Front Page Titles (by Subject) Chapter XVII: An Answer to what is objected, That all Errors are Acts of the Will, and consequently morally evil. The Absurdity of this Consequence shewn; and a Rule offer'd for distinguishing Errors, which are morally evil, from those which are not. - A Philosophical Commentary on These Words of the Gospel, Luke 14.23, 'Compel Them to Come In, That My House May Be Full'
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Chapter XVII: An Answer to what is objected, That all Errors are Acts of the Will, and consequently morally evil. The Absurdity of this Consequence shewn; and a Rule offer’d for distinguishing Errors, which are morally evil, from those which are not. - 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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An Answer to what is objected, That all Errors are Acts of the Will, and consequently morally evil. The Absurdity of this Consequence shewn; and a Rule offer’d for distinguishing Errors, which are morally evil, from those which are not.
I Have bin longer upon this Question than I design’d, for I had resolv’d to reserve it to another place; but finding my self once enter’d, I cou’d not forbear enlarging on it, tho I don’t pretend to have said all that the Matter might bear. I have pass’d over several Difficultys, which I know will be objected, and which may be better discuss’d elsewhere; what I have said being more than sufficient to destroy the pretended Disparity, which was to be confuted in this place. Let’s now consider, what is to be answer’d to the Objection inserted in the Title of the Chapter.
I must allow those who make the Objection, that the new Philosophers242 teach with a great<647> deal of Reason, that what was formerly call’d the second Operation of the Understanding, is truly an Operation of the Will; that’s to say, all the Judgments we make upon Objects, whether by affirming concerning ’em that they are such and such, or by denying, are Acts proceeding from the Soul, not as capable of perceiving and knowing, but as capable of willing. Whence it follows, that since Error consists in our affirming concerning Objects what does not belong to ’em, or in our denying what does, therefore every Error is an Act of the Will, and consequently voluntary.
But so far is this from being any way favorable to the Cause of my Adversarys, that I desire nothing more to confound ’em, and deprive ’em of the only Arms they had left, after having yielded up their three first Disparitys. For the only thing left for them to say was, that a Judg who is deceiv’d in absolving the guilty and condemning the innocent, is under an involuntary Error, and consequently innocent: whereas if he be deceiv’d in taking an Orthodox Person for a Heretick, his Error is voluntary, and consequently sinful. All this falls to the ground, if it be true, as there’s no room to doubt, and as the Authors of this Objection themselves suppose, that all Error is an Act of the Will: and therefore it’s their business to fly if they can to the Asylum, which was taken from ’em in the ninth Chapter;243 to wit, that all Error proceeds from a Source of Corruption, and consequently deserves Hell-Punishment.
Here then we find ’em reduc’d to a sad Alternative. They must of necessity say, either<648> that all Error being voluntary is sinful; or that there are Errors which are innocent, altho voluntary. If they chuse the first, Good Lord, what a Load of Absurditys do they draw down upon their own poor Backs! for as there are a great many Criticks, who maintain that the Iliad is preferable to the Aeneid, and that Plautus’s Comedys exceed those of Terence; and a great many others, who maintain, that the Aeneid surpasses the Iliad, and that Terence is preferable to Plautus; it must of necessity follow, that one Party or other of these Criticks passes a false Judgment; that’s to say, commits a Sin, according to the first Member of the Alternative. Besides, what shall we say to invincible Ignorance, an Ignorance of Fact, which excuses in the Sight of God and Men? What to Children sprung from the adulterous Embraces of their Mother; and who nevertheless, knowing nothing of that, inherit her Husband’s Estate, in prejudice to his lawfully begotten Children, or his Relations? What if these poor Creatures die without making Restitution, and doing the proper Penance for all the Sins they have committed, as often as they thought their Mother an honest Woman, and that they had a natural Right to the Estate of her Husband, their reputed Father? Shall they be eternally damn’d? This single Circumstance were enough to overthrow this extravagant Hypothesis; to wit, that it tends to introduce the rankest Quietism244 that ever enter’d into the Brain of the most expert Phanatick in the extatick Mysterys: for who dare affirm, without the fear of offending God by an erroneous Judgment, that a Man who has fasted three days has an Appetite?<649> Who dare believe, that the Dinner which his Cook sends him up is not poison’d? Where’s the Judg who dare try any Cause, or the Physician who dare prescribe a Remedy, for fear of sinning in Judgments of this kind?
They must therefore stand by the other Member of the Alternative: but when once I have gain’d this Point, that there are Errors which are innocent tho voluntary; they must compound for the exclusion of some, and the including of others in the Class of Sins; they must find a Rule for determining such a thing is a Sin, such a thing is not. And till such time as they can furnish me a better, I have a right to make use of the following Rule, to wit,
That since there are some false Judgments, neither morally good nor morally bad, (such for example, as the Judgment of those who prefer the Iliad to the Aeneid, or of those who prefer the Aeneid to the Iliad) there’s no false Judgment which precisely as false has any thing of a moral Qualification; but that to make it of an Act purely indifferent become morally evil, we must necessarily be determin’d to it from some wicked Motive: as if we judg Homer, for example, excels Virgil, purely to have the Satisfaction of contradicting one we have a dislike for, whom we have a mind to vex, or be reveng’d on; or because we hope to gain the Reputation of a Superiority of Genius, and be rank’d above others in competition with us. This is one sure way of making an Error, in its own nature perfectly indifferent, become a Sin.
But here it will be fit to observe, that not only they who err’d in preferring Homer to Virgil<650> from any such Motive, wou’d be guilty of a Sin; but they likewise, who did not err in giving him the Preference. So that by ill luck for my Adversarys, Truth has no more Privilege here than Error; for if the Iliad in reality excels the Aeneid, they who hold the Affirmative judg right, and they who hold the Negative judg wrong: yet the Judgment of the first sort, better indeed physically than that of the latter, is not however morally better, both being Acts which morally speaking are neither good nor bad; consequently if what renders the Act of those who are deceiv’d evil, occur in the Act of those who light on the Truth, the Act of the latter becomes morally evil, no less than that of the former. So that on supposition, that the Iliad is a better Poem than the Aeneid; they who are determin’d to judg it so, by any Motive of Hatred, Envy, Revenge, or Vanity, sin as much as they, who from the same Motives* affirm, the Aeneid excels the Iliad. I don’t enlarge so much on this Remark without some Reason; it has a Relation and Influence on other Matters.
Hence I think we may be able to form a Rule for distinguishing Errors sinful and not sinful; to wit, That all Error is sinful, when the Party is led into or entertain’d in it by any Principle of which one knows the Disorder, as a Love of Ease, a Spirit of Contradiction, Jealousy, Envy, Vanity.
For example, if a Man who is at an age to make use of his Reason and Liberty (for there’s no Case to be put before this Age) continues in<651> the Errors he has suck’d in with the Milk, because he won’t examine whether the Religion in which he has bin educated is the true, as judging the Inquiry too painful, and chusing to take his pleasure rather than this trouble; or rather because he’s afraid of finding it erroneous, in which case his Conscience wou’d teaze him to forsake a Religion he’s intirely pleas’d with, and hinder his enjoying quietly the Comforts it affords: if, I say, a Man persist in his Errors from such Motives, they become criminal; for then he plainly shews, that he loves his Pleasures more than the Truth, and instead of persevering in his Religion because he believes it true, is willing and industrious to believe it true, because it sutes with and indulges the Desires of the Flesh.
A Man also who persists in his Errors, because having maintain’d ’em by word of Mouth, or by Writing, or Messages, or otherwise with great Reputation, dreads declining in his worldly Glory, if he shou’d come to embrace the contrary of what he had once believ’d and taught, and follow this new Opinion: such a Man, I say, errs not in the Sincerity of his Mind; his Error is attended with Sin.
Nor he who is loth to give his Enemys the satisfaction of being able to reproach him, that he had bin a long time a Heretick, and under an extreme Blindness of Understanding.
Nor, lastly, he who shou’d be sorry the Religion his mortal Enemy preach’d and defended with great applause, shou’d prove the true.
These and such-like Motives, whose Obliquity is notorious from natural Light and Conscience<652> (for no one dare own that he suffers himself to be led by such Motives) and which are capable of hindring a Man’s forsaking his Errors, render ’em wilful and criminal.
As to those, who being born in the true go over to a false Religion, in a Persuasion that they forsake Error for Truth, and who had bin led into this Persuasion either by some Affront receiv’d in their first Religion, or by the Unlikelihood of passing their time as agreeably in it, according to the Opinion of this World, as in another; or by the occasions which another Sect might afford ’em of gratifying their Revenge, or from any other Principle of this kind: I say in like manner, that these err, and shou’d be reputed to err voluntarily, according to the Sense of this Word in the old Philosophy;245 and that they come under the Condemnation of Divine Justice.
But I dare not make the same Judgment on a Man, who without any secret Reserve, or hidden Motive whose Obliquity he perceives or knows; but purely because naturally his Turn of Understanding is such, that he’s struck much more by one sort of Reasons than by another; quits the best Sect of Christianity, to embrace one with a thousand Errors in it: for we must consider that this Sect, as erroneous as it is, has its offensive and defensive Arms, puts the Orthodox sometimes to a very strange puzzle, and supports it self by Reasons, which some here and there, by an odd Turn of Understanding, and I don’t know what sort of Proportion between certain Objects and certain Complexions, shall relish much more than the Arguments of the Ortho-<653>dox, and think ’em much more solid, and tending more to the Glory of God. I can’t for my part see, that there must necessarily be a criminal Passion at heart, to make a Man prefer the Reasons which are to be alledg’d against some Points of Orthodoxy, to the Reasons which support ’em.
What Judgment is to be made of those who won’t enter into Disputes.
As to those who continue in their Errors of Birth and Education, purely from this Reason, that they won’t examine into the Doctrines or Principles of any other Sect, as well because persuaded their own Religion is the true and all the rest false, as because they have heard say, that this Research is the business neither of a Day nor a Year, but an almost infinite Labor, beset with a thousand Snares which Satan has cunningly interwove with it, and in which the greatest Genius’s have bin catch’d and brought to perdition; I dare not for my part tax ’em with a Contempt for the Truth, and wilful Error. This I will say, that philosophically speaking they are guilty of a great piece of Imprudence; because it’s most certain, as Seneca says, that a great many wou’d become really wise, if they did not fancy themselves so already; Multi ad Sapientiam pervenirent, nisi jam se pervenisse putarent: and because their Persuasion not arising from a free and reasonable Choice, upon a fair comparing the Reasons of both sides, favors more of the Machine than the rational Creature; but further I don’t see in it either Malice or the Will<654> to err. The Case is not the same here as when a Scholar refuses to study; his Ignorance, I own; is wilful, for he knows he’s ignorant, and ever shall be so unless he study: but the Heretick now before us believes he’s already possess’d of the Truth, and refuses to examine, only because he believes there’s no need of it.
I desire any Minister wou’d tell me, what Judgment he wou’d make of any of his Flock, who shou’d tell him he had always bin so firmly persuaded of the Doctrine of the Trinity, that he never cou’d enter into a Dispute upon it with any Socinian, nor hear their Reasons with any patience: He wou’d praise him for’t without doubt.
So that the refusing to examine is not morally evil in it self; for if it were, ’twou’d be always evil.
Oh! but, say they, it’s always evil where the Party is in an Error. This is easily confuted by my fore-going Remarks; for can any one deny me this, That the firm Belief of a false Doctrine precisely as such, is neither a good nor a bad Quality, morally speaking? Can any one deny me, for example, but the same Force (I say numerically the same) which acts on the Understanding to apply it to Objects, and which has made a Turkish Child believe that the Alcoran is a Divine Book, wou’d have made him believe the same concerning the Bible, if directed on this Object? Whence it follows, that if this Force was evil in the Turkish Child, it must likewise be evil in the Christian Child; and if good in one, it must be good in the other too: which ought to instruct us, that morally speaking it’s<655> neither good nor bad; and whether it beget in a Child the Belief of a Falshood, or that of the Truth, still it’s an Act which thus far is neither morally good nor evil: and consequently to become an evil moral Quality, the Soul which has this Force must direct it by Motives, whose Obliquity it knows, rather on this Object than on that; as to become morally good, the Soul must direct it, from Motives whose Rectitude and Goodness it knows, rather on one Object than another. Accordingly I shan’t stick to say, that all the Morality which enters into the Acts of our Soul, proceeds from the Motives which determine it, with the Knowledg of the Cause, to direct these Acts towards certain Objects; and that the Nature of the Objects makes no alteration, consider’d as it is in it self, but only as envisaged in the Understanding.
From whence I shall draw this Conclusion, That the refusing to examine not becoming a good moral Quality, precisely because they who do refuse it have the Truth of their side, but rather because believing they have the Truth they won’t give themselves a needless trouble, and which might throw ’em into Illusion; it’s not material towards knowing whether they who do refuse act morally well or ill, to know whether they are in an Error or no; all lies in knowing by what Motive they make this Refusal: and if this Motive be exactly the same in those who err, but who are under a strong Persuasion that they hold the Truth, as in those who are so persuaded upon good grounds; ’twere absurd to pretend that it’s sinful in the first and righteous in the latter; the nature of<656> the Objects, as I have already said, having no influence on the Morality of our Actions, consider’d as they are really in themselves, but only as reputed such or such by our Understandings.
’Twill now be easily conceiv’d, that according to these Principles a Man born in the true Religion, but who continues in it from corrupt Motives, is not one jot a better Man than he who from the same Motives continues in the false Religion in which he had bin bred; and that he who goes over from a false Religion to the true upon wicked Motives, is not a jot more righteous than he who goes over from the true Religion to a false on the same Motives.
If it be true, as a great many have believ’d, that the Duke of Guise and the Prince of Conde’s Interests were so diametrically opposite, that had either chang’d his Religion, the other wou’d certainly have done the same;246 I shou’d not for my part chuse the Condition of one rather than t’other at the Tribunal of God: tho as for any thing else, one of ’em might always have done great service to the good Cause, and the other to the bad; but as each wou’d have made his own Glory his chief End, each may read his Doom in that Saying of Jesus Christ,*Verily they have their Reward: or in that Answer which at the last Day shall be given to those who shall plead that they have prophesy’d in his Name, and in his Name have cast out Devils and done Miracles; I never knew you, depart from me ye that work Iniquity.† ’Tis<657> being a Worker of Iniquity, to cleave to the better Church not from a Love for the Truth, but from worldly Interest, or any other human Consideration.
In the mean time, I won’t deny but there may be those who have rectify’d in the sequel what had bin amiss in the Motives which first induc’d ’em to embrace the good Cause, God sometimes making use of our Passions to convert us: but to this end it’s necessary that whatever was inordinate in these Motives cease acting on us, in which case likewise the continuing in an Error may become sincere; for Men shou’d once for all be undeceiv’d in this Point, which was confuted in the foregoing Chapter,247 That when one loves Error purely because he believes it the Truth, he does not love the Truth. This is making a wrong Judgment in this matter; it is actually a Love of Truth: for leave a Man who is in this Disposition exactly as he is, only substitute in the place of the Object which he loves, tho false, that Object which is really true, and you shall see him love this new Object just as he lov’d the other.
How much it concerns us, in the Acts of our Understanding, not to confound the Physical and Moral.
I shall conclude the Chapter with this Remark, That nothing has led the World into greater Mistakes in judging of false Opinions, than the little care Men take of distinguishing between that which is physical in the Acts of our Soul, and that which is moral. I hope the hint<658> I have given may be useful towards making ’em beware confounding these two Things; and for my part I shall never repent having contributed to hinder the multiplying Sins without necessity: for if the multiplying real Beings without a necessity, be condemn’d as a Breach upon good Sense and the Ideas of Order, by a much stronger Reason may we condemn the multiplying Sins without need, which are only Monstrositys, and Fantoms of Being rather than real Beings, and of which we have too many already in the World.
Let’s say then, that all Error, of what kind soever, is a Defect, or physical Imperfection; and every true Judgment, of what kind soever, a physical Perfection: for every true Judgment is a faithful Representation of Objects, such as they are in themselves, and outside of the Understanding; whereas all Error is a false or unfaithful Representation of Objects as they are outside the Understanding. Now as ’tis a physical Imperfection in a Painter, to paint a Man so ill that ’tis the hardest thing imaginable to find him in his Picture, and that a Looking-Glass which shews the Objects naturally and just as they are in themselves, is more valuable than another Glass which transforms or disfigures to such a degree, that they are not to be known; so it’s an ill physical Quality in the Soul, to form an Idea of Objects, which does not represent ’em such as they are in themselves: and that Understanding which takes ’em exactly to the life, is without doubt preferable to another, in which the Images are all overturn’d or strangely distorted. But on the other hand, as Apelles, Michael Angelo, or any other famous Painter,<659> excels not in the least as to the moral part, those wretched Painters who are forc’d to write at the bottom of their Pieces, a Bear, a Rose, &c. as, I say, these two sorts of Painters have not the least advantage one over t’other in point or moral Good precisely from hence, that one copys Nature to a wonder, the other after a very vile manner; and that to the end some excel the others, morally speaking, it’s necessary they shou’d propose for themselves some morally better end, and paint from some morally better Principle; so those Souls which believe the Truth, and those which believe an Error, are not so far either morally better or worse one than t’other: and the only advantageous difference of either side, as to moral Good, must arise from one Set’s believing what they believe from a Motive whose Rectitude and Goodness is known to ’em, the other’s believing what they believe from a Motive in which they have perceiv’d some Obliquity.
I shan’t here consider what the Cartesians teach,248 that one is guilty of a great Temerity in affirming things which he does not distinctly comprehend, and which he has not examin’d with the utmost Exactness and Nicety, whether it be his good fortune to succeed in his Inquirys or no; that is, the Temerity is no less in those who light on the Truth by chance than in those who miss it: I shan’t, I say, stand to consider this, because it’s manifest this Maxim transplanted to Religion and Morality wou’d not do near so well as it does in Physicks.<660>
[242. ]On the “new philosophy” see Appendixes, “Philosophical Controversies,” p. 595.
[243. ]See above, p. 438.
[244. ]“Quietism” is the name given to a version of religious mysticism condemned by the Catholic Church, but here Bayle seems to use it in a broader sense for any doctrine that implies that persons should give up choosing and acting on their own choice.
[* ]Take notice, that I all along here mean mental Affirmation, for the verbal without the mental is not Error but Lying.
[245. ]See Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, 1–2, q. 6, a. 8, and q. 76, a. 2–4.
[246. ]See DHC, art. “Guise, Francis de,” rem. A.
[* ]Mat. 6.
[† ]Mat. 7. 23.
[247. ]See above, p. 482.
[248. ]See Appendixes, “Philosophical Controversies,” p. 595.