Skip to main content

Joseph Butler

Joseph Butler

The English philosopher and theologian Joseph Butler (1692-1752) developed a moral philosophy based on human nature and a natural theology that emphasized the validity of Christian beliefs.

Joseph Butler was born on May 18, 1692, at Wantage, Berkshire, to Presbyterian parents. His father, wishing his son to be a minister, sent him to a Dissenting academy, which was first located at Gloucester and then at Tewkesbury. While at this academy Butler's keen aptitude for theological speculation became evident. In his correspondence with Samuel Clarke he indicated two flaws in the reasoning of Clarke's recently published a priori demonstrations concerning the proof of the divine omnipresence and of the unity of the "necessarily existent being." Also while at the academy, for reasons not fully known, young Butler left the Presbyterian communion and joined the Church of England. After securing his father's reluctant consent, in 1714 he entered Oriel College, Oxford; after taking his degree, he was ordained a priest in 1718.

During his lifetime Butler served the Anglican Church in a number of different offices. He was preacher at Rolls Chapel, rector of Haughton and Stanhope, clerk of the closet to Queen Caroline, bishop of Bristol, dean of St. Paul's Cathedral, clerk of the closet to King George II, and, for the last 2 years of his life, bishop of Durham. He died in Bath on June 16, 1752, and was buried in Bristol Cathedral.

Philosophical Thought

A systematic statement of Butler's moral philosophy is found in his "Three Sermons on Human Nature" in Fifteen Sermons and in Dissertation II ("Of the Nature of Virtue") in The Analogy. Butler, believing that revelation and nature are complementary, argues in Aristotelian fashion from the nature of man to conclusions on how man should live to be in accord with that nature. By nature men have both self-regarding and benevolent affections. The intrinsic character of the self-regarding affection is not incompatible with a benevolent attitude. In fact, more often than is commonly supposed, these affections reinforce each other.

But the affections are only one facet of human nature; far more important is the capacity to judge the affections and the behavior issuing from them. This superior faculty is conscience or reflection. As Butler himself indicates, his view of conscience is drawn from Arrian's Discourses of Epictetus. Conscience, Butler insists, keeps man from being the captive of his passions, approves or condemns his actions, and constitutes man as a morally self-legislating being.

The Analogy offers the clearest statement of Butler's natural theology. This work was apparently intended to convince deists, who acknowledged God's existence, that their beliefs could reasonably lead them to Christianity. It shows the importance of the Christian revelation and the reasonableness of belief in immortality.

Further Reading

G. W. Kitchin, Seven Sages of Durham (1911), includes a biographical sketch of Butler. The following works consider particular aspects of Butler's thinking: Ernest Campbell Mossner, Bishop Butler and the Age of Reason: A Study in the History of Thought (1936); Austin Duncan-Jones, Butler's Moral Philosophy (1952); and P. Allan Carlsson, Butler's Ethics (1964).

Additional Sources

Penelhum, Terence, Butler, London; Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985. □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Joseph Butler." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 24 May. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Joseph Butler." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/joseph-butler

"Joseph Butler." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved May 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/joseph-butler

Butler, Joseph

Butler, Joseph (1692–1752). Bishop. Butler attended a dissenting academy in Gloucestershire before conforming to the Church of England and graduating from Oriel College, Oxford. He advanced in his profession under the patronage of Bishop Talbot (of Salisbury and Durham) and Lord Chancellor Talbot, and also gained the favour of Queen Caroline, who commended him to George II on her deathbed. He was appointed bishop of Bristol in 1738, dean of St Paul's in 1740, and bishop of Durham in 1750. His major publications were Fifteen Sermons (1726) and The Analogy of Religion (1736). His contribution to the deistic controversy stressed the role of conscience in opposition to Hobbesian self-interest. Though Butler's reasoning was greatly admired, for example by Gladstone, who spent the last years of his life editing his works, he assumed too readily that conscience always speaks clearly and that it says the same thing in all societies, and his argument that conscience and self-interest necessarily coincide seems facile: ‘conscience and self-love, if we understand our true happiness, always lead us the same way.’

J. A. Cannon

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Butler, Joseph." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. 24 May. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Butler, Joseph." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/butler-joseph

"Butler, Joseph." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Retrieved May 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/butler-joseph

Butler, Joseph

Joseph Butler, 1692–1752, English bishop and exponent of natural theology. Butler held a series of church offices, ending his career as bishop of Durham. His principle writings are Fifteen Sermons (1726), in which he set forth his moral philosophy, and The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature (1736), aimed at combating the influence of deism in England. Both works became standard references in the education of Anglican and other clergy until the late 19th cent. In ethics, Butler was part of the 17th and 18th cent. attempt to find a foundation for morals without appeal to the divine will; he insisted on the complexity of human nature against one-sided accounts by Thomas Hobbes and Anthony Ashley Cooper (see Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3d earl of). In his natural theology he attempted to show that revealed religion was no less probable than the limited affirmations made of God by the deists.

See studies by E. C. Mossner (1936, repr. 1971), A. E. Duncan-Jones (1952), and P. A. Carlson (1964).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Butler, Joseph." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 24 May. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Butler, Joseph." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/butler-joseph

"Butler, Joseph." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved May 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/butler-joseph

Butler, Joseph

Butler, Joseph (1692–1752). Anglican bishop and philosopher. From 1718 to 1726 he was preacher at the Rolls Chapel, where his sermons won him fame. He then became a parish priest in Co. Durham, where he wrote his Analogy of Religion (1736). He was consecrated bishop of Bristol in 1738 and became bishop of Durham in 1750. His own mistrust of the irrational and of appeal to the praeternatural in religion is contained in his remark, ‘The pretending to extraordinary revelations and gifts of the Holy Ghost is a horrid thing, a very horrid thing.’

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Butler, Joseph." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Encyclopedia.com. 24 May. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Butler, Joseph." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/butler-joseph

"Butler, Joseph." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Retrieved May 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/butler-joseph