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’.

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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: