His sermons, such as that preached before the House of Commons, on 31 March 1647, advocate principles of religious toleration and charity. In 1678 he published The True Intellectual System of the Universe: the first part, wherein all the reason and philosophy of atheism is confuted and its impossibility demonstrated (imprimatur dated 1671). No more was published, perhaps because of the theological clamour raised against this first part. Much of Cudworth's work still remains in manuscript; A Treatise concerning eternal and immutable Morality was published in 1731; and A Treatise of Freewill, edited by John Allen, in 1838; both are connected with the design of his magnum opus, the Intellectual System.
The Intellectual System arose, so its author tells us, out of a discourse refuting "fatal necessity," or determinism. Enlarging his plan, he proposed to prove three matters:
- (a) the existence of God;
- (b) the naturalness of moral distinctions; and
- (c) the reality of human freedom.
These three together make up the intellectual (as opposed to the physical) system of the universe; and they are opposed respectively by three false principles, atheism, religious fatalism which refers all moral distinctions to the will of God, and thirdly the fatalism of the ancient Stoics, who recognized God and yet identified Him with nature. The immense fragment dealing with atheism is all that was published by its author. Cudworth criticizes two main forms of materialistic atheism, the atomic, adopted by Democritus, Epicurus and Hobbes; and the hylozoic, attributed to Strato of Lampsacus, which explains everything by the supposition of an inward self-organizing life in matter. Atomic atheism is by far the more important, if only because Hobbes, the great antagonist whom Cudworth always has in view, is supposed to have held it. It arises out of the combination of two principles, neither of which is atheistic taken separately, i.e. atomism and corporealism, or the doctrine that nothing exists but body. The example of Stoicism, as Cudworth points out, shows that corporealism may be theistic.
Into the history of atomism Cudworth plunges with vast erudition. It is, in its purely physical application, a theory that he fully accepts; he holds that it was taught by Pythagoras, Empedocles, and in fact, nearly all the ancient philosophers, and was only perverted to atheism by Democritus. It was first invented, he believes, before the Trojan war, by a Sidonian thinker named Moschus or Mochus, who is identical with the Moses of the Old Testament. In dealing with atheism Cudworth's method is to marshal the atheistic arguments elaborately, so elaborately that Dryden remarked "he has raised such objections against the being of a God and Providence that many think he has not answered them"; then in his last chapter, which by itself is as long as an ordinary treatise, he confutes them with all the reasons that his reading could supply. A subordinate matter in the book that attracted much attention at the time is the conception of the "Plastic Medium," which is a mere revival of Plato's "World-Soul," and is meant to explain the existence and laws of nature without referring all to the direct operation of God. It occasioned a long-drawn controversy between Pierre Bayle and Le Clerc, the former maintaining, the latter denying, that the Plastic Medium is really favourable to atheism.
A much more favourable judgment must be given upon the short Treatise on eternal and immutable Morality, which deserves to be read by those who are interested in the historical development of British moral philosophy. It is an answer to Hobbes's famous doctrine that moral distinctions are created by the state, an answer from the standpoint of Platonism. Just as knowledge contains a permanent intelligible element over and above the flux of sense-impressions, so there exist eternal and immutable ideas of morality. Cudworth's ideas, like Plato's, have "a constant and never-failing entity of their own," such as we see in geometrical figures; but, unlike Plato's, they exist in the mind of God, whence they are communicated to finite understandings. Hence "it is evident that wisdom, knowledge and understanding are eternal and self-subsistent things, superior to matter and all sensible beings, and independent upon them"; and so also are moral good and evil. At this point Cudworth stops; he does not attempt to give any list of Moral Ideas. It is, indeed, the cardinal weakness of this form of intuitionism that no satisfactory list can be given and that no moral principles have the "constant and never-failing entity," or the definiteness, of the concepts of geometry (these attacks are not uncontested — see, for example, the "Common Sense" tradition from Thomas Reid to James McCosh and the Oxford Realists Harold Prichard and Sir William David Ross). Henry More, in his Enchiridion ethicum, attempts to enumerate the "noemata moralia"; but, so far from being self-evident, most of his moral axioms are open to serious controversy.
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