The Reading Room

Bishop Butler and the Virtue of Self-Love

Most Enlightenment intellectuals united around themes such as passion for science and scientific method (inductive reasoning), human wellbeing as the goal of philosophy, and religious tolerance. But nothing proved more nearly universal among them than their opposition to the Catholic Church, establishment Christianity, and clerics. And yet, Joseph Butler (1692-1652), Bishop of Durham, chaplain to King George II and religious advisor to Queen Caroline, and the most widely read and influential moral theologian of the 18th century, must be reckoned a leading luminary of the Enlightenment.
Born in Wantage, Somerset, into a family of Presbyterian dissenters, his father a linen-draper, he was educated for the ministry in a dissenting Presbyterian academy (his best friend later became Archbishop of Canterbury). He became dissatisfied with Presbyterianism, but that did not lead him to abandon the church. He joined the Anglican church, the established Church of England, and enrolled in Oxford University’s Oriel College (1714) to prepare for the ministry. There, with a talent for befriending the right people, he became friends with the son of Bishop Talbot of Oxford, a pipeline to his initial Anglican appointments.    Ordained deacon and priest in 1718 (and also earning a law degree at Oxford), Butler began a series of positions through which he rose steadily and rapidly. At the first, Rolls chapel in Chancery Lane, London, he preached and published his famous Fifteen Sermons on Humane Nature (1726), including widely read discourses on human nature. He became clerk of the closet to King George II and confessor to Queen Caroline, and that year, 1726, published his classic, The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature (often cited as "Butler's Analogy.”) To it, he appended an essay, Of the Nature of Virtue, that in time established him as a foremost British writer on ethics. At Oxford, he was “the” lecturer on moral theology.

The world of appointments now swung open before him, the King in time offering him appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury (a position later occupied by his friend from the academy), but Butler asked to be and was made Bishop of Durham (1750). Inevitably, rising swiftly to Anglican leadership and celebrity as an author—and in time, European fame--for his published sermons of moral theology (with philosophical attachments and notes), Butler attracted criticism for prioritizing a literary career over his religious commitments.

Everything Butler wrote or published, however, was in the course of his professional duties or to advance his career. Much of what he published began as sermons. It is true, though, that his work was rigorously philosophical, logically complex, and directed at other philosophical positions, including the deism then sweeping Britain and France.

In nature we see God’s intention: love thyself, seek happinessWhat, then, did Butler preach?

Medieval Christianity for some 15 centuries, including the four “transitional” centuries from the beginning of the Renaissance through the Age of Science and up to the Enlightenment, had insisted upon the distinction between “beatitude,” the happiness we truly seek in blessed reunion with God for eternity, and “felicity,” the earthly happiness that is a fleeting distraction from beatitude, but unavoidable and tolerated because made inevitable by man’s original sin and corruption since the fall of Adam and Eve. Prof. Kors writes: “In traditional Christian theology, the love of this world is a scandal of human nature.”

Bishop Butler, a quintessential 18th-century mind, accepted most of the premises of deism. We discover and understand God’s intentions for us by understanding his creation, nature, including human nature. We see that God is good, benevolent, and has created nature for the successful life of his creatures, including man. Thus we comprehend God by reason and science, and we know his intentions for us.

These conclusions are not deduced from revelations or historical authority, as in Scholasticism. They are discovered in nature. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy asserts that “…a moral philosopher arguing from matters of fact had to have detailed knowledge of the principles of action in human nature and of moral psychology as well as arguments to show how these principles had bearing on virtue and vice.”

We understand objectively—by reason, analysis, and inductive logic—that God intends us to love ourselves, to embrace our self-interest, and that reason tells us that human association, society, an attitude of benevolence toward others, is part of that self-interest. In short, astonishingly for a leading Christian divine, and revelatory of the 18th century, Butler argued that to pursue our self-interest and self-love is to pursue virtue. The Stanford Encyclopedia summarizes: “When we seek our own goods and those of others in accordance with conscience or reflection we act virtuously and we also promote our private happiness.”

God’s evident intention is that we do so. Thus far, Butler pushed the premises of deism, but he denied, of course, assertions of the “negative” deists who utterly dismissed the supernatural, along with all revelation, the Scriptures, and the organized church. Butler preached that revelation in the Bible affirms exactly what we learn of God’s intentions by studying nature. Take only one of his favorite examples. The Bible tells us that the words of God are “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

All right, and if I don’t love myself? Then I don’t love my neighbor. If I hate myself? Then I hate my neighbor. Obviously, God is telling us directly, here, that he commands us to both self-love and benevolence—exactly what we perceive from studying nature, including human nature. To skeptics who pointed to contradictions and inconsistencies in Biblical revelation, Butler replied that we also observe seeming contradictions and mysteries in nature. We simply do not understand everything, as yet, and must keep that in mind when thinking about morality.

But how are we using the term “nature,” here? It is one of the most frequently used and seldom defined words in Enlightenment philosophy. First, do we mean by “nature” all features and aspects we identify in humans?  Or, second, do we mean what we observe to be done most frequently by most men throughout history? One is a general observation and the other observation of what statistically most men do  most of the time. But there is a third meaning of “nature.” We have a defining characteristic or characteristics that make us human. That how we use “nature” when we say: “They acted like animals!” We mean that they acted contrary to man’s essential nature, contrary to what distinguishes human beings from lower species. This is an essentialist meaning of “nature” and the one Butler is using. We are able to perceive and understand our essential nature, God’s intention for us. We are endowed with reason, which can discern the objective requirements of our wellbeing and what makes for a happy life.

 Conscience, passion, benevolenceIt is true, as Hobbes and later Locke argued, says Butler, that man by nature seeks pleasure and flees pain. And also true that is a key to human motivation. But Hobbes is entirely wrong that this inevitably dooms man to a “war of all against all” until he is forcibly restrained in a society with a government.

Endowed with reason, we can identify our wellbeing with its concomitant emotion of happiness. And we have free will, so we are not driven by our passions (which we mistakenly call “selfish” merely because they are ours), nor driven to exploit our fellow man just because we might mistakenly see that as in our self-interest.

Above all, God made reason our defining characteristic, what separates us from other animals, because he intended it to guide us in attaining the objective requirements of our wellbeing and our happiness. Our passions are the source of pleasure, but also pain, and only reason can tell us which passions portend true happiness and avoidance of pain.

Butler, like all British philosophers in the 18th-century, knew intimately the theory of a “moral sense” advanced by the Third Earl of Shaftesbury. Shaftesbury argues that a moral sense is built into our nature because we can experience vicariously the pleasure and suffering of others and identify with it by “sympathy,” (we would say, “empathy”). We have empathy with the emotions of others and take pleasure in their happiness and have compassion for their suffering. In addition, our “affections” and “approbation” approve acts of other moral agents or disapprove of them. Our introspection, our insights into our motives, can make us an “impartial observer” of ourselves and others, a dispassionate judge. This is “conscience,” which, for Butler, appears to be our highest faculty (although at times he seems to suggest our principal faculty is self-love or benevolence). “Butler…suggests that self-love can be pursued better and worse, and that it is best reflected on via reason in a cool and impartial way.”

As for immortality, an afterlife in heaven, its existence is at least probable. It is not inconsistent with what we know about life on earth. On earth, virtue is rewarded with happiness—at least when things work as they should. In heaven, we also are rewarded for our virtue with happiness, even if circumstances on earth denied us that proper reward. Because the afterlife is probable, it is rational to believe in it because we know our goal is happiness as the reward for virtue.

Through his sermons and books such as Fifteen Sermons and Analogy, Butler’s extraordinary “enlightening” of Christian morality—and its view of the nature of man and his destiny on earth—converted a huge public among the literate, the educated. Already, deism was a powerful philosophical tide threatening traditional Christianity; the force of Butler’s popular moral teaching swept in the same direction but brought along traditional Christian theology. He rates as a leading bestseller of the 18th century.

In particular, the Scottish enlighteners embraced and taught his ideas along with the “moral sense” theory of Shaftesbury. Thomas Reid, Adam Smith, David Hartley, and others deemed themselves “Butlerians.”Butler's moral philosophy and defense of religion influenced British and American philosophers and theologians as well as the public of the 18th and 19th centuries. His sermons may be among the relatively few in history that have enjoyed sustained attention from secular philosophers.  His popularity continued into the Nineteenth Century, especially compatible with American optimism, glorification of wealth and worldly success, and the conviction of inevitable progress.