Category: Philosophical theories

The Cambridge Platonists

The Cambridge Platonists represent a peculiar philosophical movement that, drawing on the (Neo)Platonic tradition, contributed to linking Christian faith with Renaissance humanism, and mechanistic epistemology with rationalism.

General information

The Cambridge Platonists were a group of 17th cent. English philosophers and theologians, who attempt to reconcile various intellectual trends of the seventeenth century through the Platonic tradition, mainly Plotinus and the Christianized Renaissance Platonism. This intellectual current became crystallized as a school of thought informed by the scientific influences of the era, also becoming emblematic of a fluid philosophical pluralism. Plotinian and Renaissance Platonism were pivotal axes around which their manifold and sizeable output revolved, yet their involvement in the philosophical developments of their time, such as Cartesian rationalism and anti-Aristotelianism, affords them a unique place in a transitional phase of English intellectual history. Being critical of Calvinist determinism as well as of the sensationalist empiricism introduced by Hobbes, they saw that curbing skepticism ought to be equally premised on the conceptual and gnosiotheoretical conditions of the so-called “perennial philosophy”, and on the promotion of the validity of classical thought and its relevance to contemporary discourse on practical problems.

Prominent among the Cambridge Platonists were Henry More (1614–1687) and Ralph Cudworth (1617–1688); the former was a fellow and the latter a Master at Christ’s College, Cambridge. Cudworth’s cumbersome and abstruse The True Intellectual System of the Universe (1678) is considered the programmatic text of the Cambridge Platonists; it incorporates a wealth of elements from Classical philosophy, and Cudworth adduces these to rebut Hobbesian materialism and atheism in the century of great scientific discoveries. The movement’s moral philosophy and epistemology were grounded in two of Cudworth’s other works: A Treatise concerning eternal and immutable Morality (1731) and A Treatise of Freewill (1838). More’s Enchiridion Ethicum (1690) completes the treatises on morality, while Cudworth’s Antidote against Atheism (1653) expounds the theory of Natural Theology (deism).

Theology, philosophy, and science

The theological training of the Cambridge Platonists determined the morphology of their philosophical system. In the Platonic tradition, the soul is trapped in matter and affections, yet it yearns to transcend materiality and become reunited with the divine. Its purification is attained exclusively through gaining access to truth, which constitutes a step towards the goal of union with divine intellection. Thus science and faith converge and are ultimately reconciled: the former facilitates access to divine reason. In their epistemology, the Cambridge Platonists articulated a context for understanding Being, making their point of departure the thesis that ideas are innate and not derivative: they have been imprinted on the human soul by God, who as a superior, non-finite entity, as an “immaterial Spirit” (More) active within an infinite, perennial cosmos, constitutes the prior cause, or the Platonic “world soul” (anima mundi). Thus, just like Plato before them, they held that knowledge of Being presupposes access to the realm of “archetypes” through the Logos they described as the “light of God”.

An essential aspect of their epistemological-ethical edifice was the invalidation of the Calvinist dogma of predetermination, Hobbesian relativism, and the promotion of free will as a prerequisite of moral responsibility and human perfectibility. To that purpose, they formulated an epistemological schema that has its roots in (Neo)Platonic tradition. Platonic ontological dualism permeates their work; objective reality is encapsulated in active intellection rather than in perceptual apprehension. In the spirit of their era, however, they embraced the assumptions of natural science, and the atomist theory, but rejected the narrow bias of mechanistic epistemology and insisted that penetrating the immutable material of Truth, the intelligible forms that exist beyond the ephemeral representations of becoming, presupposes a synergy between Nature and Logos. Religious revelation is for the Cambridge Platonists equally incompatible with both naturalistic epistemology and the processes of logic, in the sense that without the contribution of the latter, it is impossible for one to ascertain whether a revealed truth actually derives from God. In short, divine revelation without the aid of Logos remains devoid of any form of cognitive validity. They also proclaimed the immortality of the soul, and articulated a code of moral conduct emphasizing free will, which is intertwined with the existence of immutable ethical axioms. Good and evil exist a priori and hold universal validity within the metaphysical structure of reality, where God is not an arbitrary self-impelled agent.

Author: Kyriakos Dimitriou
  • Zarka, Y.C, Vienne, J.M, Rogers, C.A.J. eds. The Cambridge Platonists in Philosophical Context: Politics, Metaphysics, and Religion . Dordrecht, 1997.
  • Patrides, C.A. The Cambridge Platonists. Cambridge, 1969.
  • Darwall, G.A.J. British Moralists and the Internal Ought. Cambridge, 1992.
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