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Joseph Butler


BUTLER, JOSEPH (1692-1752), English divine and bishop of Durham, was born on May 18, 1692, at Wantage, Berkshire. He came of Presbyterian parentage, and was sent to the dissent ing academy of Samuel Jones at Gloucester, and later to Tewkes bury. While there, Butler became dissatisfied with Presbyter ianism, and after much deliberation resolved to join the Church of England. In 1715 he entered Oriel college, Oxford, and after taking his degree three years later, was ordained deacon and priest. He was nominated preacher at the Rolls Chapel where he continued until 1726. It was there that he preached his famous Fifteen Sermons (17 26) including the well-known three on human nature. In 1721 he received a prebend at Salisbury from Bishop Talbot, who on his translation to Durham gave Butler the living of Houghton-le-Skerne and in 1725 presented him to the wealthy rectory of Stanhope where he remained for ten years. In Butler was made chaplain to Lord Chancellor Talbot, and three years later prebendary of Rochester. In the same year he was appointed clerk of the closet to the queen and published the Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature.

In 1737 Queen Caroline died. Her recommendation of Butler to the favour of her husband led to his appointment in 1738 to the bishopric of Bristol, the poorest see in the kingdom. The severe but dignified letter to Walpole accepting the preferment showed that the slight was resented. Two years later, however, Butler 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 him but declined on the ground that "it was too late for him to try to support a falling church." Nevertheless in 1750 he accepted the see of Durham. He died on June 16, 1752, at Bath, and was buried in Bristol cathedral, a monument with an epitaph by Southey being erected over his grave in According to his wishes, all his mss. were burned after his death. Butler never married.

Butler's great work, The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Re vealed, to the Course and Constitution of Nature, which was so often appealed to in the 19th century, is essentially a work of its period, being an indirect attack on the prevailing deistical specu lations (see DEIsM). Its author begins by presupposing with the deists the existence of God, and contending that religion cannot lie wholly within the sphere of reason, aims to show that the difficulties raised by the deists against religion have analogies in nature. That there should be these difficulties in both realms is inevitable because of the limitations of our imperfect human faculties. No a priori construction of experience is possible; we must slowly advance through the individual facts of the universe which lead us only to a greater degree of probability. If we had a complete knowledge of the parts, we should, like God, know the whole.

Butler next considers certain religious tenets that have been selected by the deists as unreasonable and attempts to prove that there is every ground for inferring their probable truth. Thus he asserts that the conception of the future life, with which all our hopes and fears are bound up, is not unreasonable because not irreconcilable with what we know of the course of nature. Declar ing that we do not really know the soul to be extended and therefore, destructible, Butler proceeds to show that the concep tion of the future life is supported by the changes in man during his lifetime, by the possibility of certain of our faculties being suspended during sleep, etc., without being destroyed, by the teaching of experience regarding our temporal rewards and punish ments, by the strong evidence for the moral government of this world by God, and by the disciplinary character of this life.

Part II. of the Analogy deals with revealed religion. Here But ler urges the importance of revelation as supplementing and not contradicting reason, though he admits that its content can only be obscurely comprehended. True revelation cannot oppose the dictates of conscience, for both come from God. After putting the case for miracles and emphasizing the importance of the death of Christ as the means of redemption, Butler restrikes the key note of the Analogy by declaring in the final chapter that while the evidences for revealed religion, i.e., Christianity, do not amount to demonstration, they are in the highest degree probable.

The systematic account of the moral nature of man, which alone gives value to an enquiry into religion, is set forth by Butler in the famous Fifteen Sermons, especially in the first three, Upon Human Nature. The three primary factors of human nature are passions and affections, self-love and benevolence, and conscience. Benevolence he develops at some length, showing against Hobbes that man is intended by nature for society and to benefit society, but by regarding it less as a definite desire for the general good as such than as affection for particular individuals, Butler practi cally eliminates it as a regulative principle. Man's ethical nature, for him, is an organic unity in which conscience, whose function it is to reveal the law of our nature, reigns supreme and the inferior elements are subordinated to the superior ones. Virtue, then, consists in following conscience, but Butler unfortunately gives no satisfactory answer to the enquiry, what course of action is approved by conscience? He seems to think that everyone knows what virtue is, and that between human nature and virtue there is a sort of pre-established harmony. Among the remaining 12 sermons those on compassion and those on the love of our neigh bour concern the doctrines of Hobbes.


the many editions of the Analogy the best are Bibliography.--Of the many editions of the Analogy the best are those by W. Fitzgerald (1849) containing a valuable biography, by W. E. Gladstone (1897) the second vol., including the Sermons, and by J. H. Bernard (1900) which also includes the Sermons. See T. Bartlett, Memoirs of Butler (1839) ; A. E. Baker, Bishop Butler (1923) ; T. Lorenz, Beitrag zur Lebensgeschichte von J. Butler (5900) and his Weitere Beitrage . . . (5901) . For the religious history of Butler's times, see G. V. Lechler, Gesch. d. Engl. Deismus (1841) ; M. Pattison, Essays and Reviews (1889) ; J. Hunt, Religious Thought in England (187o-73) ; L. Stephen, English Thought in the r8th century (1902) ; J. H. Overton and F. Relton, The English Church from the Accession of George I. to the End of the 18th century (1906).

nature, religion, sermons, analogy and conscience