The entirely bearable lightness of Butler

The best way I can think of to describe the books I’ve been cataloguing recently is…heavy. That’s in subject matter (we’ve had the concept of truth, civil society and duties, the lives of various esteemed gentlemen of years gone by, some moral philosophy, and a particularly unusual book on grammar which explicated certain grammatical rules through the medium of verse and, in doing so, was about as successful as it would be for me to espouse the same grammatical rules via the medium of interpretive dance).  But they’ve also been really heavy books.  They weigh an actual ton.  Well, probably not an actual ton. But you catch my drift.  And so, when a slim (ish), light (ish) volume presented itself as the next-on-the-list-to-be-catalogued, joy was unconfined.

…what the books are not as light as

The book is Joseph Butler’s The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, published by Knapton in 1736Time for some vital statistics: it’s 320 pages, it weighs in at less than a bag of sugar, and subsequently meets the key criteria that I’d already decided on for the subject of the next blog post.  And yes, I know these are shoddy criteria.  But leaving that to one side, and starting in the traditional way, here’s a picture of the man of the moment:

Handsome fellow

Joseph Butler was born in 1692 in Wantage (then Berkshire, now Oxfordshire), and studied at Oriel College, Oxford.  He was a religious philosopher who, among other things, locked horns with Thomas Hobbes (the philosopher, not the tiger) and John Locke (the philosopher, not the character from LOST), took a highly defensive stance against any contemporaries who argued against traditional systems of morality and religion, and allegedly had words with John Wesley (the founder of Methodism, not anyone else you might know with this name) over his license to preach and the behaviour of his followers.  Quite a CV.  Not much is known about his early life, and it seems that he didn’t really come to prominence until he published his Analogy, which I’ve got in front of me now, in 1736.  He was ordained, so it’s likely that he had parishes, and at one stage he gained the favour of Queen Caroline, the wife of King George II, so he must have been fairly well known, or at least well regarded.  What else?  Well, he became the Bishop of Bristol in about 1740.  The see of Bristol was pretty poor, so it wasn’t exactly the best gig–and the Internet has it that Butler kicked up a bit of a fuss about this appointment.  No less than a decade later he was transferred–promoted, I suppose–to Durham, which was as rich as Bristol was poor.  Butler was Bishop there for about two years before promptly dropping dead in 1752.  Which wasn’t great timing.

Good excuse to use a nice photo though

So he was a theologian, eh? Horace Walpole, the Earl of Orford and the owner of a quite superlative name, described Butler’s theology thus: it is “wafted in a cloud of metaphysics” (IEP), he said, which is really rather lovely.  I’ve got no idea what it means, but it sounds marvellous.  As a graduate of theology (though having never knowingly studied Butler), I decided to at least try to talk about Butler’s theology which will either a) go well or, more likely, b) go wrong, and therefore serve as a timely reminder as to why I gave up theology to become a librarian in the first place.

Well, wouldn’t you?

Here goes.  Butler’s basic understanding–and this underpins the Analogy as well as the rest of his work–naturalises morality and religion. For Butler, they’re just extensions of the common way of life, of nature, and of human nature, and of the world itself.  He uses human nature as an analogy: it’s hierarchically ordered, with conscience right at the very top.  Conscience adapts us to nature, and because conscience deals in issues of virtue and vice, it becomes impossible to divorce nature from morality.  So, if you dismiss morality (and by extension, religion–Christianity, I presume–which Butler perceives as the source of morality), you dismiss the world and your own nature.  Phew.  From this position, Butler draws up many refutations against the ideas of some sceptics, including a branch of Deism espoused by Matthew Tindal which denies, in a roundabout way, revelation through miracles, and he also develops some solutions to the doctrine of necessity and the problem of evil.  He was clearly quite the thinker.

Thinking about his dinner…?

Trinity Hall’s copy of the Analogy is pretty unremarkable, though it’s certainly an early copy.  Unfortunately there’s no discernable provenance, and few signs that it was ever actually read, no marginalia, nothing really that makes this copy stand out as unique.  Which is a pity, as it’d be good to end this blog post with something that’d draw everything together.  But in the words of Butler himself, though admittedly not from the Analogy (thank you Professor Internet), every thing is what it is and not another thing.  Oooh, heavy stuff.

References: IEP, mainly, and then a bit of Wikipedia as well.

Image credits: Feathers, from Joe Shlabotnik; Butler, from IEP and Royal Berkshire History; time, from Toni VC; gorgeous library, from Presurfer. Many thanks to all!