Episode 15: The Cambridge Platonists and Thomas Taylor

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The sixteenth century was truly revolutionary, bringing Renaissance ideas to all of Europe.

Martin Luther Bible 1541

Martin Luther Bible 1541

A major force was the tremendous spread of printing and “democratization” of books, perhaps the most influential being Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible from Latin into vernacular German.  Implicit in this publication was the principle that the text was no longer just for the clergy–that anyone who could read, or be read to, had access to “the Word of God.” This of course is one of the empowering principles of Renaissance humanism.

As Protestantism spread, mostly across Northern Europe, there was a commensurate rise in the growth of universities.  Universities that had been established for the training of priests changed their religion and their faculties, but still retained the basic orientation toward producing clergymen.  (That it was all clergymen of course goes without saying.) Over time, though, they tended to become more secular, offering programs in medicine and law that helped in the development of those professions.

Philosophy was taught as a core component of the liberal arts, but gradually it came to be

The University of Paris

The University of Paris

done so as another academic subject, not as a way of life.  It came  to appeal to what Plato, in the Divided Line, called dianoia; the realm of the mind that can, but only, understand.  Its overarching assumption is that all things can be reduced to thought-objects which can then be made subject to disputation and proofs.  Consequently during this time there arose a cottage industry among academics of publications countering arguments by other academics who then reply to them.  The language used when speaking of the Good became the language of the pedant, without the poetry and direct experience of Plotinus or Ficino.  Plato and other ancient philosophers became raw material for academic oneupmanship, rather than teachers of how to live a just life and realize unity with The One.

William Shakespeare (1564?-1616)

William Shakespeare (1564?-1616)

But this knowledge continued on, outside the academic establishment.  Although it can in no way be “proven,” there is strong evidence in the work of Shakespeare that he had an experiential appreciation for The One, but also the ways in which we lose our identity with it.  In the plays of course, there is an ongoing theme of the rightful ruler whose throne is usurped, most clearly in Hamlet.  And many of the sonnets can also be read as addressed not to a “dark lady,” but to something which is the source of all beauty and the object of all love, something which has the power to take us out of our limited self into something universal.  For example, #29:

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

Of course this won’t satisfy those who need documented proof of a connection, but it does encourage a new reading of Shakespeare.

In the seventeenth century though the connection becomes clear.  At Cambridge

Lady Anne Conway (1631-1679)
Lady Anne Conway (1631-1679)

 University there arose a group of men (and one woman, Anne Conway) who will forever be lumped together as the Cambridge Platonists.  Like Ficino, most also had a background in Christian theology, and saw no conflict between the two.  Their original writings are hard to come by these days, even given the internet, but Sarah Hutton, in her excellent overview in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says:

The framework within which they read and understood ancient and modern philosophy was that of the ‘perennial philosophy’ (philosophia perennis) proposed originally by Italian Renaissance philosophers such as Marsilio Ficino, and Agostino Steucho¹, but also employed by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Not only did they share the Renaissance Humanist regard for the achievements of ancient philosophy, but like the Humanists of the Renaissance, their interest was dictated by their sense of the relevance of classical philosophy to contemporary life. They also emphatically repudiated the scholasticism that prevailed in academic philosophy and took a lively interest in the developments that brought about the scientific revolution.²

Perhaps because they wrote in English, not Latin, or because “Platonism” was falling out of favor with the academics always in search of something new, their influence was not very wide or lasting.  (Why it does not seem to have occurred to any of them to translate Plato into English is something we will never know.)  But they did help to set the stage for one who, although not an academic, and largely unappreciated in his own country, nonetheless left a legacy which reached to America and today:  Thomas Taylor.

Taylor was born in 1758, a full century after most of the Cambridge Platonists had died.

Thomas Taylor (1758–1835)

Thomas Taylor (1758–1835)

His father was a minister, and intended Thomas to be the same, but Thomas seems to have had a strong sense of another mission from an early age and rebelled against this idea.  In the grueling course of his education, apprenticeships, and self-study, he did learn Greek and Latin, as well as pursue a fascination for mathematics.  He further guaranteed his poverty by marrying his childhood sweetheart, Mary Morton, at the age of 19.  (It is said that that spoke to each other only in ancient Greek.)  At some point, he decided to become the English Ficino and translate all the ancient Greek works he could find, although he had no Medici to support the enterprise. Eventually, however, he did become acquainted with patrons who supported the work, as well as obtaining a post at the Society for the Encouragement of Art, precursor to the Royal Society of Arts.  He also became a member of an “academy” that included his patron William Meredith, the artist John Flaxman, and probably the poet and artist William Blake.

As with Ficino, it is evident in reading his original works that his appreciation went beyond that of a translator.  Unfortunately, his gift for language is that of a mathematician.  Sarah Hutton says of Ralph Cudworth, his “…baroque style … occluded the originality of his contribution to English philosophy and helped to ensure his undeserved neglect….”³ The same can be said for Taylor.  In his own lifetime Coleridge wrote that he had translated Proclus’ “difficult Greek into incomprehensible English,”4 and that, combined with his lack of academic bona fides, limited his influence in England.

It was in America, unencumbered by such class distinctions, that Taylor had his real influence.  Ralph Waldo Emerson, although he knew Greek from Harvard, was nonetheless a fan of Taylor’s translations.  On his second trip to England in 1848, he met with William Wordsworth and recorded later in his book English Traits,  “We talked of English national characteristics.  I told him it was not creditable that no one in all the country knew anything of Thomas Taylor, the Platonist, while in every American library his translations are to be found.”5 (Oddly, it does not appear that Emerson sought Taylor out on his first trip to England in 1831, even though he was still alive.)  Emerson writes of Taylor with great admiration in other essays as well.  Bronson Alcott, Emerson’s friend and inspiration, also claimed his introduction to Plato via Taylor as a red-letter day in his life.

So for better or worse, here is what Taylor has to say in his Introduction to the Philosophy and Writings of Platonists:

“Philosophy,” says Hierocles, “is the purification and perfection of human life. It is the purification, indeed, from material irrationality, and the mortal body; but the perfection, in consequence of being the resumption of our proper felicity, and a reascent to the divine likeness. To effect these two is the province of Virtue and Truth; the former exterminating the immoderation of the passions; and the latter introducing the divine form to those who are naturally adapted to its reception.”
Of philosophy thus defined, which may be compared to a luminous pyramid, terminating in Deity, and having for its basis the rational soul of man and its spontaneous unperverted conceptions,–of this philosophy, August, magnificent, and divine, Plato may be justly called the primary leader and hierophant, through whom, like the mystic light in the inmost recesses of some sacred temple, it first shone forth with occult and venerable splendour. It may indeed be truly said of the whole of this philosophy, that it is the greatest good in which man can participate: for if it purifies us from the defilements of the passions and assimilates us to Divinity, it confers on us the proper felicity of our nature. Hence it is easy to collect its pre-eminence to all other philosophies; to show that where they oppose it, they are erroneous; that so far as they contain any thing scientific they are allied to it; and that at best they are but rivulets derived from this vast ocean of truth.

In the next episode we will follow the Ideal as it continues its westward march, and installs itself in the person of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercialNoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.  Graphics are not copyrighted, and are believed to be in the public domain.  Music courtesy of Stefan Hagel, and used by permission.
¹sic.  Most sources spell his name Steuco.  He is an interesting character in his own right, born just two years before Ficino died, and the first to use the phrase in his work De perenni philosophia libri X, published in 1540.

²Sarah Hutton, The Cambridge Platonists, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

³Sarah Hutton, op. cit.

4Quoted in Kathleen Raine and George Mills Harper, eds., Thomas Taylor the Platonist: Selected Writings, Princeton University Press, 1969

 5Ralph Waldo Emerson, English Traits, Ralph Waldo Emerson Institute