James Bryson, University of Cambridge
The Platonic-Cabbalism [hereafter PC] of the Cambridge Platonists is essential to the intellectual and spiritual vision of their Christian Platonism. It provides an important point of common ground for a group where scholarly, political, philosophical, metaphysical, theological, methodological and doctrinal differences of opinion were not uncommon. My focus in this introduction to the Platonic-Cabbalism of the Cambridge Platonists will be their appropriation of the Hebrew term ‘Cabbala’ and how they used it to integrate ancient and modern traditions of philosophical and theological wisdom into their Christian Platonic world view. In order to justify my focus on this category of their thought, I will begin by outlining the character of the Christian Platonic Cabbalistic tradition in the Renaissance and early modern period, and give an overview of the state of this question in the relevant and leading scholarship.
Historical Context and Scholarship
Platonism and Cabbalism became closely associated in early modern philosophical and theological writings beginning with Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494). ‘Mirandula’ as he was sometimes call by the Cambridge Platonists, set an important standard in the Renaissance as a thinker who used Platonic metaphysical principles as hermeneutical tools for the interpretation of scripture. For Pico, Platonism fits naturally with the Jewish Cabbalistic tradition as he understood it, because ancient the Platonists, like the Hebrew prophets before them, belong to a philosophical tradition open to divine revelation, one which blurred the lines drawn between natural and revealed religion maintained by the scholastic Aristotelianism of his day. The Cambridge Platonists were deeply attracted to the idea of a close connection between prophetic insight and philosophical truth - understood in the broadest sense of the term - including the truths of ‘natural philosophy’, or what Henry More would call the ‘philosophick Cabbalah’, a tradition running from Moses, through the Greek Atomists, to Copernicus and Descartes. For Pico and More, Platonism had its origins in the revelations God gave to Moses: the ‘mind of Moses’ could be interpreted literally, philosophically, mystically (or ‘morally’), and anagogically. In this sense, Renaissance Platonic-Platonism could be understood as a continuation of medieval and patristic hermeneutical principles, traditions which also employed a tetralogical approach to the interpretation of the Bible.
The ‘mystical’ or ‘moral cabbala’ uses allegory to uncover the operation of the incarnate logos in the Old Testament. This, the highest form of the Cabbalah for the Cambridge Platonists, also had an important precedent in the Renaissance Platonism that inspired its Cambridge successors. The ‘moral cabbalah’ emphasized an oral tradition, on its face an historical claim, but one grounded in metaphysical and ultimately mystical presuppositions. For Nicholas of Cusa, Marsilio Ficino, and Pico – all philosophical theologians known to 17th century English Platonism – true theology cannot be written down. For Christian Platonists in this tradition, scripture is without question divinely inspired, but many of its deepest truths are not available to its readers unless they share in the mystical encounter that made these revelations possible. In this sense these truths are ‘occult’, ‘esoteric’, or ‘hidden’ in the plain sense of those terms. This is what Christian Cabbalists mean when they say that their object is to ‘unfold the mind of Moses’. The ‘literal’ sense of scripture, therefore – whether this means the historical or plain sense of the text - presupposes a personal encounter with the divine mind. Similarly, divine truths are best communicated orally, that is, person-to-person, sometimes called the ‘vocal Cabbala’.
Again, Platonism is the best placed of the philosophical traditions to aid in the work of the ‘moral’ cabbala, because it acknowledges the difficulty, if not outright impossibility, of writing about God. Plato’s Phaedrus - together with the Symposium considered the most important of the dialogues for the Renaissance Platonist - addresses the limitations of writing explicitly. Renaissance Platonists were quick to point out that the great teachers of their tradition – Moses, Pythagoras, Socrates, and Jesus – did not write anything down. For Platonists and Christians, therefore, the oral and the written traditions are complementary, but it is the former the makes the latter possible, both historically and metaphysically.
The Cambridge Platonists were known for their interest in Cabbalism by their contemporaries. Joseph Glanvill (1636-1680), an admirer of the synthesis of Platonism and Cabbalism in post-medieval Europe, calls Henry More the ‘great and excellent Restorer of the Platonick Cabbalah’. Others were less enthusiastic about the marriage of Platonism and Cabbalism. Mark Burden has pointed out in a post for our project blog that we can get a sense of More’s reputation as a Platonic-Cabbalist from a response written to his Antidote against Idolatry (1669), by a Roman Catholic contemporary John Walton, in a work titled A Brief Answer to the many Calumnies of Dr. Henry More, in his pretended Antidote against Idolatry (1672). Samuel Parker’s Free and Impartial Censure of the Platonick Philosophie (1666), widely taken as a pamphlet targeting the Cambridge Platonists, offers further evidence of a perceived connection between Platonism and Cabbalism in the group. There are two principal sections in this work, one concerning itself with an ‘account of Platonic philosophy’, followed by an attack on the ‘supposed agreement between Plato and Moses’, wherein Parker purports to expose the tenuous historical basis on which the purported concordance of Platonism and Hebrew scripture is based. It is also noteworthy that Parker argues for the clear differences between the Platonic hypostases and the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, differences which, he contends, Christian Platonists tend to ignore or explain away.
Finally, it is also worth noting that Johann Jacob Brucker, the eminent 18th century historian of philosophy, discerns a Cabbalistic strand in the Cambridge Platonists, which he links to their attraction to what he calls the ‘Alexandrian Platonism’ of late antiquity, what we would now call neo-platonism. Brucker argues that English Platonists sought refuge in the ‘dreams’ of ‘Platonic-Cabbalism’ as a way of refuting Hobbesian materialism, but he also contends that this meant they were not good interpreters of Plato himself. Moreover, Brucker astutely links More’s Platonic-Cabbalism to the power of his speculative mystical philosophy and scriptural commentaries.
Brucker makes another crucial observation that is essential both to understanding the motivation lying behind the close connection between Platonism and Cabbalism in the spiritual vision of the Cambridge Platonists, and to appreciating a persistent line of scepticism amongst historians about the viablity of their attempt to fuse the Christian, Platonic, and Cabbalistic traditions, a scepticism which abides in contemporary scholarship. The Sefiroth, the ten divine emanations, numbers, or names, depending on how one interprets them, were a deeply attractive aspect of the tradition of Hebrew Cabbalism to the speculative imagination of the Cambridge Platonists, because it appeared to demonstrate the complementarity of the implicit metaphysical theology of scripture and Platonic metaphysics, attributable to the genius of human reason and its mystical access to the divine mind. Brucker recognizes that a scheme of divine emanations is a common foundation of the Platonic and Cabbalistic theologies, but he is clear that ‘emanationism’ is a ‘fanciful doctrine’ which does not fit with a theological tradition derived from divine revelation. The root of the problem, for Brucker, is that the Cambridge Platonists envisaged a perfect harmony between Platonism and Christianity, a symptom of their attraction to ‘Alexandrian philosophers’ and ‘Jewish Cabbalistics’, motivated by their desire to discover a ‘pure doctrine of religion’.
These 17th and 18th century judgements offer important insight into the contemporary and early reception history of Cambridge and English Platonism. Interestingly, these theological and historical judgements anticipate how many modern scholars will view the Cambridge Platonist attempt to harmonise Christianity, Platonism, and Cabbalism. In general, scholarly accounts approach their Platonic-Cabbalism in two distinct but ultimately related ways. The first approach - echoing Walton, Parker and Brucker - is to question the viability of the Cambridge Platonist synthesis of Christian orthodoxy and Platonic-Cabbalism; at minimum, Christianity and PC are unnatural bedfellows – metaphysically and theologically - or else, scholars claim, they are virtually impossible to reconcile.
The second approach assumes the arguments of the first in order to make strong distinctions between traditional members of the group and their circle. Scholars will even use PC to question the existence of the group as a viable historiographical category, one devised by outmoded whiggish theories propounded by 19th and early 20th century histories that believed the Cambridge Platonists could be classified as a ‘school’.
In the case of More and Cudworth, who had the longest careers as writers, Cabbalism is also seen as a way of tracing the development of the Cambridge Platonist world view. As a rule, scholars agree that the Cabbalism of their early writings was part of the enthusiasm of their youth which, depending on whom you ask, either haunted their more mature metaphysical and ethical writings, or else was an early phase they grew out of. Both readings regard their PC as an impediment to their overall project which was to refute atheistic materialism and preserve Christian theological orthodoxy. Criticisms of More’s ‘crypto-materialism’ and Cudworth’s defence of a ‘Platonic Trinity’ fall into the first set of readings. More’s ‘theological turn’ and supposed rejection of Cabbalism later in his career, and Cudworth’s ethical move from ‘heart to head’ in his later moral philosophy represent the second.
What is the philosophical and theological justification for these hermeneutics of suspicion? Scholars and contemporaries of Cambridge Platonists tend to regard their PC as a form of modern Gnosticism, fundamentally incompatible with Christian metaphysical and theological orthodoxy. Platonic-Cabbalists are metaphysical monists, committed to an emanationist (creatio ex deo) account of creation, opposed to the dualist metaphysical orthodoxy and the Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, its theological complement. Anthropologically, PC is a modern Pelagianism: it begins with the premise that humans are essentially perfectible. PC is committed to the heterdoxy doctrine of universal salvation (apocatastasis/ tikkun), anathematized at the 5th ecumenical council at Constantinople in 553, and it opposes orthodox views of hell, perhaps even denying its existence altogether. Furthermore, PC assumes that man can save himself in the world, thus a Platonic-Cabbalist is a mystic and an enthusiast.
Finally, there is a historical-theological problem inherent to the idea that Cabbalism, a Jewish tradition, can be fitted to a Christian theology that understands itself as orthodox. Again, scholars and contemporary readers of the Cambridge Platonists see Platonism as a way for Christians to imagine a synthesis between Christianity and Cabbalistic Judaism which, they claim, cannot abide as an historical or theologically coherent reality. Here the historical critique is advanced in two ways. First, the line of gentile philosophers and theologians, influenced by the Mosaic tradition, is exposed as historically tenuous or an outright fantasy. The second critique, which assumes the first, argues that Christian Cabbalists in the Renaissance are either ignorant of the genuine cabbalistic tradition – in the Cambridge Platonist case, the commentaries of Issac Luria (1534-1572) on the Zohar – or else, when they are exposed to it, they reject it wholesale and merely use the term ‘Cabbala’ as a kind of vacuous catch-all, stripped of any meaningful relation to an authentic historical tradition that could be conceived as making a substantial contribution to Christian orthodoxy.
This is not the space to evaluate these scholarly positions exhaustively. In what follows, some of these perceptions will be refuted or nuanced. What will be positively argued, however, is that Platonic-Cabbalism is a robust historical and philosophical category in the thought of the Cambridge Platonists, a category which represents a shared metaphysical and theological vision, committed to revealing as far as possible the mystical truths available but hidden in scripture, nature, and in the human soul, made accessible by the divine mind.
The Vision of Platonic Cabbalism in Cambridge Platonism
From the beginning of their public preaching and writing, Cudworth (1617-1688) and More (1614-1687) show that they are steeped in Cabbalistic ideas. For both, Platonism and Cabbalism mirror one another. Cudworth’s The Union of Christ and his Church, published in 1642, outlines the basic metaphysical architecture that makes the Cabbalistic tradition possible, a possibility which Christians, Platonists, and Jews – ‘Masters of the Cabala’ - understood:
That the Apostle in these words doth not onely suppose a bare Similitude between the union of Man and Wife by Marriage, and the mysticall union of Christ and the Church, and thence compare them together, as there is a similitude between the Kingdome of Heaven and a Grain of Mustard seed: But that he makes one to be a Reall Type of the other, and the other an Archetypall Copy, according to which, that was limmed and drawn out. As the Platonists use to say, concerning spirituall and materiall things, Τὰ ἀισθητὰ τῶν νοητῶν μιμήματα, That materiall things are but Ectypall Resemblances and Imitations of spirituall things, which were the First, Primitive, and Archetypall Beings. And as a deep contemplator of Truth, shall find nothing more obvious then that of Reuchline, Deum solere uno sigillo varias materias signare, That God often prints the same Seal upon severall matters: Which divers Signatures from one and the same Seal of God, our late noble Vicount of St. Albans calls, Parallela Signacula, and Symbolizantes Schematismos, having found out divers instances of them in Nature, which he concluded, were not Meræ similitudines (as the Vulgar perhaps might imagine) But una eademque Naturæ vestigia, diversis materiis & subjectis impressa. Neither were the ancient Hebrewes unaquainted with this Notion, which seemeth indeed to have been the true foundation of all their CABALA[.]
In this pregnant passage, which reflects the drift of the treatise as a whole, we have in germane form what will come to be the monumental Platonic-Cabbalistic vision that realises itself over thirty years later with the publication of Cudworth’s True Intellectual System of the Universe (1678). Cudworth includes Paul, Christ, the Platonists, Pico, Reuchlin, Francis Bacon, and the Hebrew commentrary tradition in his neo-platonic metaphysical vision of archetypes and images of the spiritual world's reflection in the material. Here Christ represents the divine mind containing the archetypes of the world that bear his image. Cudworth presents a Platonising eccelesiology, working towards a mystical end: the union of Christ and his church. This adumbrates two principal themes of PC in Cambridge Platonism: first, their abiding interest in the origins of the world and its laws, as well as its telos and apocalyptic end, when all things are unified in Christ, having returned to their origins in the divine mind. This scriptural, ecclesiological, and Christological principle is represented metaphysically by the neo-platonic cosmological logic of remaining (origin), procession (creation) and return (apocalyptic judgement and union).
These principles also govern the logic and inspire the imagination of Henry More’s ‘Christian-Platonical’ poems, predicated on a neo-platonic revisioning of the Cabbalistic Sephiroth. More’s poems, especially the first of his Platonic cycle of poems, Pyschozoia, have a strong confessional element. More was somewhat more confessional than his counterpart Cudworth. He was accused of enthusiasm by his enemies and remains misunderstood in contemporary scholarship owing to the mystical ‘tincture’ of his writings. He himself insisted that the real origins of his writings were his own ‘thoughtful and anxious mind’. This is not, however, inconsistent with his adherence to PC. In fact, a strongly personal commitment to PC belonged to the tradition as it expressed itself in Renaissance Platonism, and to the neo-platonic tradition itself, reaching back to Plotinus. Cudworth explains above how PC is possible from a metaphysical point of view; More’s poems provide a spiritual counterpoint to the metaphysical paradigm of archetype and image. In order to participate in the tradition of PC, More insists that the ‘purgative course is previous to the illuminative’. Purification provides the psychological explanation for the access to the ‘mind of Moses’ that philosophers like Plotinus enjoy. It is equally possible – and for More and Cudworth it is the case – that Plotinus could have had access to Hebrew scripture through his acquaintance with his schoolmate Origen, both of whom they believed were pupils of Ammonius Saccus in 3rd century Alexandria. Access to texts alone, however, is not enough. Only the morally pure soul has access to the mind of God. Contemplation without virtue, Plotinus says, is like flying in your dreams. The scriptural passage often cited as precedent by the Cambridge Platonists for including gentile theologians in the tradition of the ancient theology (prisca theologia) is taken from the sermon on the mount: ‘blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God’ (Matthew 5:8).
The interest of the group with the publication of PC peaks again in More’s Conjectura Cabbalistica (1653), to which he adds an important Appendix and Defence in the 1662 edition of his Omnia Opera. He rehearses these arguments in A Modest Inquiry into the Mystery of Iniquity (1664). Scholars speculate that Conway may have encouraged More to compose this treatise and likely influenced some of its arguments. More dedicated his CC to Cudworth in which he outlines the principles and goals of his Cabbalistic ‘conjectures’. More’s dedication to Cudworth provides important insight into the motivations lying behind the Cambridge Platonist interest in the Cabbala. First and most important, More wants to prevent Christians from becoming atheists. He sees his work on the Cabbala as a natural extension of his Antidote Against Atheism, which he would have been working on around the same time. He also connects his cabbalistic conjectures to his defence of the immorality of the soul, a topic to which he dedicates a full treatise in 1659. Moreover, More explains that his Platonic-Cabbalism is a way of rescuing tradition itself, by emphasizing 'the spiritual meaning' of scripture and the sacramental life. He argues: ‘[n]or does it at all follow, because a truth is delivered by way of Tradition, that it is unconcludable by Reason’. Arguments to the contrary, he explains, are spiritual defects, born of a ‘melancholick conceit’, which would mock scripture and religious belief. It is not enough to show that Moses anticipates Christ, however. The Platonists are a crucial part of this tradition because the genius of their philosophy shows the deep work of providence in Christian history:
But for my own part, I know no reason but that all wel-willers to Truth & Godliness, should heartily thank me for my present Cabbalistical Enterprise, I having so plainly therein vindicated the holy Mystery of the Trinity from being (as a very bold Sect would have it) a meer Pagan invention. For it is plainly shown here, that it is from Moses originally, not from Pythagoras, or Plato. And seeing that Christ is nothing but Moses unveiled, I think it was a special act of Providence that this hidden Cabbala came so seasonably to the knowledge of the Gentiles, that it might afore-hand fit them for the easier entertainment of the whole Mystery of Christianity, when in the fulness of time it should be more clearly revealed unto the world.
As Cudworth will attempt to demonstrate towards the end of his TIS, More explains that his cabbalistic conjectures not only show how the ‘Christian Trinity’ is a revealed doctrine with a Mosaic origin, but also that ‘the Platonic Trinity’ of divine hypostases shows that this ultimately divinely revealed mystery is also available to ‘Reason’. The complementarity of revelation and reason is consistent with the notion of divine self-revelation, which begins from the assumption that the transcendent and immanent Trinitarian Godhead should make itself known. More places the trinity alongside the immortality of the soul as doctrines which modern Christians, like the Socinians, wish to jettison owing to what is perceived to be their Platonic provenance. If these teachings can be shown to have their origins in the Mosaic tradition, the fact that they may also be found in the ‘Platonic Cabbala’ no longer poses a threat to Christian belief.
The other apparent threat to Christian belief which the Cambridge Platonists wish to render benign is the advent of the new mechanistic science, with Descartes taken to be its most outstanding exemplar. Henry More is well known for being the first philosopher to introduce Descartes in England, and also for having engaged the Frenchman in a fascinating correspondence regarding the implications of his philosophy. Descartes’ insights are part of what More calls the ‘philosophick cabbala’. While the Cambridge Platonists are rightly included among the number of English enthusiasts about what the ‘advancement of learning’ the New Science represented, they were not blind to the existential threat it posed. Mechanism could lead to a materialist world view, leaving no room for spiritual realities. Their attacks on Hobbesian materialism and later Cartesian ‘nullibism’, as well as Spinozistic pantheism, show that throughout their careers they remained alive to the threat a mechanistic world view posed. Nevertheless, the PC of the Cambridge Platonists meant that their first instinct was to integrate the perceived successes of the New Science, which included convincing explanations for everything from the operation of the passions to the structure of the cosmos. Cudworth’s doctrine of ‘plastic nature’, inspired by Plotinus, and Henry More’s ‘hylarchic principle’ or ‘spirit of nature’, for which he found precedent in Pythagoras, Aristotle, and Plato, offer a perfect examples of their attempt to occupy a middle ground between the old metaphysics and the rapidly expanding body of knowledge in natural philosophy. Similarly, More’s metaphysical writings are dedicated to the problem of spirit’s relation to the world of dead matter. Nor should it surprise us that scholars see affinities between More’s theological speculations about divine omnipresence and Newton’s concept of absolute space, a notion that would have been a natural outgrowth of Platonic-Cabbalistic speculation in the Renaissance about the nature of the infinite as a divine attribute, running from Cusanus, through Bruno and Descartes, to More himself.
One begins to see both how wide in scope the PC vision was, and how high the stakes attached to its success. Virtually all of the writings of Cambridge Platonism can be placed within More’s threefold Cabbalistic structure. Its principal concerns were hermeneutics, philosophy (including natural philosophy), and mystical and soteriological theology, the ‘literal’, ‘philosophic’ and ‘moral’ cabbalas. None of these methods are perfectly independent from the other. Their Platonic-Cabbalistic vision does not require slavish adherence of approach, nor a prior commitment to a preordained doctrinal outcome. Shared in common is fundamental commitment to the Christian religion and its holy writings; a serious engagement with the wisdom of antique and modern Platonism and with the advances in natural philosophy; and a persistent concern with the salvation of the human soul living under permanent threat of the intellectual and ultimately spiritual temptations of atheism.
Christian and Jewish Cabbalism
To complete this sketch of the PC vision and its place in the Cambridge Platonists’ corpus, I will say a word about attitudes to the Jewish Cabbalistic tradition as they understood it. Cabbala is not simply a term they appropriate as a convenient catchall or cover for their Platonizing Christianity. We know that all of the principal members of the group – More, Cudworth, Conway, and Smith – were interested in and read what they understood to be Jewish cabbalistic texts, including Isaac Luria’s commentaries on the Zohar, made available to More and likely Conway and Cudworth in the 1670s by Francis Mercury van Helmont. More’s commentaries on Luria were published in Christian Knorr von Rosenroth’s Kabbala denudata (1677), a version of which also appears in More’s Omnia Opera. His interest in Cabbalistic texts later in his career, of course, would have been natural development, the seeds of which were present already in the PC of More’s poems. We know, for example, that he and Cudworth met the Portugese Kabbalist Menasseh Ben Israel, whom he cites, among other places, in the Appendix to his Conjectura Cabbalistica in 1662. It is also important to bear in mind the precedent set by Pico who included Philo and Maimonides as part of this Jewish commentary tradition.
John Smith, a Hebraist, was also familiar with Jewish Cabbalism, naming the supposed compiler of the Zohar, R. Simeon ben Jochai, several times in his Select Discourses. There has been a recent attempt to show that Smith rejects both Platonism and Cabbalism, condemning the latter for its misuse of allegory, and singling out Philo as a Platonic-Cabbalist particularly to blame for the corruption of the Jewish Cabbala. This tendentious reading of Smith completely misrepresents the context of his criticisms of the Jewish Cabbala, which are limited to polemics against legalistic soteriologies and the spiritually deflating scriptural literalism that supports it. Philo is an important authority on the nature of prophecy, and the Cabbalistic maxims are upheld precisely when they appear to reinforce Christian Platonic authorities and the neo-platonic metaphysical principles they convey. Passages of this kind offer an important corrective to such misguided attempts at revisionism:
S. Austin hath well assign'd the reason why we are so much delighted with Metaphors, Allegories, &c. because they are so much proportioned to our Senses, with which our Reason hath contracted an intimacy and familiarity. And therefore God to accommodate his Truth to our weak capacities, does as it were embody it in Earthly expressions; according to that ancient Maxim of the Cabbalists, Lumen Supernum nunquam descendit sine indumento; agreeable to which is that of Dionysius Areop. not seldom quoted by the School-men, Impossibile est nobis aliter lucere radium Divinum, nisi varietate sacrorum velaminum circumvelatum.
Smith commends the use of allegory. It is a gift of the divine providence, a tool that allows the soul to be brought into conformity with the reditus of all things to God. This return is made possible through the mediation of symbols, made available to our senses and discerned by our reason. Like Christians and Platonists, the Jewish Cabbalists knew the power of allegorical readings of scripture.
The attempt to exclude Smith from the PC of his Cambrige Platonist counterparts because of his familiarity with ‘genuine’ Jewish Cabbalistic texts becomes an impossible task when seen in this light. His criticism of Jewish commentary traditions mirrored the real target of his polemics against Jewish hermeneutics, namely modern Christians who advocated a kind of scriptural legalism and salvation by works, a criticism developed by More himself in his late cabbalistic writings, which he connects to a metaphysical defect in the Jewish Cabbala, namely that of pantheism. The Jewish Cabbala itself, far from being excluded, could be seen to fit with the neo-platonic metaphysical vision Smith shared with More and the other members of the group. Moreover, this was very likely clear to Smith’s readership. Smith’s Discourses were sold with More’s works by their Cambridge publisher, including the first edition of More’s ‘His Threefold Cabbala’ i.e. his CC (1653).
This is not to downplay the significant differences Christian Cabbalists saw between their interpretation of the Cabbalistic tradition and the modern commentaries on specifically Jewish texts like the Zohar. Scholars rightly point out, however, that the Jewish Renaissance cabbalistic commentaries were heavily Platonized in any case as is clear in the Kabbala Denudata, which Van Helmont frames in metaphysical terms laying open the potential for Jewish and Christian dialogue in shared Platonic-philosophical territory. This, of course, was in perfect keeping with the Platonising philosophical tradition in medieval and Renaissance Europe, which recognized Greek philosophy as the common inheritance of Christians, Jews and Muslims, allowing each tradition a way of interpreting their sacred texts, as well as offering a means through which dialogue and disputation could take place, both inside and across religious traditions and confessional lines.
Indeed, dispute over PC exposed intellectual tensions within the group, most notably between More and Conway, whose defence of a non-dualistic metaphysic, thought to be essential to coherent theism for More, was likely inspired by her exposure to the cabbalistic manuscripts she studied with Van Helmont and probably with More himself. This also meant that she did not dismiss Spinoza’s writings as More did, nor did she accept the idea that substance monism was necessarily pantheistic, an apparent aporia addressed by her insistence on a hierarchy of species and her doctrine of Christ as 'middle nature'. Moreover, Conway’s position could be seen to sit happily with the Christian Platonism of Origen, and was consistent with the influence of the Theologia Germanica on the Cambridge Platonists with its Augustinian emphasis, exemplified in the Rhineland mystics, on the radical interiority of the divine mind in the human soul. Her conversion to Quakerism, the religious culmination of a metaphysical break with her teacher and friend More, remains within the visionary boundaries of PC as it expressed itself in Cambridge Platonism.
It is beyond dispute that the Christian Cabbalism of the Cambridge Platonists did not rule out neither in principle nor in fact a keen and abiding interest in the Jewish Cabbalistic tradition. This involved both criticism as well as an enthusiasm for its application of allegorical hermeneutics and a seeming Platonising philosophical approach to divinely revealed texts. At the very least, a shared antique tradition and set of sacred texts meant that even Jewish ‘literal’ readings of the books of Moses ought be taken seriously, even where they erred – as we see in the case of Smith - and indeed even where error appears on the Christian side of the interpretation of genuine Cabblistic manuscripts, as seen in the Conway, Von Rosenroth, Van Helmont, and More constellation.
As More attests in his late cabbalistic writings, encounter with authentic Jewish manuscripts was seen as the will of providence for all of the Cambridge Platonists. Conway and More believed it was possible to gain a deeper understanding of the Jewish mysteries through their cabbalistic commentary tradition, which did not rule out refuting its errors. Indeed, as students of the church fathers, error or heresy would have been understood as the occasion for discovering or refining orthodoxy. This was a principle of PC for the Cambridge Platonists generally. They read the likes of Hobbes, Descartes, Boehme, and Spinoza to learn about their own tradition through positions which seemed to challenge it, but which could also been seen as quite close to their own. The breadth of the humanistic imagination lying behind Platonic Cabbalism in Cambridge Platonism is made all the more clear when one considers that their own beloved Platonists – Plato, Plotinus, and Origen – were not set above criticism.
Creation, Trinity and the Apocalypse
The Platonic-Cabbalism of the Cambridge Platonists grows out of their interpretation of the books of Moses and the apocalyptic books in the Old and New Testaments, especially Daniel, Ezekiel, Isaiah and Revelation, and the apocalyptic episodes or sayings as they appear elsewhere in scripture, including the Psalms, the Gospels, and Paul. The overarching themes, therefore, centre around the origins, workings, and meaning of creation, and how these stand in relation to the world’s ‘end’, understood in the various senses of the word i.e. its purpose, perfection, and doom. The apocalypse can and should be understood as a historical, psychological and Christological phenomenon. Metaphysically and theologically, they insist that all created things are good, including the material world; relative to man, however, talking about creation also means talking about the origins of evil, which can have nothing to do with God, but, at the same time, evil must be rendered theologically coherent. This means defending the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo against mistaken interpretations of the Cabbalah which emphasize an emanationist account, or creatio ex deo.
Joy at the prospect of creation’s return to its divine source is mitigated by the judgement that we must necessarily pass through to reach our eternal home. It is in this context that discussions about the possibility of evil emerge, about freedom and its relation to necessity, and about the need to uphold a transcendent ‘integrative’ dualism over and above a pantheistic monism. Moreover, this requires the contemplation of the immanent nature of God, in order to understand the logic of the divine economy. For Christians, this means interpreting the divine Sephiroth in a trinitarian context, but, at the same time, showing how an orthodox view of the Christian Trinity is implicit in the ‘broken’ Cabbala of the Jewish, Greek and heretical Christian traditions. Nature, therefore, reflects the trinitarian structure of her creator and, as mentioned already, is unconsciously working her way back to him. If nature herself is part of the divine restitution of all things (tikkun/ apocatastasis), for which all creation is destined, a ‘philosophick cabbala’ must posit a theory of nature, consistent with the best current natural philosophy and with a Platonic metaphysics that prioritizes divine goodness. Connected to the question of the origins of evil, at a human level this calls for reflection on the immortality of the soul. In what sense is the fallen soul, destined for a bodily death, immortal? Did she exist in a different way i.e. ‘pre-exist’ before she found herself in her current, seemingly mortal, position? Is this world a gymnasium of the soul, a penal colony, or some combination of the two?
Sephiroth: Creatio ex nihilo and Evil
Perhaps the principle and most persistent point of attraction for the Cambridge Platonists to the Cabbalah were the divine Sephirae, the ten divine names, numbers, symbols or words, depending on the form of exegesis one followed, collectively referred to as the Denarium. Whatever the chosen hermeneutic, the Sephirae were understood both to reveal and conceal the nature of the Godhead and its creation of and operation in the world. Although the Christian Trinitarian interpretation was superior in terms of clarity, the Jews and Pythagoreans were also in possession of the divinely revealed schematic. More in particular shows himself to be committed to interpreting the internal logic of the Pythagorean and Jewish formulae. Here we will limit ourselves to the Christian revisioning of this ancient tradition common to More and Cudworth.
The first three divine names: ‘Kether’ or ‘Corona’; Chochma or ‘Sapientia’; ‘Binah’ or ‘Prudentia’ – the Hebrew terms rendered into Latin - mirror the Platonic and Christian Trinities. The Corona is called τὸ ἕν καὶ τ᾽αγαθόν or τὸ ἄκρον τοῦ νοῦ - the One and the Good, or the summit of mind, equivalent to God the Father, the unifying principle of the Godhead and the fundamental cosmological principle and law-giver. The second person, Sapientia, is Nous, the Son of God, equivalent to what St. John’s Gospel calls the logos. Prudentia, the third person, is called the principle of life or spirit, equivalent to the Greek ‘soul’, the animating principle of life, familiar to Christians as the Holy Spirit.
The remaining seven are variously understood as angels or divine attributes, all of which can be useful for interpreting the operation of the natural world, since they mirror the primordial powers by which the transcendent Trinitarian Godhead acts in the world. Smith, Cudworth and More draw heavily on the Pseudo-Dionysius’ treatise on the Celestial Hierarchy, as Cusa, Pico and Ficino had done before them. As primordial causes, the work of the angels is understood in terms of the divine omnipresence, or what More calls the divine ‘amplitude’, a lens through which he views God’s role in the creation of space, and on the divine infinity which space, understood as an energetic possibility, reflects.
The portrayal of the Sephiroth as energies is theologically and metaphysically central, and this reading of Cabbalistic divine names explains why the Cambridge Platonists insist on such a close relation between the Platonic and Christian Trinities, and also why they reject the tendency, as they saw it, in the Hebrew Cabbala, to construe the Sephiroth as part of a ‘dry and arid’ emanationist schematic. The divine names cannot be emanations, for the Cambridge Platonists. The ancient Platonists saw this too, in their view, since they thought of God, mind, and soul as hypostases. This means that they understood them as ‘energies’ or ‘powers’. For the Platonists, the hypostases are not dead abstractions, but divine and living principles of the cosmos. Metaphysically, the Platonists were committed to the transcendence that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity assumes. The ancient Platonists pave the way for the most metaphysically complete form of the theistic world view: God must be beyond the world but available to it as an omnipresent and omnibenevolent deity, one who gives himself over to be known. God is transcendent but also deeply personal. He makes himself known to his creation even as he is known to himself through the interior Trinitarian life of the Godhead. The world is a reflection of the divine community. Indeed, God’s transcendent self-relation represents the very possibility of existence itself. Moreover, the Corona is best understood in metaphysical terms as corresponding to the Platonic ‘One’, the unifying principle of the Godhead, a metaphysically transcendent source that makes it impossible for this tradition to be held responsible for the Tri-theism of Sabellianism or the static and remote God of Unitarianism. The genius of the Platonic and Christian Cabbalas is the emphasis these traditions place on transcendently rooted yet energetic connection between God and the world.
Platonism also offers the metaphysical tools to defend the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo against the ancient and modern materialist claim that out of nothing nothing can be made (ex nihilo nihil fit). At the same time, the ‘genuine’ but ‘broken’ Cabbala of the modern Lurianic tradition appears to support the materialist against this patristic doctrine. PC however, insists that the divine appears in the world as its transcendence source, but the world cannot be confused with its cause, even if it is related to it. For the Platonists, the higher can be reflected in the lower, but the higher also gives what it itself does not have: the nothingness that is the condition of divine creativity. This was an important principle of neo-platonic metaphysics in Plotinus, scholasticized by Proclus in his Elements of Theology.
The metaphysical arguments for the Cambridge Platonist defence of creatio ex nihilo against the emanationism of creatio ex deo are subtle. Much has been written about them and much more might be said. For the purposes of an introduction to these vexed and perennial questions, it is useful to have some sense of the theological context and stakes. PC in the Renaissance is well known for its speculations about the nature of the infinite. En Soph is the Hebrew cabbalistic term used to call God 'infinite', one More and Cudworth found very attractive and useful. For them, divine infinity is closely related to God’s unity and transcendence, prior to his appearance in the noetic realm (the realm of number), or in the finitude of created nature.
‘Incompossibility’, a term canonized in the philosophical index after its appropriation by Leibniz, was a concept More introduced into his philosophical vocabulary to deal with the problem of evil. God cannot be responsible for the existence of evil in the world. The concern here is that the inherently finite nature of matter, bound up with necessity, made evil necessary, since necessity itself is the occasion for evil; freedom is its opposite. God is wholly free, but appears to have run up against his own limits in having created finite matter, so that evil, if it was not inevitable, is now a genuine possibility, pregnant in ‘metaphysical matter’ itself. Incompossibility is a way of showing that matter, which is furthest from God, is not compatible with him, but this does not make it inherently evil; on the contrary, limitation is bound up with the very possibility of finite existence. In this sense, it is necessary for the transition of potency into act - for the very act of divine creativity itself. It is simply the case that matter, since it has nothing like the infinite nature God himself possesses, is prey to evil, but only insofar as it is not like God, its cause, who is not in any way subject to evil nor indeed to necessity as he is in himself. Matter, like God, however, reflects and participates in the freedom of divine goodness, but is ‘incompossible’ with it.
This, of course, bears on the question of how God relates to his creatures. PC requires that God communicate himself to the world as its cause; it must, therefore, attempt to show how he brings order to a primordial chaos and endows the cosmos that emerges from that chaos with the principle of life that animates it. Here again we encounter the question of the divine omnipresence, central to Christian Cabbalism and early modern Cabbalism generally, intimately related to the question of created space itself. In neo-platonism, God is present through his absence. God must, as it were, ‘get out of the way’, or create a space – the χώρα in the Platonic language going back to the Timaeus – to allow for the very possibility of the created order. At the same time, creation is understood to be a divine overflowing. God cannot help but create because of his infinite potency and goodness, so that, on the one hand, creatio ex nihilo is a doctrine used to uphold the idea that creation is a ‘free act’ of God, but, on the other, it allows for a certain kind of necessity, rooted in the idea of God as a spontaneous goodness, a goodness that spills over into his creation. Since God cannot be responsible for the evil that belongs to necessity and finitude, creation itself must mirror this very freedom and spontaneous goodness, down to the level of material possibility, characteristics which belong properly to the creator. In the world of creation, the mixture of freedom and necessity takes the form of life in motion (κίνησις), one of the so-called Platonic megista gene, traceable to the Sophist and a concept systematically integrated into neo-platonism. All of the Cambridge Platonists were attracted to this Origenistic-cum-Cabbalistic idea, including Conway. Cudworth and More stop short of the vitalistic monism Conway ultimately embraced, but each shared an attraction to a theology that understood motion in the material world in terms of its spiritual and omnipresent divine source.
The operation of these metaphysical principles, therefore, must be manifest in the ‘mechanics’ of the material world. The ‘philosophic cabbala’ that led to the positing of plastic nature and the hylarchic principle in Cudworth and More, is rooted in these PC principles. As More says of Descartes’ role in reviving the tradition of ‘atomistic mechanism’, his work ‘saves the phenomena’. By making the inner workings of the material world intelligible, Descartes shows that matter’s motion is rooted in intelligible principles – principles that must stand above the finite realization of particular possibilities and empirical forces. The mechanical motion of the world is best understood as a ‘slumbering spirit’, a reflection of the divine mind that gives order to nature. Later charges of nullibism notwithstanding, Descartes’ Cabbalistic credentials would remain beyond dispute, so that it would not be wrong to say the PC in Cambridge Platonism, relative to the ‘philosophick cabbala’, could equally be called ‘Cartesian-Platonism’.
The metaphysical concerns, however, are always the same because they are ethically motivated; the common concern was the danger of the evil implied in the materialist world view. Often praised for their proto-Enlightenment tolerance towards non-Christian religions, some scholars express their disappointment that the Cambridge Platonists were not tolerant of atheists. This is an ahistorical criticism and a fundamental misunderstanding of what they thought atheism was. We should no more criticize the Cambridge Platonists for their lack of tolerance of atheism, than we would a modern who inexpressed intolerance of slavery. This is because atheism was not simply an intellectual pose, as it is today, a kind of harmless set of beliefs that make no difference to the nature of the moral decisions a particular individual takes. Instead, atheism was thought, quite literally, to be diabolical force in the world; diabolical in the Greek sense of the term (dia-ballein) – atheism spreads things out. They had important precedent for this point of view in Plato himself, who, in Book X of the Laws, argues that atheists are a clear and present danger to the flourishing of the polis. Theists make the best citizens; atheists make dangerous ones.
Materialism was a philosophy that rejected transcendence and the work of divine providence worked out by metaphysical religion. By positing an infinite divine amplitude in the material space in which creatures like human beings potentially live, a unity is given to matter that upholds its transcendent roots. Materialism, by contrast, literally flattens things out – spiritually and metaphysically – so that its logic is a kind of nihilism. Materialism and atheism, therefore, go hand-in-hand. It is a world view that, for the Cambridge Platonists, culminates in the God of Spinoza, a deity who exists beyond good and evil, where the conatus determines all, and where freedom is an illusion, even, in a sense, for God.
Creation ex nihilo and the corresponding doctrines of divine omnipresence, plastic nature, and even Cartesian mechanism – seen in the best light against nullibism – are versions of the Cambridge Platonist theology of goodness which insists that God will overcome material and spiritual evil. The common rallying cry of the group against Hobbesian materialism is issued as a warning against a metaphysical apocalypse, as they will not stand by quietly as modern philosophers remove God from the world. Cudworth’s 'Plastic Nature', More’s 'Spirit of Nature', and Conway’s ‘middle nature’, a form of occasionalism, resist what would be a metaphysical catastrophe of the highest order: the disappearance of a noetic source and rule of being. This was not a fight about abstractions; these were metaphysical convictions bound up with an apocalyptic soteriology, animated by a shared commitment to tracing the divine activity in nature and history.
Seen in these terms, it should come as no surprise that there were significant spiritual and psychological implications to this form of ‘apocalyptic’ metaphysical warfare, to which I will now turn my attention.
Atheism and Prophecy
The period through which the Cambridge Platonists lived, thought, and wrote was suffuse with a millenarian ethos. They were, of course, educated during a period when England was on the verge of a civil war, and they came of age intellectually just before the English Civil War itself. Fellow Christ-man and friend of More Joseph Mede composed a major treatise on the topic in 1627 (Clavis Apocalyptica), an important touchstone for the interpretation of apocalyptic literature in the seventeenth century in general and for the Cambridge Platonists in particular. This millenarian ethos did not abate after the execution of Charles I during the interregnum. Groups like the Fifth Monarchists were counting down the days until the return of the Messiah. The Quaker preacher James Nayler’s reenactment of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday in 1656 caused a great stir about the dangers of the millenarian temperament. However, More, Cudworth, and Smith rejected popular millenarianism in favour of a Platonic-Cabbalistic approach to the spiritual and psychological questions the apocalyptic writings in scripture raise. As Platonic Cabbalists, they saw these as perennial questions. The Restoration, for example, did not bring an end to More’s interest in apocalyptic questions, nor did the passing of fateful dates or years, like 1666, cause a waning of his interest in them. Smith was preaching and writing about the nature of prophecy before the Restoration, More debated Richard Baxter on the topic later in his career, and Cudworth addresses questions in this area in his True Intellectual System, published in 1678.
The nature of prophecy, the interpretation of signs in scripture, and the mystical origins of our knowledge of God were items of permanent interest and speculation in their writings. Their mystical and supra-historical interest in these questions, however, did not rule out treating biblical history as a record of events that happened in time, nor were they otherworldly mystics oblivious to important contemporary events in England and further afield. In fact, a good part of their work on apocalyptic questions was dedicated to maintaining the centrality of historical biblical claims which many of their co-religionists rejected or considered unimportant. In a sense this was an especially urgent task for them, because they were aware that essential features of their Cabbalistic Platonism might look a lot like the non-conformist emphasis on an unmediated and perhaps antinomian theology that stood outside of any formal ecclesiology and the sacramental life of the established church, theologies which rejected the historical Christ in favour of a personal illuminationist soteriology. George Keith, for example, became a Quaker after reading More’s Grand Mystery of Godliness, as indeed did his ‘heroine pupil’ Anne Conway towards the end of her life. Thomas Vaughan (1621-1666) accused More himself of enthusiasm. The Cambridge Platonists clearly needed to distance themselves from labels of this kind, especially since religious enthusiasts leaned heavily on allegory, as they themselves did, as a way of ignoring some of the central historical claims of the Bible. Cudworth addresses the problem in the following way:
Atheistical Scoffers, walking after their own Lusts and saying, Where is the promise of his Coming? For since the Fathers fell asleep all things continue as they were from the beginning of the Creation (2 Pet. 3). Which latter words are spoken only according to the received Hypothesis of the Jews, the meaning of these Atheists being quite otherwise, that there was neither Creation nor Beginning of the World; but that things had continued, such as now they are, from all Eternity. As appears also from what the Apostle there adds by way of Confutation, That they were wilfully Ignorant of this, that by the word of God the Heavens were of old, and the Earth standing out of the Water and in the Water; and that as the World that then was, overflowing with Water perished, so the Heavens & Earth which now are, by the same word are kept in store, and reserved unto Fire against the day of Judgment & Perdition of Ungodly men. And it is evident, that some of these Atheists at this very day, march in the garb of Enthusiastical Religionists, acknowledging no more a God than a Christ without them, and Allegorizing the day of Judgment and future Conflagration, into a kind of seemingly Mystical, but really Atheistical Non-sence.
This passage sheds light on the important connection between scriptural apocalyptic prophesy, enthusiasm, and atheism. PC in the Cambridge Platonists was not motivated by a glorification of allegory, nor a rejection of the historical purchase of apocalyptic predictions. The perennial and urgent nature of the apocalypse is in fact a Cabbalistic principle as they understood it, best understood in their polemics against atheism. Atheism was the perennial and apocalyptic spiritual disease, parasitic on both religious and philosophical hosts. Descartes, Hobbes and Spinoza could be seen as threats to theism at a metaphysical level, whereas non-conformist sects like the Quakers and Familialists represented the potentially dangerous side of religious enthusiasm. Cudworth’s True Intellectual System can be read in apocalyptic terms, as a genealogy of atheism, posing both a historical and spiritual question: how is the catastrophe of modern and historic atheism spiritually possible?
According to the Cambridge Platonists, religious enthusiasts, like the Quakers, suffer from a melancholic temperament. In his best-selling treatise on the subject, The Anatomy of Melancholy, although a largely mechanistic account, Robert Burton (1577-1640) points out that Platonists from Ficino to Thomas Jackson (1579-1640) recognized the close connection between false prophecy and the melancholic disorder of the passions. The passions, however, were considered good in and of themselves; pace the Stoics, they should be harnassed, not martyred. True prophecy was only possible for the soul who could harnass his passions like the charioteer in Plato’s Phaedrus, a ‘true enthusiast’ whose trajectory is heavenward because he has tamed his warring horses.
The true prophet is not melancholic, Smith tell us; he is cheerful. By contrast, the false prophet, having martyred his passions, is melancholic and thus has lost his sense of humour. The sober enthusiasm advocated by the Cambridge Platonists has a largely imaginative component – mythos and logos, they thought, must be kept very close. Steeped as he was in the patristic and medieval accounts of prophecy, Smith knew that the imagination was understood to be the traditional organ of revelation. The prophets, including Christ himself, had profound imaginations because the truths they conveyed were not available to reason in its ordinary mood. Smith believed music provided a useful analogy: the prophet, like the musician, is both inspired and disciplined, bringing order and harmony to things seemingly disparate or unrelated, thereby revealing the true nature of things. Music, like true prophecy, is medicinal. It literally composes the mind, driving away anxiety while channeling ‘a Divine Energy inwardly moving the Mind’.
Prophets, Smith believed, were communicating the unified vision of the divine mind – Nous – piecemeal, so that the intellectual content of their message could only be conveyed in the form of a story. The three initial categories or stages of prophesy – voices, dreams, and visions – culminate in a mystical encounter with the mind of God, the fourth and highest prophetic moment. The condition and possibility of prophecy is theophilia, a point which More and Cudworth also emphasize. Prophecy presupposes the possibility of friendship with God. Theism is predicated on a personal encounter. Apocalypic speculation in which the Cambridge Platonists engaged, therefore, was taken on as an exercise in recovery of a lost but once possessed divine community. If we may yet enjoy God’s friendship, they contend, we must have been friends with him once upon a time.
Prophets possess the gift of divinization because they have the gift of memory. First, they know or come to understand the history of Israel, through study and the life of prayer, like, say, Daniel or Jesus do, and then they go on to acquire the deeper level of memory that understands, or better, encounters the divine origins of the law. For this reason, they will not violate it, worldly pressures notwithstanding. Hence prophets are willing to face the prospect of death, the certain future of all creatures in the aftermath of the Fall. They tend, therefore, to be the guardians of sacred places or artifacts, whether it be the ‘holy of holies’, a certain place set aside by divine sanction, or indeed of scripture itself as its best interpreters. The Cambridge Platonists see the prophet’s gift as consistent with the metaphysical principles that govern negative theology which sets out to avoid the conflation of God and his creatures. The metaphysical imagination conveys itself best in the form of a story – itself a metaphysically derived theological principle, since salvation cannot be the privilege of an intellectual elite. The spiritual truths in scripture are conveyed at many levels, and it is the truly purified and inspired mind that sees them most clearly. For this reason, all of the Cambridge Platonists, while deeply invested in the ‘philosophic cabbalah’, privilege the mystical catholicity of the moral cabbala.
In addition to his possession of a robust imaginative faculty and memory, the true enthusiast prophet is educated to be a great lover. In a brilliant eulogy, Simon Patrick casts his friend John Smith in the mold of Elijah whose prophetic powers are rooted in his ‘great affection and love’ for his people, like the ‘natural affection’ a father has for his children. Moreover, like Socrates, Patrick avers, Smith was a servant of eros, whose task consisted in the education of the young. The prophet is driven by the necessity of love, at once offered freely and in the hope of the requital that ends in friendship (philia) and brotherly love (agape), all of which aim at deiformity (theosis), the universal goal Plotinus and St. Paul espouse. All forms of love are ulimately energized by faith, a gift that promotes the exercise of patience and humility in this life. Patrick contrasts these with the zeal of the times, a zeal that ‘rages’ against the divine manifestations of love that purify the soul on the way to happiness and joy which come through participation in the divine life.
A final word about the role of evil. Just as the prophets possess the courage and wisdom to face death, they also pass judgement on moral evil as it exists in the community and its members, anticipating the last judgement of Christ himself. It is often said that the most attractive element of Cambridge Platonism, consistent with their latitudinarianism, is their theological and anthropological optimism, but it is also said that there is a certain naivety at work here which reads as a kind of overcompensation for the hardline Calvinism of their youth which they forcefully reject. However, their PC demands that they take evil much more seriously than is usually supposed. Indeed, it should be clear by now that their work is largely inspired in a negative sense as a way of uncovering the origins of evil. This is precisely where they are at their most optimistic, however. Since all of the created order is good, and yet destined for suffering and death, goodness itself must be far beyond our capacity to comprehend its true extent and power.
This returns us to the emphasis on the En Soph, understood here as the infinite nature of divine goodness, which somehow covers all sin and evil, without be responsible for it, and without compromising the apocalyptic triumph of Christ and his angels over evil. The danger, however, as the Cambridge Platonists saw it, is that Christian millenarianism becomes preoccupied by the final day of judgement, without taking seriously the urgent message of the prophets about the here and now. The kingdom of heaven and hell, they insist, lies within every human heart. This is too often overlooked in anticipation of some distant, and therefore never really arrived at, future. As a remedy, they advise we imagine ourselves already in hell – an anchorite patristic conceit – to get a sense of how a world without hope would appear. This is the world of religious enthusiasm and reductive materialism. It is the opposite of a cosmos animated by a loving source of all being. It is, instead, the static world of despair where sin is thought of as trivial and forgiveness unthinkable. This is the vision of hell on earth against which the PC of the Cambridge Platonists sets itself.
Primary Sources – Cambridge Platonists
Conway, Anne. The Principles of the most Ancient and Modern Philosophy. [London]: 1692.
Cudworth, Ralph. The True Intellectual System of the Universe. Wherein all the reason and philosophy of atheism is confuted and its impossiblitiy demonstrated. London: 1678.
---. A Sermon preached to the Honourable Society of Lincolnes-Inne. London: 1664.
---. A Sermon Preached before the Honourable House of Commons. Cambridge: 1647.
---. The Union of Christ and the Church; in a Shadow. London: 1642.
---. A Discourse concerning the True Notion of the Lords Supper. London: 1642.
Culverwell, Nathaniel. An elegant and learned discourse of the light of nature. London: 1652.
More, Henry. Some Cursory Reflexions Impartially made upon Mr. Richard Baxter, His Way of Writing Notes on the Apocalypse, And upon his Advertisement and Postscript. By Phililicrines Parrhesiastes. London: 1685.
---.An illustration of those two abstruse books in Holy Scripture : the Book of Daniel, and the Revelation of S. John by continued, brief, but clear notes, from chapter to chapter, and from verse to verse : with very useful and apposite arguments prefixt to each chapter framed out of the expositions of Dr. Henry More. London: 1685.
---. Paralipomena Prophetica. London: 1685.
---. A Plain and Continued Exposition of the Several Prophecies or Divine Visions of the Prophet Daniel. London: Walter Kettilby, 1681.
---. Apocalypsis Apocalypseos. London: John Martyn and Walter Kettilby, 1680.
---.Trium Tabularum Cabbalisticarum decem Sephirothas sive Numerationes Exhibentium Descriptio: viz. Tabulae Sephirotharum Cabbalisticae ac Judaicae Vulgaris: Tabulae Sephirotharum Knorrianae vel Lorianae in sublimioris Cabbalae clavem Zoaristicam destinatae; & Tabulae Sephirotharum Graecanicae sive Pythagoricae ab H.M. restitutae. Hisce praefixa est Epistola ad eruditissimum Virum Christianum Knorrium, de decem Sephirotharum use, &c. In Omnia Opera, London, 1679. Vol 2. pp. 423-443.
---. Quaestiones et Considerationes Paucae Brevésque in Tractatum Primum Libri Druschim, sive Introductionem Metaphysicam ad Cabbalm Genuniam, Authore R. Issaco Loriensi. Quibus accessit ad Clarissimum & Eruditissimum Virum Christianum Knorrium De Rebus in Amica sua Reponsione ad dictas Quaestiones, &c. Contentis Ulterio Disquisitio. Per Henricum Morum Cantabridgiensem. In Omnia Opera, London, 1679. Vol 2. pp. 447-472.
---. Visionis Ezechielis sive Mercavae Expositio, ex Principiis Philosophiae Pythagoricae praecipuisque Theosophiae Judaicae Reliquiis Concinnata, Mirãque, cum locis qubusdam S. Scripturae hactenus obscuris, luculentãque congruitate consolidata. Per Henircum Morum Cantabridgiensem. In Omnia Opera, London, 1679. Vol 2. pp. 475-508.
---. Catechismis Cabbalisticus sive Mercavaeus: quo, in Divinis Mysteriis Mercavae Ezechielis Explicandis & Memoriã retinendia, Decem Sephirotharum Usus egregiè illustratur. Per Henricum Morem Cantabrigiensem. In Omnia Opera, London, 1679. Vol 2. pp. 511-519.
---. Fundamenta Philosophiae sive Cabbalae Aeto-paedo-melissaeae, quae omnem Creationem propriè dictam negat, Essentiamque supponit Divinam Quasi Corporeo-Spirittualem, Mundumq; Materialem aliquo modo Spiritum. Cum brevi ac luculenta praedictorum Fundamentorum Confutatione. Πάντα δοκιμάζετε, τὰ καλὰ κατέχετε. Per Henricum Morum Cantabrigiensem. In Omnia Opera, London, 1679. Vol 2. pp. 523-528.
---. Philosophiae Teutonicae Censura: Sive Epistola Privata ad Amicum, Quae Responsum Complectitur ad Quaestiones Quinque de Philosopho Teutonico Jacobo Behmen Illiusque Philosophia, ab Autore Latinè reddita. Αἱ δεύτεραι φροντίδες σοφώτεραι. In Omnia Opera, London, 1679. Vol 2. pp. 531-561.
---. Epistola H. Mori ad V.C. Quae Apologiam Complectitur pro Cartesio Quaeque Introductionis Loco esse poterit ad Universam Philosophiam Cartesianam. In Omnia Opera, London, 1679. Vol 2. pp. 107-129.
---. Ad V.C. Epistola altera, Quae brevem Tractatûs Theologico-Politici Confutationem Complectitur, Paucáque sub finem annexa habet De Libri Francisci Cuperi Scope,. Cui Titulus est, Arcana Atheismi Revelata, &c. . In Omnia Opera, London, 1679. Vol 2. pp. 565-635.
---. An Antidote Against Idolatry. In An Exposition of The Seven Epistles to The Seven Churches; Together with A Brief Discourse of Idolatry; with Application to the Church of Rome. London: 1669.
---. Divine Dialogues. London: 1668.
---. A Modest Enquiry into the Mystery of Iniquity. London: 1664.
---. Conjectura Cabbalistica. Or, A Conjectural Essay of Interpreting the mind of Moses, in the Three first Chapters of Genesis, according to a Threefold Cabbala: viz. Literal, Philosophical, Mystical, or, Divinely Moral. In A Collection of Several Philosophical Writings. London: 1662.
---. An explanation of the grand mystery of godliness: or, a true and faithfull representation of the everlasting Gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, the onely begotten Son of God and sovereign over men and angels... London: 1660.
---. The immortality of the soul: so farre forth as it is demonstrable from the knowledge of nature and the light of reason. By Henry More, Fellow of Christ’s Colledge in Cambridge. London: 1659.
---. Enthusiasmus Triumphatus, Or, A Discourse of the Nature, Causes, Kinds, and Cure, of Enthusiasme; Written by Philophilus Parresiastes, and prefixed to Alazonomastix His Observations and Reply: Whereunto is added a Letter of his to a Private Friend, wherein certain passages in his Reply are vindicated, and sever matters relating to Enthusiasme more fully cleared. London, Cambridge: J. Flesher, W. Morden, 1656.
---. An antidote against atheism: or, An appeal to the naturall faculties of the minde of man, whether there be not a God. By Henry More, Fellow of Christ Colledge in Cambridge. London: Printed by J. Flesher, and are to be sold by William Morden bookseller in Cambridge, 1653.
—. Conjectura cabbalistica, or, A conjectural essay of interpreting the minde of Moses, according to a threefold cabbala : viz. literal, philosophical, mystical, or, divinely moral by Henry More fellow of Christs College in Cambridge. London: Printed by James Flesher, and are to be sold by William Morden bookseller in Cambridge, 1653.
---. Philosophicall Poems. A Platonicall Song of the Soul; treating of the Life of the Soul, Her immortalitie, The Sleep of the Soul, The Unities of Souls, and Memorie after Death. The second edition. Cambridge: R. Daniel, 1647.
---. ΨΥΧΩΔΙΑ PLATONICA: or, A Platonicall song of the soul, consisting of foure severall poems: viz. ΨΥΧΟΖΩΙΑ. ΨΥΧΑΞΑΝΑΣΙΑ. ΑΝΤΙΨΥΧΟΠΑΝΝΥΧΙΑ. ΑΝΤΙΜΟΝΟΨΥΙΑ. Hereto is added a paraphrastical interpretation of the answer of Apollo consulted by Amelius, about Plotinus soul departed this life. By H. M. Cambridge: Printed by R. Daniels, 1642.
Patrick, Simon. A Sermon Preached by Simon Patrick, with a brief Account of his Life and Death. London: 1660.
Smith, John. Select Discourses. London: 1660.
Other Primary Sources
Baxter, Richard. Of the Nature of Spirits; especially Mans Soul. In a placid Collation with the Learned Dr. Henry More. With Baxter’s Of the Immortality of Mans Soul. London: 1682.
Brucker, Johann Jacob. Historia critica philosophiae. 6 vols. Leipzig: 1742-1747. English translation 1819 by William Enfield in two volumes.
Burton, Robert. The Anatomy of Melancholy. Oxford and London, several editions printed between 1621-1660.
Dionysius Areopagita. Dionysiaca 1, edited by Phillipe Chevalier and Desclée de Brouwer. Paris: Desclée, de Brouwer & Cie, 1937.
[Glanvill, Joseph]. Lux orientalis, or, An enquiry into the opinion of the Eastern sages concerning the praeexistence of souls being a key to unlock the grand mysteries of providence, in relation to mans sin and misery. London : 1662.
Mede, Joseph. Clauis apocalyptica ex innatis et insitis visionum characteribus eruta et demonstrata. Ad eorum usum quibus deus amorem studiúmq[ue] indiderit prophetiam illam admirandam cognoscendi scrutandíque. Cambridge: 1627.
Parker, Samuel. A free and impartial censure of the Platonick philosophie being a letter written to his much honoured friend Mr. N.B. by Sam. Parker. Oxford: 1666.
Plotinus. The Enneads of Plotinus. Translated by A.H. Armstrong. 7 vols, The Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999.
Proclus. The Elements of Theology. Edited by E.R. Dodds. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963.
---. Proclus. Procli Diadochi In Platonis Timaeum commentaria. Edited by E. Diehl Leipzig: Teubner, 1903-1906.
Reuchlin, Johannes. The Art of the Kabbalah (De Arte Cabbalistica). Introduction by Moshe Idel and G. Lloyd Jones translated by Martin and Sarah Goodman. Lincoln, Nebr.: University of Nebraska Press, 1993. (Originally published in 1517).
Van Helmont. Frances Mercury. Cabbalistical Dialogue in Answer to a Learned Doctor in Philosophy and Theology that the World was made of Nothing. London: 1682.
Von Rosenroth, Christian Knorr. Kabbala Denudata seu Doctrina Hebraeorum transcendentalis et metaphysica atque theologia. Sulzbach: 1677.
---. Kabbalae Denudatae Tomus Secundus, Id est Liber Sohar Restitutus. Frankfurt: 1684.
Walton, John. A Brief Answer to the many Calumnies of Dr. Henry More, in his pretended Antidote against Idolatry. London: 1672.
Ward, Richard. The Life of Henry More by Richard Ward. Parts 1 and 2. Edited by Sarah Hutton, Cecil Courtney, Michelle Courtney, Robert Crocker, A. Rupert Hall. Dordrecht: Springer, 2000.
Allen, Michael J.B. Synoptic Art: Marsilio Ficino on the history of Platonic interpretation. Firenze: Leo S. Olschki Editore, 1998.
Almond, Philip C. ‘Henry More and the Apocalypse’. Journal of the History of Ideas. Vol. 54. No. 2 (April 1993): 189-200.
Armour, Leslie. 'Trinity, Community and Love'. In Platonism at the Origins of Modernity, edited by Douglas Hedley and Sarah Hutton. Dordrecht: Springer, 2008, pp. 113-129.
Beiser, Frederick C. The Sovereignty of Reason: The Defense of Rationality in the Early English Enlightenment. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996.
Blau, Joseph L. The Christian Interpretation of the Cabala in the Renaissance. New York: Columbia University Press, 1944.
Black, Crofton. Pico’s Heptaplus and Biblical Hermeneutics. Leiden, Brill: 2006.
Blau, Joseph L. The Christian Interpretation of the Cabala in the Renaissance. New York: Columbia University Press, 1944.
Brown, C.C. ‘Henry More’s “Deep Retirement”: New Material on the Early Years of the Cambridge Platonist.’ The Review of English Studies XX, no. 80 (1969): 445–454.
Bryson, James. ‘A Philosophy of Love: Henry More’s Moral Philosophy.’ Neue Zeitschrift für Systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophie. Vol. 61. Issue 1 (2019): 84-106.
---. ‘Cambridge Platonism in Milton’s Paradise Lost: Materialism, Evil and The Christian Cabbalah.’ In: The Metaphysics of Conversion. Edited by Torrance Kirby and Douglas Hedley. University of Edinburgh Press, 2019.
---. The Christian Platonism of Thomas Jackson. Leuven-Paris-Bristol, CT.: Peeters, 2016.
Cassirer, Ernst. Die Platonische Renaissance in England und die Schule von Cambridge. Leipzig and Berlin: Teubner, 1932.
Coudert, Allison P. The Impact of the Kabbalah in the Seventeenth Century: The Life and Thought of Francis Mercury van Helmont (1614–1698). Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1999.
---. Leibniz and the Kabbalah. Dordrecht: Springer, 1995.
---. ‘Henry More, the Kabbalah, and the Quakers’. In: Philosophy, Science and Religion in England 1640–1700. Edited by Richard Kroll, Richard Ashcraft, and Perez Zagorin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992, pp. 31-67.
---. 1975. A Cambridge Platonist’s Kabbalist Nightmare. Journal of the History of Ideas 36: 633–652, 1975.
Crocker, Robert. ‘The Kabbalah and the Quakers: Anne Conway, van Helmont, and Knorr von Rosenroth’. In: Henry More, 1614–1687. International Archives of the History of Ideas / Archives Internationales d’Histoire des Idées, vol 185. Springer, Dordrecht, pp. 183-198.
Davidson, Herbert. Alfarabi, Avicenna, and Averroes, On Intellect: their cosmologies, theories of the active intellect, and theories of human intellect. Oxford: OUP, 1992.
Dillon, John. ‘Aisthesis Noete: A Doctrine of Spiritual Senses in Origen and Plotinus’. In: Golden Chain: Studies in the Development of Platonism and Christianity. Hampshire: Variorum, 1990, 443-49.
Dockrill, D.W. ‘The Heritage of Patristic Platonism in Seventeenth Century English Philosophical Theology’. In: The Cambridge Platonists in Philosophical Context: Politics, Metaphysics, and Religion, edited by G.A. J. Rogers, J.M. Vienne, and Y.C. Zarka. London: Kluwer, 1997, 55-77.
Fallon, Stephen M. Milton among the Philosophers: Poetry and Materialism in Seventeenth-Century England. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1991.
Fouke, Daniel. The Enthusiastical Concerns of Dr. Henry More. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1997.
Funkenstein, Amos. Theology and the Scientific Imagination from the Middle Ages to the Seventeenth Century. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986.
Gill, Michael B. The British Moralists on Human Nature and the Birth of Secular Ethics. Cambridge: CUP, 2006.
Hanegraff, Wouter J. Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture. Cambridge: CUP, 2012.
Hames, Harvey J. The Art of Conversion: Christianity and the Kabbalah in the thirteenth century. Leiden: Brill, 2000.
Harries, Karsten. ‘Problems of the Infinite: Cusanus and Descartes.’ Nicholas of Cusa, Special Issue: American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 64 (1990): 89-110.
Hedley, Douglas. ‘Gods and giants: Cudworth’s platonic metaphysics and his ancient theology’. British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 25:5, 932-953. DOI: 10.1080/09608788.2017.1336702
---. Living Forms of the Imagination. London: T&T Clark, 2008.
---. ‘Real Atheism and Cambridge Platonism’. In: Platonisms: Ancient, Modern, and Postmodern. Edited by Kevin Corrigan & John D. Turner. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2007, pp. 155-173.
Henry, John. ‘A Cambridge Platonist’s Materialism: Henry More and the Concept of Soul’. Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 49 (1986): 172-195.
Hutton, Sarah. British Philosophy in the Seventeenth Century. Cambridge: CUP, 2015.
---. Anne Conway: A Woman Philosopher. Cambridge, CUP, 2004.
---. ‘Mede, Milton and More: Christ’s College Millenarians’. In: Milton and the Ends of Time, edited by Juliet Cummins. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp. 29-41.
---. ‘Henry More, Anne Conway and the Kabbalah: A Cure for the Kabbalist Nightmare?’ In Judaeo-Christian Culture in the Seventeenth Century. Edited by Alison P. Coudert, Sarah Hutton, Richard H. Popkin, and Gordon Weiner. Dordrecht: Springer, 1999. pp. 27-42.
Inge, William Ralph. The Platonic Tradition in English Religious Thought. London, New York: Longmans, Green & co., 1926.
Johnston, Warren. ‘The Anglican Apocalypse in Restoration England’. Journal of Ecclesiastical History 55, no. 3 (2004): 467–501.
Koyré, Alexandre. From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press. 1957.
Lærke, Mogens. ‘Three texts on the Kabbalah: More, Wacher, Leibniz, and the philosophy of the Hebrews’. British Journal for the History of Philosophy. Vol. 25. Issue 5 (2017): 1011-1030.
Leech, David. The Hammer of the Cartesians: Henry More’s Philosophy of Spirit and the Origins of Modern Atheism. Leuven: Peeters, 2013.
Leinkauf, Thomas. Grundriss Philosophie des Humanismus und der Renaissance (1300-1600). Band 2. Felix Meiner Verlag Hamburg, 2017.
Levitin, Dimitri. Ancient Wisdom in the Age of the New Science: Histories of Philosophy in England, c. 1640–1700. Cambridge: CUP, 2015.
Lewis, Marilyn. ‘Pastoral Platonism in the Writings of Henry Hallywell (1641-1703)’. The Seventeenth Century, 28:4 (2013), 441-463. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0268117X.2013.840673
---. ‘ “The Messiah promised in the Sacred Scripture came a long time ago”: the Cambridge Platonist’ attitudes towards the readmission of the Jews, 1655-56’. Jewish Historical Studies. Vol. 45 (2013), pp. 41-61.
McDonough, Jeffrey K. ‘Leibniz and the Puzzle of Incompossibility: The Packing Strategy’. The Philosophical Review. Vol. 119, No. 2 (April 2010): 135-163.
Mulsow, Martin and Jan Rohls, eds. Socinianism and Arminianism: Antitrinitarians, Calvinists and Cultural Exchange in Seventeenth-Century Europe. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2005.
Nicolson, Marjorie Hope (ed.) The Conway Letters. Revised Edition with an Introduction and New Material Edited by Sarah Hutton. Oxford: OUP. 1992.
Popkin, Richard H. ‘The Spiritualistic Cosmologies of Henry More and Anne Conway.’ In Henry More (1614-87): Tercentenary Studies, edited by Sarah Hutton. Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1990, 97-114.
Power, J.E. ‘Henry More and Isaac Newton on Absolute Space’. Journal of the History of Ideas 31 (1970): 289–296.
Reid, Jasper. The Metaphysics of Henry More. Dordrecht: Springer, 2012.
Schmidt, Charles. ‘Perennial Philosophy: from Agostino Steuco to Leibniz’, Journal of the History of Ideas 27 (1966): 505-532.
Schmidt-Biggemann, Wilhelm. Philosophia perennis: Historical Outlines of Western Spirituality in Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Thought. Dordrecht: Springer, 2004.
Scholem, Gershom. On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead: Basic Concepts in the Kabbalah. New York: Pantheon, 1991.
Staudenbaur, Craig A. ‘Platonism, Theosophy, and Immaterialism: Recent Views of the Cambridge Platonists’. Journal of the History of Ideas 35 (1974): 157-69.
Taliaferro, Charles. The Golden Cord: A Short Book on the Secular and the Sacred. South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012.
---. Evidence and Faith: Philosophy and Religion since the Seventeenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Tulloch, John. Rational Theology and Christian Philosophy in England in the Seventeenth Century. Edinburgh: W. Blackwood, 1872.
Van den Berg, Jan. ‘Menasseh Ben Israel, Henry More and Johannes Hoornbeeck on the Pre- existence of the Soul’. In: Menasseh Ben Israel and his World, edited by Yosef Kaplan, Henry Méchoulan, and R. H. Popkin. Leiden: Brill, 1989, pp. 98-116.
---. ‘Continuity within a Changing Context: Henry More’s Millenarianism, Seen Against the Background of the Millenarian Concepts of Joseph Mede’. Pietismus und Neuzeit 14 (1988): 185–202.
Walker, D.P. The Ancient Theology: Studies in Christian Platonism from the Fifteenth to the Eighteenth Century. London: Duckworth, 1972.
---. The Decline of Hell: Seventeenth-Century Discussions of Eternal Torment. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964.
Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. London: Routledge, 1964.
 It is not the intention of this introduction to pull the reader into the nuances of a scholarly debate, but to convey a general sense of the state of the question in the most current and relevant scholarship. Works consulted - silently referred to - appear in the bibliography below.
 P. 3.
 Hereafter abbreviated as TIS.
 Here after abbreviated as CC.
 CC, Epistle Dedicatory, 1653 & 1662.
 Smith, Select Discourses p. 378.
 TIS, p.140.
Cite as: Platonic Cabbalism in Cambridge Platonism, https://www.cambridge-platonism.divinity.cam.ac.uk/view/texts/normalised/about-the-cambridge-platonists/platonic-cabbalism, accessed 2023-12-01.