Richard Cumberland

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Richard Cumberland

Richard Cumberland (1631 - 1718) was an English philosopher and bishop of Peterborough from 1691, the son of a citizen of London. He was born in the parish of St. Ann, near Aldersgate.

In 1672, he wrote De legibus naturae (On Natural Laws), propounding utilitarianism and opposing the egoistic ethics of Thomas Hobbes. Cumberland maintained that the whole-hearted pursuit of the good of the whole contributes to the good of each and brings personal happiness; that the opposite process involves misery to individuals including the self. Furthermore he propounded that the motive for social behavior comes from benevolence, and his social theory can be characterized by the idea of universal benevolence.


He was educated in St Paul's School, and at Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he obtained a fellowship. He took the degree of BA in 1653; and, having proceeded to his MA in 1656, was the next year incorporated to the same degree in the university of Oxford. For some time he studied medicine; and although he did not adhere to this profession, he retained his knowledge of anatomy and medicine. He took the degree of BD in 1663, and that of Doctor of Divinity in 1680. Among his contemporaries and intimate friends were Dr. Hezekiah Burton, Sir Samuel Morland, who was distinguished as a mathematician, Sir Orlando Bridgeman, who became keeper of the great seal, and Samuel Pepys.

To this academical connexion, he appears to have been greatly indebted for his advancement in the Church. When Bridgeman was appointed lord keeper, he nominated Cumberland and Burton as his chaplains, nor did he afterwards neglect the interest of either. Cumberland's first preferment, bestowed upon him in 1658, by Sir John Norwich, was the rectory of Brampton in Northamptonshire. In 1661, he was appointed one of the twelve preachers of the university. The lord keeper, who obtained his office in 1667, invited him to London, and soon afterwards bestowed upon him the rectory of Allhallows at Stamford, where he acquired new credit by the fidelity with which he discharged his duties. In addition to his ordinary work, he undertook the weekly lecture.

This labor he constantly performed, and in the meantime found leisure to pursue his scientific and philological studies. At the age of forty, he published his earliest work, entitled De legibus naturae disquisitio philosophica, in qua earum forma, summa capita, ordo, promulgatio, et obligatio e rerum natura investigantur; quin etiam elementa philosophiae Hobbianae, cum moralis tum civilis, considerantur et refutantur (London, 1672). It is dedicated to Sir Orlando Bridgeman, and is prefaced by an "Alloquium ad Lectorem," contributed by Dr. Burton. It appeared during the same year as Samuel von Pufendorf's De jure naturae et gentium, and was highly commended in a subsequent publication by Pufendorf, whose approbation must have had the effect of making it known on the continent.

Having thus established a solid reputation, Cumberland next prepared a work on a very different subject, An Essay Towards the Recovery of the Jewish Measures and Weights, Comprehending Their Monies; by Help of Ancient Standards, Compared with ours of England: Useful Also to State Many of Those of the Greeks and Romans, and the Eastern Nations (London, 1686). This work, dedicated to Pepys, obtained a copious notice from Leclerc, and was translated into French.

One day, in 1691, he went, according to his custom on a post-day, to read the newspaper at a coffee-house in Stamford, and there, to his surprise, he read that the king had nominated him to the bishopric of Peterborough. The bishop elect was scarcely known at court, and he had resorted to none of the usual methods of advancing his temporal interest. He discharged his new duties with energy and kept up his episcopal visitations till his eightieth year.

His approach as a clergyman is described as plain and unambitious, the earnest breathings of a pious mind. When David Wilke published the New Testament in Coptic, he presented a copy to the bishop, who began to study the language at the age of eighty-three. He died in 1718, at age eighty-seventh; he was found sitting in his library, in the attitude of one asleep, and with a book in his hand. His great-grandson was Richard Cumberland, the dramatist.

The care of his posthumous publications devolved upon his domestic chaplain and son-in-law, Squier Payne, who soon after the bishop's death edited Sanchoniatho's Phoenician History, translated from the first book of Eusebius, De praeparatione evangelica: With a continuation of Sanchoniato's history of Eratosthenes Cyrenaeus's Canon, which Dicaearchus connects with the first Olympiad. These authors are illustrated with many historical and chronological remarks, proving them to contain a series of Phoenician and Egyptian chronology, from the first man to the first Olympiad, agreeable to the Scripture accounts (London, 1720).

The preface contains an account of the life, character, and writings of the author, which was likewise published in a separate form, and exhibits a pleasing picture of his happy old age. A German translation appeared under the title of Cumberlands phonizische Historie des Sanchoniathons, iibersetzt von Joh. Phil. Cassel (Magdeburg, 1755). The sequel to the work was likewise published by Payne, Origines gentium antiquissimae; or Attempts for Discovering the Times of the First Planting of Nations: In Several Tracts (London, 1724).


The philosophy of Cumberland is expounded in the treatise De legibus naturae. Its main design is to combat the principles which Hobbes had promulgated as to the constitution of humanity, the nature of morality, and the origin of society, and to prove that self-advantage is not the chief end of humanity, that force is not the source of personal obligation to moral conduct nor the foundation of social rights, and that the state of nature is not a state of war. The views of Hobbes seemed to Cumberland utterly subversive of religion, morality, and civil society, and he endeavored, as a rule, to establish directly antagonistic propositions. He refrains, however, from denunciation, and is a fair opponent up to the measure of his insight. Laws of nature are defined by him as "immutably true propositions regulative of voluntary actions as to the choice of good and the avoidance of evil, and which carry with them an obligation to outward acts of obedience, even apart from civil laws and from any considerations of compacts constituting government." This definition, he says, will be admitted by all parties. Some deny that such laws exist, but they will grant that this is what ought to be understood by them. There is, thus, common ground for the two opposing schools of moralists to join issue.

The existence of such laws may, according to Cumberland, be established in two ways. The inquirer may start either from effects or from causes. The former method had been taken by Grotius, Robert Sharrock (1630-1684), and John Selden. They had sought to prove that there were universal truths, entitled to be called laws of nature, from the concurrence of the testimonies of many people, and through generalizing the operations of certain active principles. Cumberland admits this method to be valid, but he prefers the other, from causes to effects, as showing more convincingly that the laws of nature carry with them a divine obligation. It shows not only that these laws are universal, but that they were intended as such; that humanity has been constituted as it is in order that they might be. However, he expressly declined to have recourse to what he calls "the short and easy expedient of the Platonists," the assumption of innate ideas of the laws of nature. He thought it ill-advised to build the doctrines of natural religion and morality on a hypothesis which many philosophers, both Gentile and Christian, had rejected, and which could not be proved against the Epicureans, the principal impugners of the existence of laws of nature. Cumberland asserted that moral distinctions were apprehended by means of right reason, the power of rising to general laws of nature from particular facts of experience. It is no peculiar faculty or distinctive function of mind; it involves no original element of cognition; it begins with sense and experience; it is gradually generated and wholly derivative. This doctrine would be further developed by Hartley, Mackintosh and later associationists. In other words, ideas must not have existed from eternity in the divine mind, but must start from the data of sense and experience, and thence by search into the nature of things discover their laws. The attributes of God are not to be known by direct intuition, but only through nature. Cumberland, therefore, held that the ground taken up by the Cambridge Platonists could not be maintained against Hobbes.

Cumberland's ethical theory is summed up in his principle of universal benevolence, the source of moral good. "No action can be morally good which does not in its own nature contribute somewhat to the happiness of men." The theory is important in comparison with that of Hobbes, and with modern utilitarianism. Cumberland's benevolence is, deliberately, the precise antithesis to the Egoism of Hobbes. Cumberland maintained that the whole-hearted pursuit of the good of all contributes to the good of each and brings personal happiness; that the opposite process involves misery to individuals, including the self. If, then, Hobbes went to the one extreme of postulating selfishness as the sole motive of human action, Cumberland was equally extravagant as regards to benevolence. Cumberland never appealed to the evidence of history, although he believed that the law of universal benevolence had been accepted by all nations and generations; he carefully abstains from arguments founded on revelation, feeling that it was indispensable to establish the principles of moral right on nature as a basis.

His method was the deduction of the propriety of certain actions from the consideration of the character and position of rational agents in the universe. He argues that all that is seen in nature is framed so as to avoid and reject what is dangerous to the integrity of its constitution; that the human race would be an anomaly in the world had it not for an end its conservation in its best estate; that benevolence of all to all is what, in a rational view of the creation, is alone accordant with its general plan; that various peculiarities of humanity's body indicate that people has been made to cooperate with their fellow humans and to maintain society; and that certain faculties of the mind show the common good to be more essentially connected with perfection than any pursuit of private advantage. The whole course of his reasoning proceeds on, and is pervaded by, the principle of final causes. To the question, "What is the foundation of rectitude?" he replies, the greatest good of the universe of rational beings.

He may be regarded as the founder of English utilitarianism, but his utilitarianism is distinct from what is known as the selfish system; it goes to the contrary extreme, by almost absorbing individual in universal good. Cumberland's views were long abandoned by utilitarians as destroying the homogeneity and self-consistency of their theory; but John Stuart Mill and some recent writers have reproduced them as necessary to its defense against charges not less serious than inconsistency. For Cumberland, the obligation to the laws of nature is a result of the idea that happiness flows from obedience, and misery from disobedience to them, not as the mere results of a blind necessity, but as the expressions of the divine will.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Connor. A Treatise of the Laws of Nature London, 1727.
  • Cumberland, R. Memoirs of Richard Cumberland London. Ayer Co Pub, 1806. ISBN 0405084137
  • Cumberland, R., J. Maxwell, and J. Parkin. A Treatise Of The Laws Of Nature. Liberty Fund, 2005. ISBN 086597473X
  • Kirk, L. Richard Cumberland and Natural Law: Secularism of Thought in Seventeenth-Century England Cambridge: James Clarke & Co, 1987. ISBN 0227678591
  • Tyrell, James. A Brief Disquisition of the Laws of Nature according to the Principles laid down in the Rev. Dr Cumberland's Latin Treatise. London, 1692.

External links

All links retrieved December 8, 2022.

General philosophy sources


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