Joseph Butler was an Anglican priest and later a bishop who wrote about ethics, religion, and other philosophical themes. He is not well known today. During his lifetime and into the early part of the twentieth century he was better known especially for his major work the Analogy of Religion (1736). Today he is known mostly for his sermons which are interpreted as essays on ethics and for his essay on identity.
Butler had a profound effect on J. H. Newman, Matthew Arnold, and W. E. Gladstone and some effect on many other popular, academic, and professional readers. This book is as much about Butler’s sources and his reception as it is about the way he arranged and presented the evidence in the first half of the 18th century.
He was a good man and is recognized by the Anglican church as a divine. We have no interest in taking a nostalgic look at a quaint figure in English church history. To those who claim Butler is unknown, that he was “blown out of the water” by John Wesley or Karl Barth, or Cornelius van Til, we can only say Butler is not as well known in the 20th and 21st centuries as in the 19th, but he is certainly not unknown to those who have taken any interest in philosophy, religion, or ethics.
Today there has been a revival of interest in Bishop Butler. Our concern is to build and maintain a bridge that will help to keep this momentum. He offers an ethic that is universal and clearly Christian, yet it is based on the nature of man. Kant had a similar project, but in our opinion, Butler makes more compelling arguments. What is of interest to the Christian apologist is Butler’s work in this area. The purpose of this book is to present Butler’s ideas. We believe that his ethics have a universality that is applicable to people of all religious faiths and those that have none. It is common sense way of looking at ethics for everyday interaction.
This book is a narrative argument presenting in detail how Butler’s creative arrangement of the evidence served as a bridge between the ancients as known in the Greek, Latin, and Hebrew originals, and the moderns, mostly Anglophone, who constituted Butler’s work environment and his reception in the latter day down to the present. We can hardly expect everyone to agree with Butler on all points, we certainly do not. The point at issue is rather whether he merits a seat at the present-day round table of deliberation on matters pertaining to philosophy, religion, and ethics.