William Paley was born in Peterborough in July 1743, the eldest child of William Paley and Elizabeth Clapham. He died 25 May 1805 in Bishop Wearmouth. His father was a minor canon at Peterborough and later headmaster at the grammar school in Giggleswick, West Yorkshire. Educated at his father’s school and Christ’s College, Cambridge, Paley graduated as senior wrangler in 1763 and was elected a fellow in 1766.
Ordained in 1767, Paley enjoyed the patronage of the Bishop of Carlisle, receiving a number of rectories in Cumberland and Westmoreland and was eventually appointed Archdeacon of Carlisle in 1782. In 1794 Paley was awarded a DD at Cambridge. That same year, following the success of his Evidences of Christianity, he was rewarded with the valuable living of Bishop Wearmouth and appointment as sub dean at Lincoln. He divided his time between the two until his death in 1805. He was twice married and left four sons and four daughters.
Paley made no claims for originality in his books. He was a writer of educational works and happy to use the published work of others. However, the success of his simple, clear writing style has often meant that these popular accounts have attracted more attention (and criticism) than the more considered work he draws on. This is certainly true of his Natural Theology: or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity collected from the appearances of Nature (1802), the most important of his publications for the historian of science.
Paley’s Natural Theology is probably the clearest and most popular expression of the argument from design, one of the most persistent proofs for the existence of God. From its opening analogy between God’s creation and a watch – in each case ‘there cannot be design without a designer; a contrivance without a contriver’ (Works, p. 437) – through to the steady accumulation of evidence for God’s unity, omnipotence and benevolence, the book is a delight to read. Its logic and clarity were appreciated by Darwin who wrote in his autobiography that he was ‘charmed and convinced by the long line of argumentation’ and thought it one of the few texts that was of any use to him during his studies at Cambridge (Darwin, p. 22).
Darwin’s theory of natural selection is often portrayed as destroying Paley’s vision of the world, but this underestimates the persistence of natural theology into the late-nineteenth century even though it may no longer have provided the common intellectual context for the debate about our place in nature. Paley’s Natural Theology was already regarded as a classic by the early 1820s and throughout the century new editions kept it relevant enough to appeal to new audiences, popularizing science for a non-technical readership and showing that religion and science did not have to be in conflict. An 1875 edition was edited by Frederick le Gros Clark and ‘revised to harmonise with modern science’.
‘It is a happy world after all’ wrote Paley (Works, p. 534). He quite literally lived in Eden (many of his livings were in the Eden valley in Cumberland) and by all accounts he seems to have been a very genial man.
Entry for William Paley in Bernard Lightman (ed.) Biographical Dictionary of Nineteenth Century British Scientists (Thoemmes Press, Bristol, 2004).
Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1785).
Horae Paulinae (1790).
A View of the Evidences of Christianity (1794).
Natural Theology (1802).
The Works of William Paley (1837, prefixed with a life of the author).
Nuovo, Victor L., ‘Paley’ in The Dictionary of Eighteenth-Century British Philosophers, edited by John W. Yolton, John Vladimir Price and John Stephens (Bristol, 1999).
Darwin, Charles, ‘Autobiography of Charles Darwin’ (1929, Thinkers Library edition).
Fyfe, Aileen, ‘Publishing and the Classics: Paley’s “Natural Theology” and the nineteenth-century canon’, in Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science vol. 33, (2002), pp. 733-55.