Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
Critical Introduction by A. I. Fitzroy
Ralph Cudworth (16171688)
[Ralph Cudworth was born at Aller in Somersetshire in 1617. His father, also a learned man, died in 1624, and his mother then married Dr. Stoughton, who took the greatest pains with his step-sons education. In 1630 he went to Emmanuel College, Cambridge. In 1640, after a brilliant university career, he was presented to the Rectory of North Cadbury, Somersetshire. He was not long a parish priest, for in 1644 he was appointed Master of Clare and stopped at Cambridge, almost without break, for the remaining forty-four years of his life. He was, in 1645, appointed Regius Professor of Hebrew; in 1654, Master of Christs; and in 1678 Prebendary of Gloucester Cathedral. He died in 1688.
Cudworth is best known by his True Intellectual System of the Universe (1678), and his Treatise on Eternal and Immutable Morality (not published till 1731). He also wrote a Discourse concerning the true Notion of the Lords Supper, a Treatise of Free Will, a couple of sermons, and a work on Daniels prophecy of the LXX weeks.]
CUDWORTH belonged to the group of scholars and theologians known as the Cambridge Platonists. Henry More, John Smith, Benjamin Whichcote, besides other more or less well known men being of this group. Their chief aim was to defend the freedom of the will against Hobbes and Descartes.
Our authors True Intellectual System of the Universe, wherein all the reason and philosophy of atheism is confuted, and its impossibility demonstrated, is a careful presentment of the various ancient hypotheses as to the nature of the universe, read in the light of the materialistic philosophies of his day. Ueberweg speaks of it as being at once the most learned and for the time the most critical work, on the history of ancient philosophy which had ever been produced by any English writer. The style is strong and nervous, generally clear and forceful, sometimes even eloquent and graphic. There is every evidence of clearness of head and coolness of judgment about the work. The writer is perhaps open to the charge of making too great a display of learning, but this is a better fault than ignoring all quotation and despising all accuracy of reference.
In the Treatise concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality Cudworth purported to defend the freedom of the will against Atheists, Deists, and Christian Theists; he only completed the first part, however, namely, that against Atheists. The subject is carefully and exhaustively argued, temperately but unflinchingly. The language is occasionally antiquated, and the general style heavier than that of the Intellectual System.
The Treatise of Free Will is perhaps the most highly finished and generally attractive of Cudworths philosophical writings. It was suggested by Hobbes letter to the Marquis of Newcastle. His criticisms are clear and pertinent, the flow of his remarks is not interrupted, as in the Intellectual System, by over much quotation from other writers. He is severe in controversy, but never discourteous nor irrelevant.
All Cudworths writings may be called theological, seeing that the being and nature of God, and the moral responsibility of man, form the chief themes of his philosophical works. Of more specially theological writing we have from him two sermons, and a work on the Lords Supper.
His sermons are characterised by great breadth of view, which won for him the epithet Latitudinarian in his day, and which would now-a-days cause him to be described as a Broad Church man. Their style is fine; their diction pure and for the most part simple; their principal fault, and that a serious one, is their great length.
Cudworths works deserve to be studied by the modern student of English literature, not only for the excellence of their style but for the value of their contents. Many of his strictures upon the materialistic philosophies of his own and of a bygone day still bear on latter-day controversies, while his exhortations to live the Christ-like life rather than wrangle over doctrinal niceties would not come amiss in these times of party shibboleths.