The Place of Reason in Culverwell’s Elegant and Learned Discourse of the Light of Nature

Jon Thompson

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’.

Most fundamentally, Culverwell insists that the human intellect is a created entity of divine origin – at once emphasising its dignity and yet its non-ultimate status. Synthesising the Calvinist emphasis on the intrinsic limitation of creatures with the Platonic tradition of the intellect as a kind of divine spark, Culverwell insists that ‘All created excellency shines with borrowed beams’ from God himself. Lest we read this claim as a celebration of human reason as an autonomous and self-sufficient faculty, Culverwell insists on the utter imperfection of human reason considered on its own. Culverwell’s Augustinianism is clear from the way he describes the limited and subservient nature of the human intellect: ‘God never intended that a creature should rest satisfied with its own candle-light, but that it should run to the fountain of light, and sunne it self in the presence of its God.’ (118) The mere candle which becomes a self-regarding light – and fancies itself as self-sufficient – is so deluded as to cease casting a light at all.

Perhaps surprisingly for a figure who insists on praising reason and advocates an intellectualist understanding of the Beatific Vision, Culverwell rejects the notion of innate ideas. In this regard he most parallels Locke’s famous position on these matters. However, unlike Locke, Culverwell is one of the last Early Modern thinkers in an admirable tradition of synthesising an Aristotelian (as opposed to Platonic) psychology with the Classical framework of the ascendency of the intellect to the contemplation of the Divine Being. Perhaps unlike some of his Cambridge Platonist peers, moreover, Culverwell understands the ascendency of the intellect as totally unachievable in one’s mortal life. Reason is a just and divinely-ordained arbiter of moral realities in earthly life: reason judges objects of worthy admiration and rational choice. However, reason never finds its true end in any singular or collective created object; again, in its very exercise reason points beyond itself and beyond all created intellects and objects. Similarly, reason relates to religion by executing a vital role: if any putatively revealed proposition clearly contradicts genuine reason, reason rejects it. But (again somewhat unlike the later Cambridge Platonists) Culverwell rejects the claim that reason has the burden of articulating the positive possibility of divine mysteries (see, for an example of a text which suggests this more prominent role for reason, Henry More’s Apologyof 1664). Such an acceptance of individual reason as the arbiter of the truth of divine mysteries is, on Culverwell’s view, clearly Socinian. Reason’s role is rather simply to extricate revealed truths from the charge of logical incoherence:

[Divine mysteries] were never against Reason, they were alwayes above Reason. ‘Twill be employment enough, and ‘twill be a noble employment too, for Reason to redeeme and vindicate them from those thornes and difficulties, with which some subtle ones have vext them and encompast them. (164)

But this does notentail the Socinian position that human reason can or should be the judge of the truth of revealed truth on the basis of whether their positive metaphysical possibility or manner of coherence can be determined. Indeed, Culverwell intimates that the most precious intellectual objects – the Trinitarian essence of the Divine Being, the true meaning of the Incarnation of the Son, the full dignity and glory of resurrected bodies – are positive objects only of faith (not of reason) in our terrene existence. And while these mysteries do not abrogate genuine reason, they certainly cannot be comprehended or perhaps even clearly and distinctly represented by it. What form, after all, will the resurrected body take – so as to maintain its identity with the earthly body and yet adopt an incomparable glory? Human reason cannot on its own spy out such truths with authority. But, this is no violation either of faith or reason; it is rather the divinely established order of things. The reasonable recognition of a transcendent divine reason creates the context for the happy and submissive attitude of faith about certain matters. Culverwell admonishes his undergraduate audience at Emmanuel: ‘let thy Faith triumph here, for it shall not triumph hereafter; let it shine in time, for it must vanish in eternity’ (169).

What then shall be the ultimate object of reason, and what shall replace faith? In eternity, the divine mysteries which are the objects only of faith here below shall be the objects of divinely elevated reason. In eternity, the created intellect shall ascend beyond its earthly capacities just as its Object transcends all created entities. Culverwell’s systematic analysis of human reason as a created source of light resonates with the Platonic allegory of the Cave – and all its intellectual descendants in Neoplatonic thought. The Light of Glory (Culverwell’sLumen Gloriae) shall consume both the assent of faith and the earthly exercise of reason by God’s raising our intellects back to communion with His own. Our sight of the Source of all lights shall transform our lowly lamps into resplendent reflections of the Divine Intellect itself. As Culverwell beautifully describes in the final lines of the Discourse:

This Candle of the Lord may shine here below, it may and doth aspire, and long for happinesse; but yet it will not come neere it, till he that lighted it up, be pleased to lift it up to himself, and there transforme it into a Starre, that may drink in everlasting light and influence from its original and fountain-light.


Culverwell, Nathaniel. An Elegant and Learned Discourse Concerning the Light of Nature. Ed. Robert A. Greene and Hugh MacCallum. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 2001.

More, Henry. The Apology of Dr. More. London: 1664.

von Leyden, W. ‘Introduction’. John Locke. Essays on the Law of Nature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965, 1-92.

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