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Cambridge Platonists

CAMBRIDGE PLATONISTS: The name usually given to a succession of distinguished English divines and philosophers of the seventeenth century, also known to their contemporaries as "Latitude Men," from the breadth and comprehensiveness of 366their teaching. The most important of them were Benjamin Whichcote, John Smith, Ralph Cudworth, and Henry More. Other members of the school were Simon Patrick, Nathanael Culverwel, John Worthington, George Rust, and Edward Fowler; while Joseph Glanvill and John Norris, though Oxford men, were so intimately associated with it as to be sometimes included. Starting with many of the same thoughts as their immediate predecessors in the development of liberal or rational thought, Hales and Chillingworth, they aimed less than these at ecclesiastical comprehension; their purpose was to find a higher organon of Christian thought, and to vindicate the essential principles of Christianity against both dogmatic excesses within the Church and philosophical extravagances without it. Unlike the former, too, they all came from the Puritan side; with the exception of More, their leaders were members of the famous Puritan college of Emmanuel, and thus closely bound together into a definite group or school. The main source of their inspiration was the study of the Platonic philosophy, not only in Plato himself but in his Alexandrian and modern disciples. This Platonic revival was important as evoking the only force adequate to meet the development of naturalism in a direction which threatened the distinctive principles of religion. But if Platonism was the positive determinant factor in the movement, the negative influence which formed the school was opposition to the destructive reasoning of Hobbes, whose materialistic tendency they met not only, like Clarendon and others, by polemical criticism, but by a well-ordered scheme of thought, whose principles had been already worked into unison with Christian philosophy. Of their permanent achievements, not the least important was their inculcation of the doctrine of toleration, at that time so novel and unpopular. They solved the religious problem, not by giving it up, but by pushing it to its legitimate conclusion and drawing the essential distinction between dogma and religion, which is one of their chief contributions to modern thought. Against the materialism of their time, they labored to prove that religion was a transcendent reality, a substantive power binding the soul to God and revealing God to the soul. Their writings are frequently obscure and involved, and they show a lack of critical and historical judgment in their confusion of Platonism and Neoplatonism, in their speculative fancifulness, and in their misappreciation of evidence. But their services to their age can scarcely be overrated. The exponents and advocates of a comprehensive Church, the purifiers of the popular theology, they were at the same time the great champions of the reality of religion at a time when the excesses of its partizans were driving so many of their contemporaries into unbelief. See the separate articles on the various men named above.

Bibliography: The best account is by J. Tulloch, Rational Theology and Christian Philosophy in England, vol. ii., Edinburgh, 1872. The early prospectus was a pamphlet by S. P. (Simon Patrick?), Brief Account of the New Sect of the New Latitude Men, London, 1662. Consult further: E. Fowler, Practices of Certain . . . Divines . . . Abusively Called Latitudinarians, ib. 1671; G. Dyer, History of the University . . . of Cambridge, ii. 91–101, ib. 1814; W. E. H. Lecky, History of . . . Rationalism in Europe, 2 vols., ib. 1875 (an ill-balanced estimate); F. Greenslet, Joseph Glanvill. New York, 1900; E. T. Campagnac, The Cambridge Platonists; being Selections from Whichcote, Smith, and Culverwel, Oxford, 1901.

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