All posts by David Leech

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.

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