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The Cambridge Platonists in Philosphical Context: Politics, Metaphysics and Religion.

THE Cambridge Platonists form a fascinating group of thinkers; John Smith's Select Discourses and Whichcote's Aphorisms are some of the most striking works in English theology and Cudworth's unwieldy True Intellectual System of the Universe, a work which lacks the charm of Smith and Whichcote, is nevertheless more searching and perhaps more fertile: it exerted influence upon Newton, Locke and Leibniz. The Platonists introduced Descartes into England, the very term `Cartesianism' and the debate about its merits and defects (cf. John Cottingham's account of Henry More's penetrating critique of Descartes in the volume). Their terminology and ideas are manifest in the great eighteenth-century thinkers from Locke to Hume and Price, even if it is only with S. T. Coleridge and F. D. Maurice that their ideals are re-invoked. The essay on the vitalist concept of Nature `"La Nature est une art". Le vitalisme de Cudworth et de More' by Jean-Louis Breteau does much to explain why the Platonists were so admired by English and American Romantics.

The theological dimension is not directly examined, despite two important essays on the patristic background by David Cockrill and Sarah Hutton, and a discussion of relation of the Platonists to Dutch Arminianism by Luisa Simonutti. The theological significance of the Cambridge Platonists is quite striking; these thinkers reflect the Platonism of Colet and Spenser, and constitute the origin of the liberal or Broad Church movement in the Church of England: in their via media between the Puritan and Laudian camps in the mid-seventeenth century; in their interest in both the Church Fathers and modern science; in their appeal to tolerance, and their enthusiasm for natural theology.

It is of note that the authors of the volume are almost exclusively philosophers or historians of ideas. Cudworth's 'plastic nature' and the relation of Cudworth and More to Descartes, Hobbes, and Leibniz form the heart of the book. Robinet's essay `Les differentes lectures du System de Cudworth par G. W. Leibniz' includes a transcription of Leibniz's notes on Cudworth. In a fascinating essay Stuart Brown describes the slightly later but related group of Oxford Idealists of Collier and Norris, stimulated by Malebranche -- and according to Brown -- exerting influence upon George Berkeley.

John Rogers discusses the perhaps less likely seeming topic of the worldly or political concerns of these notoriously other-worldly philosophers. Living through the turbulence of civil war, the Interregnum and Restoration, an aversion to the `world' would be barely surprising. Yet Cudworth was appointed by parliamentary authority to become master of Clare College (then `Clare Hall') and Regius Professor of Hebrew, preached to the House of Commons in March 1647/48, and was involved in the negotiations for the Jewish re-entry into England during the Protectorate. Rogers explains that Henry More's An Explanation of the Grand Mystery of Godliness with its discussion of the powers of the civil magistrate is closely connected with debates about tolerance which Locke and the later Latitudinarians discuss, and has a powerful political component. Robert Crocker's essay on `The Role of Illuminism in the Thought of Henry More' provides an account of the more characteristically `mystical' aspect of Henry More, not just derived from the Florentine Platonism of the Humanists but that tradition of medieval mysticism which he knew through the Theologia Germanica and the Greek patristic notion of `deification'.

This book should be warmly welcomed by theologians with interests in the seventeenth century as a highly valuable update on the latest scholarship on the Cambridge Platonists, and as a useful antidote to the widespread assumption that the Cambridge Platonists constituted a fairly isolated and short lived movement. The roots, content, and the ramifications of their thought were profound; a fact which this volume admirably demonstrates.
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Author:Hedley, Douglas
Publication:The Journal of Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1998
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