Conscience, Consciousness and Ethics in Joseph Butler's Philosophy and Ministry

By King, Benjamin | Anglican and Episcopal History, December 2012 | Go to article overview

Conscience, Consciousness and Ethics in Joseph Butler's Philosophy and Ministry


King, Benjamin, Anglican and Episcopal History


Conscience, Consciousness and Ethics in Joseph Butler's Philosophy and Ministry. By Bob Tennant. Studies in Modern British Religious History, vol. 26. (Woodbridge, England: The Boydell Press, 2011, Pp. x, 246. $99.00.)

This is a much-needed book. In giving so much attention to Butler's historical and ecclesiastical context, Bob Tennant achieves what has been neglected for too long: a thick description of the life and work of the most original thinker among eighteenth-century Anglicans and - other than John Wesley - probably the most influential. Butler is so important because, as the Introduction explains when charting Butler studies today, The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed (1736) only "dropped out of print in Britain" in the twentieth century, while on both sides of the Atlantic Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel (1726 and 1729) "remain [s] a textbook" in ethics (8). Unfortunately, argues Tennant, most editions of Butler's works contain textual inaccuracies (among them Prime Minister Gladstone's) and many commentators have misrepresented him. While Butler's prose is difficult, it is helpful to be reminded that he wrote many of his texts (including parts of the Analogy) to be read aloud. Tennant cleverly divides his chapters so that each one focuses on a primary text from a different period of Butler's life. Thus, philosophy complements biography, bringing a nice pace to the book for those who do want to follow Tennant into some of the detailed debates from the wide variety of discourses in which the author seems fluent, among them philosophy, eighteenth- century history, theology, mission studies, social science, and English literature.

Chapter 1 focuses on the correspondence with Samuel Clarke, the philosopher clergyman and friend of Newton, enabling Tennant to discuss both Butler's metaphysics and his early life as a student who went from Presbyterianism to Anglicanism and Oxford. Tennant therefore shows from the start the importance of deductive reason and dogmatic verities to Butler, who is usually remembered for the inductive and probabilistic method of the Analogy (what David Brown called - to Tennant's dismay - the "retreat from proof to probability"; 14 n. …

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