Books by Joseph Butler
Books about Joseph Butler

Biography: Joseph Butler

LIFE. Joseph Butler was born into a Presbyterian family at Wantage. He attended a dissenting academy, but then converted to the Church of England intent on an ecclesiastical career. Butler expressed distaste for Oxford's intellectual conventions while a student at Oriel College; he preferred the newer styles of thought, especially those of Locke, Shaftesbury and Hutcheson, leading Hume to characterize Butler as one of those "who have begun to put the science of man on a new footing, and have engaged the attention, and excited the curiosity of the public." . Butler benefited from the support of Samuel Clarke and the Talbot family.

In 1719, Butler was appointed to his first job, preacher to the Rolls Chapel in Chancery Lane, London. Butler's anonymous letters to Clarke had been published in 1716, but a selection of his Rolls sermons (1726) was the first work published under his name. These sermons are still widely read and have held the attention of secular philosophers more than any other sermons in history. Butler moved north and became rector of Stanhope in 1725. Only at this point is his life documented in any detail, and his tenure is remembered mainly for the Analogy of Religion (1736). Soon after publication of that work, Butler became Bishop of Bristol. Queen Caroline had died urging his preferment, but Bristol was one of the poorest sees, and Butler expressed some displeasure in accepting it. Once Butler became dean of St. Paul's in 1740, he was able to use that income to support his work in Bristol. In 1750, not long before his death, Butler was elevated to Durham, one of the richest bishoprics. The tradition that Butler declined the See of Canterbury was conclusively discredited by Norman Sykes (1936), but continues to be repeated uncritically in many reference works. Butler's famous encounter with John Wesley has only recently be reconstructed in as full detail as seems possible given the state of the surviving evidence, and we are now left with little hope of ever knowing what their actual relationship was. They disagreed, certainly, on Wesley's right to preach without a license, and on this point Butler seems entirely in the right, but Butler may have supported Wesley more than he opposed him, and Wesley seems entirely sincere in his praise of the Analogy.

Butler has become an icon of a highly intellectualized, even rarefied, theology, "wafted in a cloud of metaphysics," as Horace Walpole said. Ironically, Butler refused as a matter of principle to write speculative works or to pursue curiosity. All his writings were directly related to the performance of his duties at the time or to career advancement. From the Rolls sermons on, all his works are devoted to pastoral philosophy.

A pastoral philosopher gives philosophically persuasive arguments for seeing life in a particular way when such a seeing-as may have a decisive effect on practice. Butler had little interest in and only occasionally practices natural theology in the scholastic sense; his intent is rather defensive, to answer those who claim that morals and religion, as conventionally understood, may be safely disregarded. Butler tried to show, as a refutation of the practice of his day (as he perceived it) that morals and religion are natural extensions of the common way of life usually taken for granted, and thus that those who would dispense with them bear a burden of proof they are unable to discharge. In arguing that morals and religion are favored by a presumption already acknowledged in ordinary life, Butler employs many types of appeal, at least some of which would be fallacious if used in an attempted demonstrative argument. Butler's philosophy possesses a unity often neglected by those who read him selectively.

The totality of his work addresses the questions: why be moral? why be religious? and which morality?, which religion?

HUMAN NATURE AS MADE FOR VIRTUE. Butler's argument for morality, found primarily in his sermons, is an attempt to show that morality is a matter of following human nature. To develop this argument, he introduces the notions of nature and of a system. There are, he says, various parts to human nature, and they are arranged hierarchically. The fact that human nature is hierarchically ordered is not what makes us manifestly adapted to virtue, rather it is that what Butler calls conscience is at the top of this hierarchy. Butler does sometimes refer to the conscience as the voice of God, but contrary to what is sometimes alleged, he never relies on divine authority in asserting the supremacy, the universality or the reliability of conscience. Butler clearly believes in the autonomy of the conscience as a secular organ of knowledge.

Whether the conscience judges principles, actions or persons is not clear, perhaps deliberately since such distinctions are of no practical significance. What Butler is concerned to show is that to dismiss morality is in effect to dismiss our own nature, and therefore absurd. As to which morality we are to follow, Butler seems to have in mind the common core of civilized standards. He stresses the degree of agreement and reliability of conscience without denying some differences remain. All that is required for his argument to go through is that the opponent accept in practice that conscience is the supreme authority in human nature and that we ought not to disregard our own nature.

The most significant recent challenge to Butler's moral theory is by Nicholas Sturgeon (1976), a reply to which appears in Stephen Darwall (1995).

Besides the appeal to the rank of conscience, Butler offered many other observations in his attempt to show that we are made for, i.e., especially suited to, virtue. In his famous refutation of Hobbes, one of them, he shows that benevolence is as much a part of human nature as self-love. Butler also shows how various other aspects of human nature are adapted to virtue, sometimes in surprising ways, for example, that resentment is needed to balance benevolence. He also deals forthrightly with self-deception. Only three of the fifteen sermons deal with explicitly religious themes: the sermons on the love of God and the sermon on ignorance.

HUMAN LIFE AS IN THE PRESENCE OF GOD. Butler's views on our knowledge of God are among the most frequently misstated aspects of his philosophy. Lewis White Beck's exposition (1937) of this neglected aspect of Butler's philosophy has itself been generally neglected, and both friends and foes frequently assert that Butler "assumed" that God exists. Butler never assumes the existence of God, rather, at least after his exchange with Clarke, he takes it as granted that God's existence can be and has been proved to the satisfaction of those who were party to the discussion in his time. The charge, frequently repeated since the mid-nineteenth century, that Butler's position is reversible once an opponent refuses to grant God's existence is therefore groundless. Butler does not expound any proof of God's existence, a fact that makes his identification with Cleanthes in Hume's Dialogues problematic, but he does endorse many such proofs, using common names rather than citing specific texts. The sermons on the love of God are rarely read today, but they provide abundant evidence



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