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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

§ 8. Cudworth and his Treatise concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality

On his father’s death, More found himself in fairly affluent circumstances, and, when writing to lady Conway, on one occasion, he observes, that it is “the best result of riches,” that, “finding ourselves already well provided for, we may be fully masters of our own time.” Notwithstanding, however, his ample leisure, it is undeniable that a certain precipitancy in pronouncing judgment was one of his most serious defects, and one which offers a marked contrast to the habitual deliberation of Cudworth, which was itself, in turn, perhaps carried to excess. Another point of difference between the master of Christ’s and its distinguished fellow is to be noted in the fact that the former was not a public school man. Cudworth had been educated at home by his father-in-law, Dr. Stoughton, and had been admitted a pensioner of Emmanuel at the age of thirteen. It is probable, therefore, that he never attained to the facility in Latin, either colloquially or in composition, which More appears to have acquired at Eton; and he consequently preferred to write in English. Throughout his life, moreover, he was much busied with official duties. In 1645, when only twenty-eight years of age, he had been elected master of Clare, besides being appointed to fill the chair of Hebrew in the university; and, on migrating, in 1654, from Clare to assume the mastership of Christ’s college, he found himself called upon to undertake the office of bursar; he was also a frequent preacher. Notwithstanding, therefore, his reputation both for learning and ability, his leisure was scanty and mainly bestowed on Hebrew and cognate studies. But Cudworth was intimate with Whichcote, and, in their frequent conversations, could hardly fail to become familiar with the views of the latter on the subject of morality. “The moral part of religion,” Whichcote was wont to say, “is the knowledge of the Divine Nature, and it never alters. Moral laws are laws of themselves, without sanction of will, for the necessity of them arises from the things themselves.” Cudworth, in the course of his varied reading, and especially in connection with the literature of the Cabala, had met with evidence which appeared to him strongly corroborative of such a theory, and he had intimated to his friends his design of publishing, before long, a treatise entitled Moral Good or Evil, or Natural Ethics. It was a subject, however, which demanded not only very wide research, but, also, that careful suspension of judgment which he was wont to exercise in arriving at his conclusion; and his friends were already beginning to entertain misgivings whether his profound speculations would ever result in actual accomplishment, when he was himself taken by surprise, and not a little ruffled, on learning that Henry More, living within the precincts of Christ’s college, was about to publish a manual on the same subject, and this, too, in Latin, thereby appealing to a wider circle of readers than any English philosophical treatise could possibly command! The master was naturally inclined to surmise that some, at least, of the views which he had formed on the subject and had often talked over with his friends had been appropriated by More. He protested warmly against such apparently disingenuous conduct, in a letter to Worthington—formerly master of Jesus college and their common friend—and, through his intervention, More was induced to profess his perfect willingness to wait until Cudworth should have put forth his own elaborate disquisitions. But publication, so far as the master was concerned, was still remote; and, eventually, More’s Enchiridion Ethicum made its appearance in 1667. It was in Latin; and (as described by the author himself) merely “a portable little volume,” designed “for the instruction of beginners,” and setting forth “in lucid and connected fashion the elements of Ethics, so as to render the methods of the recognised teachers on the subject more easily intelligible.” Cudworth’s profound Treatise concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality, on the other hand, remained in manuscript for another sixty-four years, when—long after the author’s death—it at last appeared, under the editorship of Edward Chandler, the learned bishop of Durham.