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Pierre Bayle begins his defence of religious toleration with this appeal that the light of nature, or Reason, should be used to settle religious differences and not coercion (1708)

Pierre Bayle begins his defence of religious toleration with this appeal that the light of nature, or Reason, should be used to settle religious differences and not coercion:

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 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.

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.

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 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 contentmyself with overthrowing that literal Sense whichPersecutors 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. Jesus 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 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 ownVisions, Prejudices, and Passions on the People…

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 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. (pp. 67– 68)

About this Quotation:

Voltaire and Bayle were two great French defenders of the ideas of Reason and religious toleration. Writing some 60 or 70 years later, Voltaire took a more popular route writing his Philosophical Dictionary (1764) for a more popular audience whilst Bayle wrote for a decidedly more scholarly group. This passage shows very clearly Bayle’s scorn for those divines who would so twist reason, or “the light of nature,” in order to defend the undefendable

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