Works of Bishop Butler.
It may be doubted whether any writer within the last century has made such a reputation with so few pages as Bishop Butler. Indeed, in his own department, no English writer since Hooker has made an equal reputation. His success has been so great that it is very difficult to speak of him at all, without falling into the danger of conventional flattery on the one hand, or presumption on the other. There are still, however, a few remarks to be made upon some aspects of his writings, which are perhaps not altogether familiar.
The literary and philosophical position of Butler is in itself curious. Although it was once, and in some quarters still is, the fashion to talk of the influence of the English Deists as ephemeral and shallow, there can be no doubt that they set stones rolling which ran a tremendous course all over the Continent, and of which we are far from having heard the last in England. The single name of Voltaire is enough to show what they did, and Voltaire was the pupil of Bolingbroke.
It is one of the most singular facts in the history of theology that Deism should have been of English growth, and that, when translated to the Continent, it should have encountered hardly any opposition of an intellectual kind worth mentioning, whilst in England it should have been so decisively defeated in controversy that it had to be reimported from the Continent before it could take any fresh hold on the English mind. There can, however, be no doubt at all that the fact was so. France and Germany both learnt the greater part of their scepticism from England, though Bayle might certainly have given them lessons in it; but in France and Germany in the eighteenth century, orthodoxy, after the time of Leibnitz, had hardly any champions at all, whilst in England, Butler, Berkeley, Warburton, Lardner, Paley, and Abraham Tucker (whose orthodoxy, however, was of a very peculiar kind) were not only better writers, but men of quite a different calibre from their opponents, if we except always Hume and Gibbon.
Few subjects would better deserve attention than a full inquiry into the question why this was the case. We can refer to the fact only as illustrating Butler's position. He, and his fellow apologists, occupy in the history of controversy a position a little like that which the allied Sovereigns of 1815 occupy in political history. They won an undoubted victory, and checked and to some extent diverted a great movement, but neither victory has been conclusive.
The old questions, both in politics and in theology, are still outstanding; and as the European political settlement of 1815 has proved to be very far from final, so the triumph of the English apologists of the eighteenth century, solid and highly important and beneficial as it was in many respects, has not finally closed the controversies in which it formed an important epoch. If we try to estimate the part which Butler played in this controversy, and to extract from the vague conventional praise, which is so lavishly bestowed upon him, a definite notion of the results which he really did obtain, it is natural to consider the question with reference, first, to his Sermons, and, next, to his Analogy. We shall confine ourselves for the present to the former.
Though Butler's fame rests principally on the Analogy, it appears to us that his Sermons are, in every respect, entitled to take precedence of his more celebrated and popular performance. They contain far more of Butler himself. They are written on his own principles, and not, as he himself observes of the Analogy, on the principles of others; and here and there, though it must be owned at rare intervals, they allow the reader to get a glimpse of a vein of feeling less habitually cheerless than that which pervades the Analogy.
If, indeed, Butler had written nothing but the Analogy, and if his character and career had been as retired, for instance, as that of Hooker, he would have been remembered as an advocate of consummate skill and caution; but it would always have been a moot point whether he was not a greater sceptic than those against whom he pleaded, and whether, substantially, his triumph had not consisted in a skilful trumping of scepticism by reversing its action. His sermons certainly show that such an impression would have been very unjust. No one who reads them can doubt that their author was not merely a devout believer in religion, but a profoundly pious man. They form the natural introduction to the Analogy, which is liable to great misconstruction if it is read without reference to them, and which indeed it is not altogether easy to reconcile with the principles which they lay down. We will try shortly to state a few of their leading principles, and to show how they are related to the Analogy.
Of the many commonplaces which have been devised about Butler, none is so common as that which compares him to Bacon. We have seen a copy of the Analogy, in the first page of which, the owner, when an undergraduate, had inscribed (in perfect ignorance of the fact that Chalmers had done the very same thing), 'This work might be entitled An Application of the Principles of Inductive Philosophy to Revealed Religion.' Under this, with a date a few years later, was written (what Chalmers did not write), 'When I wrote this I had no knowledge of Inductive Philosophy, and not much of Revealed Religion.' This candid retractation was, we think, well founded.
There is a superficial resemblance between Butler, and the common notion of Bacon, but the resemblance is very superficial. Butler was emphatically an a priori reasoner, and a believer in intuition on moral subjects. His correspondence with Clarke, an extraordinary effort for a young man of twenty-one, is a sufficient proof of this; and all the rest of his writings are in perfect harmony, when carefully considered, with the principles of that correspondence.
The curious part of Butler's philosophical and controversial position is that he had very much in common with his principal antagonists; and the most plausible charge that can be made against him is that he did not sufficiently show how his apologetic writings were to be reconciled with his own principles as expressed in his Sermons.
It is, however, no doubt true that some very great and many eminent men, from the days of Descartes to our own, have united a belief in a priori reasoning with that firm hold of facts which is what people usually mean by the inductive spirit; and Butler, on his own subjects, affords an excellent example of the characteristic merits of this class. He had quite as much sympathy with the geometrical style in which Descartes, Spinosa, Leibnitz, and Newton propounded their respective philosophies, as with the style to which we are accustomed in the present day, and which aims almost exclusively at the description and classification of observed facts.
He uses, indeed, the more modern style, because it was better suited for the age in which he lived, and more likely to persuade those whom he addressed; but his Sermons abound with proof that his heart was in the other method, that he looked within for his knowledge quite as much as without, and that, though he constantly insisted on the importance of external observation of religious belief, and held that all objections to orthodox Christianity might be dealt with on the principles common to himself and the more modern school of philosophy, he considered the older school as its true and natural foundation.
In order to give detailed proof of this from his Sermons, it would be necessary to show the assumptions on which they proceed, and to criticise minutely their phraseology, which is founded on that belief in nature considered as a constitution or organised whole, and in the essential fitness of things, which is the characteristic mark of the a priori thinker. The constant use of the words 'fit,' 'fitting,' and the like, and the conception of vice as something 'disproportionate' to nature, are sufficient illustrations of this. To follow this out, however, would be tedious; and we will therefore try to give a short statement of a few of the principal propositions of Butler's Sermons, with a view to showing their relation to the Analogy.
The first two subjects of that part of the Sermons which can be regarded as in any way connected with each other are God and Man, or rather the Divine and the Human Natures. Though the three celebrated Sermons on Human Nature stand first, and are much the best known, it will be found that, in order of thought, those which treat on the other topic ought to have the precedence.
The famous Sermons on the Love of God are, in our judgment, not only the greatest of Butler's writings, but also the first to which a person who wishes to understand them as a whole, should attend. Controversially, no doubt, this is not true, for the Sermons on Human Nature form a preface to them, by showing what Butler understood by Love in general, and how he distinguished different forms of it; but to a reader who views the subject not controversially, but in good faith, and with a real wish to enter into his author's meaning, this introduction is not necessary. Even if the thirteenth and fourteenth Sermons stood alone, such a reader would be perfectly able to understand them, and to see how they formed a foundation for the rest of his teaching.
Men, he says, are so constituted 'as to feel certain affections upon the sight or contemplation of certain objects,' which affections 'rest in those objects as an end, i.e. are satisfied with them.' Love is the relation between such an affection and its object. When we contemplate a good man with approbation for his goodness, to that extent we love him. Unite goodness with wisdom and power in the same person, and this love increases. Exalt them to the pitch of infinity, and let the person in whom they reside be 'our proper guardian and governor, having in view' the general happiness of all with whom' he hath to do,' and being 'really our friend, and kind and good to us in particular, and so far approving us that we had nothing servilely to fear from him.' Let his scheme of government be beyond our powers of comprehension, and let our own state be such that we 'are in a progress of being towards something further.' Between such a being and the feelings of 'joy, gratitude, reverence, love, trust, and dependence,' 'there is as real a correspondence as between the lowest appetite of sense and its object.' 'That such a being is not a creature, but the Almighty God,' makes no other difference than that of exalting and confirming these feelings. Thus, 'Almighty God is the natural object of the several affections, love, reverence, fear, desire of approbation.' These together produce 'resignation to the Divine Will, which is the general temper belonging to this state, which ought to be the habitual frame of our mind and heart, and to be exercised at proper seasons more distinctly in acts of devotion.' This temper is perfect 'when we rest in his will as our end, as being in itself most just and right and good. And where is the impossibility of such an affection to what is just and right and good, such a loyalty of heart to the Governor of the Universe, as shall prevail over all sinister or indirect desires of our own?'
This will be found, after all, to have been the central belief in Butler's mind, the cardinal point on which all his other speculations depend; and there is much in other parts of his writings which makes it necessary to bear this in mind, for fear of doing him injustice.
Upon what theoretical grounds he based his belief in God, and in the attributes which in these Sermons are dwelt upon with such a mixture of awe and love, he nowhere says, in so many words. It is probable that, like other men, he owed them more to a pious education, and devout cast of mind, than to any chain of reasoning; but such a man could not, of course, be without a theoretical basis for his belief. It must, however, be admitted that his writings contain no full and precise account of it; and this is their great defect, for there can be no doubt that the Analogy must have suggested to many thousands of serious readers, the question which it is said to have suggested to Pitt: Why believe in a good God at all, if that belief is so encumbered with difficulties, that those who embrace it can be shown to be inconsistent, if they refuse, on moral grounds, to accept almost any established form of religion?
There are, however, indications in Butler of the grounds on which he held this cardinal doctrine, though there is no express statement of them. His correspondence with Clarke goes to the edge of saying that he considered the existence of God, and his moral attributes, to be established by demonstrative proof, and the same is implied in the general cast of his Sermons, though we do not think it is anywhere expressly stated.
Probably the unconscious influence of a life of piety and devotion filled him with an inward persuasion of its truth, which led him to expect with too much confidence that others would think as he did, and to be too sure that he had reduced his antagonist ad absurdum, when he had shown that his principles led to the denial of a doctrine which, to himself, appeared absolutely certain and undeniable. Be this how it may, it is, we think, indisputable that the belief, and the affections rising out of that belief, which are so earnestly asserted in the two Sermons in question, were as a fact the leading fundamental articles of Butler's creed, and were believed by him to be altogether beyond the reach of any doubt which it was not a sin to entertain.
Passing from this, we come to his well-known Sermons on Human Nature, to which those on Compassion, Resentment, and the Forgiveness of Injuries form a sort of supplement. Even if these Sermons were less well known than they are, it would be foolish to try to sum them up, for the operation has been already performed by their author, in a passage which could not be abbreviated, and which requires no addition.
'The nature of man is adapted to some course of conduct or other. Upon comparing some actions with this nature they appear suitable and correspondent to it; from comparison of other actions with the same nature there arises to our view some unsuitableness or disproportion. The correspondence of actions to the nature of the agent renders them natural; their disproportion to it unnatural. That an action is correspondent to the nature of the agent does not arise from its being agreeable to the principle which happens to be the strongest; for it may be so and yet be quite disproportionate to the nature of the agent. The correspondence, therefore, or disproportion, arises from somewhat else. This can be nothing but a difference in nature and kind, altogether distinct from strength, between the inward principles. Some, then, are in nature and kind superior to others; and the correspondence arises from the action being conformable to the higher principle, and the unsuitableness from its being contrary to it. Reasonable self-love and conscience are the chief or superior principles in the nature of man; because an action may be suitable to this nature though all other principles be violated, but becomes unsuitable if either of those are. Conscience and self-love, if we understand our true happiness, always lead the same way. Duty and interest are perfectly coincident, for the most part, in this world, entirely and in every instance if we take in the future and the whole; this being implied in the notion of a good and perfect administration of things.'Thus Butler's doctrine, on the whole, resolves itself into the following articles: (1) Belief in a perfect God, who, however, acts in a sphere too wide to be comprehended in any degree by our intelligence. (2) Belief in a constitution or nature of the human faculties, composed of various elements related to each other in fixed ways—conscience and reasonable self-love or prudence being the directing and predominant faculties. (3) Belief in the distinction between conscience and self-love, and in the ultimate identity of their results in the long run, founded on the first of these three articles.
It would occupy too much time and space to show how this theory was related to the speculations of the time, but we may just observe that the tendency against which Butler protests most habitually, and most strongly, is what he regarded as the abuse of analysis — the habit of resolving all the different affections of the mind into different forms of some one general passion, such as the love of power, or the love of self. Even when he does not expressly name Hobbes, he is continually writing at him, and, if he had lived a hundred years later, would no doubt have written at Bentham in the same manner. In this he certainly opposed a real evil, but he did so at the expense of falling into the opposite error of supposing that, wherever you find two words, there must be two things to correspond with them.
He nowhere clearly describes what he means by Conscience, nor does he in any degree account for its difference in different men, or show how it differs, if at all, from an habitual recollection of such principles of conduct as each individual happens to have accepted. He does not, indeed, appear to have perceived that, until, by some means, we have acquired far more knowledge than we possess at present, about the mind and its ways of acting, all our language about its different faculties, and all attempts to arrange them according to a natural hierarchy, are little better than conjecture. When you do not know what you mean by a faculty, how can you say that there is a distinction in nature and kind between different faculties, and a natural supremacy in some over others?
If the passage quoted above is carefully considered, it will appear both to begin and end with an assumption. What proof is there that the nature of man is adapted to some course of conduct or other? Why may not the nature of A be quite different from that of B, and why may not C be unsuited for any course of conduct whatever? For what course of conduct is an idiot's nature adapted, and is not he a man? The final proposition, that conscience and self-love must in the long run coincide, 'this being implied in the notion of a good and perfect administration of things,' is one which ought never to be forgotten in reading Butler, for, if it is borne in mind, it will be found to qualify very deeply a large part of the Analogy.
If we can infer anything whatever from what is implied in the notion of a good and perfect administration of things, we have in our hands a means of judging of the truth of theological doctrines against the use of which by others, arguing against what he himself believed, Butler continually protested. The whole drift of the Analogy is to compel his antagonists to look at facts. Yet he himself in this passage sets up a different test. Conscience and self-love cannot, he says, fall out in the long run, because a good and perfect administration of things would imply the contrary. It is, however, an indisputable fact that they do fall out in the short run; why, then, should they not fall out finally? This is just the same sort of argument which is constantly insisted on in the Analogy.
Other points in the reasoning are not, to us at least, altogether satisfactory; 'but the general result of the whole, as bearing on the argument of the Analogy, is what we specially wish to point out. It is that Butler himself had an a priori creed, that this a priori creed was itself open to the difficulties a posteriori, which he was so much in the habit of applying to the a priori belief of other people, and that thus, the effect of his writings is far less harshly triumphant than it is usually supposed to be.
It may be added that it is more humane and kindly. The two great points in all religion are belief in God and belief in a something divine in man, explain it how you will. These two great points Butler held, not merely as against objectors, but with a positive personal belief, and with a greater consciousness of the fact that they are encumbered with difficulties, than is usually ascribed to him. Of the divine side of the subject he speaks dogmatically, and without describing the process by which he reached his result. Of the human side we do not think he speaks satisfactorily, because he is too precise, and looks too little at the vast variety of facts which really are relevant to the inquiry into the nature of conscience; but he gives something like the truth, and denounces very vigorously the abuse of a process of which, in our opinion, he much underrated the use—the process of analysis.
It is difficult to leave the subject without a word on the well-known question of Butler's style. He himself protests against the imputation of obscurity, and his unrestricted admirers always say that he is obscure only, because the subject on which he writes is in its own nature difficult, and because he disdains ornament. There is some truth in this, but not the whole truth. Butler is obscure, partly, no doubt, because he writes on a difficult subject in a compressed style, but partly also because the gloom and languor of his disposition prevented him from expressing himself with life and spirit, and from using appropriate illustrations. Hume is quite as profound, and is not in the least obscure. Abraham Tucker is probably a closer reasoner, and he illustrates every proposition till its meaning is as plain as daylight. Specific proof, however, is better than mere assertion. Take the following sentence: 'Of the several affections or inward sensations which particular objects excite in man, there are some the having of which implies the love of them when they are reflected upon.' It appears from what follows that 'them' and 'they' refer, not to the objects, but to the affections; but who "would have discovered this from the sentence itself? Would not the following turn have made the whole much clearer ?—'There are certain affections which every one who feels them approves whenever he is conscious of feeling them, and these affections are excited by certain objects.' The heaviness, the gloom, the want of life which pervaded all Butler's writings were real defects, and very great ones, which it is mere flattery not to admit.
Saturday Review, April 21, 1866.