All posts by David Leech

Dampening Enthusiasm

(James Bryson)

At the moment, I am transcribing a fascinating text by Henry More, entitled Enthusiasmus Triumphatus, or a Discourse on the Nature, Causes, Kinds and Cure of Enthusiasm. It was originally published in 1656, but the Project has decided that, for our digital sourcebook, we ought to include the later edition of the treatise, published in More’s Collected Works(1662), because of crucial changes, notes, and additions which More made to the earlier edition of the text. It is significant that More published the 1656 version anonymously but that by 1662 version he was clearly happy to claim authorship of this polemical treatise. More’s decision to include it in his collected works may say something about the political climate at Cambridge after the Restoration in 1660, following the purge of puritan fellows at the university. Although not exactly synonymous with Puritanism, ‘Enthusiasm’ was a term of abuse more likely to be directed at Puritans than high churchmen.

Although published under a pseudonym, the 1656 version of More’s essay on enthusiasm is a bit more playful than the 1662 edition. Most notably, in 1656 More included a Preface poking fun at a character called ‘Mastix’ who personifies enthusiasm.  Mastix has two principal and related defects: he is impervious to reasoned argument and has no sense of humour. The first criticism would seem intuitive, the second not so much so. An enthusiast irrational? Sure, that makes sense. But why no sense of humour? More does not think the enthusiast has a sense of humour, because he has ‘martyred’ his passions. Again, this may seem a strange thing to say about an enthusiast who, at first blush, doesn’t appear to have any trouble at all channeling the passionate side of life. If any thing, you’d think the enthusiast’s problem is that he’s too passionate, not that he’s killed his passions off. Not so, says More. In fact, this is precisely the problem with the enthusiast – he’s what we might think of today as a religious fanatic or fundamentalist whose passions have the double-effect of clouding his judgement and narrowing his emotional repertoire. The enthusiast gives up a well-rounded emotional life for the sake of a self-righteous attitude towards the world. It is in this sense that More thinks the enthusiast ‘martyrs’ his passions, or better, he martyrs most of his passions, in order to disproportionately exalt or indulge his passionate righteousness.

Enthusiasm looks a lot like what we might think of as psychological delusion, as one contemporary scholar, Daniel Fouke, points out (Fouke, Daniel C. The Enthusiastical Concerns of Dr Henry More: Religious Meaning and the Psychology of Delusion. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1997.) More locates pride at the root of enthusiasm, because, at bottom, the enthusiast seeks the ‘admiration of men’, so that what initially looks like an excess of passionate enthusiasm – what we might call ‘good or positive energy’ – is, on closer inspection, born of a deep melancholy, a spiritual sickness that is also corporeal in its origins and psychosomatic in its affects.

More follows Descartes’ claim that the passions originate in the body. At the time he wrote and edited this essay, More considered Descartes a philosophical ally in a kind of culture war against the dangerous excesses of enthusiasm. More was deeply impressed by the Descartes’ treatise Les passions de l’âme(1649), a work to which the Frenchman drew More’s attention in their correspondence, and which More read in its Latin translation (1650) in the Luxembourg Gardens during a visit to Paris after Descartes died.

Another reason that More was so fascinated by enthusiasm was that he recognized an enthusiastic disposition in his own personality, itself rooted melancholy, from which his Christian Platonism ultimately rescued him.  Much is made of the philosophical arguments More puts forth in defence of Christian theism against putative atheism, but ultimately he sees atheism as a spiritual disease that can and, to a certain extent, does take root in every human soul. More’s battle with the atheist is fought on two fronts, both intellectual and spiritual, with the former ultimately  subordinate to the latter.

Although More sees Descartes qua public intellectual as his most important modern ally in his quarrel with this or that enthusiast and with enthusiasm generally as the spiritual malaise du jour, in Enthusiasmus Triumphatushe relies most heavily on Aristotle for his powers of psychological observation. More is especially intrigued by Aristotle’s account of melancholy in his (possibly pseudonymous) treatise, the Problems. The trouble with melancholic temper is the way it emerges from its depressed condition; the melancholic personality achieves unsustainable spiritual highs to the point where it deludes itself into thinking itself divinely inspired.  In such a state, the melancholic soul becomes dangerous – even deadly. Its imagination has run amok and is prone to ‘suspicion, jealously, and zeal’.  The melancholic soul behaves much like a drunkard whose high spirits can turn sinister on a dime, often resulting in a voracious sexual appetite, so that those who suffer from melancholy, More explains, very often advocate institutionalizing polygamy or even practice it. Reality itself is treated as a kind of dream by the enthusiast, in which the sober rules by which the rest of us live only serve to confirm that it is he who sees farthest. This brings us to the final, worrying symptom which More flags up: the enthusiast prophesies an imminent millennial future in which he will be the messiah. A serious business, to be sure!

Enthusiasm’s finds its remedy in a mixture of humility, temperance and reason, but it is sometimes difficult to identify the patient in need. To tell the difference between the genuine charismatic and the darker nature of the dangerous kind of enthusiast in need of this tripartite antidote is no small task. More suggests we watch such people who seem to be touched with enthusiasm very closely – the dangerous sort of enthusiast will ultimately betray himself by his proud, extravagant, and irrational conduct.  The ‘nature, causes, kind and cures’ of enthusiasm are many and sundry, but no enthusiast is beyond God’s reach; More consoles his readers with this final thought in an otherwise harrowing account of what he sees as a deeply concerning and widespread spiritual disease.


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)). Continue reading Some earlier reflections on Cudworth’s Platonic credentials

Some reflections on the category ‘Cambridge Platonism’

(By David Leech)

In a project on ‘Cambridge Platonists at the Origins of Enlightenment’ it is clear that the legitimacy of the category ‘Cambridge Platonism’ cannot simply be taken for granted, and it is a priority of ours to bring some needed clarity to the use of this category. There are several reasons why this matters. One is because while there is broad consensus about which figures constitute the ‘hard core’ of Cambridge Platonism, there has been less consensus about who else should be classed as a ‘Cambridge Platonist’. Another is because some may regard the category itself as representing a kind of problematic reification of more complicated intellectual realities. Dmitri Levitin, for instance, in his Ancient Wisdom in the Age of New Science (2015) has noted critically that the early modern period is one ‘often defined by recourse to ancient ideologies, to the extent that one could believe that ancient Greece was being relived in seventeenth-century Europe.’ The problem, as he sees it, is the following:

The period saw, we are told, the demise of ‘Aristotelianism’ in favour of any other number of ‘isms’…What is remarkable is the extent to which such readings tend to take for granted the existence of essentialist ‘isms’ whose play through the course of a historical period can be charted… To turn texts into ‘ideologies’ and then to chart the play of ideologies through various periods is tempting: it brings a familiarity to the material, and allows far easier descriptions of philosophical ‘traditions’ and their development through centuries of textual renegotiation. But this is to ignore the specificity of reception, and the fact that readers, in our case, seventeenth- century Englishmen and women, have unique and contingent attitudes towards philosophical texts. (3-4)

Continue reading Some reflections on the category ‘Cambridge Platonism’

Three Academic Texts by George Rust, 1656 and 1658

Marilyn Lewis has drawn our attention to the following publication, which will be of interest to all readers of Cambridge Platonist texts:

” ‘Origenian Platonisme’ in Interregnum Cambridge: Three Academic Texts by George Rust, 1656 and 1658″, edited by Marilyn A. Lewis, Davide A. Secci, and Christian Hengstermann, with assistance from John H. Lewis, and Benjamin Williams, History of Universities, vol. XXX / 1-2, pp. 43-124, published 3 August 2017.

Abstract: “Building on Professor Sarah Hutton’s designation of the years 1658-1662 as an ‘Origenist moment in English theology’, this article adds substantial detail to our knowledge of what Marilyn Lewis describes as an ‘Origenian Platonist’ moment. The article presents English translations of three Latin academic texts, written by George Rust in 1656 and 1658 while he was a fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge. The first text, Messias in S. Scriptura promissus olim venit should be assigned to Rust’s fulfilment in 1656 of the requirement to dispute in the Divinity Schools in the University of Cambridge in order to qualify for the degree of Bachelor of Divinity. The second and third texts were presented at the annual University of Cambridge Commencement Day in 1658, when Rust incepted BD. His Act verses, Resurrectionem e mortuis Scriptura docet nec refragatur Ratio and Anima separata non dormit appeared on a souvenir broadsheet for the day, and the final text, Resurrectionem è Mortuis S. Scriptura tradit, nec refragatur Ratio was the discourse which Rust defended in the disputation. Not only are these two 1658 texts important additions to the writings constituting the ‘Origenian Platonist moment’, but a reconstruction of the Commencement on 5 and 6 July will show that they formed part of what was perhaps the most public exposition and celebration of Origenian Platonist doctrines in Interregnum Cambridge.”

Link: History of Universities, XXX (2017), on OUP website

Discovery of A New Conway Letter

Professor Sarah Hutton has recently discovered a Conway letter not included in the Conway Letters edited by herself and M.H. Nicolson. It is National Library of Ireland MS, from Lord Conway to his wife, written from Dublin and dated 24 August 1678–the year before her death. It tells her that he has arranged for imprisoned Quakers to be released and for the charges against others to be dropped. It also tells the story of a “bad” Quaker who cheated someone of his inheritance. And other things.

Conference of the British Society for the History of Philosophy, 6-8 April, Sheffield

The programme for the annual conference of the British Society for the History of Philosophy, to take place at the University of Sheffield on 6-8 April 2017, is now available on the conference website: It will include a workshop on the Cambridge Platonists with papers by David, Sarah Hutton, Douglas Hedley and Christian Hengstermann.

Michael Allen: Transfiguration and the Platonic Fire Within (Divinity Faculty, Cambridge, 1st December, 5 pm)

At the opening of a new centre for the research on Platonism headed by Dr Douglas Hedley (Cambridge),  Professor Michael Allen (California) will give a talk entitled “Transfiguration and the Platonic Fire Within” at the Divinity Faculty of Cambridge University on 1st December 2016 (5 pm, Runcie Room). The centre is intended to provide an international hub for researchers working on Platonism old and new with regular Werner Beierwaltes lectures focusing on key aspects of ancient, medieval, early modern and contemporary Platonic philosophy.

£833,472 AHRC research grant secured

A major AHRC research grant secured!

The Cambridge Platonists at the origins of Enlightenment: texts, debates, and reception (1650-1730)

The research team of Douglas Hedley, Sarah Hutton and David Leech, with Technical Adviser Mike Hawkins, will employ two full-time research assistants. The grant will cover funding for extensive editorial work with both texts and manuscripts.

The project, worth £833,472 and shared between the Universities of Cambridge and Bristol, will start on 1 September 2016 and run for three years.

Papers on Cambridge Platonism at the 13th Annual Conference of the International Society for Neoplatonic Studies,

The following papers will be offered on Cambridge Platonism at the 13th Annual Conference of the ISNS in Buenos Aeres, Argentina, June 15-19th 2015:

Thursday, June 18 

Cambridge Platonism and the Enigma of Early Modern Neoplatonism (Platonismo de Cambridge y el enigma del neoplatonismo en la temprana Modernidad) I

Douglas Hedley and Natalia Strok

Silvia Manzo, Universidad Nacional de La Plata / IDHICS-CONICET

“Henry More and Francis Bacon on matter’s activity and antitypia”

Rodolfo E. Fazio, UBA

“Newton and the neo-Platonic offensive against Cartesianism”

Fernando Bahr, UNL-CONICET

“Bayle and Le Clerc: the traces of Cambridge Platonism in early Eighteenth Century French Philosophy”

Cambridge Platonism and the Enigma of Early Modern Neoplatonism (Platonismo de Cambridge y el enigma del neoplatonismo en la temprana Modernidad) II

Douglas Hedley and Natalia Strok

Douglas Hedley, Cambridge University

“Whence Cambridge Platonism? Reflections on Cudworth’s 1647 House of Commons Sermon”


“Plutarch’s Strong Presence in Cudworth’s The True Intellectual System of the Universe

For the full programme (to be advertised shortly), click here

‘Cambridge Platonists’ panel at International Society for Neoplatonic Studies 2014 Lisbon Conference

The 12th Annual Conference of the International Society for Neoplatonic Studies. Hosted and sponsored by the Philosophy Centre of the University of Lisbon, to be held at the Faculty of Letters of the University of Lisbon (Portugal) on June 16-21, 2014. This year includes a panel on ‘Cambridge Platonists’ (Douglas Hedley). For list of panels, follow this link.