Early Modern Philosophy

The Cambridge Platonists

What was Cambridge Platonism?

No discussion of seventeenth century philosophy would be complete without at least mention of the Cambridge Platonists. The Cambridge Platonists were a loosely connected group of philosophers, theologians, and humanistic writers, who resisted both the new science and rationalistic and empiricist attempts to base philosophy on it, although they often were unaware of the content of the doctrines that they opposed. In spirit, they were closer to Neoplatonists, such as Plotinus (205–270) and Proclus (412–485), than to Plato (c. 428–c. 348 B.C.E.), with healthy doses of Pythagoras (c. 570–495 B.C.E.), and Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499), as well as an interest in Hermes Trismegistus (a mythological figure based on the Egyptian god Thoth and the Greek god Hermes).

The main Platonic influence on all the Cambridge Platonists was the idea of a perfect world, beyond the senses, that was the cause of what we experience through our senses in this world. Those who were influenced by the Neoplatonists combined Christian beliefs with their basic Platonic view, such that the perfect Platonic world was ruled by a force or a deity, like God in Christianity.

Their goal was to defend “true religion” against Calvinism, atheism, and mechanistic philosophers such as René Descartes (1596–1650) and Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679). The Cambridge Platonists were not influential for the central development of philosophy, but their individual contributions nonetheless lived on in intellectual life.

The basic tenet of Cambridge Platonism was the obscure religious belief, first stated by the Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494), that both Pythagoras and Plato based their philosophy on teachings by Moses that were expressed in the cabala and other facets of the Jewish mystical tradition. Their other beliefs affirmed God’s existence, the soul’s immortality, and the animation of the natural world by, or with, “spirit.” They were convinced both that man had free will and that reason was of primary importance in religious matters. However, they were not empiricists, because they believed in innate ideas and innate principles of morality and religion, which were recognizable through intuition. And furthermore, it needs to be kept in mind that not all of those known as “Cambridge Neoplatonists,” shared the same views.


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