God, the soul and immateriality

By Douglas Hedley

The momentous legacy of Plato shapes the interests and obsessions of the Cambridge Platonists. Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff noted that for ancient Greek culture ‘God’ is not a proper name. The ‘divine’ is an adjective predicating power and immortality, whether of divinities as distinct as those of Parmenides or Epicurus. Plato was the first Greek philosopher to define the divine as immaterial, and the Cambridge Platonists are committed to theological immaterialism. Hobbes’ denial of the immaterial was, for them, clearly atheism. Yet this presupposes the ancient Platonic identification of deity with the immaterial. Hobbes could quite reasonably object that many theists have rejected immaterialism. However, Descartes’ substance dualism evidently opens up a space for the Cambridge Platonists in their controversy with Hobbes (and later Spinoza). If the new science threatened to expunge spiritual or immaterial aspects of the cosmos preserved in the Aristotelian-medieval synthesis, Descartes offers a way out of the materialist impasse.  The enthusiasm for Descartes among the Cambridge men is unintelligible apart from their Platonism, the attack on contemporary atheism, and the identification of deity with immateriality. 

The preface of Cudworth’s The True Intellectual System of the Universe reveals a deep debt to book 10 of Plato’s Laws. In that work Plato defines the atheist as  not merely denying divine existence but providence. An atheist can also hold to the pernicious view that the gods can be bribed: 

Whereas these Three Things are, (as we conceive) the Fundamentals or Essentials of True Religion. First, That all things in the World, do not Float without a Head and Governour; but that there is a God, an Omnipotent Understanding Being, Presiding over all. Secondly, That this God being Essentially Good and Just, there is […], Something in its own Nature, Immutably and Eternally Just, and Unjust;and not by Arbitrary Will, Law, and Command onely. And Lastly, That there is Something […], or, That we are so far forth Prin­ciples or Masters of our own Actions, as to be Accountable to Justice for them, or to make us Guilty and Blame-worthy for what we doe Amiss, and to Deserve Punishment accordingly (TIS, preface).

We can see in this passage the significance of God’s goodness and providence ‘a Head and Governour’ for the refutation of atheism. The Platonic identification of the Divine as immaterial should not be overlooked. It was decisive for Augustine’s conversion to Christianity. Augustine tells us that he learned from the ‘books of the Platonists’ that God is immaterial, and thus the concept of God could be disentangled from the problems afflicting a material deity. Plato, however, also thinks that human beings are immaterial, i.e. souls. Whatever the modifications of this principle in the Phaedo, the Phaedrus or the Republic, this is the basic message of these dialogues. It was also the official orthodoxy of a Platonic school that employed Alcibiades I as the introductory text to philosophy, a text where the identification of the self with the soul is explicit and foundational. This could not be acceptable to Christians who maintained the resurrection of the body, and was ultimately unacceptable to Augustine in his Retractions. When Aquinas says ‘anima mea non est ego’ (I am not my soul), he is attacking the traditional Platonic identification of the human person with the soul. As devout Christians, More and Cudworth cannot simply ignore, or reject, the Creed.

The immortality of the soul is a key topic for the Cambridge Platonists, and it is linked to their interest in defending divine providence against contemporary ‘atheists’. Henry More devotes an entire treatise to the problem. Yet the Cambridge Platonists reveal their colours by proposing a version of the Neoplatonic-Origenistic theory of the soul vehicle or spiritual body. They wish to hold on to the thoroughly Platonic principle that ‘only like knows like’ and that the soul has an ontological kinship with the transcendent immaterial first principle or God. But they also want to insist that the individual human soul needs a body, albeit a spiritual body. It is a mistake to see this as crypto materialism. It is rather the attempt to resolve an ancient tension within the Christian Platonic tradition.


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