Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cudworth, Ralph

CUDWORTH, RALPH (1617–1688), divine, was born at Aller, Somersetshire, in 1617. His father, Dr. Ralph Cudworth (d. 1624), had been fellow of Emmanuel College, lecturer of St. Andrew's, Cambridge, vicar of Coggeshall, rector of Aller, a college living, and chaplain to James I. His mother, whose name was Machell, had been nurse to Henry, prince of Wales, and after Dr. Cudworth's death married Dr. Stoughton. Ralph Cudworth was educated by Stoughton; admitted pensioner at Emmanuel 9 May 1632, and became B.A. 1635, M.A. 1639. He was elected fellow of his college 9 Nov. 1639, and became a popular tutor, having the then unusual number of twenty-eight pupils, one of whom was Sir W. Temple. He graduated as B.D. in 1646, when he maintained theses upon the ethical and philosophical questions afterwards discussed in his writings. In 1645 he was appointed, by parliamentary authority, master of Clare Hall, in place of Dr. Pashe, ejected by the parliamentary visitors; and on 15 Oct. 1645 was unanimously elected to the regius professorship of Hebrew. He held this office until his death. Cudworth became a leader among the remarkable group generally known as the ‘Cambridge Platonists.’ Among his contemporaries at Emmanuel were Nathanael Culverwel |[q. v.], John Smith (author of ‘Select Discourses’), Wallis, the famous mathematician, Benjamin Whichcote, and John Worthington. Smith and Wallis became fellows of Queens' College, and all the others of Emmanuel. Cudworth was especially intimate with Worthington, in whose diaries, published by the Chetham Society, are several references to him. The whole party was open-minded on political questions of the day. On 31 March 1647 Cudworth preached a sermon before the House of Commons, published with a dedication to the house, omitted in later editions. It protests against the exaggerated importance attributed by the puritans to dogmatic differences. On 3 Oct. 1650 he was presented to the college living of North Cadbury, Somersetshire, vacant by the resignation of Whichcote (information from the master of Emmanuel), and was created D.D. in 1651. Worthington expresses a fear (6 Jan. 1651) that Cudworth may be forced to leave Cambridge ‘through want of maintenance.’ He appears to have had a difficulty in obtaining the stipend for his mastership at Clare (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1655, p. 133, 1655–6, p. 82). On 29 Oct. 1654, however, he was elected master of Christ's College, upon the death of Samuel Bolton [q. v.], and married directly afterwards. Upon the Restoration he had some difficulty in obtaining a confirmation of this appointment. On 15 Nov. 1655 he and other learned men were consulted by a committee of council upon the application of the Jews for admission to England (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1655–6, p. 23), and in the same year took part in preparing statutes for Durham College (ib. 218). Cudworth, whose Hebrew learning was profound, was an ‘adviser’ of Brian Walton [q. v.] and his friends when they were preparing their great ‘Polyglot-Bible’ (1654–7). On 16 Jan. 1656–7 he considered with a committee of the House of Commons a proposed revision of the translation of the Bible. They met frequently at Whitelocke's house; but their labours ended with the dissolution of parliament (Whitelocke, Memorials, 1732, p. 654). Cudworth was intimate with Cromwell's secretary Thurloe, to whom he recommended many young men for preferment. On 20 Jan. 1658–9 he asks leave of Thurloe to dedicate to Richard Cromwell, ‘to whose noble father,’ he adds, ‘I was much obliged,’ a treatise on the book of Daniel which he is proposing to publish.

On the Restoration Cudworth contributed a copy of Hebrew verses to the ‘Academiæ Cantabrigiensis Sōstra,’ a volume of congratulatory poems to Charles II. In 1662 he was presented by Bishop Sheldon to the rectory of Ashwell, Hertfordshire. Cudworth was thinking of publishing an ethical treatise in 1665, when some difficulty arose between him and Henry More, whose ‘Enchiridion Ethicum’ seemed likely to clash with his own book. More's book did not appear till 1668, when it was published in Latin to avoid clashing with Cudworth. Cudworth's did not appear at all, unless it be identical with his posthumous treatise on morality (see below). It was not till 1678 that Cudworth at last published his great work on the ‘Intellectual System,’ although the imprimatur is dated 29 May 1671. Cudworth was installed prebendary of Gloucester in 1678. He died 26 June 1688, and was buried in Christ's College chapel. His sons included John (d. 1726), fellow of Christ's, and Charles (d. 1681) who went to India; a daughter Damaris (b. 18 Jan. 1658), second wife of Sir Francis Masham, was known as the friend of Locke.

Cudworth's works are:

  1. ‘Discourse concerning the true notion of the Lord's Supper,’ 1642, a short treatise of great learning intended to prove that the Lord's Supper was not properly a sacrifice, but a ‘feast upon sacrifice.’
  2. ‘The Union of Christ and the Church a Shadow, by R.C.,’ 1642.
  3. ‘Sermon preached before the House of Commons, 31 March 1647.’
  4. ‘The Christian's Victory, a sermon.’
  5. ‘The true Intellectual System of the Universe, wherein all the reason and philosophy of Atheism is confuted and its impossibility demonstrated,’ 1678, fol. It is said to have been so incorrectly printed that ‘no three lines of Greek can be found without an error.’ An edition in 2 vols. 4to, 1743, contains the life by T. Birch. It was reprinted in 1820 in 4 vols. 8vo. A later edition, with a translation by John Harrison of Mosheim's notes, appeared in 1845. Mosheim's Latin translation with notes and dissertations appeared at Jena 1733, and at Leyden 1773. An abridgment by the Rev. Thomas Wise was published in 1706.
  6. ‘A Treatise concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality,’ with a preface by Edward [Chandler], bishop of Durham, 1731. This treatise, published from a manuscript belonging to Cudworth's grandson, Francis Cudworth Masham, master in chancery, is an argument for the independence of the intellect upon sense, partly developed from Plato's ‘Theætetus.’

A good account of Cudworth's great book is in Hallam's ‘Literature of Europe’ (iii. 304–7). Cudworth is probably the most learned, able, and sensible of his school. The book is in form as much historical as argumentative. The fourth chapter, which is more than half the book, is intended to show that a primitive monotheistic creed was implied in the ancient paganism. The rest of the book is devoted to a consideration of the various forms of atheism held by the ancient philosophers, with an elaborate reply to their arguments. Cudworth was undoubtedly aiming at Hobbes, the great contemporary advocate of materialist philosophy, but his discussion generally takes the shape of an attack upon Democritus, Strabo, and Lucretius, and a defence of Plato and Aristotle. Though abandoning the old scholasticism, he scarcely appreciates the modern theories of Bacon, Descartes, and Spinoza (see a curious reference to Spinoza's ‘Tractatus’ in Works, 1820, iii. 354), and thus appears rather antiquated for his time. His profound learning in the ancient philosophy did not lead him, like his friend Henry More, into the mysticism of the later platonists. His candid statement of the atheist's argument probably suggested an often quoted remark of Dryden (dedication of the Æneid) that Cudworth ‘raised such strong objections against the being of a God and Providence, that many think he hath not answered them.’ Many readers probably stopped short of the fifth chapter, which contains Cudworth's answer in detail. Shaftesbury (Moralists, ii. § 3) suggests that the imputation was the natural consequence of Cudworth's fairness. His most original theory as to a ‘plastic nature’ provoked a famous controversy. The doctrine, which has some resemblance to modern philosophies of the ‘Unconscious’ (see chap. iii. § 16), was intended to meet the dilemma of mere chance on one hand, or a constant divine interference on the other. Le Clerc having given some specimens of the book in the ‘Bibliothèque Choisie,’ Bayle, in his ‘Continuation des Pensées diverses sur les Comètes,’ maintained that Cudworth's hypothesis weakened the argument against atheism by admitting of an originating action in nature. Le Clerc replied in the ‘Bibliothéque Choisie,’ and Bayle in the ‘Ouvrages des Sçavants’ (see Bayle, Œuvres Diverses, iii. 216, 285, 886, iv. 181, 853, 861, &c.). Bayle is generally thought to have had the best of the discussion. In 1848 M. Paul Janet, the well-known philosophical writer, published ‘De Plasticâ Naturæ Vitâ, &c.,’ an essay upon Cudworth's theory, which had been proposed as a subject by the faculty of Paris. The best recent account of Cudworth is in Dr. Martineau's ‘Types of Ethical Theory,’ 1885 (ii. 396–424).

Cudworth left many other manuscripts, of which a full account is given in Birch's ‘Life.’ They were ultimately sold (Nichols, Lit. Anecd. ix. 276), and are now in the British Museum (Addit. MSS. 4978–87). Five volumes are upon freewill and ethics; two others contain his discussion of the prophecies of Daniel. This is highly praised by Henry More (Grand Mystery of Godliness, pref. p. xvi). Others contain miscellaneous notes. The first of these (No. 4978) was published in 1838, with a preface by the Rev. John Allen, as ‘Ethical Works of Ralph Cudworth, Part I.,’ a ‘Treatise on Freewill.’ No more appeared. Cudworth contributed poems to the ‘Carmen Notabilitium,’ 1636; ‘Oliva Pacis,’ 1654; ‘Academiæ Cantabrigiensis Σῶστρα,’ 1660.

The main authority for Cudworth's life is the preface to Mosheim's Latin version of his works, for which, as Professor J. E. B. Mayor has shown in the Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society (1856), materials were provided by the Cambridge antiquary, Thomas Baker; a fuller account will be found in Tulloch's Rational Theology (2nd ed.), ii. 192–302; the present Master of Emmanuel has kindly given information from the College Registers. See also Robertson's Hobbes, 215–17; Life of Archbishop Sharp, i. 13; Patrick's Autobiography, p. 11; Chauncy's Hertfordshire, p. 30; Thurloe State Papers, v. 522; Le Neve's Fasti, i. 449; Nichols's Illustrations, ii. 127–9 (Warburton's Letter to Birch); Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. vii. 230.]

L. S.