Animals, Freewill, and Animal Freewill: A Development in Cudworth’s Freewill Manuscripts

By Matthew Leisinger

1. The Freewill Manuscripts

Ralph Cudworth’s ‘freewill’ manuscripts (British Library Additional Manuscripts 4978-4982) may be somewhat long and rambling, but they are far from incoherent. On the contrary, Cudworth’s substantive views appear to remain largely unchanged across the manuscripts, even if Cudworth constantly seeks new modes of expression. This fact is remarkable because, as Mark Burden explains in his recent and important blog post, the manuscripts may well have been composed over a relatively long period of time. In their substance, the (perhaps) early sketches of 4982(1) and 4982(3) appear largely to agree with the (perhaps) later and more polished 4978 (the posthumously published A Treatise of Freewill).

Of course, this proclamation of consistency begs refutation. Scholarship on Cudworth’s freewill manuscripts remains in its infancy. The task at this point is simply to understand what Cudworth’s views are, not to chart how those views might have developed over time. As scholarship progresses, however, developmental stories may begin to emerge. As the freewill manuscripts become more accessible (in part through the efforts of The Cambridge Platonist Project) and as more scholars follow Burden’s lead by taking seriously the complex textual and philosophical relations between the manuscripts, it may become possible to distinguish the motions of Cudworth’s thought against the fixed background of his understood philosophical commitments.

I wish to make a modest (and perhaps premature) contribution to this project by attempting briefly to point out one such apparent motion. My suggestion will be that Cudworth’s views about animals seem to have gone through three stages. Assuming that Burden’s relative dating of the manuscripts is roughly accurate, I will argue that Cudworth initially believed that animals lack freewill but then lost confidence in this belief and went through a period of indecision before later changing his mind and adopting the contrary opinion that animals do indeed possess at least a kind of freewill.

2. Freewill, Animal and Moral

In order to see this motion in Cudworth’s thought, we need first to establish some fixed background as a frame of reference. To this end, allow me to provide a cursory and dogmatic sketch of Cudworth’s account of freewill.

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God, the soul and immateriality

By Douglas Hedley

The momentous legacy of Plato shapes the interests and obsessions of the Cambridge Platonists. Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff noted that for ancient Greek culture ‘God’ is not a proper name. The ‘divine’ is an adjective predicating power and immortality, whether of divinities as distinct as those of Parmenides or Epicurus. Plato was the first Greek philosopher to define the divine as immaterial, and the Cambridge Platonists are committed to theological immaterialism. Hobbes’ denial of the immaterial was, for them, clearly atheism. Yet this presupposes the ancient Platonic identification of deity with the immaterial. Hobbes could quite reasonably object that many theists have rejected immaterialism. However, Descartes’ substance dualism evidently opens up a space for the Cambridge Platonists in their controversy with Hobbes (and later Spinoza). If the new science threatened to expunge spiritual or immaterial aspects of the cosmos preserved in the Aristotelian-medieval synthesis, Descartes offers a way out of the materialist impasse.  The enthusiasm for Descartes among the Cambridge men is unintelligible apart from their Platonism, the attack on contemporary atheism, and the identification of deity with immateriality. 

The preface of Cudworth’s The True Intellectual System of the Universe reveals a deep debt to book 10 of Plato’s Laws. In that work Plato defines the atheist as  not merely denying divine existence but providence. An atheist can also hold to the pernicious view that the gods can be bribed: 

Whereas these Three Things are, (as we conceive) the Fundamentals or Essentials of True Religion. First, That all things in the World, do not Float without a Head and Governour; but that there is a God, an Omnipotent Understanding Being, Presiding over all. Secondly, That this God being Essentially Good and Just, there is […], Something in its own Nature, Immutably and Eternally Just, and Unjust;and not by Arbitrary Will, Law, and Command onely. And Lastly, That there is Something […], or, That we are so far forth Prin­ciples or Masters of our own Actions, as to be Accountable to Justice for them, or to make us Guilty and Blame-worthy for what we doe Amiss, and to Deserve Punishment accordingly (TIS, preface).

We can see in this passage the significance of God’s goodness and providence ‘a Head and Governour’ for the refutation of atheism. The Platonic identification of the Divine as immaterial should not be overlooked. It was decisive for Augustine’s conversion to Christianity. Augustine tells us that he learned from the ‘books of the Platonists’ that God is immaterial, and thus the concept of God could be disentangled from the problems afflicting a material deity. Plato, however, also thinks that human beings are immaterial, i.e. souls. Whatever the modifications of this principle in the Phaedo, the Phaedrus or the Republic, this is the basic message of these dialogues. It was also the official orthodoxy of a Platonic school that employed Alcibiades I as the introductory text to philosophy, a text where the identification of the self with the soul is explicit and foundational. This could not be acceptable to Christians who maintained the resurrection of the body, and was ultimately unacceptable to Augustine in his Retractions. When Aquinas says ‘anima mea non est ego’ (I am not my soul), he is attacking the traditional Platonic identification of the human person with the soul. As devout Christians, More and Cudworth cannot simply ignore, or reject, the Creed.

The immortality of the soul is a key topic for the Cambridge Platonists, and it is linked to their interest in defending divine providence against contemporary ‘atheists’. Henry More devotes an entire treatise to the problem. Yet the Cambridge Platonists reveal their colours by proposing a version of the Neoplatonic-Origenistic theory of the soul vehicle or spiritual body. They wish to hold on to the thoroughly Platonic principle that ‘only like knows like’ and that the soul has an ontological kinship with the transcendent immaterial first principle or God. But they also want to insist that the individual human soul needs a body, albeit a spiritual body. It is a mistake to see this as crypto materialism. It is rather the attempt to resolve an ancient tension within the Christian Platonic tradition.

Ralph Cudworth’s Freewill Manuscripts: A Roadmap to Dating and Analysis

By Mark Burden

In the preface to his True Intellectual System of the Universe: The First Part (1678), Ralph Cudworth explained that he originally intended ‘onely a Discourse concerning Liberty and Necessity’ before broadening his scheme to take account of the ‘Tripartite Fatalism’ of Democritean Fate (material necessity and atheism), the Divine Fate immoral and violent (arbitrary, omnipotent will), and the Divine Fate moral and natural (intrinsic necessity as a series of causes without contingency). The True Intellectual System as published, in which Cudworth attempted to confute ‘All the Reason and Philosophy of Atheism’, represents the contents of the first part of this three-way scheme. It is often said that much of the contents of the remaining two parts can be found in five volumes of Cudworth’s unpublished manuscript writings, now held by the British Library, known collectively as the ‘freewill’ manuscripts (Add MSS 4978-4982). However, as we shall see, several of these manuscript writings probably predate Cudworth’s decision to prioritise discussion of Democritean materialism, and are perhaps better described as part of his original plan for a ‘Discourse concerning Liberty and Necessity’; thus, it may not be quite true to Cudworth’s intention if we refer to them as drafts for the projected second and third parts of the True Intellectual System. Only one brief fragment, Add. MSS 4982(2), provides any clear evidence of the continuation of the three-part design outlined by Cudworth in his preface; this section refers directly back to the opening pages of Part One before developing a discussion of arbitrary divine will as encountered in Calvin and his successors, so we can be reasonably confident that it constitutes an early draft of the opening section of the projected second part of the work.

The five volumes of Cudworth’s freewill manuscripts consist of eight fragmentary drafts, as follows:

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