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Memoir of a Jolly Junket in Search of Bishop Butler

Joseph Butler was an 18th century clergyman who left an indelible mark on moral philosophy but isn’t as widely remembered today as he deserves. David White scoured England and Ireland for traces of the man they called The Bishop.

My purpose in the summer of 2000 was to visit as many sites associated with Bishop Butler as possible and catch the spirit that made him a celebrated author. By journey’s end, I had all I hoped for and more. For one thing, ‘celebrated author’ is perhaps misleading.

An obituary published at the time of his death in 1752 makes no reference to Butler having published anything. It concentrates on titles he held during his career in the church (Rector of Stanhope, Bishop of Bristol, Dean of St Paul’s, Bishop of Durham, Lord Lieutenant of the County Palatine, Clerk of the Closet to Queen Caroline and, after her death, to King George II). His first job, and the one he is most remembered for today, was as Preacher at the Rolls Chapel. The sermons preached at the Rolls, published in 1726, were enough for David Hume to list Butler as one of the founders of modern ethical theory, and they are the only sermons in English that continue to be widely studied by secular philosophers today. Yet the obituary makes no reference to the Rolls Chapel or the famous sermons. Instead, it notes the extensive building work that Butler did at Bristol, and had begun at Durham, and cites his contributions to charity.

My trip began with a week in Donegal, Ireland, so that I could read Butler as he was read in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Butler’s great treatise, the Analogy of Religion appeared in Dublin as well as London in 1736; it was reprinted in Dublin in 1817 and again in 1849. The Marsh Library in Dublin had a few editions of Butler, but for the most part is just as it was in 1700, providing an image of books as Butler would have known them in the libraries where he worked.

Dublin was also the home of two of Butler’s best editors and annotators, William Fitzgerald and J.H. Bernard. There is a long tradition of teaching Butler in philosophy and divinity at Trinity College, Dublin, where I located J.H. Bernard’s grade book, which did include some questions on Butler.

There I spoke with David Berman, who happened to be reviewing a book on the naturalization of the soul that made some considerable reference to Butler. Our talk quickly turned to the relationship between philosophical counseling and ‘pastoral philosophy,’ the name I have given to Butler’s methods.

Part of my pitch to Berman was that Butler had so naturalized religion and so spiritualized nature that his philosophy should be attractive to both sides. Berman pointed out that this ‘strong’ reading of Butler had a serious problem: if God’s presence in nature is as directly evident as Butler and his friend Bishop Berkeley claimed, then it is atheists, not theists, who suffer from an illusion. Was I, he wanted to know, willing to claim that atheists were as pathological as Freud claimed theists were?

What interested me about Butler from the start was the kind of ‘autonomous intellect’ he seemed to have in mind in his youthful letters to Samuel Clarke. One is simply unwilling to accept any received opinion for or against religion, but insists on working through the whole argument for oneself from every possible point of view. That striving for a detached and rational critique, may, if Berman is right, already be an act of bad faith. Fortunately, I had taken the time to immerse myself, back in Donegal, in Butler’s thoughts on ignorance and the love of God, so my enthusiasm was undiminished, if somewhat tempered.

I arrived in London on a Saturday afternoon. I didn’t expect anything to be open, but I headed out just to make sure the main sites were still there. The House of Lords, where Butler, as a bishop, “sat but never spoke, and always voted with the government,” was there. Butler is said to have attended conscientiously, but the published records show his attendance was no better than average. Westminster Abbey, where Butler delivered two “publick” sermons, one praising the English constitution and the other lamenting the execution of Charles I, was still there too.

Butler was Dean of St Paul’s for most of the years he was Bishop of Bristol, and I had no trouble finding St Paul’s either. St Bride, site of one of the sermons, is very difficult to find since it is surrounded by tall, modern buildings.

Starting to feel silly about checking for these buildings’ continued existence, I went down Chancery Lane to look for the Public Record Office. I knew, or thought I knew, that what was left of the Rolls Chapel was on display in the PRO. I was still a bit steamed that I had not been allowed into the room with the Butler window the last time I was here. This time I discovered that the entire PRO had moved out and the building been taken over by King’s College.

I picked lodging near Lambeth Palace, residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the site of Butler’s consecration as Bishop of Bristol, and the most important single library for Anglican studies.

Outside of London, there are two areas of England associated with Butler. One is southwest England, where he was born (Wantage), educated (Tewkesbury and Oxford),served as Bishop of Bristol, and died (Bath). The other is the north of England, where he did most of his parish work and where he ended up as Bishop of Durham.

I chose Gloucester, the original site of the academy Butler attended and the town from which the letters to Clarke were posted, as my base for southwest England. I knew most Butler material at Bristol was destroyed by a mob in the reform riot of 1831. Bristol was a very poor see, and Butler used his income as dean of St. Paul’s in London “repairing and beautifying” the episcopal palace in Bristol. One old newspaper I read praised the riot as true democracy in action.

A marker on what is now the Tudor House Hotel in Tewkesbury identifies the building as the Tewkesbury Presbyterian Academy 1712-1719, and a sign in the lobby lists the more famous students, including “Joseph Butler, Bishop of Durham, 1733.” I have no idea why 1733 was given on the sign. That date is long after Butler left the Academy and long before he became Bishop of Durham. The staff were gracious and joked about whether Butler was a school chum of mine. The room where the Academy was conducted is identifiable by the large fireplace.

Butler himself is under a grave slab at the east end of Bristol Cathedral. This too is easy to find as long as one knows where to look. The slab is badly defaced, having been walked over for two and a half centuries, but the name is still visible. During my period of observation, everyone who entered the Eastern Lady Chapel just walked over the Butler slab without even looking at it. I could not think of any way to direct their attention to it that would not run the risk of being misunderstood.

In 1888, there were two special musical services to mark the completion of Bristol Cathedral. The main memorial to Butler is in the north transept, and it must get a lot more attention since it is upright, very large and rather ornate. The Butler Tower is impossible to miss, of course, but there seemed not to be anything to identify it as the Butler Tower.

My next two stops, Wantage and Bath, are additional examples of how long it takes for Butler pride to appear. All the places associated with Butler have some kind of memorial or marker. Most were set up in the late 1800s, long after his death. The marker on his birthplace at Wantage appeared only a few years ago.

Butler was born in Wantage in 1692, and he attended the local grammar school. All that remains of the school is the door, or perhaps the arch from over the door, but even that has been moved from the original site. Since the 19th century, the room said to be Butler’s birthplace has been shown. Now it is shown during the two ‘Heritage Days’ each year. One of the portraits from Inkpen, a later family residence, is there. Of course, no one thinks it really matters exactly where Butler was born, but with so many of the facts about his life either misstated, misunderstood or just unknown, it would be nice to be clear about as much as possible. Successive versions of the Butler story became more and more coherent and convincing as they drifted further and further from the truth.

On my reading, the heart of Butler’s philosophy is his doctrine of ignorance, so this cloud of unknowing fits well. Butler stopped short of being a skeptic, since he relied on the inference from ‘seems so’ to ‘is so.’ Those who use material published after 1850 are going to encounter a very different appearance from those who concentrate on material contemporary with Butler’s life. This is not to say the earlier testimony is necessarily closer to the truth. For example, when Queen Caroline read Butler’s Rolls sermons, she believed he was already dead when in fact he was merely “buried” in the rectory at Stanhope.

When I met with Stephen Taylor, a professor of history at the University of Reading, he asked me if I had ever seen the original of Butler’s letter to Robert Walpole accepting the King’s offer of the See of Bristol. I thought I had, but apparently I had that impression only because the letter is so frequently quoted without challenge. Taylor claimed the letter was not in the Walpole papers and that it was hard to believe Butler, or anyone, would write such a letter for the King’s eyes. Butler supposedly complained about Bristol being such a poor see. It certainly was a poor see, but Butler had nothing to complain about since after he became Bishop of Bristol he was allowed to keep Stanhope, called the ‘golden rectory’ since it was assigned income from the mines in one of the largest parishes in England.

In his 1936 classic, Bishop Butler and the Age of Reason, E.C. Mossner mentions a lecture by the famous surgeon, James Paget. I returned to London, determined to read it. I found a long quotation Paget copied from Butler, and a few references to Butler in his lectures, but I never found the whole lecture Mossner describes. What I did find, however, was Mossner’s original letter from 1935. He claims to have “lighted upon” the Paget lecture, but had to leave London unexpectedly. He then asks for a photostat of the lecture, and there is a note on the letter that a copy was sent to Mossner about a week later, but the original manuscript seems not to have found its way back into the folder.

When I finished at the College of Surgeons, I went around to Conway Hall because I wanted to look through the library at the South Place Ethical Society and get some pictures of the bust of Bertrand Russell in Red Lion Square. Many of the great skeptics such as Leslie Stephen and John Robertson wrote at length on Butler. Robertson is the only one I know of who attacked Butler’s character. I knew his general complaint – that Butler was disingenuous since he must have known the fallacy of his own arguments. At SPES I noticed that Robertson had also made the point about the financial inappropriateness of Butler’s letter to Walpole. The more I consider this the more I question the authenticity of the letter. There is no manuscript now and no reference to one in its first publication. Perhaps someone else wrote it not fully understanding the circumstances. Or perhaps Butler wrote it mistakenly thinking he would not be allowed to keep the rectory at Stanhope.

By Saturday morning I was getting desperate that my time in London was nearly over and I had not set foot in the new British Library or the Lambeth Library. Nevertheless, I had to get to Hampton Court. Butler was Clerk of the Closet (private chaplain) to Queen Caroline from 1736, when he presented her with an advance copy of the Analogy, until her death the next year. He administered last rites to her at Hampton Court. The ‘Georgian Rooms’ have been preserved as they were at the time of the Queen’s death. On her deathbed, Caroline recommended favor for only one person: Joseph Butler.

Caroline’s private oratory is surely one of the great small rooms of the world. There’s a magnificent, full skylight, the famous door which Caroline sometimes partly closed ostensibly out of modesty but really because she tired of the priests’ loud prayers, and a striking portrait of Samuel Clarke, Butler’s mentor and formerly Clerk of the Closet to the Queen. Later, in the chapel royal, I asked the priest, just to be sure, whether Butler had preached there. “Oh, yes, indeed, but you are looking the wrong way. He would have preached from over there. We moved the reading desk.” At last I felt I was making real progress.

On Sunday I addressed the Ethical Society on ‘Bishop Butler and Bertrand Russell on God and Religion.’ From the Ethical Society, I went right to Euston Station to get the night train to Scotland, where I went to King’s College, Aberdeen, to see Thomas Reid’s abstract of Butler’s Analogy.

Once I got on the trail of how much about Butler was misrepresented in the ‘history’ of philosophy, I became an enthusiast for lecture notes, students’ notes and any first-hand accounts of what it was like to read Butler with an open mind. There is very little published research in this regard, but there is more in Aberdeen (thanks to Paul Wood) than elsewhere.

Reid was a master of the précis, now an almost forgotten technique of learning. Reid was incredibly disciplined: he began each précis with a uniform note on the source, and he never wandered off to comment on the material. This discipline raises questions about some oddities. Understandably, Reid skipped Butler’s own summaries, but he also skipped sections II.4 and II.7 of the Analogy, just giving their titles. From the look of the manuscript, Reid may have been trying to save time or paper, but if so, he must have planned ahead since he has full coverage of the end of the Analogy. On the way back to London, I stopped for a few days in County Durham. I wanted to get some good pictures of the Butler memorial in the cathedral, but the attendants seemed to be watching me closely. I was able to get a picture of the portrait of Butler which hangs in a place of honor in the Chapter Library.

When I requested an especially rare work, Hints for Medical Students, the librarian thought I had the wrong call number since it was “in with theological works.” I assured her that this was a theological work. I’d seen this oddity before, but never had time for more than a glance, and its condition precludes photocopying. I still have not had time to read the whole thing, but at least I can now safely classify it as a reprinting of one of Butler’s works, viz., the first chapter of part I of the Analogy, ‘Of a Future Life.’ There is a long introduction and extensive notes by the editor.

At Auckland Castle there is a miniature of Butler in the ‘Gentleman’s Hall,’ but there was no visible identification, so a close familiarity with Butler portraiture is required to spot it. There is another famous portrait upstairs in the throne room, and Butler’s watch, Bible, and coffee pot are displayed prominently. I also noticed Butler’s arms (three cups) in the chapel and the stone (mentioned by Ian Ramsey in his lecture on Butler) in the backyard. Thus there is quite a good Butler presence on display at Bishop Auckland.

Butler was only Bishop of Durham for a short time, but his association with the diocese is substantial. His first job after college was as preacher at the Rolls Chapel, and shortly after that ended, he moved to the ‘golden rectory’ of Stanhope and prepared his Rolls sermons for publication. Butler’s philosophical production ended at Stanhope as well, assuming he wrote the Analogy there. Some have suggested he wrote it in London. Commentators have all assumed Butler must have had access to a substantial library to write the Analogy, but my reading suggests he may have relied primarily on conversation.

The rectory at Stanhope had a large library at one time, but I don’t know how substantial it was in the early 1730s. Today all that remains of Butler in the rectory library is a nineteenth-century edition of the Analogy presented by the sheriff in 1952.

At night, I returned to Durham cathedral after most of the tourists had left. The Butler memorial is almost invisible unless one knows exactly where to look – just to the right of the bishop’s throne. The inscription is by Gladstone, and the stone is the same color as the wall, making it about as unobtrusive as memorials get. The pulpit that is used at ‘high altar’ services is placed so that the preacher is staring directly at the Butler memorial.

The present rectory at Stanhope is not the one Butler inhabited, but the present parish hall is on the site of Butler’s rectory and is said to closely resemble the original rectory. A few weeks before my visit, Stanhope had a service in memory of Butler and in the manner of the 18th century liturgy.

Back in London on Monday, I found hardly any mention of Butler’s tenure as Dean of St Paul’s. Since Butler did little at St Paul’s and used most of the income to take care of Bristol, I saw no point in registering a complaint.

I did not expect to find any Butler material at the new Public Record Office in Kew either, but I wanted to be sure. My results were primarily negative: there do not seem to be any records pertaining to Butler as Preacher at the Rolls Chapel. When I got back from Kew, I rushed off to the British Library just in time to order books for Wednesday.

When I returned to Wantage on Tuesday, my friend Lynda Allen not only picked me up from the train, but arranged tours of the Wantage parish church and the Priory, Butler’s historically-acknowledged birthplace. The ecstasy of actually being there was somewhat colored by the awkwardness of being a tourist in a private home. Nevertheless, there he was, face and upper body, big as life right on the wall. This portrait was obviously a copy from the one by Hudson.

On my last day in England, I went back to Wantage to see the millennium sundial, and just to gaze at the countryside of Butler’s youth. By the time I got back to London, there was time only for one last round at the British Library and a feverish attempt to mail home all the books and papers I had acquired.

© David White 2002

David White teaches at St John Fisher College in Rochester, NY. He maintains a webpage devoted to Butler (sun1.sjfc.edu/~dwhite/butler) and is preparing a critical edition of Butler’s complete works.

So who was Bishop Butler?

Bishop Joseph Butler (1692-1752) is best known today for two quotations: “a thing is what it is and not another thing,” used by G.E.Moore as the epigraph of his Principia Ethica, and “probability is the very guide to life,” perhaps the best-known single line on probability. Bertrand Russell’s only sustained treatment of Butler is with regard to probability, and more recently Butler’s views have been explicated and evaluated by writers like Nicholas Rescher and Henry Kyburg. Interest in Butler’s remarks on personal identity was revived first by Antony Flew, and then Butler’s claim that persons persist in a ‘strict and philosophical’ sense as opposed to material bodies which maintain identity merely in a ‘loose and popular’ popular sense, was strongly defended by Roderick Chisholm. The Rolls Chapel sermons are the only sermons in English regularly read by those studying secular moral philosophy today. The importance of Butler’s ethical theory (his argument for the supremacy of conscience and his refutation of egoism) was early acknowledged by such leading moralists as Francis Hutcheson and David Hume, and their study was revived with the support of the poet Coleridge, and of various Cambridge philosophers such as Henry Sidgwick and C.D.Broad, who included Butler as one of his ‘Five Types of Ethical Theory’. Stephen Darwall has written and lectured extensively on Butler’s ethics.

During the nineteenth century, interest in Butler’s main treatise, The Analogy of Religion (1736), was extraordinary, and it was required reading throughout Britain and the United States. E.C.Mossner did an extensive historical study of the Analogy before taking up his better known work on David Hume. Butler’s analogical method in philosophy of religion was defended by I.T. Ramsey and, more recently, by David Brown, but the tangled mass of legalistic argumentation in the Analogy caters to a taste few philosophers alive today have bothered to acquire.

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