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The Basis of Belief, Philosophy, Science and Religion in Seventeenth-Century England

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Hisrory of European Ideas, Vol. 6, No. 1, pp. 19-39, 1985. Printed in Great Britain. 01914599/85 $3.00 + 0.00 @ 1985 Pergamon Press Ltd. THE BASIS OF BELIEF. PHILOSOPHY, SCIENCE AND RELIGION IN SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY ENGLAND G. A. J. ROGERS* INTRODUCTION ‘Christ was Vitae Magister, not Scholae: and he is the best Christian, whose heart beats with the truest pulse towards heaven; and not whose head spin- neth out the finest cobwebs .
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  Hisrory of European Ideas, Vol. 6, No. 1, pp. 19-39, 1985. Printed in Great Britain. 01914599/85 3.00 + 0.00 @ 1985 Pergamon Press Ltd. THE BASIS OF BELIEF. PHILOSOPHY SCIENCE AND RELIGION IN SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY ENGLAND G. A. J. ROGERS* INTRODUCTION ‘Christ was Vitae Magister, not Scholae: and he is the best Christian, whose heart beats with the truest pulse towards heaven; and not whose head spin- neth out the finest cobwebs . . . .‘l Thus Ralph Cudworth in a sermon to the Puritan House of Commons in 1647. A moment’s reflection might cause us to sense some paradox in Cudworth expressing such views. Was he not, after all, the very exemplification of the mugister scholae, one of the finest scholars in the land, recently elected unanimously to the Regius Chair of Hebrew? Was he not, too, as a member of that special group, the Cambridge Platonists, one who subscribed to the intellectualist theology spawned by Plato’s Academy, which saw an identity between knowledge and goodness, knowledge and salvation? If it is, as is generally and with reason supposed, that men fashion their God in their own image why is it that the magister scholae Cudworth claims Christ to be the magister vitae when addressing the Puritan farmers and merchants, the prac- tical men, of the House of Commons? Much of the immediate answer is obvious. It is contained in Cudworth’s reference to the spinning out of the finest cobwebs. He was urging the Commons to refrain from detailed legislation on matters of religion. He was fearful of dogma and intolerance. He was speaking for the men of latitude who were to grow powerful in the decades to come and lay the foundation for the liberal settlement of the Church of England. It is also easy to account for the superficial conflict between Cudworth’s Platonism and his opposition to bookish theology. God’s important truths were, he held, imprinted on all men’s hearts. In the words of the text upon which he preached: ‘Hereby we know that we know him if we keep his Commandments.’ The combination of Platonism and Protestantism synthesise in Cudworth to engender a distrust of what he called ‘the bastardly kind of literature . . . a knowledge falsely so called which deserve not to be pleaded for’.2 These considerations are not, however, a full explanation of why it was that Cudworth and others had come to distrust the role of magister scholae in matters of religion. More fully to understand this, I shall argue, we must see Cudworth’s words as part of a movement in English thought away from the vita contemplative to the vita activa. Essentially, and to anticipate, social and intellectual pressures combined to undermine the foundation upon which the old justification for the vita contemplativa had rested. It had presumed the *Department of Philosophy, University of Keele, Keele, Staffordshire ST5 5BG, U.K. 19  20 G. A. J. Rogers centrality of religion and was supported by an epistemology created to pro- vide that support. In its place the new secular conception of knowledge, a conception linked to vita activa, was created by men who tended to leave the universities and find their employment in the capital city. The criteria for knowledge which these new men would champion would be those which best stood the tests of the vita activa ones which recognised the essentially problematic and tentative nature of many of our claims about the world, whether in the natural or the moral sciences. But this caution did not exclude preference. The new men were fully prepared to claim that some positions were better than others. Essentially the line which had to be walked was one between the paralysis of total scepticism on the one hand and the rigidity of dogma on the other. In large measure the history of English philosophy in the seventeenth century is the story of the charting of that path which brought a unity between the methods of the natural sciences and the claims of the philosophers. It was one which redefined the concept of justified belief in terms of the certainties and probabilities of the facts and hypotheses of the natural sciences, and substituted the categories of Locke and Newton for those attributed to Aristotle and the Schoolmen; the categories of the men of affairs for those of the monastery. These are large claims, perhaps bold conjectures, and full proof of them is beyond one paper. I hope, however, to offer enough evidence to warrant further exploration of the theme. THE SCHOLASTIC FRAMEWORK A primary purpose of the universities in the early seventeenth century was to provide the country with its clergy and schoolmasters who in their turn would give religious stability so vital to the political order.” The degree course, therefore, needed to include enough philosophy to provide a good (i.e. acceptable) theology. In practice, of course, the philosophy was that which had been inherited from the pre-Reformation curriculum, the Corpus of Aristotle. To see the world through the logic, metaphysics and ethics of Aristotle as it was taught through the standard texts and textbooks was to see a world which was compatible and, as taught, even favoured a Christian theology, and at the same time it sharpened the mind for dialectic debate. But if offered less to the aspiring merchant, navigator, lawyer or doctor who learnt his skills elsewhere. And so it has tended to remain. A major task for the Protestant theologians was to meet the criticisms of the Jesuits. And a favourite weapon of the Jesuits was scepticism. Their argument was that the claims to Biblical knowledge central to the Protestant position could not be supported by the evidence. Instead, the proper thing to do was to recognise that the continuity of tradition, exemplified by the Catholic Church, supplied the only intellectually respectible basis for accepting the Christian religion. The Protestant repost was that the evidence for the continuity of the tradition was itself suspect and vulnerable to sceptical argument.4 Further, although it was true that there was not infallible evidence  The Basis of Belief 2 of the truth of the Protestant religion, the balance of evidence was clearly on the Protestant’s side. The issue therefore had shifted from an assessment of certain proof to that of probabilities.5 In so doing the Protestants were, perforce, required to abandon the language of the schools which provided little vocabulary or framework for assessing probabilities and take up with the now rapidly growing discussions about evidence.6 To appreciate the ways in which the scholastic framework was unsuitable for discussions of matters of evidence and probability we must recall that the goal of Aristotle’s natural philosophy was necessary knowledge of essences. The world consists of essences which are arranged in an hierarchical order and for each of which there is a discrete teleological function. Knowledge is obtained by coming to recognise these essences and functions, grasping knowledge of the universal through observation of the particular. Knowledge is always of the universal and the necessary never of the particular and the contingent.’ But if, as Locke and others were to argue, our experience is always of the particular and usually of the contingent what then of the aspiration to knowledge? There is no place in Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics for discussions of probability. For even to admit such a concept would have been tantamount to admitting one had not completed one’s work of observ- ation. Either all swans are white or they are not. It could never be a conclusion that it is probable that all swans are white. Knowledge of the essence of natural kinds was the legitimate goal of the philosopher, legitimate in the sense that there was no reason to doubt it to be a possible task. The objective is always scientia.’ The final displacement of Aristotelianism from the curriculum was to take decades. Nor is this surprising since those disciplines which were at the vanguard of the new philosophy were not central to undergraduate courses. Even the practitioners of the new sciences within the universities rarely abandoned their syllabus to attack scholastic teaching directly. Galileo in Italy, Locke in Oxford, whilst devising the new philosophy, continued to teach according to the statutes.’ But there were signs of newer, or at least different, things. As early as the 1630s that much respected but unprolific Cambridge teacher Benjamin Whichcote was encouraging his students to read outside the normal syllabus. Burnett tells us ‘he set young students much on reading the ancient philosophers, chiefly Plato, Tully, and Plotin’.” Whichcote’s students with some others, were going to be powerful champions of the new philosophy. We shall return later to Whichcote and Cambridge. Let us note for the moment that even within the university there are signs of dissatisfaction with Aristotle as early as the 1630s even though these difficul- ties were to make little impact on the official curriculum for well over a century. There were other rebels. One was John Milton. In his undergraduate exercises of about 1630 one may detect the influence of Bacon and possibly Galileo and Paracelsus. He urges a comprehensive science of nature: What a thing it is to grasp the nature of the whole firmament and of its stars, all the movements and changes of the atmosphere, whether it strikes terror into  22 G. A. J. Rogers ignorant minds by the majestic roll of thunder or by fiery comets, or whether it freezes into snow or hail, or whether again it falls softly and gently in showers of dew; then perfectly to understand the shifting winds and all the exhalations and vapours which earth and sea give forth; next to know the hidden virtues of plants and metals and understand the nature and the feelings, if that may be, of every living creature; next the delicate structure of the human body and the art of keeping it in health; and, to crown all, the divine might and power of the soul, and any knowledge we may have gained concerning those beings which we call spirits and genii and daemons.” Truly a Baconian programme And Milton combined his commitment to the importance of acquiring knowledge with admiration for Plato and contempt for the scholastic logic and metaphysics: ‘what shall we say of logic’ he wrote in the same Prolusion. she is indeed the queen of the Arts, if taught as it should be, but unfortunately how much foolishness there is in reason Its teachers are not like men at all, but like finches which live on thorns and thistles What am I to say of that branch of learning which the Peripatetics call metaphysics‘? It is not, as the authority of great men would have me believe, an exceedingly rich Art; it is. I say, not an Art at all, but a sinister rock, a Lernian bog of fallacies, devised to cause shipwreck and pestilence. These are the wounds, to which I have already referred, which the ignorance of gownsmen inflicts; and this monkish disease has already infected natural philosophy to a considerable extent; the mathemati- cians too are afflicted with a longing for the petty triumph of demonstrative rhetoric. If we disregard and curtail all these subjects, which can be of no use to us, as we should, we shall be surprised to find how many whole years we shall save.” Milton’s own work of logic, the Artis Logicae, published in 1672, is domin- ated by Ramist logic and as obscure to the modern mind as the scholastic logics which it was designed to replace. Nor would it be correct to read Milton as a modern philosopher, as an epistemologist in the style of Descartes or Locke. His aspiration is still the attainment of perfect knowledge which he clearly supposes is within man’s grasp: So at length, when universal learning has once completed its cycle, the spirit of man, no longer confined within this dark prison-house, will reach out far and wide, till it fills the whole world and the space far beyond with the expansion of its divine greatness. Then at last most of the chances and changes of the world will be so quickly perceived that to him who holds this stronghold of wisdom hardly anything can happen in his life which is unforeseen or fortuitous. He will indeed seem to be one whose rule and dominion the stars obey, to whose command earth and sea hearken, and whom winds and tempests serve; to whom, lastly, Mother Nature herself has surrendered, as if indeed some god had abdicated the throne of the world and entrusted its rights, laws, and administration to him as governor.” The scale of his optimism is breathtaking: a Faustian dream, and no doubt fraught with the same dangers, though the young author does not here
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