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Platonic Idealism in Modern Philosophy from Malebranche to Berkeley

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

Abstract

The revival of Platonism associated with Cambridge philosophers such as Henry More and Ralph Cudworth was in part a reaction against Calvinism with its stress on faith rather than reason and its pessimistic view of human nature. It was not, however, the only revival of Platonism in England in the late seventeenth century. There was another more broadly European revival that lasted well into the eighteenth century. This new Platonism was in some respects significantly different, both in its inspiration and in its nature, from that of Henry More and his associates. The Cambridge Platonists largely regarded Descartes and the mechanical philosophy as a challenge and even a threat to religious faith. The new Platonism, by contrast, had its beginnings in a new perspective on Descartes and the mechanical view of nature in which they came to be regarded as actually conducive to piety. This new perspective came to be quite widely shared thanks to the popularity of the writings of Malebranche in whose thought Cartesianism was harmonised with an Augustinian Christian philosophy and theology.

Keywords

Material Body Modern Philosophy Absolute Space Ancient Philosopher Early Eighteenth Century 
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Notes

  1. 1.
    I owe a general debt to the work of André Robinet for a sense of the importance of Malebranche for Leibniz’s philosophy. I am also indebted to Charles McCracken’s Malebranche and British Philosophy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983). Sarah Hutton has encouraged me to expect that Platonism continued to flourish in early eighteenth century England more than historians of the philosophy of that period have recognised. I am indebted for the discussion of an earlier draft of the paper at the Nantes Conference on “Le Monde des Platoniciens de Cambridge” in 1993, particularly to the contribution from Roselyne Degremont.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Clavis Universalis, or, a New Inquiry After Truth being a Demonstration of the Non-Existence, or Impossibility of an External World, (London: Gosling, 1713), ed. E. Bowman, (Chicago: Open Court, 1909), p. 100.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    “Materia est infima omnium rerum, & prope nihil” (“Matter is the lowest of all things, and strictly speaking, nothing”) (ibid, p. 97).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    See Siris 332. The unfashionable Renaissance Platonist sentiment is partially reflected also in the remark that “though, perhaps, it may not be relished by some modern readers, yet the treating in physical books concerning metaphysical and divine matters can be justified by great authorities among the ancients”. (Siris, 297).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    See Sect. IV below.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Acts 17: 18. As Stoic philosophers were listed among Paul’s audience the author of Acts of the Apostles may be presumed to have intended the phrase to be taken in a Stoic way. But Berkeley clearly interpreted the phrase in a Platonic way, assuming God to be a pure Spirit. See below, Section IV.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    See Recherche de la Vérité, III, ii, 6.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    The Berkeley citations include Philosophical Commentaries, 827, Principles of Human Knowledge, 66 and 149 and the title page of the Theory of Vision Vindicated. For citations in the Three Dialogues see A. A. Luce and T. E. Jessop (eds), The Works of George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, (Edinburgh: Nelson, 9 vols, 1948–57), Vol. 2, pp. 214 & 236.Google Scholar
  9. 8a.
    In the case of Collier some of the evidence is probably lost, but according to Robert Benson, who had access to the lost manuscripts, this was one of Collier’s “favourite maxims”. (Robert Benson, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of the Reverend Arthur Collier, (London: Lumley, 1837, reprinted Bristol: Thoemmes Antiquarian Books, 1990), pp. 54f.) One citation, from Collier’s Logology of 1832, is quoted by Benson (ibid., p. 76). Collier seems to have interpreted the “Platonic” passages of the Bible in the light of one another and took the early verses of John 1 to mean that God made all things by, through and in the Son. (Clavis, p. 104). He may have used Acts 17: 18 to support his unusual view that the whole creation existed not only by and through but in the Son of God.Google Scholar
  10. 9.
    This work is in a number ways reminiscent of a book by an English Neoplatonist of the early seventeenth century, Robert Fludd. In that book, called the Mosaicall Philosophy, Fludd had held that the true natural philosophy was to be found in a correct interpretation of the beginning of the Book of Genesis. The idea that Moses was a divinely inspired philosopher was much favoured by Renaissance Neoplatonists who linked Moses with Plato through various legends of which the most famous was that Plato learned his philosophy from the Hebrews. Collier, writing nearly a century later, did not pretend to extract the true science from the Book of Genesis but only the true metaphysics.Google Scholar
  11. 10.
    Robert Benson, op. cit., p. 55.Google Scholar
  12. 11.
    The term is not without its difficulties and controversies. In a way, too, it is misleading, since pantheists (e.g. Spinoza) also hold that all things are contained in God. It is necessary to make clear that panentheists do not think of this relationship as a part-whole one. Collier, accepting a Scholastic conception of “cause” as containing its effects, would naturally embrace panentheism as a consequence of God being the “first cause”. Thus he wrote that “... before these created minds, there is, or was, an uncreated mind, in which a whole heaven and earth existed, and does exist. ..” (Memoirs, p. 51). Berkeley, for his part, held that everything is contained in the Divine Intellect prior to being created, i.e. made perceptible. Since everything is contained in the Divine Intellect “from all eternity” it continues to be so contained after the Creation. (See Works, VIII 36).Google Scholar
  13. 12.
    Revelations 3: 14.Google Scholar
  14. 13.
    Collier, Arthur, A Specimen of True Philosophy: in a Discourse on Genesis, the First Chapter and the First Verse, (Sarum: Horton 1730),Google Scholar
  15. 13a.
    reprinted in Samuel Parr (ed.) Metaphysical Tracts by English Philosophers of the Eighteenth Century, (London: Lumley, 1887), p. 12.Google Scholar
  16. 14.
    Op. cit., pp. 13–4.Google Scholar
  17. 15.
    Assuming, as was generally done without question in this period, that causes are substances. Malebranche did not, however, deny human agency, though he restricted human freedom to a certain control over our thoughts. Leibniz included both Fludd and the occasionalists as among “those who deny a true and proper activity to created things”, (op. cit., Vol. IV, p. 509).Google Scholar
  18. 15a.
    (Leibniz, ed. C. I. Gerhardt, Die Philo sophischen Schriften von G. W. Leibniz, (Berlin, 7 vols, 1875–90), reprinted Hildesheim and New York: Olms 1978.Google Scholar
  19. 16.
    Recherche de la vérité, III. 2.6. in Œuvres complètes de Malebranche, (Paris: Vrin, 1958–67), Vol. 1, p. 439.Google Scholar
  20. 17.
    Bayle wrote in his famous article on Zeno: “Il est utile de savoir qu’un père de l’oratoire, aussi illustre par sa pieté que par ses lumières philosophiques, a soutenu que la foi nous convaine légitemement de l’existence des corps. La Sorbonne, ni aucun autre tribunal, ne lui a point fait d’affaires à cette occasion. Les inquisiteurs d’Italie n’en point fait à M. Fardella, qui a soutenu la même chose dans un ouvrage imprimé. Cela doit apprendre à mes lecteurs qu’il ne faut pas qu’ils trouvent étrange que je fasse voir quelquefois que sur les matières les plus mystérieuses de l’Évangile, la raison nous met à bout; et qu’alors nous devons nous contenter pleinement des lumières de la foi.” Dictionnaire historique et critique, (ed. 1820–24 Paris), Vol. XV, p. 52. (Reprinted Geneva: Slatkine, 1969).Google Scholar
  21. 18.
    Locke, John, An Examination of Pere Malebranche’s Opinion of Seeing All Things in God, Sect. 20, first published in King, P. (ed. 1706) Posthumous Works of Mr. John Locke, London, 1706.Google Scholar
  22. 19.
    Collier claims that to remove an external world is to quench the “very vital flame” of the “doctrine of transubstantiation”. (Clavis, p. 126) Berkeley makes a more oblique reference in Principles, section 124, where he claims that it would be impossible for the abstract idea of an infinitely invisible extension to gain the assent of any reasonable creature if “he was not brought to it by gentle and slow degrees, as a pagan convert to the belief of transubstantiation”. Google Scholar
  23. 20.
    Walter Graham, (ed.) Letters of Joseph Addison, (Oxford: OUP, 1941), p. 25, quoted in McCracken, Malebranche and British Philosophy, p. 32.Google Scholar
  24. 21.
    Addison’s oration Nova philosophia veter proeferenda est was not published until after his death. His tendency to a Modern Platonism seems to have been initially the influence of his teacher at the Charterhouse, Thomas Burnet, in whose honour he wrote a Platonic poem. His letter on Malebranche was addressed to John Hough, formerly President of Magdalen and perhaps himself a supporter of the new philosophy. The third orator was Richard Smallbroke, who himself became a Bishop of Lichfield.Google Scholar
  25. 22.
    One of Norris’s correspondents, Elizabeth Thomas, learnt French specially to be able to read Malebranche in the original. She defended his views about the love of God against the Lockean Richard Gwinnett. See Pylades and Corinna or, Memoirs of the lives amours, and writings of Richard Gwinett....and Elizabeth Thomas, (London, 1731), Volume 2, pp. 31–2.Google Scholar
  26. 23.
    André Robinet, Malebranche et Leibniz, (Paris: Vrin, 1955). See my Leibniz, (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1984), Ch. 7.Google Scholar
  27. 23a.
    See also my introduction to R. N. D. Martin and Stuart Brown, (eds) G. W. Leibniz: Discourse on Metaphysics and Related Writings, (Manchester: University Press, 1988Google Scholar
  28. 23b.
    “Malebranche’s Occasionalism and Leibniz’s Pre-established Harmony: an ‘Easy Crossing’ or an Unbridgeable Gap?” in Stuart Brown, (ed.) Nicolas Malebranche: His Philosophical Critics and Successors, (Assen/Maastricht: Van Gorcum, 1991), pp. 81–93.Google Scholar
  29. 24.
    Leibniz, Philosophische Schriften, Vol. IV, p.337.Google Scholar
  30. 25.
    “Cartesium attulisse aliqua egregia negari non potest, et recte inprimis Platonis studium revocasse abducendi mentem a sensibus, et Academicas dubitationes utiliter subinde adhibuisse ...”Op. cit., Vol. IV, p. 468.Google Scholar
  31. 26.
    Leibniz, ed. Deutsche Akademie der Wissenschaften, Sämtliche Schriften und Briefe, (Darmstadt and Leipzig; Akademie-Verlag, 1923—), Series VI, Vol. vi, pp. 47 and 70.Google Scholar
  32. 27.
    Leibniz, Philosophische Schriften, Vol. III, p. 568.Google Scholar
  33. 28.
    Op. cit., Vol. III, p. 637.Google Scholar
  34. 29.
    Op. cit., Vol. III, p. 659.Google Scholar
  35. 30.
    “Platonici posteriores ad loquendi portenta sunt lapsi; Aristotelicis, praesertim Scholasticis, movere magis questiones curae fuit, quam finire.” Op. cit., Vol. IV, p. 468.Google Scholar
  36. 31.
    “Ficinus et Patritius ont ensuivi Platon, mais mal à mon avis, parce qu’ils se sont jettés sur les pensées hyperboliques, et ont abandonné ce qui estoit plus simple et en même temps plus solide. Ficinus ne parle partout que d’idées, d’Ames du monde, de Nombres Mystiques et choses semblables, au lieu de poursuivre les exactes definitions, que Platon tache de donner des notions. Je souhaitterois que quelqu’un tirât des anciens le plus propre à l’usage et le plus conforme au goust de nostre siecle ...”. Op. cit., Vol. I, p. 380.Google Scholar
  37. 32.
    Russell, in his Critical Exposition of the Philosophy of Leibniz, (London: Allen and Unwin, 1900), accused Leibniz of being committed to both pantheism and determinism and of being much closer to Spinoza in his metaphysics than he cared to acknowledge.Google Scholar
  38. 33.
    “ ... à quoi peut servir tout ce grand artifice dans les substances, si non pour faire croire que les unes agissent sur les autres, quoique cela ne soit pas? En vérité, il me semble que ce système n’est guères plus avantageux que celui des Cartésiens; et si on a raison de rejetter le leur, parce qu’il suppose inutilement que Dieu considérent les mouvements qu’il produit lui-même dans le corps, produit aussi dans l’âme des pensées qui correspondent a ces movemens; comme s’il n’étoit pas plus digne que lui de produire tout d’un coup les pensées et les modifications de l’âme, sans qu’il y ait des corps qui lui servent comme de règle, et pour ainsi dire, lui aprennent ce qu’il doit faire; n’aura-t-on pas sujet de vous demander pourquoi Dieu ne se contente point de produire toutes les pensées et modifications de l’ame, soit qu’il le fasse immédiatement ou par artifice, comme vous voudriez, sans qu’il y ait des corps inutiles que 1”esprit ne sçauroit ni remuer ni connoistre?” (Leibniz, Philosophische Schriften, Vol. IV), p. 489.Google Scholar
  39. 34.
    Op. cit., Vol. IV, p. 495.Google Scholar
  40. 35.
    Op. cit., Vol. IV, p. 560.Google Scholar
  41. 36.
    John Norris, A Theory towards the Ideal or Intelligible World, (London: Manship, 1701) Vol. I, p. 4.Google Scholar
  42. 37.
    Op. cit., Vol. I, p. 14.Google Scholar
  43. 38.
    Op. cit., Vol. I, p. 134.Google Scholar
  44. 39.
    Op. cit., Vol. I, p. 191.Google Scholar
  45. 40.
    Op. cit., Vol. I, p. 207.Google Scholar
  46. 41.
    According to Benson, Collier Memoirs, p. 18. Some confirmation is provided by the “Credo” of July 14, 1709 in which Collier affirms that God is the efficient, formal, material and final cause of all things. He goes on to explain: “As material cause, etc., I mean the will that created is the very substantial matter of their being; in other words, that particulars, as such, have no distinct substances of their own, but only different forms of similitudes to the one true substance, which one substance is the common substratum to all particulars, which, as such, are creatures”. (Memoirs, p. 192). That doctrine excludes the possibility that matter is the substratum of physical things and seems to be directed against the scholastic notion of matter.Google Scholar
  47. 42.
    Partly for reasons of space I shall not attempt to bring this out in detail here. Nor can I hope to review the not inconsiderable literature on this topic. But in any case I believe the presumption of plagiarism is based on a mistake and there is no need to undertake to prove that Collier did not benefit from reading Berkeley’s Principles. It is sufficient to show, as I attempt to do, how their philosophies could have converged to the extent that they did.Google Scholar
  48. 43.
    Collier’s claim, in his Specimen of True Philosophy, that Berkeley”s Dialogues was the only other work that put forward views like his show him, if true, to be ill-read. He seems to have regarded discussion and correspondence as a good way to progress philosophy (Clavis, p. 123) and not to have been concerned with learning in the traditional manner.Google Scholar
  49. 44.
    Clavis, p. 6.Google Scholar
  50. 45.
    Memoirs, p. 55.Google Scholar
  51. 46.
    Op. cit., p. 192.Google Scholar
  52. 47.
    Acts of the Apostles, xvii, 29. See above, Notes 7–8.Google Scholar
  53. 48.
    Op. cit., p. 40. He later abuses his “Aristotelian reader” by saying that his (Aristotelian) studies have made him “long unqualified to receive or apprehend pure unbodied truths”. (op. cit., p. 130).Google Scholar
  54. 49.
    Clavis, p. 40.Google Scholar
  55. 50.
    Op. cit., p. 5.Google Scholar
  56. 51.
    Op. cit., p. 100.Google Scholar
  57. 52.
    Philosophical Commentaries, 290.Google Scholar
  58. 53.
    Principles, Section 92.Google Scholar
  59. 54.
    Philosophical Commentaries, 625Google Scholar
  60. 55.
    Collier’s purpose is not to attack scepticism, but he is anxious to defend himself against the charge of scepticism which it could be Norris made against him personally and which is represented as if it were an objection coming from Norris (Clavis, pp. 110ff.).Google Scholar
  61. 56.
    Collier, by contrast, regards it as a variation on a familiar (Augustinian) doctrine: “Everyone, I suppose, has heard of the doctrine of seeing the divine ideas, or (as Mr Malebranche expresses it), seeing all things in God”. (Clavis, p. 38f.).Google Scholar
  62. 57.
    Principles, Sect. 19.Google Scholar
  63. 58.
    Clavis, p. 60.Google Scholar
  64. 59.
    Op. cit., p. 103.Google Scholar
  65. 60.
    Berkeley does consider the objections that his teachings are contrary to the Bible but denies this, “I do not think, that either what philosophers call matter, or the existence of objects without the mind is any where mention”d in Scripture”. (Principles, Sect. 812).Google Scholar
  66. 61.
    Works, VIII 36.Google Scholar
  67. 62.
    Siris, 263.Google Scholar
  68. 63.
    Siris, 266.Google Scholar
  69. 64.
    Even if Berkeley was exaggerating his own Platonism, forgetting that on some matters (e.g. his account of mathematics) he had taken a view quite opposed to Platonism throughout his works.Google Scholar
  70. 65.
    Transcribed by Willy Kabitz in “Leibniz und Berkeley”, Sitzungsberichte der König Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1932, p. 635. The passage is translated in full in Brown, Leibniz, pp. 42–3 and 48.Google Scholar
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    Norris’s lack of debt to More’s philosophy is argued for in Acworth, Richard, The Philosophy of John Norris of Bemerton (1657–1712), (Hildesheim: Olms, 1979).Google Scholar
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    On Leibniz’s reception of More’s thought see my “Leibniz and More’s Cabbalistic Circle” in Sarah Hutton, (ed.) Henry More (1614–1687) Tercentenary Studies, (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 1990), pp. 77–95.Google Scholar
  73. 67.
    As is claimed by Catherine Wilson in her Leibniz’s Metaphysics (Manchester: University Press 1989).Google Scholar
  74. 68.
    Ralph Cudworth, T.I.S.U., I 3 xxxvii, 5.Google Scholar
  75. 69.
    Op. cit., p. 147.Google Scholar
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    Leibniz, Philosophische Schriften, VI 544.Google Scholar
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    C.S.P.W., quoted in Ernst Cassirer, trans. J. P. Pettigrove, The Platonic Renaissance in England, (Cambridge University Press, 1950), p. 84.Google Scholar
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    “Moral and Religious Aphorisms”, No. 129, quoted from C. A. Patrides, (ed.) The Cambridge Platonists, (London: Edward Arnold, 1969), p. 328.Google Scholar
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    T.E.I.M., I ii 3, p. 17.Google Scholar
  80. 74.
    See, for instance, Descartes’ Reply to the Objections of Mersenne, Œuvres de Descartes, (eds. C. Adam and P. Tannery) (Paris: Vrin, 12 vols. 1964–76), IX A 432. See Leibniz’s Discours de Métaphysique, Sect. 2.Google Scholar
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    I have enlarged on this topic in “The Regularization of Providence in post-Cartesian Philosophy”, in Robert Crocker, (ed.), Religion, Reason and Nature in Early Modern Europe, (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, forthcoming).Google Scholar
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    Discours de métaphysique, 2.Google Scholar
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    Norris, A Theory towards the Ideal in Intelligible World, Vol. I, p. 314.Google Scholar
  84. 78.
    Discours de métaphysique, 9.Google Scholar
  85. 79.
    Principles, Section 108.Google Scholar
  86. 80.
    Siris, 252.Google Scholar

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  • Stuart Brown

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