Paul, Plato, and Aristotle on the Lex Naturalis: The Interpretation of David Pareus

David Pareus

David Pareus (d. 1622) is one of those church reformers that most people have never heard of. In fact, his name was world renowned in his day. He was known via his association with former tutors such as Zacharius Ursinus and Jerome Zanchi, and for his biblical scholarship, defense of the Reformed churches against Catholic apologists, and for his humanism. The divines who gathered in Dordrecht for the famous Synod held there, requested his attendance as a distinguished scholar. Though he was unable to attend, the delegates requested his assistance through letters and his writings were held in high regard by all of those in attendance at the Synod. On the issue of the extent of Christ’s death, both moderates and extremists acquiesced to his opinion on the matter. 

The following is taken from Pareus’s In divinam ad Romanos S. Pauli Apostoli Epistolam Commentarius (p. 153), and demonstrates a Reformed Catholic humanism, not only in Pareus’s knowledge of the Classic languages and literature, but also in his willingness to use pagan philosophy as a true explanatory reference for principles found in both Holy Scripture and nature. I have cited the Latin/Greek original with a translation underneath. Any correction to perceived errors in the translation would be greatly appreciated:

Dubium:  Ex ver. 15. Ostendunt opus legis scriptum in cordibus suis: quomodo dicat Apostolus, legem esse scriptam in cordibus: cum physici doceant, intellectum esse instar tabulae rasae, in qua nihil sit scriptum: omnia tamen nohta¿ scribi possint? Plato in Philebo: dokei√ moi to/te hJmw◊n hJ yuch\ bibli÷w tini« proseoike÷nai quam sententiam sequitur Aristoteles I.3. capit 4. de anima: wJsper ejn grammatei/w wvJ mhde\n uJparxei ejnteleceia gegrammenon oJper sumbainei ejpi\ touv nouv. 

Responsio. Non pugnant: Nihil enim est in intelectu scriptum actu, quod Aristotel. dicit ejnteleceia: Omnia vero sunt scripta potentia: quoniam intellectus ad omnia intelligibilia habet se in potentia. Et quodamodo tamen actu inscripta dicuntur ea, ad quae ratio & mens sana se convertit per se sine demonstratione: ut sunt notitiae de Deo colendo, de parentibus honorandis, de discrimine honesti & turpis, etc. quae notitiae dicuntur lex naturae & naturales, quia harum femina nobiscum nascuntur. Praeter has sunt aliae, quas vocant koi\naß ejnnoiaß, quibus assentitur ratio ex solo sensu totum esse maius sua parte, ignem urere, aequalia aequalibus addita facere tota aequalia, etc. ex qualibus doctrinae mathematicae exstructae sunt. Platonis sententia est, omnia naturaliter inscriptura esse: sed nascentibus propinari poculum Lethes, unde oblivio omnium notitiarum, quas discere, sit reminisci. Intellexit praestantiam mentis & naturae humanae non esse a Deo conditam cum tanta ignorantia: sed quia veritatem non novit, fabulam finxit, quam etiam tabula Cebetis proposuit. 


Problem. From verse 15, “They show the work of the law written in their hearts”: Why does the Apostle say that the law is written in the hearts: when the physicians teach that the intellect is like a blank tablet upon which nothing is written, yet every intellect can be written upon? Plato in his Philebus says: “It seems to me that our soul in such a situation is like a book,” which is followed by a sentence of Aristotle (I.3. Chap. 4. de Anima): “just as characters may be on a tablet on which nothing has been written, so it happens with the mind.”

Response. They do not disagree: For nothing is written upon the intellect actually, which Aristotle calls entelechea: Indeed, all things are written potentially: because the intellect is itself in potency to all intelligible things. And in a certain way, nevertheless, those things are said to be actually inscribed, to which reason and the whole mind itself is converted by its very nature without demonstration: as is the knowledge about worshipping God, honoring the parents, the distinction of honest and filthy things, etc. which knowledge is said to be the law of nature and natural because it is begotten with us from woman. After these there are other [types of knowledge] which they call koinas enoias [common sense], to which reason ascends by sense alone: the whole is greater than its parts, fire burns, equals are added to equals to make whole equals etc. by which sort of doctrine mathematics were built. The sentence of Plato is, all things are inscribed naturally [upon the intellect] but after being born it drinks the cup of Lethe, whereupon all knowledge is lost, which to discern is to remember. He knew that the excellence of the mind and human nature was not preserved by God after so great an ignorance: but because he did not know the truth, he imagined a tale, which even the tablet of Cebes proposed. 

For Pareus, as for Vermigli, Zanchi, et alia, this law of nature that is inscribed upon the hearts of man – the law that tells us to worship God, honor our parents, and distinguishes between good and evil – was known by Paul, Plato, and Aristotle. Pareus does not see a disagreement between Plato and Aristotle, an innate knowledge and a knowledge by acquisition. The two may be reconciled by the distinction between the passive and active intellects. The former is in potency to all things, and the latter only gains knowledge through abstraction.

Even the active intellect contains certain types of innate knowledge, in the sense that these things are self-evident and are assumed within rather than proven by demonstration. The natural law pertains to that ability given from birth to distinguish between good and evil. Common sense, on the other hand, pertains only to sense perception and those principles that are discovered through those means. Finally, Plato’s tale of the river Lethe came close to the true cause of man’s ignorance, but without divine revelation he could not know that ignorance did not come from drinking the wrong water but from a volitional choice to abandon nature and God. Pareus’s ideas in this passage do not differ from those of Vermigli, Zanchi, and even Calvin. But, his exposition is more scholastic than the latter, as can be seen in his use of the method of proposition-aporia-response. He is a paragon for a Reformed humanism that seems all but forgotten today, and we could all benefit greatly from the translation of his whole corpus.


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