1902 Encyclopedia > John Norris

John Norris
English philosopher and poet
(1657-1711)




NORRIS, JOHN (1657-1711), the disciple of Plato and Malebranche, was born in 1657 at Collingbourne-Kingston in Wiltshire, where his father was then incumbent. He was educated at Winchester School, and entered at Exeter College, Oxford, in 1676. In 1680 he took his degree and was elected to a fellowship at All Souls' College. He first made himself known in the university, Anthony Wood tells us, by a translation of Robert Waryng's philosophical poem, Effigies Anzoris, entitled The Picture of Love Unveiled. This appeared in 1682, and was followed in 1683 by his first original work, An Idea of Happiness. With Plato, he places the highest happiness or fruition of the soul in the contemplative love of God - " that primitive and original Beauty, Perfection, and Harmony." Norris's poems, mostly composed about this time, are, in the main, expressions of his habitual mood of devout but somewhat abstract contemplation. They have little poetic richness, but their grave style is often not without impressiveness, and works itself out at intervals into a felicitous stanza or a memorable line. A few pieces (such, for instance, as The Parting) might claim even a higher praise. The poems appeared in 1684 as the first part of a volume of Poems and Discourses occasionally written. Three years later a new and enlarged edition was published with the title, A Collection of Miscellanies ; and in this form the volume was popular enough to go through nine editions. In the midst of these graver productions Norris found leisure to give vent to his hereditary Tory and High-Church feeling in a satire on the Whigs and a Latin tractate aimed at the Calvinistic dissenters. All through his life his intense intellectual activity seemed to make it almost a necessity for him to mingle in whatever controversy was going on. But philosophy and philosophical theology formed his central interest. Malebranche's Recherche de la Verite, which had appeared in 1674, made an easy conquest of the Oxford fellow, to whom its doctrine appeared no more than the consistent and clarified modern expression of that Platonized Christianity which met him alike in St John, in Plotinus, and in Augustine, the father whom he "loved to speak after." Perhaps it would be more correct to say that Norris reads his favourite authors in the light of the theory derived from Malebranche. It is at least doubtful whether he would have reached any definiteness of philosophic theory for himself without the aid of the French thinker. He makes no secret of his discipleship. Malebranche, be says, "is indeed the great Galileo of the intellectual world. He has given us the point of view, and, whatever further detections are made, it must be through his telescope." Norris's readings in modern philosophy were not confined, however, to Malebranche; he had studied the works of Descartes himself, and most of what had been Written for and against Cartesianism on the Continent. Of English thinkers, More and Cudworth, the so-called Cambridge Platonists, had influenced him most ; and in 1685 his study of their works had ripened into a correspondence with the former. After More's death Norris published the correspondence between them as an appendix to his Platonically conceived essay on The Theory and Regulation of Love (1688).

Some time before this Norris had taken orders, and in 1689, on being presented to the living of Newton St Loe, in Somersetshire, he married, and resigned his fellowship. In the same year he published Reason and Religion, the first of his riper works. The Reflections upon the Conduct of Human Life, which he wrote (also in 1689) "by way of -letter to an excellent lady, the Lady Masharn," did not advance his interests in that quarter ; for the lady, whose eyes were only weak, was nettled at being set down in the preface as blind. In 1690 Norris published a volume of Discourses upon the Beatitudes, which proved decidedly popular, and induced the author to follow it up by three more volumes of Practical Discourses between 1690 and 1698. The year 1690 is memorable as the year of the publication of Locke's Essay, and the book came into Norris's hands just as his volume of Discourses was passing through the press. He at once appreciated its importance, but its whole temper was alien from the modes of thought in which he had been reared, and its main conclusions moved him to keen dissent. He hastened to " review " it in an appendix to his sermons. These Cursory Reflections constitute Norris the first critic of the Essay; and they anticipate some of the arguments that have since been persistently urged against Locke from the transcendental side. Though holding to the "grey-headed, venerable doctrine" of innate ideas as little as Locke himself, Norris finds the criticism in the first book of the Essay entirely inconclusive, and points out its inconsistency with Locke's own doctrine of evident or intuitively perceived truths. He also suggests the possibility of subconscious ideation, on which Leibnitz laid so Much stress in the same connexion. He next complains that Locke neglects to tell us "what kind of things these ideas are which are let in at the gate of the senses." In other words, while giving a metaphorical account of how we come by our ideas, Locke leaves unconsidered the intellectual nature of the ideas or of thought in itself. Unless we come to some conclusion on this point, Norris argues, we have little chance of being right in our theory of how ideas "come to be united to our mind." He also puts his finger upon the weakness of Locke's doctrine of nominal essences, showing how it ignores the relation of the human mind to objective truth, and instancing mathematical figures as a case "where the nominal essence and the real essence are all one."





In 1691 Norris was transferred to Bemerton, a pleasant rural charge near Salisbury, where George Herbert had been parish priest in the earlier part of the century. A few miles distant is Langford Magna, where from 1704 onwards Norris had a congenial metaphysical neighbour in the person of Arthur Collier, the future author of Clavis Universalis. The remaining twenty years of Norris's life were spent at Bemerton, the flight of time marked only by the works that still came in rapid succession from his pen. In 1691-92 he was engaged in controversy with his old enemies the "Separatists," and with the Quakers, his Malebranchian theory of the divine illumination having been confounded by some with the Quaker doctrine of the light within. In 1697 he wrote An Account of Reason and Faith, one of the best of the many answers to Toland's Christianity not Mysterious. Norris adopts the distinction between things contrary to reason and things above reason, and maintains that the human mind is not the measure of truth. In 1701 appeared the first volume of the systematic philosophical work by which he is remembered, An Essay towards the Theory of the Ideal or Intelligible World. The first volume treats the intelligible world absolutely ; the second, which appeared in 1704, considers it in relation to human understanding. In 1708 Norris wrote A Philosophical Discourse concerning the ilratural Immortality of the Soul, defending that doctrine against the assaults of Dodwell. But after the completion of his magnum opus his appearances in print became less frequent. His health was not robust, and perhaps he was a little disappointed at his failure to reach the larger public. Norris died in 1711 at the comparatively early age of 54.

It will hardly be claimed for Norris that he was either an ori,inal thinker or a master of style. As Molyneux writes to Locke, he is "overrun with Malebranche and Plato ;" his philosophy is hardly more than an English version of Malebranche, enriched by wide reading of " Platonic " thinkers of every age and country. His style is too scholastic and self-involved. Nevertheless he was an acute and strenuous thinker. His Theory of the Intelligible World is an attempt to explain the objective nature of truth, which he blamed Locke for leaving out of regard. By the intelligible world Norris understands the system of ideas eternally existent in the mind of God, according to which the material creation was formed. This ideal system he identifies with the Logos - the second person of the Trinity, the light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world. For it is these ideas and their relations that are alone the object-matter of science ; whenever we know, it is because they are present to our mind ; or, as Malebranche says, we see all things in God. Material things are wholly dark to us, except so far as the fact of their existence is revealed in sensation. The matter which we say that we know is the idea of matter, and belongs, like other ideas, to the intelligible world. When stripped of its semi-mythical form of statement, Norris's emphatic assertion of the ideal nature of thought and its complete distinction from sense as such may be seen to contain an important truth. He stands somewhat aside from the main course of English philosophical thought. But, as the disciple and correspondent of More, he is, in a sense, the heir of the Cambridge Platonists, while, as the first critic of Locke's Essay, he may be said to open the protest of the church against the implicit tendencies of that work. He occupies a place, therefore, in the succession of churchly and mystical thinkers of whom Coleridge is the last eminent example. (A. SR )







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