Thursday, February 11, 2010

More light: the Cambridge Platonists

Another element in the intellectual ferment of 17th Century England may be found among the Cambridge Platonists. Milton left Cambridge with his degree in 1632, and the era of the Platonists is said to extend from 1633-1688.

The Platonists attempted to steer a middle course between the dogmatic dictates of Puritan divines who emphasized revelation to the belittlement of reason, on the one hand, and the hardcore materialist rationality of Thomas Hobbes on the other. Professor Rogers will have very interesting things to say about Hobbes in relation to Book IV (lecture 14).

As divines and in matters of polity, the Cambridge Platonists argued for moderation. They believed that reason is the proper judge of all disagreements, and so they advocated dialogue between the Puritans and the High Churchmen. They had a mystical understanding of reason, believing that reason is not merely the sense-making facility of the mind, but, instead, "the candle of the Lord" - an echo of the divine within the human soul and an imprint of God within man. Thus, they believed that reason could lead beyond the sensory, because it is semi-divine. Reason was, for them, of God, and thus capable of nearing God. Therefore, they believed that reason could allow for judging the private revelations of Puritan theology and the proper investigation of the rituals and liturgy of the Established Church. For this reason, they were called latitudinarians.
Interesting to follow that link to latitudinarianism and to find:
For the 18th-century English church in theUnited States (which would become the Episcopal Church after the American Revolution), latitudinarianism was the only practical course since it was a nation with official pluralism and diversity of opinion and diffusion of clerical power.
The Platonists include a fascinating group of thinkers:

At a time when religious energies were breaking the nation into warring political factions, the Platonists  brought immense erudition to questions of the relation of revelation and reason, church and state, spirit and matter. We noted a certain Platonic emphasis in Milton's Penseroso and Comus, yet it's probably a mistake to think he was an apologist for any particular philosophic position. Nevertheless, as England embroiled itself in violent civil war, the attempt to preserve a harmony between extreme positions might well have seemed to the poet a suggestive image of a lost paradisal condition.

A key figure, or trope, of the Platonists was that of the "light of nature," which they associated with human powers of reason. One exemplary text might be Nathaniel Culverwell's "An Elegand and Learned Discourse of the Light of Nature (1652).

According to an edition in The Online Library of Liberty,
Nathaniel Culverwell attempted a moderate defense of reason and natural law, arguing, in the words of Robert Greene, that “reason and faith are distinct lights, yet they are not opposed; they are complementary and harmonious. Reason is the image of God in man, and to deny right reason is to deny our relation to God.”
Here is Culverwell, clearly mindful of the "barking" of Galileo, introducing his theme in Book I:
Tis a work that requires our choycest thoughts, the exactest discussion that can be; a thing very material and desirable, to give unto Reason the things that are Reasons, and unto Faith the things that are Faiths;2 to give Faith her full scope and latitude, and to give Reason also her just bounds and limits; this is the first-born, but the other has the blessing.3 And yet there is not such a vast hiatus neither, such a μέγαχάσμα4 [great gulf] between them as some would imagine: there is no such implacable antipathy, no such irreconcileable jarring between them, as some do fancy to themselves; they may very well salute one another, ἀγίῳφιλήματι,5osculo Pacis[with a holy kiss, the kiss of peace]; Reason and Faith may kisse each other.6 There is a twin-light springing from both, and they both spring from the same fountain of light, and they both sweetly conspire in the same end, the glory of that being from which they shine, & the welfare & happines of that being upon which they shine. So that to blaspheme Reason,’tis to reproach heaven it self, and to dishonour the God of Reason, to question the beauty of his Image, and by a strange ingratitude to slight this great and Royal gift of our Creator. For ’tis he that set up these two great Luminaries in every heavenly soul, the Sun to rule the day, and the Moon to rule the night;7 and though there be some kinde of creatures that will bark at this lesser light, and others so severely critical, as that they make mountains of those spots and freckles which they see in her face; yet others know how to be thankful for her weaker beams, and will follow the least light of Gods setting up, though it be but the Candle of the Lord.
If nothing else, Culverworth (who died at the age of 32) offers yet another example of the robust, erudite 17th century prose we find in Milton and many contemporaries. His elaborate imagery of light will remind us of similes from Paradise Lost:

But some are so strangely prejudic’d against Reason, and that upon sufficient reason too (as they think) which yet involves a flat contradiction, as that they look upon it not as the Candle of the Lord, but as on some blazing Comet that portends present ruine to the Church, and to the soul, and carries a fatal and venemous influence along with it
The Platonists fed from many sources, including continental thinkers such as Marsilio Ficino, who was the tutor of Lorenzo de'Medici and an early translator of Plato (very little of Plato was available in Latin until then). The Cambridge group in turn influenced a broad spectrum of later thinkers, poets, and scientists. 

No comments: