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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.

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