Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel

by Joseph Butler
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Christian Themes

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 570

Fifteen Sermons presents Butler’s thoughts on several key Christian concepts, including the love of one’s neighbor and the love of God. Regarding the command of Jesus to love our neighbors as ourselves, Butler notes that an overabundance of self-love can hinder us from being truly happy, but he also points out that benevolence, or love of one’s neighbor, need not prevent us from being happy ourselves. An affection may tend to produce the happiness of others, but this in no way prevents it from producing self-happiness as well. Butler’s view is that benevolence is its own reward.

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What does it mean to love one’s neighbor as oneself? Butler points out that a perfectly good being would love the entire universe. However, scripture commands us to love our neighbors, those who are in our spheres of existence and with whom we come in contact in our daily lives. There are three different ways to understand this command. First, we might think that we should have the same kind of love for our neighbors that we have for ourselves, such that we pursue their good and seek to prevent harm from coming to them. Second, it could be taken to mean that we are to have a particular proportion of love for our neighbor as compared to self-love. One person may have more benevolence than another, but if her self-love outweighs her benevolence when she is deciding what to do, then this is undesirable. It is not the amount of benevolence that is crucial, but rather that one’s benevolence is not rendered ineffective by one’s self-love. Third, we could take the command to love our neighbor as ourselves to imply that there should be an equal amount of affection for oneself and one’s neighbor, but Butler rejects this because he thinks we should regard ourselves more than others insofar as we are peculiarly entrusted with the governance of our own lives. This last claim is a bit puzzling, as it seems to run counter to significant traditions in Christian thought that hold that we should have more regard for others than we do for ourselves. Butler’s point, however, is that the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself includes the idea that one must work for one’s own good, as one works for the good of others. Moreover, in working for the common good, one is in fact benefiting oneself. Therefore, love of self and love of others need not be in conflict, and we will have more regard for ourselves compared to the amount of regard anyone else has for us, because we are responsible for our own lives in a way that nobody else is.

Loving our neighbor is also important because by cultivating love of neighbor we cultivate love for God. For Butler, resignation to God’s will is the ideal state of religious believers. Resignation includes all that is good, including fear, hope, and love with respect to God. This is a natural product of a right understanding of God’s nature and character, and a deep sense of his presence. Butler argued that we have a need as humans for something more than riches, sensual pleasures, or honor—a need that only God can satisfy. Infinite perfect goodness is our ultimate end, and we realize this end in an eternity spent in the presence of God.

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