Joseph Butler

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.


Philosophical Thought

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.


Further Reading on Joseph Butler

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).

Additional Biography Sources

Penelhum, Terence, Butler, London; Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985.