Journal Article

The Rhetoric and Science of William Paley's <i>Natural Theology</i>

M.D. Eddy

in Literature and Theology

Volume 18, issue 1, pages 1-22
Published in print March 2004 | ISSN: 0269-1205
Published online March 2004 | e-ISSN: 1477-4623 | DOI:
The Rhetoric and Science of William Paley's Natural Theology

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Yet even man’s intelligence must lead us to infer the existence of a mind in the universe.

Cicero, De Natura Deorum1

In this essay I suggest that William Paley's Natural Theology was rhetorical work written to appeal to an eighteenth-century British empiricist mindset. I begin by addressing the book's argument and audience. In particular, I pay close attention to Paley's adolescent exposure to rhetoric and Natural Theology's panegyric format. In addition to excavating the work's cultural context, I go on to explain why Paley's work appealed to a conservative, polite and economically comfortable audience. I then move on to address how he used the rhetorical practice of inventio to select scientific sources and examples, or commonplaces, intended to play on the heart-strings of his empirically minded readers. To illustrate this aspect of the book's rhetorical construction, the end of this essay shows that the scientific examples of his theological argument were taken from a wide variety of contemporary physiology, natural philosophy and natural history texts. Contrary to later nineteenth-century assessments of Natural Theology, I emphasise that these books and articles were standard sources for the practicing scientific community of Paley's generation. Moreover, throughout all of the following sections, I demonstrate that Paley specifically intended to shame atheism and to praise the attributes of God.

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Subjects: Literature ; Religion and Art, Literature, and Music

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