Lectures on Butler's Analogy of Religion to the Constitution and Course of Nature (by Joseph Napier, 1864).
Mr. Napier’s Lectures on Butler's Analogy are much the sort of performance which might be expected from a veteran lawyer and politician who undertakes to expound a standard book on Divinity to an Association of Christian Young Men. They are a prolonged and almost, if not quite, unqualified eulogy, pronounced in a tone of the most solemn veneration, diversified by complimentary references to a number of writers of unimpeachable orthodoxy. Thus we read:—"On the last occasion on which I heard the late Prince Consort deliver a public address in London, he gave to this objection an answer full of truth and wisdom, and eminently characteristic of his sound and cultivated mind"; and again—"On the first interview which I had with" [the Earl of Eglinton] "just after his appointment to the Viceregal office, I anticipated the success of his career from a simple but significant observation which he made." In like manner we have— "Mr. Starkie in his excellent work on the Law of Evidence"; "Mr. Mansel in his admirable Essay on the Miracles"; "the masterly sermons of the Bishop of Ossory, &c."; "Dr. Salmon in his sound and admirable lecture;" "Mr. Smith, the respected minister of St. Stephen's Church, in his valuable treatise on the Miracles;" and so on. Two facts, however, are sufficient to give those who are accustomed to such reading the keynote, so to speak, of Mr. Napier's performance. He is always harping on the Inductive Method, and on the fact that Butler followed Bacon's precepts, and he is a great admirer of Dr. Whately's Historic Doubts about Napoleon. Of course no one can object to this. What, indeed, can be more delightful than the discovery that so much wisdom and goodness, such profound philosophy and delightful wit, should be found amongst the dignitaries of the Church, the State, and the Law, and that so many excellent, admirable, masterly, and valuable treatises should be so perfectly sound? Perhaps it is desirable to take every opportunity of impressing Christian Young Men with a spirit of optimism; and the tendency to feel a certain surprise, not unmixed with amusement, at the length of Mr. Napier's list of persons who have made a good thing of both worlds, may be taken to prove a deficiency either in youth or in Christianity.
Mr. Napier's style is the style of the place and of the occasion. The lectures, having been delivered viva voce, are sometimes clumsy and incomplete in expression, and, as frequently happens, he appears to have been infected by his author. Butler's warmest admirers will not deny that his style is grievously deficient in animation, and in that ease and clearness which a man of high animal spirits can put even into abstruse speculations. It is, for instance, far inferior to the style of Pascal or Descartes. Mr. Napier is apt in this respect to out-Butler Butler, and the comment, as a rule; is by no means so easy as the text. This is, perhaps, an inevitable difficulty, and is rather an objection to the publication of lectures on Butler than to their delivery. If such a man as Mr. Napier is kind enough to explain Butler to the Christian Young Men at Dublin, it is probable enough that he will lead many of them, who would not otherwise have done so, to read his writings; but the lectures themselves must, from the nature of the case, be a decoction of Butler, and as such are likely to do little to advance his fame or increase the number of his thoughtful students.
It would, for obvious reasons, be impossible in this place to attempt any general notice of Butler's Analogy. It would be presumptuous to blame, and perhaps a little servile to praise indiscriminately, a book which is justly regarded as the ablest and most philosophical defence of the main doctrines of Christianity to be found in our language. It may, however, be observed in general that much remains to be said upon the subject, and that few books would be more important or interesting than one which, with strict truthfulness and perfect impartiality, should show what has really been proved by Butler, how far his arguments extend, and how they are related to the controversies of his own day, and to that supplement to them which is still in progress amongst us, and which in all probability will continue, in one shape or another, for many generations. The composition of such a book would be the work of years, and would require a thorough acquaintance with the controversial history and literature of the last two centuries. We propose, on the present occasion, to offer a few observations on certain isolated topics handled or suggested by Mr. Napier in the course of his lectures.
One general consideration which Mr. Napier has noticed in passing, but on which he has not dwelt at any length, is suggested by an observation which occurs near the end of the book:—
‘In this treatise I have argued upon [i.e., as explained in a note, notwithstanding, or conceding for the sake of argument] 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 on 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.’This observation, which is perfectly true, and is generally invested with less importance by those who criticize Butler than it deserves, explains many of his characteristics, and especially some which it must be admitted are, to say the least, not conciliatory. No one can have read the Analogy, even superficially, without being struck from time to time by a tone of something like harshness, and a want of humanity which occasionally jars, upon the reader. It would be difficult to analyse the causes of an effect which is produced principally by style and by forms of expression; but every one must be conscious, on laying the book aside, of having been in the society of one whose estimate of his Maker's dealings with mankind recalls and suggests that of the wicked servant in the parable:— "I knew thee that thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed." The argument constantly seems to run more or less into the shape of an admission that Christianity is a very horrible thing, followed with the plea that, after all, it is not more horrible than the state of things already existing in the world. How far this is a fair account of Butler's theory, or how far, if it be his theory, the argument is sound, we cannot inquire here; but it should always be borne in mind by those to whom the book presents itself in this light, that a man can hardly be expected to do full justice to principles of which he disapproves, and on which he argues only under protest. He observes:—"These two abstract principles of liberty and moral fitness being omitted, religion can be considered in no other view than merely as a question of fact." No doubt Butler had a right to make the fact look as hard and dry as he could; and he is liable only to slight blame if he in some degree overstated its real hardness when he was debarred, by the conditions of the controversy in which he had embarked, from resorting to the abstract principles which he believed to be adapted not merely to silence objections, but to carry conviction to the conscience and feelings. It would almost appear as if the sternness of the Analogy were intended, more or less consciously, as a sort of inducement to accept the principles on the rejection of which it proceeds.
This observation is important, not merely as an explanation of a tone in the Analogy which to many readers is not acceptable, but also for other reasons. In the first place, it suggests an inquiry at which in this place we can only glance, but which, if adequately carried out, would be of the highest interest. It is handled to some extent in the only one of the Essays and Reviews which was admitted by one set of critics to be harmless, whilst it was allowed by all to be able and instructive—Mr. Patteson's Essay on the Writers on Christian Evidences. The question is, what is the real relation between the transcendental theory of morality—"the abstract principles of liberty and moral fitness," to use Butler's phrase—and religious orthodoxy? In our own day, religious orthodoxy is generally found in company with a belief in some form or other, more or less modified, of transcendentalism. Few writers who would usually be described as orthodox base all our knowledge on experience, and refer all morality to the principle of expediency. Tins connexion, however, is by no means necessary, nor did it, as a fact, exist in the last century universally, or even generally. The names of Locke, Berkeley, and Paley are sufficient to prove this on the one side, and that of Shaftesbury on the other. It is quite possible to argue against any religious creed on the principle of "the moral fitness or unfitness of actions prior to all will whatever"; and Butler's argument in the Analogy can only be made to reach those who do so by arguing that the principles as to the moral fitness or unfitness of actions prior to all will whatever do not reach the case of Divine actions—that is, by surrendering them, as stated by Butler, altogether. There is no doubt the greatest weight in the arguments which Butler repeats on numerous occasions, and enforces with a great variety of illustrations, to show that men cannot presume to judge of the actions of God as they would judge of the actions of men, and that, as far as we are concerned, the facts of life and the world as it is must be taken as final. But there is great difficulty in reconciling this theory with the opinion, which Butler held no less strongly, of the moral fitness or unfitness of actions antecedently even to the Divine will. If such principles exist and are accessible to the human mind, it is hard to resist the conclusion that the human mind may object to the justice of what is alleged to be a Divine mode of proceeding. It must be admitted that there is some appearance in Butler of a disposition to play fast and loose with a priori reasoning—to say, "It is in fact perfectly true, and makes in my favour, but if you, my opponent, appeal to it, I will show you that no human creature can presume to apply it to anything which is alleged to be a Divine revelation." This of course does not affect the force of Butler's arguments as against those who do not believe in the transcendental theory of morals and knowledge. A full examination of the question, whether or not the criticism itself is well-founded, would be unsuitable both in character and in extent to these columns; but it would be well worth the while of any one who wished to do real justice to Butler to prosecute such an inquiry.
No doubt Butler gained a controversial advantage by arguing on the premises of his adversaries. The universal influence mid lasting popularity of the Analogy are due in a great measure to its cogency “ad homines." Controversial advantages, however, are dearly purchased if they diminish the intrinsic philosophical merits of a book, and there is some ground for the observation that this was, at least to some degree, the case with Butler. His celebrated chapter on the opinion of Necessity considered as influencing practice assumes throughout that the doctrine of Necessity is absurd. He speaks of "so absurd a supposition as that of universal Necessity." He does not directly confute it, but argues that it makes no practical difference, and that, even if it were true, it would not be adverse to religion. In a word, though he does not directly say so, he writes in such a manner as to let his readers see that he views those who hold the doctrine of Necessity solely in the light of antagonists who have raised a battery against religion and morality, and he directs all his efforts to show that their efforts have failed. It is usual to quote this chapter with an air of triumph, and an exaltation of practice at the expense of theory, which is irrational and not favourable to the pursuit of truth. Mr. Napier, for instance, says:—
‘The experience of the conduct of Providence at present ought, in all reason, to convince the Fatalist that his scheme of necessity is misapplied when applied to the subject of religion. Every practical application of it ends in absurdity.’There is more to the same purpose. Neither Butler nor Mr. Napier seem to see that you do not prove a system of philosophy to be absurd by showing that it is a mistake to suppose that it is either irreligious or immoral. Butler most truly argues that Fatalism, or the doctrine of Necessity (for he does not draw that distinction between the two on which Mr. Mill has insisted), would not, if it were true, conflict with the fundamental doctrines of religion and morals. Why, then, regard it with enmity, treat it as absurd, and insinuate, by the whole cast and tone of the chapter, that it is nothing better than an unskilful attack upon religion and morality? Mr. Napier observes:—
‘We should not perhaps overlook the fact that there are those who hold what is strictly and properly the doctrine of necessity, both in philosophy and religion, and accept it rather as a help than a hindrance to their moral life.’He ought not only not to overlook that fact, but to give it the prominence which it deserves, and to add that those who hold this doctrine maintain that it is the only one by which either morality or religion can be set in a proper light. The name of Jonathan Edwards ought to have prevented Mr. Napier from saying baldly that "the scheme of necessity is misapplied when applied to the subject of religion." Edwards was as close a thinker, and in his own way as strict and pious a man, as Butler himself, and since his time the doctrine of Necessity has been held by writers not inferior to him in ability. The doctrine of Necessity means no more than that, if every circumstance connected with a man's choice under particular circumstances were perfectly known, his course of conduct could be predicted with certainty. The fact that he has no consciousness of any external compulsion shows merely that, in the one ease of causation of which we do by intimate experience know the nature, the causes do not compel the effect. This tends to confirm the belief that cause and effect are only other words for antecedence and sequence, but it does not in any way whatever interfere with religion or morals. A bad man does not cease to be a bad man because you know he is bad, nor does your knowledge affect your reasons for punishing him. The notion that, by analysing the meaning of the word "freedom," you endanger morality, is as irrational as it would be to fear that the analysis of water would disincline people to drink. An exact acquaintance with all the mental steps by which Palmer came to poison his victims no more diminishes my inclination to hang him, than the knowledge that water consists of oxygen and hydrogen prevents me from drinking when I am thirsty. It is a real defect in Butler that he did not deal candidly with the doctrine of Necessity, nor distinguish between the doctrine itself and the bad uses to which hasty persons might apply it. His chapter on the subject is open to the same sort of criticism as might be applied to a man who thought he had tripped up Berkeley's theory about matter by showing (as it would be easy to show) that a consistent disciple of Berkeley would act towards matter like all the rest of the world. No doubt he would, and if Berkeley was right, so he ought to do. No doubt the doctrine of Necessity is perfectly reconcileable with religion. So much the better for the doctrine of Necessity.
Mr. Napier takes part very elaborately in a well-known and somewhat difficult controversy on the question whether Butler rightly understood the doctrine of probability, or whether he confounded what has been called probability before and probability after the fact—a distinction which would, perhaps, be better denoted by the words "probability" and "chance." This controversy arises out of a chapter "on the supposed presumption against a revelation considered as miraculous, in the course of which Butler discusses the question whether there is any peculiar presumption from analogy against miracles, after the settlement and during the continuance of a course of nature. Mr. Napier's explanation is considerably longer than Butler's whole statement, and is probably better suited for oral delivery than for publication in its present form. Though on the whole, and in a somewhat cumbrous way, it appears to come pretty nearly to a true conclusion, we do not think that it either clearly apprehends the objection urged against Butler, or entirely frees him from the charge of having overlooked a rather obscure distinction which, after all, was not essential to his argument. Butler is arguing on the question whether there is any peculiar presumption against miracles—such a presumption "as would render them in any sort incredible"; probably he meant to add, whatever specific evidence might be alleged in their favour. In other words, he is considering whether there is any a priori reason which dispenses us from examining the evidence in favour of an alleged miracle. That, at least, is Mr. Napier's view of his meaning. Every one in the present day would answer this question in the negative. Hume himself would probably have done so if he had had it properly put before him. The opposite opinion is so obviously unphilosophical that it is hard to understand how it can be held. It is possible, however, to fall into mistakes in arguing against a wrong opinion, and we venture to think that Butler has done so in this instance, though the mistake, if it is one, is not very material to his argument, and lies rather in expression than in thought. He says—
‘There is a very strong presumption against common speculative truths, and against the most ordinary facts before the proof of them, which yet is overcome by almost any proof. There is a presumption of millions to one against the story of Ceasar or of any other man. For suppose a number of facts, so and so circumstanced, of which one had no kind of proof, should happen to come into one's thoughts, every one would, without any possible doubt, conclude them to be false.’In the next chapter, speaking of objections to revealed doctrines, he says—
‘But is it not self-evident that internal improbabilities of all kinds weaken external probable proof? Doubtless; but to what practical purpose can this be alleged here, when it has been proved before that real internal improbabilities which rise even to moral certainty are overcome by the most ordinary testimony.’The improbability of which he is speaking in this last passage is the improbability that a passage of Scripture, said to be prophetic of a certain event, should really be so, because, if it had been so, it would have been otherwise expressed. As to this, he truly says, “We scarce know what are improbabilities”; but he had already contended that a great internal improbability, rising even to moral certainty, may be overcome by almost any evidence. It seems to be clear, from these two passages, that Butler supposed that the chance against any common event—against, for instance, the fact that a man dressed in such a manner should at such a day, hour, and minute be seated in such a chair, reading such a sentence in such a book—is "a real internal improbability rising even to moral certainty," in the same way in which it is such an improbability that a man who has had his head cut off should carry it about in his hands. This further appears from his observation that, if any set of facts—such, for instance, as those which we have suggested—were to come into our minds without proof, "every one would, without any possible doubt, conclude them to be false." Surely he would be rash if he did. There is a great difference between concluding that an assertion is false and concluding that we have no evidence of its truth, and the difference between these two conclusions leads to the very distinction which Butler appears to have overlooked.
Probability, or likelihood, as Butler himself observes, means ultimately the resemblance of an event to that course of things to which we are accustomed; and it may be added that the word "probable," as its form shows, means capable of being proved or certified. Chance, on the other hand, means an estimate of the extent of our ignorance. Suppose there are a million and one balls in a bag, one of which is to be drawn out. The chance against the drawing of any one is a million to one. The probability that any one of the whole series will be drawn is not capable of being numerically expressed. "When the drawing has taken place, it will be as easy to prove that any one number has been drawn as that any other has been drawn. We know that one ball will be drawn and a million left, that we should accept the same degree of evidence as to the actual occurrence of any one of the million and one possible events, and that we have no reason to predict the occurrence of any one' rather than that of any other. We express this by saying that the chance is a million to one against any particular ball, but that the statement that any given ball has been taken is in no degree hard to prove or improbable. The reason of this is that to take a ball from a bag, and to identify it by a number or otherwise, and to report that number correctly, is a very simple matter. Suppose that two men were to be beheaded, and that we were told that one of the two was to be brought to life afterwards. It would be an even chance which of the two was brought to life, but the improbability of the event is so great that hardly any evidence could prove it. These cases show the difference between a probability and a chance. In each case, for the purpose of calculating the chance, we assume an event which is to happen—the taking of a ball from a bag, or the raising of a dead man to life. This assumption being made, the calculation of the chance is matter of arithmetic. But the probability of the event depends on experience, which shows that some events do and that others do not resemble the common course of things. The chance selection of a particular ball out of a great number does resemble the common course of things. The restoration of a dead man to life does not. Hence, irrespectively of the question of chance, we call the one event probable and the other improbable, and Butler's expressions quoted above appear to leave this distinction out of sight. If he had had it fully before him, he would hardly have said that almost any evidence would "overcome a real internal improbability, rising even to moral certainty." All that such evidence will really do is to prove that an ordinary event took place, against which there was a great chance before it happened. For reasons which need not be stated here, but which any one may see for himself who chooses to read Butler's argument and a letter of Mr. Mansel's in which it is ingeniously explained, this misapprehension is of little practical importance. Butler was so cautious and circumspect that he scarcely ever made a mistake, and, if he did, he instinctively avoided its consequences.
In conclusion, an observation may be made on the Analogy which is capable of wide expansion, and which deserves attention at the hands of those who can properly prosecute theological inquiries. A careful student of the Analogy can hardly avoid the reflection. What would come of taking Butler at his word? Is he not, in point of fact, taken at his word by a far larger number of persons than might be supposed to do so? Butler wrote in and for an age which he considered as eminently licentious, both in theory and practice. From the advertisement to the conclusion there appear traces of a continual consciousness that he had to do with those who were enemies to religion because they rebelled against morality. He says, writing in May 1736: —
‘It is come, I know not how, to be taken for granted by many persons that Christianity is not so much as a subject for inquiry, but that it is now at length discovered to be fictitious. And, accordingly, they treat it as if, in the present age, this were an agreed point amongst all people of discernment, and nothing remained but to set it up as a principal subject of mirth and ridicule, as it were, by way of reprisals for having so long interrupted the pleasures of the world.’And the final result of his whole argument is, that thus much at least must be conceded, even by those who believe neither in free will nor in transcendental morality—that there is such a probability of the truth of Christianity that they ought to act upon the supposition of its truth, and that the doubtfulness in which the matter is left may itself be an element in the probation to which it has pleased God to subject them. This would constitute a real obligation to the practices of religion, and to the observance of the moral law. Had Butler lived in these days, he might perhaps have found occasion to remark that this is precisely the conclusion which a large number of people actually have adopted—that they do observe the practices of religion, and do admit the obligations of morality, and that they combine with this admission the keenest desire for information upon all matters of fact relevant to the subject, such as the true character of the Bible, the historical events connected with the establishment of Christianity, the degree in which human speculations have been mixed with Divine revelations, and the like. All these inquiries are, upon Butler's principles, perfectly legitimate, and they are the natural complement of that state of provisional and, so to speak, prudential belief which he did so much to inculcate. It would be unfair in the last degree to insinuate that he inculcated nothing more. His sermons were addressed to a different class and written in a different tone, but on that point we must not trespass.
Saturday Review, September 24, 1864.