Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Critical Introduction by James Bonar
Joseph Butler (16921752)
[Bishop Butler, born at Wantage, 1692, was trained for the Presbyterian ministry, but went to Oriel College, Oxford, 1714, and eventually took orders in the Church of England. In 1718 (largely through Dr Samuel Clarke, with whom he had corresponded) he was made preacher at the Rolls Chapel, where he delivered the famous Sermons, published 1726. From 1721 to 1725 he held the Rectory of Haughton, and from 1725 to 1733 that of Stanhope, in Durham. In 1733 he became chaplain to Lord Chancellor Talbot. In 1736 he published his Analogy of Religion, natural and revealed, to the constitution and course of Nature. Thereafter he became successively Bishop of Bristol (1737), Dean of St. Pauls (1740), and Bishop of Durham (1750). He died at Bath and was buried in Bristol Cathedral 1752.]
BISHOP BUTLER was a logical writer, not simply in the sense of one who argues correctly when he argues at all, but of one who loves to reason. He was a man of understanding; and his understanding was applied rarely to political or ecclesiastical subjects, chiefly and with peculiar fondness to broad general questions of ethics and natural theology. His leading idea was the Stoic idea of an order of nature, parallel with the lesser world of human beings, or (more accurately) forming one system with it. Perhaps in the Sermons (of which by far the greater number are philosophical) the idea of a Law of nature predominates, and in the Analogy the idea of an Order of nature. But the two ideas pervade the whole of his thought. Virtue is defined by Butler as following Nature, vice as departing from it. Metaphysically, vice is contrary to the nature and reason of things:this was Dr. Clarkes way of approaching the subject, and Butler will not quarrel with it. But he himself prefers the argument from experience (vice is a violation of our own nature) as, in the Analogy he prefers the argument from design to Clarkes a priori argument for the existence of God.
It is from considering the relations which the several appetites and passions in the inward frame have to each other, and above all the supremacy of reflection or conscience, that we get the idea of the system or constitution of human nature. Our nature (he says) is made for virtue as a watch is made to measure time. Whereas in the brutes there is nothing but appetites and passions; they have no conscience. Their passions have power; but they have no principle in them possessing authority. Man has such a principle in conscience: To preside and govern, from the very economy and constitution of man, belongs to it. Had it strength as it has right, had it power as it has manifest authority, it would absolutely govern the world.
In Butlers writings, the influence of Greek philosophy is very plain and his very notion of an order or system of the passions leads us beyond the Stoics to Aristotle and his golden mean. This is no place to estimate the value of his ethical philosophy, and his criticisms of predecessors and contemporaries. But it may be remarked that the influence of the Sermons has been confessedly greater in ethics than the influence of the Analogy in apologetics. No doubt some of the sayings in the latter have become household words (for example: Probability is the very guide of life); but the former will rank higher even in literary merit. The crisp clear sentences are features of the authors style in both; but when he rises to eloquence it is in the Sermons (as in the often copied sermon on Balaam). He could on occasion deliver what is called a practical discourse (as in the Charity Sermons); and his Charge to the Clergy of Durham contained plain speaking that brought some obloquy on the speaker. But even on such occasions his thoughts seemed to fall naturally into the form of arguments. He appeals at all times to the reason, and only incidentally to the feelings. There is probably no writer from whose works so little could be pruned away as a mere superfluity of oratory. His very quotations from Scripture are usually of aphorisms; and very characteristic is his fondness for Jesus the Son of Sirach, with whom he has certainly helped to make the English people familiar. Yet there is no one who is more successful in infecting his readers with his own ardour and impressing them with a feeling of his entire sincerity.