Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Butler, Samuel
BUTLER, SAMUEL (1835–1902), philosophical writer, born at his father's rectory of Langar, near Bingham, Nottinghamshire, on 4 Dec. 1835, was eldest son of Thomas Butler (1806-86), who graduated B.A. from St. John's College, Cambridge, in 1829; was collated to the rectory of Langar in 1834; revised his father's 'Antient Geography,' 1851 and 1855; and subsequently became canon of Lincoln (Baker, St. John's College, 1869, p. 901). His grandfather, Dr. Samuel Butler [q. v.], was headmaster of Shrewsbury, and afterwards bishop of Lichfield and Coventry. His aunt Mary, elder daughter of the bishop, was the second wife of Archdeacon Bather [q. v.]. His mother was Fanny (m. 1831), daughter of Philip John Worsley (1769-1811), a sugar refiner, of Arno's Vale, Bristol, and a connection of the Taylors of Norwich; she died at Mentone in 1873.
After a grand tour with his parents at a time when European railways were in their infancy (1843), an expedition which impressed Butler profoundly, he in 1848 was placed under Benjamin Hall Kennedy, his grandfather's successor at Shrewsbury. In October 1854 'Sam' went up to Cambridge and graduated from the family college (St. John's), as twelfth . in the classical tripos in 1858. He was grounded in Homer and Thucydides by Shilleto, and while still an undergraduate wrote among other trifles 'The Shield of Achilles, an Homeric Picture of Cambridge Life,' which skilfully burlesques a typical Homer 'crib' of the period (reprinted in The Eagle, December 1902). Paternal influence exercised with unsparing hand constrained Butler into the priestly path, which he traversed far enough to become a lay reader to the curate of St. James's, Piccadilly, (Sir) Philip Perrin. At Cambridge he had come under Simeon's influence. But doubt first assailed him in connection with the question of the efficacy of infant baptism. An angry correspondence ensued with his father (upon whom he was pecuniarily dependent), and Samuel remained unconvinced.
Early attempts at becoming a painter were sternly deprecated by the family, and Butler resolved to emigrate to New Zealand. Taking passage in the ill-fated Burmah, he changed his berth at the last moment to the Roman Emperor, and sailed from Gravesend on 30 Sept. 1859. His success in the colony, mainly as a sheep-breeder in the Rangitata district of the middle (Canterbury) Island, is detailed in long letters home, which supplemented by two chapters contributed to the St. John's College 'Eagle' formed the basis of his first book 'A First Year in Canterbury Settlement,' published by Longmans, and edited by his father, with a preface dated 'Langar Rectory, 29 June 1863.' The work is i full of Butler's quasi-humorous detail, sub-acid in flavour, and plain almost to aridity in point of style. In the same vein are the contributions which Butler made to the 'Christchurch Press,' among them the witty speculation entitled 'Darwin among the Machines,' which formed the nucleus of 'Erewhon,' the book which first brought him recognition. His sheep run was successful, and selling out at a fortunate moment he practically doubled what money his father had given him (approximately four thousand pounds).
In 1864-5 Butler returned to England, and established himself in chambers, consisting of three rooms and a pantry, on the second floor at 15 Clifford's Inn. After a brief course at South Kensington he studied inting at F. S. Gary's (the son of Lamb's riend), and then at Heatherley's school in Newman Street. In the course of the next few years he exhibited as many as eleven pictures in the Royal Academy. In 1865 he printed the anonymous pamphlet (drafted in New Zealand) 'The Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ as given by the Four Evangelists critically examined,' the product of the doubts which had assailed him since 1859, and which he subsequently incorporated in 'The Fair Haven.' In 1872 he produced the brilliant, if somewhat fragmentary, 'Erewhon.' a jeu d'esprit which recalled the vein of Swift. The trial of a man for the offence of suffering from consumption (as an illustration of the analogy of crime and disease), and the view of machines as representing and eventually dominating the functions of man are strongly suggestive of a new Gulliver, but the book also contains the most original of Butler's conceptions his preference for physical over moral health, his derision of earnestness and of the solemn pretences of parenthood, his conviction of the unconscious transmission of habit and memory from one generation to another, the superior importance of manners to beliefs, the antennae of art to the sledge-hammers of science. All the more from the fact that they were quite unfathomable by his own age, Butler clung to his ideas with grim and humorous tenacity. 'Erewhon' was published anonymously, like its successor a far more elaborate exercise in irony ' The Fair Haven ' (1873). This volume pretended to be a defence of the miraculous element in our Lord's ministry upon earth, both as against rationalist impugners and certain orthodox defenders, and was put forth as by the late John Pickard Owen and as edited by William Bicker-steth Owen, with a memoir of the author (published by Triibner, with preface dated 'Brighton, 10 March 1873'). Incredible as it seems, in view of the ubiquitous mockery and fictitious titles, 'The Fair Haven' was accepted as seriously as Defoe's 'Shortest Way with the Dissenters' by the ultra-Protestant press. Butler's anonymity was due in part to Swift's Bickerstaff tradition of mystification, and partly to his unwillingness to provoke further controversy with his father, but he affixed his name to subsequent editions both of this book and of 'Erewhon.' The profits which he had made in New Zealand were at this time imperilled by unsound investments; some of these were Canadian. and it was during a series of distracting visits to the Dominion, in an attempt to save the wreck of his invested capital, that Butler produced one of his most original and argumentative works, entitled 'Life and Habit,' dedicated to Charles Paine-Pauli, a New Zealand acquaintance (Dec. 1877). The line of argument which he there took up against the tyranny of natural selection was completed in 'Evolution, Old and New' (1879), 'Unconscious Memory' (1880), 'Luck or Cunning' (1886), 'The Deadlock in Darwinism' (Universal Review, 1890), and ' Notes,' afterwards reprinted in the 'New Quarterly Review' of 1910. These books and papers were a revolt against what Butler considered as a conspiracy of the Darwins to banish mind from the universe, and the scientific controversy was complicated by a grievance partly justified even now, wholly justified as far as Butler could possibly then have seen against Charles Darwin's method of interpreting a private communication (see Festing Jones, Darwin and Butler: a Step towards Reconciliation, 1911). Butler brought to the subject in dispute tenacity, memory, and power of concentration, which enabled him to discover certain defects in the armour of natural selection. A Prague professor, Ewald Hering, had formulated a theory connecting heredity with memory a few years before. Butler knew nothing of this until his 'Life and Habit' was on the eve of publication, but when he looked at Hering' s lecture he found the kernel of Hering's theory was practically identical Avith his own. His object was to show that variation was due less to chance and environ- ment, and more to cunning and effort, design, or memory whether conscious or unconscious than Darwin had supposed. As a guiding principle; however, his views though highly suggestive have not proved of direct service, save as a stimulus to fresh hypotheses.
Butler was now at the parting of the ways ; his most successful picture, 'Mr. Heatherley's Holiday' (the drawing master mending the studio skeleton), now in the Tate Gallery, had appeared at the Royal Academy in 1874, but the influence of literature had triumphed, and Butler eventually surrendered himself to a succession of controversies, which have not in the main greatly enhanced his reputation. Meanwhile as a topographer of Italian Switzerland and critic of Italian art he did creative work in 'Alps and Sanctuaries of Piedmont and the Canton Ticino' (1881). Butler's headquarters in north Italy were primarily at Faido and then at Varallo, where he stayed repeatedly from 1871 to 1901. 'Alps and Sanctuaries omitted Varallo, to which he promised to devote a separate book. The town gave Butler a civic dinner in August 1887, and he redeemed his pledge next year with his 'Ex Voto,' an account of the Sacro Monte or New Jerusalem at Varallo-Sesia, with some notes of Tabachetti's remaining work at the Sanctuary of Oca. Archæologically speaking, this is a far more elaborate study than its predecessor ; it is a revelation of the higlily original art of Tabachetti and Gaudenzio Ferrari. An article 'Art in the Valley of Saas' followed in the 'Universal Review' (1890). In 1886 Butler's financial position, which had become a good deal involved, was relieved by the death of his father (29 Dec.). He now spent most of the summer abroad, but lived habitually at his chambers in Clifford's Inn, London, working steadily at the British Museum.
In 1886 he was an unsuccessful candidate for the Slade professorship at Cambridge. Every evening when in London he was wont to visit his friend, Mr. H. Festing Jones, at Staple Inn, mainly for the purpose of musical study. Together they began to compose at first Handelian minuets and gavottes. They next wrote and issued an oratorio buffo, 'Narcissus' (1888), about shepherds losing money in Capel Court, studied counterpoint with W. S. Rockstro and designed a Ulysses oratorio (published in 1904). Butler committed much of the 'Odyssey' to memory, and he was so impressed by the peculiar mental attitude of certain portions of the narrative, that he conceived the theory that the epic was written by a woman, while he identified the dwelling-place of the writer as Trapam in Sicily (see his 'On the Trapanese Origin of the Odyssey,' 1893). He embodied this view in 'The Authoress of the Odyssey,' published in 1897, after a visit to the Troad and a careful study of the Sicilian coast. He translated the 'Iliad' in 1898, and the 'Odyssey' in 1900 into colloquial prose. Other works produced in his lifetime were 'The Life of Samuel Butler, bishop of Lich field and Coventry' (2 vols. 1896), published from family papers which had come to him in 1886 ; 'Shakespeare's Sonnets Reconsidered' (1899), upholding the view that the sonnets were addressed to a man of humble birth, a speculation which has found extremely few adherents ; and 'Erewhon Revisited' (1901), an examination of the religion which had come into existence among the Erewhonians after the ascension of their first explorer in a balloon. This last was the most rapidly written of any of his books, and is perhaps more consecutive than its predecessor, though it lacks something of its eccentric charm. Butler's health was indifferent when he set out for Sicily on Good Friday, 1902. He returned to Clifford's Inn, but soon left for the nursing home in which he died on 18 June 1902. His body was cremated at Woking, in accordance with his instructions, and the ashes dispersed.
Two of his most seminal books, an auto-biographical novel entitled 'The Way of All Flesh' (1903) and 'Essays on Life, Art and Science,' were published posthumously, with introductions by Mr. Streatfeild, and have since been reprinted. A few of his ironic 'Notes' appeared in the 'New Quarterly Review' 1907–1910.
Church and state man, or advanced member of the broad church party, as he whimsically described himself, Butler, the most versatile of iconoclasts, attacked received opinion in religion, science, painting, archæology, literary criticism, and music; but his most determined onslaught was on the canting, conventional morality in which the genteel children of his age were reared. Commenced by 'Erewhon,' this work was carried to its conclusion in his posthumous novel, imperishably graven out of the flint of life. A spiritual autobiography, the incentive to which was supplied by a lady, Miss Savage, who appears in the book as Alethea, whom he first met in 1871, 'The Way of All Flesh' was touched and retouched down to her death in 1885, though published only in 1903. Through 'Erewhon,' 'The Way of All Flesh,' and the posthumous 'Essays' (each a masterpiece of idiosyncrasy), Butler chiefly influenced contemporary thought. His style was framed with the object of attaining the maximum of terseness, consistent with absolute lucidity.
Butler's outwardly conventional aspect, with his brick-dust complexion and bushy eyebrows, is well represented by portraits. Of those by himself there is one at Christchurch, N.Z., one at Shrewsbury School, and one at St. John's College, Cambridge. A good likeness by Paul Gaugain is in the National Portrait Gallery. An excellent photograph in 'Ex Voto' represents Butler standing by the side of one of Gaudenzio Ferrari's terra-cotta figures. A satirical picture by Butler, 'Family Prayers,' belongs to Mr. Festing Jones, who has many of the artist's delicate and highly finished water-colour drawings of the Ticino region. Other of his drawings are in the British Museum.
[The Times, 20 June 1902; Athenæum, 28 June 1902; Monthly Review, Sept. 1902; Eagle, Dec. 1902; Streatfeild's Records and Memorials, 1903 (portrait); H. Festing Jones' Italian Journey; Mr. Streatfeild's Introductions to the re-issue of Butler's Works; Marcus Hartog's preface to Unconscious Memory; Fortnightly Review, June 1912; Salter's Two Moderns, 1911; Independent Rev., Sept. 1904; Mercure de France, July 1910; Brit. Mus. Cat.; information kindly given by Mr. H. Festing Jones.]