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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

§ 14. John Smith’s Select Discourses

With regard, however, both to More and Cudworth, there is evidence, other than that afforded by their writings, which must not be overlooked. If we revert to the aspect of affairs a quarter of a century before The Intellectual System appeared—the time, that is to say, when More published his Antidote to Atheism (1652)—we find our attention arrested by the appearance from among the number of their disciples of two remarkable writers, who, like two genii responding to their call, had risen and vanished with equal suddenness. In 1651 died Nathaniel Culverwel, to be followed, the next year, by John Smith of Queens’; in the latter year appeared Culverwel’s Light of Nature, and, in 1660, Smith’s Select Discourses, edited by Worthington. These two writers were both natives of Northamptonshire, who entered at Emmanuel college during the period of Whichcote’s tutorship—the former in 1633 (when he was probably about sixteen), the latter in 1636, when already eighteen years of age. In 1642, Culverwel was elected to a fellowship at Emmanuel; but the restrictions then existing in the college with regard to counties made it necessary for Smith to migrate to Queens’, in order to obtain like preferment, although not before he had become well known both to Whichcote and to Worthington. The former, discerning Culverwel’s genius, gave him not only valuable advice, but, also, pecuniary aid; while the latter, whose age was the same as Smith’s, but who had entered at Emmanuel four years earlier, lived to be his lifelong friend, and wrote the notice of him in the 1660 edition of his Discourses. According to Worthington, Smith “studied himself into a consumption,” and the extraordinary attainments of which the Discourses give evidence lend support to the statement—especially if we consider that he had to discharge the duties of dean and also to lecture on Hebrew in his college and on mathematics in the schools. The testimony of Simon Patrick, afterwards president of Queens’ college and bishop of Ely, is to the same effect, as he bore witness to the merits of his departed friend in the same chapel in which the latter had often discoursed—“his sharp and piercing understanding,” “his Herculean labours day and night from his first coming to the University” and, especially, his communicativeness with respect to what he knew and the clearness of his language when imparting it,

  • wherein he seems to have excelled the famous philosopher, Plotin, of whom Porphyry tells us, that he was something careless of his words, [char], but was wholly taken up into his mind.