Paley, William

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Paley, William (1743-1805): English Philosopher.

William Paley, archdeacon of Carlisle, was a moralist, an Anglican apologist, and the key proponent of empirical arguments for the existence of God.

Paley was born in July 1743, and educated at a grammar school in Giggleswick, Yorkshire, run by his father. He advanced at 16 to Christ College, Cambridge. First in his class on the final examination of 1763, he was too young to be ordained and become a university fellow. After teaching in London, he was ordained in 1766, and elected to a fellowship in his college.

Paley was an unusually dedicated teacher at Cambridge at a time of relatively lax standards. He shared teaching duties at Christ College with his friend John Law. Paley supported efforts to raise academic standards at the University, and to remove the requirement that students subscribe to the 39 Articles of the Church of England. In 1775 John Law’s father, Edmund bishop of Carlisle, granted Paley a rectory who was now free to marry. He had eight children, and wrote movingly on the happiness produced by the everyday experiences of family life.

In 1782, he succeeded John Law as archdeacon of Carlisle. With Law’s encouragement, he developed his Cambridge lectures into The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1785). The book was widely read, and immediately became a set text at Cambridge, but gained Paley a reputation for unorthodoxy that probably blocked his ecclesiastical advancement. A proto-Utilitarian, he defined virtue as doing good to others, as commanded by God, to gain eternal happiness as a divine reward.

Paley’s Horae Paulinae (1790) argued for the historical accuracy of the Pauline Epistles. His Evidences of Christianity (1794) defended New Testament Christianity, and particularly the truth of miracles against the criticisms of David Hume. The latter work was enormously popular, and lead to new positions as sub-dean of the Cathedral of Lincoln and rector of Bishop Wearmouth.

Paley’s lasting fame rests on his Natural Theology (1802), which summarized and codified the argument from design. Also called natural religion (in contrast to revealed religion), this is the doctrine that the existence of a benevolent deity is proved by the intricate design of natural objects. Once we realize how intricate and cleverly constructed a watch is, Paley argues, we must assume that an intelligent creator made it. By analogy, when we see the excellent design of natural objects (the eye, muscles, heart, ducks’ feet, etc.) we must accept that a God created them as well. This argument, which perfectly suited the peaceful coexistence of empirical science and Christianity in Britain before Darwin, remains remarkably popular today, despite having (arguably) been refuted by Hume, David in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion of 1779. Paley died in 1805 after a painful illness.

Paley was widely read throughout the nineteenth century, and hugely influential, especially at Cambridge University. His influence as a moralist waned as his theistic Utilitarianism was superseded by the secular work of Bentham, Jeremy and J. S. Mill. His greatest influence was as a systematizer of the argument from design. In this role, Paley is still read, discussed and imitated today.

Further Reading:

M.L. Clarke, Paley: Evidences for the Man, 1974.


Nicholas Hunt-Bull

Southern New Hampshire University

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