Cambridge Platonists  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Cambridge Platonists were a group of philosophers at Cambridge University in the middle of the 17th century (between 1633 and 1688).

Programme

The Cambridge Platonists were reacting to two pressures. On the one hand, the dogmatism of the Puritan divines, with their anti-rationalist demands, were, they felt, immoral and incorrect. They also felt that the Puritan/Calvinist insistence upon individual revelation left God uninvolved with the majority of mankind. At the same time, they were reacting against the reductive materialist writings of Thomas Hobbes. They felt that the latter, while properly rationalist, were denying the idealistic part of the universe. To the Cambridge Platonists, religion and reason were in harmony, and reality was known not by physical sensation alone, but by intuition of the intelligible Forms that exist behind the material world of everyday perception. Universal, ideal forms (à la Plato) inform matter, and the physical senses are unreliable guides to their reality.

As divines and in matters of polity, the Cambridge Platonists argued for moderation. They believed that reason is the proper judge of all disagreements, and so they advocated dialogue between the Puritans and the High Churchmen. They had a mystical understanding of reason, believing that reason is not merely the sense-making facility of the mind, but, instead, "the candle of the Lord" - an echo of the divine within the human soul and an imprint of God within man. Thus, they believed that reason could lead beyond the sensory, because it is semi-divine. Reason was, for them, of God, and thus capable of nearing God. Therefore, they believed that reason could allow for judging the private revelations of Puritan theology and the proper investigation of the rituals and liturgy of the Established Church. For this reason, they were called latitudinarians.

Representatives

Major Works of the Cambridge Platonists

  • Conway's only surviving treatise, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy (1692) presents an ontology of spirit in opposition to More, Descartes, Hobbes and Spinoza and utilizes a concept of a monad derived from Kabbala and which anticipates Leibniz who may have plagiarized the idea from her.
  • Cudworth's chief philosophical work was The True Intellectual System of the Universe (1678) and the Treatise concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality, which appeared posthumously in 1731.
  • Culverwel's chief work was Light of Nature (1652). Culverwel died young (probably at the age of 32). He had intended to write a multi-part work reconciling the Gospel with philosophical reason.
  • Henry More (1614–1687) wrote many works. As a Platonist, his important works were Manual of Ethics (1666), the Divine Dialogues (1668), and the Manual of Metaphysics (1671). While all of More's works enjoyed popularity, the Divine Dialogues were perhaps most influential.
  • John Smith, a student of Benjamin Whichcote, is best remembered today for the elegance of his style and the depth of his learning in the posthumously published Select Discourses (1660).
  • Peter Sterry is remembered for his A Discourse of the Freedom of the Will (1675) among other works.
  • Benjamin Whichcote (1609–1683) was one of the leaders of the movement, but he was also an active pastor and academic who did not publish in his lifetime. His sermons were notable and caused controversies, and Whichcote wrote a great deal without publishing. In 1685, Some Select Notions of B. Whichcote was published due to demand. After that was Select Sermons (1689) (with a preface by Shaftesbury) and Several Discourses (1701). Finally, a collection of his sayings appeared as Moral and Religious Aphorisms in 1703.





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