skip to primary navigation skip to content

Adrian Mihai, University of Cambridge

Cudworth’s philosophical reception, based mostly on his The True Intellectual System of the Universe (1678), has been twofold. As a manual on ancient philosophy and religion, Cudworth, according to Thomas Budd Shaw in his classic 1846 best seller college manual, Outlines of English Literature,[1] has passed more “for a recorder of ancient philosophy, than for one who might stand in a respectable class among philosophers”. This judgment was based on the legacy of the True Intellectual System in the 18th century: Cudworth’s monumental work (in its Latin translation), was a set text at the Tübinger Stift (where Schelling, Hölderlin and Hegel studied in the 1780s) and at the University of Jena. In these universities it was used both as a theological manual that contained a systematic refutation of atheism and a large section on the Trinity, and also as a treasure-trove of ancient texts and doctrines.

Philosophically, Cudworth’s legacy has been less known or studied, though it had a major influence in the late 17th and the 18th centuries. In what follows, I will succinctly analyse three fundamental periods in this reception: the legacy of the concept of plastic nature (early 1700s); the refutation and affirmation of Hylozoism (1750s); and finally, the expression Hen kai Pan and the Pantheismusstreit (1780s). But first, a brief history of the text will be necessary for a better understanding of the philosophical reception.

1. Abridged versions, Latin translation and Second edition of the True Intellectual System

The text of Cudworth’s magnum opus has first been transmitted in abridged versions: first in French, due to Jean Le Clerc. Le Clerc, a friend of the Cudworth family, has translated into French, in some of the 28 volumes of his Bibliothèque choisie, published between 1703 to 1706,[2] long excerpts of chapter three, which concerned the concept of plastic nature. Secondly, in English, due to Thomas Wise abridged 1706 edition titled A Confutation of the Reason and Philosophy of Atheism (London: John Oswald).

It was only in 1733 that Johann Lorenz von Mosheim published the first and still only complete translation in any language of the True Intellectual System: Cudhworthi Systema Intellectuale hujus Universi (Jena: Meyer, 1733), in two large volumes. The 1773 second edition of Mosheim’s Latin translation was even reviewed by Friedrich Nicolai (1733-1811) in his immensely influential Allgemeine deutsche Bibliothek.[3] Until Mosheim’s translation, there were many projects to translate Cudworth’s True Intellectual System. In his Preface to the work, Mosheim mentions two tentatives: Heinrich Ittershagen’s, in his Preface to his translation of George Stanhope’s 1700 Sermons (Erbauliche Predigten, Leipzig, 1722), says that he is preparing a Latin translation of Cudworth’s work; and, according to Le Clerc, Claude Bourdelin (1667–1711), before he died, was preparing a French translation.

Thomas Birch’s so-called second English edition of the text, to which were added A Discourse concerning the True Notion of the Lord’s Supper and two Sermons, on I John 2:3-4 and I Cor. 15:57, was published in two volumes in 1743: Ralph Cudworth, The True Intellectual System, with A Discourse concerning the True Notion of the Lord’s Supper and Two Sermons, on I John II. 3, 4 and I Cor. XV.57 (London: J. Walthoe, D. Midwinter, &c.). Birch’s edition was based on the text of the first edition, though it also added many mistakes and misprints, and incorporated most of the references found in Mosheim’s translation.

In 1823-1824, Luigi Benedetti published an abridged Italian translation of the work: Sistema intellettuale dell’universo (Pavia). This text is based on the abridged version of Thomas Wise.

2. The legacy of the concept of plastic nature

In chapter three of the True Intellectual System, Cudworth puts forward the doctrine of plastic natures, which he described as laws of nature: “[the] Laws of Nature concerning Motion, are Really nothing else, but a Plastick Nature, acting upon the Matter of the whole Corporeal Universe, both Maintaining the Same Quantity of Motion always in it, and also Dispensing it (by Transferring it out of one Body into another) according to such Laws, Fatally Imprest upon it” (first edition, 151). This conclusion is based on the following assessment: “Wherefore since neither all things are produced Fortuitously, or by the Unguided Mechanism of Matter, nor God himself may reasonably be thought to do all things Immediately and Miraculously; it may well be concluded, that there is a Plastick Nature under him, which as an Inferiour and Subordinate Instrument, doth Drudgingly Execute that Part of his Providence, which consists in the Regular and Orderly Motion of Matter” (p. 150).

The French translation, with commentary, by Le Clerc of large portion of the chapter on plastic nature gave rise to a debate between Le Clerc and Bayle,[4] to which even Leibniz participated, with a paper on ‘Considérations sur les principes de vie et natures plastiques’ (1705). Denis Diderot, in his little know Encyclopedia article on ‘la nature plastique’ (1765, vol. XII, 729-732) talks about this debate and takes part in it. Le Clerc, in the second volume of his Bibliothèque choisie (1703), says the following regarding his understanding of this concept: “Que si l’on me demande une définition nette de ce Principe mitoyen, qui lie l’âme avec le corps; je répondrai que je n’en puis donner aucune exacte, parce que c’est une substance, qui ne m’est connue que par les effets que je vois qu’elle produit. Tout ce que je puis dire, c’est que c’est un Être qui a en lui-même un principe d’activité, & qui peut agir également par lui-même, sur l’âme & sur le corps; un Être qui avertit l’âme, de ce qui se passe dans son corps, par les sensations qu’il y cause, & qui remue le corps aux ordres de l’âme; sans savoir néanmoins les fins de ses actions” (116-117).

In his 1754 Die Frage, ob die Erde veralte, physikalisch erwogen (The Question, whether the Earth is Ageing, considered Physically), even Kant will address the existence and nature of these plastic natures: “Those who assume the existence of a general World Spirit [Weltgeist]… do not understand by it some Non-Material Power, a World-Soul, or Plastic Natures [plastische Naturen], the creations of a bold imagination, but a subtle though universally active matter which, in the products of Nature, constitutes the active principle and, a true Proteus, is prepared to assume all shapes and forms. Such a conception is not so opposed to sound science and observation as one might think”.[5]

2. The refutation and affirmation of Hylozoism

Closely connected with the reception of Cudworth’s concept of plastic nature, was Cudworth’s refutation of hylozoism. Cudworth, in order to define a Modern kind of atheism, coins the words Hylozoic, Hylozoism, Hylozoist. These terms are formed from the Greek words ὕλη (or matter) and ζωή (or life), thus, a ‘Hylozoist’ is one who holds matter to be animated or alive.

According to Cudworth genealogy, ‘Hylozoic’ or ‘Stratonical’ atheism was revived in Modern times by the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), especially in his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1669/1670). ‘Stratonism’ poses matter as the only substance of the universe, an animated matter without reason or consciousness. In all the passages about hylozoism, and they are many, Cudworth may also have in mind philosophers or natural philosophers other than Spinoza, like Francis Glisson’s Tractatus de natura substantiae energetica (London: E. Flesher, 1672), where is mentioned a vis plastica or plastic force. Furthermore, in his Exercitationes de Generatione animalium (1651), William Harvey, whom Cudworth cites also, says expressly that “[n]ec magnopere litigandum censeo, quo numine primum hoc Agens compellandum aut venerandum veniat, sive Deus, sive Natura Naturans, sive Anima Mundi appelletur ([n]or do I think it worthwhile to contend very much under what name this agent shall be addressed or worshipped, whether he shall be called God or Nature naturing or World Soul)”.[6]

Similarly to Cudworth, who refuted hylozoism because it endowed matter with an active principle, Kant, in his Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science (1786), will also see hylozoism as “the death of all natural philosophy”.

3. Hen kai Pan and the Pantheismusstreit

Another avenue of research in the reception of Cudworth is the study of the emergence of the Pantheismusstreit. The expression Hen kai Pan (One-and-All) used by Jacobi and Lessing in the 1780s transnational controversy on atheism, pantheism and Spinozism (the so-called Pantheismusstreit), and later used as a battle-cry by Hölderlin, Novalis, Schlegel, Schelling, and Hegel, came from the 1733 Latin translation of Cudworth’s True Intellectual System, where we find the exact expression used in the controversy: to hen kai pan, “τὸ ἕν καὶ πᾶν, unum & omnem”, whereas in the English original, we have only hen to pan,ἕν τὸ πᾶν, One-All”.[7] In other words, Mosheim paraphrased Cudworth’s text, and did not translate it verbatim. However, through his translation, hen kai pan entered the philosophical vocabulary and become a fundamental metaphysical stance.

On July 6th, 1780, Jacobi narrates that Lessing told him that the orthodox concepts of a deity are no longer for him: “I cannot stand them. Ἕν καὶ πᾶν! I know no other”.[8] As we have already seen, these words come from Mosheim’s translation of Cudworth’s treatise, and not directly from the English text. Jacobi quotes these words in order to accuse Lessing of “Spinozism”, or pantheism and thus, implicitly, of atheism. This is a good place to recall Cudworth’s own definition of pantheism: “Some Fanatics of latter times [scil. Robert Fludd, Philosophia Moysaica (1638; 1659 in English)] have made God to be All, in a gross sense, so as to take away all real distinction betwixt God and the creature, and indeed to allow no other being besides God; they supposing the substance of everything, and even of all inanimate bodies, to be the very substance of God himself, and all the variety of things, that is in the world, to be nothing but God under several forms, appearances and disguises” (306).

In conclusion, we hope to have shown that Cudworth’s legacy was not only due to his encyclopedic knowledge and the treatment of his treatise as a school manual, but also, and most importantly, due to his radical and fundamental philosophical ideas.

[1] Outlines of English Literature (3rd edition of 1864, 284).

[2] See Bibliothèque choisie vols. 1–2 (1703), vol. 4 (1705), vol. 5 (1705), vol. 7 (1705) and vol. 8 (1706).

[3] In vol. 21 (Berlin, 1774), 309.

[4] On this, see the study of Insa Kringler, Die gerettete Welt: Zur Rezeption des Cambridger Platonismus in der europäischen Aufklärung des 18. Jahrhunderts, Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter, 2013 , 54-119. In her study, Insa Kringler doesn’t mention anything about the importance of Cudworth for the Encyclopedistes (see our discussion below).

[5] Eric Watkins (ed.), Immanuel Kant, Natural Science, Cambridge: CUP, 2012, 368.

[6] Exercitationes de Generatione animalium (1651), in Opera Omnia, London: G. Bowyer, 1766, Ex. 50, p. 385.

[7] In Mosheim’s translation, we find the exact expression used in the controversy: to hen kai pan, at page 465, while in the English original, we have only hen to pan (385). Jan Assmann, in his article on this subject, had not consulted Mosheim’s translation, where we find the exact expression. See his “‘Hen kai pan’: Ralph Cudworth und die Rehabilitierung der hermetischen Tradition”, in M. Neugebauer-Wölk (ed.), Aufklärung und Esoterik (Hamburg, 2013), 38–52; see also, Uvo Hölscher, Empedokles und Hölderlin (Frankfurt, 1965), Ch. 1.

[8] Gérard Vallée (ed.), F. H. Jacobi, The Spinoza Conversations Between Lessing and Jacobi: Text with Excerpts from the Ensuing Controversy, Lanham: UPA, 1988, p. 10.

Cite as: The Reception of Ralph Cudworth (1617-1688),, accessed 2019-12-10.