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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

§ 16. Culverwel’s Light of Nature

In order to realise the conditions under which Culverwel’s Light of Nature was conceived, we must bear in mind that, although not published until 1652, it had been written six years before, when the author was probably less than thirty years of age. As regards general literary excellence, he may be said to divide with John Smith the claim to rank foremost among Platonists. It is evident, from his opening chapter, that he did not conceal from himself the magnitude of the task upon which he had embarked, and which he defines as that of “giving to reason the things that are reason’s and unto faith the things that are faith’s”; it requires, he adds, “our choicest thoughts, the exactest discussion that can be, to give faith her full scope and latitude, and to give reason also her just bounds and limits.” “Reason is the first-born, but the other has the blessing.” Such is the assumption which underlies the whole treatment of his subject, namely, that the function of faith is superior to that of reason. “Reason discerns the existence of a God, the eye of faith, a Trinity of Persons; the former recognises the immortality of the soul, faith spies out the resurrection of the body.” “Revealed truths are never against reason, they will always be above reason.”

It was Culverwel’s design to embody in a second treatise the evidence and the arguments whereby he proposed to prove, first, that all moral law is founded in natural and common light—i.e. in the light of reason; and, secondly, that there is nothing in the mysteries of the Gospel contrary to reason, nothing repugnant to the light that shines from “the candle of the Lord.” But he was never able to carry into effect this great design, which would have admirably supplemented the vast researches of Cudworth. So far, indeed, as it is possible to discern the facts, it would appear that, for at least five years before his death, Culverwel’s labours were altogether suspended; while a singular mystery involves his life during that time. It may, perhaps, be conjectured, that his outspoken language in his college Commonplaces, together with his generally independent attitude as a thinker, brought upon him the disfavour of certain seniors at Emmanuel (where Whichcote was no longer fellow), and, under the combined effects of anxiety with respect to his future prospects and the strain involved in his literary labours, his health, mental as well as physical, completely gave way. He died in 1651, when, probably, not more than thirty-two years of age.

With regard to both Smith and Culverwel, it is also not a little remarkable that, although none of their contemporaries can have possessed a closer personal knowledge of them than More or Cudworth, in the pages of neither of these do we find any reference either to them or to their writings. It is possible, indeed, that Culverwel’s depreciatory language as to Descartes may have offended More at the time when he was still in the first flush of his admiration for the great French philosopher; but, on the whole, it seems most probable that both the newly installed master of Christ’s and its most distinguished fellow were alarmed by the confidence with which these new theories were advanced, especially when viewed in connection with the widespread tendency (already apparent at this time) to repudiate all dogmatic teaching, of whatever school.