chapter  4
23 Pages

The Standing of Ralph Cudworth As a Philosopher


It is a strange irony that the life of Ralph Cudworth, that most unworldly and antiquarian of philosophers, was closer in form to our modern understanding of the professional philosopher than any other of the thinkers profi led in this volume. Unlike, for instance, Thomas Hobbes or John Locke, Cudworth could not rely on patronage and employment within a noble family. Instead Cudworth’s livelihood relied almost entirely on his employment as an educator and administrator within a university, in Cudworth’s case the University of Cambridge. It would be incorrect to stretch the comparison between Cudworth’s life and that of a modern day academic too far; however, it is important to recognise the defi ning role that the intellectual, social and political culture of Cambridge played on Cudworth’s life. Despite this historical fact the vast majority of interpretations of Cudworth’s work centre instead on his use and development of Neoplatonic principles. When Cudworth’s lifetime of service and employment at the University of Cambridge is mentioned it is done so as a biographical necessity, and when commented on it is viewed in a negative light. The comfortable life of the cloistered academic is contrasted with the political and social turmoil of seventeenth-century England. So Cudworth is seen, in the words of W. R. Inge, as ‘standing aside’ from the controversies of his time.1 Cudworth’s life in Cambridge, particularly during the turmoil of the Civil War, Interregnum and Restoration, is understood as a ‘retired scholarly life’, in contrast to ‘the hurly burly of an active city pulpit’.2 This view of Cudworth has certainly hampered attempts to reconcile his philosophy with the traditional canon of seventeenth-century thought. Rather than be seen as an innovator in matters of philosophy, many traditional interpretations of Cudworth assume this ‘ivory towered’ interpretation of his life in the University of Cambridge. As a consequence it has become all too easy to characterise his idiosyncratic intellectual output as standing Canute-like against the inevitable tide of seventeenth-century thought. In contrast I would argue that Cudworth’s work is intimately related to his experience of seventeenth-century Cambridge. Firstly, it is wrong to see the

University of Cambridge as managing to remain separate from the political machinations of seventeenth-century England and the social and cultural turmoil of the Civil War. Secondly, by placing Cudworth in the historical and intellectual context of the University of Cambridge it is possible to gain a richer understanding of how Cambridge made the Platonist.