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The Religious Rationalism of Benjamin Whichcote

From: Journal of the History of Philosophy
Volume 37, Number 2, April 1999
pp. 271-300 | 10.1353/hph.2008.0832

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The Religious Rationalism of Benjamin Whichcote MICHAEL B. GILL 1. INTRODUCTION MOST PHILOSOPHERS TODAY have never heard of Benjamin Whichcote (16o 9- 83), and most of the few who have heard of him know only that he was the founder of Cambridge Platonism. ~ He is well worth learning more about, however. For Whichcote was a vital influence on both Ralph Cudworth and the Third Earl of Shaftesbury, through whom he helped shape the views of Clarke and Price, on the one hand, and Hutcheson and Hume, on the other. Whichcote should thus be seen as a grandparent of both the rationalist and the sentimentalist strands of eighteenth century British ethical theory. In this paper, I will elucidate the particular ethical positions of Whichcote's that played such an important role. Whichcote's thought is interesting in its own right, moreover, as a lens for examining the implications of certain prevalent religious and moral commit- ments. In what follows, then, I will also seek to show that Whichcote's pro- foundly theistic view of human nature is ultimately incompatible with the belief that is fundamental to his Christianity. Perhaps the idea of an irresolvable conflict between Whichcote's Christianity and his theism sounds at first a bit paradoxical. I hope, though, that by the end of this paper it will be clear how, for many seventeenth century rationalists, such a conflict was virtu- ally inevitable. 2 ~An important recent work on Whichcote is Chap. 4 of Frederick Beiser's The Sovereignty of Reason (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996 ). Chap. lO of J. B. Schneewind's The Invention of Autonom~ (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998) is also a noteworthy contribution. Beiser, Schneewind and Stephen Darwall's The British Moralists and the Internal 'Ought' (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995) all do an excellent job of explaining the seventeenth century philosophical context of Whichcote's thought. ~All references to Whichcote, unless otherwise noted, are to Benjamin Whichcote, The Works (first published in 1751 [London:J. Chalmers] ; reprinted in 1977 [New York: Garland Publishing, [271 ] 272 JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY 37:~ APRIL 1999 2. RELIGION IS RATIONAL The most central claim of Whichcote's, the thought around which all his other thoughts coalesce, is that religion is rational.3 To understand Whichcote, there- fore, we must determine what this claim amounts to. We can begin by noting that religion, for Whichcote, constitutes all and only those things necessary for salvation.4 So when Whichcote says that reli- gion is rational he is maintaining that everything one needs to do in order to achieve heavenly eternal life is rational to do. If something is not rational to do, conversely, then it must not be part of religion and so one could refrain from doing it and yet still achieve salvation. Let us say that this view -- that religion consists of all and only those things necessary for salvation -- is of the form of religion. Whichcote also has a view of what we can call the content of religion, i.e., a view of the particular rational things one must do in order to achieve salvation. Indeed, as one would expect, the lion's share of Whichcote's sermons concerns religion's content. We will discuss Whichcote's account of the content of religion below, in sections 5, 6, and 7. First, however, let us examine what he means when he insists on the rationality of religion. Whichcote's rationalism should initially be viewed against the backdrop of voluntarism. According to voluntarism, God has arbitrarily decided to reward certain actions and punish others. There is, on the voluntarist view, nothing intrinsically right about the actions God rewards and nothing intrinsically wrong about the actions God punishes. He just as easily could have made a different decision, could have rewarded the actions He now punishes and Inc.]). The first (Roman) numeral of each reference refers to the volume (I-IV) of the Works, the second (Arabic) numeral refers to the page number of that volume. It should be noted, however, that it is quite possible that some of the sermons collected in the 1751 Works (or some passages of them anyway) were not in...