All posts by David Leech

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’.

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


In my last blog, I referred to  Brooke Foss Westcott (1825–1901) and the foundation of St Stephen’s College in Delhi. I mentioned him in relation to his profound and open debt to the Cambridge Platonists. This remarkable scholar was  responsible for the Greek New Testament text sometimes referred to as the  Westcott and Hort text or the WH, because it was edited by Westcott  and Fenton John Anthony Hort (1828–1892) from 1853 until its completion in 1881. F J H Hort was, like Westcott, a great admirer of the Cambridge Platonists. And Hort saw the Cambridge Platonists as belonging to a longer Alexandrian Christian tradition. This can be seen by visiting Emmanuel chapel today and the collection of Church figures accorded to a plan devised by Hort and executed in 1884. Hort was a fellow of Emmanuel from 1872 to 1892. The windows in the chapel were originally plain but Hort’s elective affinities can be seen in his choice of Images of Benjamin Whichcote, John Smith and Peter Sterry.  These seventeenth century figures are presented as the  intellectual and spiritual heirs of Origen and Eriugena. Today any visitor to the chapel can see Hort’s vision of the Cambridge Platonists as the great Early Modern heirs of Alexandrian Platonism. Information about these chapel widows can be found at:


Some further reflections on Brucker’s classification of Henry More as a ‘Platonico-Cabbalist’

I noted in an earlier post that the historian of philosophy Johann Jacob Brucker, writing in the 1730s and 1740s, distinguishes More’s ‘Platonico-Cabbalism’ from Cudworth, Gale, and Burnet’s ‘Alexandrian’ form of Platonism in his characterisation of their position. This must certainly reflect the fact that More had gained an early reputation in continental Europe for his engagement with the Cabbala. It is noteworthy that one of the first publications of note addressing More’s work on the continent, the Herborn Lutheran professor Samuel Andreae’s Examen Generale Cabbalae Philosophicae D. Henrici More (Herborn, 1670) is a critique of More’s Conjectura Cabbalistica (London, 1653), with which he was familiar in the English. More responded to Andreae’s critique in the scholia to his Opera Omnia (London, 1679), which in turn attracted a response from Andreae (then at Marburg) in his Epistola apologetica, ad virum eruditissimum & celeberrimum Henricum Morum (Marburg, 1684). Johannes Franciscus Buddeus, in a 23 page section of his Introductio ad historiam philosophiae Ebraeorum (Halle, 1702) discusses More’s Conjectura Cabbalistica before passing to a consideration of his later Cabbalistic writings. Buddeus notes that these later Cabbalistic texts (those which would be published within Christian Knorr von Rosenroth’s Kabbala denudata (Sulzbach and Frankfurt, 1676) and More’s Opera Omnia) were written between 1672 and 1678, after a period of almost twenty years during which More did not touch on Cabbalistic themes, with the two periods being punctuated by the Andreae-More exchange. Buddeus notes that More was a pioneer in attempting a modern harmonisation of the Cabbala with Christian philosophy, as does Paul Berger (another critic) in his Cabbalismus Judaico-Christianus detectus (Wittemberg, 1707), who classes him together with Johann Stephan Rittangel – according to Berger, a convert from Judaism, although this has been contested – and Knorr von Rosenroth as the first to attempt such a modern harmonisation. Somewhat later Brucker also acknowledges the pioneering nature of More’s engagement with the Cabbala and refers to the Andreae-More exchange. Evidently More’s association with Cabbala became quite entrenched. For instance, the entry CABALE, (Philos.) in the first edition of Diderot’s Encyclopedie (1751) contains the following: ‘Henri Morus & Van-Helmont (Knorrius, Cabala denud. tom.I.) sont les deux savans qui ont les premiers débrouillé le cahos de la philosophie cabalistique’ (p.480). Such characterisations extend into the nineteenth century. The extent to which More’s early reputation in continental Europe was bound up with his engagement with Cabbalism has still to be established, but it certainly seems to have been an important strand and to some extent to have eclipsed his reputation as an anti-Cartesian. 

(with thanks also to Mark Burden for drawing my attention to the Andreae-More exchange)

Cudworth and liberal Christianity in the Bengal Renaissance

The Tattvabodhini Patrika “The Truth-enlightening Journal” was one of the most influential organs of the Bengal Renaissance. It was the expression of the ideas of a group around Debendranath Tagore called the Tattvaranjini Sabha or the Society of Those Who Delight in Truth. The context was one of intense proselytizing in colonial Calcutta and the society or Sabha was pursuing the soi-disant Father of modern India Rammohan Roy and vision of a renewed Vedantic theism and the Brahmo Samaj was disrupted by the death of Rammohan Roy in Bristol in 1833. Faced with the prospect of answering the challenge of evangelicals like Alexander Duff, whose combination of educational institutional activity and Christian zeal, rather paradoxically ignited a vigorous response from the Hindu reformers, Tattvabodhini Patrika published Debendranath’s own interpretations of the Upanishads alongside extracts from Rammohun’s translations of the Upanishads. In the face of the  Christian missionary critiques of Hinduism as pantheistic, monistic, and idolatrous religion, in 1864 we find the following instructive passage in which Cudworth is cited as pioneer of comparative religion:

“Our reverend friends maintain that it was Christ who first revealed correct notions of religion to mankind, and that they did not possess them before his appearance. Now this is a statement contradicted by all history.

I would recommend Gentleman to your attentive perusal the “Intellectual System of the Universe” by old Dr Cudworth, whose liberal Christianity the revered gentlemen in question would do well to imitate. This book contains innumerable proofs of the existence of correct notions of the godhead prevailing among the ancient Greeks and Romans.”

The author wishes to infer that Indian monotheism too contains correct ‘notions of the godhead’, and reading Cudworth can furnish a path to such an insight. Why do we find a reference to the Cambridge Platonists, old Dr Cudworth and his ‘liberal Christianity’? These figures of the Bengal elite do not want to fall into the arms of the Enlightenment agnosticism of Hume and Gibbon, the spiritual mentors of the East India Company. Cudworth represents that Alexandrian strand of Christianity that happily drew upon pagan Hellenic thought, and what might be called a more fluid or mystical monotheism as opposed to the exclusive monarchical theism of High Protestant or Catholic orthodoxy. I am using the language of John Kenney. Exclusive theism concentrates upon numerical singularity and the more inclusive theism of Hellenic Monotheism, where the stress is laid upon the ultimacy and unity of the supreme principle. Much of Cudworth’s True Intellectual System of the Universe, in particular the enormous fourth book, is devoted to showing that monotheism in this more fluid sense was the foundational religion of the Egyptians and the rest of the ancient world, and this primordial monotheism lapsed into polytheism and pantheism.  It is no accident that one of Cudworth’s liberal Christian successors B.F. Westcott (1825-1901) should have been a driving force behind the foundation of St Stephen’s College in Delhi. Westcott was a great admirer of Plotinus and Origen, and he viewed the Cambridge Platonists as the real successors of the Alexandrians in the modern world.  
My thanks to Ankur Barua for referring me to the Tattvabodhini Patrika passage.

Douglas Hedley

Cambridge Platonism in Milton’s Paradise Lost: Materialism, Evil, and The Christian Cabbalah

James Bryson

      Scholars of early modern Platonism have long recognized that a Platonic caste of mind might just as easily express itself poetically as through philosophical argument, and indeed that poetry and philosophy will yield to and include one another depending on the spiritual requirements of the task at hand. For the Platonist, poetry and philosophy have a common business because both are engaged in the art of interpretation, whether it be divinization, psychology, natural philosophy, or the reading of a sacred text. In this post, I will be talking to you about a version of this Platonizing tradition in seventeenth century England, called the Christian Cabbalah as it expressed itself in Milton’s (1608-1674) Paradise Lost, which has been rightly dubbed a poetic counterpoint to the philosophical theology of the Cambridge Platonists, especially to the Caballistic Platonism of Henry More (1614-1687). Milton likely knew More personally and he almost certainly would have watched his career unfold with great interest given how closely their theological, philosophical, literary interests would have been allied.  In the most substantial recent treatment of Milton’s philosophical context, however, Stephen Fallon argues that Milton was not a Platonist, since he rejected the metaphysics of transcendence championed by the Platonic tradition in favour of an ‘animist materialism’, and he downplays Milton’s interest in the tradition of Christian Cabbalism because of its association with the Platonizing writings of Jacob Boehme, More among other Platonizing writers. Interestingly, Fallon argues that Milton’s worldview is much closer to More’s pupil Anne Conway (1631-1679) who is traditionally considered  a member of the Cambridge Platonist group, and who, ironically, went further down the Cabbalistic road as it was practised in Jewish communites at the time than did More towards a metaphysical monism that her teacher could not accept and from which path he urged her to turn back.

      Fallon’s excellent study has brought about a kind of consensus regarding Milton’s materialism – even Milton’s wikipedia page at the time of posting cites it! Fallon argues that the poet held a uniquely heretical position, making God and angels part of a materialistic continuum that rejected creatio ex nilhilo in favour of a creatio ex deo, in response to the challenge posed by Hobbesian materialism, a position which may be briefly summarized as follows: that since all is matter in motion, free will is an illusion because all choices we make take their origins from the physical causes that precede them.  

Continue reading Cambridge Platonism in Milton’s Paradise Lost: Materialism, Evil, and The Christian Cabbalah

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.

Continue reading Dampening Enthusiasm

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.