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Chapter I: That the Light of Nature, or the first Principles of Reason universally receiv’d, are the genuin and original Rule of all Interpretation of Scripture; especially in Matters of Practice and Morality. - Pierre Bayle, A Philosophical Commentary on These Words of the Gospel, Luke 14.23, ‘Compel Them to Come In, That My House May Be Full’ 
A Philosophical Commentary on These Words of the Gospel, Luke 14.23, ‘Compel Them to Come In, That My House May Be Full’, edited, with an Introduction by John Kilcullen and Chandran Kukathas (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005).
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That the Light of Nature, or the first Principles of Reason universally receiv’d, are the genuin and original Rule of all Interpretation of Scripture; especially in Matters of Practice and Morality.
I leave it to the Criticks and Divines to comment on this Text in their way, by comparing it with other Passages, by examining what goes before and what follows, by descanting on the Force of the Expressions in<44> the Original, the various Senses they are capable of, and which they actually bear in several places of Scripture. My design is to make a Commentary of an uncommon kind, built on Principles more general and more infallible than what a Skill in Languages, Criticism, or Common-place can afford. I shan’t even inquire, why Jesus Christ might make choice of the Expression Compel, how soft a Construction we are oblig’d to put on it, or whether there be Mysterys conceal’d under the Rind of the Expression; I shall content my self with overthrowing that literal Sense which Persecutors alledg.
To do this unanswerably, I shall go upon this single Principle of natural Reason; That all literal Construction, which carries an Obligation of committing Iniquity, is false. St. Austin gives this as a Rule and Criterion for discerning the figurative from the literal Sense.35Jesus Christ, says he, declares that unless we eat the Flesh of the Son of Man, we cannot be sav’d. This looks as if he commanded an Impiety; it’s therefore a Figure which enjoins our partaking of the Lord’s Death, and bearing in continual remembrance to our exceeding Benefit and Comfort the crucifying and wounding his Flesh for us. This is not the place to examine, whether these words prove St. Austin was not of the opinion of those of the Church of Rome, or whether he rightly applies his Rule: It’s enough, that he reasons on this fundamental Principle, this surest Key for understanding Scripture, That if by taking it in the literal Sense we oblige Men to commit Iniquity, or, that I may leave no room for an Equivoque, oblige ’em to commit Actions which the Light<45> of Nature, the Precepts of the Decalogue, or the Gospel Morality forbid; it’s to be taken for granted, that the Sense we give it is false, and that instead of a Divine Revelation, we impose our own Visions, Prejudices, and Passions on the People.
God forbid I shou’d have a thought of stretching the Rights of natural Reason; or of the Principles of Metaphysicks, to such a length as your Socinians, who pretend that all Sense given to Scripture, not agreeable to this Reason or to these Principles, is to be rejected; and who in virtue of this Maxim refuse to believe the Trinity and Incarnation. No, this I can’t come up to, without boundary and limitation. Yet I know there are Axioms against which the clearest and most express Letter of the Scriptures can avail nothing: as, That the Whole is greater than the Part; That if from equal things we take things equal, the remainder will be equal; That ’tis impossible Contradictorys shou’d be true; or, that the Accidents of a Subject shou’d subsist after the Destruction of the Subject. Shou’d the contrary be shewn a hundred times over from Scripture, shou’d a thousand times as many Miracles as those of Moses and the Apostles be wrought in confirmation of a Doctrine repugnant to these universal Principles of common Sense; Man, as his Facultys are made, cou’d not believe a tittle on’t, and wou’d sooner persuade himself either that the Scriptures spoke only by Contrarys, or only in Metaphors, or that these Miracles were wrought by the Power of the Devil, than that the Oracles of Reason were false in these Instances. This is such a Truth, that those of the Church of Rome, as much interested as they are to sacrifice their<46> Metaphysicks, and render all Principles of common Sense suspect, confess that neither Scripture, nor Church, nor Miracles, are of any force against the clear Light of Reason, against this Principle, for example, The Whole is greater than its Part. We may consult P. Valerien Magni, a famous Capucine, on this point, in the 8th and 9th Chapt. of the first Book of his Judgment concerning the Rule of Faith of Catholicks.36 And lest it be objected, that this is but one Doctor’s Opinion, and to avoid citing a vast number of other Catholick Authors, I shall take notice in general, that all the Controvertists of this side deny that Transubstantiation is repugnant to sound Philosophy; and frame a thousand Distinctions, a thousand Subtletys, to shew it does not overthrow the Principles of Metaphysicks. The Protestants, in like manner, will ne’er allow the Socinians, that the Trinity or Incarnation are contradictory Doctrines; they alledg and maintain that this cannot be prov’d upon ’em. Thus the whole Body of Divines, of what Party soever, after having cry’d up Revelation, the Meritoriousness of Faith, and Profoundness of Mysterys, till they are quite out of breath, come to pay their homage at last at the Footstool of the Throne of Reason, and acknowledg, tho they won’t speak out (but their Conduct is a Language expressive and eloquent enough) That Reason, speaking to us by the Axioms of natural Light, or metaphysical Truths, is the supreme Tribunal, and final Judg without Appeal of whatever’s propos’d to the human Mind. Let it ne’er then be pretended more, that Theology is the Queen, and Philosophy the Handmaid; for the Divines themselves<47> by their Conduct confess, that of the two they look on the latter as the Sovereign Mistress: and from hence proceed all those Efforts and Tortures of Wit and Invention, to avoid the Charge of running counter to strict Demonstration. Rather than expose themselves to such a Scandal, they’l shift the very Principles of Philosophy, discredit this or that System, according as they find their Account in it; by all these Proceedings plainly recognizing the Supremacy of Philosophy, and the indispensable Obligation they are under of making their court to it; they’d ne’er be at all this Pains to cultivate its good Graces, and keep parallel with its Laws, were they not of Opinion, that whatever Doctrine is not vouch’d, as I may say, confirm’d and register’d in the supreme Court of Reason and natural Light, stands on a very tottering and crazy Foundation.
If we inquire into the true reason hereof, ’tis this, that there being a distinct and spritely Light which enlightens all Men the moment they open the Eyes of their Attention, and which irresistibly convinces ’em of its Truth; we must conclude, it’s God himself, the essential Truth, who then most immediately illuminates ’em, and makes ’em perceive in his own Essence the Ideas of those eternal Truths contain’d in the first Principles of Reason, or in the common Notions of Metaphysicks. Now why shou’d he act thus with regard to these particular Truths; why reveal ’em at all times, in all Ages, and to all Nations of the Earth, provided they give but the least Attention, and without leaving ’em the liberty of suspending their Judgment: why I say, shou’d he thus deal with Mankind, but to give him a standing Rule<48> and Criterion for judging on all the Variety of other Objects, which are continually presenting, partly false, partly true, sometimes in a very obscure and confus’d, sometimes in a more clear and distinct manner? God, who foresaw that the Laws of the Union of the Soul and Body, wou’d not permit the special Union of the Soul with the Divine Essence (an Union which appears real to thinking and attentive Minds, tho perhaps not distinctly conceiv’d) to communicate all sorts of Truths with the clearest Evidence, and be a thorow Preservative against Error, was pleas’d to provide her an Expedient for infallibly distinguishing Truth from Falshood; and this Expedient is no other than the Light of Nature, or the general Principles of Metaphysicks, by which, if we examine the particular Doctrines occurring in moral Treatises, or deliver’d by our Teachers, we shall find, as by a Standard and original Rule, which are current and which counterfeit. Whence it follows, that we can never be assur’d of the truth of any thing farther than as agreable to that primitive and universal Light, which God diffuses in the Souls of Men, and which infallibly and irresistibly draws on their Assent the moment they lend their Attention. By this primitive and metaphysical Light we have discover’d the rightful Sense of infinite Passages of Scripture, which taken in the literal and popular Meaning of the Words, had led us into the lowest Conceptions imaginable of the Deity.
Once more I say, Heavens forbid I shou’d have a thought of straining this Principle to such a degree as the Socinians do: yet I can’t think, whatever Limitations it may admit with respect to<49> speculative Truths, that it ought or can have any with regard to those practical and universal Principles which concern Manners; my meaning is, that all moral Laws, without exception, ought to be regulated by that natural Idea of Equity, which, as well as metaphysical Light, enlightens every Man coming into the World. But as Passion and Prejudice do but too often obscure the Ideas of natural Equity, I shou’d advise all who have a mind effectually to retrieve ’em, to consider these Ideas in the general, and as abstracted from all private Interest, and from the Customs of their Country. For a fond and deeply-rooted Passion may possibly happen to persuade a Man, that an Action, which he dotes on as profitable and pleasant, is very agreeable to the Dictates of right Reason: The Power of Custom, and a turn given to the Understanding in the earliest Infancy, may happen to represent an Action as honest and seemly, which in it self is quite otherwise. To surmount both these Obstacles therefore, I cou’d advise whoever aims at preserving this natural Light, with respect to Morality, pure and unadulterate, to raise his Contemplations above the reach of private Interest, or the Custom of his Country, and to examine in general, Whether this or that Practice be just in it self; and whether, might the Question now be put for introducing it in a Country where it never was in vogue, and where it were left to our choice to admit or reject it; whether, I say, we shou’d find upon a sober Inquiry, that it’s reasonable enough to merit our Suffrage and Approbation? I fancy an Abstraction of this kind might effectually disperse a great many Mists which swim between the Eyes of our Understanding, and that<50> primitive universal Ray of Light which flows from the Divinity, discovering the general Principles of Equity to all Mankind, and being a standing Test of all Precepts, and particular Laws concerning Manners; not excepting even those which God has afterwards reveal’d in an extraordinary way, either by speaking immediately to Men, or by sending ’em inspir’d Prophets to declare his Will.
I am verily persuaded, that Almighty God, before ever he spoke by an external Voice to Adam, to make him sensible of his Duty, spoke to him inwardly in his Conscience, by giving him the vast and immense Idea of a Being sovereignly perfect, and printing on his Mind the eternal Laws of Just and Honest; so that Adam thought himself oblig’d to obey his Maker, not so much because of a certain Prohibition outwardly striking upon his Organs of Sense, as because that inward Light which enlighten’d his Conscience e’er God had utter’d himself, continually presented the Idea of his Duty, and of his Dependance on the Sovereign Being: Consequently it may be truly affirm’d, with regard even to Adam, that the reveal’d Truth was subordinate to the natural Light in him, and from thence was to receive its Sanction and Seal, its statutable Virtue, and Right to oblige as Law. And by the way, ’tis very probable, that had not the confus’d Sensations of Pleasure, excited in the Soul of our first Parent upon proposing the forbidden Fruit, drown’d the eternal Ideas of natural Equity (which must ever happen by reason of that essential Limitedness in created Spirits, rendring ’em incapable of immaterial Speculations, and of the lively and hurrying Sen-<51>sations of Pleasure at one and the same time). It is, I say, very probable he had never transgrest the Law of God; which ought to be a continual Warning to us, never to turn away our Eyes from that natural Light, let who will make Propositions to us of doing this thing or that with regard to Morality.
Shou’d a Casuist therefore come and inform us, he finds from the Scriptures, that ’tis a good and a holy Practice to curse our Enemys, and those who persecute the faithful; let’s forthwith turn our Eyes on natural Religion, strengthen’d and perfected by the Gospel, and we shall see by the bright shining of this interior Truth, which speaks to our Spirits without the Sound of Words, but which speaks most intelligibly to those who give Attention; we shall see, I say, that the pretended Scripture of this Casuist is only a bilious Vapor from his own Temperament and Constitution. In a word, ’twill afford us an Answer to the Example which the Psalmist furnishes him, to wit, that a particular Case where God interposes by a special Providence, is by no means the Light by which we must walk, and derogates not from the positive Command propos’d universally to all Mankind in the Gospel, of being meek and lowly in heart, and praying for those who persecute us; much less from that natural and eternal Law which discovers to all Men the Ideas of Honest, and which discover’d to so many Heathens, that ’twas a glorious part, and highly becoming the Dignity of human Nature, to forgive those who have offended us, and to return ’em Good for Evil.<52>
But that which is highly probable with regard to Adam in a state of Innocence, to wit, his discovering the Justice of God’s verbal Prohibition, by comparing it with his previous Idea of the Supreme Being, was become indispensably necessary after his Fall: for having experienc’d, that there were two kinds of Agents, which concern’d themselves in directing him what to do, ’twas absolutely necessary he shou’d have a Rule to judg by, for fear of confounding what God shou’d outwardly reveal to him, with the Suggestions or Inticements of the Devil disguis’d under the fairest Appearances. And this Rule cou’d be nothing else than natural Light, than the Conscience of Right and Wrong imprinted on the Souls of all Men; in a word, than that universal Reason which enlightens Spirits, and which is never wanting to those who attentively consult it, especially in those lucid Intervals when bodily Objects possess not the whole Capacity of the Soul, either by Images of their own, or by the Passions they excite in the Heart.
All the Dreams of old, all the Visions of the Patriarchs, all Discourses which strike the Sense as utter’d by God, all Appearances of Angels, all Miracles, every thing in general must have pass’d the Test of natural Light; otherwise how cou’d it appear, whether they proceeded from that evil Principle which had formerly seduc’d Adam, or from the great Creator of Heaven and Earth? ’Twas necessary, that God shou’d mark whatever came from him with some certain Character, bearing a Conformity with that interior Light which communicates it self immediately to all Spirits, or which at least shou’d not ap-<53>pear repugnant to it; and this once ascertain’d, all the particular Laws of a Moses suppose, or any other Prophet, were entertain’d with Pleasure, and as coming from God, altho they might have ordain’d things indifferent in their own nature.
Moses himself, we know, enjoin’d the Israelites on the part of God, not to believe every Worker of Miracles, nor every Prophet; but examine his Doctrines, and receive or reject ’em according as they were consonant or contrary to the Law which was given by God. There was this difference then between the Jews after the days of Moses and the antient Patriarchs, that these were oblig’d to compare the Revelations made to them with natural Light alone, those with the Light of Nature, and with the positive Law. For this positive Law, once vouch’d by the natural Light, acquir’d the Quality of a Rule and Criterion, in the same manner, as a Proposition in Geometry once demonstrated from incontestable Principles, becomes it self a Principle with regard to other Propositions. Now as there are certain Propositions, which one wou’d be easily inclin’d to admit, were they not attended with harsh and pernicious Consequences, but which are rejected with horror as soon as these Consequences appear; so that instead of saying, These Consequences are true because they arise from a true Principle; This Principle, say we, is false, because such false Consequences follow from it: So there are those, who without reluctance wou’d believe, that some things might have bin reveal’d by God, did they not consider the Consequences of ’em; but when they see what these things lead to, they conclude, they are not from God: and this Argument a posteriori<54> for them has the value of the strictest Demonstration.
Thus about the beginning of the Saracen Empire several Jews renounc’d their Religion, and dedicated themselves to the Pagan Philosophy,37 pretending they had discover’d in the ceremonial Law of Moses a world of unprofitable or absurd Precepts, which they perceiv’d not to be founded on any solid Reasons of their Institution or Prohibition, and thence concluding, that such a Law cou’d not be given by God. Their Consequence without doubt was fairly drawn, but they suppos’d amiss: They had not consider’d the incontestable Proofs which God himself had given of Moses’s Divine Mission, Proofs which will bear the strictest Trial at the Bar of the pure and living Ideas of natural Metaphysicks, in virtue of which each particular Law of Moses implicitly carrys a good Reason with it. Besides, they had not Strength enough or Compass of Judgment, to comprehend the drift of the ceremonial Laws, which, with regard to the Character of the Jewish Nation, and their Proneness to Idolatry, or as they were Figures and Types of the Gospel, were all founded on solid Reasons. Thus they were in an Error as to the point of Fact; and tho the Consequence follow’d justly and necessarily from their false Principle, they were wrong nevertheless. But by this example we see of what importance it is, that natural Light shou’d find nothing absurd in any thing propos’d as Revelation; for that which might otherwise appear most certainly reveal’d, will cease to appear so, when once found repugnant to that primitive, universal, and mother<55> Rule of judging, and of discerning Truth from Falshood, Good from Evil.
Every Philosophical attentive Mind clearly conceives, that this lively and distinct Light which waits on us at all Seasons, and in all Places, and which shews us, That the whole is greater than its part, that ’tis honest to be grateful to Benefactors, not to do to others what we wou’d not have done to our selves, to keep our Word, and to act by Conscience; he conceives, I say, very clearly, that this Light comes forth from God, and that this is natural Revelation: How then can he imagine, that God shou’d afterwards contradict himself, and blow hot and cold, by speaking to us outwardly himself, or sending his Messengers to teach us things directly repugnant to the common Notions of Reason? An Epicurean Philosopher reasons very justly, tho he applies his Principles badly, when he says, that since our Senses are the first Rule of Knowledg, and the original Inlet to Truth, it cannot be suppos’d they are subject to Error.38 He’s wrong in making the Report of the Senses the Rule and Touchstone of Truth; but this once suppos’d, he’s in the right to conclude, they ought to be the Judges of our Controversys, and decide in all our Doubts. If therefore the natural and metaphysical Light, if the general Principles of Sciences; if those primitive Ideas, which carry their own Conviction with ’em, have bin afforded us as a means to judg rightly upon things, and to serve as a Rule for our Decisions, they must of necessity be the Sovereign Judg, and we must submit to their Decisions in all Differences about obscure points of Knowledg: so that shou’d it enter into any one’s head to maintain, that<56> God has reveal’d a moral Precept directly contrary to the first Principles, we must deny it, and maintain in opposition to him, that he mistakes the Sense, and that ’tis much more reasonable to reject the Authority of his Criticisms and Grammar, than that of Reason. If we don’t fix here, farewel all Faith, according to the Remark of the good Father Valerian:*If any one will pretend, says he, that we must captivate our Understanding to the Obedience of Faith, so far as to call in question, or even to believe that Rule of judging which Nature has afforded us, false in some Instances; I affirm, he does by this very Attempt necessarily subvert the Faith, because it is absolutely impossible to believe, upon any Credit whatsoever, without a previous reasoning, which concludes, that the Person on whose Testimony we do believe, is neither deceiv’d himself nor deceives: which kind of reasoning, we see, is of no force, unless we admit that natural Rule of judging which has bin hitherto explain’d.
And here we shall find all the pompous Discourses of Roman Catholicks against the Way of Reason, and for the Authority of the Church, terminate in the end. Without thinking on’t, they only take a larger Circuit to come home at last to the very same point, which others make by a strait Course. These say plainly, and without going about the Bush, that we must keep to that Sense which appears to us the justest: But they tell us, we must have a care of that, because our own Lights may possibly deceive, and Reason is all Darkness and Illusion; we must therefore rest in the Judgment of the Church. What is this but coming a round way about to our own Rea-<57>son? For he who prefers the Judgment of the Church to his private Judgment, must not he do this in virtue of this reasoning, The Church has greater Lights than I, she’s therefore more to be believ’d than I?
Thus we see every one’s determin’d by his own private Lights; if he believe any thing as reveal’d, it’s because his good Sense, his natural Light, and his Reason inform him, that the Proofs of its Revelation are sufficient. But what will become of us, if every private Person must distrust his Reason as a dark and illusive Principle? Must not he in this Case distrust it, even when he says, The Church has greater Lights than I, she’s therefore more to be believ’d than I? Must not he be afraid, that his Reason is deceiv’d here, both as to the Principle and as to the Consequence he draws from it? What will become of this reasoning too? All that God says is true; he tells us by Moses, that he created the first Man, therefore this is true. If we had not a natural Light afforded us, as a sure and infallible Rule for judging upon every thing that can fall under Debate, not excepting even this Question, Whether such or such a thing is contain’d in Scripture; might not we have ground to doubt of the Major39 of this Argument before us, and consequently of the Conclusion? As this wou’d therefore introduce the most fearful Confusion, the most execrable Pyrrhonism imaginable, we must of necessity stand by this Principle, That all particular Doctrines, whether advanc’d as contain’d in Scripture, or propos’d in any other way, are false, if repugnant to the clear and distinct Notions of natural Light, especially if they relate to Morality.<58>
[35. ]Augustine, De doctrina Christiana, book 3. [Author’s note in the French edition. See III.xvi.24, Migne, Patrologia Latina, vol. 34, col. 74.]
[36. ]Valerianus Magnus, Judicium de catholicorum regula credendi (Prague, 1641).
[37. ]William of Paris, De legibus. [Author’s note in the French edition. Guilielmi Alverni Opera omnia (Paris, 1674), vol. 1, p. 24b.]
[38. ]Lucretius, book 4. [Author’s note in the French edition. Lucretius, De rerum natura, IV, 469–521.]
[* ]Ubi supra. [See p. 67.]
[39. ]See Appendixes, “Bayle’s Use of Logic,” p. 580 (“syllogism”).