17: John Norris and his Ideal World

John Norris, fellow of All Souls, and rector of Bemerton, was a man of much greater and more enduring reputation. He was also a voluminous author of discourses, letters, and poems, as well as of the longer and more systematic work on which his fame depends, An Essay towards the Theory of the Ideal or Intelligible World, the first part of which was published in 1701, and the second in 1704. In temper of mind, Norris may be regarded as the antithesis of Locke. He represents mysticism as against the latter’s critical empiricism. But it would be a mistake to regard him as lacking in clearness of logical faculty. He was diffuse, and his argument would sometimes break off into devotional reflection, or into verse; but, from these digressions, he would return to the argument refreshed and ready to abide by its logic. Different as he is from Locke, both exhibit the powerful influence that swept over European thought from the mind of Descartes. But Locke was critical of the more speculative elements in the philosophy of Descartes, whereas these were the thoughts that appealed most strongly to Norris. The course of his studies, especially in Plato and St. Augustine, and the tone of his mind, made him welcome the speculative, if mystical, development of Cartesianism due to Father Malebranche. Malebranche had a number of followers in England at this time; and two translations of the Recherche de la Vérité appeared in the year 1694; but Norris was the only writer of note who adopted his views; and his importance is due to the fact that he was no mere follower. He had thought out—one may even say, he had lived—the theory for himself. In his work, he considers the ideal theory, first, as it is in itself, and then, in its relation to our knowledge. He holds that the very nature or essences of things (as distinguished from their existence) are Divine ideas or “degrees of being in the Divine nature”; [Ideal or Intelligible World, vol. I, p. 232.] and by the same theory he explains our perception of things. “’T is generally allowed that the things without us are not perceived immediately by themselves, but by their ideas. The only question is, by what ideas, or what these ideas are?” His answer to this question is, that they are the Divine ideas, or, in the words of Malebranche, that we “see all things in God.” [Ibid., vol. II, pp. 442–3.]