A View of the Evidences of Christianity (by William Paley, 1794)
Paley’s Evidences and Butler's Analogy are often, and not altogether unjustly, regarded as typical of two great schools of English theology, and, in particular, as typical of the two Universities to which their respective authors belonged. Of Butler we have already spoken, and we now propose to consider Paley, whose labours appear to us to have fallen into very unmerited contempt, although attentive observers may trace signs of their regaining, in a modified shape and with alterations, the influence which they undoubtedly deserve.
The differences which the popular commonplaces on the subject would generally recognise between Butler and Paley, turn a good deal on the character of the two men. Butler, every one will admit, was not merely a good but a holy man. To us, at least, it appears altogether impossible to read his books, and especially the best of his sermons, without arriving at that conclusion; but the sincerity of Paley's religion has frequently been questioned.
Thus, for instance, the same sentiment would generally be expressed by saying that Paley was coldhearted, that he held a brief for Christianity, and wrote as a lawyer would speak, not for conscience' sake, but for his fee or at best for his own side. This appears to us to be altogether unjust. We believe Paley to have been emphatically a good and a sincerely religious man. There is nothing dishonourable in his private life, and it is certain that if he had condescended to throw rather more passion into his writings, and to be less candid and sincere than he actually was, he might have stood more fairly for promotion, though it must be remembered, to the honour of the Church of England of that day, that many of its writers showed a degree of high-bred courtesy, candour, and calmness, in dealing with opinions radically opposed to their own, which are far less common at present.
Such writers as Hey, Watson, Marsh, Paley, Horsley, and others who might easily be named, had many qualities both literary and moral in which their representatives in the present day are most deficient. To be able to express clear and weighty thoughts in perfect English, to write on the most exciting topics with entire calmness, to be able to state strong objections fully, and deal with them plainly and shortly, and to be able also to abstain from irrelevant expressions of feeling when the question of feeling does not arise, are gifts which imply the possession of considerable moral as well as intellectual qualities, and they are gifts which Paley and his school possessed in the rarest perfection.
If it be said that they, and in particular that he, showed very little religious feeling, this appears to us, in the first place, to be by no means true. It is true that there are in Paley comparatively few exhibitions of the tender religious emotions, but tenderness is by no means the only emotion which sincere religious belief is calculated to excite. Paley was obviously a cheerful sanguine man, naturally disposed to enjoy himself and take a bright view of things. This appears as conspicuously in all his writings as the contrary disposition does in Butler's, and upon this disposition his religion would appear to have superinduced a certain calm, reverential, sober regard for the order of things in which he found himself, which is at once pious and cheerful.
It is impossible to read his works with common candour without being satisfied that he did firmly believe in a good God, the moral ruler of the Universe, and in a future state, the existence of which had been miraculously attested. He not only believed this, but believed it with a warmth and joy all the more impressive because it is not very often expressed.
Here and there, however, it breaks out, as, for instance, in the fine passage with which the Evidences conclude:
'Of what a revelation discloses to mankind, one and only one question can properly be asked— Was it of importance to mankind to be better assured of? In this question, when we turn our thoughts to the great Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the dead, and of a future judgment, no doubt can possibly be entertained. He who gives me riches or honours does nothing; he who even gives me health does little in comparison with that which lays before me just grounds for expecting a restoration to life and a day of account and retribution, which thing Christianity hath done for millions. . . . This hypothesis, therefore, solves all that objection to the divine care and goodness which the promiscuous distribution of good and evil (I do not mean in the doubtful advantages of riches and grandeur, but in the unquestionably important distinctions of health and sickness, strength and infirmity, bodily ease and pain, mental alacrity and depression) is apt on so many occasions to create. This one truth changes the nature of things, gives order to confusion, makes the moral world of a piece with the natural.'Surely the man who wrote this was not coldly insensible to the great leading truths of religion, and, if he was an advocate, was at least one who believed in and had an affection for his cause. Yet so general is the neglect into which Paley has fallen, and so much is he undervalued, that we are tempted to transcribe a passage from his sermons, which shows how strong a vein of manly simple piety ran through his character.
Speaking of levity in relation to religious affairs, he says:
'Surely human life wants not materials and occasions for the remedying of this great infirmity. Have we met with no troubles to bring us to ourselves? No disasters in our affairs? No losses in our families? No strokes of misfortune or affliction? No visitations in our health? No warnings in our constitution? If none of these things have befallen us, and it is for that reason that we continue to want seriousness and solidity of character, then it shows how necessary these things are for our real interests and for our real happiness; we are examples how little mankind can do without them, and that a state of unclouded pleasure and prosperity is, of all others, the most unfit for man. It generates the precise evil we complain of, a giddiness and levity of temper upon which religion cannot act. It indisposes a man for weighty and momentous concerns of any kind; but it most fatally disqualifies him for the concerns of religion. That is its worst consequence, though others may be bad. I believe, therefore, first, that there is such a thing as levity of thought and character upon which religion has no effect. I believe, secondly, that this is greatly cherished by health, and pleasures, and prosperity, and gay society. I believe, thirdly, that wherever this is the case, these things which are accounted such blessings, which men love and envy, are in truth deep and heavy calamities. For, lastly, I believe that this levity must be changed into seriousness before the mind infected with it can come to God; and most assuredly true it is that we cannot come to happiness in the next world unless we come to God in this.'There is a pathetic dignity about this which would hardly be found in the writings of a man who was not in his own way sincerely religious, although his religion might, and no doubt did, take a peculiarly sober form, and, in so far as it was a matter of feeling at all, consisted rather in a feeling of awe and responsibility than in a feeling of personal affection for the object of worship. To feel the existence of a supernatural sanction of morals is just as much a feeling as that sort of ardent personal love for unseen beings which is the keynote of all kinds of mysticism; and to say that a man is unfeeling because he has one set of feelings and not the other is an abuse of language.
Passing from the general question of Paley's personal character to the more restricted question as to the value of his principal work, we think that as little justice has been done to the one as to the other. The Evidences were for a long time popular to the highest degree, and were supposed to be unanswerable. They obtained the questionable advantage of being made a University text-book, the result of which was that half of the imperfectly educated classes supposed that they understood the work. Gradually a notion prevailed that they were fit for nothing better than the position of a textbook, that they were shallow and unphilosophical, and had been answered; and thus, whilst the book retains a certain sort of popularity, its real character and value have fallen very much out of sight.
We firmly believe that nothing has done more to discredit Paley's Evidences in public estimation than the accidental recollection, which sticks in the minds of most of his readers, of a particular illustration used for a special purpose, which, moreover, is extremely likely to be misunderstood. In the introductory remarks in which he replies to Hume's Essay on Miracles, he says that he will try the value of 'Mr. Hume's theorem' 'upon a simple case,' and he then adds:
'If twelve men whose probity and good sense I had long known should seriously and circumstantially relate to me an account of a miracle wrought before their eyes, and in which it was impossible they should be deceived; if the governor of the country, hearing a rumour of this account, should call those men into his presence, and offer them a short proposal either to confess the imposture, or submit to be tied up to a gibbet; if they should refuse with one voice to acknowledge that there existed any falsehood or imposture in the case; if this threat were communicated to them separately, yet with no different effect; if it was at last executed; if I myself saw them one after another consenting to be racked, burnt, or strangled, sooner than give up the truth of their account, still, if Mr. Hume's rule be my guide, I am not to believe them. Now I undertake to say that there exists not a sceptic in the world who would not believe them, or who would defend such incredulity.'This graphic illustration, occurring as it does at the very beginning of the book, and sticking by force of style in the memory, suggests the inference that Paley asserted that the evidence of the truth of Christianity was that the twelve Apostles had been put to death for asserting it. The late Mr. Conybeare, in one of his clever novels about scepticism, gives an account of the way in which the hero was puzzled in the early stages of his phases of faith, by being asked who were 'Paley's twelve men.' Of course much more elaborate reasons for belief than those suggested by Paley were afterwards given, but it was assumed that this and other criticisms of the same sort effectually disposed of Paley.
Such an illustration shows that the person who made it had a very imperfect recollection of his Paley. The truth is that Paley's Evidences were, so to speak, the last word of a controversy, far deeper and wider and better informed than most people in the present day usually suppose it to have been; and that, though certain parts of the book are open to great and just objections, while certain other parts have become more or less obsolete in consequence of the general advance of critical knowledge, it is nevertheless a most powerful book, and can by no means be disposed of by the remark, that Paley exaggerated the number of his witnesses and the cogency and directness of their evidence.
Like the rest of Paley's writings, the Evidences are a résumé of a vast deal of less successful literature. From the time of Grotius downwards, the question had been handled by all manner of writers, and Lardner in particular heaped together in eleven huge volumes an enormous mass of materials which, amongst other things, Paley made use of. Indeed, any one who reads the book, with anything like a competent knowledge of the controversies of the eighteenth century, will have occasion to observe, that its most remarkable feature is the high level of knowledge from which Paley sets out. One great merit of the book is, that its author had read and thought so much on the subject which he handled, that he takes the matter up at the very highest point which it had then reached, and makes just the sort of observations which, in that stage of the controversy, were likely to be most effective with well-instructed general readers.
The great difference between Paley and the later writers who are now in fashion is, that he writes professedly as a controversialist, maintaining special propositions, which he states with the greatest care and proves point by point, instead of writing merely as an historian, trying to appreciate and revive the events of a past age. Each method has its advantages, and we are a little apt, in our passion for understanding and describing past ages, to underrate the importance of establishing specific propositions. The number of unsupported conjectures, of omissions of inconvenient passages, of determinations to put a nineteenth-century construction upon sayings and doings of a different age in the world, which we meet with in such books as Ecce Homo, or M. Renan's works, lead us sometimes to regret the precision, the measured language, and even the affectation of understating his case, which occur in every page of Paley.
The essential character of the Evidences has been frequently overlooked, but there is no excuse for overlooking it, because Paley has thrown it into the form of an express proposition, which is reprinted at the head of each of the first nine chapters of his book. This proposition is 'That there is satisfactory evidence that many professing to be original witnesses of the Christian miracles passed their lives in labours, dangers, and sufferings, voluntarily undergone in attestation of the accounts which they delivered, and solely in consequence of their belief of those accounts; and that they also submitted, from the same motives, to new rules of conduct.'
Paley does not say, it will be observed, that twelve men laid down their lives in attestation of the Christian miracles, but that we have evidence that a number of persons, professing to be original witnesses, did assert the truth of the Christian miracles at the expense of danger and suffering; and this is a very different thing. He carefully avoids the statement so often attributed to him, because he knew it was not capable of being proved, and he substitutes for it one, in favour of which there most assuredly is strong evidence, though we do not know whether it can be regarded as perfectly satisfactory—that is, as conclusive in relation to every branch of the complex proposition which it is meant to prove.
Paley knew perfectly well, though not in as much detail as we in the present day know it, how much controversy might be raised about the dates, the authorship, and the circumstantial accuracy of the four Gospels as we have them, and for that reason, no doubt, he is careful to lay an independent foundation for his argument. His first eight chapters all go to prove that, whatever opinions may be entertained on these subjects, it is perfectly certain that the Christian religion did make its appearance in the world at the date usually assigned to it, that its author was put to death, that his followers were persecuted at Rome and elsewhere within thirty-five years of the Crucifixion, and that, from the very earliest times of which we have any account at all of the subject, the main outline of the Christian religion was what it now is.
Or, to use his own admirable language—language which in itself is a title to fame, whatever may be the value of his arguments:
'These four circumstances— first, the recognition of the account in its principal parts by a series of succeeding writers; secondly, the total absence of any account of the religion substantially different from ours; thirdly, the early and extensive prevalence of rites and institutions which result from our account; fourthly, our account bearing in its construction proof that it is an account of facts which were known and believed at the time—are sufficient, I conceive, to support an assurance that the story which we have now is in general the story which Christians had at the beginning. . . . And if our evidence stopped here we should have a strong case to offer; for we should have to allege that in the reign of Tiberius Caesar a certain number of persons set about the attempt of establishing a new religion in the world, in the prosecution of which purpose they voluntarily encountered great dangers, undertook great labours, sustained great sufferings, all for a miraculous story which they published wherever they came, and that the resurrection of a dead man whom during his life they had followed and accompanied was a constant part of this story. I know nothing in the above statement which can with any appearance of reason be disputed, and I know nothing in the history of the human species similar to it.'All this, and the argument of which it is the conclusion, is perfectly independent of all critical questions whatever about the New Testament, and so long as the subject is made the subject of controversy at all, it will always be the great argument in favour of the truth of Christianity. There may be ways of accounting for its prevalence without admitting its truth; but the great argument for its truth is, and always will be, that it was published to the world as true by persons who underwent great persecutions for the sake of it, and of whom some at least must have had personal knowledge of its falsehood if it was false. The praise to which Paley is entitled is that he brought out this fact with marvellous point, force, and neatness, and that he saw the importance of stating it in such a way as to keep it clear of all questions of critical detail.
The detailed criticisms which follow as to the authority and authenticity of the four Gospels, and as to their independence, are certainly less happy, and their conclusions are much more disputable. In particular, there is a chapter, abridged from Lardner, giving eleven arguments (Cambridge men will no doubt remember the old jingle of the memoria technica—
Quoted—sui generis—vols—titles—publicly—comment— Both sides—without doubt—condemned—catalogue—apocryphal)—to prove the authenticity of the New Testament books as we have them, which displays a singular want of appreciation of the fact that Lardner refers to no direct specific mention of the Gospels before Irenseus, near the end of the second century.
The Second Part of the Evidences appears to us much inferior to the First Part. Some of the chapters, indeed, afford abundant evidence of their author's extraordinary ingenuity and keenness of observation, qualities which he exercised with conspicuous success in his most characteristic, though not his greatest, book—the Horae Paulinae. One of these chapters (chapter viii., on the History of the Resurrection) produces almost a painful effect, by the way in which it applies exceeding cleverness to a subject which it is not altogether pleasant to see cast into the nisi prius crucible. It is an amplification of the question, 'What account can be given of the body upon the supposition of enthusiasm?'
The way in which this subject is pressed, and worked backwards and forwards, excites a strange mixture of feelings. It is impossible not to admire Paley's extreme cleverness, but a sense of incongruity mingles with one's admiration, and, after all, the remark suggests itself that the accounts which we have, are so short and summary, that it is impossible to insist upon details. A popular preacher once dwelt at length on this subject to a fashionable audience, contrasting, with great satisfaction to himself, the improbability of the statement 'currently reported amongst the Jews,' with the statement of the Apostles themselves. He altogether forgot to observe that we have not got the Jews' account of the subject, but only the Apostles' version of the Jews' account of it, which is not the same thing. Paley falls into the very same error, which is an unusual piece of carelessness with him.
The great defects of the whole book, and especially of the second part of it, are well illustrated by two chapters, one on Christian Morality, and the other on the view which the early Christians themselves took of the subject of miracles. In his chapter on Christian Morality, Paley contrasts the Christian and the heroic character, and goes so far as to say that though heroism may be advantageous on particular rare occasions, quietness, passive submission, renunciation of the world, and other such qualities, give far less trouble and are less calculated to disturb the common course of events, and so are, in reality, the more admirable qualities, and ought to be esteemed accordingly.
This chapter has always seemed to us the worst and most ignoble performance that can be pointed out in any book which can in any sense of the word be called great It is essentially mean, and it is closely connected with an observation which the whole tone of the book suggests, though it would not be easy to quote any particular passage to prove it. It is that Paley nowhere gives the least indication, of his being sensible of the fact, that the moral beauty of Christianity, and the personal influence and character of its founder, would of themselves, and quite apart from the question of miracles, exercise a prodigious influence over the first Christians.
He is constantly asking what motive the first disciples could have had for running such risks and taking so much trouble, unless they had seen miracles worked which fully satisfied them that it was their interest to do so. It never seems to occur to him, that they had the very strongest motive known to human nature — namely, passionate love and enthusiastic devotion, excited by a wonderful manifestation of that type of goodness which exercises the most powerful effect on most of those who are capable of being much influenced by sympathy. It is not quite easy to forgive him for missing this evident truth, in his anxiety to give proof that would satisfy a court of justice of the fact of miracles having been performed; but this ought not to blind people, as it often does, to the real force of his argument, which we think is greater than it is usually supposed to be, notwithstanding this defect.
His observations on the small importance which the early Christians appeared to attach to the whole question of miracles are closely connected with this moral obtuseness. It never seems to occur to him that there was, or indeed could be, much difference between Englishmen in the end of the eighteenth, and Jews in the middle of the first century. His argument all along is continually built upon the assumption that the twelve Apostles were a sort of special jury, as much accustomed to the rules of evidence, and as fully determined never to believe any fact whatever without judicial proof of it, as Lord Thurlow or Lord Ellenborough. The reason why they did not make more of the argument of miracles, he says, was because the prevalent belief in magic disinclined the Pagan world to pay attention to it. Hence they insisted upon other topics better suited to their taste. How far they themselves shared in the views of the Pagan world, and especially how far they were superior to their neighbours, in the critical investigation or appreciation of facts, is a question of first-rate importance, but it is one which Paley either avoided designedly, or which he did not appreciate in its full strength and importance.
These, no doubt, are great defects, and, when joined to the critical imperfections of the book, may account for, and to some degree justify, the decline of its popularity. But they are also defects of which the temper of our own generation is likely to exaggerate the importance, and they ought never to lead us to forget the solidity of the principal part of the argument, the extreme acuteness which every part of it displays in almost too great profusion, and, above all, the exquisite and masterly style in which it is written—a style which shows not merely the possession of wonderful literary power, but the consciousness of addressing a critical, well-instructed, and deeply-interested audience, already well acquainted with the main points of the subject. The more the theological and moral discussions of the eighteenth century are studied, the stronger will be the impression received, not merely of their depth and importance, and of the extraordinary ability of the disputants, but also of the keen and profoundly intelligent attention with which a great mass of readers must have followed the debate. The pleadings of advocates give a good measure of the intelligence of juries; and the thoroughness, the calmness, and the plain straightforward emphatic vigour, both of the believing and of the unbelieving writers of that day, give us a feeling of envy when we turn to them from the diffuse, heated, inconclusive declamation and picturesque Scriptural renovations of our own age. With all its defects, Paley's Evidences is worth a cartload of Ecce Homos.
Saturday Review, July 28, 1866.