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Butler, Samuel (1835-1902)

"An apology for the devil: it must be remembered that we have heard only one side of the case; God has written all the books."

"If God wants us to do a thing, he should make his wishes sufficiently clear. Sensible people will wait till he has done this before paying much attention to him."

"What is faith but a kind of betting or speculation after all? It should be, "I bet that my Redeemer liveth."

"A clergyman can hardly ever allow himself to look facts fairly in the face. It is his profession to support one side; it is impossible, therefore, for him to make an unbiased examination of the other.

"People in general are equally horrified at hearing the Christian religion doubted, and at seeing it practised."

"Prayers are to men as dolls are to children. They are not without use and comfort, but it is not easy to take them seriously."

-- Samuel Butler


Samuel Butler was a British writer best known for his satire Erewhon.

Early life
He was born in Langar Rectory, near Bingham, Nottinghamshire, England, into a long line of clerics, preordained as it were to a career in church in his father's wish and expectation. He went to Shrewsbury School, where his grandfather, Bishop of Lichfield and Coventry, had been headmaster before retiring. He then went up to his father's alma mater, St John's College, Cambridge, in 1854, taking a First in Classics in 1858. The graduate society of St. John's is named the Samuel Butler Room (SBR) in his honour.

Career
Following graduation from Cambridge, he lived in an low-income parish in London during 1858 and 1859 as preparation for his ordination to the Anglican clergy; there he discovered that baptism made no apparent difference to the morals and behaviour of his peers and began questioning his faith. This experience would later serve as inspiration for his work The Fair Haven. Correspondence with his father about the issue failed to set his mind at peace, inciting instead his father's furor. As a result, he emigrated to New Zealand, a British colony since 1840, to put as much distance as possible between himself and his family. He wrote about his arrival and his life as a sheep farmer on Mesopotamia Station in A First Year in Canterbury Settlement (1863).

He returned to England in 1864, settling in rooms in Clifford's Inn (near Fleet Street), where he lived for the rest of his life. In 1872 his satirical novel Erewhon appeared anonymously, causing some speculation as to the identity of the author; when Butler revealed himself as the author, some expressed disappointment that none of the more famous personages speculated about had written it.

Erewhon made Butler a well-known figure, and he wrote a number of other books, including a not so successful sequel, Erewhon Revisited. His semi-autobiographical novel The Way of All Flesh did not appear in print until after his death, as he considered its tone of attack on Victorian hypocrisy too contentious.

Erewhon revealed Butler's long interest in Darwin's theories of biological evolution, though Butler spent a great deal of time criticising Darwin, not least because he believed that Charles had not sufficiently acknowledged his grandfather Erasmus Darwin's contribution to the origins of the theory.

Literary history/criticism
Butler developed a theory that the Odyssey came from the pen of a young Sicilian woman, and that the scenes of the poem reflected the coast of Sicily and its nearby islands. He described the evidence for this theory in his The Authoress of the Odyssey (1897) and in the introduction and footnotes to his prose translation of the Odyssey. Robert Graves elaborated on this hypothesis in his novel Homer's Daughter. Butler also translated the Iliad. His other works include Shakespeare's Sonnets Reconsidered (1899), a theory that the Bard's sonnets, if rearranged, tell a story about a homosexual affair.

The English satirist Aldous Huxley openly admitted the influence of Erewhon on his novel Brave New World.

Works
Project Gutenberg has available A first year..., Erewhon, Erewhon Revisited, The Way of All Flesh and several other of his works for free download at [1]. The Authoress of the Odyssey is apparently not online; however, Project Gutenberg also has available Butler's translations of the Odyssey and of the Iliad.

In the 1920s Jonathan Cape published Butler's collected works in twenty volumes as The Shrewsbury Edition of the Works of Samuel Butler, but printed only 750 copies, making a complete set (if it can be found at all) unaffordable for the common reader. More easily available are the editions published by A.C. Fifield in 1908-1914. Erewhon and The Way of All Flesh remain in print as paperbacks.

Biography and Criticism
Samuel's friend Henry Festing Jones wrote the authoritative biography: the two-volume Samuel Butler, Author of Erewhon (1835-1902): A Memoir (commonly known as Jones's Memoir), published in 1919 and now only available from antiquarian booksellers. Project Gutenberg [2] hosts a shorter "Sketch" by Jones. More recently, Peter Raby has written a life: Samuel Butler: A Biography (Hogarth Press, 1991). The best edition of The Way of All Flesh, sadly out of print, is edited by Daniel F. Howard as Ernest Pontifex, or The Way of All Flesh (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1964). An enterprising publisher should reprint this. For a critical study, mostly about The Way of All Flesh, see Thomas L. Jeffers, Samuel Butler Revalued (University Park: Penn State Press, 1981).

Quotations

"An honest God's the noblest work of man."

"There is no such source of error as the pursuit of absolute truth."

"When the righteous man turneth away from his righteousness that he hath committed and doeth that which is neither lawful nor quite right, he will generally be found to have gained in amiability what he has lost in holiness."

"What is faith but a kind of betting or speculation after all? It should be, "I bet that my Redeemer liveth.""

"Belief like any other moving body follows the path of least resistance."

"The more unpopular an opinion is, the more necessary it is that the holder should be somewhat punctilious in his observance of conventionalities generally."

"A clergyman can hardly ever allow himself to look facts fairly in the face. It is his profession to support one side; it is impossible, therefore, for him to make an unbiased examination of the other."

"It is in the uncompromisingness with which dogma is held and not in the dogma, or want of dogma, that the danger lies."

"If God wants us to do a thing, he should make his wishes sufficiently clear. Sensible people will wait till he has done this before paying much attention to him."

"People in general are equally horrified at hearing the Christian religion doubted, and at seeing it practised."

"Prayers are to men as dolls are to children. They are not without use and comfort, but it is not easy to take them seriously."

"Vaccination is the medical sacrament corresponding to baptism."

"How holy people look when they are sea-sick!"

"An apology for the Devil -- it must be remembered that we have only heard one side of the case. God has written all the books."

"To himself every one is an immortal. He may know that he is going to die, but he can never know that he is dead."

 
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