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Douglas Hedley, University of Cambridge

Philosophy and Theology in the Cambridge Platonists

God does not, because of his Omnipotency, deal Arbitarily with us; but according to Right, and Reason: and whatever he does, is therefore Accountable; because Reasonable. (Whichcote, Aphorism 417)

Again, Plato may be regarded as the ‘captain’ (ἀρχηγὀς) or leader of a goodly band of followers; for in the Republic is to be found the original of Cicero’s De Republica, of St. Augustine’s City of God, of the Utopia of Sir Thomas More, and of the numerous other imaginary States which are framed upon the same model. The extent to which Aristotle or the Aristotelian school were indebted to him in the Politics has been little recognised, and the recognition is the more necessary because it is not made by Aristotle himself. The two philosophers had more in common than they were conscious of; and probably some elements of Plato remain still undetected in Aristotle. In English philosophy too, many affinities may be traced, not only in the works of the Cambridge Platonists, but in great original writers like Berkeley or Coleridge, to Plato and his ideas. 

Benjamin Jowett

In this passage, the eminent Victorian Benjamin Jowett, translator of Plato, presents the ancient Athenian philosopher as “a leader of a goodly band of followers” which includes Cicero, St. Augustine, the Cambridge Platonists, Berkeley and Coleridge. Jowett is surely correct to insist upon the living tradition of thought derived from Plato’s works; but one might note that most of the authors he mentions have profound theological interests. The relationship between philosophy and theology is of decisive significance when considering the Platonic tradition more broadly, and especially in the case of the Cambridge Platonists. The vision of the ‘divine’ Plato of the execution of Socrates had parallels with the prophecy of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52-53. In Plato’s Republic 361A-362B, Glaucon refers to the most just man who will suffer crucifixion. This obscure reference to the dreadful execution of a man of eminent rectitude was taken to be an instance of Plato’s prophetic powers by the Church Fathers.[1] Plato, for the Cambridge Platonists is the divine Plato and is regarded as a prophetic figure. There is little or no interest in the aporetic, suggestive or dramatic dimension of Plato’s thought. For them, Plato (as he was for Aristobulus and Numenius) is the Attic Moses. Such a reading of the Republic may seem rather fanciful to the modern reader but clearly the Fathers of the Early Church, especially in Alexandria, shared the Platonic metaphysics in which the visible world is an image of an invisible-intelligible dimension. The visible world is not merely inferior to, but depends causally upon the transcendent invisible realm, and consequently ethics should be determined by this ontology of the image and archetype. [2]

Many scholars, however, throughout the centuries have objected that such an affinity between the early Church Fathers and Platonic themes does not warrant the designation ‘Platonic’. Heinrich Dörrie has remarked that Christian Platonism is an oxymoron because of the strident and unavoidable opposition of Christianity to the pagan philosophical schools of antiquity. More recently, Mark Edwards has also argued for a distinct Christian philosophy which was never identified with the ancient schools, including Platonism. Any philosophy constructed by Christians was a preliminary to theology.[3] The positions of writers such as Dörrie and Edwards have not been uncontested. The work of Werner Beierwaltes, and especially his seminal volume Platonismus und Christentum, argues that notwithstanding the shift effected by Christian revelation that Platonic and indeed, Neoplatonic themes and arguments remained constitutive for the reflexive structure of Christian theology. He uses various philosophers as paradigms such as Ps.-Dionysius the Areopagite, Boethius, Eriugena, the Platonism of Chartres, Bonaventure, Nicolas of Cusa, Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola to assert this link. The analysis of these thinkers in the work of Beierwaltes is part of a larger strategy to exhibit the profound influence of Platonic-Neoplatonic structures of thought upon Christian theology culminating in the model of God as a Divine Unity or Tri-Unity whereby the Deity thinking himself as Sapientia or Logos, comprises Being Itself (Ipsum Esse).

We do not have to adjudicate between these opposing views about the validity of the term ‘Christian Platonism’. The Cambridge Platonists Benjamin Whichcote, Ralph Cudworth, John Smith and Henry More were university men and they were profoundly learned in Classical philosophy, Patristic thought, and in Rabbinic literature. Theirs is a University environment and with a strong theological dimension. It is a context in which the dominant philosophy of the University was scholasticism, generally in a late form shaped by Suarez and his successors. The scientific revolution in the wake of Galileo Descartes had changed thought of their world in a way akin to the impact of Darwin in the 19 th century. The ‘infinity of worlds’ becomes proof of an infinite omnipresent Deity, just as later divines such as Charles Kingsley and the authors of Lux Mundi endeavoured to integrate Darwin’s theory of evolution into a metaphysical theology. Notwithstanding their interest in contemporary science, it is still a world in which philosophy and theology are closely intertwined. Philosophers such as Hobbes and Locke make various references to the Christian scriptures and theological matters. Cudworth is the Regius Professor of Hebrew and published sermons as well as his opus magnum, The True Intellectual System of the Universe 1678. Henry More wrote a number of commentaries, especially on the Book of Revelation.

In the Platonic ‘school’ throughout the centuries, philosophy and theology have a particularly intimate relationship. The thought of the Cambridge Platonists bears the imprint of Renaissance and Alexandrian Platonism. The Cambridge Platonists refer repeatedly to Philo in order to interpret the Old Testament; Origen is viewed as the key Church Father and is studied alongside Plotinus. Anthony Tuckney (1599-1670) noted that the Cambridge Platonists were ‘learned and ingenious men who ‘studied…Plato and his schollars…more than scriptures. Tuckney accused Whichcote of a ‘Platonique faith’ and a ‘moral divinitie’, and was critical of these ‘high flown Platonists’.[4] What is evident from Tuckney’s critique of Whichcote, is that the puritan considers his friend as having departed far from a robustly scriptural Christianity and relies far too much upon pagan philosophical sources for his thought. Yet, the Platonists themselves refuse to admit such a manoeuvre. This is in part justified by their deployment of Origen.

Ficino or Origen?

Early modern Platonism in Western thought is inconceivable without the mediating work of Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499). Later scholars had access to the works of Plato and Plotinus through Ficino’s texts, translations and commentaries. Ficino transmitted the elements of pagan Platonic thought in a baptized form as part of a systematic Christian-Platonism. Yet there is a significant contrast between the Christian-Platonism of the Cambridge Platonists and that of Ficino. For Ficino, Denys the Areopagite is his supreme theological authority, not least because of the Apostolic authority of Denys. The author of the works now known as The Corpus of Pseudo Denys were taken to be the writings of a contemporary of St. Paul and indeed the eponymous figure mentioned by St. Paul in his acts of the Apostles. The fact that, in reality, these writings were the works of a sixth century Syrian Christian-Neoplatonist and disciple of the pagan Neoplatonist Proclus, meant that this particular form of Neoplatonism exerted an enormous influence within Christian thought.

Ficino’s metaphysical theology could be described as a mixture of Plotinus and Denys. By the time of the Cambridge Platonists, however, this had been decisively repudiated. Denys had been exposed as a fake. The authenticity of Denys was queried by Lorenzo Valla in 1457 and John Grocyn in 1501, and this sceptic perspective about Denys was forcibly propagated by Erasmus from 1504 onwards. Ultimately the status of Denys the Areopagite as an authority in theology was radically undermined; a simple indication of this erosion of authority can be seen in the fact that Cudworth mentions the Areopagite only once in his enormous True Intellectual System of the Universe of 1678.

For the Cambridge Platonists, the great theological authority is Origen rather than Denys. This not just a change of theological authority but leads to a change of theological content. The crucial issue with regard to content relates to the negative theology of Denys the Areopagite. Denys, as an adherent of Proclus represents in radical form the view of God as beyond Being or Super Essential. The ultimate emphasis of Denys’ theology is unknowing rather than knowing. Other traditions of Platonism were more inclined to identify God with Being rather than Non-Being or the Super Essential. Such an identification of God and Being, which found its biblical expression in the Septuagint translations of Exodus 3:14, in which God is identified as Being Itself. If Denys the Areopagite is the great spokesman of apophatic theology, Origen could be read as providing the basis for an altogether more optimistic theological epistemology. On First Principles 1.3.6 and his Commentary on the Gospel of John, Exodus 3.14 and the identification of God with being is central. Origen combining Exodus 3:14 with Matthew 19:17, he identifies “being” with the concept of “the good,” God is both Being and Goodness. Origen does say that God is ‘above’ Being but he also claims that God is reason and self-conscious, and thus the finite mind can attain some rational apprehension of the divine mind.[5] This more optimistic epistemology, one in which the divine mind plays a positive role, is enthusiastically endorsed by the Cambridge Platonists.

When Whichcote says to Tuckney, ‘Sir, I oppose not rational to spiritual; for spiritual is most rational’[6], he is giving expression to this cognitive optimism, a theological confidence required by the challenge presented by the rise of the radical naturalism of Hobbes and his like. For Whichcote, as for More, Cudworth and Smith, philosophy and theology belong together, and human reason is grounded in the eternal dictates of Divine Wisdom. They are all committed to a ‘top down’ metaphysics in which the higher, i.e. the Divine intellect explains the lower, i.e. the material cosmos. Unsurprisingly, the Platonic ideas play a constitutive explanatory role: These are not abstract objects of thought but they are collectively the plenitude and power of the Divine Mind as the source of all reality, actual and potential. As Cudworth writes:

It is all one to affirm that there are eternal rationes, essences of things, and verities necessarily existing, and to say that there is an infinite, omnipotent, and eternal Mind, necessarily existing that always actually comprehendeth himself, the essences of all things, and their verities, or, rather which is the rationes, essences, and verities of all things.[7]

These eternal ‘essences of things’ provide the basis for epistemology and it is the divine mind that constitutes an explanatory principle in their metaphysics. The Divine ideas are God’s thoughts and sensible objects are ‘ectypes’ or images of Divine archetypes. Man can apprehend the ideas by communing with the Divine mind: epistemology implies literally theology. A radical apophaticism is impossible for these thinkers because their anti-Hobbesian ontology presents the sensible world as presupposing the intelligible world of the Divine intellect. For Henry More, it is essential “to cut the sinews of the Spinozan and the Hobbesian cause”.[8] And in order to do this, Cudworth deems necessary to construct a metaphysical system, by “joyning  Metaphysicks  or Theology, together with Physiology, to make up one entire System of Philosophy”.[9]

Theological Voluntarism

One of the most widespread ancient and modern critiques of theology, from Xenophanes to Feuerbach and Freud, is the projection theory: namely the idea that theories of the gods emerge out of the all-too-human projections onto the universe. As cultivated humanists, the Cambridge Platonists are particularly hostile to any crude anthropomorphism in theology. Moreover, they object forcibly to the principle that God’s omnipotence provides a basis for truth or morality. This is also one of the implications of the doctrine of ideas. If the visible transient world is an image of the invisible and eternal world, it cannot be viewed as the product of arbitrary divine will. Indeed, the divine will for the Cambridge Platonists is subordinate to Divine Wisdom and Goodness. Right and Wrong, True and False are grounded in eternal verities. Descartes is admired since he had revived a genuine Mosaic atomism unlike atomism of the Democritean (atheistic) kind. Henry More insists that Platonism is the soul, while Cartesianism is the body of philosophical system. Yet the theological voluntarism of Descartes is severely criticized by all the major figures in the school. Not even God could make clear and distinct ideas false: ‘power hath no dominion over understanding, truth, and knowledge’. Cudworth defends the theological legitimacy of his position by noting that voluntarism was rare among the ‘ancient fathers of the Christian church’ who ‘were very abhorrent from the doctrine’ and Cudworth notes: ‘it crept up afterward in the scholastic age’ especially in the form of Ockham.[10]

Love, Fear and Supreme Goodness

Removing fear is a central goal for much ancient philosophy. The concept of ataraxia is central for Epicureanism and other philosopher traditions like Stoicism. The work of Pierre Hadot, in particular, has shown clearly the profound practical dimension of ancient thought and the removal of fear in particular is a central aspect of this. Thomas Hobbes, a brilliant and learned humanist revives this concern with the problem of fear in an audacious manner. Yet in his stress on fear Hobbes seems to steer close to aspects of Calvinism, in particular the terrifying God of the Westminster Confession and the doctrine of double predestination. For Hobbes, the political state and indeed, his theology is grounded upon the emotion of fear. If, indeed, life is to be conceived of not merely as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”, but the war of all against all, “bellum omnium contra omnes”, then only a powerful sovereign, monarch or parliament can serve to redress the anarchy generated by the relentless selfishness that characterizes all human beings (homo homini lupus est) and the fact that only the threat of punishment and the efficacy of the law can check these selfish instincts. (Leviathian Ch. 13 On the Natural Condition of Mankind as Concerning Their Felicity and Misery)[11] Hobbes’ theology is also shaped by the continual fear and danger of violent death. In his book, The Hunting of Leviathan by Samuel I. Mintz, we can find a protocol of the range of attacks on the philosophy of Hobbes and in particular his prodigious impiety.

The theology of the Cambridge Platonists rests upon the principle of God’s goodness rather than fear of his sovereignty. Origen is adamant on this point: God must be envisaged as absolute goodness, and the Cambridge Platonists present the self-communication of the supreme Goodness as the justification of creation. John Smith writes:

God made the universe and all creatures contained therein as so many glasses wherein He might reflect His own glory. He hath copied forth Himself in the creation; and in this outward world we may read the lovely characters of the Divine goodness, power, and wisdom…That Divine Wisdom, that contrived and beautified this glorious structure, can best explain her own art, and carry the soul back again in these reflected beams to Him who is the Fountain of them…

The Neoplatonic language of reflection and the fountain is conventional but his is not the path of Dionysian via negativa. The physical world is a glorious mirror of the Divine source and good folk will find traces of the transcendent goodness in the world. Only those who are blinded by selfishness and pride will fail to behold God in this world.

God must not be envisaged as an object of terror, and much less as a bargaining partner. God has no reason to create humanity except out of disinterested love. Cudworth writes of the ‘Love of infinite activity’.[12] John Smith explicitly attacks the idea that God’s creation was ‘out of a piece of Self-Interest, as if he had had any design to advance himself, or to enlarge his own stock of glory and happiness’.[13] Smith avers that: ‘he need neither our Happiness nor our Misery to make himself more illustrious by; being full in himself, it was his good pleasure to communicate of his own fullness. The communication of his goodness: God does then most glorifie and exalt himself in the most triumphant way that may be…when he most of all communicates himself’.[14]

Enthusiasm and deification

Divine madness is a powerful though perplexing theme in Plato’s dialogues. In Neoplatonism it becomes a doctrine of ecstasy, that is a doctrine of union with the Divine or deification. This doctrine can be related to a gradual process of assimilation to the Divine and fleeting moments of union. The theme becomes particularly timely in the Civil War because of the emergence of sects claiming special and direct knowledge of the divine. Henry More, in particular, addressed this question of enthusiasm and its dangers with trenchant arguments. Yet More himself was far removed from a complacent and worldly Restoration Divine. His critique of enthusiasm presupposes a true version of the indwelling Divine principle. John Smith writes eloquently of this:

The true Metaphysical and Contemplative man … endeavours the nearest union with the Divine Essence that may be, κέντρον κέντρῳ συνάψας, as Plotinus speaks; knitting his owne centre, if he have any, unto the centre of the Divine Being … This life is nothing else but God's own breath within him, and an Infant-Christ (if I may use the expression) formed in his Soul, who is in a sense … the shining forth of the Father’s glory.[15][16]

This Metaphysical and Contemplative man is an image of Plotinus, the “divine philosopher”. Cudworth remarks:

Plotinus aimed at such a kind of  Rapturous and Ecstatick Union with the Τὸ ἕν and Τἀγαθόνthe First of the Three Highest Gods, (called The One and The Good) as by himself is described towards the latter end of this Last Book [Ennead VI 9], where he calls it ἐπαφὴν, and παρουσίαν ἐπιστήμης κρείττονα, and τὸ ἑαυτῶν κέντρον τῷ οἷον πάντων κέντρῳ … συνάπτεινa kind of Tactual Union, and a certain Presence better than Knowledge, and the joyning of our own Centre, as it were, with the Centre of the Universe. TIS 549

This idea of the κέντρον or centre of the soul has parallels with the doctrine of the spark or apex mentis in the Eckhart school. Tuckney objected to the revival of this medieval Platonic-mystical doctrine as ‘kind of moral divinitie minted only with a little tincture of Christ added Nay, a Platonic faith unites to God!The Platonic doctrine of the centre of the soul is an aspect of the epistemological optimism of the Cambridge Platonists. It is the Divine-in- the-mind that makes knowledge and ethics possible. Yet it is also part of a critique of doctrine of imputed righteousness. Salvation, for the Cambridge Platonists, cannot be the result of an external forensic attribution but rather the transformation of the soul into its Divine archetype. Salvation is the renewal of the soul through the indwelling of the eternal logos in the Spirit.


The doctrine of salvation in the Cambridge Platonists brings us to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity as a point at which philosophy and theology coincide. It is perhaps ironic that the doctrine which if considered in purely numerical terms seems to present an egregious instance of theological irationalism, (i.e. how can three be one?), constitutes within Christian-Platonism one of the central connections between philosophy and theology. Some vision of the unity of the absolute principle of Being and nevertheless its relationality forms the philosophical foundation of the Biblical revelation of God as three in one. At this point we cannot explore the origins of this theme within the philosophical tradition such as the Platonic doctrines of a supreme unity and an indeterminate ‘dyad’ attributed to Plato’s Academy, the Neoplatonic exegesis of Plato’s triad of principles in his dialogue Parmenides or the Noetic triad which Victorinus translated from conception of the Divine Mind as Being, Life, and Thought and as Augustine and others developed through the mediation of Victorinus. Nor can we explore the reception of the logos doctrine as a model of the creative dimension of the Godhead and how the logos became identified with the Ideas as the thoughts of God. All the Cambridge Platonists were not only familiar with the Platonic tradition but profoundly learned in Patristics.

The significance of the doctrine of the Trinity needs to be stressed in the light of persisting tendencies to view the Cambridge Platonists as Arians, or even Deists. The tendency of some the Latitudinarians in the Restoration to avoid doctrinal controversy in favour of a stress upon practical faith and virtue should not blind us to the deep interest of the Cambridge Platonists in doctrinal questions. Their Orthodoxy is for others to judge; yet the seriousness with which they treat the core doctrines of Christianity is indisputable.

The great Jesuit scholar Petavius (1583 – 1652) argued that the council of Nicea represented a break with Platonism and the pre-Nicean fathers could not be regarded as properly Orthodox. Cudworth, on the contrary argued that the homousion was compatible with a moderate form of subordinationism. Cudworth’s forays into the minutiae of recondite Patristic scholarship was philosophically motivated since he, too, was drawing upon the Platonic themes and arguments that had inspired his Alexandrian forebearers. The philosophical theology of the Cambridge Platonists culminates in the vision of a unity that thinks itself and creates the visible cosmos in its own image and both calls and impels the return of the world to itself. In this sense, the problem of identity and difference, two of Plato’s ‘great categories’ become models of both the imminent and the economic life of the Divine.

[1] Der Gekreuzigte Gerechte Bei Plato Im Neuen Testament Und in der Alten Kirche, Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur, Wiesbaden [1950].

[2] Platonism and Christianity: A Mere Antagonism or a Profound Common Ground?, Cornelia de Vogel, Vigiliae Christianae: 39 (1985), pp. 1-62.

[3] Mark Edwards, Origen against Plato (Farnham, 2002).

[4] Antony Tuckney, Forty Sermons (London, 1676), p. 225

[5] Christian Hengstermann, Origenes und der Ursprung der Freiheitsmetaphysik (Münster, 2016), p. 174ff.

[6] Whichcote, Eight Letters of Dr. Antony Tuckney and Dr. Benjamin Whichcote, appended to Whichcote, Moral and Religious Aphorisms, ed. Jeffrey Whichcote & Samuel Salter, (London, 1753), p. 108.

[7] Cudworth, A Treatise Concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality (Cambridge, CUP,1996), p. 128

[8] Alexander Jacob, Henry More’s Refutation of Spinoza (Hildesheim, 1991), p. 101.

[9] Cudworth, True Intellectual System, (London, 1678), p. 175.

[10] Cudworth, A Treatise Concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality, p. 14.

[11] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Oxford, 1958), p. 97

[12] Cudworth, True Intellectual System, pp. 123, 583

[13] Smith, Select Discourses, p. 140.

[14] Smith, Select Discourses, p. 142

[15] John Smith, First Discourse, § 3.

[16] For John Smith, see Derek Michaud, Reason Turned into Sense: John Smith on Spiritual Sensation, (Leuven, Peeters, 2017).

Cite as: Introduction,, accessed 2024-07-12.