A Curious Miscellany of Items Philosophical, Historical, and Literary

Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Monday, June 26, 2017

The Cambridge Platonists

Benjamin Whichcote (1609-1683)
As mentioned in my previous post, this is the first of a series on the great period of the British moralists, extending from roughly 1650 to 1800.

Professional philosophers make a living by arguing against one another, and society has decided, for its own reasons, that it would like to pay certain people to make a profession out of disagreeing. And yet, strangely, the fact is that modern Anglo-American academic philosophers are really birds of a feather. The majority of them, it seems, share the following beliefs in some form: free will is an illusion; truth is subjective or is a function of power; veridical knowledge about the world is not possible (scepticism); morality is largely a matter of either subjective feeling (emotivism, non-cognitivism) or group agreement (cultural relativism), or an illusion (nihilism); the universe is reducible to force acting on passive matter ; the human agent is a causally determined machine made of flesh and propelled by desires and appetites; human beings are not special, but are just animals with somewhat more complicated brains; there is no such thing as objective beauty; there is no such thing as a soul; there is no such thing as a God.

This list is not exhaustive, but it is certainly depressing. And looking at it, one is struck by how much the modern philosopher is the direct heir of her famous 17th-century predecessors. During the middle of that century, Descartes was arguing that the universe was reducible to matter pushed by matter. At the same time, Hobbes was arguing that men were nothing more than meat puppets motivated by selfish appetites, and that right and wrong had no basis in reality other than a sovereign’s ability to impose them by force.

Some brave souls struggled, however vainly, against this reductionist impulse. Imagine for a moment a time and place where there were English-language academic philosophers who (i) wrote in elegant and beautiful prose (almost inconceivable now); who (ii) believed that Right and Wrong, Good and Evil, were distinctions with a sound basis in the nature of things; who (iii) defended the concepts of free will and ultimate responsibility for one’s actions; who (iv) believed that rather than being an inert, passive collection of matter, the universe is alive and active; and who (v) similarly believed that the mind is an active power that makes knowledge as much as it passively receives it.

This broad and unfashionable-sounding philosophical profile is characteristic of a group of 17th-century thinkers associated with Cambridge University, and particularly with Emmanuel College, a group that later came to be labelled “the Cambridge Platonists”. It is precisely this broad and unfashionable profile that makes these figures rather difficult to explain today.

To be honest, in discussing the Cambridge Platonists, I’m not quite sure where to begin. I suppose we might start with style, with their elegant prose. The first thing to keep in mind is that although they were academics, they were also clergymen. In other words, the course of their professional duties required a lighter touch, since they had to deliver sound theological doctrine, moral exhortation, and religious inspiration to congregations who were not academics themselves, or indeed were illiterate. Hence, to a professional academic philosopher of today, their writings — many of which appear in the form of sermons — can seem flaky and eccentric. But they are often extremely poetic. Take, for example, this characterization of the spiritually deadening effects of excessive self-interest offered by Peter Sterry (1613-1672): “A little Bird ty’d by the Leg with a String, often flutters and strives to raise itself; but still it is pull’d down to the Earth again: Thus a Soul fixt in a Self-Principle, may make attempts to Pray and Offer at the Bosom of God; but still it is snatch’d down by that String of Self, which ties it to the Ground” (Pinto 169). I admit there is great charm in this little simile. The author has that poetic eye, which sees the very great in the very small.

Not all of Sterry’s imagery was equally felicitous. For example, there is something rather improper in this one: “There is not the lowest thing, which hath not God in it; for God fills all: Yet as the Sun-Beams fall on a Dunghill, and are not polluted; so God is still himself to himself, high and glorious in the lowest Things” (Pinto 150). Put charitably, this might be characterized as the author’s poetic eye seeing the very small in the very great, to ill effect.

Another choice little gem comes from the lyrical pen of John Smith: “When we look unto the Earth, then behold darkness and dimness of anguish, that I may use those words of the Prophet Esay [Isaiah 8:22]: But when we look towards Heaven, then behold light breaking forth upon us, like the Eye-lids of the Morning, and spreading its wings over the Horizon of mankind sitting in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace [Luke 1:79]” (Patrides 151).

Interestingly, among the Cambridge Platonists, Sterry was a bit of an oddball. For one thing, he was a Puritan. As a matter of fact, he was Oliver Cromwell’s chaplain. Most of the other Cambridge Platonists were Anglican, though of a latitudinarian persuasion. Also, while the others had their poetic flights, they usually succeeded in remaining firmly grounded in reason. Sterry, on the other hand, was a mystic, and some of his flights, though somehow quite dazzling, were also utterly incomprehensible if one stopped to reflect on them for too long, as in this example: “A bright or light Body, like the Sun, sends forth millions of Beams round about from every Point of itself. Such a Brightness, such a Fruitfulness is there in the Person of Christ; Millions of Angels every Moment spring and sparkle forth from him” (Pinto 153). This is a beautiful gem, but one isn’t quite sure what to do with it.

At his mystical best, Sterry was a poet of those little contemplative silences, where God is to be found: “Put out then every Spark of Creature Light or Life in your Spirits, and you shall find yourselves immediately in the Light of God. A deep Silence of all created Objects ushers in the Appearances of God in the Soul” (Pinto 184). And consider this, which he wrote in a letter to his son: “As musick is conveyed sweetest and furthest upon a river in ye Night: so is ye Musick of ye heavenly voice carried most clearly, pleasantly to ye understanding, when all ye outward senses ly wrapt up in darkness, and ye depth of night” (Pinto 184).

Sterry was a sort of poet who wrote in prose. Not all of the Cambridge Platonists were excellent stylists. Henry More (1614-1687), for instance, was a wretched writer. He also tried his hand at actual poetry, to embarrassing effect. Two things were mainly responsible for making More’s poetry bad. First, his favourite poet was Edmund Spenser, particularly the latter’s Faerie Queen, which was written in a peculiar stanza form, and used language that was self-consciously archaic and hearkened back to Middle English verse. With Spenser it has a certain charm, and certainly it flows. Here’s the effect when More employs (perpetrates?) a similar style:

     Nor Ladies loves, nor Knights brave martiall deeds,
     Ywrapt in rolls of hid Antiquitie;
     But th’inward Fountain, and the unseen Seeds,
     From whence are these and what so under eye
     Doth fall, or is record in memorie,
     Psyche, I’ll sing. Psyche! from thee they sprong.
     O life of Time, and all Alterity!
     The life of lives instill his nectar strong,
   My soul t’inebriate, while I sing Psyches song.
(“Psychozoia,” Canto I, stanza 1, in Philosophicall Poems, p. 1).

Secondly, More uses this poetical form to express very abstract philosophical concepts, deploying a Greek-derived philosophical inkhorn jargon. Long Greek words tend not to sit very naturally within English versification, partly because they don’t scan well, and partly because the reader must stop the flow to mentally construe the meaning of such terms:

    “Plain death’s as good as such a Psychopannychie.”

Wretched stuff. None of this is to say that More wasn’t a good philosopher; he was just a terrible writer, bad enough to make Kant proud. I could say much more about style, but I’d rather move on to content.

Active Minds

I mentioned above that unlike Hobbes and Descartes (and later Locke), who saw the human mind along the lines of a lump of wax passively receiving sensory impressions, the Cambridge Platonists conceptualized the mind as an active power that makes knowledge rather than merely receiving it. On this, the best spokesperson is probably Ralph Cudworth (1617-1688). Cudworth insisted that one way the active nature of the human mind manifests itself is in the integration of the various sensory impressions it receives: “The Sight cannot Judge of Sounds which belong to the Hearing, nor the Hearing of Light and Colours; wherefore that which judges of all the Senses and their several Objects, cannot be it self any Sense, but something of a superior Nature” (Treatise 70). In other words, there must be some active intellectual power that actively integrates and interprets information from all the various senses, and which cannot itself be a sense, but is something that is prior to sensory knowledge.

It is not just that the sensationalist psychology leaves unexplained how the various passively received sensory impressions get integrated without the active power of the mind. Hobbes and his ilk, in their rush to reduce knowledge to sensory impressions, effectively reduce all sense impressions to impressions of one sense — touch, since all sense is a reducible to matter impacting upon the sensory organs. Thus, they lose the basis for differentiation between the various senses (e.g. touch versus taste), and between different sensations within a sensory dimension (hard versus soft). Again, it is the active powers of the mind that make these discriminations (ibid. 60).

And since, says Cudworth, knowledge cannot be reduced to passively acquired sense-impressions without positing an active integrating and discriminating power, “Knowledge is not a Knock or Thrust from without, but it consisteth in the Awakening and Exciting of the Inward Active Powers of the Mind” (ibid. 99-100). Thus, he says, “It must needs follow from hence, that Knowledge is an Inward and Active Energy of the Mind it self, and the displaying of its own Innate Vigour from within, whereby it doth Conquer, Master and Command its Objects…” (ibid. 126).

“Connate” Knowledge and the Moral Sense

So, knowledge does not come solely — or even primarily — from the senses. The mind is active and, in a sense, creates knowledge using its own pre-existing resources. There is, then, such a thing as innate knowledge, prior to sensory experience. It is in this claim of innate knowledge that we find the Platonism of the Cambridge Platonists on display. However, instead of using the word “innate” they often prefer to use the term “connate” or “connatural”. Indeed, this latter terminology is so frequent in the writings of the Cambridge Platonists, and infrequent enough elsewhere, that it can almost serve as an identifier of the group. (As we’ll see, there are two other terms that also serve this purpose.) “Connatural” is not always used in the same way in their writings. For example, there are many places where it is synonymous with “innate”, in the sense of a kind of knowledge that is in the mind ab initio, not acquired. In other places it serves to describe knowledge that, though not necessarily present from the very first, develops early on and necessarily, as a function of the life form and history of the species. And sometimes for the Cambridge Platonists, “connatural” is used in the sense of “consistent with one’s nature”, as when Benjamin Whichcote (1609-1683) writes that “Man, as Man, is Averse to what is Evil and Wicked; for Evil is unnatural, and Good is connatural, to Man” (Moral & Religious Aphorisms #42).

Whichcote’s words show that moral knowledge is among that body of knowledge which is connate to man. Although we learn to make finer moral distinctions through experience, human beings have an innate understanding of right and wrong, good and evil. For the Cambridge Platonists, this understanding is sometimes ascribed to reason, and sometimes to “conscience”, though the latter term is often used as if it were the same thing as reason. This is because for them, reason is more akin to a sort of intuition; it is not necessarily ratiocinative. Again, here their Platonism is on display: understanding is often more a matter of directly grasping the truth rather than arriving at it by a process of explicit reasoning, of consciously moving stepwise from premises to conclusion.

For the Cambridge Platonists, there is a normative dimension to reason that allows for this identification of reason with conscience. Whichcote notes that reason has a directing force, because it is the voice of God. Therefore, “To go against Reason, is to go against God: it is the self same thing, to do that which the Reason of the Case doth require; and that which God Himself doth appoint: Reason is the Divine Governor of Man’s Life; it is the very Voice of God” (ibid. #76). The moral person listens to this voice and follows it. Disobedience to it is immorality. And when we ignore it, says Whichcote, we not only pay the price in terms of suffering the worldly consequences of error, we also suffer the sting of conscience: “If Reason may not command; it will condemn” (Select Sermons, p. 63; Moral & Religious Aphorisms #98).

Placed within the tradition of the British moralists, it is easy to see how this view of conscience as an intuitive grasping of moral truth leads naturally to the notion that we have a moral sense, which gives us access to moral truths much as sight grasps colours and shapes, and hearing grasps sounds. In other words, we can see in the Cambridge Platonists the beginnings of a “moral sense” school of thought. Shaftesbury, usually accredited as the founder of the moral sense school, edited — with a lengthy preface — an edition of Whichcote’s sermons (Select Sermons). As a matter of fact, this was Shaftesbury’s first published work. To credit Shaftesbury with inventing the moral sense is to ignore the fact that in the very volume that Shaftesbury edited, Whichcote wrote, “Man by his Nature and Constitution, as God made him at first, being an intelligent Agent, hath Sense of Good and Evil, upon a Moral account” (Select Sermons 232). Elsewhere, Whichcote wrote in a similar strain, “Man, by Reason, has apprehensions of Moral Good and Evil; as Animals, by Sense, distinguish Natural Good and Evil” (Moral & Religious Aphorisms #146). Of Shaftesbury’s two most prominent followers, Hutcheson preferred the language of “moral sense”, while Butler seems to have preferred “conscience”, the term more commonly used among the Cambridge Platonists.

“The Candle of the Lord”

So, in the Cambridge Platonists, we have a view of the mind as active, and as directing conduct through reason or conscience. This “reason-or-conscience” is connatural to man. I also said that the use of the word “connatural” is often a telltale sign that one is reading the Cambridge Platonists (Shaftesbury used it too). This is a good place to introduce another phrase peculiar to the Cambridge Platonists. They seem to have had an obsession with Proverbs 20:27: “The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord.” This image of the mind as the candle of the Lord is recurrent throughout the writings of this group.

Whichcote uses it when he writes that “The Spirit of a Man is the Candle of the Lord; Lighted by God, and Lighting us to God” (Moral & Religious Aphorisms #916). Nathaniel Culverwell (1619-1651) is often mentioned in connection with the Cambridge Platonists, because he taught at Emmanuel College, but he is usually considered not to be one of them, because his philosophical opinions are more heterodox — in his writings there is a heavy natural law influence, and he often cites Descartes with approval. However, I do consider him a Cambridge Platonist, largely on the grounds that he too was a heavy user of the “candle of the Lord” metaphor, as when he writes, “But the publishing and manifestation of this Law which must give notice of all this, does flow from that heavenly beame which God has darted into the soul of man; from the Candle of the Lord, which God has lighted up for the discovery of his owne Lawes; from that intellectual eye which God has fram’d and made exactly proportionable to this light” (Elegant and Learned Discourse 71).

What do Cambridge Platonists mean when they say that the mind is the “candle of the Lord”? Well, first, God is the source of all intellectual light (again, this is Platonism). But a finite portion of this infinite light has been placed in each of us, on purpose, that we may shed some of its rays to cut through darkness and illuminate His works. Recall John Smith’s words, quoted earlier: “But when we look towards Heaven, then behold light breaking forth upon us, like the Eye-lids of the Morning, and spreading its wings over the Horizon of mankind sitting in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” We are surrounded by darkness, and all we have is this little candle to guide us and prevent us from stumbling around blindly.

Henry More has an interesting take on the “candle of the Lord” image. He seems to include our passions and affections as part of this luminous candle: “Nevertheless, we do not pretend, in the least, to have the Passions of the Mind exterminated. We rather account of them… as of the very Organs of the Body, and as distinctly useful… Wherefore if we can but skill our Passions aright, They are as Lamps or Beacons, to conduct and excite us to our Journey’s end” (Account of Virtue 82-83). This is a truly remarkable passage. Most philosophers in the Western tradition, Descartes included, viewed the passions with deep suspicion, since they were seen to interfere with reason, clouding or distorting it. More, on the other hand, does not distrust the passions as such. Rather, since the passions are natural, we must have them for a purpose. The passions, “rightly skilled” or trained, are guides to the understanding of good and evil, or are at least tokens of such understanding. This acceptance of our passionate nature is another foreshadowing of Shaftesbury’s philosophy.

“Plastick Nature”

I mentioned earlier that the Cambridge Platonists set themselves against those philosophers, such as Hobbes, who viewed the universe as an inert, passive collection of matter bounces against other matter in the void, to no particular purpose. For the Cambridge Platonists, by contrast, the universe is active and purposive, a sort of living organism. Instead of simply existing, with its component parts bouncing against each other endlessly, the Cambridge Platonist universe can be said to be in a process of unfolding. Since the universe is God’s creation, it can even be said to be a thought in God’s mind, with a logic to it, much as there is with a chain of reasoning in the mind. We’ve already seen that minds are active. As with minds, so with larger nature. Everything is active, unfolding according to its own internal principles.

This brings us to the third of those terms — along with “connatural” and “candle of the Lord” — that are identifiers of Cambridge Platonist writing. This activity, this “unfolding of nature according to its internal principles” is called the universe’s “plastic nature”. Although the phrase, and variants of it, is common among all the writers in this group, it is especially prominent in Ralph Cudworth and John Smith. Cudworth, for example, complains of the inertness of the materialist philosophers’ universe in the following terms: “They make a kind of Dead and Wooden World, as it were a Carved Statue, that hath nothing neither Vital nor Magical at all in it. Whereas to those who are Considerative, it will plainly appear, that there is a Mixture of Life or Playstick [sic.] Nature together with Mechanism, which runs through the whole Corporeal Universe” (Patrides 290). The universe is not a mere machine. It is an organism that grows and develops: “[T]he World was not made by any whatsoever, after such a manner as an Artificer makes an House, by Machins and Engins, acting from without upon the Matter, Cumbersomly and Moliminously, but by a certain Inward Plastick Nature of its own” (Patrides 296).

John Smith makes an important point that serves to tie much of this metaphysics together with the concept of free will, for he says that as with nature, so too with the mind. Neither nature as a whole, nor the mind as a subset of nature, is wholly compelled by extraneous forces. Rather, it moves towards ends proposed by its own internal force: “There is a Plastick Virtue, a Secret Energy issuing forth from that which the Mind propounds to itself as its End, to mold and fashion it according to its own Model. The soul is alwaies stamp’d with the same Characters that are engraven upon the End it aims at; and while it converses with it, and sets it self before it, it is turned as Wax to the Seal, to use that phrase in Job [Job 38:14]” (Patrides 166). Where a Hobbist sees the motions of the mind as being caused by contingent, occurrent wants and desires, Smith sees the mind as active in proposing ends to itself, and that there is a “fit” between agent and ends. Note too the reversal here of the Cartesian image of the mind as wax passively receiving sensory impressions from the external world. Instead, Smith proposes that the mind is itself the seal, which leaves its impression upon the external world, through willing and acting.

A living and unfolding universe with meaning, free and active minds, an innate moral faculty, a sense of beauty, the reality of good and evil, the acceptance and celebration of our passionate nature… these things are the philosophical legacy of the Cambridge Platonists. Unfortunately, it is a legacy we have mostly squandered.


CUDWORTH, Ralph. A Treatise concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality. London: James and John Knapton, 1731 (facsimile, New York: Garland, 1976).

CULVERWELL, Nathaniel. An Elegant and Learned Discourse of the Light of Nature. Robert A. Greene and Hugh McCallum (eds.). Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2001.

MORE, Henry. Philosophicall Poems. Cambridge: Roger Daniel, 1647 (facsimile, Menston, UK: Scolar Press, 1969).

An Account of Virtue. Edward Southwell (trans.). London: Benjamin Tooke, 1690 (facsimile, New York: Facsimile Text Society, 1930).

PATRIDES, C. A. (ed.). The Cambridge Platonists. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

PINTO, Vivian de Sola (ed.). Peter Sterry, Platonist and Puritan, 1613-1672: A Biographical and Critical Study with passages selected from his Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1934.

WHICHCOTE, Benjamin. Select Sermons of Dr. Whichcot [sic.]. Edinburgh: G. Hamilton and J. Balfour, 1742 (facsimile, Delmar, NY: Scholars’ Facsimiles and Reprints, 1977).

Moral and Religious Aphorisms. London: Mathew Elkins and Marrot, 1930.