Pico Ultraorientalis

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Butler vs. Rand on self-interest and religion

Joseph Bulter, Bishop of Durham (1692-1752)

Today, June 16th, is the memorial day of the Anglican Bishop Joseph Butler, one of the greatest Christian apologists of that century in which apologetics was perhaps more badly needed than any other.  I have only recently began studying Butler, but as is so often the case it seems to me that we have here yet another example of the medicine made in preparation for a sickness which had yet to errupt.  Today there are libertarian cultists who maintain that the principle of self-interest was the recent discovery of one Anna Rosenblaum, aka, Ayn Rand…perhaps datable to the same year as the first artifical satelite “sputnick” 1957 when the magnu opus of all opi Atlas Shrugged was released to an undeserving public of faith and fear worshiping altruists.

Actually a little reflection on the golden rule in the version enunciated by Jesus “thou shalt do unto others as thou would be done to” would make one rightly skeptical of Christianity’s alleged opposition to self-love…since it is here made the implicit standard for the love of others.  But even granting that erronious opinion, Rand would be in trouble on the score of originality among her fellow traveling scoffers at religion.   In fact it was the doctrines of Shaftsbury and Mandeville which flourished around the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries which marked the high water mark of the “school of self-interest”…something which didn’t have to wait around for the later half of the 20th century to be promulgated.

This is not to say that Rand might now have even more cultural influence than Mandeville in his era…but Rand herself (rightly) would have protested that it is the depth, not the breadth, of a philosophy which makes it significant.  What is significant is that the “school of self-interest” was a philosophy which had already been not only been promulgated, but which had been clearly refuted two hundred years before Rand started banging out Atlas Shrugged on her typwriter.   Or rather, it was not self-interest which was refuted, but the “school of (worldly) self-interest” finding itself upstaged by the “school of (worldly plus eternal) self-interest.”  The man who did this was none other than Bishop Butler in his Fifteen Sermons preached at the Rolls Chapel in 1726.  Due in large part to the influence of Bulter the more savage attacks on Christianity were already losing their appeal long before the end of the Century of Enlightenment.  The chief lie, that Christianity was inimical to the autonomy and well being of the individual, had already been put paid to…although the inertal force of bad ideas had a deliterious effect on the French, and to a lesser extent, the American revolutions.

If you have never heard of Bulter (I hadn’t until recently) it can probably be blamed on one of two things…the invincible illiteracy of left wing public education which doesn’t want anyone to study any European philosophers prior to the Frankfurt school, or the stubborn (but curable) illiteracy of the new right.   Again to pick on an easy target…think of someone who doesn’t acnowledge the existence of any philosopher of worth between Aristotle and Rand, and you have my point.

Well, to be honest there is another factor…Bulter’s prose is tremendously dry and turgid.  He is not the kind of author whom one reads for literary pleasure.  And although the language is not overly archaic, it is very dense.   So now that I have implied that Butler is worth while making aquaintance with I will leave it there…happy reading…or at least happy thinking!

For a very good introduction to Butler’s thought…including renditions of his arguments against deism rephrased with modern language and examples…see the article by James Keifer on the Mission St. Clare site…



O God, who by your Holy Spirit give to some the word of wisdom, to others the word of knowlege, and to others the word of faith:  We praise your Name for the gifts of grace manifested in your servant Joseph Butler, and we pray that your Church may never be destitute of such gifts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen

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