Butler, William Archer (DNB00)

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BUTLER, WILLIAM ARCHER (1814?–1848), professor of moral philosophy in the university of Dublin, was born of an old and respectable family at Annerville, near Clonmel, Ireland. The year of his birth is uncertain, but it is believed to have been 1814. His father was a member of the established church of Ireland, his mother a Roman catholic. Through her influence the boy was baptized and educated as a member of the church to which she belonged. While Butler was a child his parents removed to Garnavilla, on the river Suir, about two miles from the town of Cahir. The beautiful landscape made a deep impression on his feelings and imagination—an impression which lived in his verse. At nine years old he became a schoolboy at the endowed school of Clonmel. He was a modest, retiring boy, a favourite with the master, and beloved by his companions. Here he was an eager, discursive reader, already attracted by metaphysical study, but also giving many leisure hours to poetry and to music, in which he acquired considerable skill. He especially distinguished himself by his public speaking for ‘oratory’ exhibitions. While at school, about two years before entering college, Butler passed over from the Roman catholic to the established church. It is said that a shock given to his moral nature by his confessor's dealings with his conscience led him to examine the grounds of his creed, and that he found his own way by study and meditation from his early to his later faith.

On entering Trinity College, Dublin, he was quickly recognised as a youth of bright intellect, generous feeling, and varied culture. His prize compositions in prose and verse attracted the attention of the heads of the college, and while still an undergraduate he contributed a considerable body of writings—poems and essays, critical, historical, and speculative—to the ‘Dublin University Review.’ In the debates of the College Historical Society he took a leading part, and in 1835 delivered, as auditor of the society, an address which was printed. In November 1834 took place the first examination for the newly instituted prize of moderatorship in logic and ethics, and Butler's name stands first upon the roll of moderators. Having thus obtained with honours his B.A. degree, he continued for two years in residence as a scholar. His friends designed him for the bar, but his tastes and habits were those of a student and a man of letters. By the exertions of Provost Lloyd a professorship of moral philosophy was founded in 1837, and Butler was at once appointed to the chair. At the same time, having been ordained a clergyman of the church of Ireland, he was presented by the board of Trinity College to the prebend of Clondehorka, in the diocese of Raphoe, county of Donegal, where he resided, except when his professorial duties required his presence at the university. ‘Amongst a large and humble flock of nearly two thousand, he was,’ says Mr. Woodward, ‘the most indefatigable of pastors.’ In 1842 he was re-elected to the chair of moral philosophy, and promoted to the rectory of Raymoghy, in the same diocese as Clondehorka. His sermon ‘Primitive Church Principles not inconsistent with Universal Christian Sympathy’ (1842), preached at the visitation of the united dioceses of Derry and Raphoe, 1842, was published at the request of the bishop and clergy. In 1844 he visited the English lakes, and made the acquaintance of Wordsworth. It was on a walk to Loughrigg Fells, in which Wordsworth was accompanied by Butler, Archdeacon Hare, and Sir William Rowan Hamilton, that the poet observed the daisy-shadow on a stone, which he has celebrated in the poem beginning ‘So fair, so sweet, withal so sensitive.’ In 1845 the Roman catholic controversy occupied Butler, and beginning in December of that year, he contributed to the ‘Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette’ a series of ‘Letters on Mr. Newman's Theory of Development,’ collected after his death into a volume (‘Letters on the Development of Christian Doctrine;’ a reply to J. H. Newman, edited by Dean Woodward, Dublin, 1850). During the Irish famine of 1846–7 Butler's exertions were untiring: ‘literature, philosophy, and divinity were all postponed to the labours of relieving officer to his parish.’ During the closing months of 1847 and the first six months of the following year, Butler was engaged in preparation for a work on faith, and collected with this object a vast mass of theological material; but the work was never to be completed. On Trinity Sunday 1848 he preached the ordination sermon in the church of Dunboe; five days later, on his way home, he was stricken with fever, the result of a chill following the excessive heat of midsummer exercise. On 5 July 1848 he died. He was buried in the churchyard of his own parish. Butler's lectures as professor were remarkable for the large grasp of his subject, his aspiring views, and power of eloquent exposition. A noble person and countenance added to the impressiveness of his delivery. The same eloquence appears, with perhaps more appropriateness, in the sermons which he addressed to educated audiences; with rustic hearers he could be plain and simple. In his lectures on Plato, perhaps the most important thought is that the Platonic idea was no mere mistaken form of abstract notion, but was Plato's mode of expressing the fact that there is an objective element in perception. Butler's ‘Lectures on the History of Ancient Philosophy,’ 2 vols. were edited after his death with notes, by W. H. Thompson (Cambridge, 1856). The second volume, which is chiefly occupied with Plato, is the more valuable of the two. Two volumes of ‘Sermons Doctrinal and Practical’ have been published, the first series edited with a memoir of his life by the Rev. Thomas Woodward (Dublin, Hodges and Smith, 1849, 3rd. ed. Cambridge, 1855); the second series, edited by J. A. Jeremie (Cambridge, 1856). Besides his many poems and prose articles contributed to the ‘Dublin University Review,’ he published a sermon on the ‘Eternal Life of Christ in Heaven,’ in first series of sermons for Sundays, &c., edited by Alex. Watson (Joseph Masters, 1845); a sermon on ‘Self Delusion as to our State before God’ (Dublin, 1842); a sermon on the ‘Atonement,’ in a volume of sermons on that subject published by the Religious Tract Society (no date); and a memoir of Mrs. Hemans prefixed to her ‘National Lyrics and Songs for Music’ (Dublin, Curry and Co. 1839).

[Memoir by Woodward, prefixed to the first series of Butler's Sermons; article on Butler by J. T. Ball, afterwards Lord Chancellor of Ireland, in Dublin University Review, May 1842; article ‘The late Professor Butler,’ in same Review, July 1849.]

E. D.