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Cambridge Platonists

The name given to a group of theologians centered at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, the chief members of which were Benjamin Whichcote,* Ralph Cudworth,* Henry More,* John Smith (1618-52), and Nathanael Culverwell (d. c.1651). In reaction against the dogmatic Calvinism of the Puritans and the materialism of Hobbes,* they sought by a relationship of philosophy and theology to apply the idealism of Plato and particularly of Neoplatonism to religion. In one of his sermons Whichcote declared it “a very profitable work to call upon men to answer the principles of their creation, to fulfil natural light, to answer natural conscience, to be throughout rational in what they do; for these things have a divine foundation. The spirit in man is the candle of the Lord, lighted by God and lighting man to God.” This quotation from Proverbs was a favorite with him and gives some idea of his view of man, reason, and conscience.

Reacting against Calvinistic ideas of total human depravity, the Cambridge Platonists saw man as a creature endowed with reason, not as simply a narrow faculty of ratiocination, but as an inner light. Likewise, they regarded right and wrong as part of the eternal nature of things, part of the law of the ideal world, imprinted on the will of man and which even the will of God could not change. “Had there not been a Law written in the Heart of Man, a Law [outside] him could be to no purpose” (Whichcote). It is easy to see how the degeneration of these views of reason and morality could so easily lead to the narrow and complacent views of eighteenth-century Deism.* This is particularly so when, as in this quotation from Whichcote and in another from John Smith to the effect that “God hath provided the truth of divine revelation [as an addition] to the truth of natural inscription” following the decline of reason after man's fall, it appears that the revealed word of God is merely a kind of supplement to existing truth.

The Cambridge Platonists were saved from the arid rationalism of the Deists by their mystical apprehension of God. They recognized the limits of philosophy and realized that some forms of knowledge cannot be apprehended in conceptual forms but are the product of a personal relationship with God. They had the awareness that “nothing can explain the phenomena of religious experience except the sense of the infinite within the heart of man” (G.R. Cragg).

C.A. Patrides (ed.), The Cambridge Platonists (1969); F.J. Powicke, The Cambridge Platonists (1926).