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Joseph Butler

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Joseph Butler
Bishop of Durham
A middle-aged white man seated and wearing Georgian-era English clerical robes.
In office1750–1752
PredecessorEdward Chandler
SuccessorRichard Trevor
Other post(s)Bishop of Bristol (1738–1750)
Dean of St Paul's (1740–1750)
Ordination26 October 1718 (deacon)
21 December 1718 (priest)
by William Talbot
Consecration3 December 1738
Personal details
Born(1692-05-18)18 May 1692
Wantage, Berkshire, England
Died16 June 1752(1752-06-16) (aged 60)
Bath, Somerset, Great Britain
Buried20 June 1752[1] (O.S.) Bristol Cathedral.[2]
NationalityEnglish (later British)
Anglican (after 1714)
ResidenceRosewell House, Kingsmead Square, Bath (at death)
ParentsThomas Butler[1]
ProfessionTheologian, apologist, philosopher
Feast day16 June (commemoration)
Philosophy career
EducationTewkesbury Academy
Oriel College, Oxford
Era18th-century philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
SchoolEmpiricism, Christian philosophy
Main interests
Notable ideas
Criticism of deism
Analogies of religion
Circularity objection to Locke's account of personal identity[3]

Joseph Butler (18 May 1692 – 16 June 1752) was an English Anglican bishop, theologian, apologist, and philosopher, born in Wantage in the English county of Berkshire (now in Oxfordshire). His principal works are the Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel (1726) and The Analogy of Religion (1736).

He is known for critiques of Deism, Thomas Hobbes's egoism, and John Locke's theory of personal identity.[4] The many philosophers and religious thinkers Butler influenced included David Hume, Thomas Reid, Adam Smith,[5] Henry Sidgwick,[6] John Henry Newman,[7] and C. D. Broad,[8] and is widely seen as "one of the pre-eminent English moralists."[9] He played a major, if underestimated role in developing 18th-century economic discourse, influencing the Dean of Gloucester and political economist Josiah Tucker.[10]


Arms of Joseph Butler, Bishop of Durham: Argent, three covered cups in bend between two bendlets engrailed sable[11]

Early life and education[edit]

Butler was born on 18 May 1692.[12] The son of a Presbyterian linen draper, Butler was destined for the ministry of that church, and with the future archbishop Thomas Secker, entered Samuel Jones's dissenting academy at Gloucester (later Tewkesbury) for the purpose. There he began a secret correspondence with the Anglican theologian and philosopher Samuel Clarke. In 1714, he decided to join the Church of England and entered Oriel College, Oxford, receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1718 and named a Doctor of Civil Law on 8 December 1733.[1]

Church career[edit]

Butler was ordained a deacon on 26 October 1718 by William Talbot, Bishop of Salisbury, in his Bishop's Palace, Salisbury, his palace chapel[13] and a priest on 21 December 1718 by Talbot at St James's Church, Piccadilly.[1] After holding various other high positions, he became rector of the rich living of Stanhope, County Durham.

In 1736 Butler became the head chaplain of George II's wife Caroline, on the advice of Lancelot Blackburne. He was nominated Bishop of Bristol on 19 October 1738 and consecrated a bishop on 3 December 1738 at Lambeth Palace chapel. Remaining Bishop of Bristol, Butler was installed Dean of St Paul's on 24 May 1740, keeping the office until his translation to Durham.[1] He is said apocryphally to have declined an offer to become Archbishop of Canterbury in 1747, but he served as Clerk of the Closet to the king in 1746–1752. He was translated to Durham by the confirmation of his election in October 1750; he was then enthroned by proxy on 9 November 1750.[1] He is buried in Bristol Cathedral.

Death and legacy[edit]

Butler died in 1752 at Rosewell House, Kingsmead Square in Bath, Somerset.[14] His admirers have praised him as an excellent person and a diligent and conscientious churchman. Though indifferent to literature, he had some taste in the fine arts, especially architecture.

Joseph is remembered in the Church of England with a commemoration on 16 June.[15] He had his own collection of manuscripts (e. g. Lectionary 189).


Memorial to Bishop Joseph Butler, Durham Cathedral

Attack on deism[edit]

During his lifetime and for many years after, Butler was best known for his Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed (1736), which according to historian Will Durant "remained for a century the chief buttress of Christian argument against unbelief."[16] English deists such as John Toland and Matthew Tindal had argued that nature provides clear evidence of an intelligent designer and artificer, but they rejected orthodox Christianity due to the incredibility of miracles and the cruelties and contradictions recorded in the Bible.

Butler's Analogy was one of many book-length replies to the deists, and long believed to be the most effective. Butler argued that nature itself was full of mysteries and cruelties and so shared the same alleged defects as the Bible. Arguing on empiricist grounds that all knowledge of nature and human conduct is merely probable, Butler appealed to a series of patterns ("analogies") observable in nature and human affairs, which in his view make the chief teachings of Christianity likely.

Butler argued that "because nature is a mess of riddles, we cannot expect revelation to be any clearer"[17] Today, Butler's Analogy is "now largely of historical interest,"[18] with the only part widely read being the section which deals with his criticism of John Locke's theory of personal identity.[3]

Ethics and moral psychology[edit]

A Butler scholar, Stephen Darwall, wrote: "Probably no figure had a greater impact on nineteenth-century British moral philosophy than Butler."[19] Butler's chief target in the Sermons was Thomas Hobbes and the egoistic view of human nature he had defended in Leviathan (1651). Hobbes was a materialist who believed that science reveals a world in which all events are causally determined and in which all human choices flow unavoidably from whatever desire is most powerful in a person at a given time. Hobbes saw human beings as being violent, self-seeking, and power-hungry. Such a view left no place for genuine altruism, benevolence or concept of morality as traditionally conceived.[20]

In the Sermons, Butler argues that human motivation is less selfish and more complex than Hobbes claimed. He maintains that the human mind is an organized hierarchy of a number of different impulses and principles, many of which are not fundamentally selfish. The ground floor, so to speak, holds a wide variety of specific emotions, appetites and affections, such as hunger, anger, fear and sympathy. They, in properly organized minds, are controlled by two superior principles: self-love (a desire to maximize one's own long-term happiness) and benevolence (a desire to promote general happiness). The more general impulses are in turn subject to the highest practical authority in the human mind: moral conscience. Conscience, Butler claims, is an inborn sense of right and wrong, an inner light and monitor, received from God.[21] Conscience tells one to promote the general happiness and personal happiness. Experience informs that the two aims largely coincide in the present life. For many reasons, Butler argues, unethical and self-centred people who care nothing for the public good are not usually very happy.

There are, however, rare cases where the wicked seem for a time to prosper. A perfect harmony of virtue and self-interest, Butler claimed, is guaranteed only by a just God, who in the afterlife rewards and punishes people as they deserve.[22]

Criticism of Locke[edit]

In Appendix 1 of the Analogy, Butler offers a famous criticism of John Locke's influential theory of "personal identity", an explanation of what makes someone the "same person" from one time to the next, despite all the physical and psychological changes experienced over that period. Locke claimed that personal identity is not from having the same body or the same soul but from having the same consciousness and memory. According to Locke, memory is the "glue" that ties the various stages of our life together and constitutes sameness of person. This section of the Analogy is the only widely read part of it today.[3]

More precisely, Locke claims, Person A is the same person as Person B only in a case where A and B share at least some of the same memories. Butler said that the way "real" memories can be distinguished from false ones is that people who had the experiences that are truly remembered. Thus, Butler claimed, memory presupposes personal identity and so cannot constitute it.[23]


Butler is honoured on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA) on 16 June.[24]

Styles and titles[edit]

  • 1692–1718: Joseph Butler Esq.
  • 1718–1733: The Reverend Joseph Butler
  • 1733–1738: The Reverend Doctor Joseph Butler
  • 1738–1752: The Right Reverend Doctor Joseph Butler


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f "Butler, Joseph". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/4198. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. ^ Adamson, Robert; Grieve, Alexander James (1911). "Butler, Joseph" . Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 4 (11th ed.). pp. 882–885.
  3. ^ a b c "Butler, Joseph | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy".
  4. ^ "Joseph Butler (1692–1752)".
  5. ^ White (2006), §8.
  6. ^ J. B. Schneewind, Sidgwick's Ethics and Victorian Moral Philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978, p. 47.
  7. ^ John Henry Cardinal Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua. New York: Modern Library, 1950, p. 41. Originally published 1946.
  8. ^ C. D. Broad, Five Types of Ethical Theory. Paterson, NJ: Littlefield, Adams, and Co., 1959, p. 83. Originally published 1930.
  9. ^ James C. Livingston, Modern Christian Thought. New York: Macmillan, 1971, p. 47.
  10. ^ Peter Xavier Price, 'LIBERTY, POVERTY AND CHARITY IN THE POLITICAL ECONOMY OF JOSIAH TUCKER AND JOSEPH BUTLER', Modern Intellectual History (2017), 1–30. doi:10.1017/S1479244317000518. [1]
  11. ^ As seen on his monument in Durham Cathedral (same arms as Butler, Earl of Lanesborough (Burke, Bernard, The General Armory of England, 1884, p. 153))
  12. ^ Tennant, Bob (2011). Conscience, Consciousness and Ethics in Joseph Butler's Philosophy and Ministry. Boydell Press. p. 21. ISBN 978-1-84383-612-4.
  13. ^ "Butler, Joseph (CCEd Ordination ID 26955)". The Clergy of the Church of England Database 1540–1835. Retrieved 5 September 2014.
  14. ^ "Rosewell House". Images of England. English Heritage. Archived from the original on 18 October 2012. Retrieved 2 September 2009.
  15. ^ "The Calendar". The Church of England. Retrieved 27 March 2021.
  16. ^ Will and Ariel Durant, The Age of Voltaire. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1965, p. 125.
  17. ^ Livingston, Modern Christian Thought, p. 51.
  18. ^ Stephen L. Darwall, "Introduction" to Joseph Butler, Five Sermons. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1983, p. 1.
  19. ^ Darwall, "Introduction<" p. 3.
  20. ^ Darwall, "Introduction," p. 1.
  21. ^ Butler, Five Sermons, p. 37.
  22. ^ Butler, Five Sermons, p. 45.
  23. ^ Joseph Butler, The Analogy of Religion. Cincinnati: Jennings and Graham, 1847. p. 324.
  24. ^ Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2018. Church Publishing, Inc. 17 December 2019. ISBN 978-1-64065-235-4.


Further reading[edit]

  • Austin Duncan-Jones Butler's Moral Philosophy, Penguin 1952
  • Bernard Ramm, "Joseph Butler," Varieties of Christian Apologetics: An Introduction to the Christian Philosophy of Religion, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, 1962, pp. 107–124
  • James Rurak, "Butler's Analogy: A Still Interesting Synthesis of Reason and Revelation," Anglican Theological Review 62 (October), 1980, pp. 365–381
  • Colin Brown, Miracles and the Critical Mind, Paternoster, Exeter UK/William B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1984
  • William Lane Craig The Historical Argument for the Resurrection of Jesus During the Deist Controversy, Texts and Studies in Religion, Vol. 23. Edwin Mellen Press, Lewiston, New York & Queenston, Ontario, 1985
  • Penelhum, Terence, Butler, New York: Routledge, 1985

External links[edit]

Church of England titles
Preceded by Bishop of Bristol
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Francis Hare,
Bishop of Chichester
Dean of St Paul's
Succeeded by
Thomas Secker,
Bishop of Oxford
Preceded by Bishop of Durham
Succeeded by