Cambridge Platonists

The Cambridge Platonists were a group of theologians and philosophers at the University of Cambridge in the middle of the 17th century. The leading figures were Ralph Cudworth and Henry More.[1]

Henry More
Henry More of the Cambridge Platonist school.

Group and its name

Mark Goldie, writing in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, notes that the term "Cambridge Platonists" was given in the 19th century and can be misleading. There is no clear distinction between the group and latitudinarians in general.


The categorization and interpretation of the Cambridge Platonists has changed over time. Frances Yates interpreted them as scholars who engaged with the Christian Kabbalah but rejected Hermeticism following Isaac Casaubon's redating of the Hermetic corpus.[2] She argues that Cudsworth and More perpetuate certain Renaissance Neoplatonic ideas, including a broad syncretism of early forms of Hermeticism, in a new scholarly context.[3]

More recently, Dmitri Levitin has challenged any categorization of the Cambridge Platonists as a cohesive philosophical group. While he admits that the group "existed as a loose set of acquaintances linked by tutorial relationships," he argues that they were not exclusive in their interest in Platonism, nor did most of them believe in any syncretism or a prisca theologia/philosophia perennis.[4] Levitin notes that of the Cambridge Platonists, only More saw himself as a philosopher rather than a philologist or theologian and he faced criticism from others, including Cudworth, for his lack of attention to historical detail.[5] Moreover, philosophers not traditionally deemed "Cambridge Platonists" took an historical and philosophical interest in Platonism and ideas of ancient science.[6] Based on these conclusions Levitin rejects any categorization of the Cambridge Platonists as a cohesive group in terms of philosophical views as historically unfounded.


The Cambridge Platonists used the framework of the philosophia perennis of Agostino Steuco, and from it argued for moderation.[7] They believed that reason is the proper judge of disagreements, and so they advocated dialogue between the Puritan and Laudian traditions. The orthodox English Calvinists of the time found in their views an insidious attack, by-passing as it did the basic theological issues of atonement and justification by faith. Given the circle's Cambridge background in Puritan colleges such as Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge and Emmanuel College, Cambridge, the undermining was intellectually all the more effective. John Bunyan complained in those terms about Edward Fowler, a close latitudinarian follower.[8]

Their understanding of reason was as "the candle of the Lord": an echo of the divine within the human soul and an imprint of God within man. They believed that reason could judge the private revelations of Puritan narrative, and investigate contested rituals and liturgy of the Church of England. For this approach they were called "latitudinarian".

The dogmatism of the Puritan divines, with their anti-rationalist demands, was, they felt, incorrect. They also felt that the Calvinist insistence on individual revelation left God uninvolved with the majority of mankind. At the same time, they were reacting against the reductive materialist writings of Thomas Hobbes. They felt that the latter, while rationalist, were denying the idealistic part of the universe.

To the Cambridge Platonists, religion and reason were in harmony, and reality was known not by physical sensation alone, but by intuition of the intelligible forms that exist behind the material world of everyday perception. Universal, ideal forms inform matter, and the physical senses are unreliable guides to their reality. In response to the mechanical philosophy, More proposed a "Hylarchic Principle", and Cudworth a concept of "Plastic Nature".[7]


Though coming later and not generally considered a Cambridge Platonist himself, Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (1671–1713) was much influenced by the movement.

Major works

  • Benjamin Whichcote (1609–1683) was one of the leaders of the movement, but he was also an active pastor and academic who did not publish in his lifetime. His sermons were notable and caused controversies, and Whichcote wrote a great deal without publishing. In 1685, Some Select Notions of B. Whichcote was published due to demand. After that was Select Sermons (1689) (with a preface by Shaftesbury) and Several Discourses (1701). Finally, a collection of his sayings appeared as Moral and Religious Aphorisms in 1703.
  • Peter Sterry is remembered for his A Discourse of the Freedom of the Will (1675) among other works.
  • Henry More (1614–1687) wrote many works. As a Platonist, his important works were Manual of Ethics (1666), the Divine Dialogues (1668), and the Manual of Metaphysics (1671). While all of More's works enjoyed popularity, the Divine Dialogues were perhaps most influential.
  • Cudworth's chief philosophical work was The True Intellectual System of the Universe (1678) and the Treatise concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality, which appeared posthumously in 1731.
  • John Smith, a student of Benjamin Whichcote, is best remembered for the elegance of his style and the depth of his learning in the posthumously published Select Discourses (1660).
  • Culverwel's chief work was Light of Nature (1652). Culverwel died young (probably at the age of 32). He had intended to write a multi-part work reconciling the Gospel with philosophical reason.


  1. ^ Stuart Brown (1 May 2003). British Philosophy and the Age of Enlightenment: Routledge History of Philosophy. Routledge. p. 23. ISBN 978-0-415-30877-9. Retrieved 16 April 2013.
  2. ^ Yates, Frances (1964). Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 426-8. ISBN 0-226-95007-7.
  3. ^ Yates, Frances (1964). Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 426-8. ISBN 0-226-95007-7.
  4. ^ Levitin, Dmitri (2015). Ancient Wisdom in the Age of the New Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 16. ISBN 1107105889.
  5. ^ Levitin, Dmitri (2015). Ancient Wisdom in the Age of the New Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 138-9, 178-9, 543. ISBN 1107105889.
  6. ^ Levitin, Dmitri (2015). Ancient Wisdom in the Age of the New Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 15-8. ISBN 1107105889.
  7. ^ a b Hutton, Sarah. "The Cambridge Platonists". In Zalta, Edward N. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  8. ^ G R Cragg (March 2003). From Puritanism to the Age of Reason. CUP Archive. p. 39. ISBN 978-0-521-09391-0. Retrieved 16 April 2013.

Further reading

External links

Anne Conway (philosopher)

Anne Conway (also known as Viscountess Conway; née Finch; 14 December 1631 – 23 February 1679) was an English philosopher whose work, in the tradition of the Cambridge Platonists, was an influence on Gottfried Leibniz. Conway's thought is a deeply original form of rationalist philosophy, with hallmarks of gynocentric concerns and patterns that lead some to think of it as unique among seventeenth-century systems.

Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury

Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury Bt (26 February 1671 – 16 February 1713) was an English politician, philosopher and writer.

Benjamin Whichcote

Benjamin Whichcote (4 May 1609 – May 1683) was an English Establishment and Puritan divine, 19th Provost of King's College, Cambridge, and leader of the Cambridge Platonists. He held that man is the "child of reason" and therefore not completely depraved by nature, as Puritans held. He also argued for religious toleration.

Damaris Cudworth Masham

Damaris Cudworth, Lady Masham (18 January 1659 – 20 April 1708) was an English writer, philosopher, theologian, and advocate for women's education who is characterized as a proto-feminist. She overcame some weakness of eyesight and lack of access to formal higher education to win high regard among eminent thinkers of her time. With an extensive correspondence, she published two works, A Discourse Concerning the Love of God (1696) and Thoughts in reference to a Vertuous or Christian Life (1705). She is particularly noted for her long, mutually-influential friendship with the philosopher John Locke.

Emily Stipes Watts

Emily Stipes Watts (March 16, 1936 – March 12, 2018) was an American educator, writer, and literary historian. In parallel with her academic career, she wrote Ernest Hemingway and the Arts (1971), The Poetry of American Women from 1632 to 1945 (1978) and The Businessman in American Literature (1982). A laureate of the Guggenheim Fellowship, she also served as chair of the Illinois Board of Higher Education.

George Rust (bishop)

George Rust (died 1670) was an English Anglican academic and churchman, who became bishop of Dromore in 1667. He is known as a Cambridge Platonist and associate of Jeremy Taylor.

Heneage Finch (speaker)

Sir Heneage Finch (1580 – 5 December 1631) was an English lawyer and politician who sat in the House of Commons at various times between 1607 and 1626. He was Speaker of the English House of Commons in 1626.

Finch was the son of Sir Moyle Finch, 1st Baronet of Eastwell, Kent and his wife Elizabeth Finch, 1st Countess of Winchilsea. He matriculated into Trinity College, Cambridge in about 1592 and was awarded BA in 1596. He was admitted at Inner Temple in 1597 and called to the bar in 1606.In 1607 Finch was elected Member of Parliament for Rye. He became Recorder of London in 1621 and held the post until his death in 1631. Also in 1621 he was elected MP for West Looe. He was knighted on 22 June 1623 and became sergeant-at-law.In 1624, Finch was elected MP for the City of London. He was re-elected MP for the CIty of London in 1625 and in 1626 and was chosen to serve as Speaker of the House for his last term in 1626.Finch died at the age of 51 and was buried at Ravenstone, Buckinghamshire.Finch had seven sons and four daughters. One of his sons was Heneage Finch, 1st Earl of Nottingham. His daughter Anne married Edward Conway, Viscount Conway, and was a philosopher in the tradition of the Cambridge Platonists and an influence on Leibniz. His daughter Frances married Sir Clifford Clifton, MP.

Henry More

Henry More (; 12 October 1614 – 1 September 1687) was an English philosopher of the Cambridge Platonist school.

John Norris (philosopher)

John Norris, sometimes called John Norris of Bemerton (1657–1712), was an English theologian, philosopher and poet associated with the Cambridge Platonists.

John Smith (Platonist)

John Smith (1618, Achurch, Northamptonshire – August 7, 1652, Cambridge) was an English philosopher, theologian, and educator.

John Worthington (academic)

John Worthington (1618–1671) was an English academic. He was closely associated with the Cambridge Platonists. He did not in fact publish in the field of philosophy, and is now known mainly as a well-connected diarist.

Joseph Glanvill

Joseph Glanvill (1636 – 4 November 1680) was an English writer, philosopher, and clergyman. Not himself a scientist, he has been called "the most skillful apologist of the virtuosi", or in other words the leading propagandist for the approach of the English natural philosophers of the later 17th century. In 1661 he predicted "The time will come, when making use of magnetic waves that permeate the ether,...we shall communicate with [persons on the opposite side of the globe]."

Nathaniel Culverwell

Nathaniel Culverwell (alternative spellings Nathanael or Culverwel; 1619–1651) was an English author and theologian, born in Middlesex. He was baptized on 14 January 1619 at the church of St. Margaret Moses where his father was rector. He was the second of six children of Richard and Margaret (Horton) Culverwell.A student (admitted 1633) and later a fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, he was associated with members of the Cambridge Platonists group.


Neoplatonism is a term used to designate a strand of Platonic philosophy that emerged in the third century AD against the background of Hellenistic philosophy and religion. The term does not encapsulate a set of ideas as much as it encapsulates a chain of thinkers which began with Ammonious Saccas and his student Plotinus (c. 204/5 – 270 AD) and which stretches to the sixth century AD. Even though Neoplatonism primarily circumscribes the thinkers who are now labeled Neoplatonists and not their ideas, there are some ideas that are common to Neoplatonic systems, for example, the monistic idea that all of reality can be derived from a single principle, "the One".

After Plotinus there were three distinct periods in the history of Neoplatonism: the work of his student Porphyry; that of Iamblichus and his school in Syria; and the period in the fifth and sixth centuries, when the Academies in Alexandria and Athens flourished.Neoplatonism had an enduring influence on the subsequent history of philosophy. In the Middle Ages, Neoplatonic ideas were studied and discussed by Muslim, Christian, and Jewish thinkers. In the Islamic cultural sphere, Neoplatonic texts were available in Arabic translations, and notable thinkers such as al-Farabi, Solomon ibn Gabirol (Avicebron), Avicenna, and Moses Maimonides incorporated neoplatonic elements into their own thinking. Latin translations of late ancient neoplatonic texts were first available in the Christian West in the ninth century, and became influential from the twelfth century onward. Thomas Aquinas had direct access to works by Proclus, Simplicius and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, and he knew about other Neoplatonists, such as Plotinus and Porphyry, through secondhand sources. The mystic Meister Eckhart (c. 1260 – c. 1328) was also influenced by Neoplatonism, propagating a contemplative way of life which points to the Godhead beyond the nameable God.

Neoplatonism also had a strong influence on the Perennial philosophy of the Italian Renaissance thinkers Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, and continues through nineteenth-century Universalism and modern-day spirituality and nondualism.

Peter Sterry

Peter Sterry (1613 – 19 November 1672) was an English independent theologian, associated with the Cambridge Platonists prominent during the English Civil War era. He was chaplain to Parliamentarian general Robert Greville, 2nd Baron Brooke and then Oliver Cromwell, a member of the Westminster Assembly, and a leading radical Puritan preacher attached to the English Council of State. He was made fun of in Hudibras.

Plastic Principle

The Plastic Principle is an idea introduced into Western thought by the English philosopher Ralph Cudworth (1617–1689) to explain the function of nature and life in the face of both the mechanism and materialism of the Enlightenment. It is a dynamic functional power that contains all of natural law, and is both sustentative and generative, organizing matter according to Platonic Ideas, that is, archetypes that lie beyond the physical realm coming from the Mind of God or Deity, the ground of Being.

Ralph Cudworth

The Rev. Prof. Ralph Cudworth (1617 – 26 June 1688) was a famed English Anglican clergyman, Christian Hebraist, classicist, theologian and philosopher, and a leading figure among the Cambridge Platonists. From a family background embedded in the early nonconformist environment of Emmanuel College where he studied (1630–45), he became 11th Regius Professor of Hebrew (1645–88), 26th Master of Clare Hall (1645–54), and 14th Master of Christ's College (1654–88). He was a leading opponent of Thomas Hobbs's political and philosophical views, and his magnum opus was his The True Intellectual System of the Universe (1678).

Richard Cumberland (philosopher)

Richard Cumberland (15 July 1631 (or 1632) – 9 October 1718) was an English philosopher, and Bishop of Peterborough from 1691. In 1672, he published his major work, De legibus naturae (On natural laws), propounding utilitarianism and opposing the egoistic ethics of Thomas Hobbes.

Cumberland was a member of the Latitudinarian movement, along with his friend Hezekiah Burton of Magdalene College, Cambridge and closely allied with the Cambridge Platonists, a group of ecclesiastical philosophers centred on Cambridge University in the mid 17th century.

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