Back in 1983, the excellent scholar of early modern philosophy Sarah Hutton published an interesting little piece called “The Neoplatonic Roots of Arianism: Ralph Cudworth and Theophilus Gale” (in Lech Szczucki, ed. Socinianism and its Role in the Culture of the XVI-th to XVIII-th Centuries (Warsaw: Polish Academy of Sciences, 139-45). Professor Hutton informs me that it will be coming out in a collection of papers on the Cambridge Platonists. I’ll just very crudely summarize the piece, and make my point about it.
Hutton outlines a profoundly misguided debate, over the question in the title of this posting. The correct answer, of course, is neither. Ralph Cudworth (1617-1688) was perhaps the most famous and philosophically able member of the “Cambridge Platonists”. I have to admit that I have a lot of admiration of this school of thought particularly for its sober moral and spiritual side. Hutton, however, is writing about its kooky speculative underbelly. In her words,
Plato was regarded as primarily a religious thinker… Plotinus was considered an authentic interpreter of Plato and both were thought to be exponents of an ancient pagan theology also contributed to by Zoroaster, Orpheus, Hermes Trismegistus and Pythagoras. Belief in this prisca theologia [ancient theology] was enhanced not only by its apparent parallels with Christian doctrine, but also by the supposition that Moses had conferred with the Egyptian sages and that Plato had learned theology from them during his sojourn in Egypt. The Christian reading of Plato seemed more plausible because it was thought that he wrote with deliberate obscurity to veil the truth. The chief similarities between his writing and Christian doctrine are his monotheism, his belief in the immortality of the soul and his moral teaching. Rather more tendentiously were ascribed to him belief in the creation of the world and in the Trinity. (139-40, emphasis added)
This whole framework is rejected almost down to the last drop by all serious current-day scholars – the above is a mix of known falsehoods, baseless speculations, and half-truths.
My point in highlighting Hutton’s well-done article is as follows. Cudworth was no dummy, and neither were any of the other Cambridge Platonists. They were serious, smart, and highly educated. In other contexts, I’d be praising what they said on various philosophical topics. And yet some of them, notably Cudworth, found it easy to radically and systematically misread a whole wad of historical philosophers, including Plato and Plotinus, because of his devotion to a pet-theory, the theory of the “ancient theology”.
Further, the polemical concerns of his day seem to have played a distorting role in Cudworth’s thought.
…by indicating the presence of trinitarian notions among the pagans, Cudworth feels he can demonstrate the naturalness of the idea of a triune God, so destroying the arguments of thoso who dismiss the Trinity and nonsense. (143)
That’ll show those English Socinians! “See – even Plato dimly, sort of, kind of understood the Trinity – it isn’t nonsense.” As far as I know, this wasn’t an effective reply.
In the latter part of her piece, Hutton describes the equally goofy and confused agenda of the lesser known thinker Theophilus Gale.
His main work, The Court of the Gentiles [1669-1678]… displays immense erudition in [the] attempt to demonstrate the Hebrew origin of all ancient learning and even language. However, [against Cudworth] the best gentile philosophy is but a corrupt version of the biblical original, and has, consequently, led to heresy and atheism. (143, emphasis added)
Concerning the Trinity, his theory is that Plotinus’ teacher Ammonius misunderstood the Bible’s teaching on the Trinity and then passed it off as Plato’s teaching, thus besmirching Plato’s later reputation, for this adulterated Platonic Trinity eventually gave rise to Arianism. (143-4) Dear reader, don’t believe a word of it! Recent scholarship has not supported the theory that Arius’ view were the product of some commitment of his to Platonism. (e.g. Rowan Williams’ Arius: Heresy and Tradition, pp. 181-245)
And all ancient learning and language (!) derive from the ancient Hebrews?! Dude…
My point in bringing up this almost-funny episode is as follows. Smart and educated people have theoretical agendas, and much of their intellectual activity has to do with promoting these, rather than with unadulterated truth-seeking or following the evidence and arguments wherever they may lead. They’ll dig for support for their agenda wherever it can be had. And their desire to find such support tragically often leads them to misunderstand the written works of others, particularly those which are considered authoritative or quasi-authoritative (e.g. being from a Great Thinker). They need these texts to say P, even if (pretty clearly) the texts don’t say P, and even assert or assume not-P. They’re blind to what those texts actually say, that is, to part of it – the inconvenient part. Texts can’t talk back. They can’t jump up and slap you out of it. They can’t raise or lower their voices to clarify what they’re really saying. They just lie there and take it. And this sort of misreading can go on for dozens of generations.