chapter  2
The Cambridge Platonists: material and immaterial substance
ByJASPER REID
Pages 26

The Cambridge Platonists were a loose-knit group of philosophers and theologians associated with Cambridge University around the middle of the seventeenth century, the most prominent among them being Henry More (1614-1687) and Ralph Cudworth (1617-1688). The term “Cambridge Platonist” itself is of nineteenth-century coinage, and as categorisations go, it is rather clumsy. When scholars attempt to enumerate the figures who are to be regarded as part of the movement, the lists they come up with will rarely be exactly the same. They will normally include Nathaniel Culverwell (1619-1651), author of An Elegant and Learned Discourse of the Light of Nature (1652), but he was really more of an Aristotelian than a Platonist. And they will often include figures like Joseph Glanvill, John Norris or Anne Conway, but they had little or no association with Cambridge. (Glanvill and Norris were Oxford men. As for Conway, she did work with More in a private capacity, but as a woman, she was denied formal admission to the university itself.) Still, the central core of the group is generally agreed to include, besides More, Cudworth and Culverwell, figures like Benjamin Whichcote (1609-1683) and John Worthington (1618-1671), who – at least as far as their extant writings are concerned – involved themselves much more in religious matters than in anything properly philosophical; and the philosophers John Smith (1618-1652), author of Select Discourses (1660), George Rust (d. 1670), author of A Letter of Resolution Concerning Origen (1661) and A Discourse of Truth (1677), and Peter Sterry (1613-1672), author of A Discourse of the Freedom of the Will (1675). Most of these figures received their formative training under Whichcote’s leadership at Emmanuel College, a Puritan institution founded in 1584, the chief exceptions being More and Rust at nearby Christ’s College, where Cudworth also worked from 1654.1

As far as their influences were concerned, and their so-called Platonism in particular, they tended to draw much more heavily on (to adopt another nineteenthcentury term) the Neoplatonists, above all Plotinus, than they did on Plato himself. But, even if – Culverwell aside – they tended to favour the Platonists, they were by no means opposed to Aristotle and his ancient commentators (though less keen

on his medieval scholastic – i.e. Roman Catholic – interpreters), for they tended to regard the central tenets of Aristotelianism and Platonism as being much closer than we might see them today. And, beyond that, most of them were well versed in an exceptionally broad range of other classical sources, from the Pythagoreans, to the Atomists, to the Stoics, to the Church Fathers, and everything in between. One of the group’s most popular publications was Cudworth’s The True Intellectual System of the Universe (1678): but, as substantial as its contributions to contemporary philosophical discussions were, it was also celebrated simply as a sourcebook of classical thought, nearly every page being packed with references to the Greek and Latin and occasionally Hebrew literature.