1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Cambridge Platonists

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CAMBRIDGE PLATONISTS, a school of philosophic-religious thinkers which flourished mainly at Cambridge University in the second half of the 17th century. The founder was Benjamin Whichcote and the chief members were Ralph Cudworth, Richard Cumberland, Joseph Glanvill, Henry More and John Norris (see separate articles). Other less important members were Nathanael Culverwel (d. 1651?), Theophilus Gale (1628–1678), John Pordage (1607–1681), George Rust (d. 1670), John Smith (1618–1652) and John Worthington (1618–1671). They represented liberal thought at the time and were generally known as Latitudinarians. Their views were due to a reaction against three main tendencies in contemporary English thought: the sacerdotalism of Laud and his followers, the obscurantist sectaries and, most important of all, the doctrines of Hobbes. They consist chiefly of a reconciliation between reason and religion, resulting in a generally tolerant spirit. They tend always to mysticism and the contemplation of things transcendental. In spite of inaccuracy and the lack of critical capacity in dealing with their authorities both ancient and modern, the Cambridge Platonists exercised a valuable influence on English theology and thought in general. Their chief contributions to thought were Cudworth’s theory of the “plastic nature” of God, More’s elaborate mysticism, Norris’s appreciation of Malebranche, Glanvill’s conception of scepticism as an aid to Faith; and, in a less degree, the harmony of Faith and Reason elaborated by Culverwel. The one doctrine on which they all combined to lay especial emphasis was the absolute existence of right and wrong quite apart from the theory of divine authority. Their chief authorities were Plato and the Neo-platonists (between whom they made no adequate distinction), and among modern philosophers, Descartes, Malebranche and Boehme. From these sources they attempted to evolve a philosophy of religion, which would not only refute the views of Hobbes, but would also free theology finally from the errors of scholasticism, without plunging it in the newer dangers of unfettered rationalism (see Ethics).

See Tulloch, Rational Theology in England in the 17th Century; Hallam, Literature of Europe (chap. on Philosophy from 1650 to 1700); Hunt, Religious Thought in England; von Stein, Sieben Bücher zur Geschichte des Platonismus (1862), and works on individual philosophers appended to biographies.