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11 - Stoic Naturalism in Butler

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 August 2012

Jon Miller
Affiliation:
Queen's University, Ontario
Brad Inwood
Affiliation:
University of Toronto
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Summary

Naturalism and the Ancient Moralists

Joseph Butler (1692–1752) was not a prolific writer. His major work in moral philosophy, the Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel, is always terse and often cryptic. He has been described as “the most sagacious, if not the most consistent or systematic, of the British Moralists.” But one systematic element in his moral outlook is his appeal to nature, and this element reasonably invites a comparison with Stoicism.

Butler's sermons are intended “to explain what is meant by the nature of man, when it is said that virtue consists in following, and vice in deviating from it, and by explaining to show that the assertion is true” (P 13). He says that this claim about nature is the view of the ancient moralists, but not the unanimous view of modern moralists. Some people simply reject it, while others regard it as trivial and useless, even if it is true (P 13).

He attributes the naturalist formula to “the ancient moralists” indiscriminately.

That the ancient moralists had some inward feeling or other, which they chose to express in this manner, that man is born to virtue, that it consists following nature, and that vice is more contrary to this nature than tortures or death, their works in our hands are instances. (P 13)

In the comparative expression “more contrary to this nature,” Butler suggests that torture and death are to some degree contrary to nature.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2003

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