Ralph Cudworth

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Ralph Cudworth.

Ralph Cudworth (1617 – 26 June 1688) was an English classicist, theologian and philosopher, a leading figure among the Cambridge Platonists.[1] From a family background embedded in the early nonconformist environment of Emmanuel College in the University of Cambridge, where he studied, he became Regius Professor of Hebrew 1645-88, Master of Clare Hall 1645-54 and Master of Christ's College 1654-88. His great work, entitled The True Intellectual System of the Universe, was published in 1678. He was a leading opponent of Thomas Hobbes.


Origins and early life[edit]

Ralph Cudworth's father, Dr. Ralph Cudworth (born 1572), derived from the Cudworths of Werneth Hall in Lancashire.[2] The family originated in Cudworth near Barnsley, Yorkshire, and came to Werneth by the marriage of John Cudworth to Margaret, daughter and coheiress of Richard Oldham, during the early 15th century.[3] Ralph Cudworth the elder matriculated from Emmanuel College in the University of Cambridge in 1588/89, and graduating B.A. (1592/93), M.A. (1596), and B.D. (1603) became a Fellow of the college.[4] In 1606 he was instituted to the Perpetual Vicarage of Coggeshall, Essex, at the presentation of Baron Rich,[5] to replace Thomas Stoughton, who had been deprived by High Commission for nonconformism. He was presented to the rectory of Aller, Somerset by his college (which held the advowson[6]) in c.1609 or 1610.[7] On 18 June 1611 at Southwark[8] he married Mary Machell[9] (who had been nurse to Prince Henry the son of James I[10]) and their children were christened at Aller over the following decade.

One of at least five children, Ralph was born at Aller in 1617. His father, having been awarded Doctor of Divinity in 1619, died at Aller in autumn 1624,[11] and John Stoughton (son of Thomas Stoughton of Coggeshall), also Fellow of Emmanuel College, who succeeded him as Rector, took Mary Cudworth as his own wife. Dr. Stoughton paid careful attention to the education of his stepchildren, and in 1632 when Stoughton received preferment to St Mary Aldermanbury in the City of London[12] and the family left Aller, Ralph matriculated from Emmanuel to begin his university career.[13] His elder brother James Cudworth married and emigrated permanently to Scituate, Plymouth Colony in New England in 1634.[14] Their mother died in 1635 and Dr. Stoughton married a daughter of John Browne of Frampton and Dorchester.[15] Dr. Stoughton died in 1639.

Career and marriage[edit]

A diligent student, Ralph graduated B.A. 1636 and M.A. 1639, whereupon he was elected Fellow and became a successful tutor. In 1642 he published A Discourse concerning the true Notion of the Lord's Supper and a tract entitled The Union of Christ and the Church. In 1645 he was appointed Master of Clare Hall and the same year was elected Regius professor of Hebrew. In 1650 he was presented to the college living of North Cadbury, Somerset. From the correspondence of his friend John Worthington we learn that Cudworth was nearly compelled, through poverty, to leave the University,[16] but in 1654 he was elected master of Christ's College.[17]

This appointment coincided with Cudworth's marriage, a very advantageous alliance which secured his position in the University.[18] His wife was Damaris, daughter of Damaris and Matthew Cradock, a London merchant and first Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Company (which he never visited) who died in 1641.[19] Her stepmother Rebeccah Cradock in 1643 married Benjamin Whichcote,[20] eminent Platonist, of Emmanuel College, where Samuel Cradock (nephew of Mathew Cradock and pupil of Whichcote) was also undergraduate and Fellow, 1637-1656.[21] Damaris married first (by 1646) the London citizen Thomas Andrewes of London and Feltham (son of Sir Thomas Andrewes, Lord Mayor of London in 1649 and 1651–52, d. 1659), who predeceased his notable father in 1653 having produced several children.[22][23] She then became the wife of Ralph Cudworth in Cambridge, and overlived him, dying in 1695.[24]

He now became recognized as a leader among the remarkable group known as the Cambridge Platonists. The whole party was more or less in sympathy with the Commonwealth: during the late 1650s Dr. Cudworth was consulted by John Thurloe, Cromwell's secretary to the council of state, in regard to university and government appointments, and in other matters.[25] At the Restoration Dr. Cudworth's Mastership of his college was challenged, but he retained it until his death.[26]

In 1662 he was presented to the rectory of Ashwell, Herts, by the Bishop of London, Dr Gilbert Sheldon.[27] In 1665 he almost quarrelled with his fellow-Platonist, Henry More, because the latter had written an ethical work which Cudworth feared would interfere with his own long-contemplated treatise on the same subject. To avoid clashing, More brought out his book, the Enchiridion ethicum, in Latin; Cudworth's never appeared. His own majestic work, The True Intellectual System of the Universe,[28] was conceived in three parts of which only the first was brought to completion,[29] being given its Archiepiscopal Imprimatur in 1671 but not published until 1678. Cudworth was installed prebendary of Gloucester in 1678.[30] He died on 26 June 1688, and was buried in the chapel of Christ's College.[31]


Ralph's sons included John Cudworth (c.1656-1726), who became a Fellow of Christ's College,[32] Charles (d.1684), who died in India,[33] and probably Thomas, who obtained his M.A. at Christ's College in 1682.[34] His daughter Damaris (1659-1708), a devout and talented woman, became the second wife of Sir Francis Masham of High Laver, Essex.[35] The Lady Masham was distinguished as the friend of John Locke and exchanged letters with Gottfried Leibniz.

His elder brother James Cudworth (1612-1682) became an Assistant Governor of Massachusetts and a Commissioner of the United Colonies,[36] whose descendants form an extensive American branch of the Cudworth family. His younger brother, John Cudworth (1622-1675),[37] of London and of Bentley, Suffolk, became an Alderman of London and Master of the Worshipful Company of Girdlers in 1667-68.[38] In 1675 John left four orphans of whom Thomas (1661-1726)[39] and Benjamin (d. 1725)[40] both attended Christ's College.

His sister Elizabeth (1615-1654) became the second[41] of three wives of Josias Beacham of Broughton, Northamptonshire (Rector of Seaton, Rutland from 1627 to 1676) in 1636,[42] by whom she had several children. Beacham was ejected by the Puritans in 1653 but reinstated by 1662.

A certain Jane or Joan Cudworth living unmarried in 1647 might also have been a sister of Ralph's, but this is not finally confirmed.[43]


His sermons, such as that preached before the House of Commons, on 31 March 1647, advocate principles of religious toleration and charity. In 1678 he published The True Intellectual System of the Universe: the first part, wherein all the reason and philosophy of atheism is confuted and its impossibility demonstrated (imprimatur dated 1671). No more was published, perhaps because of the theological clamour raised against this first part. Much of Cudworth's work still remains in manuscript; A Treatise concerning eternal and immutable Morality was published with a preface by Edward Chandler in 1731;[44] and A Treatise of Freewill, edited by John Allen, in 1838; both are connected with the design of his magnum opus, the Intellectual System.[45]

The Intellectual System arose, so its author tells us, out of a discourse refuting "fatal necessity", or determinism. Enlarging his plan, he proposed to prove three matters:

(a) the existence of God;
(b) the naturalness of moral distinctions; and
(c) the reality of human freedom.

These three together make up the intellectual (as opposed to the physical) system of the universe; and they are opposed respectively by three false principles, atheism, religious fatalism which refers all moral distinctions to the will of God, and thirdly the fatalism of the ancient Stoics, who recognized God and yet identified Him with nature. The immense fragment dealing with atheism is all that was published by its author. Cudworth criticizes two main forms of materialistic atheism, the atomic, adopted by Democritus, Epicurus and Hobbes; and the hylozoic, attributed to Strato of Lampsacus, which explains everything by the supposition of an inward self-organizing life in matter. Atomic atheism is by far the more important, if only because Hobbes, the great antagonist whom Cudworth always has in view, is supposed to have held it. It arises out of the combination of two principles, neither of which is atheistic taken separately, i.e. atomism and corporealism, or the doctrine that nothing exists but body. The example of Stoicism, as Cudworth points out, shows that corporealism may be theistic.

Cudworth plunges into the history of atomism with vast erudition.[46] It is, in its purely physical application, a theory that he fully accepts; he holds that it was taught by Pythagoras, Empedocles, and in fact, nearly all the ancient philosophers, and was only perverted to atheism by Democritus. It was first invented, he believes, before the Trojan war, by a Sidonian thinker named Moschus or Mochus, who is identical with the Moses of the Old Testament. In dealing with atheism Cudworth's method is to marshal the atheistic arguments elaborately, so elaborately that Dryden remarked "he has raised such objections against the being of a God and Providence that many think he has not answered them"; then in his last chapter, which by itself is as long as an ordinary treatise, he confutes them with all the reasons that his reading could supply. A subordinate matter in the book that attracted much attention at the time is the conception of the "Plastic Medium," which is a mere revival of Plato's "World-Soul," and is meant to explain the existence and laws of nature without referring all to the direct operation of God. It occasioned a long-drawn controversy between Pierre Bayle and Le Clerc, the former maintaining, the latter denying, that the Plastic Medium is really favourable to atheism.

A much more favourable judgment must be given upon the short Treatise on eternal and immutable Morality, which deserves to be read by those who are interested in the historical development of British moral philosophy. It is an answer to Hobbes's famous doctrine that moral distinctions are created by the state, an answer from the standpoint of Platonism. Just as knowledge contains a permanent intelligible element over and above the flux of sense-impressions, so there exist eternal and immutable ideas of morality. Cudworth's ideas, like Plato's, have "a constant and never-failing entity of their own," such as we see in geometrical figures; but, unlike Plato's, they exist in the mind of God, whence they are communicated to finite understandings. Hence "it is evident that wisdom, knowledge and understanding are eternal and self-subsistent things, superior to matter and all sensible beings, and independent upon them"; and so also are moral good and evil. At this point Cudworth stops; he does not attempt to give any list of Moral Ideas. It is, indeed, the cardinal weakness of this form of intuitionism that no satisfactory list can be given and that no moral principles have the "constant and never-failing entity," or the definiteness, of the concepts of geometry (these attacks are not uncontested — see, for example, the "Common Sense" tradition from Thomas Reid to James McCosh and the Oxford Realists Harold Prichard and Sir William David Ross). Henry More, in his Enchiridion ethicum, attempts to enumerate the "noemata moralia"; but, so far from being self-evident, most of his moral axioms are open to serious controversy.

Commentary on Cudworth[edit]

Andrew Dickson White wrote in A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896):

In 1678 Ralph Cudworth published his Intellectual System of the Universe. To this day he remains, in breadth of scholarship, in strength of thought, in tolerance, and in honesty, one of the greatest glories of the English Church... He purposed to build a fortress which should protect Christianity against all dangerous theories of the universe, ancient or modern. ...while genius marked every part of it, features appeared which gave the rigidly orthodox serious misgivings. From the old theories of direct personal action on the universe by the Almighty he broke utterly. He dwelt on the action of law, rejected the continuous exercise of miraculous intervention, pointed out the fact that in the natural world there are "errors" and "bungles" and argued vigorously in favor of the origin and maintenance of the universe as a slow and gradual development of Nature in obedience to an inward principle.


  1. ^ J.A. Passmore, Ralph Cudworth: An Interpretation (Cambridge University Press 1951).
  2. ^ 'Pedigree of the Families of Oldhams and Cudworths' in James Butterworth, History and Description of the Parochial Chapelry of Oldham (J. Dodge, etc, Oldham 1826), pp. 52ff. See also Thomas Fuller, History of the Worthies of England, ed. T. Austin Nuttall, 3 Vols., (Thomas Tegg, London 1811), II, p. 208.
  3. ^ Edwin Butterworth, Historical Sketches of Oldham (John Hirst, Oldham 1856), pp. 23-25.
  4. ^ Venn, Alumni Cantabrigienses I Part 1, p. 431.
  5. ^ Clergy of the Church of England database, CCEd Appointment Record ID: 193664.
  6. ^ R.W. Dunning (ed.), 'Parishes: Aller ', A History of the County of Somerset Vol. 3 (1974), pp. 61-71. read here.
  7. ^ CCEd Appointment Evidence Record ID: 178651, as 30 August 1610.
  8. ^ Marriage register of St Mary Newington, Southwark, June 1611, appears as 'Rodolph' Cudworth ministr, married to Mrs Mari Machell ye xviii day by lisence' [sic].
  9. ^ Memoirs of Cudworth in The Present State of the Republic of Letters Vol. 17 (1736), at pp. 24-25: 'An Account' by T. Birch in his edition of the True Intellectual System (J. Walthoe etc., London 1743), at p. vi. (both translated from Mosheim 1733, see below). Mary was probably the daughter of Mathew Machell and Mary Lewknor (D. Richardson, ed. K.J. Everingham, Magna Carta Ancestry 2nd Edn (2011), II, p. 10 items 15-16), or possibly of his elder brother John Machell and second wife Ursula Hynde (A. Boaz, Specific Ancestral Lines of the Boaz, Paul, Welty and Fishel Families (Otter Day Books, LLC, 2014), at pp. 479-81), sons of John Machell, Sheriff of London 1555-56. The descent shown by Mrs. de Salis ('Maternal Ancestry of Gen. James Cudworth of Scituate, New England', in New England Historical and Genealogical Register, October 1876, p. 464) as daughter of Mathew's son John (1580-1647) is now discounted.
  10. ^ This story derives from J.L. v. Mosheim, Radulphi Cudworthi Systema intellectuale hujus universi, 2 Vols (sumtu viduae Meyer, Jena 1733), I, 'Praefatio Moshemii' (34 sides, unpaginated), side 19, who calls her 'nutrix' to Prince Henry. Mosheim credits the biographical research to Edward Chandler, as Bishop of Lichfield & Coventry 1717-1730, both in text and footnote to this 'Praefatio', sides 18-19. (See Vol. I pp. xxv-xxvii in 1773 edition.) Chandler's access to Cudworth's papers is discussed, see B. Carter, 'The standing of Ralph Cudworth as a Philosopher' in G.A.J. Rogers, T. Sorell & J. Kraye (eds), Insiders and Outsiders in 17th Century Philosophy (Routledge 2009), pp. 99-121, at p. 115 & note 72 (p. 121).
  11. ^ Anthony Earbury, Vicar of Westonzoyland 1617-39 (CCEd; Foster, Alumni Oxonienses 1500-1714), and Lady Margaret Wroth of Petherton Park, first cousin to Mary Cudworth, heard Dr Cudworth declare his nuncupative will on 7 August 1624 (P.C.C. 1624).
  12. ^ Venn, Alumni Cantabrigienses, I.iv, p. 171.
  13. ^ "Cudworth, Ralph (CDWT632R)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. . See Venn, Alumni Cantabrigienses I.i, p. 431.
  14. ^ 'Letter of James Cudworth of Scituate, 1634', (to Dr. Stoughton), in New England Historical and Genealogical Register 14 (1860), pp. 101-04.
  15. ^ Marriage at St Mary Aldermanbury, 18.i.1635/36. J.P. Ferris, Browne, John II (1580-1659), of Dorchester and Frampton, Dorset, History of Parliament online, 1604-1629.
  16. ^ 'If through want of maintenance he should be forced to leave Cambridge, for which place he is so eminently accomplished with what is noble and Exemplarily Academical, it would be an ill omen.' Letter of John Worthington dated 6 January 1651/52, quoted in Mosheim's Preface to Systema Intellectuale (1733), at Vol. I p. xxviii in 1773 edition.
  17. ^ '1654, Oct. 29. Dr Cudworth was chosen Master of Christ's College, admitted Nov. 2.' (Diary). James Crossley, Diary & Correspondence of Dr. John Worthington (Chetham Society XIII, 1847) Vol. I, p. 52.
  18. ^ 'After many tossings Dr Cudworth is through God's good Providence returned to Cambridge & settled in Christ's College, & by his marriage more settled and fixed.' Letter of John Worthington dated 30 January 1654/55 quoted in Mosheim's Preface (1733), at Vol. I p. xxviii in 1773 edition.
  19. ^ Will of Mathew Cradock of London, Merchant (P.C.C. 1641).
  20. ^ S. Hutton, 'Whichcote, Benjamin (1609-1683), theologian and moral philosopher' in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
  21. ^ Venn, Alumni Cantabrigienses I.i, p. 411. J.C. Whitebrook, 'Samuel Cradock, cleric and pietist (1620-1706): and Matthew Cradock, first governor of Massachusetts', Congregational History Society 5, part 3 (1911), pp. 183-90. Stuart Handley, 'Cradock, Samuel (1620/21-1706), nonconformist minister', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Samuel and Damaris inherited the whole of Mathew Cradock's New England estate in two moieties. (Will of Mathew Cradock P.C.C. 1641).
  22. ^ Will of Thomas Andrewes, Leather seller of London (P.C.C. 1653).
  23. ^ These relationships are confirmed in the wills cited and in the Chancery case Andrewes v Glover (The National Archives), the participants in which are described in W.G. Watkins, 'Notes from English Records', New England Historical and Genealogical Register January 1910, Vol. LXIV, pp. 84-87.
  24. ^ Will of Damaris Cudworth (P.C.C. 1695).
  25. ^ T. Birch, Account of the Life and Writings (1743), pp. viii-x (pp. 16-18 in pdf).
  26. ^ Letter dated 6.viii.1660, in James Crossley, Diary & Correspondence of Dr. John Worthington (Chetham Society XIII, 1847) Vol. I, p. 203. See Christ's College website, List of Masters of Christ's College.
  27. ^ Clergy of the Church of England database.
  28. ^ R. Cudworth, The True Intellectual System of the Universe: The First Part; Wherein, All the Reason and Philosophy of Atheism is Confuted, and its Impossibility Demonstrated (Richard Royston, London 1678).
  29. ^ 'there is no reason why this volume should therefore be thought imperfect and incomplete, because it hath not all the Three Things at first Designed by us: it containing all that belongeth to its own particular Title and Subject, and being in that respect no Piece, but a Whole.' R. Cudworth,True Intellectual System (1678), 'Preface to the Reader'.
  30. ^ Clergy of the Church of England database.
  31. ^ Epitaph in Mosheim's Preface (1733), at Vol. I p. xxix in 1773 edition.
  32. ^ J. Peile, Biographical Register of Christ's College 1505-1905, Volume II, 1666-1905 (Cambridge University Press 2014) (orig. 1913), II, p. 46.
  33. ^ J. Peile, Biographical Register, II, pp. 49-50.
  34. ^ J. Peile, Biographical Register, II, p. 70.
  35. ^ M. Knights, 'Masham, Sir Francis, 3rd Bt. (c.1646-1723), of Otes, High Laver, Essex', in D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks and S. Handley (eds), The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715 (Boydell & Brewer, 2002) Read here.
  36. ^ Samuel Deane, 'Gen. James Cudworth' in History of Scituate, Massachusetts, from its first settlement to 1831 (James Loring, Boston 1831), pp. 245-51. See also Scituate Historical Society
  37. ^ Will of John Cudworth, Girdler of London (P.C.C. 1675).
  38. ^ W. Dumville Smythe, An Historical Account of the Worshipful Company of Girdlers, London (Chiswick press, London 1905), pp. 109-10.
  39. ^ J. Peile, Biographical Register, II, p. 64.
  40. ^ J. Peile, Biographical Register, II, p. 111.
  41. ^ The first was Maria Sheffield (died November 1634). S.H.C., 'Extracts from the Parish register of Seton, Co. Rutland, relative to the family of Sheffield', Collectanea Topographica et Genealogica I (J.B. Nicholas & Son, London 1834), pp. 171-73.
  42. ^ Will of Josias Beacham, Rector of Seaton (Rutland) (P.C.C. 1675/76). London Marriage Allegations, 28.iv.1636 (St Mary Aldermanbury). Foster, Index Ecclesiasticus. Beacham was a graduate of Brasenose College, University of Oxford.
  43. ^ D. Richardson, Jewels of the Crown, 4 (2009), citing the references to Jane Cudworth in Will of John Machell of Wonersh (P.C.C. 1647).
  44. ^ Treatise Concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality by Ralph Cudworth, D.D., with a Preface by... Edward Lord Bishop of Durham (James and John Knapton, London 1731) (First edition).
  45. ^ Sarah Hutton (ed), Ralph Cudworth. A Treatise Concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality with A Treatise of Freewill, Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy (Cambridge University Press 1996). Read here
  46. ^ See a recent study by Catherine Osborne, 'Ralph Cudworth's The True Intellectual System of the Universe and the Presocratic Philosophers', in Oliver Primavesi and Katharina Luchner (eds) The Presocratics from the Latin Middle Ages to Hermann Diels (Steiner Verlag 2011), pp 215-235.


Further reading[edit]

The Intellectual System was translated into Latin by Johann Lorenz von Mosheim and furnished with notes and dissertations which were translated into English in John J. Harrison's edition (1845). First Latin edition, Johann Lorenz von Mosheim, Radulphi Cudworthi Systema intellectuale hujus universi, 2 Vols (sumtu viduae Meyer, Jena 1733), second (with paginated Mosheimii Praefatio), (Samuel and John Luchtmans, Lugduni Batavorum 1773).

External links[edit]

Academic offices
Preceded by
Thomas Paske
vacancy from 1645
Master of Clare College, Cambridge
Succeeded by
Theophilus Dillingham
Preceded by
Samuel Bolton
Master of Christ's College, Cambridge
Succeeded by
John Covel