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THE CAMBRIDGE PLATONISTS

What was Cambridge Platonism?

No discussion of seventeenth century philosophy would be complete without at least mention of the Cambridge Platonists. The Cambridge Platonists were a loosely connected group of philosophers, theologians, and humanistic writers, who resisted both the new science and rationalistic and empiricist attempts to base philosophy on it, although they often were unaware of the content of the doctrines that they opposed. In spirit, they were closer to Neoplatonists, such as Plotinus (205-270) and Proclus (412-485), than to Plato (c. 428-c. 348 b.c.e.), with healthy doses of Pythagoras (c. 570-495 b.c.e.), and Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), as well as an interest in Hermes Trismegistus (a mythological figure based on the Egyptian god Thoth and the Greek god Hermes).

The main Platonic influence on all the Cambridge Platonists was the idea of a perfect world, beyond the senses, that was the cause of what we experience through our senses in this world. Those who were influenced by the Neoplatonists combined Christian beliefs with their basic Platonic view, such that the perfect Platonic world was ruled by a force or a deity, like God in Christianity.

Their goal was to defend "true religion" against Calvinism, atheism, and mechanistic philosophers such as René Descartes (1596-1650) and Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). The Cambridge Platonists were not influential for the central development of philosophy, but their individual contributions nonetheless lived on in intellectual life.

The basic tenet of Cambridge Platonism was the obscure religious belief, first stated by the Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), that both Pythagoras and Plato based their philosophy on teachings by Moses that were expressed in the cabala and other facets of the Jewish mystical tradition. Their other beliefs affirmed God's existence, the soul's immortality, and the animation of the natural world by, or with, "spirit." They were convinced both that man had free will and that reason was of primary importance in religious matters. However, they were not empiricists, because they believed in innate ideas and innate principles of morality and religion, which were recognizable through intuition. And furthermore, it needs to be kept in mind that not all of those known as "Cambridge Neoplatonists," shared the same views.

Who were the Cambridge Neoplatonists?

The founder of the group was understood to be Benjamin Whichcote (1609-1683). Whichcote called reason "the candle of the Lord." Henry More (1614-1687), Ralph Cudworth (1617-1688), and John Smith (1616-1652) were three further distinguished Cambridge Platonists. (Cudworth was the father of John Locke's lifelong friend and lady of the household in which he spent his last years, Damaris Cud-worth.) Additional Cambridge Platonists of note were: Nathaniel Culverwell (1619-1651), Peter Sterry (1613-1672), George Rust (d. 1670), John Worthington (1618-1671), and Simon Patrick (1626-1707). Whichcote, More, Cudworth, and Smith were associated with Emmanuel College. Calvinism was the leading doctrine there and they all rebelled against it. Henry More was the most intellectually active member of the group.

Henry More asserted that animals, not just people, had souls (iStock).

Henry More asserted that animals, not just people, had souls (iStock).

Who was Henry More?

Henry More (1614-1687) was the great-grandson of the martyred English chancellor, Sir Thomas More. Henry enrolled in Christ College, Cambridge, at the age of 17, and remained there his entire life. He became a fellow in 1641. His distinctive mission was to eradicate, or "cure," atheism and enthusiasm, which he called "two enourmous distempers of the mind." He sought to convert philosophers to the Christian faith, as he understood it, and his interests included Neoplatonism, reports of witches and ghosts, science, and René Descartes' (1596-1650) philosophy.

He differed with Descartes, however, in insisting that animals have souls. He attacked Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677) for their presumed "atheism." He was a tutor to Cambridge Platonist Anne Conway (1630-1679) and deplored her enthusiastic conversion to Quakerism. He is said to have coined the terms "Cartesianism" and "materialist." Henry More's writings included a history of the English Jesuits, translations, and his Life and Doctrines of our Saviour Jesus Christ (1660).

Who was Anne Conway?

Anne Conway (1630-1679) was best known in philosophy for her The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy (1690). This work was meant to overthrow both René Descartes' (1596-1650) dualism and that of Henry More (1614-1687). She posited an infinite number of ordered monads—each one of which was a "congealed spirit"—as the ultimate components of reality. She was influenced by Flemish alchemist Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont, who showed her work to Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716). Leibniz himself acknowledged her influence, and some think he got the term "monad" from her.

What did Anne Conway's physical pain have to do with her philosophy and religion?

Anne was born December 14, 1630, a week after her father, Sir Heneage Finch, who was speaker of the House of Commons, died. Having learned Latin, Greek, and Hebrew at home, she began a correspondence with Henry More (1614-1687), who had been her brother's tutor at Christ College. More held her in very high intellectual esteem, and their correspondence continued after she married Edward Conway, at the age of 20. More wrote of her that he had "scarce ever met with any Person, Man or Woman, of better Natural parts than Lady Conway."

One of her motivations for studying philosophy and possibly converting to Quakerism was her need to reconcile the existence of a good, all-powerful God with pain and suffering in the world. Anne herself was afflicted with extraordinarily severe headaches all her life. At one point, she had her jugular arteries "bled" in search of relief.

 
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