Category Archives: Billets

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.


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

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

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

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’