Works of Bishop Butler.
The observations already made on Butler's Sermons are chiefly useful as an introduction to some further observations on his more famous work, the Analogy. Perhaps no English theological treatise of modern times has met with so much success. It is praised by writers of the most discordant opinions, and is almost universally regarded as having at least silenced those whom it could not convince. Aggressive as it is in its substance, and still more in its tone, we do not know that any attempt to refute it, of sufficient importance to attract much attention, has ever been made. This singular measure of success, joined with the immense popularity of the book, justifies us in assuming on the part of our readers a pretty full acquaintance with its contents, and dispenses us from the obligation of giving any account of its character.
The first remark we have to make on the work is in the nature of literary criticism. Like most other controversial books, the Analogy is original, not in the sense of being new, but in the sense of being a statement which the author thoroughly understood, having recast and modelled in his own way the arguments which in his time were considered as most effective in the controversy in which he was interested.
There is little, perhaps nothing, in the Analogy which is not to be found elsewhere. Large parts of it are to be found in the elaborate arguments about the Manichees with which readers of Bayle's Dictionary are familiar. In Baxter's practical works, which are a mine of forgotten learning written in a wonderfully vigorous style, other branches of his argument are treated, and those who have a taste for inquiries of the kind, may trace back the use of the principal arguments on which Butler relies, to the very earliest period of theological controversy. He himself quotes a passage from Origen which contains the essence of his argument.
This is no deduction from the merits of the book. It is rather a proof of them, for no one can expect to invent new arguments on subjects which have engaged the earnest attention of mankind for many centuries. The utmost that can really be done is to restate the old ones in a manner accordant with the existing condition of thought and knowledge, and thoroughly to make them the mental property of the writer. This, if well considered, gives the true theory of the progress of opinion. The new facts and new methods, which are by degrees brought to light, gradually supersede or invalidate old arguments, or set their real soundness in a clearer light than before.
Upon the book itself several observations arise. In the first place, it is important to remark that it is throughout an argument ad homines—an argument constructed on principles, and expressed in language, which are not the author's own; and that one of its principal objects is to attack a view of things which no longer exists, at least to any considerable extent. 'In this position,' says Butler, 'I have argued upon the principles of others, not my own; and have omitted what I think true, and of the utmost importance, because by others thought unintelligible or not true. Thus I have argued upon the principles of the Fatalists, which I do not believe, and have omitted a thing of the utmost importance which I do believe,—the moral fitness and unfitness of actions prior to all will whatever, which I apprehend as certainly to determine the divine conduct, as speculative truth and falsehood necessarily determine the divine judgment.'
Both in the preface and in the conclusion he arrives at last at the result that he has at all events proved that Christianity is not a contemptible imposture undeserving of notice. He says in his introduction, 'It will undeniably show, what too many want to have shown them, that the system of religion both natural and revealed ... is not a subject of ridicule, unless that of nature be so too.' And in the last paragraph of the whole work, after pointing out that as far as regards moral obligations, 'a serious apprehension that (Christianity) may be true, joined with doubt whether it be so,' is much the same as 'a full satisfaction of the truth of it,' he adds: 'It will appear that blasphemy and profaneness are absolutely without excuse, for there is no temptation to it but from the wantonness of vanity and mirth.'
There are probably few persons in the present day who would say that Christianity, or any other creed which has greatly influenced mankind, is a proper subject of ridicule, or a matter which it is in any way decent or permissible to treat with blasphemy or profaneness; and, whatever may have been the case in Butler's day, it would probably in our own, be quite unnecessary to argue such a point elaborately with any one in the smallest degree deserving of notice.
In order to obtain the true value and real meaning of the Analogy it is necessary for the reader to keep continually before his mind the fact that the whole book is written in a tone of austere reproof, and that the author has always before his eyes the figure of a profane jester whose one object in life is to escape from all the moral restraints of religion, and to bring into contempt and ridicule all that is considered sacred by other men. The air of extreme calmness and impartiality with which Butler uniformly writes appears to us to have been in reality the veil of profound indignation against those whom he was opposing; and no doubt this singular union of perfect external calm, and apparent fairness, with the most intense conviction of the entire truth and ineffable sacredness of his own cause, and the most thorough conviction of the baseness of those who opposed it, has done very much to gain for him the position which he holds as a model Christian philosopher. People dearly like to be able to point to a writer who in his heart is an uncompromising partisan, but who always writes in a perfectly judicial style, and condemns his adversaries, not because they are his adversaries, but ostensibly because they are wrong.
We cannot, however, help feeling that the philosophical value of the Analogy is greatly diminished by this circumstance, which has contributed so largely to its popularity. It is almost impossible to write fairly from an antagonist's supposed point of view, or to do justice in such a constrained position either to him or to yourself. It is on this ground that the study of Butler's Sermons ought to precede that of the Analogy. The Analogy, taken by itself, seems to us to be not altogether fair to those at whom it is written, and, if it is taken as a substantive work, to be in many ways unsatisfactory, especially in the second part.
We will shortly indicate our reasons for this opinion. The first part is pervaded throughout by the suggestion that most of the objections to natural religion are founded in wickedness. The possibility of a bona fide doubt on such subjects is never steadily contemplated. Perhaps the chapter which best illustrates the injustice of this view is the sixth, 'Of the Opinion of Necessity considered as influencing Practice.' The chapter is an elaborate demonstration of the proposition that fatalism is reconcilable with religion, and this is put, as if it were an objection to fatalism, instead of being an answer to an objection to it. The whole chapter is a remarkable instance of the inconvenience of trying to write from another person's point of view.
Another observation to the same effect arises upon the cardinal argument of the whole book, which is that Christianity reflects the difficulties which the constitution of the world opposes to the belief in God; therefore, if you believe in God upon the evidence which the world supplies, you ought not to disbelieve in any system of religion, claiming to be divinely revealed, on the score of the same difficulties. Probably, the objecting attitude of mind was so much controlled in Butler himself, by habits of another kind, as to prevent him from fully entering into the argument which would be raised against him by a person who really held, and consistently carried out, the view which he concedes for the moment, for the sake of showing it to be inconsistent and illogical.
Belief in God with him no doubt was a first principle, as his Sermons prove, but with those against whom the argument in the Analogy is directed, it was an inference, and a more or less doubtful inference, from the facts which they saw around them. He always argues as if his opponent were really and at bottom as sure of the existence of God as he is himself, and as if his difficulty were to reconcile Christianity, or at least certain parts of it, with a belief in the divine goodness, which in itself was clearly proved on other grounds.
This we think was not correct. It is surely conceivable and intelligible that a man might say, 'When I look at this world as I see it around me, and without any special information about any other, I can on the whole think it probable that it has an author who is intelligent and, in the main, benevolent, because I can imagine that there may be ways in which evil may turn out to be good in disguise, or at all events to be a partial and exceptional phenomenon permitted for some reason of which I cannot judge; but if the veil of obscurity which hangs over the whole subject is withdrawn, and if I am informed, on authority which I cannot doubt, that the very parts of the economy of this world which form my great difficulty in believing at all in a good God, are characteristic and not exceptional, that they are not only what they seemed to be, but are parts of a general system reaching out to infinity, Christianity only increases the difficulties with which natural religion was already encumbered.
'If it was hard enough to believe that a benevolent being created a course of nature which involves amongst other things war, disease, poverty, and death, does it become easier to believe it, when you add the fact that these temporal evils form a natural introduction to the doctrine of the eternal damnation of vast masses of the human race? An apparently harsh action done by a person known to be in other respects most benevolent, may not destroy my belief that he is benevolent; but it would be a strange way of arguing to say, that I must continue to be of that opinion if I learnt that this action was only a single illustration of a whole side of his character with which I had not been acquainted.'Butler's argument is, There are objections to natural religion, which, as you, my antagonists, say, do not overthrow it. Why, then, should analogous objections overthrow Christianity? He nowhere deals with the answer which his principal antagonists gave, and which, in particular, form the substance of Voltaire's teaching on this point.
They would have said, 'In whatever degree Christianity is more precise, definite, and extensive than natural religion, in that same degree it must either be more difficult or more easy to prove. More difficult to prove, if its doctrines heighten the difficulties which, as you admit, encumber the proof of natural religion; more easy, if they diminish or remove them. Now you do not say that Christianity removes those difficulties; your contention is that it repeats them in a definite, authoritative form. Surely this is to increase them.'
Suppose some person were to announce from heaven, and to prove, by miracles or otherwise, a scheme of theology, which thoroughly accounted for, and cleared up, all the difficulties of this present life; suppose he were to give us information about the nature and character of God, and about the position of man in creation and his future prospects, which enabled us to understand far more completely than is at present possible, the general scheme of creation, and in particular, the moral problems about human nature which at present appear so dark; would not such a revelation be in itself, and by force of the very words in which it is described, highly credible and probable? Should we not be inclined to believe in it for the very same reasons which lead us to believe that a key which unlocks a complicated lock is the true key? Surely we should; and if, in the same way, what claimed to be a revelation from heaven contained matters which contradicted, or appeared to contradict, all the notions which, upon the most careful consideration of all other sources of information open to us, we had formed of the divine character, we should say it was improbable, and required stronger evidence to induce us to believe it.
Whoever denies this ought to be prepared to say whether he will contend that it is not legitimate to argue in favour of Christianity against Buddhism or Mahometanism, upon the ground that the Christian conception of the divine character and attributes is higher, and more in unison with the teachings of natural religion on the subject, than those of the Buddhists or Mahometans.
If, however, this be admitted, then it cannot be denied that the general character of an alleged revelation may be compared with natural religion for the purpose of seeing whether, if it were true, it would increase or diminish the difficulty of religious belief.
Now the case of the Deists against Butler—the case of Hume, for instance, or Voltaire—was not, whereas Deism in itself was free from difficulties, such difficulties were imported into it by Christianity; but, that, Deism being confessedly an imperfect and more or less rudimentary and hypothetical view of the universe, Christianity, instead of explaining or alleviating its natural difficulties, made them worse, and would therefore require very strong evidence of its truth before it could be accepted.
Those who are at all acquainted with the writings of systematic divines will have little difficulty in understanding how this view of the matter might be sustained, and it is impossible not to feel that the Analogy does not answer it, though it is most dexterously contrived to answer the men who probably would have put forward such a view if the state of public feeling, and indeed the state of the law at the time, had permitted them to do so. The dexterity consists in taking for granted the doctrine of the existence of God as a matter not in dispute, and in neglecting the fact that infinite shades of opinion upon that subject exist, from a mere suspicion that perhaps there may be such a being up to the firmest positive conviction that there is.
The sort of Deists at whom Butler aims in his Analogy were not Theodore Parkers or Francis Newmans. They did not profess to have an unclouded internal vision of the divine character which led them at once to repudiate Christian theology as untrue and unworthy of God. To such men, no doubt, the argument of the Analogy applies with unanswerable force. They were men who were willing enough to take facts as they found them, and who were far from thinking that the constitution of nature proved the existence of a God of perfect benevolence.
The most popular and pungent of all Voltaire's writings is his satire on Optimism. Their case was simply that Christianity, as exhibited and proposed to them by the various churches and sects of their day, aggravated the natural difficulties of the whole subject of religion. It was for obvious reasons very difficult, and indeed almost impossible, for them to state this view broadly and plainly, and it would require more study of obscure books than it would be worth going through for such a purpose, to see whether they fully realised it themselves; but we do not think Butler has answered the objection so stated.
The whole tone and character of the book does indeed suggest an answer, and a very remarkable one, though it does not fully state it. The answer indicated is, that Christian theology is to be construed by, and brought into harmony with, the facts of nature; that we are to survey the world as we find it, and see what traces it affords, for instance, of a system of punishment or a system of redemption, and then to say that this is what is—or, for aught we know, may be—meant by the doctrine of future punishment or redemption.
This we believe, or suppose, to be the meaning of a great deal of modern German speculation on these topics, and we think that Butler's mind clearly tended in that direction, and contained the germ of much which has been written about it since his time. We will try to illustrate this by reference to one or two of the subjects discussed in the Analogy, though our limits, and other obvious considerations, forbid us either to go into the question fully, or even to try to discuss its value.
In order to do this, and to do justice to the genius of its author, the controversial object of the Analogy ought to be put aside, and it should be taken in connection with the Sermons, not as an argumentum ad homines written on the principles of others, but as a substantive statement by Butler himself of the general drift and tendency of Christianity as he understood it. If viewed in this light, it would indeed lose that stern and pugnacious air which appears to form its chief attraction to many persons. It would no longer be possible to throw it, like a pail of moral cold water, over all religious enthusiasts, as if Butler had regarded a belief in a good God as a weakness to be trampled upon, and all attempts to apply to the divine conduct those principles of goodness and justice which Butler believed to be innate and universal, as presumptuous folly. Yet, on the other hand, much would be gained by those to whom comprehensiveness, depth, and genuine goodness and holiness appear more honourable than the skill of an intellectual prize-fighter.
Taken in this way, Butler's general conception of religion would stand somewhat as follows. Its foundation, as we have already pointed out, would be laid in the belief, antecedent to experience and derived from our very nature, in a just and good God, whom we are to love, and whose way of dealing with the world is to be made the object of humble study by men. Such a study discloses, first of all, the fact that men will probably continue to think and feel after the event which we call death. It shows that the course of human actions is, as a fact, governed by rewards and punishments in the shape of those natural advantages and disadvantages which, as daily experience shows us, attend virtuous and vicious conduct respectively, and which are so contrived as to be suited to the development and improvement of our nature.
All this, however, is seen as in a glass darkly, inasmuch as the enormous extent of our ignorance, and the extreme imperfection even of what we call our knowledge, conceal many things from our view which might greatly modify our opinions if we were acquainted with them. In this state of things, we are told that it has pleased God to inform mankind, by a messenger accredited by the power of working miracles, first that the anticipations, such as they are, which natural religion had led us to form are true in fact; and next, that the punishments and rewards of the present state of things will be carried out in a much more stringent form, and to a greater extent, in a future state; and, thirdly, that means of avoiding the consequences of wrong-doing have been miraculously afforded to those who choose to avail themselves of them. It is further added that the punishments and rewards, especially the former, which are thus announced, are analogous to the course of nature in that matter, with which we are already acquainted, and that the means of escape provided are analogous to the remedies provided by the course of nature for imprudence or misconduct in this world.
Unless it is understood that Butler's statement goes to this length, and is not a mere answer to an objection, it must be owned that it is of very little value. On the other hand, if it does go this length, as we think it does, this fact must considerably shake his reputation for orthodoxy in the sense of the stricter and more systematic writers on these subjects.
The best illustration of this is to be found in the famous argument in the second part on the doctrine of the Atonement. If Butler means to say that the Christian doctrine on the subject is, or for aught we know may be, only the highest case of the general truth that the world is so organised that no one stands alone, and that vice and virtue respectively produce effects reaching far beyond the persons of those who practise them, he says something, which no doubt is greatly to the purpose, and which obviates most of the objections which are generally urged against the doctrine; but he does this by setting up a new doctrine, not by defending the one to which exception was taken, and which people in general, on both sides of the controversy, understood to be the true one.
What raised the objection was the theory of vicarious suffering. A sins, B suffers, and A escapes by reason of B's suffering. This, it is said, is unjust. Substantially Butler's answer is, You mistake the doctrine, which is that B suffers by reason of A's sin, and that B's suffering as a fact relieves A, and this is analogous to the order of nature. No doubt it is, but it is far from being analogous to the doctrine objected to.
Nature affords a thousand instances in which a man's faults injure his neighbour, and in which his efforts to serve his neighbour are painful to himself; but it would be difficult, if not impossible, to find one instance in which the course of nature affords a case of true expiation as objected to—that is, a case in which the suffering of A, and not something accidentally connected with and caused by the suffering, relieves B from the painful consequences which would otherwise have followed his misconduct.
The debauched father transmits a scrofulous constitution to the innocent son, but he pays the penalties of his own debauchery in his own person equally whether he has a son or not. His son's sufferings put him in no better position than he would be in if his son did not suffer. They usually put him in a worse position. An anxious mother saves her child's life at the expense of ruining her own health by watching over it and nursing it; but it is the care, and not the pain, which benefits the child. If the mother's constitution were strong enough to support the same exertions without inconvenience, it would be all the better for the child.
Now, if Butler was willing to use the whole analogy of nature for the purpose of construing the doctrine of the Atonement, if he was willing to say, 'I do not ask you to believe any such doctrine except in so far as it is supported by the analogy of nature, and I admit the force of your objections to all such forms of stating it, and to all such interpretations of the texts of Scripture in which it is announced as are opposed to, or not confirmed by, the analogy of nature,' he spoke relevantly, though in a way likely to give great offence to many writers of high reputation for orthodoxy. If he meant to say that the analogy of nature confirms the ways of stating the doctrine in question which are generally objected to, he meant to say something which is not the fact.
If the whole of Butler's works, the Sermons and the Analogy together, are taken as a substantive statement on his part, controversially and therefore imperfectly and inconveniently expressed, of his view of things human and divine, we think it must be conceded on the whole to be noble, elevated, and manly, though open to the objections which we have pointed out. The choice of a different form of expression and greater liveliness of temperament would very probably have obviated some of these objections, though they would have surrendered a good deal of popularity and some degree of fame.
There are some faults in Butler which are the faults of his age rather than his own. For instance, his chapter on the particular evidence of Christianity, and the short general sketch which it contains of the history of the world, cannot now be considered as satisfactory. A careful study of this chapter (pt. ii. ch. vii.), and its complete silence upon a great number of the principal historical, scientific, and critical questions which at present occupy the most prominent place in theological controversy, would be of itself enough to meet the observation which is so commonly made in all such discussions, that they contain nothing new, and that all that is urged against common opinions has been answered a hundred times over.
It displays, moreover, in a strong form, another defect which Butler could hardly have avoided, and which it would not be easy to avoid even in the present day. This is the absence of clear views as to the nature of evidence, probability, and belief. The argument about testimony in favour of miracles, the effect of enthusiasm in perverting accounts of facts, and the frequency with which miraculous stories are invented, ends with an admission that such considerations weaken the force of testimony; 'but, notwithstanding all this, human testimony remains still a natural ground of assent, and this assent a natural principle of action.'
Surely we can get a little farther back than this in the matter. It is not human testimony alone, but human testimony, when subjected to certain tests, referring to certain classes of facts, emitted by particular descriptions of persons, that is a natural or rather a reasonable ground of assent. Hundreds of millions of witnesses uniting in the assertion that the sun moves round the earth are liable to be outweighed by one philosopher.
It is not merely upon the question of the value of testimony that Butler's theory of evidence is unsatisfactory. The fact is, as he fairly avows, that he had no theory at all on the subject. After describing probability as the guide of life, he says:
'It is not my design to inquire further into the nature of the foundation and measure of probability, or whence it proceeds that likeness should beget that presumption, opinion, and full conviction which the human mind is formed to receive from it, and which it does necessarily produce in every one; or to guard against the errors to which reasoning from analogy is liable. This belongs to the subject of logic, and is a part of that subject which has not yet been thoroughly considered.'As the subject of the whole book is a discourse on the analogy between the constitution and course of nature, and natural and revealed religion, it must be admitted that the absence of any precautions against the abuses of analogical reasoning, and an avowed ignorance of the limits and value of the method itself, are considerable defects even if they were unavoidable.
Saturday Review, June 23, 1866.