A Puritan Phaedrus


There is no doubt that Peter Sterry (†1672) was both a Puritan and a Platonist. He was a devotee of Jesus and Plato, but only insofar as the latter agreed with and prepared one for the teachings of (and union with) the former. In a letter that he wrote to his son Peter (junior), Sterry combines the myth of the soul’s journey to absolute Beauty in the Phaedrus with the Christian doctrine of faith as a quasi-intellectual vision of Jesus within the soul in order to encourage his son to turn from his devotion to earthly passions and turn to Jesus. In this regard, Sterry appears as Socrates guiding his son to Beauty in Jesus by means of his influence and letters.

Your letters have both pleased mee well. I waite with hope to see with Joy that Eternall spirit, which is the seede of the Divine nature in you to carry on its owne Buds, and Blossomes to ripe Fruite. With all your Might thorrow the power of the glory of Christ in you, Follow after integrity, spirituality, constancy. Can hee that sees the Beauty of Christ’s face unveiled in him, and feeles Divine Love springign up imediately from its own Fountayne in his Soule, think, speake, or act from any other Principle, than the Light of this beauty, the Life of this Love, or to any end, besides the enlargement, and Propogation of the power, purity, Joyes, of this heavenly Light, and Life? O my Son, what sweeteness, Lovelynes, Strenth is there in being established in this grace, as a Tree in its Roote, in moving directly, continually towards this glory, without Gaps, or interruptions, as rivers to the Sea […] Hath the Life of Christ all things of heaven, and Earth in itself, as so many lives of Immortall Beauty, as so many Fountaynes of purest pleasures; have you by the good will of the everlasting Father thorrow that Essentiall Word his Son, this Life begottne in you, and can you doe any thing but abide in the actings of this Life, feede it, forme it in the Soules of others? So live in Christ, and Christ in you… (Peter Sterry, Selected Writings, ed. N.I. Matar. Peter Lang: 1994. pp. 133, 134)


The Plastic Faculty: Jacob Schegk on Nature’s Rational Principle


Hiro Hirai argues that for Jacob Schegk (1511-1587), a friend of Philip Melanchthon and professor of philosophy and medicine at the University of Tübingen, the natural force of life or secondary causality present within created things is explicable in the Galenic terms of a “moulding” or “plastic faculty.” This power is controlled and determined by God but possesses its own energy. Where Medievals spoke of the vegetative power as a passive potency, Schegk combined the natural philosophy of Galen with the Neoplatonic principle of “spiritual vehicles” to argue that the plastic faculty is a quasi-intellectual energy (energeia) that denotes the principle of generation in natural beings. Hirai explains the difference between this faculty and the generative potency of the human soul:

Before closing his discussion, Schegk enumerates four possible opinions on the origin of human souls: 1) They are eternal and enter bodies at birth and leave them at death (according to Plato and Aristotle); 2) they are created all at once in the beginning of the world, but each of them enters its specific body at a precise moment; 3) they are drawn from the potentiality of matter by the plastic logos as the products of Nature; 4) each of them begins to exist by divine creation at the same moment when body is formed by the plastic logos. Schegk obviously chooses the last option, denying that the human soul is drawn from the potentiality of matter. Invoking the authority of the Bible, he concludes that God forms creatures by the plastic instrument of the seed’s nature, whereas only for man God simultaneously creates his soul by Himself and forms his organic body by means of this plastic nature. According to Schegk, God is the Creator of angels whereas the human soul, which shares the angelic essence, is created as the “breath” (spiraculum) of the Creator and is not “produced” by the plastic nature. The everyday creation of the human soul with the formation of its organic body, which is to be animated by this soul, is the ultimate action of the Creator. Although God attributed a primary generative task to the plastic nature, he does not cease to create human souls in order to show that man is not the “product” (plasma) of Nature but the son of God. Schegk concludes:

“I believe that, if the philosophers had known the Creator God, they would have agreed with us and would have said that the souls are not contained in the seed and in the seminal liquid of the male before they inform human bodies. In fact,denying the Creator God, or rather being ignorant of Him, they were forced to conclude that, by the spermatic logos , the human soul and its body are generated at the same time and that the human soul is not introduced from outside but is drawn from the potentiality of matter.”

For Schegk, the plastic nature produces all except the human soul, which, endowed with angelic essence, has only the Creator God as its maker. The human soul, or more precisely, the intellect cannot be generated through seminal propagation since it is something “born before” (progenes) Nature. It should be created by what precedes it. That is the Creator God.

~ Hiro Hirai, “The Invisible Hand of God in Seeds: Jacob Schegk’s Theory of Plastic Faculty,” Early Science and Medicine 12 (2007), 401, 402.

According to Hirai, Schegk’s De plastica seminis facultate (Strasburg, 1580) was the first Renaissance work to use the phrase “plastic faculty.” The idea of the plastic power went on to become a staple in 17th century works of medicinal science and natural philosophy. Perhaps its most important exponent was Ralph Cudworth, who used the concept of the “plastic nature” as an integral part of this enterprise to wed Platonism and atomism and whose use of the phrase would be influential for G.W. Leibniz.

Why Law Presupposes Nature According to Ralph Cudworth (†1688)

In his A Treatise Concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality (new version edited by Sarah Hutton, Cambridge: 1996), Ralph Cudworth defends, in a thoroughly Modern way, what one may rightly deem a classical ontology. I will offer here a review of the first two chapters of book one and will devote future posts to the remainder of the treatise. Cudworth begins Ralph Cudworthby noting that a common view throughout the ages has held that there is no natural law but only positive law, no natural difference between good and evil but only mandates established by the authority of a sovereign. Aristotle affirms that politically “honest” and “just” things seem to vary so greatly that they cannot possess any common nature. Hence, by way of clarification, Aristotle divided:

  • Politically Just things (to dikaion politikon) between
    1. Natural (physikon) – things that are the same everywhere, and
    2. Legal (nomikon) “which before there be a law made, is indifferent, but when once the law is made, is determined to be just or unjust” (Cudworth’s trans. of Ethics 1134b18-21).

Among those who deny the first among this division are Democritus, Epicurus, and more contemporaneous, Thomas Hobbes. Cudworth quotes the latter as saying, “In the state of nature nothing can be unjust; the notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have no place; where there is no common power, there is no law; where no law, no transgression … No law can be unjust” (Elementorum philosophiae… vol. II, p. 145).

In connection with this denial of #1 are those who claim that only by the command of God in his absolute power do things become good. Cudworth singles out Ockham as one who held to this view of “an omnipotent Being devoid of all essential and natural justice” (p. 14). Some, such as Joannes Szydlovius (early 17th cent.) claim that “to love God is by nature an indifferent thing, and is morally good only, because it is commanded by God…” (Vindiciae questionum...).

Cudworth sets out in chapter 2 to prove by logical argument that commands depend upon and presuppose natures. No omnipotence, he argues,  is able to make a thing white or black without there being whiteness or blackness, and this is true whether one thinks of these as qualities (Aristotle) or dispositions of parts that beget the sensations of white or black within us (Descartes). Also, omnipotence cannot make things like or equal to one another without the nature of likeness and equality.

The reason thereof is plain, because all these things imply a manifest contradiction: that things should be what they are not. And this is a truth fundamentally necessary to all knowledge, that contradictories cannot be true; for otherwise nothing would be certainly true or false (p. 16).

By way of the Scholastics, Cudworth affirms the principle “that God himself cannot supply the place of a formal cause (Deum ipsum non posse supplere locum causae formalis).” In other words, “God” is not the nature of “justice” or “honesty” which is what would be the case if those terms were not self-referential but refer only to God’s will. Perhaps Cudworth’s clearest working principle, which one must affirm in order to avoid both logical contradiction and uphold natural rights, is that, “There is no such thing as an arbitrarious essence, mode, or relation, that may be made indifferently any thing at pleasure” (p. 17). In other words, things have their own existence and because of this they are not indifferent and thus cannot be changed at will. “For an arbitrarious essence is a being without a nature, a contradiction, and therefore a nonentity” (ibid.).

However, Cudworth notes, it is true that when God or a civil authority issues a command, the thing commanded becomes good when before it was indifferent, thus appearing to support the voluntarist claim that good and evil are human constructs. Even if things are bound by their natures, some claim, morality is created by the command of an authority. Cudworth responds that commands are not obligatory accept insofar as they apply to specific natures. For example, no known ruler has ever founded his authority of making commandments and others’ duty to obey them in a law of his own making.  Thus the authority of the commander must arrive from natural justice and an antecedent obligation to obey within the subjects. “Which things are not made by laws, but presupposed before all laws to make them valid ” (p. 18). For Cudworth, if there were no antecedent obligation to obey within subjects not even God himself could place any obligation on them to obey his commands “because the natures of things do not depend upon will, being not things that are arbitrarily made (gignomena) but things that are (onta)” (p. 19).

Having explained the logic of the above division between natural and legal good/evil Cudworth procedes to clarify what is known as “the Euthyphro dilemma” from Plato’s Euthyphro – Are things good because they are commanded or commanded because they are good? The answer to this dilemma, for Cudworth, depends upon a right division between intellect and will. The nature of man that does not depend upon arbitrary will is an intellectual nature. Thus, good and evil for an intellectual nature are things to which the intellect is obliged to pursue per se and others that the intellect obliges itself to pursue per accidens. This break-down may be of some help here:

  • Intellect – pursues the good by nature
    • Natural good – such things as the intellectual nature obliges to immediately, absolutely, and perpetually, and upon no condition of any voluntary action that may be done or omitted intervening.
  • Will by means of Intellect- pursues accidental or “indifferent” good and evil by a voluntary action either
      • self imposed or
      • imposed by another person
    • Positively (accidentally) good – such things as the intellectual nature obliges to accidentally upon condition of some voluntary act of another person invested with lawful authority in commanding.

Through a command of the will indifferent things acquire a new relation to the intellectual nature by falling underneath something that is absolutely good or evil. In other words, though they are commanded by the will, these indifferent things depend upon the intellectual nature of the subject supplying the general categories of good and evil under which they fall. For example, to keep faith is an obligation of natural justice. To keep faith with a particular person/entity at a specific time is a thing indifferent. However, when one makes a promise by voluntary action, that particular thing falls under the absolute category of “keeping faith” thus forming a new relation to the rational nature. Thus, natural justice for man is the intellectual nature which obliges one to obey both God and civil authority.

Subjects are not required to obey a specific civil authority merely because of a “positive” law but because the intellect naturally pursues obedience to the general office of the civil authority. Yet, even the civil authority is bound by the intellect and loses the power to command if he or she exceeds these naturally imposed bounds.

Cudworth clarifies that commands do not change indifferent things into things good per se but the obedience to a particular positive law concerning an indifferent thing can be divided between form and matter. The act of obedience to the indifferent thing which has become obligatory is material obedience while  formal obedience corresponds to the universal of yielding obedience to lawful authority.

Wherefore in positive commands, the will of the commander doth not create any new moral entity, but only diversely modifies and determines that general duty or obligation of natural justice to obey lawful authority and keep oaths and covenants, as our own will in promising doth but produce several modifications of keeping faith. And therefore there are no new things just or due made by either of them, besides what was always by nature such, to keep our own promises, and obey the lawful commands of others (p. 21).

Cudworth concludes from the above premises that if there were no intellectual nature or natural justice then nothing would be obligatory, especially not that which is supposedly begotten by a mere command of the will. One can see in this the foundation for a Western theory of innate and inalienable rights as things founded upon certain and intellectual principles. It is no wonder that a man as influential as John Locke was first schooled in the philosophy of Ralph Cudworth and nurtured through close convivial acquaintance with the latter’s daughter Lady Masham.

Platonic Reasoning as Cure for Materialism: W.G.T. Shedd’s Ontological Argument

It is often quite difficult to trace the influences upon a particular author’s opinion. To use the labels ”Platonic” or “Aristotelian” as the means for discovering the school of thought to which the author belongs can be a dubious method. Many ideas seem Platonic when they are actually essential aspects of religions that would claim no relation to Platonism or Neo-Platonism. And, just because one accepts Platonic ideas does not mean he/she is not Aristotelian in other matters or that he/she belongs to a particular “school” of thought. The case is more clear in authors such as Augustine and Anselm who both tell us that they have read Plato (or Plotinus) and consider the Platonic philosophy to be the most accurate and beneficial philosophy for the explanation of Christian theology.

In the case of W.G.T. Shedd, the conservative 19th century American Presbyterian theologian author of the famous three-volume Systematic Theology, his philosophical influences are quite clear. In the 1884 edition of the Presbyterian Review Shedd offers a defense of Anselm’s classic ontological argument for God’s existence. Not only is Anselm’s a priori method Platonic, depending upon the notion of God as Being which is knowable apart from the senses – not to mention the fact that Plato was the only philosopher available to thinkers in Anselm’s day –  but Shedd’s interpretation and defense of this argument is also Platonic, drawing upon the thoughts of Platonists who post-date Anselm.

Shedd begins his discussion noting that the Reformers and divines of the 16th and 17th centuries favored the ontological argument. Among these learned churchmen are the Cambridge Platonists – Ralph Cudworth, Henry More, and John Smith – who used Anselm’s argument in their battle against the materialism of Thomas Hobbes. Shedd defends the a priori method taking his queues from these men. He notes that the present judgment against this defense of God’s existence is erroneous:

May it not be that the present absorption in the study of visible and material objects has unfitted the mind for the study of ideas, by blunting the keenness of metaphysical conception, so that the needle’s point of the a priori argument is missed, and it is pronounced to be inconclusive? Be this as it may, it will certainly do no harm to the cause of truth, to consider the form and force of this old argument for the being of God. (p. 213)

One of Shedd’s major points in this article cuts against materialism and Kantian subjectivism, the point that if the subjective existence of God is more real than the objective existence – which Shedd notes is the current argument against Anselm’s reasoning – then the presupposed “matter” of materialism will itself be more real subjectively than objectively and thus “the certainty of the material world is gone.” (ibid.) In other words, if one’s idea of “matter” need not correspond to any matter in reality, then one’s knowledge of the material world will not be certain. The same is the case with the idea of God. This assumption rests on the saying of Augustine that, “God is more truly thought than he is described, and exists more truly than he is thought.” In fact, Shedd says of the material world that it is but a shadow when compared with the essence of God, an argument similar to that C.S. Lewis uses against the Pantheistic idea that “spirit” is less than “matter” in Miracles. One element of Anselm’s argument that Shedd praises is his realization that necessity of existence is an attribute of being. It can be affirmed of one being and denied of another. Necessity is a higher attribute of being than contingency, a distinction which differentiates creature from Creator and implies the dependency of the former upon the latter. Quoting the Puritan and Platonist John Howe, Shedd furthers his point that a priori reasoning leads to certain knowledge of God. “It is truly said,” remarks Howe,

of all created things, that their non esse is more than their esse; that is, they have more no-being than being. It is only some limited portion [degree] of being that they have; but there is an infinitude [infinite degree] of being which they have not. And so coming infinitely nearer to nothingness than to fulness of being, they may well enough wear the name of ‘nothing.’ ‘All nations before him are as nothing, and they are counted to him less than nothing’ (Isa. xl. 17). Wherefore the First and Fountain-Being justly appropriates to himself the name I Am, yea tells us, He is, and there is none besides Him; therebye leaving no other name than that of ‘nothing’ unto creatures. (ibid., 216, quoting Howe.)

For Shedd, not only has the materialistic philosophy of his age spoiled the collective Reason so that men look askance at a priori reasoning, but the rejection of this type of argument, Anselm’s specifically, hides a more fundamental rejection of the hyperousia characteristic of God’s nature. If God is hyper-real, if he is Being itself, then he is that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought and so existence is presupposed in the first premise. Shedd even finds evidence in the Scriptures to defend Anselm, reading Exodus 3:13 in a Platonic light:

The truth that absolutely perfect being is necessary being is taught in the revealed name of God. The ontological argument has the endorsement of inspiration. The Hebrew Jehova, in Ex. iii. 13, denotes necessity of existence . . . To give a name, in both Hebrew and the Greek intuition, is to describe the inmost and real nature of the thing. Plato, in the Cratylus (390), represents Socrates as saying that “the right imposition of names is no easy matter, and belongs not to any and everybody, but to him only who has an insight into the nature of things.” The nomenclature given by the unfallen man to the objects of nature (Gen. ii. 19, 20) implies a deep knowledge of nature. And when the deity chooses before all others the name I Am, or Jehovah, for himself, the reference is to his absoluteness and perfection of being. The ethnic names in distinction from the revealed name of the deity, imply attributes, not essence . . . [T]he Hebrew, divinely taught upon this point, chose a term which does not refer to a particular attribute, but to the very being and essence of God, and teaches that the deity must be, and cannot be conceived of as a nonentity. (ibid., 223)

Therefore, even the scriptures approve and require that the idea of God as Being implies a necessary being. In the Shleiermacherian manner, Shedd refers to this idea of God as man’s natural God-consciousness, which must have an objective referent; otherwise it would make as much sense as having the ability of smell with no existing object that can be perceived through the sense of smell. “The subjective requires the antithetic objective . . . in order to escape the absurd supposition that something comes from nothing, or that there is an effect in consciousness without any cause of it.” (ibid., 225)  Surely we may be able to imagine beings that do not exist. But, the absolutely perfect Being is not an object of the imagination but that of reason.

Any one who will examine it [the idea of the absolutely perfect Being], as he finds it in his consciousness, will immediately perceive that it is not a construction of his fancy, like the idea of a winged lion; or of his imagination, like the abstract conception of a house. These latter are attended with the conviction of their unreality, not of the reality. We know that there is nothing objectively correspondent to them. No man is influenced in the least by such ideas. A winged lion, like the heathen idol, “is nothing in the world.” Such purely subjective notions inspire no fear. But not so with the idea of God. “I thought of God, and was troubled,” is true of every man. There has never been a human being old enough to fear, but what has feared the Supreme Being in some way or other. The idea of the deity causes terror sometimes in the atheist himself. But if it were not the representation of a tremendous reality, it would produce no such effects the world over. (ibid., 225.)

Another proof that the idea of God must have an objective referent is the fact that the idea of “self” or “person” demands the existence of one’s own “self” or “person” in actu which in turn demand the existence of God’s “person.” “No man can believe that he is an ego, without believing that God is another ego – the I Am. The attributes of finite personality, namely, freedom and accountability, imply and necessitate the attributes of infinite personality, namely, sovereignty, justice, and omnipotence.” (ibid., p. 225)

Furthermore, Shedd replies to an objection that this idea of God which all men may know does not and should not take away from the mystery of God. If God is the really-Real Being that establishes the basis of all other being then his essence will inevitably be infinitely beyond man’s capacity to trace. This fact is proven with a quotation from the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth, who says:

It is indeed true, that the deity is more incomprehensible to us than anything else whatever: which proceeds from the fulness of his being and perfection, and from the transcendency of his brightness. But for this very same reason may it be said also, in some sense, that he is more knowable and conceivable than anything else; as the sun, though by reason of its excessive splendor it dazzle our weak sight, yet is notwithstanding far more visible, also, than any of the nebulosae stellae, the small, misty stars. (ibid, p. 226., quotting Cudworth)

So, we must maintain the mysterious nature of God but because he is as knowable as the sun’s light is intense we cannot rule out philosophical proofs of his existence, like Anselm’s ontological argument. Yet, we must admit that our own finitude renders our intellects week when exposed to the brightness of the divine Intellect. Thus, Shedd concludes his discussion of a priori reasoning calling on his readership to think like Anselm.

The a priori argument is of uncommon importance in an age inclined to materialism. For it turns the human mind in upon itself and thereby contributes to convince it of the reality of mind, as a different substance from matter. The neglect of a priori methods, and overvaluation of a posteriori, is one of the reasons why matter has so much more reality for many men than mind has. If an object is not considered, it gradually ceases to be regarded as an object at all. When theorists cease to reflect upon purely mental and moral phenomena, they cease to believe that there are any. The gaze of the materialist is intent upon the physical solely . . . What is needed is, the cultivation of philosophy in connection with physics; of a priori methods along with the a posteriori . . . Those a priori methods, consequently, which dispense with physical sensation and outward sensuous observations, are best adapted to convince of the reality of an invisible and immaterial entity like the human spirit, and its infinite antithesis and corresponding object the Eternal Spirit. (ibid., 227)

Shedd’s defense of Anselm came in the era of August Comte and Charles Darwin, an era that saw an increased emphasis on matter in the light of new methods in natural science. His training under the Christian transcendentalist James Marsh, who was himself a disciple of Samuel Taylor Colleridge, most likely shaped his thought toward an a priori method. These presuppositions most likely facilitated his reading of Plato, Anselm, and the Cambridge Platonists.  The battle of the latter against Thomas Hobbes and the materialists of their day probably hit home with Shedd, who found himself doing theological and philosophical battle with materialists of a new and more radical breed.

In some camps rational arguments for God’s existence are seen in a negative light. Some think these arguments only function to lead unbelievers to a purely abstract idea of God, one that has no objective referent. Yet, as Shedd has demonstrated this disagreement assumes that the idea of “that-than-which-nothing-greater-exists” is not a necessary being, whereas Anselm and Augustine originally thought of God as the most Real and concrete Being. Poetry has never written a poem, only poets; but God created poets. Surely Shedd would agree with Lewis that God is trans-concrete and trans-corporeal because existence is his nature.

It almost goes without saying that the Reformed world needs more scholars such as W.G.T. Shedd. We also need to remember men such as he and consider the sources that influenced them and cease to be afraid that “pagan” thinking will lead us astray. In my experience, it is the lack of such sound philosophy that has led theologians to erroneous conclusions. Perhaps a more “Platonic” education will help in the current battle against atheism in both the ecclesiastic and public spheres.