Monday, January 20, 2014

Prayers Written by Philosophers III

John Norris (1657-1711) was one of the most important rationalists in an increasingly empiricist England. He had gone some way to building the basic outlines of a rationalist approach to the theory of knowledge when he happened to pick up a book by Malebranche in which he found some of the same ideas already argued for in an extended and sophisticated way. Thus Norris became the foremost British Malebranchean. His use of Malebranche is quite independent, however; he feels free to criticize, adapt, and extend Malebranche, arguably seeing him more as a more experienced fellow traveler than a master. Norris early on was a close friend of John Locke and Damaris Masham; it was because of this friendship that Norris became rector of Bemerton, since Locke pulled a string or two for him. When Locke published his Essay, Norris reviewed it quite critically; for the second edition, Locke modified a section or two to take into account Norris's criticism. The two eventually had a spectacular falling-out, involving all sorts of weird miscommunications and accusations. The circumstances are somewhat murky, but in 1692 Lady Masham had given a letter to Norris to give to Locke and Locke for whatever reason became convinced that Norris had opened it and read it. Locke has a few minor works criticizing Malebranche; these were all written after the blow-up and Locke almost certainly is attacking Malebranche as a way of undermining Norris's approach.

One of Norris's attractive qualities, which is arguably tied to his rationalist views, is a graciousness and openness to anyone interested in philosophical ideas. He gave a considerable amount of time to the needs and interests of others and had active philosophical correspondences with several women, including Damaris Masham and, most importantly, Mary Astell. Norris published the correspondence with Mary Astell under the title, Letters concerning the Love of God, and it is probably the work of his that is the most read today. His major work is An Essay Towards the Theory of the Ideal or Intelligible World. In his own time he was a very popular and widely read author.

The following is from Norris's The Theory and Regulation of Love, one of his earlier works; I have very slightly updated the punctuation and spelling:

O God of Order and Beauty, who sweetly disposest all things, and hast established a Regular course in the visible World, who hast appointed the Moon for certain Seasons, and by whose decree the Sun knoweth his going down, let the Moral world be as Regular and Harmonious as the Natural, and both conspire to the declaration of thy Glory. And to this End grant that the Motion of our Minds may be as orderly as the Motion of Bodies, and that we may move as regularly by Choice and free Election, as they do by Natural instinct and Necessity.

O God of Light and Love, warm and invigorate my Light, and direct and regulate my Love. In thy Light let me see Light, and in thy Love let me ever Love. Lord I am more apt to err in my Love than in my understanding, and one Errour in Love is of worse Consequence than a thousand in Judgment, O do thou therefore watch over the Motions of my Love with a peculiar governance, and grant that I myself may keep this Part with all diligence, seeing hence are the issues of Life and Death.

O Spirit of Love, who art the very Essence, Fountain and Perfection of Love, be thou also its Object, Rule, and Guide. Grant I may Love thee, and what thou lovest, and as thou lovest. O Clarify and refine, enlighten and actuate my Love, that it may mount upward to the Center and Element of Love, with a Steady, Chaste, and unsullied Flame; make it unselfish, universal, liberal, generous and Divine, that loving as I ought I may contribute to the Order of thy Creation here, and be perfectly Happy in loving thee, and in being loved by thee Eternally hereafter. Amen.

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