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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

§ 3. His Position as Defined by Himself

In 1644, Whichcote was installed by Manchester in the provostship of King’s college, where he was able to exercise a marked influence over a community differing considerably from Emmanuel, and, at the same time, himself to assume a more independent tone. In the academic year 1650–1, he was elected to the office of vice-chancellor, and his commencement oration, delivered in that capacity, was marked by a freedom and significance of expression which involved him in a note-worthy correspondence with Tuckney, his former tutor at Emmanuel. Tuckney, with other seniors of the university, had been in the habit of attending the afternoon lectures at Trinity church, and their apprehensions were already excited by what they had there heard. Whichcote, as Tuckney understood him, had said “that all those things wherein good men differ, may not be determined from Scripture,” inasmuch as Scripture itself “in some places seems to be for the one part and in some other places for the other,” which, says his critic, “I take to be unsafe and unsound.” Still “more dangerous,” as it appeared to him, had been the advice given by the preacher, that Christians, when seeking a common ground of agreement, should be willing to restrict the language of belief solely to “Scripture words and expressions,” and “not press other forms of words, which are from fallible men.” “Christ by his blood,” wrote Tuckney, who discerned the drift of such a limitation, “never intended to purchase such a peace, in which the most orthodox, with Papists, Arians, Socinians, and all the worst of heretiques, must be all put in a bag together.” To this, Whichcote’s rejoinder (had he thereupon expressed his whole mind) would, doubtless, have been, that, as he himself lays it down in his Aphorisms, “Determinations beyond Scripture have indeed enlarged faith, but lessened charity and multiplied divisions.” In the first instance, however, he contented himself with a purely defensive affirmation of his view—namely, that the devout Christian was entitled to advance as his own individual conviction, whatever “upon search he finds cause to believe, and whereon he will venture his own soul.” In his next letter, however, he made bold to assert his position in the following pregnant terms: “Truth is truth, whosoever has spoken it, or howsoever it hath been abused: but if this liberty may not be allowed to the university, wherefore do we study? We have nothing to do, but to get good memories, and to learn by heart.”

There can be little doubt that his equable nature was at this time being roused to unwonted indignation, as he marked the unsparing severity with which, in 1651, the Engagement was being pressed home throughout the university, and especially at King’s college, by the presbyterian party; and, before his correspondence with Tuckney closed, we find him roundly denouncing those “who indeed profess some zeal,” for that “happie point,” of justification by faith, but “yet are sensiblie degenerated into the devilish nature of malice, spite, furie, envie, revenge.” His final words to Tuckney, contained in a short letter, written in the after-part of the day on which he laid down his office of vice-chancellor, are as follows: “Sir, wherein I fall short of your expectation, I fail for truth’s sake, whereto alone I acknowledge myself addicted.”

The difficulties in which the broad-minded provost of King’s thus found himself involved were precisely those which Bacon, to some extent, had succeeded in evading, by his candid avowal, that he considered all articles of faith to lie beyond the province of his new method of induction—although, indeed, his personal sentiments were so far surmised by others that he did not escape the unenviable imputation of being the real author of the notorious Christian Paradoxes. Whichcote, however, determined otherwise. Firmly convinced of the truth of Christianity, and fully persuaded in his own mind that its principles—wherever accepted in their spirit rather than subscribed to in the letter—were capable of conferring priceless benefits on mankind, he argued that the more clearly they were understood, the greater would be the mental assurance they would carry with them. And, towards the bringing about of such an understanding, he held the inductive method to be eminently favourable, and calculated to prove as effectual in allaying theological contention as it had been, in the hands of Galileo, in proving beyond dispute the rotation of the earth on its own axis, or, in the hands of Harvey, in demonstrating the circulation of the blood. But, in those cases where there were differences of opinion with respect to interpretation, he advised the suspension of dogmatism. “We must not,” he was heard to say, “put Truth into the place of a Means, but into the place of an End” —holding that, even if the “end” seemed unattainable, the path pursued was not necessarily the wrong one.

Another passage in the above-mentioned correspondence, which occurs in Tuckney’s second letter, must not be left unnoticed. He had been discussing Whichcote’s discourses with other seniors of the university, and writes to the following effect:

  • Some are readie to think that your great authors you stear your course by are Dr. Field, Dr. Jackson, Dr. Hammond,—all three very learned men, the middle sufficiently obscure; and both he and the last, I must needs think, too corrupt. Whilst you were fellow here, you were cast into the companie of very learned men, who, I fear,—at least some of them,—studied other authors more than the Scriptures, and PLATO and his schollars, above others: in whom, I must needs acknowledge, from the little insight I have into them, I finde manie excellent and divine expressions; and as we are wont more to listen to and wonder at a parrot, speaking a few words, than a man, that speaks manie more and more plainlie; so, whilest we find such gemmes in such dunghills (where we least expected them), and hear some such divine things from them, we have been too much drawn away with admiration of them. And hence, in part, hath run a veine of doctrine which divers very able and worthy men, whom from my heart I much honour, are, I fear, too much knowen by,—the power of Nature in morals, too much advanced, reason, too much given to it, in the mysteries of Faith,—a recta ratio much talked of, which I cannot tell where to find.
  • The drift of the above passage is unmistakable. Tuckney believed that Whichcote, when at Emmanuel, had come under the influence of certain students and admirers of Plato, not that he had influenced them; had he done so, indeed, it is difficult to understand how the fact could have failed to attract the notice of his former tutor, and the latter have omitted to make any reference to the same in the above controversy. As it is, his conjectures may be said to be fairly disposed of by Whichcote’s reply, in which he complains that Tuckney is under a complete misapprehension; it was true, indeed, he admits, that he had once read the treatise, Of the Church, by Richard Field (an Oxford divine much admired by James I), but that was ten years ago; while, as regarded Thomas Jackson, a former president of Corpus Christi college, and Henry Hammond of Magdalen college, in the same university, a former chaplain of Charles I, chiefly known as the author of A Practical Catechism, he says, “I have a little looked into them here and there, a good while since, but have not read the hundredth part of either of them.”

  • “Trulie,” he goes on to say, “I shame myselfe to tell you, how little I have been acquainted with bookes; while fellow of Emmanuel Colledge, employment with pupils took my time from me. I have not read manie books, but I have studied a fewe; meditation and invention hath bin rather my life than reading, and trulie I have more read Calvin, Perkins, and Beza, than all the bookes, authors, or names you mention. I have alwaies expected reason, for what men saye; less valuing persons or authoritie, in the stating and resolving of truth; and therefore have read them most where I have found it.”