Cambridge Platonists

[This is taken from H. Stanley Redgrove's Bygone Beliefs.]


THERE is an opinion, unfortunately very common, that religious mysticism is a product of the emotional temperament, and is diametrically opposed to the spirit of rationalism.  No doubt this opinion is not without some element of justification, and one could quote the works of not a few religious mystics to the effect that self-surrender to God implies, not merely a giving up of will, but also of reason.  But that this teaching is not an essential element in mysticism, that it is, indeed, rather its perversion, there is adequate evidence to demonstrate.  SWEDENBORG is, I suppose, the outstanding instance of an intellectual mystic; but the essential unity of mysticism and rationalism is almost as forcibly made evident in the case of the Cambridge Platonists.  That little band of “Latitude men,” as their contemporaries called them, constitutes one of the finest schools of philosophy that England has produced; yet their works are rarely read, I am afraid, save by specialists.  Possibly, however, if it were more commonly known what a wealth of sound philosophy and true spiritual teaching they contain, the case would be otherwise.

The Cambridge Platonists—BENJAMIN WHICHCOTE, JOHN SMITH, NATHANAEL CULVERWEL, RALPH CUDWORTH, and HENRY MORE are the more outstanding names—were educated as Puritans; but they clearly realized the fundamental error of Puritanism, which tended to make a man’s eternal salvation depend upon the accuracy and extent of his beliefs; nor could they approve of the exaggerated import given by the High Church party to matters of Church polity.  The term “Cambridge Platonists” is, perhaps, less appropriate than that of “Latitudinarians,” which latter name emphasizes their broad-mindedness (even if it carries with it something of disapproval). For although they owed much to PLATO, and, perhaps, more to PLOTINUS (c. A.D. 203-262), they were Christians first and Platonists afterwards, and, with the exception, perhaps, of MORE, they took nothing from these philosophers which was not conformable to the Scriptures.

BENJAMIN WHICHCOTE was born in 1609, at Whichcote Hall, in the parish of Stoke, Shropshire.  In 1626 he entered Emmanuel College, Cambridge, then regarded as the chief Puritan college of the University.  Here his college tutor was ANTHONY TUCKNEY (1599-1670), a man of rare character, combining learning, wit, and piety.  Between WHICHCOTE and TUCKNEY there grew up a firm friendship, founded on mutual affection and esteem.  But TUCKNEY was unable to agree with all WHICHCOTE’S broad-minded views concerning reason and authority; and in later years this gave rise to a controversy between them, in which TUCKNEY sought to controvert WHICHCOTE’S opinions:  it was, however, carried on without acrimony, and did not destroy their friendship.

WHICHCOTE became M.A., and was elected a fellow of his college, in 1633, having obtained his B.A. four years previously. He was ordained by JOHN WILLIAMS in 1636, and received the important appointment of Sunday afternoon lecturer at Trinity Church.  His lectures, which he gave with the object of turning men’s minds from polemics to the great moral and spiritual realities at the basis of the Christian religion, from mere formal discussions to a true searching into the reason of things, were well attended and highly appreciated; and he held the appointment for twenty years.  In 1634 he became college tutor at Emmanuel.  He possessed all the characteristics that go to make up an efficient and well-beloved tutor, and his personal influence was such as to inspire all his pupils, amongst whom were both JOHN SMITH and NATHANAEL CULVERWEL, who considerably amplified his philosophical and religious doctrines.  In 1640 he became B.D., and nine years after was created D.D. The college living of North Cadbury, in Somerset, was presented to him in 1643, and shortly afterwards he married.  In the next year, however, he was recalled to Cambridge, and installed as Provost of King’s College in place of the ejected Dr SAMUEL COLLINS.  But it was greatly against his wish that he received the appointment, and he only consented to do so on the condition that part of his stipend should be paid to COLLINS—an act which gives us a good insight into the character of the man.  In 1650 he resigned North Cadbury, and the living was presented to CUDWORTH (see below), and towards the end of this year he was elected Vice-Chancellor of the University in succession to TUCKNEY.  It was during his Vice-Chancellorship that he preached the sermon that gave rise to the controversy with the latter.  About this time also he was presented with the living of Milton, in Cambridgeshire.  At the Restoration he was ejected from the Provostship, but, having complied with the Act of Uniformity, he was, in 1662, appointed to the cure of St Anne’s, Blackfriars.  This church being destroyed in the Great Fire, WHICHCOTE retired to Milton, where he showed great kindness to the poor.  But some years later he returned to London, having received the vicarage of St Lawrence, Jewry.  His friends at Cambridge, however, still saw him on occasional visits, and it was on one such visit to CUDWORTH, in 1683, that he caught the cold which caused his death.

JOHN SMITH was born at Achurch, near Oundle, in 1618. He entered Emmanuel College in 1636, became B.A. in 1640, and proceeded to M.A.  in 1644, in which year he was appointed a fellow of Queen’s College.  Here he lectured on arithmetic with considerable success.  He was noted for his great learning, especially in theology and Oriental languages, as well as for his justness, uprightness, and humility.  He died of consumption in 1652.

NATHANAEL CULVERWEL was probably born about the same year as SMITH.  He entered Emmanuel College in 1633, gained his B.A. in 1636, and became M.A. in 1640.  Soon afterwards he was elected a fellow of his college.  He died about 1651.  Beyond these scant details, nothing is known of his life.  He was a man of very great erudition, as his posthumous treatise on The Light of Nature makes evident.

HENRY MORE was born at Grantham in 1614.  From his earliest days he was interested in theological problems, and his precociousness in this respect appears to have brought down on him the wrath of an uncle.  His early education was conducted at Eton.  In 1631 he entered Christ’s College, Cambridge, graduated B.A. in 1635, and received his M.A. in 1639.  In the latter year he was elected a fellow of Christ’s and received Holy Orders.  He lived a very retired life, refusing all preferment, though many valuable and honorable appointments were offered to him.  Indeed, he rarely left Christ’s, except to visit his “heroine pupil,” Lady CONWAY, whose country seat, Ragley, was in Warwickshire.  Lady CONWAY (ob. 1679) appears to be remembered only for the fact that, dying whilst her husband was away, her physician, F. M. VAN HELMONT (1618-1699) (son of the famous alchemist, J. B. VAN HELMONT, whom we have met already on these excursions), preserved her body in spirits of wine, so that he could have the pleasure of beholding it on his return.  She seems to have been a woman of considerable learning, though not free from fantastic ideas.  Her ultimate conversion to Quakerism was a severe blow to MORE, who, whilst admiring the holy lives of the Friends, regarded them as enthusiasts.  MORE died in 1687.

MORE’S earliest works were in verse, and exhibit fine feeling.  The following lines, quoted from a poem on “Charitie and Humilitie,” are full of charm, and well exhibit MORE’S character:--

“Farre have I clambred in my mind
But nought so great as love I find:
Deep-searching wit, mount-moving might,
Are nought compar’d to that great spright.
Life of Delight and soul of blisse!
Sure source of lasting happinesse!

Higher than Heaven! lower than hell!
What is thy tent? Where maist thou dwell?
My mansion highs humilitie,
Heaven’s vastest capabilitie
The further it doth downward tend
The higher up it doth ascend;

If it go down to utmost nought
It shall return with that it sought.”[1]

[1] See The Life of the Learned and Pious Dr Henry More . . . by RICHARD WARD, A.M., to which are annexed Divers Philosophical Poems and Hymns. Edited by M. F. HOWARD (1911), pp. 250 and 251.


Later he took to prose, and it must be confessed that he wrote too much and frequently descended to polemics (for example, his controversy with the alchemist THOMAS VAUGHAN, in which both combatants freely used abuse).

Although in his main views MORE is thoroughly characteristic of the school to which he belonged, many of his less important opinions are more or less peculiar to himself.

The relation between MORE’s and DESCARTES’ (1596-1650) theories as to the nature of spirit is interesting.  When MORE first read DESCARTES’ works he was favorably impressed with his views, though without entirely agreeing with him on all points; but later the difference became accentuated. DESCARTES regarded extension as the chief characteristic of matter, and asserted that spirit was extra-spatial. To MORE this seemed like denying the existence of spirit, which he regarded as extended, and he postulated divisibility and impenetrability as the chief characteristics of matter.  In order, however, to get over some of the inherent difficulties of this view, he put forward the suggestion that spirit is extended in four dimensions: thus, its apparent (i.e. three-dimensional) extension can change, whilst its true (i.e. four-dimensional) extension remains constant; just as the surface of a piece of metal can be increased by hammering it out, without increasing the volume of the metal.  Here, I think, we have a not wholly inadequate symbol of the truth; but it remained for BERKELEY (1685-1753) to show the essential validity of DESCARTES’ position, by demonstrating that, since space and extension are perceptions of the mind, and thus exist only in the mind as ideas, space exists in spirit: not spirit in space.

MORE was a keen believer in witchcraft, and eagerly investigated all cases of these and like marvels that came under his notice.  In this he was largely influenced by JOSEPH GLANVIL (1636-1680), whose book on witchcraft, the well-known Saducismus Triumphatus, MORE largely contributed to, and probably edited.  MORE was wholly unsuited for psychical research; free from guile himself, he was too inclined to judge others to be of this nature also.  But his common sense and critical attitude towards enthusiasm saved him, no doubt, from many falls into the mire of fantasy.

As Principal TULLOCH has pointed out, whilst MORE is the most interesting personality amongst the Cambridge Platonists,  his works are the least interesting of those of his school.  They are dull and scholastic, and MORE’S retired existence prevented him from grasping in their fullness some of the more acute problems of life.  His attempt to harmonize catastrophes with Providence, on the ground that the evil of certain parts may be necessary for the good of the whole, just as dark colors, as well as bright, are essential to the beauty of a picture—a theory which is practically the same as that of modern Absolutism,[1]--is a case in point.  No doubt this harmony may be accomplished, but in another key.

[1] Cf. BERNARD BOSANQUET, LL.D., D.C.L.: The Principle of Individuality and Value (1912).


RALPH CUDWORTH was born at Aller, in Somersetshire, in 1617.  He entered Emmanuel College in 1632, three years afterwards gained his B.A., and became M.A. in 1639.  In the latter year he was elected a fellow of his college.  Later he obtained the B.D. degree.  In 1645 he was appointed Master of Clare Hall, in place of the ejected Dr PASHE, and was elected Regius Professor of Hebrew.  On 31st March 1647 he preached a sermon of remarkable eloquence and power before the House of Commons, which admirably expresses the attitude of his school as concerns the nature of true religion.  I shall refer to it again later.  In 1650 CUDWORTH was presented with the college living of North Cadbury, which WHICHCOTE had resigned, and was made D.D. in the following year.  In 1654 he was elected Master of Christ’s College, with an improvement in his financial position, there having been some difficulty in obtaining his stipend at Clare Hall.  In this year he married.  In 1662 Bishop SHELDON presented him with the rectory of Ashwell, in Hertfordshire.  He died in 1688.  He was a pious man of fine intellect; but his character was marred by a certain suspiciousness which caused him wrongfully to accuse MORE, in 1665, of attempting to forestall him in writing a work on ethics, which should demonstrate that the principles of Christian morality are not based on any arbitrary decrees of God, but are inherent in the nature and reason of things.  CUDWORTH’S great work—or, at least, the first part, which alone was completed,--The Intellectual System of the World, appeared in 1678.  In it CUDWORTH deals with atheism on the ground of reason, demonstrating its irrationality.  The book is remarkable for the fairness and fullness with which CUDWORTH states the arguments in favor of atheism.

So much for the lives and individual characteristics of the Cambridge Platonists:  what were the great principles that animated both their lives and their philosophy?  These, I think, were two:  first, the essential unity of religion and morality; second, the essential unity of revelation and reason.

With clearer perception of ethical truth than either Puritan or High Churchman, the Cambridge Platonists saw that true Christianity is neither a matter of mere belief, nor consists in the mere performance of good works; but is rather a matter of character.  To them Christianity connoted regeneration.  “Religion,” says WHICHCOTE, “is the Frame and TEMPER of our Minds, and the RULE of our Lives”; and again, “Heaven is FIRST a Temper, and THEN a Place.”[1] To the man of heavenly temper, they taught, the performance of good works would be no irksome matter imposed merely by a sense of duty, but would be done spontaneously as a delight.  To drudge in religion may very well be necessary as an initial stage, but it is not its perfection.

[1] My quotations from WHICHCOTE and SMITH are taken from the selection of their discourses edited by E. T. CAMPAGNAC, M.A. (1901).


In his sermon before the House of Commons, CUDWORTH well exposes the error of those who made the mere holding of certain beliefs the essential element in Christianity.  There are many passages I should like to quote from this eloquent discourse, but the following must suffice:  “We must not judge of our knowing of Christ, by our skill in Books and Papers, but by our keeping of his Commandments. . . He is the best Christian, whose heart beats with the truest pulse towards heaven; not he whose head spinneth out the finest cobwebs.  He that endeavors really to mortifie his lusts, and to comply with that truth in his life, which his Conscience is convinced of; is neerer a Christian, though he never heard of Christ; then he that believes all the vulgar Articles of the Christian faith, and plainly denyeth Christ in his life.... The great Mysterie of the Gospel, it doth not lie only in CHRIST WITHOUT US, (though we must know also what he hath done for us) but the very Pith and Kernel of it, consists in *Christ inwardly formed in our hearts.  Nothing is truly Ours, but what lives in our Spirits.  SALVATION it self cannot SAVE us, as long as it is onely without us; no more then HEALTH can cure us, and make us sound, when it is not within us, but somewhere at distance from us; no more than Arts and Sciences, whilst they lie onely in Books and Papers without us; can make us learned.”[1]

[1] RALPH CUDWORTH, B.D.: A Sermon Preached before the Honorable House of Commons at Westminster, Mar. 31, 1647 (1st edn.), pp.  3, 14, 42, and 43.


The Cambridge Platonists were not ascetics; their moral doctrine was one of temperance.  Their sound wisdom on this point is well evident in the following passage from WHICHCOTE:  “What can be alledged for Intemperance; since Nature is content with very few things?  Why should any one over-do in this kind?  A Man is better in Health and Strength, if he be temperate.  We enjoy ourselves more in a sober and temperate Use of ourselves.”[2]

[2] BENJAMIN WHICHCOTE:  The Venerable Nature and Transcendant Benefit of Christian Religion. Op. cit., p. 40.


The other great principle animating their philosophy was, as I have said, the essential unity of reason and revelation.  To those who argued that self-surrender implied a giving up of reason, they replied that “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.”[3] Reason, Conscience, and the Scriptures, these, taught the Cambridge Platonists, testify of one another and are the true guides which alone a man should follow.  All other authority they repudiated.  But true reason is not merely sensuous, and the only way whereby it may be gained is by the purification of the self from the desires that draw it away from the Source of all Reason.  “God,” writes MORE, “reserves His choicest secrets for the purest Minds,” adding his conviction that “true Holiness [is] the only safe Entrance into Divine Knowledge.”  Or as SMITH, who speaks of “a GOOD LIFE as the PROLEPSIS and Fundamental principle of DIVINE SCIENCE,” puts it, “. . . if . . . KNOWLEDGE be not attended with HUMILITY and a deep sense of SELF-PENURY and *Self-emptiness, we may easily fall short of that True Knowledge of God which we seem to aspire after.”[1b] Right Reason, however, they taught, is the product of the sight of the soul, the true mystic vision.

[3] BENJAMIN WHICHCOTE:  Moral and Religious Aphorisms OP.  cit., p. 67.

[1b] JOHN SMITH:  A Discourse concerning the true Way or Method of attaining to Divine Knowledge. Op. cit., pp.  80 and 96.


In what respects, it may be asked in conclusion, is the philosophy of the Cambridge Platonists open to criticism?  They lacked, perhaps, a sufficiently clear concept of the Church as a unity, and although they clearly realized that Nature is a symbol which it is the function of reason to interpret spiritually, they failed, I think, to appreciate the value of symbols.  Thus they have little to teach with respect to the Sacraments of the Church, though, indeed, the highest view, perhaps, is that which regards every act as potentially a sacrament; and, whilst admiring his morality, they criticized BOEHME as an enthusiast.  But, although he spoke in a very different language, spiritually he had much in common with them.  Compared with what is of positive value in their philosophy, however, the defects of the Cambridge Platonists are but comparatively slight.  I commend their works to lovers of spiritual wisdom.





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