A Fountain-Head Of English Ethics -- By: George F. Magoun

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 043:171 (Jul 1886)
Article: A Fountain-Head Of English Ethics
Author: George F. Magoun


A Fountain-Head Of English Ethics

Rev. George F. Magoun

Richard Cumberland, D. D., bishop of Peterborough in the county of Northampton, England, 1691–1718, was born in London, 1632, educated at St. Paul’s School and at Magdalen College, Cambridge University, fellow of Magdalen about 1655, vicar of All-Hallows and rector of Brampton, before he was made a bishop. As a general datum in philosophical chronology, Cumberland came about a century after Bacon and about ninety years before Adam Smith. More particularly, he was forty-four years younger than Hobbes, thirty-six younger than Descartes, fifteen years younger than Cudworth and the Cambridge Platonists. He was born the same year with Spinoza and Locke. Shaftesbury, his disciple, came thirty-eight years later; Hutcheson, the disciple of Shaftesbury, sixty-two; Bishop Butler, seventy; President Edwards, seventy-one; Dr. Reid, seventy-eight; and Hume, seventy-nine. Cumberland’s intellectual vigor was shown at the age of eighty-three by his becoming a proficient in the Coptic language. Our popular English speech is in debt to this well-nigh forgotten English prelate and philosopher for the phrase, “better to wear out than to rust out.”

The moral philosophy of Cumberland is to be found in his treatise De Legibus Naturae Disquisitio Philosophica, 1672. The book is now a rare one: frequent searches in the London book market have failed to discover a copy, and that which lies before me turned up unexpectedly in New York. The latest life of Hobbes (Prof. Croom Robertson, Edin., 1886) says of this author that he is “properly the first of Hobbes’s critics, in point of time, among those who have left their mark on the develop-

ment of ethical theory.” Of his treatise President Porter says, in Ueberweg’s Hist. Philosophy (vol. ii., American translation), that it is “memorable as being the first English treatise in philosophical ethics as distinguished from the treatises on casuistry,”—as “the first from that numerous school of ethical writers which was called into being by antagonism to Hobbes,”—and as “the first of modern treatises which dares to assert that certain ethical conceptions and beliefs obtainable by reason are required in order to be able to interpret and defend revelation.” Few books are memorable for reasons of such a character, and we are manifestly drawing here from a fountain-head— if stronger words cannot be used—of English ethics. Many ideas will flow out at this source which have been long since made familiar to American religious thought by our own writers, who probably drew from the successors of Cumberland in the mother country, rather than from himself. The book was “Made English from the Latin by John...

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