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)).

Buhle, seeking to distinguish Cudworth’s position from the Kantian one, argues that the identity of Cudworth’s philosophical system with the Platonic (‘die Identitaet des Cudworthischen und Platonischen Systems’) can be seen in the fact that the Platonists also suppose a world of Ideas which exists in the divine intellect, and the sensible world is created on their model, as well as that the ideas in humans minds have their origin from them (672). He also notes the ‘unmistakable’ influence of the Platonic philosophy on Cudworth’s moral philosophy, namely, that he derives the eternal and immutable moral system from the mind of God, which is superior to and determines God’s wisdom, which in turn determines his will (673); and that human goodness participates in the divine goodness (674).

However, he also notes his disagreement with his colleague Christoph Meiner who denied that Cudworth’s moral philosophy is identical with the Platonic one, and identified it instead with Kant’s practical philosophy. But contra Meiner, Buhle – slightly repetitively by this point – argues that Plato supposes that the objective Ideas of sensible objects exist in the divine intellect; that the divine will is determined by these; and they are also that by which the human will should be determined, insofar as human minds participate in the divine Ideas and therefore contain the ideas of the good, the right etc. But (he argues) this is also exactly what Cudworth teaches, and also, if any concept is distinctive of a Platonic position it is participationism, but Cudworth is fully participationist (675). He observes that Cudworth accepted certain (unnamed) ‘modifications’ which Neoplatonists (‘Neuplatoniker’) made to Platonism, and differs from Platonism only in the obvious respect that he harmonised it with Christianity (677).

Buhle further observes that it is precisely due to these Platonic commitments that he differs from Kant. This is true, he thinks, in the following respects: his moral philosophy is not purely formal (‘bloss formal’); that like Plato but unlike Kant, he is relatively obscure about the content of the moral good, comparing the highest good in God with the kabbalistic notion of the ‘crown’ (keter) of divinity (677); that he lacks a doctrine of the categorical imperative; that the Cudworthian reason is not an autonomous law-setter independent of God; and that unlike Kant he has a theory of ideas and which does a lot of philosophical work for him (the list goes on).

This early tradition of calling Cudworth a Platonist does not settle the more general question of whether it is appropriate to use the category of Cambridge Platonism, but it does show at a minimum that the category predates the British mid-nineteenth century. A similar account can be given of More’s Platonism, but I will pick this up in a separate blog devoted to him.

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
David Leech (March 9, 2018). Some earlier reflections on Cudworth’s Platonic credentials. The Cambridge Platonist Research Group. Retrieved July 21, 2024 from

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