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.

As well as the issue of authorial integrity, the Project is raising complicated questions of textual variants. These have never been investigated thoroughly; indeed, recent editions of Cambridge Platonist writings have either ignored the issue of variants, or exacerbated the problem through the poorly-documented abridgment and stylistic simplification of texts. Given the Cambridge Platonist propensity for technical terms and closely-argued discourses, a scholarly collation of variants between editions is badly needed. While the Cambridge Platonist Project cannot undertake a systematic study of variants across the entire oeuvre, it is proving possible to select key texts for detailed study of differences between editions and impressions. Among the texts which have been considered so far, the study of variants has proved particularly interesting in relation to Cudworth’s Sermon to the House of Commons, and passages from More’s Antidote against Atheism, Conjectura cabbalistica, Immortality of the Soul, Enchiridion ethicum, and Enchiridion metaphysicum, as well as the various collections of his Philosophical Writings between 1662 and 1712. There are also important questions to be asked about the various versions of Cudworth’s Treatise of Freewill, the More-Descartes correspondence, and Whichcote’s sermons; in each of these cases, a detailed study of the available printed and manuscript texts reveals subtle differences between the metaphysical preoccupations of authors and their editors. It is hoped that some of these differences will be the subject of future blogs on this website, as well as providing fruitful discussion at our project seminars in Cambridge and Bristol.

One of the major aims of the Cambridge Platonist Project is to produce a sophisticated bibliography of the print and manuscript writings of our five key authors. As well as listing all the separate editions of texts by our authors, we will identify the location of as many copies as possible, to facilitate future research into their international reception. Until the Project began, researchers in the field of Cambridge Platonism were reliant upon Robert Crocker’s list of works in the ‘Appendix’ to his biography of Henry More; Crocker remains extremely useful, but there are a few items to record which have appeared since his biography was published, and there is much more to say regarding the provenance, reception, and annotation of individual copies. Scholars of Cudworth have been dependent upon the varying accounts of John Passmore and (more recently) Ben Carter, but our ongoing analysis of the Cudworth manuscripts in the British Library is revealing much more evidence about the dates and relations of Cudworth’s writings. The chief guide to Whichcote is the appendix to James Deotis Roberts’s From Puritanism to Platonism, but Roberts does not take account of the manuscript copies of sermons and letters, and his account is based largely on the prefaces to the posthumous editions of Whichcote’s writings. As well as supplementing the accounts in Crocker, Passmore, and Carter, our bibliographical investigations will include a more nuanced guide to the circumstances of production, dissemination, and reception of Cambridge Platonist texts, replacing Roberts’s impressionistic survey with a clearer understanding of the relations between the printed and manuscript copies.

Accounts of the reception of Cambridge Platonist writings tend to be drawn with broad brush strokes, highlighting similarities between their key arguments and those of (for example) the British Enlightenment or German Romanticism. Much more attention has been paid recently to the precise means by which key philosophical figures – among them Locke, Newton, and Leibniz – adopted and adapted Cambridge Platonist ideas through their own philosophical commonplacing, note-taking, and draft treatises. Although our knowledge of the British reception of Whichcote is growing, still left out of this picture is any account of how less philosophically eminent or sophisticated readers approached and responded to texts by More, Cudworth, and Smith. The evidence that I have discovered so far in copies from Cambridge, Oxford, London, Bristol and elsewhere suggests that readers could respond with any degree of enthusiasm or outrage to the complex, challenging and (in many places) unusual ideas found in these works. However, this alternative story of the reception of Cambridge Platonist writings can only be told with recourse to individual copies in archives, through a sympathetic and sensitive study of ownership and annotation. This remains an ongoing process, but one which will reveal much about the way these authors were read and interpreted in previous centuries as well as our own.


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