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)

This is a serious concern and deserves a detailed response. I cannot hope to offer that here but instead I will restrict myself to offering some preliminary reflections. So far as I have been able to trace, the English terms ‘Cambridge Platonism’ or ‘Cambridge Platonist(s)’ are in use only from the 1840s. However, it would be a mistake to assume that the category of Cambridge Platonism is a retroprojection of nineteenth century historiography. This is because earlier practices of referring to a group of primarily Cambridge-based ‘Platonists’, invariably including Ralph Cudworth (1617-88) and Henry More (1614-87), usually Benjamin Whichcote (1609-83), and (more variably) a number of other key figures, can be traced back at least to the 1730s in continental Europe, and still earlier in English texts. It is also clear that those nineteenth century authors who refer to ‘Cambridge Platonism’ and ‘Cambridge Platonists’ were aware of and influenced by these traditions. Indeed, there is also an earlier practice of referring to More and Cudworth separately as Platonists. This does not just as such mean that the reification concern is exploded, but it does, I think, mean that the problematic reification would need to be traced back to the first quarter or so of the eighteenth century, and perhaps earlier (even to contemporaries). However that may be, in this short blogpost I will restrict myself to noting some of these early practices of referring to ‘Cambridge Platonists’ which, I think, the reification objection will need to accommodate.

Johann Franz Buddeus, for instance, in his Analecta Historiae Philosophicae (1706), calls Henry More ‘the celebrated restaurer of the Platonic philosophy’ (141), and in Daniel Georg Morhof’s sketch of the history of Platonic philosophy in his Polyhistor (1708), More is classed as a ‘Platonico-Cartesian’ (40). In Gilbert Burnet’s History of His Own Time (1723), he refers to a ‘new set of men’, ‘called Latitudinarians’, ‘generally of Cambridge’, who were ‘formed under some divines, the chief of whom were Drs. Whitchcot, Cudworth, Wilkins, More, Worthington’ (186-187). Burnet does not explicitly mention ‘Platonism’, although he does note that Whichcote ‘set young students much on reading the ancient Philosophers, chiefly Plato, Tully, and Plotin’. However, Johann Lorenz von Mosheim in his Latin translation of Cudworth’s True Intellectual System of the Universe (Systema Intellectuale huius Universi) of 1733 and Johann Jacob Brucker in his Kurtze Fragen Aus Der Philosophischen Historie (1735) and his Historia Critica Philosophiae (1743), both drawing on Burnet (Brucker also adds Widdrington, Theophilus Gale, and [Thomas?] Burnet), refer to this set of men as Platonists. They also take it for granted that Samuel Parker’s Free And Impartial Censure of the Platonick Philosophy (1666) refers to them. Curiously, Brucker counts Gale, together with More and Cudworth, as among ‘the most celebrated’ of this set.

Moving beyond the question of whether there is any reifying going on here, these early practices also raise more specific questions, for instance, why does Brucker include Theophilus Gale, whereas hardly any other accounts of the ‘Cambridge Platonists’, early or late, include him? Why is John Smith omitted from the early continental accounts, while he is standardly included in the later (and some of the earlier) British ones? These are among the questions which need to be properly investigated. But also: what is the nature of their Platonism, and is it homogeneous? Brucker characterises them as revivers of ‘Alexandrian’, or ‘eclectic’ Platonism – what we today would term Neoplatonism – and notes that this form of Platonism was originally fused with Christianity by Origen. However, he distinguishes what he refers to as More’s Platonico-Cabbalism from Cudworth, Gale, and Burnet’s ‘Alexandrian’ form:

THE PLATONIC PHILOSOPHY, mixed with the Pythagorean, was revived by Pletho, Bessario, and Ficinus: Picus added the Cabbalistic doctrine; and his footsteps were followed by Reuchlin, Venetus, Agrippa, and More; while Patricius, Gale, Cudworth, Burnet, and others, rejecting the Cabbalistic dreams, endeavoured to restore Alexandrian Platonism (cited from English translation: The History of Philosophy…drawn up from Brucker’s Historia Critica Philosophiae, xxv (1791))

What motivates this distinction in Brucker? Is it defensible? These questions are tied up with the much underresearched reception history of these figures in continental Europe, which it is another main priority of this project to investigate.

Turning back to accounts of them by contemporaries, our most important sources, in addition to Burnet, are [Simon Patrick] A Brief Account of a New Sect of Latitude-Men (1662); Edward Fowler The Principles and Practices of Certain Moderate Divines of the Church of England (1670); Joseph Glanvil, ‘Anti-Fanatical Religion, and Free Philosophy, in a Continuation of the New Atlantis’, in Essays on Several Important Subjects in Philosophy and Religion (1676); and William Baron, An Historical Account of Comprehension, and Toleration (1706). But does a more unified picture emerge here of the membership of this group, or of the unity of their theological and philosophical outlook? In an earlier manuscript version of the Glanvil text, for instance, he refers to a set of men he calls ‘Cupri-Cosmits’, and names Cudworth, Whichcote, Simon Patrick, Rust, Outram, Smith, More, Ingelo, Tillotson and Stillingfleet as belonging to this set. They are said by Glanvil to be united philosophically by a dislike of syllogistic method and peripatetic metaphysics, a commitment to hypotheses/conjectures, and a (qualified) openness to experimentalism in natural philosophy. But – setting aside the problem that he seems to be conflating two generations of figures here – with respect to explicitly Platonic method or doctrine, he notes that only ‘some’ of this set embrace a Platonic/Socratic method; the doctrine of the spirit of nature [the Platonic anima mundi]; preexistence; and spiritual extension (which Glanvil, curiously, classes as a Platonic doctrine). In fact, Glanvil seems to stress the unity of their theological over their philosophical outlook: they are committed to a rejection of a conception of God as mere power and arbitrary will, and an emphasis on the priority of God’s goodness; on real rather than imputed righteousness; divine and human freedom; a commitment to returning to the early Greek patristics; and on faith as an act of reason. But in an important sense this is as much a part of their Platonism as their metaphysics and natural philosophy more narrowly conceived, and another major task of the project is to account for how this theological core consensus is indebted to what Brucker would have called the synthesis of Alexandrian/eclectic Platonism and Christianity, achieved especially in Origen.

Therefore, although the terms ‘Cambridge Platonism’ and ‘Cambridge Platonist(s)’ are first used only in the nineteenth century, the convergence of British and continental sources just mentioned amply attests to the prior existence of an overlapping set of labels (‘Latitudinarians’ (Patrick), ‘Cupri-Cosmits’ (Glanvil), ‘English/British Platonist Sect’ (Brucker), ‘Platonists’ (Mosheim) for a group of figures, mostly Cambridge based, and these labels consistently identify at least More, Cudworth (and, generally, Whichcote) as core members of this group. This does not by itself settle the reification question, but it is important data that the reification objection must address. It also raises important questions about the identity of this group, and – if it is legitimate (as I think it is) to talk about ‘Platonism’ here – the nature of its Platonism or (perhaps) Platonisms.

One thought on “Some reflections on the category ‘Cambridge Platonism’”

  1. I think it likely that Smith was not included in early Continental accounts of the Platonists of Cambridge because he was known there primarily through the Latin translation of his discourse on prophecy published by M. Le Clerc (Amsterdam, 1731). Unlike others in this group, this was his only work to be translated and it is among his least philosophical work.

    Also, I think it is worth noting that by 1659 John Worthington thought of the work of Henry More as continuing and expanding on that begun by Smith on the question of the immortality of the soul (see his “To the Reader,” in Smith’s Select Discourses [1660], xxii). Worthington also acknowledges the assistance of Cudworth in bringing the prophecy discourse to publication (xxii). This is not evidence of their Platonism of course but I think it does suggest a consciousness as a “movement.”

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