1902 Encyclopedia > William Paley

William Paley
Christian apologist and philosopher

WILLIAM PALEY (1743-1805), was born in 1743 at Peterborough, where his father was one of the minor canons ot the cathedral. The Paley family belonged to the West Riding of Yorkshire, and in 1745 Paley's father was appointed head master of the grammar school of Giggleswick, his native parish. Here Paley received his early education under his father's care. In 1759 he proceeded to Cambridge, where his first undergraduate years were given up, according to his own account, more to society than to study. But, being roused by a reproof from one of his companions, he used the remainder of his time to such advantage that he came out senior wrangler at the end of his course. After taking his degree in 1763, Paley was for about three years assistant in a school at Greenwich; but on his election to a fellowship he returned to Cambridge, and became, in 1768, one of the junior tutors of his college. His colleague in this office was John Law, son of Dr Edmund Law, then master of Peterhouse, and afterwards bishop of Carlisle. To the connexion thus formed Paley was afterwards indebted for his first preferments in the church. As tutor at Christ's, Paley lectured on Locke, Clarke, and Butler, and also delivered a systematic course on moral philosophy, which formed the basis, more than ten years later, of his well-known treatise. The subscription controversy was then agitating the university, and Paley published an anonymous Defence of a pamphlet in which Bishop Law had advocated the retrenchment and simplification of the thirty-nine articles. But, though Paley was all for " worshipping God in that generality of expression in which He himself has left some points," he did not see his way to join the petitioners for a relaxation of the terms of subscription. His own view of the articles, as simply " articles of peace," probably led him to consider their action as a piece of overstrained conscientiousness. In 1776 Paley vacated his fellowship by marriage, and retired to the rectory of Musgrave in Westmoreland, which had been conferred on him the year before by the bishop of Carlisle. This very modest living was soon supplemented by the vicarage of Dalston, and presently exchanged for that of Appleby. In 1782 he became archdeacon of Carlisle on the appointment of the younger Law to an Irish bishopric. His first important work, The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, was published (as Principles of Morality and Politics) in 1785, and Paley received the unusually large sum of =£1000 for the copyright. The book at once became the ethical text-book of the university of Cambridge, and passed through fifteen editions in the author's lifetime. It was followed in 1790 by his first essay in the field of Christian apologetics, Horse Paulinas, or the Truth of the Scripture History of St Paul evinced by a comparison of the Epistles which bear his name with ike Acts of the Apostles and with one another. Though the original idea of the book was derived from Doddridge, this is probably the most original of its author's works. It was followed in 1794 by a more general work in the same field,, the celebrated View of the Evidences of Christianity. Paley's latitudinarian views, combined with a certain homely outspokenness in the Moral and Political Philo-sophy regarding the foundations of civil authority (" the divine right of kings is like the divine right of constables "), are said to have debarred him from the highest positions in the church. But his able defence of the faith brought him substantial acknowledgments from the episcopal -bench. The bishop of London gave him a stall in St Paul's; the bishop of Lincoln made him subdean of that cathedral; and the bishop of Durham conferred upon him the rectory of Bishop-Wearmouth, worth ¿61200 a year. Paley transferred his household to Bishop-Wearmouth in 1795. His wife, the mother of eight children, had died four years before, and in the end of 1795 Paley married a second time. During the remainder of his life his time was divided between Bishop-Wearmouth and Lincoln. In 1800 he was attacked by the disease of the kidneys which ultimately carried him off. It was in the intervals of comparative health and ease that remained to him that his last, and in some respects his most remarkable, work was produced, Natural Theology, or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity collected from the Appearances of Nature (1802). He endeavoured, as he says in dedicating the book to the bishop of Durham, to repair in the study his deficiencies in the church. He died on the 25th May 1805.

In the dedication just referred to, Paley claims a systematic unity for his works. It is true that " they have been written in an order the very reverse of that in which they ought to he read " ; nevertheless the Natural Theology forms the completion of a regular and comprehensive design." The truth of this will be apparent if it is considered that the Moral and Political Philo-sophy admittedly embodies two presuppositions—(1) that " Uod Almighty wills and wishes the happiness of His creatures," and (2) that adequate motives must be supplied to virtue by a system of future rewards and punishments. Now the second presupposition depends, according to Paley, on the credibility of the Christian religion (which he treats almost exclusively as the revelation of these " new sanctions" of morality). The Evidences and the Horse Paulinee were intended as a demonstration of this credi-bility. The argument of these books, however, depends in turn upon the assumption of a benevolent Creator desirous of com-municating with His creatures for their good ; and the Natural Theology, by applying the argument from design to prove the existence of such a Deity, becomes the foundation of the argu-mentative edifice. The sense of unity in the structure is increased to a reader of the present day by the uniformity of the point of view from which the world is regarded throughout. Paley has popularized for 19th-century use the Deistic conception of the universe and the divine economy which was common ground last century both to the assailants and the defenders of orthodox Christianity.

In his Natural Theology Paley has adapted with consummate skill the argument which Ray (1691) and Derhata (1711) and Nieuwentyt (1730) had already made familiar to Englishmen. " For my part," he says, " I take my stand in human anatomy " ; and what he everywhere insists upon is " the necessity, in each particular case, of an intelligent designing mind for the contriving and determining of the forms which organized bodies bear." This is the whole argument, and the book consists of a mass of well-chosen instances marshalled in support of it. But by placing Paley's facts in a new light, the theory of evolution has deprived his argument of its force, so far as it applies the idea of special contrivance to individual organs or to species. Paley's idea of contrivance is only applicable if we suppose a highly developed organism to be dropped suddenly into foreign surroundings. But the relation of an organism to its environment is not of this external nature, and the adaptation of the one to the other must be regarded as the result of a long process of interaction in the past history of the species. In thus substituting the operation of general laws for Paley's continual invocation of a supernatural cause, evolution passes no judgment on the question of the ultimate dependence of these laws upon intelligence; but it evidently alters profoundly our general conception of the relation of that intelligence to the world.

The Evidences of Christianity is mainly a condensation of Bishop Douglas's Criterion and Lardner's Credibility of the Gospel History. But the task is so judiciously performed that it would probably be difficult to get a more effective statement of the external evidences of Christianity than Paley has here presented. The general position, however, that the action of the first preachers of Christianity was due " solely " to their belief in the occurrence of certain miraculous events is on the same level as the view that " the proper business of a revelation " is to certify future rewards and punishments. It betrays a defective analysis of the religious consciousness. For the rest, his idea of revelation depends upon the same mechanical conception of the relation of God to the world which dominates his Natural Theology ; and he seeks to prove the divine origin of Christianity by isolating it from the general history of mankind, whereas later writers find their chief argument in the continuity of the process of revelation.

For the place of Paley's theological utilitarianism in the history of ethical speculation in England, see ETHICS.

The face of the world has changed so greatly since Paley's day that we are apt to do less than justice to his undoubted merits. He is nowhere original, and nowhere profound, but he justly claims to be " something more than a mere compiler." His strong reasoning power, his faculty of clear arrangement and forcible statement, place hiin in the first rank of expositors and advocates. He masses his arguments, it has been said, with a general's eye. His style is perfectly perspicuous, and its " strong home-touch" compensates for wdiat is lacking in elasticity and grace. Paley's avoidance of ultimate speculative questions commended him to his own generation, and enabled him to give full scope to the shrewd practical understanding in which his strength lay. He displays little or no spirituality of feeling; but this is a matter in which one ago is apt to misjudge another, and Paley was at least practi- cally benevolent and conscientiously attentive to his parish duties. The active part he took in advocating the abolition of the slave- trade is evidence of a wider power of sympathy. His unconquerable cheerfulness becomes itself almost religious in the last chapters of the Natural Theology, when we consider the circumstances in which they were composed. The chapter on the goodness of the Deity is more touched with feeling than any other part of his writings, and impresses the reader with respect for his essential goodness of heart. (A. SE.)


Nieuwentyt (1654-1718) was a Dutch disciple of Descartes, whose work, Regt gebruyh der weereld besehovinge, published in 1716, was translated into English in 1730 under the title of The Religious Philosopher. A charge of wholesale plagiarism from this book was brought against Paley in the Atlienseum for 1848. Paley refers several times to Nieuwentyt, who uses the famous illustration of the watch. But the illustration is not peculiar to Nieuwentyt, and had been appropriated by many others before Paley. In the case of a writer whose chief merit is the way in which he has worked up existing material, a general charge of plagiarism is almost irrelevant.

The above article was written by: Prof. Andrew Seth, University College, Cardiff.

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