Cambridge Platonism and the Third Earl of Shaftesbury
Against the idea of a linear “disenchantment of the world,” this chapter makes a case for the persistence of magical views of sympathy in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The Cambridge Platonists Ralph Cudworth, Henry More, and Benjamin Whichcote shared a commitment to a vital, magical worldview, defined against the thoroughgoing mechanistic materialism of Hobbes and others, and to a sympathetic view of human nature. They conceived sympathy as a magical principle of the whole; providentially perfect, the order of things constituted a universal system, comprehending the natural as well as the moral. The Cambridge Platonists’ insistence on this overarching order exerted a deep influence on the third Earl of Shaftesbury, long a central figure in the history of sensibility. Shaftesbury supported their rejection of moral relativism and their advancement of a broadly non-mechanistic, magical worldview. For him, the sympathetic universe was not an irrecoverable prelapsarian ideal but a present reality. Yet, in Shaftesbury’s conception of sympathy, the focus has shifted from the natural world to the moral, and from the ontological to the aesthetic; in his principal work, Characteristicks, sympathy emerges as both the unifying force of society and the organizing principle of artistic production.
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