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’.