The Cambridge Platonists and Averroes
The ‘Averroism’ which figures in my chapter is a radically attenuated version of the philosophy of Ibn Rushd – Averroism as represented by a single doctrine imputed to the Commentator, namely the idea of a single soul, common to all human beings. The subject of my chapter has less, therefore to do with the thought of Averroes in its later reception or manifestation, and more to do with an idea of Averroism which was current in seventeenth-century England. This is particularly true of the Cambridge Platonists for whom the Averroist doctrine of the intellectus agens is the key doctrine which they associate with Averroes and which they understood as a doctrine of a ‘single soul’ or ‘common soul’. The only one of their number to offer anything like an extensive critique of Averroes was Henry More (1614–1687). Although he too was primarily concerned with the Averroistic conception of the intellectus agens, his response is distinctive for his concern with the Italian Averroists of recent times, Girolamo Cardano, Pietro Pomponazzi and Giulio Cesare Vanini. Even though the Cambridge Platonists’ views on the intellectus agens tell us more about themselves than about Averroes, their limited focus is nevertheless revealing of currents of diffusion of Averroistic ideas, and of the presence of Averroes even in the new waters of early modern philosophy. As I shall argue later, there is an important sense in which More’s partial and distorted conception of the philosophy of Ibn Rushd contributed to a new conception of the self centred on consciousness. My chapter will offer a brief survey of identifiable references to Averroes in the work the Cambridge Platonists, starting with three Emmanuel College men, John Smith (1618–1652), Nathaniel Culverwell (1619–1651) and Ralph Cudworth (1617–1688). I shall then discuss Henry More, to whom the major part of this chapter will be devoted. But before discussing the Cambridge school, a few words on the background.