John Norris (1657 – 1711), Anglican priest, philosopher and poet, is remembered as a Cambridge Platonist and as the sole English proponent of the ideas of the French philosopher Nicolas Malebranche (1638 – 1715). Norris was a Platonist and mystic, who wrote on politics, religion, philosophy and Christian life. He was an early critic of John Locke, whose An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) he attacked in Christian Blessedness or Discourses upon the Beatitudes in the same year.
Norris felt that Malebranche had not succeeded in proving the existence of the intelligible world (the mind of God), or in thoroughly explaining its nature, and set out to complete his system by writing An Essay Towards the Theory of the Ideal or Intelligible World (1701 – 1704). The first volume discussed the nature of God; the second explained the nature of creation, and particularly the nature of animals and human beings. Norris tried to synthesize the thought of Descartes, Malebranche, Suarez, Augustine, Aquinas and Plato, with his concept of the Christian God as a god of truth and love. He believed that God’s truth and love should be realized in every aspect of human life, and that the purpose of education and knowledge was only to better understand Christianity. Among his most popular works were A Collection of Miscellanies (1687) and An Account of Reason and Faith (1697).
John Norris was born at Collingbourne, Kingston, Wiltshire, in 1657, the second of four siblings. His father was a Puritan minister. In 1671, he entered Winchester School, where he studied Greek and Latin literature. He matriculated at Exeter College, Oxford, studying the Scholastics and ancient authors from 1676 until 1680, when he received his Bachelor of Arts. In 1680, he was elected a Fellow of All Souls College, and in 1684 he earned his Masters Degree. Between 1680 and 1689, Norris published several of his most popular works. The first edition of A Collection of Miscellanies appeared in 1687, and was reprinted nine times before 1730. He also published “The Root of Liberty,” a sermon defending human freedom. The Theory and Regulation of Love, published in 1688, was the first of his works to demonstrate the influence of the ideas of Malebranche, and included Norris’ correspondence with Henry More. In 1689, he published Reason and Religion, which was later reissued seven times.
In 1689, he resigned his Oxford Fellowship in order to marry, and became a country parson at Newton St. Loe in Somersetshire. There, in 1690, he published Christian Blessedness, one of his most successful books. In 1691, on Locke’s recommendation to the Earl of Pembroke, Norris was assigned to George Herbert's benefice of Bemerton, near Salisbury, Wiltshire, where he lived until his death in 1711. He carried on correspondences with various people, including Elizabeth Thomas (“Corinna”), Damaris Cudworth (Lady Masham), Mary Astell and Locke. Norris' correspondence with Astell was published in 1695 as, Letters concerning the Love of God, between the Author of the Proposal to the Ladies and Mr. John Norris. He also published pamphlets and treatises on a variety of topics. In 1691, in an addendum to Reflections upon the Conduct of Human Life, Norris elaborated on the differences between the “enthusiasm” of the Quakers and his own Ideal Philosophy, which provoked an angry response from the Quaker Richard Vickris. Norris replied in 1692 with Two Treatises concerning the Divine Light.
Locke and Norris were philosophical opponents. In 1690, Locke modified a point in he second edition of An Essay concerning Human Understanding (1689), in response to Norris' critique, entitled Cursory Reflections upon a Book called An Essay concerning Human Understanding. Near the end of 1692, Norris and Locke quarreled over a letter addressed to Locke which Lady Masham had entrusted to Norris, and which Locke claimed had been opened by him. Soon afterwards (1693), Locke wrote Remarks upon some of Mr. Norris' Books, Wherein he asserts P. Malebranche's Opinion of seeing all Things in God and Examination of Malebranche.
Norris’ work on Malebranche, An Essay Towards the Theory of the Ideal or Intelligible World, (1701 – 1704), was not as popular as his other writing. An Account of Reason and Faith, in Relation to the Mysteries of Christianity, was so muchin demand that it went into a fourteenth edition in 1790. His last two theoretical works, A Philosophical Discourse concerning the Natural Immortality of the Soul (1708), and A Letter to Mr. Dodwell concerning the Immortality of the Soul of Man (1709) discussed the soul and immortality. A Treatise concerning Christian Prudence, was printed one year before his death.
John Norris died in February, 1711, at Bemerton, and was buried there.
Thought and Works
John Norris is remembered as a Cambridge Platonist and as the sole English proponent of the ideas of the French philosopher Nicolas Malebranche (1638–1715). He wrote An Essay towards the Theory of the Ideal or Intelligible World (1701–1704) as an explanation of Malebranche’s system of philosophy. Philosophically Norris was a Platonist and mystic. Among his twenty-three works were An Idea of Happiness (1683), Miscellanies (1687), Theory and Regulation of Love (1688), and a Discourse concerning the Immortality of the Soul (1708). His most popular work is A Collection of Miscellanies, consisting of Poems, Essays, Discourses and Letters (1687). His poetry, with occasional fine thoughts, was full of far-fetched metaphors and conceits, and was often dull and prosaic.
John Norris was an early critic of John Locke, whose An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) he attacked in Christian Blessedness or Discourses upon the Beatitudes in the same year; he also combated Locke's theories in his Essay toward the Theory of the Ideal or Intelligible World. He rejected the importance of sense data in acquiring knowledge, but agreed with Locke that human beings are not born with innate ideas already present in their minds.
Norris synthesized the thought of Descartes, Malebranche, Suarez, Augustine, Aquinas and Plato, with his concept of the Christian God as a god of truth and love. He believed that God’s truth and love should be realized in every aspect of human life, and that the purpose of education and knowledge should be only to better understand Christianity. He considered his own efforts, and those of other philosophers, to be directed at achieving a greater knowledge of God. To Norris, studying worldly subjects, such as history or languages, was a waste of time.
Norris felt that Malebranche had not succeeded in proving the existence of the intelligible world (the mind of God), or in thoroughly explaining its nature, and set out to complete his system. The first volume of An Essay Towards the Theory of the Ideal or Intelligible World, published in 1701, discussed the nature of God; the second, released in 1704, explained the nature of creation, and particularly the nature of animals and human beings. Norris followed Descartes' ideas on the structure of thought, and Malebranche’s ideas on what constituted human thought.
Norris especially sought to prove the existence and immortality of the soul. He spoke of the soul as a “divine light,” and argued against the theological views of the Enthusiasts (Quakers) and Socinians.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Acworth, Richard. The philosophy of John Norris of Bemerton: (1657-1712). Hildesheim: Olms, 1979. ISBN 3487068842
- Norris, John. Practical discourses upon the Beatitudes of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Vol. I. London: Printed for S. Manship, 1699.
- Norris, John. A collection of miscellanies: consisting of poems, essays, discourses & letters, occasionally written. London, Printed for J. Crosley and Samuel Manship at the Black Bull in Cornhil, 1692.
- Norris, John and Astell. Letters Concerning the Love of God, Between the Author of the Proposal to the Ladies and Mr. John Norris: Wherein his late Discourse, shewing, That it ought to be intire and exclusive of all other Loves, is further Cleared and Justified. London: Printed for Edmund Parker, at the Bible and Crown over against the New Church in Lombard-Street, 1730.
- Norris, John, and Peter D. E. White. Where's my memorial: the religious, philosophical and metaphysical poerty of John Norris of Bemerton. [S.l.]: P.D.E. White, 1991.
- O'Meara, Dominic J. Neoplatonism and Christian thought. Studies in Neoplatonism, v. 3. Norfolk, Va.: International Society for Neoplatonic Studies; Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1981. ISBN 0873954920
- This article incorporates public domain text from: Cousin, John William. 1910. A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. London, J.M. Dent & sons; New York, E.P. Dutton.
All links retrieved August 3, 2022.
- John Norris Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
General Philosophy Sources
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- Paideia Project Online.
- Project Gutenberg.
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