Cambridge Platonist’. Another is because some may regard the category itself as representing a kind of problematic reification of more complicated intellectual realities. Dmitri Levitin, for instance, in his Ancient Wisdom in the Age of New Science (2015) has noted critically that the early modern period is one ‘often defined by recourse to ancient ideologies, to the extent that one could believe that ancient Greece was being relived in seventeenth-century Europe.’ The problem, as he sees it, is the following:

The period saw, we are told, the demise of ‘Aristotelianism’ in favour of any other number of ‘isms’…What is remarkable is the extent to which such readings tend to take for granted the existence of essentialist ‘isms’ whose play through the course of a historical period can be charted… To turn texts into ‘ideologies’ and then to chart the play of ideologies through various periods is tempting: it brings a familiarity to the material, and allows far easier descriptions of philosophical ‘traditions’ and their development through centuries of textual renegotiation. But this is to ignore the specificity of reception, and the fact that readers, in our case, seventeenth- century Englishmen and women, have unique and contingent attitudes towards philosophical texts. (3-4)

Continue reading Some reflections on the category ‘Cambridge Platonism’

Three Academic Texts by George Rust, 1656 and 1658

Marilyn Lewis has drawn our attention to the following publication, which will be of interest to all readers of Cambridge Platonist texts:

” ‘Origenian Platonisme’ in Interregnum Cambridge: Three Academic Texts by George Rust, 1656 and 1658″, edited by Marilyn A. Lewis, Davide A. Secci, and Christian Hengstermann, with assistance from John H. Lewis, and Benjamin Williams, History of Universities, vol. XXX / 1-2, pp. 43-124, published 3 August 2017.

Abstract: “Building on Professor Sarah Hutton’s designation of the years 1658-1662 as an ‘Origenist moment in English theology’, this article adds substantial detail to our knowledge of what Marilyn Lewis describes as an ‘Origenian Platonist’ moment. The article presents English translations of three Latin academic texts, written by George Rust in 1656 and 1658 while he was a fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge. The first text, Messias in S. Scriptura promissus olim venit should be assigned to Rust’s fulfilment in 1656 of the requirement to dispute in the Divinity Schools in the University of Cambridge in order to qualify for the degree of Bachelor of Divinity. The second and third texts were presented at the annual University of Cambridge Commencement Day in 1658, when Rust incepted BD. His Act verses, Resurrectionem e mortuis Scriptura docet nec refragatur Ratio and Anima separata non dormit appeared on a souvenir broadsheet for the day, and the final text, Resurrectionem è Mortuis S. Scriptura tradit, nec refragatur Ratio was the discourse which Rust defended in the disputation. Not only are these two 1658 texts important additions to the writings constituting the ‘Origenian Platonist moment’, but a reconstruction of the Commencement on 5 and 6 July will show that they formed part of what was perhaps the most public exposition and celebration of Origenian Platonist doctrines in Interregnum Cambridge.”

Link: History of Universities, XXX (2017), on OUP website

Discovery of A New Conway Letter

Professor Sarah Hutton has recently discovered a Conway letter not included in the Conway Letters edited by herself and M.H. Nicolson. It is National Library of Ireland MS, from Lord Conway to his wife, written from Dublin and dated 24 August 1678–the year before her death. It tells her that he has arranged for imprisoned Quakers to be released and for the charges against others to be dropped. It also tells the story of a “bad” Quaker who cheated someone of his inheritance. And other things.

Conference of the British Society for the History of Philosophy, 6-8 April, Sheffield

The programme for the annual conference of the British Society for the History of Philosophy, to take place at the University of Sheffield on 6-8 April 2017, is now available on the conference website: It will include a workshop on the Cambridge Platonists with papers by David, Sarah Hutton, Douglas Hedley and Christian Hengstermann.

Michael Allen: Transfiguration and the Platonic Fire Within (Divinity Faculty, Cambridge, 1st December, 5 pm)

At the opening of a new centre for the research on Platonism headed by Dr Douglas Hedley (Cambridge),  Professor Michael Allen (California) will give a talk entitled “Transfiguration and the Platonic Fire Within” at the Divinity Faculty of Cambridge University on 1st December 2016 (5 pm, Runcie Room). The centre is intended to provide an international hub for researchers working on Platonism old and new with regular Werner Beierwaltes lectures focusing on key aspects of ancient, medieval, early modern and contemporary Platonic philosophy.

£833,472 AHRC research grant secured

A major AHRC research grant secured!

The Cambridge Platonists at the origins of Enlightenment: texts, debates, and reception (1650-1730)

The research team of Douglas Hedley, Sarah Hutton and David Leech, with Technical Adviser Mike Hawkins, will employ two full-time research assistants. The grant will cover funding for extensive editorial work with both texts and manuscripts.

The project, worth £833,472 and shared between the Universities of Cambridge and Bristol, will start on 1 September 2016 and run for three years.

Papers on Cambridge Platonism at the 13th Annual Conference of the International Society for Neoplatonic Studies,

The following papers will be offered on Cambridge Platonism at the 13th Annual Conference of the ISNS in Buenos Aeres, Argentina, June 15-19th 2015:

Thursday, June 18 

Cambridge Platonism and the Enigma of Early Modern Neoplatonism (Platonismo de Cambridge y el enigma del neoplatonismo en la temprana Modernidad) I

Douglas Hedley and Natalia Strok

Silvia Manzo, Universidad Nacional de La Plata / IDHICS-CONICET

“Henry More and Francis Bacon on matter’s activity and antitypia”

Rodolfo E. Fazio, UBA

“Newton and the neo-Platonic offensive against Cartesianism”

Fernando Bahr, UNL-CONICET

“Bayle and Le Clerc: the traces of Cambridge Platonism in early Eighteenth Century French Philosophy”

Cambridge Platonism and the Enigma of Early Modern Neoplatonism (Platonismo de Cambridge y el enigma del neoplatonismo en la temprana Modernidad) II

Douglas Hedley and Natalia Strok

Douglas Hedley, Cambridge University

“Whence Cambridge Platonism? Reflections on Cudworth’s 1647 House of Commons Sermon”


“Plutarch’s Strong Presence in Cudworth’s The True Intellectual System of the Universe

For the full programme (to be advertised shortly), click here