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Benjamin Whichcote and the Puritans, 1644-1660

(By Mark Burden)

Benjamin Whichcote’s presence in the historiography of seventeenth-century English thought rests chiefly on an influential claim, propagated in slightly different forms by Ernst Cassirer (Die platonische Renaissance, 1932) and James Deotis Roberts (From Puritanism to Platonism, 1968), that he is the ‘father of Cambridge Platonism’. Supporters of this view can point to some intriguing if somewhat imprecise comments by Whichcote’s near-contemporary, the pro-Williamite bishop Gilbert Burnet, who recalled that Whichcote ‘set young students much on reading the ancient Philosophers, chiefly Plato, Tully, and Plotin’ (Burnet (1724), I, 187). Burnet, who did not know Whichcote well, nevertheless made a series of other claims which have received much less attention. Whichcote, he stated, had previously achieved ‘great credit with some that had been eminent in the late times’, but had chosen to use these connections with the Puritan regime to ‘protect good men of all persuasions’, being ‘much for liberty of conscience’. Theologically, he had urged his students to consider religion as ‘a seed of a deiform nature’, and as ‘a doctrine sent from God, both to elevate and sweeten humane nature’ (Burnet (1724), I, 186-7). The extent of Whichcote’s incorporation of Platonic doctrines in his surviving (and posthumously-published) corpus of sermons remains the subject of considerable debate. However, my aim in the following essay is to explore another aspect of Burnet’s remarks: Whichcote’s connections, whether intentional or otherwise, with Puritan intellectuals in the period before the Restoration. What I hope to show is that Whichcote’s writings need not simply be categorised as ‘Platonist’, or even (to use a later term) ‘Latitudinarian’; while the term ‘Puritan’ sits uneasily in relation to Whichcote’s early works, it is nevertheless the case that his writings have a much more complicated relationship to Puritan thought (itself a very difficult category) than has been previously recognised.

Whichcote’s embroilment in the theological controversies of the 1640s and 1650s was an inevitable consequence of his determination to make an intellectual name for himself in the febrile atmosphere of civil war Cambridge, when he was already in his thirties. Continue reading Benjamin Whichcote and the Puritans, 1644-1660

Editing the Cambridge Platonists – Some Initial Questions

(By Mark Burden)

The major objective of the Cambridge Platonists Project is to produce an online ‘Cambridge Platonism Sourcebook’ which will provide reliable selections of texts by Henry More, Ralph Cudworth, John Smith, Benjamin Whichcote, and Anne Conway; the ‘Sourcebook’ is designed to supersede previous anthologies. Our edition of Cambridge Platonist texts will be the first to include a strict adherence to the orthography and punctuation of the seventeenth and eighteenth-century copy-texts, the inclusion of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic characters, and the representation of printed marginalia, notes, and corrections. It will also make available a significant quantity of unfinished and manuscript writings; it will produce the first English translations of rare works in Latin in its reconstruction of their reception.

Initially, the Project’s guiding editorial principle was to select copytexts based on the first edition of a work, unless there were substantial additions or corrections to be found in a later edition. In practice, this principle is working reasonably well for texts by Henry More, most of which were published in his lifetime, usually under his editorial oversight. However, the situation for our other authors has proved more complicated. Whichcote’s writings were all printed posthumously, based on manuscripts of uncertain authorial integrity, and subjected to considerable editorial intervention and restructuring; the generally-accepted ‘best’ text is the 4-volume Works (Aberdeen, 1751), but we now know that this publication is an amalgam of two separate strands of Whichcote editorial practice, represented by the London editions of 1698 (the Select Sermons) and 1701-7 (the Select Discourses), which vary dramatically in structure and content. Cudworth’s True Intellectual System was published in his lifetime, but the status of early eighteenth-century editions, abridgments, and translations of the work have never been fully investigated. There are no recent studies of the relationship between the posthumously-printed edition of Cudworth’s Treatise of Eternal and Immutable Morality and the lost manuscript, meaning that the editorial principles and alterations made in preparation for publication have never been investigated. With the exception of a few brief pamphlets and the Treatise of Freewill, the remainder of Cudworth’s philosophical and theological writings have never been published; the relationship of the surviving manuscripts to Cudworth’s True Intellectual System, to his wider academic work as a Cambridge tutor, and to the exegetical work of Mede, More, Smith and others is very poorly understood. Smith’s Discourses were also subjected to considerable editorial rearrangement and condensation prior to their posthumous publication in 1660, while the original English text of Conway’s Principles has vanished, and we are reliant upon a later Latin text which was then translated back into English for what was initially a fairly small domestic market.

Continue reading Editing the Cambridge Platonists – Some Initial Questions