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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

XV. Divines

§ 10. Butler’s Analogy

Joseph Butler is, indeed, even as a master of English, conspicuously the greatest of the three writers whom we have chosen to illustrate the character of English theology during this period. The explanation is that Butler was, what the others were not, a great writer and a great man. His prose has a massive force, a sheer weight, to which no English writer of his time approaches. Under its severe restraint burns the fire of a deep and intense conviction. He has been but poorly understood by those who have regarded him as a convincing critic, a master of logical acuteness. He was far more; and what he was is revealed in every paragraph of his writing. On the one hand, his view of life and thought was synthetical, not merely inquisitive or analytic: on the other, he was inspired with a supreme belief, a mastering optimism, a triumphant faith. In the cold marble of his prose, there are veins of colour, touches of rich crimson, caerulean blue, or sunny gold, such as one sees on some beautiful ancient sarcophagus. He is a master of calm exposition, as well as of irony; but he is, even more notably, a writer of profound and unquenchable passion. His heart no less than his head is in what he has written; and it is this which gives him his place among the masters of English prose. Butler has enriched English literature with many a striking apophthegm; but his use of the language can only be adequately tested by long passages. It is difficult to select from him; he has no purple patches; page after page shines with the same massive splendour. The manner of the Sermons is as admirable as the matter: it is typical of the prose of his age at its very best. The style of the Analogy is more difficult, more compressed and concise, so that it seems at first sight to be stiff and involved; but a little study of it shows that it is intentionally, and admirably, adapted to its matter. The steps, as Gladstone said, are as carefully measured out as if we were climbing the hill of the Purgatorio; and each single sentence has been well compared to “a well-considered move in chess.” From another point of view, we may again adopt the statesman’s quaint retort to the criticism of Matthew Arnold:

  • The homely fare, upon which Butler feeds us, cannot be so gratifying to the palate as turtle, venison, and champagne. But it has been found wholesome by experience: it leads to no doctor’s bills; and a perusal of this “failure” is admitted to be “a most valuable exercise for the mind.”
  • No religious book of the eighteenth century, save only Law’s Serious Call, had so much influence as the Analogy, and the influence of each, different though they were, has proved abiding in English literature as well as English religion. It came without question from the same source. It has been said of Joseph Butler, that he was known to be given to religious retirement and to reading the biographies of holy persons; and, though the one was a bishop and the other a nonjuror, the words are equally applicable to William Law.