On Knowledge and Ignorance by Bishop Joseph Butler 1692-1752

Bishop Joseph Butler 1692-1752


Knowledge is not our proper happiness. Whoever will in the least attend to the thing will see that it is the gaining, not the having of it, which is the entertainment of the mind; indeed, if the proper happiness of man consisted in knowledge, considered as a possession or treasure, men who are possessed of the largest share would have a very ill time .of it, as they would be infinitely more sensible than others of their poverty in this respect; thus he who increases knowledge would eminently increase sorrow. Men of deep research and curious inquiry should just be put in mind not to mistake what they are doing. If their discoveries serve the cause of virtue and religion in the way of proof, motive to practice, or assistance in it, or if they tend to render life less unhappy, and promote its satisfactions, then they are most usefully employed; but bringing things to light, alone and of itself, is of no manner of use any otherwise than as an entertainment or diversion. Neither is this at all amiss if it does not take up the time which should be employed in better work ; but it is evident that there is another mark set up for us to aim at, another end appointed us to direct our lives to; an end which the most knowing may fail of and the most ignorant arrive at.

“The secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law”; which reflection of Moses, put in general terms, is, that the only knowledge which is of any avail to us is that which teaches us our duty, or assists us in the discharge of it. The economy of the universe, the course of Nature, Almighty power exerted in the creation and government of the world, is out of our reach. What would be the consequence if we could really get an insight into these things is very uncertain ; whether it would assist us in, or divert us from, what we have to do in this present state.

If then there be a sphere of knowledge, of contemplation and employment, level to our capacities, and of the utmost importance to us, we ought surely to apply ourselves with all diligence to this our proper business, and esteem everything else nothing, nothing as to us in comparison of it. Thus Job, discoursing of natural knowledge, how much it is above us, and of wisdom in general, says, “God understandeth the way thereof, and He knoweth the place thereof. And unto man He said. Behold the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding. “Other orders of creatures may perhaps be let into the secret counsels of heaven, and have the designs and methods of Providence, in the creation and government of the world, communicated to them; but this does not belong to our rank or condition. “The fear of the Lord, and to depart from evil,” is the only wisdom which man should aspire after as his work and business. The same is said, and with the same connection and context, in the conclusion of the book of Ecclesiastes. Our ignorance, and the little we can know of other things, affords a reason why we should not perplex ourselves about them; but no way invalidates that which is the ” conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.”

So that Socrates was not the first who endeavored to draw men off from labouring after, and laying stress upon other knowledge, in comparison of that which related to morals. Our province is virtue and religion, life and manners; the science of improving the temper, and making the heart better. This is the field assigned us to cultivate: how much it has lain neglected is indeed astonishing. Virtue is demonstrably the happiness of man; it consists in good actions proceeding from a good principle, temper, or heart. Overt acts are entirely in our power. What remains is, that we learn to keep our heart, to govern and regulate our passions, mind, affections, that so we may be free from the impotencies of fear, envy, malice, covetousness, ambition; that we may be clear of these, considered as vices seated in the heart — considered as constituting a general wrong temper, from which general wrong frame of mind all the mistaken pursuits, and far the greatest part of the unhappiness of life, proceed. He who should find out one rule to assist us in this work would deserve infinitely better of mankind than all the improvers of other knowledge put together. —



Creation is absolutely and entirely out of our depth, and beyond the extent of our utmost reach. And yet it is as certain that God made the world, as it is certain that effects must have a cause. It is indeed in general no more than effects, that the most knowing are acquainted with: for as to causes, they are as entirely in the dark as the most ignorant. What are the laws by which matter acts upon matter, but certain effects; which some, having observed to be frequently repeated, have reduced to general rules?

The real nature and essence of beings likewise is what we are altogether ignorant of. All these things are so entirely out of our reach, that we have not the least glimpse of them. And we know little more of ourselves, than we do of the world about us: how we were made, how our being is continued and preserved, what the faculties of our minds are, and upon what the power of exercising them depends.

“I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are Thy works, and that my soul knoweth right well.” Our own nature, and the objects we are surrounded with, serve to raise our curiosity; but we are quite out of a condition of satisfying it. Every secret which is disclosed, every discovery which is made, every new effect which is brought to view, serves to convince us of numberless more which remain concealed, and which we had before no suspicion of. And what if we were acquainted with the whole creation, in the same way and as thoroughly as we are with any single object in it? What would all this natural knowledge amount to? It must be a low curiosity indeed which such superficial knowledge could satisfy. On the contrary, would it not serve to convince us of our ignorance still; and to raise our desire of knowing the nature of things themselves, the author, the cause, and the end of them? —

I am afraid we think too highly of ourselves; of our rank in the creation, and of what is due to us. What sphere of action, what business is assigned to man, that he has not capacities and knowledge fully equal to.” It is manifest he has reason, and knowledge, and faculties superior to the business of the present world_: faculties which appear superfluous, if we do not take in the respect which they have to somewhat further, and beyond it. If to acquire knowledge were our proper end, we should indeed be but poorly provided: but if somewhat else be our business and duty, we may, notwithstanding our ignorance, be well enough furnished for it; and the observation of our ignorance may be of assistance to us in the discharge of it. —

The conclusion is, that in all lowliness of mind we set lightly by ourselves; that we form our temper to an implicit submission to the Divine Majesty; beget within ourselves an absolute resignation to all the methods of His providence, in His dealings with the children of men: that, in the deepest humility of our souls, we prostrate ourselves before Him, and join in that celestial song: ” Great and marvellous are Thy works. Lord God Almighty; just and true are Thy ways. Thou king of saints! Who shall not fear Thee, O Lord, and glorify Thy name?”

Bishop Butler, an appreciation ; with the best passages of his writings by Whyte, Alexander, 1836-1921; Butler, Joseph, 1692-1752 Publication date 1904 p. 141-148


Butler wrote another interesting book.

The Analogy of Religion to the Constitution and Course of Nature by Joseph Butler

I. What is probable evidence?


  • 1. It differs from demonstration in that it admits of degrees; of all degrees.
    • 1.) One probability does not beget assurance.
    • 2.) But the slightest presumption makes a probability.
    • 3.) The repetition of it may make certainty.
  • 2. What constitutes probability is likeness; in regard to the event itself, or its kind of evidences, or its circumstances.
    • 1.) This daily affords presumptions, evidence, or conviction: according as it is occasional, common, or constant.
    • 2.) Measures our hopes and fears.
    • 3.) Regulates our expectations as to men’s conduct.
    • 4.) Enables us to judge of character from conduct.

And so on —



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