The Cambridge Platonists were a group of divines at Cambridge University in England in the middle of the 17th century (between 1633 and 1688). The chief members of the group were Ralph Cudworth, Henry More, John Smith (1618 - 1652), Benjamin Whichcote, and Nathaniel Culverwel.
The Cambridge Platonists were reacting to two pressures. On the one hand, the narrow dogmatism of the Puritan divines, with their anti-rationalist (if not anti-intellectual) 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 narrowly materialist writings of René Descartes and Thomas Hobbes. They felt that the latter, while properly rationalist, were denying the idealistic nature of the universe. To the Cambridge Platonists, religion and reason were always in harmony, and reality was comprised not of sensation, but of "intelligible forms" that exist behind perception. The universal, ideal forms (a la Plato) inform matter, and the senses are unreliable guides to 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 somewhat 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 capable, for them, of nearing God because it was of God. Therefore, they believed that reason would allow for the judging of 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.
Works of the Cambridge Platonists
- 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 (? - 1652?) 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, left no literary remains but was active in the discursive works of the other Platonists.
- 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.