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David Leech, University of Bristol

Defining ‘Cambridge Platonism’

The term ‘Cambridge Platonism’ has been criticised for being too vague to be useful. Defining Cambridge Platonism solely in terms of an appeal to reason, toleration and holiness of life, their opposition to atheism/enthusiasm, or the priority of divine goodness over arbitrary will etc. has been criticised as being too broad to pick out Platonists from a larger set of other contemporaries, or to isolate their Platonism specifically. One particular difficulty is the challenge of distinguishing Cambridge Platonism from Latitudinarianism. As Lewis suggests, one important differentia between the two may be the relative absence of emphasis on a soteriology of deiformity in the teachings of Latitudinarians. Since this article is concerned to define Platonism, it will set aside the vexed question of how to define Latitudinarianism and its relationship to Cambridge Platonism (see Circle, Network, Consellation). In this section we propose a definition of Cambridge Platonism which, while not pretending to more precision than is feasible and conceding that it must have fuzzy edges, nevertheless attempts to define the category more precisely than hitherto and defends its use as a critical tool. This will require being clearer about the Platonism of the ‘Cambridge Platonists’. In a recent monograph charting the reception history of Plotinus, Gersh (2019) refers to the Cambridge Platonists as belonging to a ‘post-Ficinian trajectory’,[1] and this term is serviceable as a characterisation of their Platonism generally and not only of their Plotinism. The Platonism of the Cambridge Platonists is a late product of the entire trajectory of Platonism from middle to Neo-Platonism through to Renaissance Platonism and contains elements from all these major phrases while integrating non-Platonic elements in an original early modern synthesis. As the scholar of Platonism Lloyd Gerson has noted, understanding the nature of Platonism with some sort of precision is a desideratum for the historian of philosophy, and this is just as true in the case of Cambridge Platonism.[2]

Origin of the Category, and its ‘Prehistory’

The term ‘Cambridge Platonism’ originates in the nineteenth century. Prior to Tulloch’s Rational Theology and Christian Philosophy: The Cambridge Platonists (1872/74), the term is used sporadically from the 1830s and 1840s, for instance in an entry on ‘Moral and Metaphysical Philosophy’ the Encyclopaedia Metropolitana (1845) makes reference to ‘those admirable and accomplished writers who have been called the Cambridge Platonists, Cudworth, John Smith, Worthington, Henry More and others’.[3]

However, earlier practices of referring to a group of primarily Cambridge-based ‘Platonists’, invariably including Ralph Cudworth (1617-88) and Henry More (1614-87), usually Benjamin Whichcote (1609-83), and (more variably) a number of other key figures, can be traced back at least to the 1730s in continental Europe. Johann Lorenz von Mosheim in his Latin translation of Cudworth’s True Intellectual System of the Universe (Systema Intellectuale huius Universi) of 1733 and Johann Jacob Brucker in his Kurtze Fragen Aus Der Philosophischen Historie (1735) and his Historia Critica Philosophiae (1743) refer to this set of men as Platonists (Brucker also adds Worthington, Theophilus Gale, and Thomas Burnet).[4] Brucker characterises them as revivers of ‘Alexandrian’, or ‘eclectic’ Platonism – what we today would term Neoplatonism – and notes that this form of Platonism was originally fused with Christianity by Origen. However, he distinguishes what he refers to as More’s Platonico-Cabbalism from Cudworth, Gale, and Burnet’s ‘Alexandrian’ form. Mosheim and Brucker were in turn dependent on accounts of them by contemporaries. The most important sources here are Gilbert Burnet History of His Own Time (1724), [Symon Patrick] A Brief Account of a New Sect of Latitude-Men (1662); and Joseph Glanvil, ‘Anti-Fanatical Religion, and Free Philosophy, in a Continuation of the New Atlantis’, in Essays on Several Important Subjects in Philosophy and Religion (1676).[5]

Patrick’s Brief Account of the New Sect of Latitude-Men (1662) does not target these figures by name. However, as Lewis notes, Widdrington was referring to More and Cudworth as ‘Latitude-Men’ in this period (see Circle, Network, Consellation), and the Brief Account probably contains a reference to More’s Enthusiasmus Triumphatus (1656).[6]

In about 1675, Glanvill, in a manuscript version of what would become his ‘Anti-Fanatical Religion’ essay included in Essays on Several Important Subjects in Philosophy and Religion (1676) identified members of a group he termed the ‘Cupri-Cosmits’, in which he included Cudworth, Whichcote, Smith, and More together with Symon Patrick, George Rust, William Owtram, Nathaniel Ingelo, John Tillotson, Edward Stillingfleet, Samuel Jacombe, and Samuel Cradock (see Circle, Network, Consellation). In ‘Anti-Fanatical Religion’, this group (no longer named but disguised under fictional characters) are said by Glanvil to be united philosophically by a dislike of syllogistic method and peripatetic metaphysics, a commitment to hypotheses/conjectures, and a (qualified) openness to experimentalism in natural philosophy. But – setting aside the problem that he seems to be conflating two generations of figures here – with respect to explicitly Platonic method or doctrine, he notes that only ‘some’ of this set embrace a Platonic/Socratic method; the doctrine of the spirit of nature [the Platonic anima mundi]; preexistence; and spiritual extension (which Glanvil classes as a Platonic doctrine). In fact, Glanvil seems to stress the unity of their theological over their philosophical outlook: they are committed to a rejection of a conception of God as mere power and arbitrary will, and an emphasis on the priority of God’s goodness; on real rather than imputed righteousness; divine and human freedom; a commitment to returning to the early Greek patristics; and on faith as an act of reason.

In Gilbert Burnet’s History of His Own Time (1724, but probably as Lewis notes written 1683-1685), he refers to a ‘new set of men’, ‘called Latitudinarians’, ‘generally of Cambridge’, who were ‘formed under some divines, the chief of whom were Drs. Whitchcot, Cudworth, [John] Wilkins, More, Worthington’ (186-187). He also mentioned John Tillotson, Edward Stillingfleet, Symon Patrick, John Lloyd, and Thomas Tenison (see Circle, Network, Consellation). This is the first published enumeration of these figures. Burnet does not explicitly mention ‘Platonism’, although he does note that Whichcote ‘set young students much on reading the ancient Philosophers, chiefly Plato, Tully, and Plotin’ (187).

Therefore, although the terms ‘Cambridge Platonism’ and ‘Cambridge Platonist(s)’ are first used only in the nineteenth century, and Brucker’s identification of them as an ‘English Platonic sect’ may reflect his own systematising bias, the convergence of British and continental sources just mentioned attests to the prior existence of an overlapping set of labels – ‘Latitudinarians’ (Patrick, Burnet), ‘Cupri-Cosmits’ (Glanvil), ‘English/British Platonist Sect’ (Brucker), ‘Platonists’ (Mosheim) – for a group of figures, mostly Cambridge based, which consistently identify at least More, Cudworth (and, generally, Whichcote) as core members of a distinct group.

A Suggested Definition of Cambridge Platonism

Having established that the category ‘Cambridge Platonism’ has a prehistory traceable back in some form or another to contemporary sources, we will now attempt to lend it more precision than it has hitherto had. This is a stipulative definition but it is also meant to clarify rather than diverge from the historical usage of ‘Cambridge Platonism’ and the abovementioned earlier attempts at identifying this group. It makes use of Gerson’s necessary and sufficient conditions definition of lowest-common-denominator Platonism as outlined in his aforementioned article ‘What is Platonism?’, but extends it, since this broad definition does not differentiate between Platonism and Aristotelianism (on a certain reading of Aristotle’s continuity with Platonism), and a serviceable definition of ‘Cambridge Platonism’ must at least distinguish it from Aristotelian scholasticism.

We propose that a ‘Cambridge Platonist’ can be defined as a member of

(1) a prosopographically identifiable mid-to-late seventeenth century social and intellectual network

(2) whose core members were educated at and based in Cambridge, are strongly associated with the first significant appearance of terms like ‘Platonism’ and ‘Platonist’ in mid-seventeenth century English language texts, adopt Platonic terminology, and may in addition self-identify or be identified as Platonists

(3) whose worldview stance satisfies Gerson’s lowest-common-denominator definition of Platonism

(4) implicitly or explicitly hold Platonism in high or highest esteem among the philosophical schools

(5) reject (or at least, do not employ) syllogistic method and Aristotelian physics/metaphysics

(6) defend, or at least assume, libertarian free will

(7) defend, or at least assume, political latitudinarianism and religious toleration

(8) ascribe to one or more of a limited set of commitments which are supplementary to the lowest-common-denominator definition of Platonism but common to specific varieties of historical Platonism

(9) and have left behind texts which evidence (3)-(8).

This definition serves to pick out a reasonably homogeneous intellectual (and not just social) network with a fair degree of precision. Below we explain each of points (1)-(9) in more detail.


(1) a prosopographically identifiable mid-to-late seventeenth century social and intellectual network

The section ‘Circle, Network, Constellation’ of this Sourcebook presents clear prosopographical evidence that the five figures whose works are transcribed here belonged to a common network with others via family and friendship ties, tutor-student relationships, patronage, etc. Other members of the network include (in Cambridge) Worthington, Sterry, Culverwell, Cradock, Patrick, Rust, Ingelo, Outram, Hallywell, Wadsworth, Standish, Leigh, Maurice, Ward, Andrews, Brooksbank, Burnet, and Damaris Masham. The network is based in particular on Emmanuel and Christ’s Colleges, and extending to the Ragley Hall circle in Warwickshire (Finch), links in Oxford (Glanvill, Elys, Norris), and (via Whichote) the network around St Lawrence Jewry, London in the Restoration period. This network was cultivated both in correspondence (e.g. the More-Conway letters, Worthington) and also via editorial projects (Hallywell publishing Rust’s remains, More editing Glanvill and Rust’s treatises and writing commentaries on their main works, Cudworth’s assistance in bringing Smith’s prophecy discourse to publication).

As Lewis notes, membership of this social and intellectual network does not guarantee that these figures are Platonists. Some, such as Culverwell, deny freewill; Sterry is a Calvinist; Outram is not overtly Platonist etc. This does not however problematize the definition, since membership of this network is only a necessary but not a necessary and sufficient condition for being identified as a Cambridge Platonist. I will say no more about this aspect of the definition, but the reader is referred to ‘Circle, Network, Constellation’ for further substantiation of the claim that More, Cudworth, Whichcote, Smith and Conway clearly belonged to this network.

(2) whose core members were educated at and based in Cambridge, are strongly associated with the first significant appearance of terms like ‘Platonism’ and ‘Platonist’ in mid-seventeenth century English language texts, adopt Platonic terminology, and may in addition self-identify or be identified as Platonists

More precisely: a Cambridge Platonist is a person who is a core member of the network, or who is a member of the network ‘whose core members were…’ etc. ‘Core members’ by (2) would certainly include More, Cudworth, and Smith. Whichcote was educated at and based in Cambridge and is generally regarded as a core Cambridge Platonist or even the father of Cambridge Platonism, but he fits the other elements of (2) less well. However, a case can be made for including him in (2) on account of the chronological priority of his teaching over the earliest Cambridge Platonist published writings, in particular, his having taught Cudworth and Smith (see Circle, Network, Consellation). We can add Burnet’s witness that Whichcote encouraged his students to read Plotinus, together with the Origenist nature of his soteriology. But it is not crucial for this stipulative definition whether Whichcote is classed alongside More, Cudworth and Smith as a core member, or only more broadly as a member of the category ‘Cambridge Platonism’. On this definition Whichcote must certainly be classed at least as a Cambridge Platonist. Conway is perhaps not a core Cambridge Platonist either by (2) but is certainly a Cambridge Platonist.

More, Cudworth and Smith are strongly associated with the first significant appearance of terms like ‘Platonism’ and ‘Platonist’ in mid-seventeenth century publications, adopt Platonic terminology, and may at least in the case of More self-identify as Platonists. More is also explicitly identified as a Platonist.

Note that (2) does not require that a ‘Cambridge Platonist’ is educated/based in Cambridge, but rather that s/he is a core Cambridge Platonist or networked with them. It would seem odd to recategorize Whichcote as a ‘London Platonist’ after his departure from Cambridge to St Lawrence Jewry in 1668, or to deny the title to Conway because she was based in Ragley Hall in Warwickshire. But less intuitively, this definition allows Glanvill, based at and educated in Oxford, to be classed as a Cambridge, rather than an Oxford, Platonist, on account of his link with the core Cambridge Platonists. By contrast, an Oxford figure like Thomas Jackson would rightly be termed an Oxford Platonist, since his Platonism was not due to the influence of Cambridge Platonists. This is a definitional matter which allows for reasonable disagreement, and Glanvill could be excluded from the category ‘Cambridge Platonism’ if terming him a Cambridge Platonist was felt to be too counterintuitive; but it would come at a cost, in particular, obscuring the close social connection between Glanvill and More, his having been influenced intellectually by More, his self-identifying and being identified as a Platonist, and More’s editorial collaboration with him.

(3) whose worldview stance satisfies Gerson’s lowest-common-denominator definition of Platonism

In his attempt to identify common ground shared by Platonists over Platonism’s (at least) more than 800 years of existence, Gerson identifies its fundamental feature as a commitment to non-reductive holism (‘top-downism’) – including a rejection of all forms of materialism[7] - which he further analyses into commitments to the following six sub-claims: (a) the presupposition of cosmic unity, such that the universe can be systematically understood; (b) the universe is hierarchically structured according to the principles of prior simplicity and intelligibility, and understood from the top down; (c) god/the divine is an irreducible category with an essential (but very attenuated) personal dimension, is essentially benevolent/providential, and persons are exhorted to become godlike; (d) the universe is alive (ensouled) in a non-reductive holistic sense and individual souls exist; (e) persons are identical with immortal souls, not soul-body composites, and their goal is to realise their nature by becoming deiform/participating in divinity; (f) there is a hierarchy of modes of cognition corresponding to the ontological hierarchy.[8]

Cudworth, More, Smith, Whichcote and Conway all meet something like this broad lowest-common-denominator definition of Platonism, as do e.g. Rust, Glanvill and Hallywell. Translated into more familiar Cambridge Platonist terms, they all agree that (a) reality/‘the universe’ can be understood as a ‘system’; (b) it is hierarchically structured according to the seniority of the immaterial to the material; (c) God is a personal being who is essentially benevolent, contra Calvinist voluntarism, and deiformity is the goal of human lives; (d) the universe is enlivened by some form of anima mundi (‘Plastic Nature’, ‘Hylarchic Principle’, archai etc.), and individual souls exist; (e) persons are essentially immaterial substances (whether non-extended or spiritually extended), even though they are also essentially embodied (without compromising substance dualism); (f) higher modes of cognition exist (‘superintellectual instinct’, ‘true enthusiasm’ (Cudworth); ‘boniform faculty’, ‘true enthusiasm’ (More) etc.) corresponding to the ontological hierarchy.

However, a few particular notes on (3) are in order.

Firstly, the term ‘worldview stance’ is used advisedly, since it is broad enough to include ‘philosophers’ and ‘theologians’ indifferently. For instance, Glanvill (1676) suggests that the core consensus among these figures is theological rather than philosophical, and Whichcote, More and Cudworth were referred to collectively as ‘theologians’ by Brucker (1735) and Mosheim (1733). Setting aside here the difficult question of the relation between their philosophy and theology, for present purposes it is sufficient to note that even were they to be separated, ‘worldview stance’ is broad enough to capture both. Furthermore, it is also broad enough to include those who subscribe to Cambridge Platonist views without actually mounting an intellectual defence of them. For instance, Rust’s pupil Hallywell, who was primarily a populariser of Cambridge Platonist positions than an intellectual defender of them (see Circle, Network, Consellation), can count as a Cambridge Platonist by (3).

Secondly, with respect to Gerson’s sub-claim (b), the principle of prior simplicity led to the postulation of the absolutely simple (i.e. the One) in Plotinian and post-Plotinian Neoplatonism. In one sense this is rejected by our figures – they typically reject henology, and are closer to Middle Platonists in this respect, as is evident in their only qualified endorsement of Plotinus and Proclus, which aligns them with Origen’s Platonism. But (as Gerson notes), this disagreement, internal to the tradition of Platonism, is not a rejection of the principle of prior simplicity itself, but rather only concerns the nature of the absolutely simple principle, so Cambridge Platonist views represent a variety of Platonism in this respect rather than a divergence from Platonism tout court.

Thirdly, with respect to (e), this may seem to be contradicted by e.g. More and Cudworth’s commitment to essential embodiment, but in fact they reject strict hylomorphism – i.e. that the soul is a form which informs the body and analytically cannot exist separately from it – and in this sense are not an exception to this feature of (e). For instance, there is a possible world where a Morean spiritually extended soul could survive independently of body even if it would not be able to exercise any functions apart from embodiment, because (unlike an inseparable form) it is not analytically inseparable from a body but is a distinct spiritually extended substance. It could in principle exist separately from any body, even if it were functionless in that case, so the position remains substance dualist even while it subscribes to essential embodiment.

All of the five figures whose texts have been included in this research collection meet these criteria, whereas e.g. Hobbists fail (b), (c), (d), (e) and (f), scholastic Aristotelians fail at least (e), Christian Stoics fail (e) and (maybe?) (f), and Christian Epicureans fail (b), (d), (e) and (?) (f).

Evidently, one difficulty of defining Cambridge Platonism solely in terms of (1)-(3) is that it would still remain too broad. In particular, scholastic Aristotelians come close to meeting these criteria, clearly failing only (e), since Aristotelianism can accommodate some very generic notions of deiformity (e.g. theoria), aliveness of the universe, and higher modes of cognition. Indeed, Gerson’s definition is intentionally broad enough to include Aristotelianism as a variety of Platonism, but any useful definition of Cambridge Platonism will need at least to distinguish Cambridge Platonists from scholastic Aristotelians, with whom they are naturally contrasted (and contrast themselves). Gerson’s classification of Aristotelianism as a variety of Platonism is of course provocative and will not meet with the agreement of all,[9] but for our purposes here it is sufficient that Cambridge Platonism can be distinguished from scholastic Aristotelianism, however the latter is classified, so that we do not need to take a stance on the exact relation between Platonism and Aristotelianism. This highlights the need to further specify the Platonism of Cambridge Platonists, which is satisfied by (4)-(6).

(4) who implicitly or explicitly hold Platonism in high or highest esteem among the philosophical schools

In the case of More, since his conversion to Platonism in 1636 and publication of Platonicall Song of the Soul (1642), which is dense with Plotinian quotations, his esteem for Platonism is evident and needs little documentation. Cudworth’s engagement with Platonism in his True Intellectual System (1676) is such that although he does not self-identify explicitly as a Platonist, it is clear enough that Platonism is his preferred ancient philosophical school, at least in Trinitarian matters. Cudworth’s translator Mosheim terms him ‘Platonicus’, presumably on the grounds that his favourite ancient philosophical authority is Plotinus and that he so frequently praises the Platonic system.[10] In the case of Smith, he consistently endorses Platonic authorities, especially Plotinus, Plutarch, Porphyry, Proclus, and Simplicius against Stoic, Aristotelean, and Epicurean positions (for instance, his arguments for the immortality of the soul are mainly drawn from Plotinus’ Ennead IV.7, and we have the indirect evidence that Worthington thought of More’s Immortality of the Soul as expanding on Smith’s work on the same topic.[11] The evidence for Whichcote is more indirect, but Burnet’s testimony that he ‘set young students much on reading the ancient Philosophers, chiefly Plato, Tully, and Plotin’, suggests at least that it is plausible to treat Whichcote as holding Platonism in high esteem.

It should be noted that that the integration of traditionally non-Platonic commitments (such as atomism in natural philosophy) does not count against meeting this criterion. It is noteworthy that as early as Brucker (1735) there is a recognition that these figures were essentially eclectic rather than ‘fully’ Platonic (for instance, they may integrate non-Platonic natural philosophy, such as limited mechanism, into their worldview), but tended to regard Platonism as the superior philosophical sect, especially in matters of metaphysics/theology.

(5) who reject (or at least, do not employ) syllogistic method and Aristotelian physics/metaphysics

Even granted substantial overlap of Platonism and Aristotelianism at the level of a lowest-common-denominator definition of Platonism such as Gerson’s, we can nevertheless differentiate Cambridge Platonists from contemporary scholastics by noting their rejection of syllogistic method and specifically Aristotelian physics/metaphysics. This is one of Glanvill’s (1676) criteria for picking them out as a group. For instance, they reject hylomorphic analyses in their philosophies of nature.

(6) who defend, or at least assume, libertarian free will

‘Cambridge Platonists’ defend or at least assume libertarian free will, generally on explicitly Origenist Christian Platonic grounds. This distinguishes them from Calvinists, and it gives a principled reason for excluding Culverwell and Sterry from the category, despite their membership of the network. The central defences of it are in More’s Enchiridion Ethicum (1667), Cudworth’s extensive unpublished manuscript writings on freewill; Halliwell’s Deus Justificatus (1668) should also be mentioned here with its explicit rejection of Calvinism on Origenian principles. (6) in particular motivates the recent suggestion that these figures might be renamed ‘Cambridge Origenists’.[12] Such an innovation would have the benefit of stressing the central role of this particular commitment in their Platonism, and its (mainly) Origenist sources; however, it would also come with some costs e.g. obscuring the extent to which Plotinus functions as a chief Platonic authority for a number of these figures (for instance, in More’s Philosophical Poems), and the commitment to forms of anima mundi is not specifically Origenist etc. We will not try to resolve this issue here – while recognising the potential benefits of this proposal, for the purposes of this definition, and for the sake of continuity, we suggest preserving the category ‘Cambridge Platonist’ (treating Origenist Christian Platonism as a very influential variety of Platonism for them), but recognise the crucial role of this element in the definition as well as the crucial role of Origen as a Christian Platonic authority for these figures.

(7) who defend, or at least assume, political latitudinarianism and religious toleration

This is perhaps the least clearly Platonic element of the definition, and it should perhaps be regarded as a not specifically Platonic dimension of ‘Cambridge Platonism’, but it is certainly picked out by contemporaries such as Patrick and Glanvill as a defining characteristic of these figures. Certainly, a figure like Plotinus cannot obviously serve as a model for this dimension of Cambridge Platonism.[13] In any case this element belongs in the definition of Cambridge Platonism, whether it is specifically Platonic or not.

(8) subscribe to one or more of a limited set of commitments which are supplementary to the lowest-common-denominator definition of Platonism but common to specific varieties of historical Platonism

Cambridge Platonists also subscribe to one or more of the following commitments:[14]

pre-existence (e.g. More, Rust, Conway, Hallywell, Glanvill, but not Cudworth, Smith)

Platonic Trinitarianism (e.g. More, Cudworth)

Platonico-Cabbalism (e.g. More, Cudworth, but not Whichcote, Smith)

dispositional innatism (e.g. More, Cudworth, but not Smith)

identity of the essence of things with ideas in the divine nous (e.g. More, Cudworth, Smith)

Platonic allegorical method of scripture interpretation, drawing especially on Philo, Origen (e.g. More, but not Smith)

privileging of Plotinus as a Platonic authority (e.g. More, Cudworth, Smith, but not Whichcote (in his writings at least) or Conway)

‘true enthusiasm’ as divine mania (e.g. More, Cudworth, but not Whichcote (?))

Origenian soteriology (esp. apokatastasis) (e.g. Conway, but not Rust, Cudworth, More)

This element of the definition works in a family resemblance sense, since no single Cambridge Platonist endorses all of these, but all embrace one or more of them, with varying degrees of overlap (they do however all count as Platonists by the more generic definition (3)).

Notice also that Platonic natural philosophy (beyond a general commitment to an anima mundi doctrine) is not on the list. However, while a partial assimilation of more recent natural philosophy is typical of some of these figures (e.g. Cudworth and More’s partial integration of corpuscularianism/mechanism), this does not compromise their Platonism as such, as has already been noted. One might compare this syncretism with the absorption by Neoplatonists of Stoic and Aristotelian elements into a new Platonic synthesis.

On the importance of Origenism, we should note that in the case of libertarian free will their Origenism is pervasive, but in the case of pre-existence and apokatastasis it serves to divide these figures. A case could be made for the desirability of classifying these figures according to the differing degrees to which they subscribe to Origenism.

Finally, it should be noted that Cambridge Platonists do indeed stress reason, holiness of life and the priority of the practical, and are united in their opposition to atheism and sectarian enthusiasm. We have not stressed these factors because they do not pick out these figures specifically, nor do they pick them out specifically as Platonists. Nevertheless, it should be stressed that these are also defining characteristics of these figures, even if they are not specifically Platonic ones.

(9) and have left behind texts which evidence (3)-(8).

Click to expand image
Click to expand image

As Lewis’s careful prosopographical work has shown, there are members of the social and intellectual network referred to in (1) outside the core group who edited, promoted, were sympathetic towards, or could be assumed to be sympathetic towards, the Platonism of the Cambridge Platonists, but have not left clear textual evidence of their own Platonism. Since establishing their Platonism would have to be quite conjectural, we propose that it is more helpful to proceed conservatively and restrict the term ‘Cambridge Platonism’ to those figures who have left behind texts which evidence their Platonism (as here defined) beyond mere conjecture or plausible inference. Candidates for Cambridge Platonists in this sense would be the five figures included in this Sourcebook: More, Cudworth, Smith, Whichcote, Conway, plus Rust, Glanvill, Ingelo, Hallywell, but not Worthington, Cradock, Outram etc. Again, the category will necessarily have fuzzy edges and may change in light of new prosopographical research, but, in any case More, Cudworth, Smith, Whichcote and Conway certainly meet element (9) of the definition.[15]

[1] Gersh, Stephen. Plotinus’ Legacy: The Transformation of Platonism from the Renaissance to the Modern Era (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 12.

[2] Gerson, Lloyd, ‘What is Platonism’, Journal of the History of Philosophy 43 (3):253-276 (2005), 253.

[3] Encyclopaedia Metropolitana, Or, Universal Dictionary of Knowledge, eds. E.Smedley, H.J.Rose and H.J.Rose, Vol.2 (London, 1845). See also Trench, R.C. The Fitness of Holy Scripture for Unfolding the Spiritual Life of Men (Hulsean Lectures) (Cambridge: Macmillan, Barclay, and Macmillan, 1845).

[4] Brucker, Johann Jacob. Kurtze Fragen aus der Philosophischen Historie (Ulm: Daniel Bartholomäi, 1731-36), and Historia Critica Philosophiae (Leipzig: Moritz Georg Weidmann, 1742-44); Mosheim, Johann Lorenz von. Systema Intellectuale Huius Universi (Jena: Witwe Meyer, 1733). Henry More is also identified earlier as a Platonist by continental European scholars. For instance, Johann Franz Buddeus in his Analecta Historiae Philosophicae (Halle: Orphanotrophius, 1706) calls him ‘the celebrated restaurer of the Platonic philosophy’ (141), and in Daniel Georg Morhof’s sketch of the history of Platonic philosophy in his Polyhistor (Lübeck: Peter Böckmann, 1708), he is classed as a ‘Platonico-Cartesian’ (40). But More, Cudworth and Whichcote are not referred to together as a Platonists prior to Mosheim and Brucker.

[5] Burnet, Gilbert (ed.). Bishop Burnet’s History of His Own Time. Vol.1. (Dublin: J.Hyde, 1724); [Patrick, Simon]. A Brief Account of a New Sect of Latitude-Men (London, 1662); Glanvill, Joseph. ‘Anti-Fanatical Religion, and Free Philosophy, in a Continuation of the New Atlantis’, In Essays On Several Important Subjects in Philosophy and Religion (London: John Baker and Henry Mortlock, 1676).

[6] ‘Christian Religion was never bred up in the Peripatetick school, but spent her best and healthfullest years in the more Religious Academy, amongst the primitive Fathers...let her old loving Nurse the Platonick Philosophy be admitted again into her family; nor is there any cause to doubt but the Mechanick also will be faithful to her, no less against the open violence of Atheisme, than the secret treachery of Enthusiasm and Superstition, as the excellent works of a late learned Author have abundantly demonstrated.’ Patrick, A Brief Account, 24. 

[7] NB: a non-reductive holism can integrate a materialistic hypothesis about the nature of the physical (say, atomism), but it cannot adopt it as a global materialist monism. For instance, More’s position, which absorbs atomism in natural philosophy, can therefore still count as Platonic, as can Gassendi’s (since he admits an immaterial God), whereas ancient Epicureanism cannot.

[8] Gerson, ‘What is Platonism?’, 261-262.

[9] Although Gerson has a point that ‘if one rigorously and honestly seeks to remove the principles of Platonism from a putatively Aristotelian position, what would remain would be incoherent and probably indefensible’ (276).

[10] I am very grateful to Adrian Mihai for this point.

[11] See Michaud, Derek, ‘‘The Legacy of a ‘Living Library’: On the Reception of John Smith’, in Douglas Hedley and David Leech eds., Revisioning Cambridge Platonism: Sources and Legacy (Springer: Leuven, 2019).

[12] Christian Hengstermann and Ulrike Weichert eds. Anne Conways Principia Philosophiae. Materialismuskritik und Alleinheitsspekulation im neuzeitlichen England (Münster, 2012) 1-4; Alfons Fürst und Christian Hengstermann, eds. Cambridge Origenists. George Rusts Letter of Resolution Concerning Origen and the Chief of His Opinions. Adamantiana 4 (Münster, 2012), 11-16; Alfons Fürst und Christian Hengstermann, eds. Origenes Cantabrigiensis. Ralph Cudworth, Predigt vor dem Unterhaus und andere Schriften. Adamantiana 11 (Münster, 2018), 11-13.

[13] I am very grateful to Christian Hengstermann for conversations on this and other points.

[14] NB: an author’s not subscribing to one or more of these commitments does not necessarily imply that s/he rejected them, but possibly only ignored them.

[15] I am especially grateful to Christian Hengstermann and Marilyn Lewis for their invaluable comments on this section.

Cite as: Defining ‘Cambridge Platonism’,, accessed 2024-07-12.