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JOSEPH BUTLER (1692-1752)

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Originally appearing in Volume V04, Page 885 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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JOSEPH BUTLER (1692-1752), English divine and philosopher, bishop of Durham, was born at \Vantage, in Berkshire, on the 18th of May 1692. His father, a linen-draper of that town, was a Presbyterian, and it was his wish that young Butler should be educated for the ministry in that church. The boy was placed under the care of the Rev. Philip Barton, master of the grammar school at Wantage, and remained there for some years. He was then sent to Samuel Jones's dissenting academy at Gloucester, and afterwards at Tewkesbury, where his most intimate friend was Thomas Secker, who became archbishop of Canterbury. While at this academy Butler became dissatisfied with the principles of Presbyterianism, and after much deliberation resolved to join the Church of England. About the same time he began to study with care Samuel Clarke's celebrated Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God, which had been published as the Boyle Lectures a few years previously. With great modesty and secrecy Butler, then in his twenty-second year, wrote to the author propounding certain difficulties with regard to the proofs of the unity and omnipresence of the Divine Being. Clarke answered his unknown opponent with a gravity and care that showed his high opinion of the metaphysical acuteness displayed in the objections, and published the correspondence in later editions of the Demonstration. Butler acknowledged that Clarke's reply satisfied him on one of the points, and he subsequently gave his adhesion to the other. In one ofhis letters we already find the germ of his famous dictum that " probability is the guide of life." In March 1715 he entered at Oriel College, Oxford, but for some time found it uncongenial and thought of migrating to Cambridge. But he made a close friend in one of the resident fellows, Edward Talbot, son of William Talbot, then bishop of Oxford, and afterwards of Salisbury and Durham. In 1718 he took his degree, was ordained deacon and priest, and on the recommendation of Talbot and Clarke was nominated preacher at the chapel of the Rolls, where he continued till 1726. It was here that he preached his famous Fifteen Sermons (1726), including the well-known discourses on human nature. In 1721 he had been given a prebend at Salisbury by Bishop Talbot, who on his translation to Durham gave Butler the living of Houghton-le-Skerne in that county, and in 1725 presented him to the wealthy rectory of Stanhope. In 1726 he resigned his preachership at the Rolls. For ten years Butler remained in perfect seclusion at Stanhope. He was only remembered in the neighbourhood as a man much loved and respected, who used to ride a black pony very fast, and whose known benevolence was much practised upon by beggars. Archbishop Blackburne, when asked by Queen Caroline whether he was still alive, answered, " He is not dead, madam, but buried." In 1733 he was made chaplain to Lord Chancellor Talbot, elder brother of his dead friend Edward, and in 1736 prebendary of Rochester. In the same year he was appointed clerk of the closet to the queen, and had to take part in the metaphysical conversation parties which she loved to gather round her. He met Berkeley frequently, but in his writings does not refer to him. In 1736 also appeared his great work, The Analogy of Religion. In 1737 Queen Caroline died; on her deathbed she recommended Butler to the favour of her husband. George seemed to think his obligation sufficiently discharged by appointing Butler in 1738 to the bishopric of Bristol, the poorest see in the kingdom. The severe but dignified letter to Walpole, in which Butler accepted the preferment, showed that the slight was felt and resented. Two years later, however, the bishop was presented to the rich deanery of St Paul's, and in 1746 was made clerk of the closet to the king. In 1747 the primacy was offered to Butler, who, it is said, declined it, on the ground that " it was too late for him to try to support a falling church." The story has not the best authority, and though the desponding tone of some of Butler's writings may give it colour, it is not in harmony with the rest of his life, for in 1750 he accepted the see of Durham, vacant by the death of Edward Chandler. His charge to the clergy of the diocese, the only charge of his known to us, is a weighty and valuable address on the importance of external forms in religion. This, together with the fact that over the altar of his private chapel at Bristol he had a cross of white marble, gave rise to an absurd rumour that the bishop had too great a leaning towards Romanism. At Durham he was very charitable, and expended large sums in building and decorating his church and residence. His private expenses were exceedingly small. Shortly after his translation his constitution began to break up, and he died on the 16th of June 1752, at Bath, whither he had removed for his health. He was buried in the cathedral of Bristol, and over his grave a monument was erected in 1834, with an epitaph by Southey. According to his express orders, all his MSS. were burned after his death. Bishop Butler was never married. His personal appearance has been sketched in a few lines by Hutchinson:—" He was of a most reverend aspect; his face thin and pale; but there was a divine placidness which inspired veneration, and expressed the most benevolent mind. His white hair hung gracefully on his shoulders, and his whole figure was patriarchal." Butler was an earnest and deep-thinking Christian, melancholy by temperament, and grieved by what seemed to him the hopelessly irreligious condition of his age. In his view not only the religious life of the nation, but (what he regarded as synonymous) the church itself, was in an almost hopeless state of decay, as we see from his first and only charge to the diocese of Durham and from many passages in the Analogy. And though there was a thing whatever may, for aught we know to the contrary, be a necescomplete remedy just coming into notice, in the Evangelical revival, it was not of a kind that commended itself to Butler, whose type of mind was opposed to everything that savoured of enthusiasm. He even asked John Wesley, in 1739, to desist from preaching in his diocese of Bristol, and in a memorable interview with the great preacher remarked that any claim to the extra-ordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit was " a horrid thing, a very horrid thing, sir." Yet Butler was keenly interested in those very miners of Kingswood among whom Wesley preached, and left £500 towards building a church for them. It is a great mistake to suppose that because he took no great part in politics he had no interest in the practical questions of his time, or that he was so immersed in metaphysics as to live in the clouds. His intellect was profound and comprehensive, thoroughly qualified to grapple with the deepest problems of metaphysics, but by natural preference occupying itself mainly with the practical and moral. Man's conduct in life, not his theory of the universe, was what interested him. The Analogy was written to counteract the practical mischief which he considered wrought by deists and other freethinkers, and the Sermons lay a good deal of stress on everyday Christian duties. His style has frequently been blamed for its obscurity and difficulty, but this is due to two causes: his habit of compressing his arguments into narrow compass, and of always writing with the opposite side of the case in view, so that it has been said of the Analogy that it raises more doubts than it solves. One is also often tempted away from the main course of the argument by the care and precision with which Butler formulates small points of detail. His great work, The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Course and Constitution of Nature, cannot be adequately appreciated unless taken in connexion with the circumstances of the period at which it appeared. It was intended as a defence against the great tide of deistical speculation (see DEisM), which in the apprehension of many good men seemed likely to sweep away the restraints of religion and make way for a general reign of licence. Butler did not enter the lists in the ordinary way. Most of the literature evoked by the controversy on either side was devoted to rebutting the attack of some individual opponent. Thus it was Bentley versus Collins, Sherlock versus Woolston, Law versus Tindal. The Analogy, on the contrary, did not directly refer to the deists at all, and yet it worked more havoc with their position than all the other books put together, and remains practically the one surviving landmark of the whole dispute. Its central motive is to prove that all the objections raised against revealed or supernatural religion apply with equal force to the whole constitution of nature, and that the general analogy between the principles of divine government, as set forth by the biblical revelation, and those observable in the course of nature, leads us to the warrantable conclusion that there is one Author of both. Without altogether eschewing Samuel Clarke's a priori system, Butler relies mainly on the inductive method, not professing to give an absolute demonstration so much as a probable proof. And everything is brought into closest relation with " that which is the foundation of all our hopes and of all our fears; all our hopes and fears which are of any consideration; I mean a Future Life." sary condition to any other '? It is this strong grasp of the imperfect character of our knowledge of nature and of the grounds for its limitation that makes Butler so formidable an opponent to his deistical contemporaries. He will permit no anticipations of nature, no a priori construction of experience. " The constitution of nature is as it is," and no system of abstract principles can be allowed to take its place. He is willing with Hume to take the course of experience as the basis of his reasoning, seeing that it is common ground for himself and his antagonists. In one essential respect, however, he goes beyond Hume. The course of nature is for him an unmeaning expression, unless it be referred to some author; and he therefore makes extensive use of the teleological method. This position is assumed throughout the treatise, and as against the deists with justice, for their whole argument rested upon the presupposition of the existence of God, the perfect Ruler of the world. The premises, then, with which Butler starts are the existence of God, the known course of nature, and the necessary limitation of our knowledge. What does he wish to prove ? I t is not his intention to prove Gods perfect moral government over the world or the truth of religion. His work is in no sense a philosophy of religion. His purpose is entirely defensive; he wishes to answer objections that have been brought against religion, and to examine certain difficulties that have been alleged as insuperable. And this is to be effected in the first place by showing that from the obscurities and inexplicabilities we meet with in nature we may reasonably expect to find similar difficulties in the scheme of religion. If difficulties be found in the course and constitution of nature, whose author is admitted to be God, surely the existence of similar difficulties in the plan of religion can be no valid objection against its truth and,divine origin. That this is at least in great part Butler's object is plain from the slightest inspection of his work. It has seemed to many to be an unsatisfactory mode of arguing and but a poor defence of religion; and so much the author is willing to allow. But in the general course of his argument a somewhat wider issue appears. He seeks to show not only that the difficulties in the systems of natural and revealed religion have counterparts in nature, but also that the facts of nature, far from being adverse to the principles of religion, are a distinct ground for inferring their probable truth. He endeavours to show that the balance of probability is entirely in favour of the scheme of religion, that this probability is the natural conclusion from an inspection of nature, and that, as religion is a matter of practice, we are bound to adopt the course of action which is even probably the right one. If, we may imagine him saying, the precepts of religion are entirely analogous in their partial obscurity and apparent difficulty to the ordinary course of nature disclosed to us by experience, then it is credible that these precepts are true; not only can no objections be drawn against them from experience, but the balance of probability is in their favour. This mode of reasoning from what is known of nature to the probable truth of what is contained in religion is the celebrated method of analogy. Although Butler's work is peculiarly one of those which ought not to he exhibited in outline, for its strength lies in the organic completeness with which the details are wrought into the whole argument, yet a summary of his results will throw more light on the method than any description can. Keeping clearly in view his premises—the existence of God and the limited nature of knowledge—Butler begins by inquiring into the fundamental pre-requisite of all natural religion—the immortality of the soul. Evidently the stress of the whole question is here. Were man not immortal, religion would be of little value. Now, Butler does not attempt to prove the truth of the doctrine; that proof comes from another quarter. The only questions he asks are —Does experience forbid us to admit immortality as a possibility ? Does experience furnish any probable reason for inferring that immortality is a fact ? To the first of these a negative, to the second an affirmative answer is returned. All the analogies of our life here lead us to conclude that we shall continue to live after death; and neither from experience nor from the reason of the thing can any argument against the possibility of this be drawn. Immortality, then, is not unreasonable; it is probable. If, he continues, we are to live after death, it is of importance for us to consider on what our future state may depend; for we may be either happy or miserable. Now, whatever speculation may say as to God's purpose being necessarily universal benevolence, experience plainly shows us that our present happiness and misery depend upon our conduct, and are not distributed indiscriminately. Therefore no argument can be brought from experience against the possibility of our future happiness and misery likewise depending upon conduct. The whole analogy of nature is in favour of such a dispensation; it is therefore reasonable or probable. Further, we are not only under a government in which actions considered simply as such are rewarded and punished, but it is known from experience that virtue and vice are followed by their natural consequents—happiness and misery. And though the distribution of these rewards is not perfect, all hindrances are plainly temporary or accidental. It may therefore be concluded that the balance of probability is in favour of God's government in general being a moral scheme, where virtue and vice are respectively rewarded and punished. It need not be objected to the justice of , BUTLER, JOSEPH 883 this arrangement that men are sorely tempted, and may very easily be brought to neglect that on which their future welfare depends, for the very same holds good in nature. Experience shows man to be in a state of trial so far as regards the present; it cannot, there-fore, be unreasonable to suppose that we are in a similar state as regards the future. Finally, it can surely never be advanced as an argument against the truth of religion that there are many things in it which we do not comprehend, when experience exhibits to us such a copious stock of incomprehensibilities in the ordinary course and constitution of nature. It cannot have escaped observation, that in the foregoing course of argument the conclusion is invariably from experience of the present order of things to the reasonableness or probability of some other system—of a future state. The inference in all cases passes beyond the field of experience; that it does so may be and has been advanced as a conclusive objection against it. See for example a passage in Hume, Works (ed. 1854), iv. 161-162, cf. p. 16o, which says, in short, that no argument from experience can ever carry us beyond experience itself. However well grounded-this reasoning may be, it altogether misses the point at which Butler aimed, and is indeed a misconception of the nature of analogical argument. Butler never attempts to prove that a future life regulated according to the requirements of ethical law is a reality; he only desires to show that the conception of such a life is not irreconcilable with what we know of the course of nature, and that consequently it is not unreasonable to suppose that there is such a life. Hume readily grants this much, though he hints at a formidable difficulty which the plan of the Analogy prevented Butler from facing, the proof of the existence of God. Butler seems willing to rest satisfied with his opponents' admission that the being of God is proved by reason, but it would be hard to discover how, upon his own conception of the nature and limits of reason, such a proof could ever be given. It has been said that it is no flaw in Butler's argument that he has left atheism as a possible mode of viewing the universe, because his work was not directed against the atheists. It is, however, in some degree a defect; for his defence of religion against the deists rests on a view of reason which would for ever preclude a demonstrative proof of God's existence. If, however, his premises be granted, and the narrow issue kept in view, the argument may be admitted as perfectly satisfactory. From what we know of the present order of things, it is not unreasonable to suppose that there will be a future state of rewards and punishments, distributed according to ethical law. When the argument from analogy seems to go beyond this, a peculiar difficulty starts up. Let it be granted that our happiness and misery in this life depend upon our conduct—are, in fact, the rewards and punishments attached by God to certain modes of action, the natural conclusion from .analogy would seem to be that our future happiness or the reverse will probably depend upon our actions in the future state. Butler, on the other hand, seeks to show that analogy leads us to believe that our future state will depend upon our present conduct. His argument, that the punishment of an imprudent act often follows after a long interval may be admitted, but does not advance a single step towards the conclusion that imprudent acts will be punished hereafter. So, too, with the attempt to show that from the analogy of the present life we may not unreasonably infer that virtue and vice will receive their respective rewards and punishments hereafter; it may be admitted that virtuous and vicious acts are naturally looked upon as objects of reward or punishment, and treated accordingly, but we may refuse to allow the argument to go further, and to infer a perfect distribution of justice dependent upon our conduct here. Butler could strengthen his argument only by bringing forward prominently the absolute requirements of the ethical consciousness, in which case he would have approximated to Kant's position with regard to this very problem. That he did not do so is, perhaps, due to his strong desire to use only such premises as his adversaries the deists were willing to allow. As against the deists, however, he may be allowed to have made out his point, that the substantial doctrines of natural religion are not opposed to reason and experience, and may be looked upon as credible. The positive proof of them is to be found in revealed religion, which has disclosed to us not only these truths, but also a further scheme not discoverable by the natural light. Here, again, Butler joins issue with his opponents. Revealed religion had been declared to be nothing but a republication of the truths of natural religion (Matthew Tindal, Christianity as Old as the Creation), and all revelation had been objected to as impossible. To show that such objections are invalid, and that a revelation is at least not impossible, Butler makes use mainly of his doctrine of human ignorance. Revelation had been rejected because it lay altogether beyond the sphere of reason and could not therefore be grasped by human intelligence. But the same is true of nature; there are in the ordinary course of things inexplicabilities; indeed we may be said with truth to know nothing, for there is no medium between perfect and completed comprehension of the whole system of things, which we manifestly have not, and mere faith grounded on probability. Is it unreasonable tp suppose that in a revealed system there should be the same superiority to our intelligence? If we cannot explain or foretell by reason what the exact course of events in nature will be, is it to be expected that we can do so with regard to the wider scheme of God's revealed providence ? Is it not probable that there will be many things not explicable by us ? From our experience of the course of nature it would appear that no argument can be brought against the possibility of a revelation. Further, though it is the province of reason to test this revealed system, and though it be granted that, should it contain anything immoral, it must be rejected, yet a careful examination of the particulars will show that there is no incomprehensibility or difficulty in them which has not a counterpart in nature. The whole scheme of revealed principles is, therefore, not unreasonable, and the analogy of nature and natural religion would lead us to infer its truth. If, finally, it be asked, how a system professing to be revealed can substantiate its claim, the answer is, by means of the historical evidences, such as miracles and fulfilment of prophecy. It would be unfair to Butler's argument to demand from it answers to problems which had not in his time arisen, and to which, even if they had then existed, the plan of his work would not have extended. Yet it is at least important to ask how far, and in what sense, the Analogy can be regarded as a positive and valuable contribution to theology. What that work. has done is to prove to the consistent deist that no objections can be drawn from reason or experience against natural or revealed religion, and, consequently, that the things objected to are not incredible and may be proved by external evidence. But the deism of the 17th century is a phase of thought that has no living reality now, and the whole aspect of the religious problem has been completely changed. To a generation that has been moulded by the philosophy of Kant and Hegel, by the historical criticism of modern theology, and by all that has been done in the field of comparative religion, the argument of the Analogy cannot but appear to lie quite outside the field of controversy. To Butler the Christian religion, and by that he meant the orthodox Church of England system, was a moral scheme revealed by a special act of the divine providence, the truth of which was to be judged by the ordinary canons of evidence. The whole stood or fell on historical grounds. A speculative construction of religion was abhorrent to him, a thing of which he seems to have thought the human mind naturally incapable. The religious consciousness does not receive from him the slightest consideration. The Analogy, in fact, has and can have but little influence on the present state of theology; it was not a book for all time, but was limited to the problems of the period at which it appeared. Throughout the whole of the Analogy it is manfest that the interest which lay closest to Butler's heart was the ethical. His whole cast of thinking was practical. The moral nature of man, his conduct in life, is that on account of which alone an inquiry into religion is of importance. The systematic account of this moral nature is to be found in the famous Sermons preached at the Chapel of the Rolls, especially in the first three. In these sermons Butler has made substantial contributions to ethical science, and it may be said with confidence, that in their own department nothing superior in value appeared during the long interval between Aristotle and Kant. To both of these great thinkers he has certain analogies. He resembles the first in his method of investigating the end which human nature is intended to realize; he reminds of the other by the consistency with which he upholds the absolute supremacy of moral law. In his ethics, as in his theology, Butler had constantly in view a certain class of adversaries, consisting partly of the philosophic few, partly of the fashionably educated many, who all participated in one common mode of thinking. The keynote of this tendency had been struck by Hobbes, in whose philosophy man was regarded as a mere selfish sensitive machine, moved solely by pleasures and pains. Cudworth and Clarke had tried to place ethics on a nobler footing, but their speculations were too abstract for Butler and not sufficiently " applicable to the several particular relations and circumstances of life." His inquiry is based on teleological principles. " Every work, both of nature and art, is a system; and as every particular thing both natural and artificial is for some use or purpose out of or beyond itself, one may add to what has been already brought into the idea of a system its conduciveness to this one or more ends." Ultimately this view of nature, as the sphere of the realization of final causes, rests on a theological basis; but Butler does not introduce prominently into his ethics the specifically theological groundwork, and may be thought willing to ground his principle on experience. The ethical question then is, as with Aristotle, what is the rrXos of man? The answer to this question is to be obtained by an analysis of the facts of human nature, whence, Butler thinks, " it will as fully appear that this our nature, i.e. constitution, is adapted to virtue, as from the idea of a watch it appears that its nature, i.e. constitution or system, is adapted to measure time." Such analysis had been already attempted by Hobbes, and the result he came to was that man naturally is adapted only for a life of selfishness,—his end is the procuring of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. A closer examination, however, shows that this at least is false. The truth of the counter propositions, that man is oiosi 7roXtrcKOs, that the full development of his being is impossible apart from society, becomes manifest on examination of the facts. For while self-love plays a most important part in the human economy, there is no less evidently a natural principle of benevolence. Moreover, among the particular passions, appetites and desires there are some whose tendency is as clearly towards the general good as that of others is towards the satisfaction of the self. Finally, that principle in man which reflects upon actions and the springs of actions, unmistakably sets the stamp of its approbation upon conduct that tends towards the general good. It is clear, therefore, that from this point of view the sum of practical morals might be given in Butler's own words—" that mankind is a community, that we all stand in a relation to each other, that there is a public end and interest of society, which each particular is obliged to promote." But deeper questions remain. The threefold division into passions and affections, self-love and benevolence, and conscience, is Butler's celebrated analysis of human nature as found in his first sermon. But by regarding benevolence less as a definite desire for the general good as such than as kind affection for particular individuals, he practically eliminates it as a regulative principle and reduces the authorities in the polity of the soul to two—conscience and self-love. But the idea of human nature is not completely expressed by saying that it consists of reason and the several passions. " Who-ever thinks it worth while to consider this matter thoroughly should begin by stating to himself exactly the idea of a system, economy or constitution of any particular nature; and he will, I suppose, find that it is one or a whole, made up of several parts, but yet that the several parts, even considered as a whole, do not complete the idea, unless in the notion of a whole you include the relations and respects which these parts have to each other." This fruitful conception of man's ethical nature as an organic unity Butler owes directly to Shaftesbury and indirectly to Aristotle; it is the strength and clearness with which he has grasped it that gives peculiar value to his system. The special relation among the parts of our nature to which Butler alludes is the subordination of the particular passions to the universal principle of reflection or conscience. This relation is the peculiarity, the cross, of man; and when it is said that virtue consists in following nature, we mean that it consists in pursuing the course of conduct dictated by this superior faculty. Man's function is not fulfilled by obeying the passions, or even cool self-love, but by obeying conscience. That conscience has a natural supremacy, that it is superior in kind, is evident from the part it plays in the moral constitution. We judge a man to have acted wrongly, i.e. unnaturally, when he allows the gratification of a passion to injure his happiness, i.e. when he acts in accordance with passion and against self-love. It would be impossible to pass this judgment if self-love were not regarded as superior in kind to the passions, and this superiority results from the fact that it is the peculiar province of self-love to take a view of the several passions and decide as to their relative importance. But there is in man a faculty which takes into consideration all the springs of action, including self-love, and passes judgment upon them, approving some and condemning others. From its very nature this faculty is supreme in authority, if not in power; it reflects upon all the other active powers, and pronounces absolutely upon their moral quality. Superintendency and authority are constituent parts of its very idea. We are under obligation to obey the law revealed in the judgments of this faculty, for it is the law of our nature. And to this a religious sanction may be added, for " consciousness of a rule or guide of action, in creatures capable of considering it as given them by their Maker, not only raises immediately a sense of duty, but also a sense of security in following it, and a sense of danger in deviating from it." Virtue then consists in following the true law of our nature, that is, conscience. Butler, however, is by no means very explicit in his analysis of the functions to be ascribed to conscience. He calls it the Principle of Reflection, the Reflex Principle of Approbation, and assigns to it as its province the motives or propensions to action. It takes a view of these, approves or disapproves, impels to or restrains from action. But at times he uses language that almost compels one to attribute to him the popular view of conscience as passing its judgments with unerring certainty on individual acts. Indeed his theory is weakest exactly at the point where the real difficulty begins. We get from him no satisfactory answer to the inquiry, What course of action is approved by conscience? Every one, he seems to think, knows what virtue is, and a philosophy of ethics is complete if it can be shown that such a course of action harmonizes with human nature. When pressed still further, he points to justice, veracity and the common good as comprehensive ethical ends. His whole view of the moral government led him to look upon human nature and virtue as connected by a sort of pre-established harmony. His ethical principle has in it no possibility of development into a system of actual duties; it has no content. Even on the formal side it is a little difficult to see what part conscience plays. It seems merely to set the stamp of its approbation on certain courses of action to which we are led by the various passions and affections; it has in itself no originating power. How or why it approves of some and not of others is left unexplained. Butler's moral theory, like those of his English contemporaries and successors, is defective from not perceiving that the notion of duty can have real significance only when connected with the will or practical reason, and that only in reason which wills itself have we a principle capable of development into an ethical system. It has received very small consideration at the hands of German historians of ethics.
End of Article: JOSEPH BUTLER (1692-1752)
GEORGE BUTLER (1774-1853)

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