Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Critical Introduction by J. Bonar
William Paley (17431805)
[William Paley, born at Peterborough, 1743, and brought up at his fathers school at Giggleswick, West Riding, became sizar of Christs College, Cambridge, 1758; was Senior Wrangler, 1763; defended Epicureanism against Stoicism in a University Prize Essay, 1765; and became Fellow of his College, 1766. His friend, Edmund Law, becoming Bishop of Carlisle in 1769, made Paley his chaplain. Paley supported Laws pamphlet in criticism of the required subscription to the Thirty-nine Articles: Confessions of Faith ought to be converted into Articles of Peace (Mor. and Pol. Phil., Bk. vi., chap, x.); but he would not join the petition of clergymen in 1772 for relief from subscription. He became Rector of Musgrove, Westmoreland, 1775, of Appleby 1777, Prebendary of Carlisle 1780, and Archdeacon of Carlisle (his best known title) 1782.
In 1785 he published his Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, in 1790 his Horæ Paulinæ, and in 1794 his View of the Evidences of Christianity. Rector of Bishop-Wearmouth, in Durham, 1795, he devoted his leisure to anatomy, and in spite of great bodily suffering published in 1802 his Natural Theology. He died in 1805.]
PALEY is not among the authors either wholly loved or wholly admired. He is a clear reasoner, a man of probity and good sense, who is laudably anxious that sound morals, the canon of Scripture, the truth of Christianity and Theism should be made matters of demonstration as well as faith. He is said to have sowed his wild oats at college; and in after life, though he did not disdain amusement in the form of trout-fishing and card-playing, he was the embodiment of the respectable virtues. His moral philosophy resolves all virtue into prudence. Virtue, he says, is the doing good to mankind, in obedience to the will of God, and for the sake of everlasting happiness,a definition not now accepted by any school of moral philosophers, but at least superficially in harmony with the doctrines of the Church. But his element is circumstantial evidence; and he finds himself in it in his Horæ Paulinæ, where he tries to prove the harmony of the Epistles with the Acts, and with one another, by pointing out a multitude of undesigned coincidences. This is the only book in which he has ventured to be original, for the Moral and Political Philosophy is in debt to Abraham Tucker, the Evidences of Christianity to Lardner, and the Natural Theology to Nieuwentyt, the Religious Philosopher. But if he borrowed from others, he made the others more readable. Life is too short for the reading of many such books as Tuckers Light of Nature in nine octavo volumes; the pages of Paley are always terse and intelligible. It is true he has little humour; and if we see irony in the description of an imaginary private property among pigeons (Mor. and Pol. Phil., iii. 1), the context shows him to be quite unconscious of it. Whether talking on things small or great, human or divine, he has all the seriousness of a counsel defending a prisoner accused of murder.
The evidences of the truth of the Christian religion, and the proofs of the being of a God had never been presented in a form that seemed to bring them so nearly within the grasp of the ordinary human understanding. Yet after 100 years Paleys work on the subject seems to have many defects. In particular the Argument from Design is, as he gave it, founded too narrowly on the analogies of physical mechanism. The very facts of physiology, so carefully and minutely described (such as the phenomena of seeing and hearing), and the facts of biology as to the growth of life in the world, are all translated into terms of mechanical adaptation and compared to the watch or the windlass. He bore the stamp of his time.
It is fairer to point to such defects in philosophical argument than to treat Paleys reasoning as discredited throughout by an arrière-pensée. No doubt like most men he did not refuse advancement, and he may even have courted it. But the social optimism which made him think that the labourers of England had nearly every reason in 1791 to be contented with their condition is of a piece with the metaphysical optimism which made him regard the organisation of living beings as nearly perfect. It seems also true that his theology, which gave character to his utilitarianism, qualified his optimism. The world is a place of probation, and therefore is not perfect. Christianity would make men perfectly happy; but it has not been universally accepted (Evid., Part III. chap. vi.). Paley is theologian first and philosopher afterwards.