Henry More and John Norris talk Sensuality and Peter’s Denial of Christ

(By James Bryson)

In 1684-5 the Oxford Platonist John Norris (1657-1711) engaged Henry More in an intellectually rigorous and fascinating correspondence that is best remembered for its relevance to ethical topics. Norris first published the correspondence as a supplement to his ‘Moral Essay’ on The Theory and Regulation of Love (1688), shortly after More’s death in the same year, and did so, he tells us, at the insistence of mutual friends. In addition to his desire to publish the ‘Remains of so great and extraordinary a person’, Norris says that he included the correspondence with More in this publication because he believed the exchange vindicated his ‘Hypothesis concerning the Root of Liberty’, it having withstood the scrutiny of ‘so severe a Speculatist’ as the good Dr. More. Norris first tested his hypothesis in a sermon on Romans 12:3 which he dedicated and sent to More in or around the same time he issues his third letter to More in this particular chain of correspondence. Norris had published the sermon in full in his Miscellanies (1687, pp. 333-358), and he included his own paraphrase of the sermon’s argument as an appendix to the 1688 publication of his correspondence with More (pp.239-46). His reason for doing so was to provide the reader with some additional context and theoretical background for his arguments, which, of course, being in possession of a copy of the sermon, More himself would have had. In this post, I will focus on what is said in the correspondence itself rather than on the appendix or the sermon, each of  which provide helpful theoretical context, but they do not have a direct bearing on what’s most philosophically essential about the letters themselves: the implications of the philosophers’ respective moral psychologies.

W.J. Mander is the only modern scholar who has done more than note the existence of this correspondence and gloss its subject matter (The Philosophy of John Norris, OUP, 2009 p.152), and there has not yet been a careful appraisal of the philosophical details of the exchange. The principal philosophical points at issue are distinct but, as I will argue, ultimately related –  they are: a) the moral status of sensual pleasure; b) whether when taking moral decisions the soul ‘necessarily wills as she understands’, which is Norris’ own formulation, a position he attempts to defend against More’s objections to it. More’s objections are rooted in the Cambridge Platonist’s emphasis on the purification of the will as a necessary and primary condition for the moral life of the soul. Norris and More take as their test case Peter’s denial of Christ, a scriptural episode which they analyze and put in service of their respective arguments in subtle and creative ways.

The Argument

 Norris engages More in correspondence regarding the question of ‘Moral Turpitude of Sensuality’, but not of the kind that leads to fornication or adultery – since here the disease can be so easily recognized from the symptoms – but as it relates to the question of ‘Sensuality as such’, where the act itself seems to be free of ‘ill effects’. In the parlance of the contemporary ethical philosopher, Norris is not interested in consequentialist arguments, but instead he is interested to know why it is universally agreed that some ‘sensual acts’ are condemned as ‘immoral’ and ‘dishonorable’. Norris is also clear that he’s asking a question that does not require an appeal to revelation, since Stoics and Platonists also agree about the dangers of sensuality, and people who engage in the sensual acts in question are subsequently stricken  by a   ‘natural shame’, demonstrating that they are ‘conscious of some incongruity in the thing as such’.

Conceding the truth implied in human behaviour and backed up by the insights of the most morally sound philosophical schools of antiquity, Norris avers that it seems a genuine philosophical problem that sensuality as such should be the cause of the immorality of certain sensual acts; marriage, for example,  is thought to be an honorable estate, therefore the immorality of adultery cannot have anything to do with the sensual act as such. Moreover, other sensual pleasures, like a pleasant perfume or a delicious meal, are not considered unlawful, so he finds himself bound to conclude that ‘all pleasures of the sense are in themselves equally indifferent.’

More answers Norris that his first problem is one of definition. Sensuality is shorthand for immorality when it refers to the ‘irregular and ungovernable indulgence of pleasure of the grosser senses.’ More lays out what he sees as an improved definition of sensuality in the way Norris means it, drawing on what Julius Caesar Scaliger (1484-1558) calls the ‘sixth sense’, or ‘pleasure’. More then goes on to agree with what he thinks Norris must mean, arguing that this sixth sense is not moral turpitude as such.  The problem with sensuality arises when we are captivated by it, so that it makes us less capable of what is better, or, worse, leads us to become unjust in our conduct. More agrees with Norris that moral questions should not be adjudicated on the basis of their supposed consequences for society, since the principles of moral perfection of human nature are ‘antecedent to all Society’, and he concludes by saying that lower sensual pleasures are not immoral as such, but, worse than this, they may distract from the soul’s more dignified orientation which is to the ‘Intellectual’ and ‘Godlike’ life. The trick is for the soul to avoid the captivity of the sixth sense through the exercise of moderation, so that the only thing that is really and truly forbidden to us is ‘our own lust and will’.

Norris expresses his gratitude to More for focusing the argument, but remains stuck on what he takes to be the the disconnect between the indifference of ‘venereal pleasure’ in and of itself and the forbidding of ‘voluntary pollutions, and lascivious embraces’.  If sensuality as such isn’t in some sense immoral, why are venereal pleasures forbidden when they don’t seem to do any external or societal harm?  More’s appeal to moderation seems an evasion of the point at issue for Norris, which is the moral status of our very perception of certain forms of pleasure. We discover from More’s reply that it is at this stage of the exchange that Norris supplemented his letter with a sermon that he dedicated to More, which, from More’s reply, we know sheds further light on what is troubling Norris and why he’s not satisfied with More’s initial response. As mentioned above, we the reader in 1688 know this to be Norris’ sermon on Romans 12:3.

More praises Norris for resisting a kind of faculty psychology that would distinguish the will from the intellect, or either of these from the soul itself. More then points out the fly in the ointment: Norris wrongly believes that the soul ‘necessarily wills as she understands.’ He turns to Ovid for a pithy,  proto-Pauline response: ‘Video meliora proboque, Deteriora sequor.’ Norris’ confusion about the nature of our perception of pleasure boils down to one of free agency.  Norris attempts to preserve the soul’s freedom, according to More, by making it dependent upon degrees of ‘Advertency’, or ‘Attention’, but in doing so Norris undercuts his own position, since the emphasis here is placed on the ‘volent’ rather than the ‘intelligent’ aspect of the soul.

But if Norris and More are essentially saying the same thing, why does Norris’ adherence to the maxim that the soul ‘necessarily wills as she understands’ matter? Isn’t it enough that they agree in the essentials? But they don’t agree – in fact their disagreement may indeed be theoretically fundamental – as More will show. The sincerity of Norris’ approach (from More’s point of view), however, means that he has stumbled upon a truth without quite understanding its implications. Even if the soul wills a kind of attentiveness or ‘Advertency’, he explains, it does not follow that this willed attention will lead to choosing what is best – at most this form of attention merely discerns the good, it does not will it. For More, an examination of the moral life teaches us that we are not what we might be, like an eye that cannot yet see – the ‘attentive’ soul does not yet perform the function for which it has been made. So it’s not attention that More makes a priority, but the ‘purity of the soul from vice’, which is what the ‘best Philosophers and Christians have alwaies declared to be requisite to true Illumination.’

More goes on to emphasize a second essential truth of the moral life that Norris’ sermon touches upon that undermines the cogency of his expressed argument: the true test of soul’s purity is its willingness to join the ranks of the martyrs. It is one thing to be notionally convinced that, say, the denial of Christ is the greatest sin the world, but if this knowledge is not made into a way of life, the soul will not endure the natural suffering that goes along with living the good life, the ultimate test of which being the willingness to suffer a natural death. The ‘impure’ or ‘unregenerate’ man will never ‘adventure…to suffer Martyrdome.’

What does this have to do with Norris’ question about the morality of certain forms of sensual pleasure? More cuts to the chase, but the preamble about the importance of purification was a necessary detour.  The sensations Norris describes – presumably referring to the ‘voluntary pollutions’ and ‘lascivious embraces’ Norris mentions – are not worthy of the divine life that should be the soul’s aim, its immortal entelechia. More concretely, More says that sexual pleasure is naturally ordered ‘to the end of Propagation’, and its only when such pleasure is ‘abstracted’ from this natural end that such pleasure becomes ‘abominable’. The sense of shame that accompanies unlawful acts of pleasure is a reminder that the soul is called to an ‘immortal’, ‘angelic’ life beyond this one, where sensual pleasure is not, and could never be, an end in itself in the way we are tempted to think it is in our present natural condition.

Here Norris seems to have elicited something of a concession from More about the nature of the ‘sixth sense’, or at least established a common ground. His only lingering question on this matter has to do with a marriage in which husband and wife are barren. But the substance of his fourth letter in this chain of correspondence is a defence of his position that the soul necessarily wills as she understands. Norris admits that he and More agree that there is a ‘principle of free agency’ in man; their point of disagreement is the primary or immediate subject of free agency. Since free agency is a rational perfection, it must be subjected in understanding or will, or, in psychological in terms, the soul is free insofar as it is either ‘Intelligent’ or ‘Volent’.  Norris believes that he can demonstrate that the volent aspect of the soul cannot be at the root of the soul’s liberty, if he is allowed a single postulate: that the soul cannot will evil as evil. Put positively, Norris contends that the object of the will is always good, and therefore sin must always be born of ignorance. To illustrate his point, Norris says that Peter’s denial of Christ was a matter of choosing what he perceived to be the lesser of two evils, notwithstanding his error from an objective point of view. Moreover, he thinks that More’s emphasis on purification does not undermine his argument about the primacy of the intellect for the correct exercise of free choice.  Free agency is a matter of attention; the soul’s moral outlook hinges on its capacity to pay attention. Norris forestalls the obvious comeback, that, presumably, the soul’s attention itself must be willed, by explaining that the soul has an ‘immediate power’ to attend to things or not, and that she cannot will a thing she has not understood.  An argument to the contrary is an argument of infinite regress. What exactly does the soul will if it doesn’t understand – if it hasn’t formed a judgement on the basis of which it chooses to act, Norris asks.

More is impressed by the rigour of Norris’ argument but remains unmoved. The soul, he maintains, is at least as much willing as it is intelligent, and, moreover, her volency is implied in any act of attention, and is therefore a necessary condition for it. More agrees with Norris that the idea of choosing evil as evil is ‘absurd’, but he believes Norris has played a zero-sum game here that overlooks the distinction implied in his own appeal to the purification of the soul, which complements his convictions about the primacy of the will in the moral life. More, therefore, proceeds to develop the implications of his appeal to purification, and of his assertion that the measure of the moral life is the willingness to face suffering and death.

More picks Norris up on his introduction of that poignant scriptural episode wherein Peter denies Christ. Peter’s choice was not one of ignorance, as Norris would have it, but neither did he chose evil as evil; instead, as More sees it, Peter opted for a ‘natural’ rather than a ‘Moral’ good. For More, it is not possible that Peter’s understanding erred so badly that he thought his choice was notionally better. When someone sins under these conditions – when they have notional knowledge of their transgression – they must lack an ‘inward sense of Spirit’, because they have not been ‘purified’ or ‘Regenerated’. What Peter’s denial in fact illustrates is that choosing the moral good cannot be a matter of what we know, because if it were it may be left undone. ‘Attentiveness’, therefore, is not what’s crucial for the moral life, but a ‘sincerity’ and ‘diligence’ of approach, which is immediately in our power. The moral life is essentially a work of preparation which presupposes, is sustained by, and aims at the habitual choosing of what is best, a way of life that acts as a bulwark against choosing the lesser goods associated with our animal appetites which aim at pleasure and utility. Our animal nature, More insists, will always tempt us to turn away from virtue and worldly sacrifice in favour of pleasure and profit. Moral life, therefore, can’t primarily be about knowledge – it must be centered in the will as the proper realm of spiritual activity.

More then addresses Norris’ argument that attention itself cannot be defective but merely improperly applied. More’s Christian Platonism now comes to the fore. A morally corrupt mind, he argues, cannot see it’s object any more than a blind man can see the Sun.  Only the purified soul can live a moral life.  Here More is not referring to ‘doing the right thing’ in a given set of circumstances, but to living a ‘godly’ way of life that, ‘as Plotinus somewhere has it, touching the Divine Pulchritude. If thou bees it, thou sees it.’ If the divine principle itself is not awake in us all the ‘attention’ in the world will not move the soul to pursue it – the ‘animal sense’ left to its own devices will always triumph over the ‘unregenerate’ soul.

Again, Peter’s denial of Christ is illustrative. Peter did not chose evil as evil, but rather he chose the lesser good which was to save himself from bodily suffering and death.  He had a ‘lively’ sense of the natural evil before him, and only a notional awareness and therefore a mere slumbering sense of the deeper moral evil. Peter did not chose evil as evil; in fact, Peter chose a lesser good because he lacked the courage to sacrifice that lesser good – saving his own life – for the greater – laying down his life for a friend. Peter’s denial of Christ is a perfect example of the difference between notional knowledge and the willed knowledge that is alive to the good it knows.  Knowledge here is lived, not merely known, so that there is no meaningful difference between the good known and the good willed.

In the published correspondence, Norris gets the last word. Norris expresses his pleasure that More concedes his postulate – as do all ‘schools’, he reminds us, save the ‘Nominals’ – that the soul cannot chose evil as evil. But he does not see how Peter could really be said to have chosen a lesser good i.e. the natural over the moral, unless he had clearly perceived the difference. Moreover, if he had understood the difference, then choosing evil as evil is precisely what Peter did do. But since this is impossible, as More has conceded, it must have been a failure of understanding in Peter that led him to deny Christ, not a failure of will. To be sure, it is partly true that Peter does not exert his will to the better, more divine good, but the reason he doesn’t is that he didn’t properly understand what was at stake: ‘for had there not been also a defect in his understanding, there would have been nothing amiss in his will.’

I will conclude by imagining what More’s natural philosophical response to Norris might have been, since More himself appears to have taken up Norris’ offer in his fifth letter to leave things off here.

In a word, Norris once again makes the mistake of playing a zero-sum game. It does not follow that, by accepting the premise, or ‘postulate’, that Peter could not chose evil as evil, that he did not make a choice that could be classified as evil, and for which he deserves blame – what else could his own subsequent feelings of remorse mean? In fact, the risk of absurdity falls much more on Norris’ side of the argument than on More’s.  The logic of Norris’ argument taken to its extreme – a reasonable thought experiment since this is what Norris does to More’s argument to advance the cause of his own – would render Peter blameless, since he did not really understand what he was doing – this is tantamount to innocence and thus blamelessness. In one sense, it’s true that Peter didn’t understand what he was doing and in another way it is not. More places the emphasis on the will because his priorities are twofold: first, to preserve Peter’s responsibility for his actions, while, second, to adopt the mercy of that divine or Christlike perspective that recognizes Peter was motivated principally by preserving something he understood to be good – his own life and well being.

This returns us to what Norris seems to gloss over and the subject with which the ethical and psychological portion of their correspondence began: the question of sensual pleasure. Norris seems to assume a kind of moral vacuum inside of which our purely intellectual and willing minds operate. He does not appear to understand More’s point about how much of a grasp our animal nature has over us for better or for worse. Although a charitable interpretation of both positions should acknowledge that More and Norris have much more in common than they do differences. But, at the same time, it would not be a stretch to say that they may in fact be worlds apart, since the purification of our animal appetites and by extension the purification of the will are central to More’s ethical philosophy, whereas for Norris the moral life turns on the attentiveness of the soul – the rest, he is confident, will take care of itself. It is the judgement of this blogger that More would happily concede that those who sin do so out of a kind of ignorance, but it is the ignorance of the will, so to speak, not the understanding that is paramount, especially for humans whose animal nature is an inextricable part of what they are.  We find an indication of Norris’ distance from More at the outset of this correspondence in his tendency to isolate sensual pleasure and thereby assume its moral neutrality, rather than see it as a deeply ambiguous element of the moral life for unregenerate human beings, which, in More’s view, is what all of us naturally are. Related to this, Norris fails to see that our instinct for choosing the natural good of self-preservation is so strong, that the only true test of the purity of our moral life is the willingness to die. This is no small thing – Peter being case in point. For More, this is why the will precedes and is the condition of the entire  moral life: because the will also indicates its end and purpose. More makes this especially clear by making martyrdom the ultimate gesture of the moral life, the standard against which morality ought to be measured. A Martyr cannot achieve his status unless he chooses it, nor is it possible, by definition, that he could or would choose the natural good over the moral.


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