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Mark Burden, University of Bristol

To some extent, Smith’s Select Discourses is a reconstructed text, compiled from his posthumous manuscripts by John Worthington, perhaps best known for his correspondence with Henry More and Ralph Cudworth. Worthington was sent the papers by Smith’s executor, the puritan Samuel Cradock, formerly a fellow of Emmanuel Cradock, and at that point rector of North Cadbury in Somerset. Cradock was removed from his post following the Restoration and became a nonconformist minister and tutor. He thus provides a useful example of the cordial relations between Smith, More, Cudworth, and Whichcote and the one hand, and ‘moderate’ nonconformists on the other.

Worthington’s first task was to compare the papers sent by Cradock with some other papers, ‘divers of which were loose and scattered, not being written by the Author in any Book’, and to collect together those which were ‘Homogeneal and related to the same Discourse’. Having established the basic shape of each discourse, he then needed ‘to observe where any new additional Matter was to be inserted’, since Smith’s mind was ‘a rich & fruitful soil, a bountiful & ever-bubling Fountain’, and he would sometimes ‘superadde upon further thoughts some other considerations to what he had formerly delivered in publick … after he had gone off from that Argument, and though Matter of a different nature had come between’. Despite finding these tasks ‘perplex’d and toilsome’, Worthington later expressed confidence that he had brought ‘the severed Parts’ and ‘additional Considerations’ into ‘their due and proper places where the Author would have disposed them, if he had transcribed his Papers’. Then came the task of copying the papers for the press, a task for which Worthington ‘stood in need of more Hands and Eyes then mine own’.

Another task for which Worthington required help was ‘the examining of the material Quotations’ in the volume, for which he procured ‘the assistance of some Friends to whom the memory of the Author was very pretious’. Worthington divided these quotations into two groups. Firstly, there were ‘some short Allusions and Expressions borrow’d out of ancient Authors, serving rather for Ornament then Support of the Matter’; Worthington was of the view that there was ‘less need of being sollicitous’ about these. Secondly, however, there were those ‘many and weighty’ testimonies which required particular care, and he asserted that there were ‘but Few … that were not examin’d’ in this category. Worthington and his fellow editors found the process of checking these quotations ‘wearisome’, especially when ‘the Authors, or the places in the Authors, were not mentioned’ by Smith. There was also the question of making the text accessible to ‘men of good accomplishments’ whose education had not acquainted them with classical and oriental languages. To help these persons ‘it seemed expedient to render the Latine, but especially the Hebrew and Greek, Quotations into English’, since ‘the Author seldom translated the Hebrew, and more seldom the Greek, but into Latine’. In practice, Worthington and his editors did not find it necessary to translate every single phrase, since they found that there were places where ‘the substance and main importance of the Quotations’ had been ‘insinuated in the neighbouring words’.

Establishing the precise nature and contents of the manuscripts which Worthington acquired is not possible, but he does leave some valuable hints. Firstly, there is an important distinction between the first six discourses and the remaining four. Worthington’s own statement on this distinction is easy to miss, since it is expressed somewhat clumsily in parenthesis:

whereas the Papers now published (especially those that contain’d the Six first Discourses) were written in the Author’s own Copy without any Distinction or Sections, … it seem’d expedient for the Reader’s accom~odation to distinguish them into several Discourses or Treatises

This statement should probably be taken to mean that the main manuscript which Worthington acquired from Cradock contained a near-continuous text, which Worthington and his editors then divided into the six discourses, based on hints in the manuscript itself. Worthington also explained that the editors had divided the discourses ‘into Chapters and Sections (except the Discourses were short, as two or three of them are, which therefore have the Contents set in the Beginning)’ and had given ‘a Particular account of the Chief matters’ before each of the chapters. In other words, the title pages, prefatory quotations, and lists of contents for each of the discourses are editorial rather than authorial.

It is thus important for readers to separate the first six of the discourses from the remaining four, and it is instructive to consider how they might function as one single text, prior to Worthington’s divisions and subdivisions. Furthermore, we should bear in mind that this treatise, comprising pp. 1-280 of the 1660 edition, was never finished by the author. An editorial advertisement placed by Worthington directly after the sixth treatise is helpful to understand the situation:

THE Reader may remember That our Author in the beginning of his Treatise of the Immortality of the Soul, propounded these Three great Principles of Religion to be discoursed of; 1. The Immortalitie of the Soul, 2. The Existence and Nature of God, 3. The Communication of God to Mankind through Christ. And having spoken largely to the Two former Principles of Natural Theology, he thought it fit (as a Preparation to the Third, which imports the Revelation of the Gospel) to speak something concerning Prophesie, the way whereby Revealed Truth is dispensed to us. Of this he intended to treat but a little (they are his words in the beginning of the Treatise of Prophesie) and then pass on to the Third and Last part, viz. Those Principles of Revealed Truth which tend most of all to advance and cherish true and real Piety. But in his discoursing of Prophesie so many considerable Enquiries offered themselves to his thoughts, that by that time he had finished this Discourse (designed at first only as a Preface) his Office of being Dean and Catechist in the Colledge did expire. Thus far had the Author proceeded in that year of his Office: and it was not long after that Bodily distempers and weaknesses began more violently to seize upon him, which the Summer following put a Period to his life here; (a life so every way beneficial to those who had the happiness to converse with him.)

Worthington suggests that Smith had intended his text to consist of some prefatory comments on method, followed by further introductory material on superstition and atheism; the main parts of the text would consider the fundamentals of natural religion, followed by a discussion of the nature and operation of revealed truth. According to this reading (which seems very plausible), it appears that Smith himself finished the introductory sections (which Worthington divided into discourses 1-3), and the section on natural religion (discourses 4-5); he then intended to write a brief an introduction to the section on revealed religion, but in the course of writing this turned into a lengthy and highly sophisticated treatise on prophecy (discourse 6). Having completed this part of the text, Smith’s employment as dean and catechist expired and he became ill: as a result, the section on revealed religion was never written. The structure of this text can be summarised as follows:

Prefatory comments on method pp. 1-21 [discourse 1]

Introductory comments on natural religion pp. 25-55 [discourses 2 and 3]

Natural religion pp. 59-165 [discourse 4 and 5]

Introductory comments on revealed religion pp. 169-280 [discourse 6]

Revealed religion [never written]

This reconstruction highlights an important structural similarity between Smith’s text and near-contemporaneous courses of lectures in divinity. This can be easily overlooked by readers who rely on Worthington’s division of the text into six discourses, each with their own editorial title. Readers may be further confused by Worthington’s rather imprecise remark that Smith originally ‘delivered these Discourses in the College-Chappel’, a statement which creates the impression that all ten of the discourses were originally designed as sermons. However, the structure of the first six discourses do not really suggest direct affinities with the early-modern sermon: they are not based on specific biblical texts, and they do not follow the standard pattern of exposition and application. The text of the first six discourses, particularly as reconstructed in the table above, is much closer to an unfinished course of university lectures on divinity than it is to a sermon series on one or more biblical texts. For the remainder of this introduction I shall refer to discourses 1-6 as Smith’s ‘divinity treatise’ (an appellation which should not be extended to discourses 7-10 which, as we shall see, have a different provenance).

This view – that the manuscript which Worthington acquired from Cradock and edited as discourses 1-6 may be considered an introductory course of lectures on divinity – is corroborated by some further internal evidence. The text begins, pp. 1-2, as follows:

IT hath been long since well observed, That every Art & Science hath some certain Principles upon which the whole Frame and Body of it must depend; and he that will fully acquaint himself with the Mysteries thereof, must come furnisht with some Præcognita or [prolepsis], that I may speak in the language of the Stoicks. Were I indeed to define Divinity, I should rather call it a Divine life, then a Divine science[.]

In this passage, Smith situates the term ‘divinity’ within the context of university arts and sciences and asserts the necessity of establishing ‘Principles’ to form the basis of the discipline in question. He then invokes the key word ‘Præcognita’, meaning ‘prefatory knowledge’, a term which had been used for centuries to describe the introductory information provided to students at the start of an academic textbook or course of lectures. He then moves on, in standard academic practice, to offer a definition of his overarching subject, ‘divinity’; here the text appears to depart audaciously from scholastic practice, suggesting that the real substance of the subject lies in practice rather than precept; on the other hand, such a distinction between principle and behaviour was often invoked in the context of moral philosophy lectures, so Smith’s gambit, although unconventional, is not without precedent.

Smith proceeds to explain further how his treatise relates to pre-existing textbooks, lecture courses, and theological systems:

We shall therefore, as a Prolegomenon or Preface to what we shall afterward discourse upon the Heads of Divinity, speake something of this True Method of Knowing, which is not so much by Notions as Actions …. They are not alwaies the best skill’d in Divinity, that are the most studied in those Pandects which it is sometimes digested into, or that have erected the greatest Monopolies of Art and Science. He that is most Practical in Divine things, hath the purest and sincerest Knowledge of them, and not he that is most Dogmatical.

The term ‘Prolegomenon’ is another standard early-modern word to describe the opening of arts and science courses, and it is shortly followed by the term ‘Heads’, meaning the sub-categories or topics to be discussed within a system of learning. Smith then explains that he will outline his ‘Method’, another key constituent of early-modern pedagogy, although here again Smith subverts the term from its scholastic usage to suggest that the best method of divinity is provided by actions rather than notions. In this sense, then, divinity is distinct from art and science. Furthermore, the best form of divinity is not that which is most dogmatical (perhaps he has Calvin in mind as well as the scholastics at this point), but that which is the most ‘Practical’.

Although Worthington informs us that the manuscript text of Smith’s divinity treatise had no subdivisions, there are points in the text which suggest natural divisions and subdivisions. Worthington’s division of discourse 1 into three sections seems slightly artificial, but he is right to suggest a clean break after p. 21. The text resumes, on p. 25, with the following explanation of the structure of the work:

Having now done with what we propounded as a Preface to our following Discourses, we should now come to treat of the main Heads and Principles of Religion. But before we doe that, perhaps it may not be amiss to inquire into some of those Anti-Deities that are set up against it, the chief whereof are ATHEISM and SUPERSTITION

Perhaps the term ‘Discourses’ seems a little too convenient here, and it might be that this passage has been subjected to a degree of editorial revision. Nevertheless, the terms ‘Preface’, ‘Heads’, and ‘Principles’ do seem consistent with Smith’s earlier uses on pp. 1-2, and the linking together of the concepts of superstition (discourse 2) and atheism (discourse 3) is also integral to Smith’s design. A few pages later, the end of the discussion of superstition and the beginning of the discussion of atheism is also clearly demarcated in the text (p. 41):

We have now done with what we intended concerning Superstition, and shall a little consider and search into the Pedigree of ATHEISM, which indeed hath so much affinity with Superstition that it may seem to have the same Father with it.

Given that the first three discourses are all relatively short, and of a similar length, we might tentatively suggest that they could be used as the basis of the first three lectures of a university course on divinity. The fourth discourse, on the immortality of the soul, also has a clear beginning (p. 59):

Having finish’d our two short Discourses concerning those two Anti-Deities, viz. Superstition and Atheism; we shall now proceed to discourse more largely concerning the maine Heads and Principles of Religion.

This sentence is another structuring device, which brackets off the two brief treatises from the ‘maine Heads’ of the work, which are explained as follows:

… those two Cardinal points which the Author of the Epistle to the Hebrews makes the necessary Foundations of all Religion, viz. That God is, and That He is a rewarder of them that seek him. To which we should adde, The Immortality of the Reasonable Soul, but that that may seem included in the former: and indeed we can neither believe any Invisible reward of which he there speaks, without a Prolepsis of the Souls Immortality

A page later, Smith adds to these ‘Fundamental Articles’ with one more:

The Communication of God to Mankind through Christ

In other words, Smith outlines ‘three Articles of Faith and Practice’, the first two of which are ‘The Nature of God and of our own Immortal Souls’ (showing us what religion should be), and the third of which is ‘the Doctrine of Free grace in Christ’, the ‘means of attaining to that perfection and Blessedness which the other Belief teaches us to aime at’. From these three principles Smith derives the structure of the remainder of the treatise: he will start by discussing the immortality of the soul, and move from there to discuss the nature of God, since ‘the chief natural way whereby we can climbe up to the understanding of the Deity is by a Contemplation of our own Souls’. Although Smith does not state it explicitly, it is implicit within his text that the doctrine of free grace, was to have provided the main head of his (unwritten) section on revealed religion, being the means by which God communicates himself to mankind through Christ.

Despite this clearly labelled beginning to the discourse on the immortality of the soul, this fourth discourse cannot easily be broken down into lecture-sized chunks. Worthington’s division of this text into nine chapters is somewhat speculative, and it may be better to think of it as containing three broad sections:

  • Prefatory matter, pp. 59-68 (chapters 1-2)
  • Proofs for the immortality of the soul, pp. 59-105 (chapters 3-7)
  • Appendix: objections to the proofs, taken from Aristotle and others, pp. 106-20 (chapters 8-9)

The prefatory section, after outlining the structural markers described above, also includes three premises:

1. That the Immortality of the Soul doth not absolutely need any Demonstration

2. That, to a right conceiving the force of any such Arguments as may prove the Souls Immortality, there must be an antecedent Converse with our own Souls

3. That no Substantial and Indivisible thing ever perisheth.

The main set of proofs include an argument ad absurdum following from the false assumption that the spirit is a material body; a discussion of actions of the soul which appear not to depend upon the body; a further discussion of actions which are completely independent of the body; a description of the soul’s ‘naked Intuition of Eternal Truth’; and an argument from the ‘True and reall goodness’ of the soul. Smith relates the first four of these proofs to the scheses or Degrees of knowledge’ outlined by Proclus in his commentary on Plato’s Timæus (pp. 96-7):

The First is [aisthesis alogos], a naked perception of Sensible impressions, without any work of Reason. The Second, [doxa meta logou], a Miscellaneous kind of knowledge arising of a collation of its Sensations with its own more obscure and dark Idea’s. The Third, [dianoia kai logos], Discourse and Reason, which the Platonists describe Mathematical knowledge by …; Fourthly [noesis ametabatos], which is a naked Intuition of Eternal Truth

While his reading of Proclus provided Smith with a novel means of structuring his account of the soul’s immortality, his sections on the existence and nature of God (discourse 5) draws heavily on both Proclus and Plotinus. Leaving aside Worthington’s chapter divisions, the structure of the text may be summarised as follows:

  • introduction: knowledge of God through reflexion upon ourselves, chapters 1-3, pp. 123-39
  • deductions and inferences, chapters 4-8, pp. 140-58
  • appendix: the reason of positive laws, chapter 9, pp. 158-61
  • conclusion: the imperfection of our knowledge of God (from Plotinus), chapter 10, pp. 162-5

Although the contents of discourse 5 corresponds to the first of the three cardinal points outlined at the start of discourse 4, Smith explains (p. 123) that his intention was that ‘we shall not so much demonstrate That he is, as What he is.’, via the Plotinian notion of ‘a Reflexion upon our own Souls’. In his introductory sections, Smith explains that such self-reflexion leads us to recognise the necessity of a ‘most Perfect Mind and UnderstandingEternall PowerAlmighty Love …’, which is ‘Eternall and Omnipresent’ with a ‘Freedome and Liberty’ based on reason.

Smith’s sixth discourse, on prophecy, continues his project of discussing the foundations of revealed religion. Here he enters the debate – which had intensified in the wake of Hobbes’s Leviathan – about the evidence for the operation of the Spirit in prophecy and miracles. Smith takes the view that the prophetical spirit ‘did not alwaies manifest it self … with the same clearness and evidence’ (p. 176). Nevertheless, in the Scriptures it is possible to observe that these extraordinary impressions of divine light are made upon the ‘Rational and Imaginative power’ of the soul (p. 178). It follows that it can be difficult to distinguish between dreams and visions, since the main difference between them ‘seems rather to lie in Circumstantials then in any thing Essential’ (p. 181). At this point, Smith’s text takes on a life of his own as he explores in great philological and philosophical detail the operation of dreams, visions, and prophecies in ancient and medieval Jewish texts, citing liberally in Greek and Hebrew. As a result, Smith’s lengthy discourse on prophecy reads very differently to the earlier sections of his planned treatise, contributing to the Cambridge Orientalist methodology which had been pioneered by John Selden and which is also represented in Cudworth’s early treatises. Like the similarly philological fourth chapter of Cudworth’s True Intellectual System, Smith’s treatise on prophecy threatens to derail the structure of his treatise, and perhaps provides another reason why he never completed his treatise.

Cite as: Publication History of John Smith’s Works,, accessed 2024-05-24.