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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

XI. Platonists and Latitudinarians

§ 1. Distinction between the Cambridge Platonists and the Latitudinarians

IT was, apparently, after a short visit to Cambridge, in 1663, that Gilbert Burnet, in his History of his Own Times—after describing the degeneracy of the episcopal order which followed upon the failure of the Savoy conference—proceeded to declare that the English church herself would have “quite lost her esteem over the nation, had it not been for the appearance of a new set of men of another stamp” at that crisis. “These,” he goes on to say, “were generally of Cambridge, formed under some divines, the chief of whom were Drs. Whitchcote, Cudworth, Wilkins, More and Worthington.” And, passing on to a brief characterisation of each, he describes Whichcote as “much for liberty of conscience,” and one who, “being disgusted with the dry systematical ways of those times,” “studied to raise those who conversed with him to a nobler set of thoughts,” and, with this aim, “set young students much on reading the ancient philosophers, chiefly Plato, Tully, and Plotin, and on considering the Christian religion as a doctrine sent from God both to elevate and sweeten human nature.” This passage, while it supplies additional evidence of Burnet’s habitual sympathy with whatever was enlightened in conception and generous in sentiment, affords, at the same time, another instance of what Macaulay, in his shrewd estimate of his distinguished countryman, describes as his “propensity to blunder.” The Cambridge Platonists, as they are often termed, although generally inclined to latitudinarianism, appear to have had their origin independently of the latter movement, and Whichcote’s claim to rank as one of their number must be pronounced as at least doubtful; but of latitudinarianism itself he is one of the earliest examples and, certainly, the most conspicuous. As regards his philosophy, if such it may be termed, it was that of Bacon, while his distinctive religious belief was largely the outcome of his own observation and personal convictions, and continued to survive long after the Platonic school with which his name is associated had ceased to exert any perceptible influence.