Cassirer, Ernst. The Platonic Renaissance in England. Trans. James Pettegrove. Austin: U of Texas P, 1953.

(excerpted by Clifford Stetner)

CHAPTER FIVE                                                                                                    



As long as empiricism claimed to be unmolested in the sphere of natural science, there was always the danger that from this stronghold it would invade the realm of intelligible being, the province of ethics and religion. It was therefore in sheer self- defence that the Cambridge men were forced to extend their investigation even into the sphere of natural science.

?opposed empiricism because its sensualist theory of knowledge seemed to preclude all access to religious experience and threatened to divest such experience of its real meaning.


?empiricism?Does it rule legitimately here? Or has it not merely usurped that control over natural science to which it lays claim? By its decision in favour of the latter alternative the Cambridge School takes upon itself a new task.


Magic and occultism, stories of ghosts and apparitions, are included in a doctrine of nature and displayed as welcome evidences of the spirituality of nature.

?the Cambridge Platonists, who in the sphere of religious doctrine stood for the inalienable prerogative of reason, renounce and betray reason just at the point where they undertake an explanation of nature. Though they were rational in respect to religion, they are mystic and cabalistic in respect to nature.


?the farther he followed Descartes the greater became his aversion to his teachings until at length he publicly repudiate d them. This meant not only a renunciation o the content of the Cartesian doctrine, but also of its methodological spirit. It meant that More had broken with the strongest and most fruitful scientific force of the seventeenth century, exact mathematics.


Leibniz?s spiritualism could never become the adversary of mathematics, for it is founded upon this science as its strongest support.


The philosophers of antiquity took as their starting-point the concept, and not the law; and they looked upon becoming as the antithesis of that strict identity required by the concept. Becoming was confined to the world of phenomena, of appearances in flux, whereas the sphere of the intelligible, of noumena, was closed to becoming. As opinion is to knowledge, so is becoming to being.

Galileo, as a convinced Platonist, can venture the transference of motion itself to the realm of ideas. The Cambridge School could neither accomplish this step nor appraise its real significance.


?although they constantly debate the question of the relation of the ideal to the real, of mind to reality; yet they never put this question in its purely epistemological, but only in its metaphysical sense. Their problem is not whether and in what manner purely ideal knowledge, as exemplified by mathematics, conditions and makes possible knowledge of ht real and of nature; but whether the origin of motion is to be sought in matter or in an immaterial, spiritual power.

Possibility would mean that something in the highest being does not yet exist, or is still undeveloped. But any such assumption contradicts the absolute completion which we attribute to the most real. One can understand how this completion as a final stage may diminish, how it may gradually decline according to a given scale, and finally sink to the limits of not-being. But the reverse process, the derivation of the higher form the lower, is incomprehensible.


The atomistic view is thus from the first eliminated form Plotinus?s system as a principle for the explanation of nature. It is as hard to explain the world as a collection of atoms, as it is to understand the sense of a poem, say the Iliad as a collection of letters. In both cases the form is the absolute prius in respect to matter; the whole is prior to the parts and cannot therefore be derived form them.

It is impossible that a chance concurrence of bodies should bring about life, and that the non-mental should beget mind'? for mind is rather the first lawgiver, or, more correctly speaking, the law of being itself.

?The most irrational theory of all is that an aggregation of molecules should produce life, that elements without intelligence should beget intelligence.? Plotinus, ?Of the Immortality of the Soul,? Ennead IV, bk. Vii, ch. 2


?Cudworth? ?no Effect can possibly transcend the Power of its Cause. Wherefore it is certain that in the Universe, things did not thus ascend  and mount, or Climb up from Lower Perfection to Higher, but on the contrary, Descend and Slide down from Higher to Lower, so that the first Original of all things, was not the most Imperfect, but the most Perfect Being. But?it is certain?that Life and Sense could never possibly spring, out of Dead and Senseless Matter?

Much less could Understanding and Reason in men, ever have emerged out of Stupid matter, devoid of all manner of Life?for according to the Doctrine of the Pagan Theists, Mind was the Oldest of all things, Senior to the World and Elements; and by Nature hath Princely and Lordly Dominion over all. But according to those Atheists, who make Matter or Body void of all Life and Understanding, to be the first Principle, Mind must be a Post-Nate thing, Younger than the world; a Weak, Umbratil, and Evanid Image, and next to Nothing.

A Perfect Understanding Being, is the Beginning and Head of the Scale of eternity; form whence things Gradually Descend downward; lower and lower, till they end in Senseless Matter?Mind is the Oldest of all things, Senior to the Elements, and the whole Corporeal World; and like wise;?by Nature Lord over all, or hath a Natural Imperium and Dominion over all; it being the most Hegemonical thing.


The being and agency of the individual soul can be understood only under the assumption of the being and agency of the World-Soul. The proof of the existence of the World-Soul again, follows very closely the reasoning of Plotinus. If all being endowed with soul existed only in that form in which it appears in sentient and thinking individuals, it would then follow that the most despicable animal which can see and enjoy the sun would possesses a higher degree of being and perfection than all the heavenly bodies put together. Yet the sun, on the other hand, as the source of life and warmth has so great an influence on the well-being of the entire universe, including all plants and animals, that it would seem to be something far more noble and necessary in the world that any particular living creature. Hence the soul, taken in its widest and most general sense, is not so much the principle of self-consciousness as the principle of life and of living forms. It is the creating and generating force in all organic processes; it weaves the living robe of the Godhead. In his philosophical poems Henry More tried to give a poetic representation of this panpsychism. The soul sits at the loom and causes an unceasing flux of images to issue from itself. It is for ever creating forms, and it is concealed from us behind the profusion of its forms. We never see the soul itself, but only its cloak and drapery. All plant and animal, all vegetative and sensitive being is the creation of the unceasing activity of this vital force; all growth and decay are included in this creation. What we call nature is but the appearance of the original creativity, the fabric and veil which it had woven about itself. The essence of the soul lies in this vitality, which cannot be derived form materiality or corporeality, but forms on the contrary the foundation and source of the material world. Once more the original attitude towards nature of the Renaissance, its vitalism and dynamism, now are revived in full force in opposition to the materialism and mechanism of Hobbes's philosophy of nature.


?all events in the universe depend not on forces operating form without, but on a forming principle from within, an original ?Plastick nature?. This nature operates unconsciously, and hence is not to be equated to God?s being, to the highest intelligence which controls and guides the cosmos. But it is the medium employed by God Himself.


It is that reason which governs the motion of the heavenly bodies as well as the growth of plants and the instincts and appetites of animals.

?the rule of form is seen as the rule of design, for even the unconscious processes of nature are teleologically ordered and determined. Teleological activity is most clearly and completely seen in the will and intention of man, but it is by no means confined to this its highest externalisation.

?the Divine Law and command, by which the things of Nature are administered, must be conceived to be the Real Appointment of some Energetick, Effectual and Operative Cause for the Production of every Effect?wherefore since neither all things are produced fortuitously or by the unguided Mechanism of matter, nor God himself may reasonably be thought to do all things Immediately and Miraculously, it may well be concluded, that there is a Plastick Nature under him, which as an Inferior and Subordinate Instrument doth drudgingly execute that Part of his Providence which consists in the Regular and Orderly Motion of Matter: yet so as that there is also besides this a Higher Providence to be acknowledged, which presiding over it doth often supply the Defects of it, and sometimes overrule it; forasmuch as this Plastick Nature cannot act Electively nor with Discretion?Nature is not the Divine Art Archetypal, but only, Ectypal, it is a living Stamp or Signature of the Divine Wisdom, which though it act exactly according to the Archetype, yet it doth not at all Comprehend nor Understand the Reason of what it self doth.? Cudworth, True intellectual System, bk. I, ch. 3


?of Descartes??if one gives due consideration to More?s presuppositions, it is the initial praise that is paradoxical?

Descartes in his philosophy of nature is seeking complete mathematical knowledge and control of nature. He does not wish, like Cudworth and More, to ?contemplate the power and seed of all activity?. He would analyse phenomena in order to subject them to his newly-discovered method, the method of mathematical analysis.

?all natural phenomena wold have to be reduced to exact laws, and all special laws wold in turn have to be subordinated to one supreme purely quantitative principle. Descartes discovered the principle which assured the application of mathematics to nature in his law of the conservation of the quantity of motion. All the special laws of nature follow from this principle.

?constancy of the product of mass-times-velocity?


?Ce qui passe la geometrie nous surpasse? (what is beyond geometry is beyond us)?Pascal?

The possibility of the geometrical interpretation of natural phenomena would cease, of but a single phenomenon could be conceived otherwise than according to purely quantitative laws...

?the very unity of Descartes? method which required the duality of substances, and compelled him to assign mental and corporeal being to two different worlds.


According to Descartes any life, not of the form of thought, and not of the kind of reflective knowledge such as prevails in man, is mere illusion. Since animals are wanting in this kind of self-knowledge, they are also deprived of sensation; they are mere automata. A complete bifurcation of nature takes place. The logical mathematical spirit has retired into itself; it has excluded all other forms, and abandoned them to mere mechanism.

?Cambridge Platonists?saw the rupture of that spiritual bond which olds their world together. If the soul is prevented from affecting the corporeal world, then it has lost both substance and sense. For the sense of the soul becomes manifest in its agency, in its plastic activity. The soul is only in so far as it moves body?

?the principle, of motion?

?the self-moving?


Descartes concludes that soul cannot affect body because the two are of entirely different natures. Cudworth and more conclude that, strictly speaking, no body can affect any other precisely because they are both of the same nature, because they are passive, not active.

The norm of Descartes lies in logic and epistemology, whole the norm of the Cambridge men lies in metaphysics and theology.

Descartes had established this axiom because his problem was to obtain a strictly quantitative measure of interaction, and because if the one was to be measured by the other, cause and effect had to be conceived as strictly homogeneous. But though mathematics demands this homogeneity, metaphysics calls for heterogeneity. Activity in the sense of genuine creation must be of another kind than its product, because it is by nature superior to the latter. The process of metaphysical activity, according to the system of Plotinus, which Cudworth and More follow, proceeds form above to below.


Henry More?Enchiridion metaphysicum?For what is that extension in which, according to Descartes, the essence of matter and the substance of the corporeal world are supposed to consist? Is it really something of the same kind as corporeal being? Or is it not rather something fundamentally different?indeed, in all its properties, diametrically opposite? What specifications of we then encounter in pure extension? Do we conceive it as corporeal being? Or is it not rather presented to us as pa purely intelligible substance? In response to these queries More?s spiritualism launches its decisive attack upon Descartes?s ?mathematicism? and ?logicism?.


?paradoxical?that just this argument, with which the Cambridge men believed they could check the progress of exact physical science, was the very one destined to survive?

?Henry More?s spiritualistic doctrine of space which decisively influenced Newton?s doctrine of space and paved the way for his doctrine of absolute space.


The metaphysical consideration of space, then, tells us that it is one and simple, eternal and complete, that it is independent and self-existent, infinite and indestructible, uncreated and omnipresent.

?are they not rather the determinations of the Godhead itself?


?it is only through being in space that God can embrace and affect the being of all things. On the basis of this reasoning More can deliberately boast that he has brought god back into the world by the same gate through which Descartes took Him out.


?Leibniz?writes to Remond, ?I fell upon the writings of the moderns, and I can still remember going for a walk one day at the age of fifteen in a little wood near Leipzig called Rosental, and on this walk I reflected whether I should retain substantial forms. Mechanism finally triumphed and induced me to dedicate myself to mathematics, into whose depths, to be sure, I did not penetrate until later under Huyghens, whose acquaintance I made in Paris. But when I sought the ultimate grounds of mechanism and of the laws of motion themselves, I saw to my surprise that it was not possible to find them in mathematics, and that I should have to return to metaphysics.?


?I have found that most philosophical sects are in the main right in their positive assertions, but not in their denials. The formalists, like the Platonists and the Aristotelians, are right in seeking the source of things in formal or final causes, but they are wrong when they neglect the efficient and material causes and, like Henry More and some of the other Platonists, conclude that there are phenomena which cannot be accounted form on mechanical principles. The materialists and all those who devote themselves exclusively to the mechanistic philosophy, are wrong, however, in rejecting all metaphysical considerations and admitting only such explanations as are valid in the sphere of sense perception.


?Leibniz?Cambridge thinkers. The latter approach the platonic world form the angle of metaphysics and theology? [the former] sees the Platonic doctrine of ideas in a new light. He was the first European thinker to emancipate himself inwardly form that conception of Platonism devised by the Florentine Academy, and to see Plato again with his own eyes. He protested especially against that syncretism which confused Plato?s original thought with later admixtures and made a medley of Platonic and neo-Platonic elements.

?We cannot judge Plato?s teachings by Plotinus or Marsilio Ficino, for they have perverted his fundamental doctrine in their scurryings after the miraculous and the mystical. One cannot but be astonished at human short-sightedness when one observes how the later Platonists leave in the dark the excellent and profound teachings of the master regarding virtue, justice, and the state, and on the art of definition and classification of concepts, the knowledge of the eternal verities and the innate ideas of the mind. Instead, these men heed only what Plato said when he gave free rein to his genius and spoke rather as a poet than as a philosopher about the world-soul, the subsistence of ideas, independently of things, about the purifications of the soul, and so forth. All this was zealously snatched up by Plato?s disciples and adulterated and decked out with many an added fancy. For all the neo-Pythagorean and Neoplatonic philosophers were given to superstition and were for ever in pursuit of miracles, whether this was because of a lack of mental talent, or in order to gain admiration, or to be able to compete with the Christians with whom they had to contend.


Platonic forces affect Ficino and Pico, and Cudworth and More; but their operation is not less strong, while clearer and purer, in Kepler, Galileo and Leibniz. The former are especially concerned with Plato?s doctrine of love and beauty; the latter with Plato?s theory of knowledge? The former read the Symposium, the Phaedrus and the Timaeus; the latter the Meno, the Theatetetus and the Sophist.