BUTLER, JOSEPH (1692–1752), English theologian and moral philosopher. Butler was born into a Presbyterian family in Berkshire. He began his studies at a dissenting academy, but changed his allegiance to the Church of England and entered Oriel College, Oxford University. After ordination, he held a succession of charges, including clerk of the closet to Queen Caroline, clerk of the closet to King George II, bishop of Bristol, and bishop of Durham. He died at Bath and is buried in the cathedral at Bristol.
The first part of Butler's only systematic work, Analogy of Religion (1736), argued against those deists of his day who, although rejecting the Christian scriptures, believed that God had created the universe and that a rational religion could be found in nature. These deists denied special revelation on the grounds of alleged rational difficulties. Butler attempted to show that the difficulties found in special revelation, rejected by deists, were analogous to the difficulties found in natural revelation, which deists accepted. To be consistent, deists should accept special revelation. Butler was aware—but did not think it probable—that one who accepts this analogy may reject both revelations. The second part of his Analogy is one of the classic defenses of Christian theism.
Butler's ethical theory is based on an analysis of the component parts of human nature. There are three levels operating harmoniously: the several passions, each directed at a particular desire; the rational principles of self-love and benevolence, concerned with the individual's general welfare; and conscience, the moral standard and decision maker. Butler considered ethics to be a subdivision of theology, presenting his theories in Fifteen Sermons (1726). Philosophers, however, generally treat his ethics independently of his theology. Butler is also known for his refutation of psychological egoism, based on his analysis of benevolence, a natural component of human nature.
There have been many editions of Butler's two books: Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel (1726) and The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature (1736). The most readily available complete editions of his works (which also include a few additional sermons) are The Works of Joseph Butler, D. C. L., 2 vols., edited by W. E. Gladstone (Oxford, 1896–1897), and The Works of Bishop Butler, 2 vols., edited by J. H. Bernard (London, 1900). Both texts have informative introductions.
The best general work on Butler is Ernest C. Mossner's Bishop Butler and the Age of Reason (New York, 1936), while the most penetrating analysis of Butler's ethics is Austin Duncan-Jones's Butler's Moral Philosophy (Harmondsworth, 1952). Recommended as a work integrating his natural theology and ethics is my own Butler's Ethics (The Hague, 1964).
P. Allan Carlsson (1987)
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.
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.
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).
Penelhum, Terence, Butler, London; Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985. □
English theologian and bishop of Durham; b. Wantage, Berkshire, England, May 18, 1692; d. Bath, June 16, 1752. Butler was the eighth and youngest child of a linen draper who reared him as a Presbyterian; he joined the Episcopal Church later and entered Oriel College, Oxford, in 1715, transferring to Cambridge on Sept. 30, 1717. He received the B.A. degree in 1718, was ordained deacon and priest in 1721 by Bp. William Talbot at Salisbury, and was appointed preacher at the Rolls Chapel, whence he delivered his famous "Sermons on Human Nature" (1726). In 1721 he received the B.C.L. degree and became prebendary of Salisbury. When Bishop Talbot was transferred to Durham, he gave Butler the rectory of Houghton-la-Skerne (1722) and the wealthy rectory of Stanhope (1725). In 1736 Butler was appointed clerk of the closet to Queen Caroline, who recommended his promotion in the church. In 1737 Caroline died, and George II arranged with Walpole for Butler's appointment to the impoverished See of Bristol. The sharp yet courteous letter of acceptance to Walpole indicated Butler's resentment. Butler was presented to St. Paul's attractive deanery in 1740, and made clerk of the closet to George II in 1746. He declined the primacy in 1747, explaining "it was too late to support a falling church," but in 1750 accepted the bishopric of Durham, where, after delivering a remonstrance, he urged the maintenance of churches and regular services. Earlier he had offered a plan for establishing Episcopal sees in the American colonies, but it remained unheeded.
Butler's Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature (1736), serving as a retaliation against deistic writers who were attacking traditional theology, is widely accepted as the most solid defense of revealed religion during the 18th century. Cardinal J. H. Newman claimed that it "formed an era in his religious opinions." But others, such as John Stuart Mill, regarded the Analogy as a retort, not an exposition, and therefore skeptical in essence.
Bibliography: Works, ed. w. e. gladstone, 3 v. (London 1896); The Analogy of Religion, notes w. fitzgerald (Dublin 1849), with introd. e. c. mossner (New York 1961). a. e. baker, Bishop Butler (London 1923). e. c. mossner, Bishop Butler and the Age of Reason (New York 1936). a. e. taylor, Philosophical Studies (London 1934). y. m. j. congar, Catholicisme 2:336. j. homeyer, Lexicon für Theologie und Kirche, new eds. 2:844. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church 211. l. stephen, The Dictionary of National Biography from the Earliest Times to 1900 3:519–524.
[m. a. frawley]
J. A. Cannon