Joseph Butler

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Joseph Butler
Bishop of Durham
A middle-aged white man seated and wearing Georgian-era English clerical robes.
Engraving of Butler.
Diocese Diocese of Durham
In office 1750–1752
Predecessor Edward Chandler
Successor Richard Trevor
Other posts Bishop of Bristol (1738–1750)
Dean of St Paul's (1740–1750)
Ordination 26 October 1718 (deacon)
21 December 1718 (priest)
by William Talbot
Consecration 3 December 1738
Personal details
Born (1692-05-18)18 May 1692
Wantage, Berkshire, England
Died Script error: The function "death_date_and_age" does not exist.
Bath, Somerset, Great Britain
Buried 20 June 1752,[1] Bristol Cathedral[2]
Nationality English (later British)
Denomination Anglican
Residence Rosewell House, Kingsmead Square, Bath (at death)
Parents Thomas Butler[1]
Spouse unmarried
Profession theologian, apologist, philosopher (see below)
Alma mater Oriel College, Oxford
Feast day 16 June (commemoration)
Joseph Butler
Era 18th-century philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
School British Empiricism, Christian philosophy

Joseph Butler (18 May 1692 – 16 June 1752) was an English bishop, theologian, apologist, and philosopher. He was born in Wantage in the English county of Berkshire (now Oxfordshire). He is known, among other things, for his critique of Thomas Hobbes's egoism and John Locke's theory of personal identity.[3] During his life and after his death, Butler influenced many philosophers, including David Hume, Thomas Reid, and Adam Smith.[4]

Early life and education

The son of a Presbyterian linen-draper, he was destined for the ministry of that church and, along with future archbishop Thomas Secker, entered Samuel Jones's dissenting academy at Gloucester (later Tewkesbury) for that purpose. Whilst there, he entered into a secret correspondence with the conformist controversialist Samuel Clarke; his letters were taken to Gloucester post office by Secker, who also collected Clarke's responses from there. Clarke later published this correspondence. In 1714, he decided to enter the Church of England, and went to Oriel College, Oxford. He received his Bachelor of Arts in 1718 and later proceeded Doctor of Civil Law on 8 December 1733.[1]

Church career

Butler was ordained a deacon on 26 October 1718 by William Talbot, Bishop of Salisbury, in his Bishop's Palace, Salisbury, his palace chapel[5] and a priest on 21 December 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 he was made 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; he kept that office until his translation to Durham.[1] He is said (apocryphally) to have declined an offer to become the archbishop of Canterbury in 1747. He was translated to Durham by the confirmation of his election to that See in October 1750; he was then enthroned by proxy on 9 November 1750.[1]


He is most famous for his Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel (1726) and Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed (1736). The Analogy is an important work of Christian apologetics in the history of the controversies over deism's apologetic concentrated on "the general analogy between the principles of divine government, as set forth by the biblical revelation, and those observable in the course of nature, [an analogy which] leads us to the warrantable conclusion that there is one Author of both."[6] Butler's arguments combined a cumulative case for faith using probabilistic reasoning to persuade deists and others to reconsider orthodox faith. Overall, his two books are remarkable and original contributions to ethics and theology. They depend for their effect entirely upon the force of their reasoning, for they have no graces of style.

The "Sermons on Human Nature" is commonly studied as an answer to Hobbes' philosophy of psychological egoism. These two books are considered by his followers to be among the most powerful and original contributions to ethics, apologetics and theology which have ever been made.

The title page of a book, reading: 'principia ethica, by George Edward Moore, fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. "Everything is what it is, and not another thing" Bishop Butler. Cambridge, at the University Press, 1903'
Principia Ethica title page, with Butler's epigram

Today, he is commonly cited for the blunt epigram Every thing is what it is, and not another thing."

Design argument

In 1736, he inferred a form of the argument for the evidence of design: As the manifold Appearances of Design and of final Causes, in the Constitution of the World, prove it to be the Work of a Mind.... The appearances of design and of final causes in the constitution of nature as really prove this acting agent to be an.... ten thousand thousand Instances of Design, cannot but prove a...[7] William Paley taught his works and built on his design argument using the Watchmaker analogy.

Criticism of Locke

That Personality is not a permanent, but a transient thing: That it lives and dies, begins and ends, continually: That no one can any more remain one and the same person two Moments together, than two successive Moments can be one and the same Moment: that our Substance is indeed continually changing; but whether this be so or not, is, it seems, nothing to the purpose; since it is not Substance, but Consciousness alone, which constitutes Personality; which Consciousness, being successive, cannot be the same in any two Moments, nor consequently the personality constituted by it." And from hence it must follow, that it is a Fallacy upon Ourselves, to charge our present Selves with any thing we did, or to imagine our present Selves interested in any thing which befell us, yesterday, or that our present Self will be interested in what will befall us to morrow; since our present Self is not, in Reality, the same with the Self of Yesterday, but another like Self or Person coming in its Room, and mistaken for it; to which another Self will succeed to morrow.[8]

Death and legacy

Butler died in 1752 at Rosewell House, Kingsmead Square in Bath, Somerset.[9] His admirers praise him as an excellent man, and a diligent and conscientious churchman. Though indifferent to general literature, he had some taste in the fine arts, especially architecture.

In the calendars of the Anglican communion his feast day is 16 June.

He has his own collection of manuscripts (e.g. Lectionary 189).

Styles and titles

  • 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


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 "Butler, Joseph". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/4198.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica
  3. "Joseph Butler (1692—1752)".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. White (2006), §8.
  5. Ordination Record: Butler, Joseph in "CCEd, the Clergy of the Church of England database" (Accessed online, 5 September 2014)
  6. "Butler, Joseph." Encyclopædia Britannica, 1911 ed.
  7. John , The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature, London, John and Paul Knapton, 1st Ed. 1736,3rd Ed. MDCCXL (1740)pp 65, 158, 424
  8. "The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed". Retrieved 6 August 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. "Rosewell House". Images of England. English Heritage. Retrieved 2 September 2009.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

References and further reading

External links

Church of England titles
Preceded by
Thomas Gooch
Bishop of Bristol
Succeeded by
John Conybeare
Preceded by
Francis Hare,
Bishop of Chichester
Dean of St Paul's
Succeeded by
Thomas Secker,
Bishop of Oxford
Preceded by
Edward Chandler
Bishop of Durham
Succeeded by
Richard Trevor