- Eighteenth-Century Dissent and Cambridge Platonism: Reconceiving the Philosophy of Religion by Louise Hickman
Plato and Platonism held a significant place in British intellectual inquiry in the eighteenth century. Louise Hickman enters this largely unexplored territory with a valuable study of select elements in the theological and political arguments of certain British divines. She is particularly concerned to expose the limitations of familiar and narrowly-rational arguments that in the eighteenth century supported natural religion and theology, and to bring to the fore a countervailing rational theology that discovers in and for the human mind the eternal and immutable truth that is divine.
The principal figure in Hickman’s study is Richard Price, rational dissenting minister, friend of liberty and America, and author of The Review of the Principal Questions in Morals (1758; important third edition, 1787). With Plato in hand, Price put forward an argument for the existence of a divine first principle that is Mind, or truth itself, and an explanation of the power of the human mind to know this truth. Hickman explores Price in relation to a variety of figures engaged with theology, literature, and politics. Price had interests in common with the seventeenth-century theologians known as the Cambridge Platonists, and he comfortably drew ideas on moral epistemology from one in particular, Ralph Cudworth, author of The True Intellectual System of the Universe (1678) and A Treatise concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality (1731). With the Latitudinarian theologian Samuel Clarke, author of A Discourse concerning the Being and Attributes of God (1705) and A Discourse concerning the Unchangeable Obligations of Natural Religion (1706), Price shared an understanding that the divine first principle acts not in accordance with mere power and will, but solely in accordance with unalterable truth. In A Free Discussion of the Doctrines of Materialism, and Philosophical Necessity (1778), Price debated his friend Joseph Priestley, the religious and political radical with whom he disagreed about the material and spiritual aspects of the universe and the human mind, and about the value of Plato. And he befriended Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), who inclined toward Plato and, like Price himself, insisted that moral value is fundamental to the cosmos.
Hickman certainly adds to scholarly understanding of the history of the Platonic tradition. Yet, it is important to recognize that, indebted to Plato though they were, the figures she studies had a quite narrow interest in and understanding of Plato and Platonism. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, no one in Britain took up Plato as an historical philologist or historian of the Platonic tradition. When Thomas Stanley put together The History of Philosophy (1655), rather than explain Plato’s complete system, he simply and uncritically included the mid-second century Didaskalikos of Alcinous as a precis. With little attention to the entirety of Plato’s philosophy, or awareness of the generations of Platonic successors and the variety of their own ideas, Cudworth, Clarke, and Price drew loosely from the Phaedrus, Euthyphro, Theaetetus, Republic, and Laws, and also from the Didaskalikos. In fact, Price’s conception of Mind, the divine first principle, owes more to the reflections of Alcinous on the Timaeus than to Plato himself. British Platonists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who worked in the tradition of Platonism were Platonists in a strictly limited sense. They embraced Plato as a forebear and authority, but they were strategic and selective in what they took from him.
There is much to appreciate in this study. Hickman’s explanation of eighteenth-century arguments for the existence of God that claimed the status of scientific proof and justified belief in God on just such scientific grounds is useful. So, too, is her exposure of the often unrecognized political contexts and implications of theological inquiry that entailed the endorsement of both divine and secular power and will as the source and foundation of moral right and order. Clarke and Price offered the clear alternative of...