Ralph Cudworth’s Freewill Manuscripts: A Roadmap to Dating and Analysis

By Mark Burden

In the preface to his True Intellectual System of the Universe: The First Part (1678), Ralph Cudworth explained that he originally intended ‘onely a Discourse concerning Liberty and Necessity’ before broadening his scheme to take account of the ‘Tripartite Fatalism’ of Democritean Fate (material necessity and atheism), the Divine Fate immoral and violent (arbitrary, omnipotent will), and the Divine Fate moral and natural (intrinsic necessity as a series of causes without contingency). The True Intellectual System as published, in which Cudworth attempted to confute ‘All the Reason and Philosophy of Atheism’, represents the contents of the first part of this three-way scheme. It is often said that much of the contents of the remaining two parts can be found in five volumes of Cudworth’s unpublished manuscript writings, now held by the British Library, known collectively as the ‘freewill’ manuscripts (Add MSS 4978-4982). However, as we shall see, several of these manuscript writings probably predate Cudworth’s decision to prioritise discussion of Democritean materialism, and are perhaps better described as part of his original plan for a ‘Discourse concerning Liberty and Necessity’; thus, it may not be quite true to Cudworth’s intention if we refer to them as drafts for the projected second and third parts of the True Intellectual System. Only one brief fragment, Add. MSS 4982(2), provides any clear evidence of the continuation of the three-part design outlined by Cudworth in his preface; this section refers directly back to the opening pages of Part One before developing a discussion of arbitrary divine will as encountered in Calvin and his successors, so we can be reasonably confident that it constitutes an early draft of the opening section of the projected second part of the work.

The five volumes of Cudworth’s freewill manuscripts consist of eight fragmentary drafts, as follows:

  • Add. MS 4978, fos. 1-120, quarto: A short treatise of freewill, in a reasonably high state of completion. Edited and printed by John Allen as A Treatise of Freewill (1838) and by Sarah Hutton (1996)
  • Add. MS 4979, fos. 1-263 (pp. 1-261), folio: 5 (or possibly 6) consecutive draft chapters on the topic of freewill
  • Add. MS 4980, fos. 1-316 (pp. 1-317), folio: 11 consecutive draft chapters on the topic of freewill
  • Add. MS 4981(T), fos. 1-101 (pp. 1-102), folio: 3 consecutive draft chapters on the topic of freewill
  • Add. MS 4981(S), fos. 102-115 (pp. 1-12), folio: a summary view of freewill, based largely on the first chapter of Add. MS 4979.
  • Add. MS 4982(1), fos. 1-50 (pp. 1-50), folio: draft writings on freewill
  • Add. MS 4982(2), fos. 53-74, folio: draft of the second part of the True Intellectual System
  • Add. MS 4982(3), fos. 75-131 (pp. 1-55), folio: 2 consecutive draft chapters on freewill

As well as containing substantial quantities of near-continuous text, each of the fragments contains a degree of paratextual apparatus, some aspects of which are more helpful than others. On the helpful side, 6 of the 8 fragments are paginated in the top right-hand corner, and, in most cases, we can be sure that the sheets were paginated before the main body of text was added because there is evidence that the scribe curled his or her writing around these pre-written page numbers. The evidence of curled writing enables us to be fairly certain that there are very few pages missing within the fragments (i.e. it is implausible that some pages were lost and that the remainder were later paginated), although it is highly likely that Cudworth also wrote several other fragmentary drafts which are now lost. Breaks in the pagination in Add. MS 4982 reflect the fact that this volume contains three very separate fragments which were only bound together much later; as I have already indicated, the second of these fragments (True Intellectual System part 2) is different in content, style, calligraphy, and date from the other two (‘freewill’) drafts.

Whereas the pagination provides a useful indication of the structure of the manuscripts, the paratextual information on the title pages to each fragment needs to be interpreted with caution. Add. MS 4978 has no title page: the title adopted by the 1838 editors, A Treatise of Freewill, is an accurate but non-authorial intervention. By contrast, the flyleaf to MS 4980 contains a miscellaneous jumble of notes, including arithmetical sums and phrases indicative of a scribe testing his pen. In among the jumble are the following descriptive phrases: ‘De Liber’ [faded], ‘De Libero Arbitrio’, ‘De Libero Arbitrio 5 book’, ‘No 1’, and ‘N 5’. MS 4981 contains no such markings, but MS 4982(1) has a title page with the labels ‘Lib. Optim~’ and ‘Of Libervm Arbitrivm or freewill’. The title page for MS 4982(2) has the clearly inaccurate title ‘De Libero~ Arbitrio~’, repeated near the bottom of the page; a third hand has written ‘Lib. 2’, probably copying the header of the main text on the next page, which states ‘Book. II.’, with a subheading of ‘Chap. 1st’. The title page for MS 4982(3) has various scribblings in pen and pencil but is headed at the top of the page by the comment ‘3d Book of Lib. Arbit.’ Finally, Add. MS 4979 contains a monogram ‘RC’ (Ralph Cudworth) and a description, ‘this is ye: 5th: or 6th’.

What are we to make of this bewildering and apparently contradictory information? We can at least be certain that the monogram links the opening of MS 4979 to the summary section in MS 4981(S). The title page to this summary section states the following: ‘De Libero Arbitrio. This end of the Book has but a summary view \of/ what we have to say concerning Liberum Arbitrium in one Chapter.’ A different hand then states that ‘This End of ye Book is very Conformable to yt I have merked[?] with ye Letter R’, thereby linking the summary back to MS 4979. Thus, the summary is a later compressed version of the first chapter of MS 4979. Secondly, the expressions ‘Lib. 2’ and ‘Book. II Chap. 1st’ in 4982(2) mark out this section as a continuation of the True Intellectual System, and not as part of the treatise ‘De Libero Arbitrio’. This inaccurate labelling of the section should encourage us to treat with some scepticism the description of the other sections as ‘3d Book’, ‘5 book’, ‘No 1’, ‘N 5’, or ‘ye: 5th: or 6th [book]’, or ‘Lib. Optim[um]’: there is no certainty that this system reflects the order of composition or the order of reading of the manuscripts. At present, these numbers are best ignored.

There are difficulties, too in interpreting the chapter divisions in each of the fragments. MS 4980 contains a contents page, listing 11 chapters:



Chap. 1: p. 1st. Dreames – to p. 5

Chap 2. p. 12. Indifferency

Ch. 3 p. 29 Generall Accompt

Ch. 4. p. 47. {more Particular & Full} \Sum~ary/ Co~prehe~sive of ye whole

Ch. 5 p. 75. Definitio~ & Particular Acco~pt

Ch. 6 p 117 An Imperfectio~ not formally in God

Ch. 7. p 128. Arguments to prove such a thing –

Ch. 8. p. 200 – That yt wch Rules all is not [Greek] but [Greek] –

Ch. 9. p 220. Answer to this objectio~ meten anaition

Chap. 10th. p. 244. Contingency

Chap. 11th. p 297. Argumts for necessity from Considerations of ye Deity


This contents list was also noted by the antiquarian Thomas Birch in his preface to the second edition of The True Intellectual System: The First Part in 1743. Unfortunately, it is not entirely clear that these chapter divisions indicate a pre-established plan for the volume. The chapter titles throughout MS 4980 are all in the same hand, but this hand does not belong to the scribe (another amanuensis) who was responsible for most of the text. It is quite plausible that the chapter divisions were, at least in part, added to the text retrospectively as Cudworth sought to bring his rather diffuse and repetitive text into some sort of order. As can be seen, several of the chapter titles are quite vague, offering only a very general sense of the shape of the argument, beginning with comments on dreams and an attack on the liberty of indifference, before providing a range of different descriptions of freewill, denying its operation in God, tackling objections, presenting arguments relating to contingency, and refuting the claim that necessity follows from consideration of the Deity. Similarly, the chapter headers in MS 4979 compete with various other forms of line rule and page break and may have been added retrospectively. Notes on a flyleaf for MS 4981 do, however, suggest a stronger sense of unity within this manuscript:



Cap. 1t. Answer to ye Arg: drawn agt: fre will from ye absolute omnipotence of God;

Chap. 2 — 28. of prescience

Cap 3 begins p: 70 Concerning Grace: ye Sence of Antiquity.


These comments, regardless of whether they indicate a prior design, usefully mark out this volume (MS 4981) from the others, suggesting that its primary focus is the question of freewill in relation to God. Here, there is a clear progression from a discussion of omnipotence to prescience to grace, which should remind us that Cudworth’s writings on freewill, even before he developed his later tripartite design, were always designed to present a positive (and anti-Calvinist) theological message, as well as combating Hobbes for necessitarianism and atheism.

With the important caveat that the chapter divisions are not as rigid as might at first appear, it may nevertheless be helpful to provide a schematic (deliberately non-analytic) summary of the contents of MSS 4982(1), 4982(3), and 4979, beginning with the two shorter fragments. This is by no means an easy task, since Cudworth’s writings in parts of these manuscripts often give the impression of free-flowing thoughts, rather than pre-planned arguments. Nevertheless, it is worth highlighting some commonalities of topic, as well as some of the distinctive arguments of each text.



  1. 1: the soul is a self-acting, autokinetic being (contra Hobbes)
  2. 5: the absurdity of traditional faculty psychology
  3. 12: freewill does not consist in indifferency
  4. 16: freewill is a middle perfection, below God and above brutes
  5. 17: animal freewill and moral freewill
  6. 24: freewill does not consist in contingency as to good or evil
  7. 28: answer to the objection that freewill makes the Deity culpable
  8. 34: explanation of how the soul can sin
  9. 36: discussion of the autexousious power in our lapsed state
  10. 45: nevertheless, freewill is not a power of forming or framing holiness and righteousness



Chapter 1:

  1. 76: free-willed beings are not wholly passive in the manner of inanimate bodies, corporeal machines, or neurospasts
  2. 79: free-willed beings have a higher and lower principle in nature
  3. 85: freewill is not properly indifferency but a higher elevation of life with a power over ourselves: a power autexousious, sui potestas
  4. 86: this elevation is a power intended by God for good; God and nature have done half in us and we are able to do the other half ourselves
  5. 89: the power of sinning is a necessary but accidental appendix to the power capacitating virtue
  6. 93: definition of animal freewill and moral freewill
  7. 95: freewill is a power belonging to a middle rank of beings; if God had not made this middle rank, he would have had nothing at all except for himself
  8. 97: the nature of a self-promoting being does not imply a liberty from coaction
  9. 106: freewill is not a power to change or command affections, or for a being to change itself from the lowest vice to the highest virtue
  10. 109: however, it is a mistake to believe that freewill is lost by reason of original sin
  11. 110: grace is required, but holiness and righteousness are not merely external

Chapter 2:

  1. 114: non-necessity is a property of freewill; against the Stoics
  2. 118: freewill is the liberty to determine one’s will, and not merely the liberty to do what one wills
  3. 121: the only contingency essential to a free-willed being is the non-necessity of acting alike in the same outward circumstances
  4. 125: non-necessity is not an absolute perfection, but has a double face, up and down
  5. 126: some wrongly deny morality in the Deity
  6. 127: various views of fortune and liberty



Chapter 1:

  1. 1: animal appetites and sentience (contra Hobbes); will vs. rational appetite
  2. 7: the hegemonikon as the soul self-comprehensive and self-active
  3. 15: there is no good without something of evil discoverable in it
  4. 19: the power of self-determination is, strictly speaking, an imperfection
  5. 22: freewill is properly a power to good
  6. 26: the nature of freewill as self-power
  7. 32: freewill includes a certain contingent uncertainty
  8. 36: nevertheless, the essence of freewill is not contingency
  9. 42: animal freewill and moral freewill
  10. 46: freewill in the sense described cannot be in God

Chapter 2:

  1. 63: demonstration that freewill exists, against the physical/atheistic fatalists
  2. 68: moral arguments for self-power
  3. 72: demonstration that freewill exists from common notions of error
  4. 80: demonstration from common notions of sin
  5. 90: the assertors of necessity destroy natural justice
  6. 96: the existence of freewill confirmed from the affections of blame and conscience
  7. 104: a person can determine his future volitions and provide securities concerning them
  8. 105: unconvincing arguments for freewill
  9. 113: an appeal to internal sense
  10. 117: persons in a middle state between virtue and selfish lusts are sensible of a middle thing within them
  11. 121: the absurdity of a rational being with no self-power
  12. 123: the belief that there is no such thing as self-power is dangerous and pernicious
  13. 128: consideration of divine providence, government, and immutability

Chapter 3:

  1. 143: more on Democritean material fatalism

Chapter 3(ii):

  1. 155: physical fatalists who acknowledge incorporeal substance and the Deity
  2. 160: the determination of freewill to moral good or evil
  3. 162: the duplicity of the human soul: necessary nature and redoubled self-activity

Chapter 4:

  1. 185: objection that freewill would make chance, fortuitousness, and contingency to be the causes of actions and determinations
  2. 189: a second variety of contingency
  3. 191: there can be nothing fortuitous, casual, or contingent to God
  4. 202: another notion of contingency: that which might possibly have been otherwise
  5. 205: in this sense, self-power presupposes contingency
  6. 210: contingency is not to be conceived as the cause of determinations
  7. 212: the necessity of the Deity infinitely far transcends the contingency of freewill
  8. 214: there is not as much contingent uncertainty in volitions as it seems to those who define liberty by indifferency
  9. 222: nevertheless, contingency is not quite reduced to nothing, or excluded
  10. 225: logical objections against the possibility of contingency answered

Chapter 5:

  1. 241: answer to the general objection that the assertors of freewill are unable to give a clear and intelligible account of it
  2. 244: answer to the objection that the assertors of freewill are at a loss how to graft in upon the soul, and whether to fix it in the will or the understanding
  3. 249: answer to the objection that freewill is variously defined in relation to indifferency, contradiction and contrariety, and contingency
  4. 258: answer to the objection that the doctrine of freewill has arisen from a confusion between doing what one will and willing what one will
  5. 264: answer to the Stoic objection that there is no freewill to virtue

As these summaries suggest, the two fragments 4982(1) and 4982(3) have several topics in common, including the rejection of freewill as indifferency, various definitions of animal freewill and moral freewill, the identification of freewill as a ‘middle power’, and discussions of freewill in relation to sin. These themes also resurface, usually in more extended form, in 4979. However, 4979 also tends to take for granted some of the definitions and distinctions which are outlined in 4982(1) and 4982(3), opening with a complex discussion of freewill in relation to animal appetites, and then proceeding to a description of various competing theories of the will. Theological questions do take their place among the two 4982 fragments, but there is a greater focus to the discussion of these questions in 4979, which proceeds from a description of the evils of materialism (chapter 3), to a rejection of ‘immoral’ fatalism (chapter 3(ii)), to a revised account of the nature of necessity in a being (the Deity) who transcends human freewill. 4981, as we have seen, does not tackle the same issues directly, but links the topics of freewill and necessity to wider debates about omnipotence, prescience, and grace. Of the four manuscript fragments discussed in this paragraph, it appears that 4982(1) and 4982(3) have the lowest level of internal organisation, but nevertheless attempt to set out some basic positions, distinctions, and definitions; 4979 is also somewhat chaotic, but states its arguments with greater expansiveness and has some elements of overall structure and progression; 4981 spends much less time defining and distinguishing basic concepts, and instead seeks to discuss human freewill in relation to the attributes of the Deity. All four fragments give the impression of being a long distance from any publishable state, and all of them show a heavy degree of internal revision in terms of deleted sections, lengthy passages added to the adjacent verso pages, and alterations to individual word choices.

Further light can be shed on the relationship between the fragments by comparing them with the much longer text of MS 4980. The most striking feature here is the very close correspondence both in terms of structure and phraseology between 4980 and 4979. While the analysis of general similarities between these two texts has become a staple of recent philosophical discussion of Cudworth’s freewill manuscripts, few have noted the extent to which they use the same wording to discuss the same issues. A detailed comparison of the corresponding passages will be published in a later blog post. However, the most significant contents of the table may be summarised as follows:

             4979                4980

  1. 120-3 –>       pp. 187-91
  2. 124 –>            pp. 197-8
  3. 134-41 –>    pp. 210-19
  4. 143-5 –>       pp. 220-1
  5. 185-6 –>       pp. 244-6
  6. 189-92 –>    pp. 250-3
  7. 198-202 –> pp. 257-60
  8. 229-37 –>    pp. 268-77

Together with this correspondence of language and theme, there is good evidence that 4980 makes further corrections to the phrasing found in 4979. For example, 4979 p. 120 includes the phrase ‘we have before observed’, which was reproduced verbatim in 4980 p. 187 before being altered to ‘We did observe’ (i.e. the manuscript reads ‘We {have before} \did/ observe{d}’, where curly brackets indicate deletions and \ / indicate insertions). There are many similar cases. We can be virtually certain that much of MS 4980 from the end of chapter 7 through to the middle of chapter 10 is a revised version of the materials found in MS 4979 chapters 2-4. The rest of the text of 4979 does not match 4980 so precisely, but there are nevertheless several close verbal similarities between 4979 chapter 1 and the earlier sections of 4980 chapter 7. In the absence (so far as we know) of any intermediate manuscripts, it looks highly likely that Cudworth had MS 4979 open in front of him during the composition of much of MS 4980.

By contrast, it is hard to argue for any close structural or thematic connections between the long fragment MS 4980 and the theological fragment MS 4982. However, there are enough verbal parallels between the text of 4982(3) and chapters 5 and 6 of 4980 to suggest that 4980 is in some sense a reworking of the somewhat less clearly-developed ideas in 4982(3). There is one section which is particularly close:

4982(3)                                    4980

fos. 114-25      –>                   pp. 99-112

Here, the similarity is sufficiently extensive to indicate that 4982(3) was used in the preparation of chapter 5 of 4980. While it remains conceivable that there was some intermediate drafting between the two texts, the identical wording throughout these equivalent passages nevertheless makes it completely reasonable to describe 4982(3) as a further source for the contents of 4980.

In order to ascertain the relationship of 4982(1) to the other texts it is necessary to take a different approach. As already mentioned, all the fragments show evidence of several different scribes, with corrections made by the author Cudworth (whose hand I am calling hand 1). Most of the text of 4982(3), 4979, and 4981 was compiled by two different scribes (hand 3 and hand 4), who shared the work by repeatedly alternating, with one scribe (hand 4) slightly more dominant; both hands were later corrected by Cudworth (hand 1). MS 4980, however, is written in another hand, not encountered in the other texts, which is distinguished by different contractions and more carefully formed letters (hand 6); perhaps Cudworth felt that his work was now sufficiently far advanced to employ a more experienced scribe, capable of producing a neater text (although the MS as a whole is still a long way from being fair copy). That said, the hand also participated in the writing of MS 4982(2), the brief fragment on Calvinist determinism which I have called the True Intellectual System part 2, where it alternates with Cudworth’s own script (hand 1). 4982(1) was also the work of more than one scribe: as well as hand 3 and Cudworth’s corrections (hand 1), we can identify an entirely different and very idiosyncratic scribe (hand 5), whose spelling is a long way outside even the wide parameters of typical seventeenth-century usage. It is extremely unlikely that hand 5 belonged to a professional scribe, or one of Cudworth’s academic associates (such as a fellow tutor or student), and it seems much more likely that it belonged to an individual with whom he had a personal rather than a professional connection. This hand, which is responsible for 29 pages of MS 4982(1) (pp. 22-50), can also be identified in MS 4979, where it appears briefly in the text of chapter 1 (p. 39 only). MS 4978, which we have rarely discussed in this blog post, shows substantial use of another hand altogether (hand 2), together with supplementary classical quotations and emendations made by Cudworth (hand 1).

To summarise, the eight freewill fragments were (in a material but probably not an intellectual sense) written collaboratively. Cudworth (hand 1) is the presiding intelligence, correcting the work of all the other scribes, transcribing difficult passages, emending, deleting, and supplementing all the texts. MS 4978 also makes heavy use of a second scribe (hand 2). MS 4979 is largely the work of two scribes (hands 3 and 4), with another very idiosyncratic scribe (hand 5) contributing one brief passage. MS 4980 appears to be largely the work of a more experienced and neater writer (scribe 6), who also helped Cudworth to write a brief passage, MS 4982(2), which was intended as a draft of the opening of the second part of the True Intellectual System. MS 4981 was produced largely by scribes 3 and 4; MS 4982(1) is dominated by Cudworth (hand 1) and the idiosyncratic hand 5, whereas MS 4982(3) resorts to hands 3 and 4. There are probably other hands at work in brief passages of these texts, but the case for or against distinguishing between these other hands is beyond the scope of this blog post.

For our purposes, what matters about this analysis is that it provides some further support to our slowly emerging picture of the relationship between these texts. Although it is of course the case, based on current evidence, that Cudworth could have used scribes 3, 4, and 5 at any point in his career, it is consistent with our previous description of the order of composition of the manuscripts to suggest that the texts employing these three scribes belong to an earlier phase of composition than the much lengthier and neater text produced by scribe 6. Meanwhile, the surprising appearance of a deeply unconventional scribal hand (hand 5) is more readily understandable if the two texts in which it is found are identifiable as early drafts of the text which were unlikely to be disseminated to Cudworth’s academic friends, or to his potential publishers. Hand 5 also provides a connection between the exploratory text 4982(1) and 4979, both of which, we can now suggest, predate 4980. Meanwhile, we have previously suggested that 4982(3) belongs to the same period of composition as 4979, and we can now add that 4981 uses the same scribes (hands 3 and 4); furthermore, the focus in 4981 on the attributes of God might suggest that it was designed for a later portion (in terms of reading order) of the treatise than 4979: having despatched Hobbes’s key theories about necessity and presented his own model of human freedom, Cudworth now expands his treatise to examine these same issues in relation to the Deity. Thus, one reason why 4981 does not have a direct parallel in the later, longer draft (4980) may be that 4980 does not include these final sections of his treatise.

The short treatise in 4978, we may also note, now looks as though it belongs to an entirely separate phase of composition. Determining its exact relation to the other 7 manuscript texts will require considerably more research, but evidence collected so far suggests that it may be later than the other fragments. This text is much tighter, both structurally and linguistically, than the other fragments, and shows every indication of being a self-contained work in a high state of completion which would have required very little further emendation prior to publication. The very tightness of the text suggests a considerable degree of premeditation, and there is evidence that Cudworth has worked into the manuscript themes which are not present in the earlier drafts. To take one example, the Stoic term ‘epeleustic’, which Cudworth would have encountered in Plutarch’s De stoicorum repugnantiis, is the subject of a lengthy passage on Chrysippus in MS 4980, pp. 233-7, which has no parallel in MS 4979; there are further references to Plutarch’s text in chapter 11 on MS 4980, which is also without a direct parallel in the earlier fragments. In the short treatise of freewill, MS 4978, the term ‘epeleustic’ appears twice in passing, but Chrysippus and Plutarch are no longer mentioned as sources for the term, and there are no equivalent Greek quotations. One plausible interpretation is that Plutarch’s writings against the Stoics were an important influence on Cudworth while he was revising his earlier writings on freewill and as he was composing MS 4980. This is hardly surprising, since in the preface to the True Intellectual System (and throughout the published work) Cudworth linked his writings on freewill with the importance of combating Stoic fatalism as well as Hobbesian materialism. However, by the time he came to compile MS 4978 he had managed to digest Plutarch’s critique and was able to draw on it much more sparingly, in line with his leaner and more compact design.

 If this analysis is anywhere near correct (and it must be emphasised that it remains highly speculative), we can posit four distinct phases of composition in the freewill manuscripts, which are summarised in the following table:

TIS part 2, chapter 1: true and false intellectual systems






hands: 6, [1]













4980, chapter 1

hands: 6, [1]



Liberty of indifference; general account of ‘Liberum Arbitrium’ (LA)


hands: 5 [1, 3, plus at least one other?]



4980, chapters 2-3

hands: 6, [1]



Comprehensive summary; particular account


hands: 4, 3, [1, plus at least one other?]



4980, chapters 4-5

hands: 6, [1]



LA not in God




4980, chapter 6

hands: 6, [1]





4979, chapter 1

hands: 4, 3, [1, 5]

4981, ‘summary’

hands: 4 [1]

4980, chapter 7

hands: 6, [1]



Arguments to prove LA


4979, chapter 2

hands: 4, 3, [1]




Necessity, providence and decrees



4980, chapter 8

hands: 6, [1]



Arguments for necessity and against LA


4979, chapter 3

hands: 4, 3, [1]


4980, chapter 9

hands: 6, [1]



Contingency; arguments for necessity confuted


4979, chapter 4 hands: 4, [3, 1]


4980, chapters 10-11

hands: 6, [1]



God and grace



4981, chapters 1-3

hands: 4, [3, 1, plus at least one other?]











Briefer treatise







hands: 2, [1]

Reading the columns from left to right provides a snapshot of a plausible order of composition, beginning with the somewhat hasty drafts in 4982(1) and 4982(3), the more extensive sequence in 4979, the theological writings in 4981, and the brief summary passage of 4981(S). Somewhat later, Cudworth then rewrote passages of the earlier drafts as he was compiling MS 4980. The fragmentary continuation of the True Intellectual System in 4982(2) is perhaps later again, using the same scribe as MS 4980, while the latest text in the sequence may prove to be 4978. Reading the rows from top to bottom provides a sense of how the first phase of drafts later fitted into the scheme of 4980: Cudworth certainly drew on 4982(3) and 4979 and may also have drawn on 4982(1) in a more general way. 4981 is placed near the bottom of the table on the grounds that it would have made structural sense for Cudworth to have addressed these issues later in his treatise. However, this positioning is entirely speculative: structure was not generally speaking Cudworth’s priority, and in any case, as we have seen with MS 4978, ideas flowed in and out of the freewill manuscripts as occasion demanded.

It remains to consider what can be said by way of dating these four different phases of the manuscripts. Unfortunately, there is not a single date in any of the five manuscripts, and this lack of information has led to widely different suggestions as to the period(s) of composition, ranging from the early 1650s right to the end of Cudworth’s life in the 1670s and 1680s. Fortunately, there is some evidence, both internal and external, which does point us to a particular period in Cudworth’s intellectual development. The most important factor is that, as is widely known, Cudworth’s freewill manuscripts are in part a response to the writings of Hobbes. However, although Cudworth mentions both De cive (1642) and Leviathan (1651) in his manuscripts, these are not the primary focus of his critique. Instead, he chooses to respond to the accounts of freewill, contingency, and motion to be found in Hobbes’s famous dispute with Bramhall, published as Of Liberty and Necessity (1654) and The Questions concerning Liberty, Necessity, and Chance (1656), together with Bramhall’s responses. These texts were collected together by Bramhall and republished as Castigations of Mr. Hobbes his last Animadversions (1658), and we know from the pagination of his quotations from Hobbes that this was the version that Cudworth used in these manuscripts. As we have seen from the summaries printed above, aspects of Cudworth’s critique of Hobbes’s ideas of motion appear in MS 4982(1), which we have tentatively suggested might be one of the earliest of the fragments (possibly the very earliest). Other arguments drawn from the Hobbes-Bramhall debate are found at the start of MS 4979, which we have also suggested is part of the early phase of composition. We might speculate that Cudworth began working on this phase shortly after acquiring the 1658 edition of the Hobbes-Bramhall controversy.

Another important source of evidence about Cudworth’s work comes from a letter which he wrote to John Worthington in January 1665, in which he accused their mutual friend Henry More of intellectual double-dealing (Worthington, Diary and Correspondence, II, 157-61). In this letter, Cudworth says that he has been working on a treatise of ethics for two years, and was preparing to send it to the publishers, but would now withdraw it from publication because More had himself started preparing a treatise on the same topic. This work is usually identified as Cudworth’s posthumously published Treatise of Eternal and Immutable Morality (1731), and the rival text is More’s Enchiridion ethicum (1668). As Worthington pointed out, Cudworth’s anger and jealousy were ill-placed: the two treatises are very different in substance and style, but also complement each other, Cudworth having written in English and More in Latin. However, what matters more for our purposes is that these letters between Cudworth and Worthington indicate that Cudworth’s chief attention as a writer during the period 1663-5 was not on his incipient freewill treatise, but on his treatise of morality. Furthermore, internal evidence from the printed True Intellectual System (1678) suggests that much of the text of this printed volume was completed in the late 1660s and finished by 1671. As we saw at the very start of this blog, the preface to the True Intellectual System is the best evidence we have that Cudworth had already compiled some of his freewill manuscripts and was now developing plans for their future use. We can now add that Cudworth’s attention across the period 1663-71 was largely on other issues: his ethics treatise, and his confutation of atheism, later printed as The True Intellectual System part 1.

While this evidence is insufficient to allow a firm dating of the freewill manuscripts, it does point in a very interesting direction. The earliest phase of the existing manuscripts appears to postdate 1658, since the Hobbes-Bramhall debate features prominently in it. However, by 1663 Cudworth was clearly becoming engaged in other projects, not least his treatise of morality. When he abandoned that treatise in a state of near-completion in 1665, he appears to have changed his mind about the best means to combat Hobbes and began to form plans for a tripartite work designed to confute Democritean atheism, Calvinist determinism, and Stoic fatalism. In the late 1660s he worked intensively on part one of this scheme, which became the True Intellectual System as published. At around the same time, or slightly later, he briefly started work on part 2 of the scheme, which survives in the short fragment on Calvin now known as 4982(2). Perhaps somewhat later again, he produced a much shorter and tighter treatise on freewill (4978), which drew on his earlier writings. The dating of the individual manuscripts remains unclear, and on current evidence we can do little more than speculate. However, if speculation is permitted, it seems plausible on current evidence to suggest that Cudworth’s chief extant philosophical writings – his manuscript works on freewill (largely wr. c.1658-63), his posthumously published Treatise of Eternal and Immutable Morality (wr. c. 1663-5), and the long-delayed first part of the True Intellectual System (wr. c.1665-71) – were all composed in a remarkably short time, between 1658 and 1671. Before that period, the precise contours of Cudworth’s intellectual life remain nebulous. The surviving materials do, of course, include two brief philological treatises on The Lords Supper and The Marriage of Christ and the Church (both published 1642), a primarily practical Sermon preached before the Honourable House of Commons delivered during a lull in the English Civil War (1647), and an extensive collection of manuscript notes reflecting Cudworth’s lifelong preoccupation with the Book of Daniel. Nevertheless, we are perhaps forced to accept that we know much less about Cudworth’s philosophical preoccupations during the period 1642-58 than we might like to think.

Cite this blog post
mb16268 (2019, June 9). Ralph Cudworth’s Freewill Manuscripts: A Roadmap to Dating and Analysis. The Cambridge Platonist Research Group. Retrieved May 29, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/n9bg

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