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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

XI. Berkeley and Contemporary Philosophy

§ 21. Bishop Butler’s Fifteen Sermons and Analogy; Exhaustiveness of Butler’s Reasonings

Joseph Butler, bishop of Durham during the last two years (1750–52) of his life, did not make any contributions to pure metaphysics; but his is the greatest name both in the theological and in the ethical thought of the period. He published two books only—a volume of Fifteen Sermons (1726), which (in particular, the first three sermons, entitled “on human nature”) express his ethical system, and The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature (1736). These works are without any pretentions to literary elegance; and it is only in rare passages that the usually sombre style glows with the fire of restrained eloquence. But they are compact of profound thought. the names of other writers are rarely mentioned; but all their arguments have been considered; no difficulties are slurred over, and no opinion is accepted without being probed to the bottom. There is an air of completeness and finality about the reasoning, which needs no grace of diction.

Butler’s condensed and weighty argument hardly admits of summary. Yet his view of things as a whole may be expressed in the one word “teleological.” Human nature is a system or constitution; the same is true of the world at large; and both point to an end or purpose. This is his guiding idea, suggested by Shaftesbury, to whom due credit is given; and it enables him to rise from a refutation of the selfish theory of Hobbes to the truth that man’s nature or constitution is adapted to virtue. The old argument about selfish or disinterested affections is raised to a higher plane. He shows that the characteristic of impulse, or the “particular passions,” is to seek an object, not to seek pleasure, while pleasure results from the attainment of the object desired. Human nature, however, is not impulsive merely; there are also reflective principles by which the tendency of impulses is judged and their value appraised. On this level, selfishness is possible; but self-love is not the only reflective principle of conduct; beside it stands the moral sense, or, as Butler preferred to call it, conscience. The claim to rule, or “superintendency” (a point overlooked by Shaftesbury), is of the very nature of conscience; and, although Butler labours to prove the harmony of the dictates of the two principles, it is to conscience that he assigns ultimate authority. It is true that, in an oft-quoted sentence, he admits

  • that when we sit down in a cool hour, we can neither justify to ourselves this [i.e. moral rectitude] or any other pursuit, till we are convinced that it will be for our happiness, or at least not contrary to it.
  • But, even if we disregard the “let it be allowed” that introduces the admission, the single sentence is hardly sufficient to justify the assertion that Butler held the authority of self-love to be equal to, or higher than, that of conscience. The passage is, rather, a momentary concession to the selfish spirit of the age; and it has to be interpreted in the light of his frequent assertions of the natural superiority of conscience. “To preside and govern, from the very economy and constitution of man, belongs to it,” he says. “Had it strength as it has right, had it power as it has manifest authority, it would absolutely govern the world.”

    Since the essence of human nature is expressed in this spiritual principle, Butler is able to justify the assertion that man is adapted to virtue. But here his ethics may be said, almost, to stop short. He does not explain further the nature of conscience in relation to reason and will, or derive from it, in any systematic way, the content of morality. He was distrustful of any attempt at a complete philosophy, and resigned to accept probability as the guide of life.

    The same fundamental conception and the same limitation reappear in Butler’s still more famous work, The Analogy. The world is a system—“a scheme in which means are made use of to accomplish ends, and which is carried on by general laws.” It is neglect of this truth which makes men think that particular instance of suffering virtue or successful vice are inconsistent with “the wisdom, justice, and goodness of the constitution of nature.” In the constitution and government of the world, nature and morality are so closely connected as to form a single scheme, in which “it is highly probable that the first is formed and carried on merely in subserviency to the latter.” The imperfections of our knowledge make it impossible to demonstrate this in detail. But grant, as the deists granted, that God is the author of nature, and it can be shown that there is no difficulty in the doctrines of religion, whether natural or revealed, which has not a parallel difficulty in the principle common to both sides in the argument. This is the analogy to the establishment of which in detail Butler’s reasonings are directed. They are so exhaustive, so thorough and so candid, that critics of all schools are agreed in regarding his as the final word in a great controversy.