1902 Encyclopedia > Ralph Cudworth

Ralph Cudworth
English philosopher
(1617-88)




RALPH CUDWORTH, (1617-1688), the most learned and philosophical of the Cambridge Platonists, was born at Aller, Somersetshire, in 1617. His father, rector of Alier, and an editor of Perkins's works, died in 1624. His widow married a second time Dr Stoughton, under whose care young Cud worth was well grounded in school learning. In 1630 he was entered a pensioner in Emmanuel College, Cambridge, of which his father had been a fellow. He commenced residence in 1632, took the degree of M.A. in 1639, was soon after chosen fellow, and became so eminent as a tutor as to have at one time twenty-eight pupils. He was next presented to the rectory of North Cadbury in his native county, and in 1642 he published a Discourse concerning the true Notion of the Lord's Supper, and a treatise entitled, The Union of Christ and the Church, in a Shadow. In 1644 he took the degree of B.D., and in the same year was chosen master of Clare Hall. In the following year he was appointed professor of Hebrew, and for some time devoted himself with special zeal to the study of Jewish antiquities. Two years after (March 31, 1647) he preached before the House of Commons on 1 John ii. 3, 4, and his discourse on this occasion was published along with another sermon following out the theme. For some time it appeared as if the insufficiency of his income would force him to leave Cambridge, but this loss to the university was averted by his appointment to the mastership of Christ's College in 1654. He was one of the persons named by a committee of Parliament in 1657 for the revision of the English translation of the Bible. Through his intimacy with Thurloe, the secretary of state for Cromwell and his son Richard, he was con-fidentially consulted on various occasions by the Protectors in regard to university and Government appointments. In 1659 we find him engaged with discourses in defence of Christianity against Judaism. Like so many others, he published Latin versss on the restoration of King Charles II. in 1660. He was presented to the rectory of Ashwell in Herefordshire in 1662, and installed prebendary of Gloucester in 1678. He had a design in 1665 to publish a treatise concerning moral good and evil, and as he had been encouraged to do so by Dr Henry More, the latter's Enchiridion Ethicum appears to have almost occasioned a rupture of friendly relations between them. Cudworth's magnum opus, the True Intellectual System of the Universe, wherein all the Reason and Philosophy of Atheism is refuted, and its Impossibility demonstrated, appeared in 1678. This marvellously learned work, bulky as it is, is merely a fragment, the first of three parts,'—the Treatise on Eternal and Immutable Morality, published in 1731 by Bishop Chandler, and a Discourse on Liberty and Necessity, belong-ing to the same whole. Its publication had been delayed for seven years, owing to the opposition of some parties at court, probably admirers of Hobbes. It was flatteringly received in the learned world, but offended the narrowly orthodox as well as the sceptics against whom it was written. Some persons were even so thoughtless or malicious as to construe the candour with which its author stated the arguments of atheists as a device to lead his readers to believe that the atheist bad the best of the reasoning. If Warburton may be credited, misrepresenta-tions of this kind deterred Cudworth, a peaceable man, averse to theological polemics, from publishing the rest of his work. He died at Cambridge on the 26th of June 1688, and was buried in the chapel of Christ's College. He left behind him a daughter, Damaris, a lady of considerable genius, known, under the name of Lady Masham, as the intimate and valued friend of John Locke. Several of Cudworth's MSS. are preserved in the British Museum. It is not to the national credit that, with the exception of A Treatise of Freewill, edited by the Rev. Mr Allen in 1838, they have not only not been published, but no adequate account or summary has been given of them.

The True Intellectual System, to justify its general title and fulfil its author's plan, should have contained two other parts, each on the same scale as the part which we possess. There appeared to Cudworth to be three systems which deny liberty and involve necessity,—three sorts of fatalism. The first is materialistic fatalism, which suppresses with the idea of liberty every idea of God and spirit, and explains all phenomena, even those of thought and feeling, by mechanical laws, and the formation of all beings bythe combination and concourse of atoms; the second is a theological or religious fatalism, advocated by various scholastic and later divines, which makes good and evil, right and wrong, the creation of the will of God, and thus destroys liberty by destroying its condition and its law ; and the third is Stoical fatalism, which, although not denying the Divine existence or the rectitude of the Divine nature, affirms that all that happens is determined by an eternal and unchangeable necessity. These are the three chief false systems of the universe, according to Cudworth, and he would oppose to them three great principles, the fundamentals or essentials of religion —to the first the existence of God and of a spiritual world ; to the second the eternal and immutable distinction of right and wrong; and to the third the freedom and responsibility of man. The proof of these three truths with the refutation of the opposite errors seemed to him to be the establishment of a system of the universe entitled to be called, in opposition to those refuted, true, and, in distinction from physical systems, like the Ptolemaic, Tychonic, and Copernican, intellectual. The first of these forms of fatalism is the only one with which his principal work deals. It includes four species of materialistic atheism, namely,—the atomic, adopt-ed by Democritus, Epicurus, and Hobbes, which recognizes no other substances than material atoms and no other forces than their movements ; the hylopathic, maintained by Anaximander, which makes infinite matter, devoid of understanding and life, form all things by " a secretion or segregation " which takes place according to inherent law; the hylozoic, asserted by Strato of Lampsacus, which explains everything by the supposition of an inward, self-organizing, plastic life in matter ; and the cosmoplastic, perhaps held by Seneca and the younger Pliny, which represents the universe as an organized being, like a plant, with a spontaneous and necessary but unconscious and un-reflective development. They are, however, reducible to two—the atomic and hylozoic,—the one best represented by Democritus, the other by Strato; the one explaining everything by matter and movement, the other everything by matter endowed with life; the one mechanical, the other dynamical.
The history of the atomic philosophy is narrated by Cudworth at great length and with vast erudition, but no one will now be found to accept the view which he gives of its development as even in the main accurate. Like his friend, Henry More, he derives the atomic theory, in so far as it is a purely physical speculation, from Moses, and his conclusions as to its transmission are in many respects not less untrustworthy. He would make it out to have been taught by Pythagoras, Empedocles, and, in fact, nearly all the ancient philosophers, and only to have been mutilated and perverted by Leucippus and Democritus. He had the merit, however, of seeing very clearly that the atomic theory in itself, or what he calls the atomic physiology, had no natural or even necessary connection with the atomic atheism. He contends that " so far from being either the mother or nurse of atheism, or any ways favourable thereto (as is vulgarly supposed), it is indeed the most opposite to it of any, and the greatest defence against the same." He states with great fulness and fairness the arguments which have been urged in support both of the atomic and hylozoic atheism. He refutes them, although in a cumbrous and discursive manner, with great strength of reason. It is in connection with the refutation of hylozoic atheism that he brings forward the celebrated hypothesis, which he held in common with More, of a plastic nature,—a substance intermediate between matter and spirit,—a power which prosecutes certain ends but not freely or intelligently,—an instrument by which laws are able to act without the immediate agency of God. He argues that to refer the life and motion of the universe immediately to God renders Divine Providence " operose, solicitous, and distractious," implies that all things are done miraculously and none of them by an inward principle of their own, and is incon-sistent with the slow and gradual development of nature and with its " errors and bungles." It is not wonderful that few should have been convinced by such arguments. Nothing can be toilsome to omnipotence or perplexing to omniscience. It is not more difficult to believe the life and motions of the universe due to the immediate action of God than the life and motions of the secondary agent which Cudworth imagined to animate nature and " drudg-ingly to execute a part of the work of Providence." An unconscious and " necessitated plastic power" cannot remove from the creator of it the blame of any " errors or bungles " it may commit. Cudworth's hypothesis became in 1703-4 the subject of an interesting controversy between Bayle and Leclerc,—the former maintaining, and the latter denying, that it was favourable to the atheistical inference. It has been recently reproduced by Joseph John Murphy in his work on Habit and Intelligence. What Cudworth designated " plastic nature" is almost identical with what Murphy calls 'o'unconscious intelligence." It was descended from the anirna mundi of Plato, and is still represented in the Unbewusste of Von Hartmann.





After the three chapters which describe and refute atomic and hylozoic atheism, there comes a fourth which " swells," as Cudworth himself says, " into a disproportionate bigness." Its aim is to prove that the belief in one supreme God has been generally entertained even throughout the pagan world; that only a few men, darkened in mind and depraved in heart, have discarded and denied it; and that polytheism was the worship of many gods subordinate to the One God, of the One God under many names, and of the One God and subordinate gods in images and symbols, but not the exclusion of the worship of " one sovereign and omnipotent Deity from which all their other gods were generated or created." Nowhere does our author show more learning nor more elevation and breadth of thought than in the survey of religions which this discussion involves. He carefully searches in the heathen religions which he reviews for features of truth, traces of the presence of God, evidences of His having never left himself without a witness in human hearts. At the same time, his reason-ing is, on the whole, far from satisfactory. It is at many points perverted by the unconscious desire to establish a foregone conclusion ; and the testimonies brought forward have as often meanings imposed on them as educed from them. The lengthened discussion of the Platonic and Christian Trinities contained in this chapter gave great dissatisfaction to various persons. Cudworth was accused by some, in consequence of it, with being a Tritheist, and by others of being an Arian. He could not possibly be both; he undoubtedly meant to be neither. He wished to be orthodox, and believed that he was so. He erred chiefly by representing Plato as having come far nearer to the Christian doctrine than he really did.

What is of most interest, perhaps, in the last chapter is the attempt at a positive demonstration of the existence of God. This, he explains, cannot be accomplished a priori, as if from anything antecedent to the Divine existence, but may nevertheless be necessarily inferred from undeniable principles of reason. He refutes the assertion of Descartes that we can be certain of nothing, not even of mathematical reasoning and truth, till certain that there is a God, good and holy, who cannot and will not deceive us. He shows that although this hypothesis bears a resemblance of piety it really leads to universal scepticism. He then adduces three metaphysical proofs of the Divine existence. The first is substantially that of Anselm and Descartes, drawn from the idea of an absolutely perfect being. Cudworth modifies it, however, in the same way which Leibnitz soon afterwards also did. He does not, that is to say, conclude at once the Divine existence from the idea of a perfect being, but shows before doing so that this idea is accordant with reason, i.e., involves in it no contradiction. The second proof, instead of thus proceed-ing from the idea of perfection to that of necessary existence, proceeds from the idea of existence to that of perfection. Theists and atheists, materialists and spiritual-ists, agree that something certainly existed of itself from all eternity. They differ only as to whether that something be a perfect or an imperfect Being. But that which existed from all eternity must have done so naturally and necessarily, including necessary and eternal self-existence in its own nature. There is nothing, however, it is argued, which contains necessary eternal existence in its own nature or essence, but only an absolutely perfect Being,— all imperfect things being in their nature contingently possible, either to be or not to be. Hence a perfect Being, or God, existed of himself from eternity. The third argu-ment is founded on the very nature of knowledge. It is that knowledge is possible only through ideas which must have their source in an eternal reason. Sense is not only not the whole of knowledge, but is in itself not at all knowledge ; it is wholly relative and individual, and not knowledge until the mind adds to it what is absolute and universal. Knowledge does not begin with what is individual but with what is universal. The individual is known by being brought under a universal instead of the universal being gathered from a multitude of individuals. And these universals, vo-ijixara, or ideas, which underlie all the knowledge of all men, which originate it, and do not originate in it, have existed eternally in the only mode in which truths can be said to be eternal, in an eternal mind. They come to us from an Eternal Mind, which is their proper home, and of which human reason is an emanation. " Erom whence it cometh to pass, that all minds, in the several places and ages of the world, have ideas or notions of things exactly alike, and truths indivisibly the same. Truths are not multiplied by the diversity of minds that apprehend them ; because they are all but ectypal partici-pations of one and. the same original or archetypal mind and truth. As the same face may bo reflected in several glasses, and the image of the same sun may be in a thousand eyes at once beholding it, and one and the same voice may be in a thousand ears listening to it, so when innumerable created minds havo the same ideas of things, and understand the same truths, it is but one and the same eternal light that is reflected in them all (' that light which enlighteneth every man that cometh into the world or the same voice of that one everlasting Word, that is never silent, re-echoed by them." In different forms and with different references this argument is to be found in Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, Malebranche, Bossuet, Fenelon, Cousin, and Ferrier.

The Treatise concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality deals with the second form of fatalism. Over against the assertion that all moral good and evil is arbitrary and factitious, not by nature but by law, there is placed the directly contradictory proposition, nothing is morally good or evil by mere will without nature. Whatever is at all must be what it is not by will but by nature. Omnipotence itself cannot set aside this condition, cannot do what is contra-dictory ; and contradictory it is that things should be what they are not, should be indifferently anything, either this or that, round or square, white or black, according to mere will and pleasure. And " things may as well be made white or black by mere will without whiteness or blackness, equal and unequal without equality and inequality, as morally good and evil, just and unjust, honest and dishonest, by mere will, without any nature of goodness, justice, honesty." The existence of merely positive duties,— the fact that certain commands carry with them an obliga-tory force, and that it h often wrong to do a thing which has been forbidden although it would have been otherwise quite legitimate,—is argued to be no exception to this truth, since in all such cases the obligation springs not from mere will but from a deeper source, from an underly-ing natural justice or equity, which is the true foundation both of the right in a superior to command and of obliga-tion in an inferior to obey. Cudworth is thus led to dis-criminate precisely natural from positive right. Things naturally good are those which the reason obliges us to immediately, absolutely, and perpetually, and on no con-dition of any voluntary act that may be done or omitted intervening ; things positively good are those which the reason obliges to only through the intervention of some such act bringing them under some rule of natural justice. But even the things which thus pass from being indifferent to being positively right or wrong are strictly speaking only brought into a new relation to us, and have not a new nature bestowed on themselves. They remain in themselves what they were,—indifferent, neither good nor evil. And any moral character which may be ascribed to the doing of them consists not in what is done, but in a regard to the natural right which dictates fidelity to engagements and submission to just authorities. Will thus carries with it no creative moral force,—as mere will, indeed, no moral force whatever. Cudworth completes his proof of this position by a refutation of the opinion that rectitude, although not dependent on the will of the creature, depends on the mere will of the Creator. He argues that it represents what is really a contradiction to be the object of divine power. He further insists that there is in God a wisdom superior to His will and a good-ness superior to His wisdom; that the perfection of will is to be thus twice determined, first by wisdom and then by goodness, first by truth and then by righteousness. That moral distinctions are arbitrary, grounded not in reality but in will, Cudworth saw was the necessary consequence of a belief that all cognizable distinctions are arbitrary, that all being and knowledge are relative, having no real existence in themselves but only an existence of appearance relative to something else. He perceived with perfect clearness that unless there is an absolute in knowledge there can be no absolute in morals. The larger portion of his treatise is, in consequence, an examination into the nature of sense and knowledge, designed to prove that sense is not knowledge; that sense is a confused percep-tion obtruded on the soul from without, whereas knowledge is an inward native energy of the mind, not arising from things acting from without; that even simple corporeal things, passively perceived by sense, are known or under-stood only by the active power of the mind; that some ideas of the mind proceed not from outward sensible things, but arise from the inward activity of the mind itself; that the intelligible notions of things, though existing only in the mind, are not figments of the mind, but have an immutable nature ; that science or knowledge is the only firm thing in the universe. Among the ideas not drawn from sense but imposed by reason on particular acts, Cudworth places the conceptions of moral good and evil. These, like other noemata, are necessary, eternal, and immutable. They are not created by reason but essential to reason. Reason does not find them, but brings them with it. Reason, however, and not sense or feeling of any kind, is their organon. Sense apprehends in the imperfect way it does only through the working of reason ; feeling is ever varying and individual. Sense is altogether blind to whatever partakes of the necessary; feeling is in no direct contact with what really and absolutely is. Adam Smith and many others have pronounced this conclusion absurd and unintelligible, without attending to the cir-cumstance that Cudworth has at least endeavoured, and laboriously endeavoured, to show by his examination of sense and knowledge that what is really altogether absurd and unintelligible is that mere sense should give us any knowledge whatever,—that sense should ever rise to the rank of perception until reason has brought its object under some universal category.
In the tractate on free-will he endeavours to establish that man possesses a contingent or fortuitous liberty of self-determination when there is a perfect equality of objects.





He rests this conclusion on two arguments :—first, that otherwise were a second world created exactly like the present it would have an exactly similar history; and, secondly, that otherwise the mind could make no choice in the many cases where several objects precisely alike were presented to it. He sees clearly, at the same time, that this power is not the free-will which is the condition of praise and blame. In every conceivable case where two objects of choice perfectly equal are presented to the mind, praise or blame for the preference of the one to the other is unreasonable. It is only the preference of the better to the worse that is praiseworthy ; only the preference of the worse to the better that is blameworthy. Accordingly he argues that man has also a power of determining himself better or worse. In the prosecution of this argument he finds it requisite to maintain that there are not two separata faculties in the soul, the one confined to will and the other to understanding, but that there is a soul which wills understandingly and understands willingly. Its first motive principle is the desire of good in general. Its freewill is distinctive of a rational imperfect being. A perfect being, essentially good and wise, cannot have such a power, it being impossible it should ever improve, much less impair itself. He endeavours to refute not only the argu-ments designed to show freedom impossible, but those intended to prove it confined to Deity.

Vast erudition was combined in Cudworth with remark-able speculative power. The extent and obtrusiveness of his erudition and his discursiveness in argumentation have caused him to get much less credit for philosophical ability than he deserves. It is only the real student of his writ-ings who can be expected to recognize it; and, although he may be often consulted, he is probably now seldom studied.

Thomas Birch's Account of the Life and Writings of Ralph Cudworth, D.D., is the chief, but very inadequate, biographical authority. In all respects the best view of Cudworth, as a man and a philosopher, is that given by Principal Tulloch in Rational Theology, &c, vol. ii. There is a good special dissertation on " the plastic nature" by Janet, and an excellent estimate of Cudworth as a Platonist in Prof. v. Stein's Sieben Bücher zur Geschichte des Platonismus, B. vi. (R. F.)




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