John Smith, the moral and religious philosopher of the Cambridge Platonist school, was born at Achurch, near Oundle, in Northamptonshire. Very little is known with certainty about his origins.
It would seem that his father was a locally respected small farmer, that both of his parents were elderly when he was born, that he lost his mother in his early childhood and his father soon after. His short life was a continual struggle against poverty and ill health. In 1636 he was somehow enabled to enter Emmanuel College, where he came under the influence of Benjamin Whichcote.
Although he was about the same age as his fellow Platonist Ralph Cudworth, Cudworth was already a fellow of Emmanuel before Smith took his BA in 1640; Smith was very likely his pupil and certainly came under his influence. The influence may have been in some measure reciprocal.
Smith took his MA degree in 1644; the same year he was elected a fellow of Queen’s College, Cambridge, having been declared by the London Assembly of Divines a suitable person to replace one of the fellows who had been ejected by the Puritan Parliament.
He taught Greek, Hebrew, and mathematics. Like his master Whichcote he had gifts of character and personal warmth, which won for him not only the respect but also the affection of pupils and friends.
The funeral sermon preached by Simon Patrick on his death on August 7, 1652, is, even allowing for the extravagance of phrase common to such occasions, an impressive tribute to his intellectual and personal gifts.
He published nothing, but after his death a series of Discourses that he had delivered as dean of his college in the chapel of Queen’s was collected, edited, and published by John Worthington. Another volume was promised but never appeared.
Matthew Arnold described Smith’s Discourses as “the most admirable work left to us by the Cambridge School.” This is the judgment of a man whose interests lay in religion and culture rather than in philosophy. As a philosopher Smith will not stand comparison with Cudworth or Henry More. Basically, he was an eloquent apologist for the liberal theology of the Cambridge school.
The flow of that eloquence, however, is interrupted, in the Cambridge Platonist manner, by quotations in a variety of tongues from Plato, especially the Phaedo and the Republic, and the Neoplatonists, the Hebrew Scriptures, the Talmud, and, the sole contemporary, René Descartes.
Smith’s reasoning is by no means close. “It is but a thin, airy knowledge,” he writes in the first Discourse, “that is got by mere speculation, which is ushered in by syllogisms and demonstrations.”
God’s nature, he thinks, is to be understood by “spiritual sensation” rather than by verbal description; Smith’s object is to arouse such a “spiritual sensation” in human souls, and philosophy is only ancillary to that task.
The first six of the Discourses Smith composed as a continuous essay. They were to be the first segment of a book that he did not live to complete. As editor, Worthington broke up the essay into chapters and added, from Smith’s papers, four sermons to act as a substitute for the unwritten segments of the essay. Smith’s general thesis is the Platonic one that goodness and knowledge are intimately united; only the purified soul can achieve true knowledge.
Every soul, he thought, has within it innate concepts of religion and morality. Ordinarily obscured by sensuality, they nevertheless act as a guide to the direction in which purification is to be sought. Such principles Smith thinks of as innate ideas.
Knowledge, in his view, is derived by reflection of the character of our souls; it does not arise out of sensory experience. One can see why he admired the Neoplatonists and welcomed the teachings of Descartes.
He did not live long enough to share in the revulsion against Descartes’s teachings as mechanistic, which More and Cudworth were to exhibit; indeed, in his Discourses he draws on Descartes’s physiology.
According to Smith, the three great enemies of religion are superstition, legalism, and atheism. Superstition consists of treating God as a capricious power who has to be cajoled by flattery, bribery, or magical spells. Legalism conceives of religion as laying down doctrines that have simply to be accepted as rules for governing our conduct.
It can take a variety of forms, “Scripture-Christianity” is quite as legalistic as Jewish formalism if it consists of picking out of the Scriptures a set of doctrines on the acceptance of which salvation is supposed to depend. Smith attacks this sort of Christianity with particular vigor, especially in his Sermon “Pharisaical Righteousness” (Discourses VIII).
As for atheism, Smith, unlike Cudworth and More, did not have Thomas Hobbes to contend with. He knew of atheism only as it appears in the writings of the Epicureans; much of his (very brief) argument against atheism is directed against the Epicurean version of atomism. He regards the belief in God as a “natural belief” that scarcely needs to be defended.
He is much more preoccupied with the belief in immortality, perhaps because Richard Overton in a notorious pamphlet, Man’s Mortality (1643), published in London although as if from Amsterdam, had denied that humans are by nature immortal, arguing that the soul and the body are so compounded that they die and are resurrected together. Smith defends what Overton had rejected—the traditional distinction between soul and body—calling upon Descartes for support.
If people are led to doubt the immortality of their souls, Smith argues, this is only because they are conscious that their souls do not deserve to be immortalized. Once they improve the quality of their lives, they will come to be conscious of their souls as exhibiting a kind of goodness that is obviously destined to be eternal.
Similarly, if questions arise about God’s nature, these can be settled, as Plotinus had suggested, only by reflection on the workings of our own souls in their most godlike moments.
God is the perfect soul, the perfectly loving soul, the perfectly rational soul; that this is God’s nature we see by reflection upon our own perfections and imperfections.
It is easy to see why men as different as John Wesley and Matthew Arnold expressed admiration for Smith and sought to introduce his writings to a wider audience. Smith’s appeal to inwardness, to the capture of the soul by God, recommends him to the evangelical; his rejection of merely creedal religions, the moral emphasis of his teaching, recommends him to the liberal theologian.