William Paley

William Paley books and biography


William Paley

William Paley

William Paley (July, 1743 – May 25, 1805) was an English divine, Christian apologist, utilitarian, and philosopher. He is best remembered for his watchmaker analogy, an argument for the existence of God in his book Natural Theology.



Born in Peterborough, Paley was educated at Giggleswick School, of which his father was headmaster, and at Christ's College, Cambridge. He graduated in 1763 as senior wrangler, became fellow in 1766, and in 1768 tutor of his college. He lectured on Clarke, Butler and Locke, and also delivered a systematic course on moral philosophy, which subsequently formed the basis of his well-known treatise. The subscription controversy was then agitating the university, and Paley published an anonymous defence of a pamphlet in which Bishop Law had advocated the retrenchment and simplification of the Thirty-nine Articles; he did not, however, sign the petition (called the "Feathers" petition from being drawn up at a meeting at the Feathers tavern) for a relaxation of the terms of subscription.

In 1776 Paley was presented to the rectory of Musgrave in Westmorland, supplemented at the end of the year by the vicarage of Dalston, and presently exchanged for that of Appleby. He was also a Justice of the Peace. In 1782 he became Archdeacon of Carlisle. At the suggestion of his friend John Law (son of Edward Law, Bishop of Carlisle and formerly his colleague at Cambridge), Paley published (1785) his lectures, revised and enlarged, under the title of The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy. The book at once became the ethical text-book of the University of Cambridge, and passed through fifteen editions in the author's lifetime. He strenuously supported the abolition of the slave trade, and in 1789 wrote a paper on the subject. The Principles was followed in 1790 by his first essay in the field of Christian apologetics, Horae Paulinae, or the Truth of the Scripture History of St Paul evinced by a Comparison of the Epistles which bear his Name with the Acts of the Apostles and with one another, probably the most original of its author's works. It was followed in 1794 by the celebrated View of the Evidences of Christianity.

Paley's latitudinarian views are said to have debarred him from the highest positions in the Church. But for his services in defence of the faith the Bishop of London gave him a stall in St Paul's; the Bishop of Lincoln made him subdean of that cathedral, and the Bishop of Carlisle conferred upon him the rectory of Bishopwearmouth. During the remainder of his life his time was divided between Bishopwearmouth and Lincoln. He died on the 25th of May 1805.


The Evidences of Christianity is mainly a condensation of Bishop Douglas's Criterion and Lardner's Credibility of the Gospel History. But the task is so judiciously performed that it would probably be difficult to get a more effective statement of the external evidences of Christianity than Paley has here presented. His idea of revelation depends upon the same mechanical conception of the relation of God to the world which dominates his Natural Theology; and he seeks to prove the divine origin of Christianity by isolating it from the general history of mankind, whereas later writers find their chief argument in the continuity of the process of revelation.

Paley is best remembered for his contributions to the philosophy of religion, political philosophy, utilitarian ethics and Christian apologetics. In 1802 he published Natural Theology; or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, his last book. As he states in the preface, he saw the book as a preamble to his other philosophical and theological books; in fact, he suggests that Natural Theology should be first and so that his readers could then peruse his other books according to their tastes. His main goal was to suggest that the world was designed and sustained by God. Such a book fell within the long tradition of natural theological works written during the Enlightenment; and this explains why Paley based much of his thought on Ray (1691) and Derham (1711) and Nieuwentyt (1730).

Although Paley devotes a chapter of Natural Theology to astronomy, the bulk of his examples were taken from medicine and natural history. "For my part," he says, "I take my stand in human anatomy"; elsewhere he insists upon "the necessity, in each particular case, of an intelligent designing mind for the contriving and determining of the forms which organized bodies bear." In making his argument, Paley employed a wide variety of metaphors and analogies. Perhaps the most famous is his analogy between the a watch and the world. Historians, philosophers and theologians often call this the Watchmaker analogy and many a student has cited it in an exam. The germ of the idea is to be found in ancient writers who used sundials and ptolemiac epicycles to illustrate the divine order of the world. These types of examples can be seen in the work of the ancient philosopher Cicero, especially in his De natura deorum, ii. 87 and 97 (see Hallam, Literature of Europe, ii. 385, note.). During the Enlightenment, the watch analogy occurred in the writings of Robert Boyle and Joseph Priestley. Thus, Paley's use of the watch (and other mechanical objects like it) continued a long and fruitful tradition of analogical reasoning that was well received by those read Natural Theology when it was published in 1802.


Since Paley is often read in university courses that address the philosophy of religion, the timing of his design argument has sometimes perplexed modern philosophers. Earlier in the century David Hume had argued against notions of design with counter examples drawn from monstrosity, imperfect forms of testimony and probability. Although these examples may ring true with many twenty-first century readers, they did not appeal to most of Paley's eighteenth-century contemporaries. Notions of evidence and probability were different then and it took time for Hume's arguments to be accepted by the reading public; in fact his philosophical works sold poorly until agnostics like T H Huxley championed Hume's philosophy in the nineteenth century. By then Paley was long dead.

The face of the world has changed so greatly since Paley's day that we are apt to do less than justice to his undoubted merits. Using his own examples and those of others, he arranged his arguments, it has been said, with a general's eye. His style is lucid and his arguments appealed so much to the reading public that his book was a best seller for most of the nineteenth century. It appealed to the Victorian Evangelicalism and to the Oxford Movement alike - but for different reasons. Paley's views also influenced (both positively and negatively) theologians, philosophers and scientists. Charles Darwin read it during his studies at Cambridge and well-known liberals like Thomas Wakley and other radical editors of The Lancet used Paley's aging examples to attack the establishment's control over medical education. It also inspired the Earl of Bridgewater to commission the Bridgewater Treatises and the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge to issue cheap reprints for the rising middle class. Today Paley's name evokes both reverance and repulsion and his work is cited accordingly by authors seeking to frame the history of human thought. In this context, it should perhaps be remembered that Paley was a product of his time and that his Natural Theology, for better or for not, stands as a notable entry in the canon of Western thought.

Further reading

  • Brown, Colin, Miracles and the Critical Mind, Paternoster, Exeter UK/William B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1984.
  • Brooke, John H. Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991.
  • Clarke, M.L., Paley: Evidences for the Man, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1974.
  • Dodds, G. L. Paley, Wearside and Natural Theology, Sunderland, 2003.
  • Eddy, Matthew D., ‘The Science and Rhetoric of Paley’s Natural Theology’, Literature and Theology, 18 (2004), 1-22.
  • Fyfe, A. ‘Publishing and the classics: Paley’s Natural Theology and the nineteenth-century scientific canon’, Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science, 33 (2002), 433-55.
  • Gascoigne, J., ‘Rise and Fall of British Newtonian Natural Theology’, Science in Context, 2 (1988), 219-256.
  • Gillespie, N. C. ‘Divine Design and the Industrial Revolution. William Paley’s Abortive Reform of Natural Theology’, Isis, 81 (1990), 214-229.
  • Gilson, E., From Aristotle to Darwin and Back again: A Journey in Final Causality, Species, and Evolution, John Lyon (trans), Notre Dame Universiy Press, London 1984.
  • Knight, David. Science and Beliefs: The Volitile Connection, Routledge, London, 2003.
  • LeMahieu, D.L. The Mind of William Paley, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1976.
  • McAdoo, H. R. The Spirit of Anglicanism: A Survey of Anglican Theological Method in the Seventeenth Century (London, 1965).
  • McGrath, A. E., A Scientific Theology: Volume I, Nature, Continuum, Edinburgh, 2001.
  • Meadley, G. W. Memoirs of William Paley, to which is Added an Appendix, London, 1809.
  • Ospovat, D. The Development of Darwin’s Theory: Natural History, Natural Theology and Natural Selection, 1838-1859, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995.
  • Paley, E. An Account of the Life and Writings of William Paley, [1825], Farnborough: Gregg, 1970; originally, this was the first volume of The Works of William Paley, London, 1825.
  • Paley, William, Natural Theology, with an introduction and notes by Matthew D. Eddy and David M. Knight, Oxford University Press, 2006.
  • Pelikan, J. Christianity and Classical Culture: The Metamorphosis of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter with Hellenism, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1993.
  • Philipp, W. ‘Physicotheology in the Age of Enlightenment: Appearance and History’, Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, 57 (1967), 1233-1267.
  • Porter, R. ‘Creation and Credence’, in Barry Barnes and Steven Shapin (eds), Natural Order: Historical Studies of Scientific Culture, Sage Press, Beverly Hills, 1979.
  • Raven, C. Natural Religion and Christian Theology, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1953.
  • Richards, R. J. The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe, Chicago University Press, Chicago, 2002.
  • Rose, J. The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2002.
  • Rousseau, G. S. and Roy Porter (eds), The Ferment of Knowledge – Studies in the Historiography of Eighteenth Century Science, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1980.
  • St Clair, W. The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2004.
  • Topham, J. R. ‘Science, natural theology, and evangelicalism in the early nineteenth century: Thomas Chalmers and the evidence controversy’, in D. N. Livingstone, D. G. Hart and M. A. Knoll, Evangelicals and Science in Historical Perspective (Oxford: 1999), 142-174.
  • Topham, J. R. ‘Beyond the “Common Context”: the Production and Reading of the Bridgewater Treatises’, Isis, 89 (1998), 233-62.
  • Viner, J. The Role of Providence in the Social Order, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 1972.
  • Von Sydow, M. ‘Charles Darwin: A Christian undermining Christianity?’, in David M. Knight and Matthew D. Eddy, Science and Beliefs: From Natural Philosophy to Natural Science, Ashgate, Aldershot, 2005.

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