Cudworth, Boethius and the Scale of Nature

  • Sarah Hutton
Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas / Archives Internationales d’Histoire des Idées book series (ARCH, volume 150)


If frequency of citation is the criterion, Boethius is not a major source for Cudworth, even among the Platonic philosophers he quotes. Cudworth’s sources are famously, even infamously, eclectic: the majority of The True Intellectual System of the Universe (1678) consists of consensus gentium arguments drawn from a huge range of classical sources. Cudworth was after all one of the leading classical scholars of seventeenth-century England. In terms of the range and detail of his familiarity with classical sources, he may be viewed as a fifth-generation humanist. His humanism is not altogether of the cinquecento mould, for he examines the texts he quotes (Virgil, Euripedes, Stobaeus, Lucretius, Cicero, Plutarch and others) not with the eye of a philologist, but with the eye of a philosopher, pillaging them for doctrines and arguments from which to construct the taxonomy of true and false philosophy which constitutes The True Intellectual System. Furthermore, the philosophers with whom Cudworth enters into dialogue include not just the classics of ancient philosophy, Aristotle no less than Plato, but also the new philosophers of the seventeenth century, especially Hobbes and Descartes, but also Spinoza, Bacon, Lord Herbert and other un-named ‘moderns’. Cudworth’s use of modern philosophy is not all negative — though he is unquestionably hostile to Hobbes and Spinoza. His receptivity to the mechanical philosophy, however, is striking, both for his adoption of fundamental tenets of Cartesian natural philosophy and his critical examination of new arguments.


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  1. 1.
    T.E.I.M., reprinted in T.I.S.U., 3 vols (London, 1845), vol. 3, p. 646. On Cudworth and Descartes, see D. B. Sailor, ‘Cudworth and Descartes’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 23 (1962), pp. 133–40;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 1a.
    John Laird, ‘L’influence de Descartes sur la philosophie anglaise du dix-septième siècle,’ Revue philosophique de la France et de l’étranger, 123 (1937), pp. 226–56.Google Scholar
  3. 1b.
    A. Pacchi, Cartesio in Inghilterra, da More a Boyle (Bari: Laterza, 1973). It was even suggested by Saveson that the term ‘Cambridge Cartesians’ might be a more appropriate label for the Cambridge Platonists. See his ‘Differing Reactions to Descartes among the Cambridge Platonists’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 21 (1960), pp. 560–7. On Cudworth and the mechanical philosophy.Google Scholar
  4. 1c.
    see Alan Gabbey, ‘Cudworth, More and the Mechanical Analogy’, in R. Kroll, ed., Philosophy, Science and Religion in England, 1640–1700 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 109–127CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 1d.
    1d Tullio Gregory, ‘Studi sull’atomismo del seicento, III, Cudworth e l’atomismo’, Giornale critico della filosofia italiana, 46 (1967), pp. 528–541. On Cudworth’s classical sourcesGoogle Scholar
  6. 1e.
    1e see G. Aspelin, ‘Ralph Cudworth’s Interpretation of Greek Philosophy. A Study in the History of English Philosophical Ideas’, Gôteborgs Hôgskolas Arsskrift, 49 (1943), pp. 1–47.Google Scholar
  7. 2.
    Cudworth does, however make a qualified concession to empiricism: ‘Here in the first place we freely grant... that our Humane Cogitations, are indeed commonly Occasioned, by the Incursions of Sensible Objects upon us; as also, that the Concatenations of those Thoughts and Phantasms in us, which are distinguished from Sensations... do many times depend upon Corporeal and Mechanical Causes in the Brain. Notwithstanding which, that all our Cogitations, are Obtruded, and Imposed upon us from without; and that there is no Transition in our Thoughts at any time, but such as had been before in Sense. .. we absolutely deny’, T.I.S. U., p. 845. On Cudworth’s epistemology, see S. P. Lamprecht, ‘Innate Ideas in the Cambridge Platonists’, Philosophical Review, 35 (1926), pp. 553–573CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 2a.
    J. A. Passmore, Ralph Cudworth, an Interpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951) chapters 2 and 3. Also my Introduction to T.E.IM. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), and Marialuisa Baldi’s chapter in this volume.Google Scholar
  9. 3.
    T.E.I.M., op. cit., pp. 577–8.Google Scholar
  10. 4.
    Ibid., p. 579.Google Scholar
  11. 5.
    Ibid., p. 582.Google Scholar
  12. 6.
    Ibid., p. 631.Google Scholar
  13. 7.
    T.IS. U., op. cit., p. 850.Google Scholar
  14. 8.
    Ibid., p. 854.Google Scholar
  15. 9.
    Ibid., p. 862.Google Scholar
  16. 10.
    Ibid., p. 855–6.Google Scholar
  17. 11.
    Ibid., p. 856. This restates what Cudworth said ten pages earlier: ‘That there is no Scale or Ladder of Entity and Perfection in Nature, one above another; the whole Universe from top to bottom, being Nothing but One and the same Senseless Matter, diversely Modified.’ and that ‘Understanding’ is inferior to more solid matter. (ibid., p. 847)Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 855.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 857. Boethius, he writes, has ‘both Elegantly and Solidly Confuted’ this axiom in De Consolatione Philosophiae, book V, metrum 4.Google Scholar
  20. 14.
    Ibid., p. 857. Cudworth does not use the term spirit in this discussion, rather he uses the terms life, understanding, soul and mind interchangeably to describe the other substance besides body or matter which can act upon matter and which is, in order of being, superior to matter.Google Scholar
  21. 15.
    T.I.S. U. p. 858.Google Scholar
  22. 16.
    Ibid., p. 857.Google Scholar
  23. 17.
    Ibid., p. 858.Google Scholar
  24. 18.
  25. 19.
    Ibid., p. 648.Google Scholar
  26. 20.
    Compare T.E.I.M , op. cit., p. 628, where the same idea of ontological descent is applied to the human power of thought: ‘Now because every thing that is imperfect must needs depend upon something that is perfect in the same kind, our particular imperfect understandings, which do not always actually contain the rationes of things and their verities in them, which are many times ignorant, doubting, erring, and slowly proceed by discourse and ratiocination from one thing to another, must needs be derivative participations of a perfect, infinite and eternal intellect, in which is the rationes of things, and all universal verities are always actually comprehended’.Google Scholar
  27. 21.
    Discours, pt. 2. The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff and Dugald Murdoch (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1985), vol. I, p. 116.Google Scholar
  28. 22.
    Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Epistle to the Reader, ed. A. S. Pringle Patterson (Hassocks: Harvester Press, 1978), p. 7.Google Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1997

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  • Sarah Hutton

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