All posts by David Leech

Some earlier reflections on Cudworth’s Platonic credentials


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)).

Buhle, seeking to distinguish Cudworth’s position from the Kantian one, argues that the identity of Cudworth’s philosophical system with the Platonic (‘die Identitaet des Cudworthischen und Platonischen Systems’) can be seen in the fact that the Platonists also suppose a world of Ideas which exists in the divine intellect, and the sensible world is created on their model, as well as that the ideas in humans minds have their origin from them (672). He also notes the ‘unmistakable’ influence of the Platonic philosophy on Cudworth’s moral philosophy, namely, that he derives the eternal and immutable moral system from the mind of God, which is superior to and determines God’s wisdom, which in turn determines his will (673); and that human goodness participates in the divine goodness (674).

However, he also notes his disagreement with his colleague Christoph Meiner who denied that Cudworth’s moral philosophy is identical with the Platonic one, and identified it instead with Kant’s practical philosophy. But contra Meiner, Buhle – slightly repetitively by this point – argues that Plato supposes that the objective Ideas of sensible objects exist in the divine intellect; that the divine will is determined by these; and they are also that by which the human will should be determined, insofar as human minds participate in the divine Ideas and therefore contain the ideas of the good, the right etc. But (he argues) this is also exactly what Cudworth teaches, and also, if any concept is distinctive of a Platonic position it is participationism, but Cudworth is fully participationist (675). He observes that Cudworth accepted certain (unnamed) ‘modifications’ which Neoplatonists (‘Neuplatoniker’) made to Platonism, and differs from Platonism only in the obvious respect that he harmonised it with Christianity (677).

Buhle further observes that it is precisely due to these Platonic commitments that he differs from Kant. This is true, he thinks, in the following respects: his moral philosophy is not purely formal (‘bloss formal’); that like Plato but unlike Kant, he is relatively obscure about the content of the moral good, comparing the highest good in God with the kabbalistic notion of the ‘crown’ (keter) of divinity (677); that he lacks a doctrine of the categorical imperative; that the Cudworthian reason is not an autonomous law-setter independent of God; and that unlike Kant he has a theory of ideas and which does a lot of philosophical work for him (the list goes on).

This early tradition of calling Cudworth a Platonist does not settle the more general question of whether it is appropriate to use the category of Cambridge Platonism, but it does show at a minimum that the category predates the British mid-nineteenth century. A similar account can be given of More’s Platonism, but I will pick this up in a separate blog devoted to him.

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.

session of the American Academy of Religion on ‘Cambridge Platonism Revisited’

On Monday 25th of November 4.00 pm-6.30pm 2013 there will be a session of the American Academy of Religion at Baltimore on 'Cambridge Platonism Revisited'. Speakers are Eric Parker (McGill) on Peter Sterry, Heather Ohanson (Columbia) on Cudworth and the Readmission of the Jews, Alex Hampton (Cambridge) on Herder and Cudworth. Douglas Hedley (Cambridge) will be presiding.

Conference ‘Platonism after Plato in the Renaissance’

Platonism after Plato in the Renaissance

7 – 8 November 2013

Jointly organised by the Centre for Neoplatonic Virtue Ethics, University of Copenhagen,
and the Warburg Institute

Click here to download the poster

Organisers: Leo Catana (Copenhagen), Anna Corrias, Guido Giglioni and Jill Kraye (Warburg Institute)

Speakers: Leo Catana (Copenhagen), Christopher Celenza (American Academy in Rome/Johns Hopkins), Riccardo Chiaradonna, (Roma Tre), Anna Corrias (Warburg Institute), Rocco Di Dio (Warwick), Guido Giglioni (Warburg Institute), James Hankins ( Harvard), Sarah Hutton, (Aberystwyth), Cecilia Muratori (Villa I Tatti), Denis Robichaud (Notre Dame), Valery Rees (School of Economic Science), Valerio Sanzotta (Ludwig Boltzmann Institute) and Maude Vanhaelen (Warwick)

The conference will focus on the early modern reception of Plotinus and the post-Plotinian Platonists. Among the topics which will be discussed are: Marsilio Ficino’s translation of and commentary on the Enneads and his translation of works by Porphyry, Iamblichus and Proclus; the different ways in which Ficino’s translation and interpretation shaped the view which European scholars and philosophers had of late ancient Platonism up to the nineteenth century; the circulation of Plotinian and post-Plotinian philosophy after, and independently of, Ficino’s translations; and post-Plotinian elements in early modern Platonism.

For further details, see: