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Joseph Butler

1692-1752. Bishop and scholar. Born at Wantage, Berkshire, son of a Presbyterian draper, he was sent to a dissenting academy where, inspired by Samuel Clarke's Boyle Lectures, he corresponded with the lecturer on philosophy and God's existence. He was intended for the Presbyterian ministry but, deciding not to proceed, he entered Oriel College, Oxford, in 1715, apparently with the aid of borrowed money. Here he read law followed by divinity. Though ordained in 1718, Butler did not become financially independent for eight or ten years. His eventual preferment followed a friendship with Queen Caroline; he became bishop of Bristol in 1738, and of Durham in 1750. He was never politically active, but throughout life maintained his early interest in philosophical questions.

The Analogy of Religion, on which Butler had worked for many years, appeared in 1736 at a time when the Deist controversy was at its height. It proved to be the greatest theological book of its age and did more to discredit Deism than any other book. It influenced many later writers, including Hume* and J.H. Newman.* Butler's argument is empirical, stressing fact in support of religion. The order we find in nature paralleled by the order we find in revelation, suggesting joint authorship by God, is his theme. The difficulties we encounter in Christianity, he held, bear a close analogy with those we encounter in nature, neither presenting more difficulties than the other. What we cannot understand in both spheres is due to lack of knowledge or limitation of intellect. Later in his Sermons he expanded the theme, arguing that man's psychological make-up, on which a rational ethical theory must be built, is consistently interrelated, thus affording an analogy to the constitution of the world at large. In discussing Christian evidences, Butler argues that evidence is based on probability, this being of three kinds: matters of speculation, matters of practice, and matters of great consequence. Religion is placed in the third class.

There are many editions of the Analogy, e.g., H. Morley, 1884 (with biography); the best edition of the collected works is by W.E. Gladstone (3 vols., 1896); see too I. Ramsey, Joseph Butler (1969).