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been discussing the prophetic books of the Bible for many years, and Cudworth was to leave behind him a huge pile of unpublished manuscript papers on Daniel following his death in 1688.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)
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: https://www.emma.cam.ac.uk/chapel/windows/
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)
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: https://cprg.hypotheses.org/bibliography/henry-mores-english-reception-bibliography-c-1640-1700.
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
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
On 7th May 2018 Professor Hedley delivered his inaugural lecture ‘Devout Contemplation and Sublime Fancy’ : The Cambridge Platonists and their Legacy for the Philosophy of Religion’. This lecture is available to view here.
(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
(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
(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
(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
(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’
Readers may be interested in attending the British Society for the Philosophy of Religion’s twelfth conference, which has as its subject ‘Philosophy and the Spiritual Life’. The conference will take place at Oriel College, Oxford, 7-8 September 2017. For further details, see the conference’s blog page.