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[Author Unknown]

The
Life
of
William Paley, DD

From

The Works of William Paley, DD
Archdeacon of Carlisle
With
A Life of the Author.

London:
Printed for Thomas Tegg, 73 Cheapside;
G and J Robinson; G Offor; and J Evans and Co; Also,
R Griffin and Co, Glasgow; and J Cumming, Dublin

1825

 

 

 

William Paley was born at Peterborough in July, 1743. His father, the younger son of a family possessing a small estate near Craven, was vicar of Helpstone, and head-master of the grammar-school at Giggleswick, in Yorkshire, where he resided. At this place young Paley was brought up under his father’s eye. Being an only son, no pains were spared on his education, and his own ability seconded his father’s care so well that he outstript all his early class-fellows, and rose from class to class till he stood at the head of the highest. For some time, however, the superiority was contested with him by the son of the under teacher; and it appears that the two masters, who exchanged departments at stated times, became in some degree parties in the rivalship of their sons, for it was observed that each, when he had charge of the class, raised his own son to the head place. There is no reason to think, however, that young Paley owed much of the distinction he obtained at school to the undue partiality of his father; for his abilities and application were marked, even at this period, as superior to those of his schoolfellows. A diligent rather than an enthusiastic scholar, he executed the tasks assigned him well and promptly, without seeking to distinguish himself by those gratuitous exercises in composition which zealous scholars sometimes undertake.

Of his early years there is nothing peculiarly characteristic preserved. He was beloved by his schoolfellows for his good humour and amusing qualities, although he did not join in the pastimes peculiar to boys of his age, except angling, of which he continued to be fond during the course of his life. He was inexpert at bodily exercises, but under an indolent exterior he concealed an active mind, and capacity for observation beyond his years. He was extremely inquisitive with regard to curious pieces of mechanism, and never failed to put a great many questions to any tradesman who could give him satisfactory information.

In November, 1758, he was admitted a sizer, or student of the lowest rank at Cambridge, but did not take up his residence there till the following year. The interval was spent in acquiring a knowledge of the elementary parts of algebra and geometry under a teacher at Ditchford. When he became a resident member of Christ’s College, in October, 1759, he was only sixteen; an age which he frequently mentioned afterwards, as too early to encounter the dangers of a college life. But his appearance indicated a more advanced age, and such was the maturity of his understanding in the opinion of his father, that he confidently predicted his son would become a very great man, for he had the clearest head he ever met with in his life.

Shortly after his removal to Cambridge he obtained three scholarships, which would considerably lighten the expense of his residence there. Besides attending the classes of mathematics and logic, he occasionally contributed mathematical articles to the diaries and magazines; but he was so far from following any systematic course of study, that the books he read for the day were often determined by the tossing up of a halfpenny. Although indolent, he never failed to distinguish himself at the classes he attended, and was much esteemed, both by his teachers and the more respectable part of his fellow students. On the other hand, his cheerful temper, and companionable qualities, made his room the resort of many of the thoughtless young men at the college, by whom, it would appear, he was for some time led into idle and expensive habits.

At the commencement of his third year, it is said, he was roused by the remonstrances of a companion to break through his indolent habits, and apply more assiduously to his studies. Having attracted notice as a disputant, he was encouraged to enter the lists as a candidate for the high honours of senior wrangler, and having prepared himself with extraordinary diligence, he succeeded in the face of a formidable competition.

Soon after obtaining his bachelor’s degree, he accepted a situation as second assistant in an academy at Greenwich. Here it was ludicrously required as indispensable, that he should exchange his hair for a wig; a sacrifice he submitted to make with much reluctance. He had little taste for classical literature, and was at first disgusted with his occupation, but by degrees he became reconciled to it. Being now dependent on his own exertions, and encumbered by some debts contracted at college, he was obliged to practice the most rigid economy; and the habit which his circumstances thus forced upon him, he used often to say, was of infinite service to him ever after. At this time he made many visits to London, where he went often to the theatre; but his favourite amusement consisted in attending the trials at the Old Bailey. He also read the session papers of that court with much attention, and is said to have acquired in this way a very accurate knowledge of the criminal law.

In 1765 he gained the first senior bachelor’s prize at Cambridge, by a Latin dissertation, in which he supported the Epicurean as preferable to the Stoic philosophy. This opinion was strictly consonant to his views and character, as he was at all times averse to useless austerity, and a lover of rational enjoyment.

In 1766 he gave up his situation at the academy but continued at Greenwich as private tutor to a Mr Ord; and, on taking deacon’s orders, he engaged himself as an assistant curate in the parish. His first discourses are said to have been verbose and florid, and by no means popular. In October the following year he returned to Cambridge with his pupil, having previously obtained a fellowship of Christ’s College, worth about 100£ a year; and in the year 1768 he and his friend Mr Law were appointed assistant tutors under Dr Shepherd. He now appeared as a lecturer in the department of logic and moral philosophy, to which he added, of his own accord, lectures twice a week on the Greek Testament; and he discharged the duties of his situation in a manner which not only raised his own reputation, but reflected considerable credit on the seminary to which he belonged. The discourses he delivered at this time contained the germ o fall his principle Works, - his Moral Philosophy, Natural Theology, Evidences of Christianity, and his Horae Paulinae. They were distinguished by those characteristic qualities which are so conspicuously displayed in his printed Works, - great liberality of opinion and freedom of inquiry, a judicious selection of topics, happy illustration, and clear and forcible expression. It was his practice to begin by a statement calculated to excite the doubts, and engage the curiosity of his hearers; and after having thus created an interest in the subject, he found no difficulty in keeping their attention awake during the longest discussions. His voice was rather inharmonious, and his accent somewhat provincial; but his delivery was fluent, his manner strikingly animated, and he had the art of illustrating the most abstruse subjects by images borrowed from common life. Although he associated on easy terms with his pupils, he was strict in enforcing attendance, and in maintaining academical discipline.

When the great question of subscription to Articles of Faith was agitated in 1774, Paley published an anonymous pamphlet, in which he defended the opinions of his friend Bishop Law, and warmly supported the principles of religious liberty. His sentiments on this subject, which were afterwards more fully explained in his Moral Philosophy, were referred to my Mr Fox in the most flattering terms of approbation, when that distinguished statesman was speaking on the claims of the Catholics in 1805.

The reputation he had now acquired is said to have induced the late Lord Camden to offer him the situation of tutor to his son, which, however, his other engagements led him to decline, as he had a few years before declined a similar situation, when invited, with the assurance of a handsome provision for life, to go out to Poland to superintend the education of Prince Czartorinski.

In conformity to a resolution he had formed of retiring from the University, as soon as he should have a prospect of an annual income o f 200£ he terminated his labours at Cambridge in May, 1776, having been inducted about a year before to the small rectory of Musgrave, in Westmoreland, worth 80£ a year. He now married a Miss Hewitt of Carlisle, and, to improve his circumstances, took a small farm, but soon gave it up, finding he lost by it. In December the same year he was inducted to the vicarage of Dalston, in Cumberland, worth 90£ per annum; for which, as well as the rectory, he was indebted to the patronage of the Bishop of Carlisle: and in September the year following, having been presented to the vicarage of Appleby, worth 200£ per annum, by the Dean and Chapter of Carlisle, he resigned the rectory of Musgrave. In June, 1780, he was collated to the fourth prebendal stall in the cathedral of Carlisle; and two years afterwards he was appointed archdeacon of the diocese, upon the promotion of Dr Law, the Bishop of Carlisle’s son, to the See of Clonfert.

He was now in possession of a competent income, with sufficient leisure; and in compliance with the urgent advice of his friend, the Bishop of Clonfert, he prepared for the press his “Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy,” which was published in 1785. This great work, of which the copy-right was sold for 1000£, rose rapidly in reputation, and soon became extremely popular, having passed through fifteen editions during the Author’s life. His conclusions on the foundation of moral distinctions, on subscription to articles of religion, on the British constitution, and several other topics, were repeatedly attacked, without ever provoking a reply, although he had among his opponents Mr Gisborne, Dr Pearson, and other respectable writers.

For some years after this, Mr Paley published nothing, except a short Memoir of the Life of Bishop Law, written some time after the death of that prelate in 1787, and two small tracts in favour of the Abolition of the Slave Trade – a question in which he continued to take a warm interest during the remainder of his life. But in 1790 he gave to the world hi s “Horae Paulinae,” a very valuable contribution to the evidences of Christianity, and the most original, although the least popular of all his works.

In May, 1791, Mrs Paley died, leaving a family of four sons and four daughters. In May, 1792, Mr Paley was instituted to the vicarage of Addingham, worth 140£ a year, on the presentation of the Dean and Chapter of Carlisle. About the same time, when men’s minds were heated with the discussions growing out of the events of the Frernch Revolution, he published a short tract, entitled, “Reasons for Contentment, addressed to the Labouring Classes;” and republished, as a separate essay, the Chapter on the British Constitution, from his Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy. In his “Reasons for Contentment” he urges the impossibility of any change conducive to the happiness of the labouring classes arising from political convulsions, or from any other source than the regular exercise of successful industry in a state of public order and quiet. The tract contains much sound reasoning, and is written with a degree of moderation very unusual at that period. Indeed, Mr Paley was in a great measure free from those virulent antipathies, political and religious, which divided so large a portion of the community during the last reign. He thought for himself on every topic, and never adopted the creed of any party. That he was adverse to parliamentary reform, is well known to those who have read his Principles of Moral Philosophy; but it is stated, that his sentiments on this subject were considered by some of his friends as an anomaly which could not be easily reconciled with the general tenor of his political opinions. He rejects Locke’s doctrine of a compact between the citizen and the state, and assigns expediency as the only foundation of civil obedience; but in his statement of the right of resistance, which deduces from this principle, his views would probably satisfy the most ardent champion of popular rights. On many of the subjects which were keenly discussed at the time, such as Catholic emancipation, - subscription to articles of faith, - the slave trade, - the policy of the war with the French republic, his opinions appear to have nearly coincided with those of the Whigs; and he often spoke in terms of the highest respect of the genius and character of Mr Fox. Of Mr Pitt he appears to have entertained a less favourable opinion.

Mr Paley vacated Dalston in May 1793, on being collated to the vicarage of Stanwix, which had the advantage of being in the immediate neighbourhood of Carlisle. In the following year he published his “View of the Evidences of Christianity,” which was dedicated to the Bishop of Ely. Of this work, which like his Moral Philosophy, has run through a vast number of editions, it is perhaps sufficient praise to say, that it has nearly superseded every other book on the subject. After the appearance of this publication, Mr Paley’s services to the cause of revealed religion could be no longer overlooked by the dispensers of ecclesiastical patronage. In August 1794 he was collated to the prebend of Pancras, in St Paul’s, by the late Dr Porteus, Bishop of London. In the following year he got his degree at Cambridge as Doctor in Divinity, and was successively promoted to the subdeanery of Lincoln, and to the rectory of Bishop Wearmouth, valued at 1200£ per annum. A few months after, he married a Miss Dobinson of Carlisle; and from this period to his death he divided his time between Bishop Wearmouth and Lincoln. Being obliged to reside three months annually at the latter place. Both his parents lived to witness his high reputation and success in life. His mother died in 1796, and his father in 1799, after seeing his sanguine anticipations amply fulfilled.

In 1800 he was attacked by a disease in the kidneys, accompanied by a species of melaena, which obliged him to suspend his professional duties. He experienced a second attack at Lincoln in the following spring, and a third about the end of the year. During the progress of this fatal disease, he was engaged in finishing his “Natural Theology,” and it is interesting to know, that his remarks on the power which pain has of shedding a satisfaction over intervals of ease, which few enjoyments exceed, were suggested by his own situation at the time. His Natural Theology was published in 1802; and, as he himself informs us, was undertaken chiefly with the view of making up his works into a comprehensive system of religion and morality. It did not disappoint the high expectations which his former publications had excited. Indeed, it may be safely recommended as the very best manual of Theism hitherto produced. His health had been partially restored by the use of the Buxton waters, but the disease was by no means eradicated; and soon after his return from Lincoln to Bishop Wearmouth, in the beginning of May 1805, he was attacked with such severity as to render all the usual means of relief ineffectual. His strength failed rapidly, but his faculties remained unimpaired. He met the approach of death with firmness, comforted his afflicted family with the consolations of religion, and late on the evening of Saturday, May 25, he tranquilly breathed his last.

Dr Paley was twice married, and left four sons and four daughters. In person he was above the common size, and rather inclined to corpulence in his latter years. Endowed by nature with a strong understanding and a sound judgment, he was guided in all his pursuits by just and sober views of human life, and hence he constantly attached himself to objects of practical utility. If not distinguished by much sensibility, or great warmth of affection, he was from principle strict in the discharge of his duties: he was a good husband, a kind father, and indulgent master, and a faithful friend. Though economical both from principle and habit, he was liberal in all his pecuniary transactions, and charitable to the poor. Affable and plain in his manners, he associated with men of every rank, without the formality and reserve which are sometimes supposed to accompany ecclesiastical rank and literary reputation. He held it not only allowable, but wise, to relieve severe application by intervals of amusement, and he was, for this reason, always willing to take a part in any species of innocent recreation. In short, few men enjoyed the pleasures of life with greater zest, and few bore more firmly with its pains.

In conversation he delivered his opinions with great freedom, speaking strongly at times for the sake of effect, and often speaking all he felt, in cases where others only say what it is decorous to feel. Many anecdotes of his conversation are preserved in the recollection of his friends, of which the industry of his biographer has collected a small number. A few of these are deserving of notice, as throwing light upon the peculiarities of his character. When at Cambridge, being one day in a party of young men who were discussing the summum bonum of human life, he heard their arguments with patience, and then with a half smile, and in a dry sarcastic tone, replied, “I differ from you all; the true summum bonum of human life consists in reading Tristram Shandy, in blowing with a pair of bellows into your shoes in hot weather, and in roasting potatoes in the ashes under the grate in cold.” He seems to have entertained a very low opinion of that kind of rapid declamation which imposes so much on the multitude, for in speaking of an orator of this description he once observed, “I known nothing against the man, but that he is a very popular preacher.”  Having prosecuted one of the college servants for theft, when the day of trial approached, he feed cousel to assist the culprit in his defence. On the singularity of this conduct being remarked to him, he replied, that “he thought it his duty to society and to the college to institute the prosecution; but let the fellow have fair play on his trial,” added he, “and if, through any of the loopholes of the law, he then escape conviction, I have done my duty, and shall be content.” The man, through some defect either of the indictment or the evidence, was actually acquitted.

Of his merits as a writer, it is unnecessary to say much. His works are in the hands of the learned and the unlearned; and the public voice has already assigned him a high rank among those who have contributed by their labours to instruct and improve the species. All his writings bear the impression of an acute and vigorous mind, possessed of extensive information, and liberalized by intercourse with the world. In perusing his works, the attentive reader cannot fail to be struck by the comprehension of his views, the perspicuity and conciseness of his statements, his skill in pursuing an argument through a mass of details, without ever losing sight of his object, and his unrivalled talent for illustration. On topics which had been nearly exhausted before he wrote, much originality could not be expected; but he has done all that his situation permitted him to do; he has methodized the facts and conclusions of his predecessors, and presented them to his readers in a form strikingly novel and impressive. In short, he has given an interest to didactic discussions, of which in the hands of other writers, they did not appear to be susceptible.

For the office of a moralist, in particular, he was admirably qualified, by a long habit of close attention to the business and the duties of life; and by a strong practical sagacity, which secured him against the illusions of sophistry and paradox, and conducted him with easer through difficulties that perplex more timorous reasoners. Former writers had amused their readers with ingenious speculations; - Paley’s object was to present them with a manual for the regulation of daily duties. Keeping this purpose steadily in view, he never engages in discussions that have not a direct reference to practice, or stops to resolve questions which are not likely to occur to conscience; but draws, from a careful observation of human life, rules for its government. Hence, his moral system, resting on the sure foundation of experience, is distinguished by the just proportion o fall its parts. The different duties are enforced with a due regard to their relative importance, while their classification is happily simplified by referring them all to a single principle, objectionable perhaps in theory, but which explains moral distinctions with great simplicity, and supplies the want of general rules in difficult cases, with greater precision than any other that could be suggested.

In conducting an intricate discussion, he is careful never to say too much. He separates from the matter under consideration, not only what is extraneous, but whatever, although connected with it, is likely to impair the effect of his reasoning by its insignificance. He then enters at once into the strong and the difficult parts of the subject, unfolds it with simplicity, presses his main argument with vigour, and arrives at his conclusion by a process of reasoning extremely concise, yet perfectly clear and satisfactory. What he gains by his skill in reasoning, his prudence secures. His liberality disarms the sceptic of his prejudices; his candour, in admitting difficulties which he cannot remove, inspires us with confidence in his sincerity and good faith; and his moderation, in summing up the results of his reasoning, convinces us that no unfair advantage is sought.