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Paley, William

PALEY, WILLIAM

(b. Peterborough, England, July 1743; d. Lincoln, England, 25 May 1805)

natural theology.

Paley was the eldest son of Elizabeth and William Paley. His father, a graduate of Christ’s College, Cambridge, was a vicar and minor canon of the Church of England, and was headmaster of the grammar school at Giggleswick. Paley was educated at his father’s school and entered Christ’s College, Cambridge, in 1759, receiving his B. A. in January 1763. Following graduation he began to teach at an academy in Greenwich, but in June 1766 he was elected a fellow of his college and returned to Cambridge. Paley’s last formal connection with Christ’s College was as tutor from 1771 to 1774.

While an undergraduate, Paley had shown promise in mathematics; he continued his interest in that field during his tenure as tutor, when he corrected the proofs of Miscellanea analytica, written by Edward Waring, the Lucasian professor of mathematics. Paley had been ordained a deacon in the Church of England by 1766. While a fellow of Christ’s College, he gave a lecture entitled “Metaphysics, Morals and the Greek Testament” and discussed the Being and Attributes of God, written by the Reverend Samuel Clarke. It was at this time that Paley became friendly with a number of other fellows interested in natural theology, including John Jebb, and joined the Hyson Club. His interest in metaphysics and in Clarke’s work led him to support an attempt of other latitudinarians to relax the stringency of the church’s organization and government.

In 1775 Paley was presented with the rectorship of Musgrave in Cumberland, the first of several ecclesiastical posts he was to hold. By 1782 he had become archdeacon of Carlisle, and his financial position was assured. Written at this time, his Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy was taken from his lectures and enjoyed wide success. His rise in the church continued, and by the end of 1785 he had become chancellor of the diocese of Carlisle. Having become interested in the abolition of the slave trade, he lectured against slavery and became, on the local level, very much of a the public figure.

Paley’s abandonment of a purely academic career may be seen in his refusal of the mastership of Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1792, for financial reasons. Instead of returning to the university he continued to accumulate increasingly lucrative ecclesiastical holdings and continued to publish. By 1794 his writings advanced his religious career, for his Evidences of Christianity was warmly regarded by the church and he was rewarded with new benefices. In 1795 Paley received the Doctorate of Divinity at Cambridge and the rectorship of Bishop-Wearmouth, a post worth £1,200 a year. He remained in residence at Carlisle and was appointed a justice of the peace for the region.

Although much in demand as a public speaker, illness in 1800 forced Paley to give up this aspect of his career. In 1802 he published his most significant book, Natural Theology; or, Evidences of the Existence andAttributes of the Deity. He died three years later. Paley was married twice: to Jane Hewitt, who died in 1791; and in 1795 to a Miss Dobinson. His son by his first marriage, Edmund, wrote a life of his father.

Paley’s fame is as a writer of textbooks. His works were used at Cambridge for nearly half a century after his death. His own religious views inclined toward liberalism; and while he never embraced the Unitarian point of view, as did so many of his friends, he was not hostile toward Arianism or Unitarianism. Natural Theology is perhaps most significant for Paley’s efforts to reconcile liberal orthodox Christianity with divine providence. As an undergraduate at Cambridge, Charles Darwin read much of Paley’s writings:

In order to pass the B.A. examination, it was also necessary to get up Paley’s Evidences of Christianity, and his Moral Philosophy. This was done in a thorough manner, and I am convinced that I could have written out the whole of the Evidences with perfect correctness, but not of course in the clear language of Paley. The logic of this book, and, as I may add, of his Natural Theology, gave me as much delight as did Euclid. The careful study of these works, without attempting to learn any part by rote, was the only part of the academical course which, as I then felt and as I still believe, was of the least use to me in the education of my mind. I did not at that time trouble myself about Paley’s premises; and taking these on trust, I was charmed and convinced by the long line of argumentation [Charles Darwin’s Autobiography, Sir Francis Darwin, ed. (New York, 1961), 34–35].

Paley’s underlying belief, expressed in Natural Theology, was that the world is essentially a happy place. Nature was God and God was good; the proof of the goodness of God and Nature could be found in day-to-day experiences. In the most often quoted passage of his work Paley says:

It is a happy world after all. The air, the earth, the water teem with delighted existence. In a spring noon, or a summer evening, on whichever side I turn my eyes, myriads of happy beings crowd upon my view. “The insect youth are on the wing.” Swarms of new-born flies are trying their pinions in the air. Their sportive motions, their wanton mazes, their gratuitous activity, testify their joy and the exultation which they feel in their lately discovered faculties…. The whole winged insect tribe, it is probable, are equally intent upon their proper employments, and under every variety of constitution, gratified, and perhaps equally gratified, by the offices which the author of their nature has assigned to them [Natural Theology, p. 236].

The work itself, written as a treatise against atheism and teleological in the extreme, shows how the workings of the body, the functions of animals and plants, and the arrangement of the human frame all manifest the workings of the deity. Throughout, Paley dwells on how things could not possibly have been organized otherwise, using mechanical examples to illustrate further the existence of the deity. In his description of the muscles Paley attempted to work out a dynamic approach to muscular action (Natural Theology, in The Works of William Paley,I [Cambridge, 1830], 71; hereafter cited by page only). In his treatment of organisms Paley cited symmetry as a further proof of divinity (pp. 101, 166). He also used the relations of “parts one to another” to show the works of God; his classic example was that the sexes are “manifestly made for each other” (p. 143).

Believing that the various parts of animals complement each other, Paley used the term “compensation” —which, to him, was “a relation, when the defects of one part, or one organ, are supplied by the structure of another part, or of another organ” (p. 146). He showed how the “short, unbending neck of the elephant” is compensated by the trunk, and in the course of this description he took issue with the ideas of Erasmus Darwin.

If it be suggested, that this proboscis may have been produced in a long course of generations, by the constant endeavour of the elephant to thrust out his nose, (which is the general hypothesis by which it has been lately attempted to account for the forms of animated nature), I would ask, how was the animal to subsist in the mean time; during the process; until this prolongation of snout were completed? What was to become of the individual, whilst the species was perfecting? (pp. 146–147)

Paley took no stand on evolution as such, believing that “our business is simply to point out the relation which an organ bears to the peculiar figure of the animal to which it belongs” (p. 147).

After dealing with animate matter Paley turned to a very brief treatment of the elements—a highly simplistic and almost Aristotelian one. His comments on astronomy sum up his idea of the purpose of scientific studies: “My opinion of [it] has always been, that it is not the best medium through which to prove the agency of an intelligent Creator; but that, this being proved, it shows, beyond all other sciences, the magnificence of his operation” (p. 197). Paley’s conclusion seems quite clear. “In the observable portion of nature organisms are formed one beneath another…the Deity can mould and fashion the parts in material nature so as to fulfill any purpose whatsoever which he is pleased to appoint” (p. 280).

Paley’s significance in the history of science is twofold. His writings on natural theology clearly reveal the changed framework of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as opposed to the late seventeenth century. The purely physical universe no longer could suffice to furnish proof for God’s existence, but emphasis had turned to biological evidence to show the beneficence of the deity’s workings. On the whole Paley’s universe was a benevolent one. This very benevolence, coupled with Paley’s popularity as a textbook writer, helped to create the atmosphere so hostile to Charles Darwin in the 1850’s and 1860’s.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

I. Original Works. Paley’s published works were collected as The Works of William Paley, D.D., 6 vols. (Cambridge, 1825; 2nd ed., 1830). Included are Natural Theology; or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Sermons on Various Subjects, Horae Paulinae, Clergyman’s Companion, The Young Christian Instructed, Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, and A View of the Evidences of Christianity. In 1820 Natural Theology was reprinted for the twentieth time, and in 1835–1839, it formed the core of a work entitled Natural Theology by Lord Brougham. Paley’s work was translated into Spanish, French, and Italian.

II. Secondary Literature. G. W. Meadley, “Memoirs of William Paley, D.D.,” in The Works of William Paley, D.D., I, is the best treatment of the subject. Meadley had been a close friend of Paley, and his work is more detailed than Edmund Paley’s “Life of William Paley,” which is prefixed to the 1825 ed. of Paley’s Works. Other treatments are derivative and depend on Meadley’s Passing reference is paid to Paley by L. E. Elliott-Binns, Religion in the Victorian Era (London-Redhill, 1946). Although the most extensive treatment is to be found in Leslie Stephen’s article in Dictionary of National Biography, XV (1967–1968), 101–107, Stephen is concerned less with Paley’s influence on science than in the recounting of personal anecdotes.

Joel M. Rodney

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William Paley

William Paley

The English theologian and moral philosopher William Paley (1743-1805) wrote works in defense of theism and Christianity that achieved great popularity in the 19th century. He is acknowledged as one of the founders of the utilitarian tradition.

William Paley was born in Peterborough in July 1743. His father, William, was vicar of Helpston, Northamptonshire, and, later, headmaster of the Giggleswick School. William attended Giggleswick prior to entering Christ's College, Cambridge, in 1759, where he had a brilliant career, excelling in mathematics and debating. After a brief period as a school-teacher Paley was elected a fellow at his college in 1766 and tutor in 1768. He remained at Cambridge until his marriage in 1776. Subsequently Paley, who had been ordained in 1767, accepted a series of ecclesiastical appointments which were less distinguished than his abilities because of his liberal political views.

Paley was the author of four books. He published The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy in 1785. Horae Paulinae, a defense of the New Testament, appeared in 1790. A view of the Evidences of Christianity, issued in 1794, achieved great fame. Natural Theology; or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity Collected from the Appearances of Nature was published in 1802. He died in Lincoln on May 25, 1805.

Paley's most successful work was Natural Theology, which presented in a clear and lucid manner all of the evidences for the existence of God. Philosophers and theologians have always distinguished between knowledge of the fact that a supreme being exists and knowledge of what such an existence would involve. Paley, as a liberal theologian and thinker, was close to the position of medieval negative theology and 17th-century deism, believing that man can know that the Supreme Being exists but that he can know nothing of His attributes. Thus Paley attempted to establish that the evidence for the existence of God exceeds the objections. Paley's method was analogical reasoning. His most famous illustration was that a reasonable man will admit that experience establishes that the intricate and connected parts of a watch can be produced only by an intelligent designer. If evidence suggests that the workings of the present universe are more complicated and interdependent than those of a watch, then a reasonable man must conclude by analogy, that it is highly probable that God exists as the designer of the universe. Indirectly, said Paley, a reasonable man can attribute personality and power to such a being because these are the experienced conditions of a designer. The weakness of Paley's argument consists in his failure to question the analogy between a watch and a world.

Further Reading

Paley's writings are collected in The Works of William Paley (5 vols., 1819). His Natural Theology: Selections was edited with a useful and extensive introduction by Frederick Ferré (1963). Paley and his work are discussed in Leslie Stephen, History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century (2 vols., 1876), and less extensively in John Petrow Plamenatz, The English Utilitarians (1949).

Additional Sources

LeMahieu, D. L., The mind of William Paley: a philosopher and his age, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1976. □

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Paley, William

Paley, William (1743–1805). Paley wrote standard works on the evidences for Christianity. Senior wrangler at Cambridge, he was ordained and after tutoring at Cambridge moved to clerical posts in Carlisle diocese, and then to Monkwearmouth (Sunderland). His Evidences was published in 1794, and his Natural Theology in 1802. Extremely successful, with more than 20 editions, they were required reading for undergraduates at Cambridgeand at the infant university of Durham. Charles Darwin was most impressed by Natural Theology, and the Origin of Species can be seen as a riposte to it. Paley argued that the world and the creatures in it are like watches, and must have had a Watchmaker: it is a classic expression of the Design argument for the existence of God, well organized, cumulative, and beautifully written. A clumsy man with a broad northern accent, Paley delighted in fishing.

David Knight

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Paley, William

William Paley, 1743–1805, English theologian. Ordained in 1767, he lectured on moral philosophy at Christ's College, Cambridge. Made a prebendary of the cathedral church of Carlisle (1780), he became archdeacon of the diocese (1782), and chancellor (1785), the year he published Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy. He wrote Horae Paulinae (1790), in proof that the New Testament is not "a cunningly devised fable," and A View of the Evidences of Christianity (1794), for which he is celebrated. Natural Theology; or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity (1802) achieved great popularity. In 1825 a complete edition of his writings was published by his son, Edmund Paley.

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