Bayle, Pierre (1647–1706)

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Pierre Bayle, the most important and most influential skeptic of the late seventeenth century, was born in Carla (now Carla-Bayle), a French village near the Spanish frontier, where his father was the Protestant pastor. He grew up during the religious persecutions under Louis XIV that culminated in the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685) and the outlawing of Protestantism in France. Bayle was sent first to a Calvinist school and then to a Jesuit college at Toulouse, where after studying the controversial literature and hearing the dialectical arguments of some of the professors, he converted to Catholicism. The intellectual considerations that led him to Catholicism, after further examination, soon led him back to Calvinism. He became technically a relaps, a person who has returned to heresy after having abjured it, and under French law he was therefore subject to severe penalties.

He left France for Geneva, where he completed his philosophical and theological studies. In 1674 he returned to France incognito and became a tutor in Paris and Rouen. The next year he obtained the philosophy professorship at the Protestant academy of Sedan as the protégé of Pierre Jurieu, a superorthodox theologian who was to become Bayle's greatest enemy. Bayle taught at Sedan until the school was closed in 1681. He and Jurieu went to Holland; they became members of the École illustre of Rotterdam and of the French Reformed church there. Bayle brought with him his first work, a letter concerning the comet of 1680, which he published under a pseudonym. This volume, like many of those to follow, attacked superstition, intolerance, and poor philosophy and history. The work was immediately successful and was soon followed by others, including an answer to Father Maimbourg's history of Calvinism and a collection of defenses of Cartesianism.

During these early years in Rotterdam, Bayle apparently made some fundamental personal decisions that affected the rest of his life. The first was not to marry but to devote himself to the solitary life of the dedicated scholar seeking truth. The second was to refuse any important professorship to carry on his work in Rotterdam (where he lived almost continuously for the rest of his life). Lastly, after his father and his brothers died in France as a result of the religious persecutions, Bayle apparently committed himself to both the cause of Calvinism and the cause of toleration.

From 1684 until 1687 he edited the Nouvelles de la république des lettres, one of the first learned journals of modern times, in which he reviewed works in many fields. His critical appraisals soon made him a major figure in the learned world and brought him in contact with the leading lights of his day, among them Antoine Arnauld, Robert Boyle, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, John Locke, and Nicolas Malebranche.


In 1686 Bayle published in Amsterdam his Commentaire philosophique sur ces paroles de Jésus-Christ "Constrains-les d'entrer" (Philosophical commentary on the words of Jesus "constrain them to come in"), a brilliant argument for complete religious toleration. Starting with the problem raised by Louis XIV's persecutions, Bayle developed a defense of toleration for Jews, Moslems, Socinians (Unitarians), Catholics, and even atheists, extending its scope far beyond Locke's not yet published Essay on Toleration.

Enmity had begun to develop between Bayle and Jurieu, who conceived of himself as the chief spokesman for Calvinist orthodoxy, opposed all kinds of deviation as heresy and atheism, and advocated political victory over Louis XIV. As Jurieu became a violent political radical and religious bigot, Bayle drifted away from the views and company of his former mentor. According to Jurieu the disaffection reached the breaking point with the publication of Bayle's "Philosophical Commentary." Bayle had tried to hide his authorship, but Jurieu soon guessed the truth and realized that they disagreed completely about almost everything. He saw his colleague as a menace to true religion and a secret atheist. Bayle intensified the quarrel by ridiculing Jurieu, attacking his intolerance and his political plans. Throughout the quarrel, Bayle insisted that he was a true follower of John Calvin and that he had imbibed his orthodoxy from Jurieu's antirational theology.

When Bayle began to publish his views, the Protestant liberals thought that he was on their side. But Bayle quickly employed his dialectical and critical skill to decimate their contentions and to show that there was no way of making the rational and scientific world compatible with the basic claims of Christianity, as they in part believed it to be. As a result, various liberal Protestants spent years defending themselves against Bayle's sharp criticisms, while Bayle alternately joined them in attacking Jurieu and Jurieu in attacking them.

Between 1690 and 1692 the argument between Bayle and Jurieu reached fever pitch, especially concerning whether or not Bayle was the author of the notorious "Advice to the French Refugees," a work criticizing the romantic optimism and hopes of the Protestant exiles. (Bayle so confused the evidence that even present-day scholars are unwilling to state positively that he did write it.) These controversies with Jurieu led in 1693 to Bayle's dismissal from his teaching post, an event that allowed him time to carry on his many controversies and to complete his great Dictionnaire historique et critique (A general dictionary, historical and critical; first published in two volumes in Rotterdam in 1695 and 1697), a work in which Jurieu is constantly attacked.

History and Composition of the Dictionary

Bayle had conceived the basic idea of the Dictionary long before its composition. For many years he had been assembling collections of errors uncovered in various historical works. As early as 1675, Bayle's letters show, he was actively interested in skeptical thought. In the lectures Bayle gave at Rotterdam he criticized every possible theory. The Dictionary brought his critical and skeptical sides together. Originally, Bayle planned only to write a dictionary that would list the mistakes in all other dictionaries and in particular the one by Louis Moréri. A sample portion of this project was printed in 1692 to test public interest. The negative reaction led to a change of plan; the dictionary became a historical and critical one, dealing principally with persons and mainly with those who were not treated fully or at all (usually because of their obscurity or insignificance) in Moréri's opus. The result was two folio volumes full of articles on little-known or totally unknown figures, omitting significant figures like Plato, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, and Cardinal Richelieu.

The Dictionary was composed in Talmudic style. Relatively brief biographical articles appeared at the top of the page, while all sorts of digressive notes on factual, philosophical, religious, or other matters appeared below, with notes on notes appearing in the margins. The biography of some extremely little-known personage, like Rorarius, would provide the stage for profound discussions of the nature of man and beasts, the mind-body problem, and the new metaphysical theory of Leibniz. Other subjects would provide forums for discussing the problem of evil; the immorality of great figures, especially Old Testament ones; the irrationality of Christianity; the problems of Locke's, Isaac Newton's, Malebranche's, Aristotle's, or anyone else's philosophy; or some salacious tale about a famous theologian, Catholic or Protestant, or a famous political figure of almost any age. There was little relation between the official subject of an article and its real content. But there were several major themes and threads that ran through many or most of the articles, themes that amounted to a massive onslaught against almost any religious, philosophical, moral, scientific, or historical view that anyone held. (Once Bayle explained that he was a Protestant in the true sense of the term and that he opposed everything that was said and everything that was done.)

The Dictionary was an instant success and immediately led to criticism and condemnation, both by the French Reformed church of Rotterdam and by the French Catholic church. The latter group banned the work, while the former demanded that the author revise or explain his views about the good moral character of atheists, the inability of Christians to answer the Manichaean views about the nature of evil, the strength of Pyrrhonian skepticism, the immoral character of King David, and why so many obscenities appeared in the work.

Bayle promised the congregation of the French Reformed church that he would revise the article "David" and would offer explanations of the other matters. Almost as soon as the first edition of the Dictionary appeared, he began work on the second, revising the article "David" and adding many additional articles, plus a set of clarifications. This final edition appeared in Rotterdam in 1702 and consisted of 7 to 8 million words. After this monumental effort, the rest of Bayle's career was devoted to carrying on various controversies, defending some of the claims in the Dictionary, and fighting a growing list of opponents. He died on December 28, 1706, while completing his Entretiens de Maxime et de Thémiste (Conversations between Maxime and Themiste; Rotterdam, 1707), a final reply to the liberal Protestants.

Replies to Bayle kept appearing, written by such figures as Leibniz, Bishop William King, and Jean-Pierre Crousaz; and the avant-garde spirits of the Enlightenment found much ammunition in Bayle's folio columns with which to attack the ideological and theological ancien régime. François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire, David Hume, Edward Gibbon, Denis Diderot, and many others found intellectual nutrition in Bayle's skeptical and critical efforts. Thomas Jefferson recommended the Dictionary as one of the hundred basic books with which to start the Congressional Library. Poets and writers of fiction like Alexander Pope, Henry Fielding, and Herman Melville found inspiration and plots in some of Bayle's spicy tales. Ludwig Feuerbach (1967), in the nineteenth century, saw Bayle as a major figure in the rise of modern thought and devoted a whole volume to him.

The Dictionary was enormously influential during the eighteenth century, both for its spirit and for its wealth of information. Though it was written in the form of a reference work, its lopsided contents, overloaded with lives of obscure theologians and figures of French political history, made it difficult for the Dictionary to maintain its character as a guide to research and scholarship. Efforts to improve it by adding and updating articles were only temporarily successful. The editors of the 17341741 English edition put in hundreds of articles on English and Arab figures, plus some "correctives" to what they regarded as outlandish in Bayle's original. In 1740 Jacques-Georges de Chaufepié translated many of the English articles into French, adding a great many more on Bayle's opponents, and put out a four-volume folio supplement. However, the type of critical and careful research Bayle had fostered gave birth to projects that would forever make his Dictionary obsolete as a reference work. La Grande Encyclopédie and the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which replaced it, were continuing team efforts, rather than one man's appraisal of the whole intellectual world. Thus, Bayle's work became a victim of its own offspring. It gradually disappeared as an important element in the intellectual world and was superseded by the works of leaders of the Enlightenment who had imbibed at least part of Bayle's spirit.

Philosophical Aspects of the Dictionary

The discussions in the Dictionary that had the greatest philosophical impact were those dealing with the problem of evil, with the independence of morality from religion, and with the unintelligible nature of the physical and mental world, especially when analyzed in terms of the categories of the "new science" and the "new philosophy." With a dialectical skill unknown to earlier skeptics Bayle dissected every theory and showed that it was unsatisfactory. Instead of merely utilizing the classical epistemological arguments of Sextus Empiricus, slightly modernized by the Montaignians, Bayle employed primarily the method of one of his heroes, the "subtle Arriaga" (Roderigo Arriaga, the last of the Spanish scholastics, who died in 1667), a method that Bayle had probably learned from the Jesuits at Toulouse.

The technique consisted in exposing the weakness of every rational attempt to make sense of some aspect of human experience. Bayle, like Arriaga before him, repeatedly exhibited man's sorry intellectual plight. All human rational efforts are always their own undoing and terminate in theories that are "big with contradiction and absurdity." Bayle concentrated on a few shocking illustrations of this thesis. In a series of articles, "Manichaeans," "Marcionites," "Pauilicians," and "Rufinus," he contended that the Manichaean or dualistic theory of two gods, one good and one evil, could not be refuted by orthodox Christian theology, that it was a better explanation of human experience of evil, but that it was ultimately repugnant to sound reasoning. (Leibniz's Theodicy was largely an attempt to refute Bayle on Manichaeanism and the problem of evil.)

Religion and Morality

Throughout his writings, from his letter on the comet to the Dictionary and its various defenses, Bayle argued the then scandalous thesis that a society of atheists could be moral and a society of Christians immoral. He tried to show that people's moral behavior is not a consequence of their beliefs but is rather the result of many irrational factors, such as education, custom, passion, ignorance, and the trace of God. In the article "Jupiter" he pointed out that Greek mythology was absurd and immoral, but the Greeks lived moral lives nonetheless. In his "Clarification on Atheism" he stated that he could find no case of a classical atheist, or a modern one like Benedict (Baruch) de Spinoza, who lived a wretched, morally degenerate life. Instead, the cases he found all seemed to be ones of highly moral people, who also happened to be atheists.

Additionally, Bayle knew of myriad casesfrom a biblical one to leading Catholic and Protestant clergy of his dayof religious heroes who were immoral and whose behavior seemed to have been influenced by the most irreligious factors. Among many articles dealing with the sexual aberrations of different religious fanatics, early reformers, and Renaissance popes, the long one on "David" brought this point out most forcefully. David was introduced as the most holy figure in the Old Testament, and a series of notes outlined and analyzed his immoral conduct. This massive assault on any alleged rational or necessary connection between religious belief and moral behavior greatly influenced the Third Earl of Shaftesbury (Anthony Ashley Cooper; who lived and argued with Bayle for a while), and Bernard Mandeville (who was apparently one of Bayle's students at Rotterdam), and through them many of the eighteenth-century British moralists.


In metaphysics Bayle employed his dialectical skill to show that theories about the nature of matter, space, time, motion, mind, and mind-body relationships, when thoroughly analyzed, are contradictory, inadequate, and absurd. Starting with Zeno of Elea's paradoxes and the sections in Sextus against metaphysics, Bayle attacked all sorts of ancient and modern forms of atomism, Platonism, and Aristotelianism, as well as the modern substitutes offered by René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, Spinoza, Malebranche, Leibniz, Locke, Newton, and many others. He showed the weird, incredible conclusions that would follow from each of these theories. (Bayle's article "Rorarius" was the first public examination of, and attack on, Leibniz's theories of preestablished harmony and of monads.) In the articles "Pyrrho" and "Zeno of Elea" (which greatly influence George Berkeley and Hume) Bayle brilliantly challenged the distinction between primary and secondary qualities, so fundamental in the theories about reality of all the "new philosophers."


Bayle repeatedly showed that the many attempts by human beings to explain or understand their world were all just "highroads to Pyrrhonism," since they only made every supposition more perplexing, absurd, and dubious. Rational activity, no matter what problem it is directed at, leads to complete skepticism, since reason invariably leads one astray. In the article "Acosta" Bayle compared reason to a corrosive powder that first eats up errors, but then goes on to eat up truths, "When it is left on its own, it goes so far that it no longer knows where it is, and can find no stopping place."


Each time Bayle reached this point he would proclaim that in view of the inability of reason to arrive at any complete and adequate conclusion about anything, man should abandon the rational world and seek a different guide: faith. This claim was forcefully stated in the articles "Bunel, Pierre," "Charron," "Manichaeans," "Pomponazzi," "Pyrrho," and the "Clarification on the Pyrrhonians." Bayle's dwelling on the theme that reason makes men perplexed and so requires that they look for another guide suggests, perhaps, that his purpose was something like that of Maimonides in The Guide of the Perplexed, one of Bayle's favorite works.


In various discussions (such as the articles "Pyrrho," "Simonides," and the "Clarification on the Pyrrhonians") Bayle insisted that the rational and the revealed worlds are in complete conflict, because the latter is based on claims that are in direct opposition to the principles that appear most evident to reason. Starting with the first line of Genesis, the world of faith contains claims that are rationally unintelligible and unacceptable. According to Bayle the principle that reason finds the most evident and certain is that nothing comes from nothing, whereas faith reveals that God created the world ex nihilo. Similarly, the most acceptable rational moral principles are at complete variance with the revealed accounts of the behavior of the heroes of the faith, the leading figures of the Old Testament. In this total opposition between reason and revelation, faith is man's only refuge. Bayle insisted that his irrational fideism was the traditional orthodox position from St. Paul and Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullian down to Calvin and Jurieu. (In fact, some passages of Bayle sound like Søren Aabye Kierkegaard and other more fideistic theologians.)

Bayle's Religious Position

No matter how often Bayle claimed that he was advocating the faith and was merely restating what orthodox Christians had always said, his opponents, especially Jurieu and some of the liberals, insisted that Bayle was actually an unbeliever trying to destroy the faith by making it sound as ridiculous and irrational as possible. Certainly, some of Bayle's passages have such a ring. And none of his statements of the fideistic message have the anguish of Blaise Pascal or Kierkegaard, or even the despair of the truth seeker unable to find satisfaction in either the rational world or in revealed truths.

However, this may not necessarily be a sign that Bayle was insincere. Bayle himself offered an alternative possibility in a discussion in the longest article in the Dictionary, that on Spinoza. In note M Bayle described two kinds of people, those who have religion in their minds, but not in their hearts, and those who have religion in their hearts, but not in their minds. The first kind are convinced of the truth of religion, but their consciences are not affected by the love of God. The second kind lose sight of religion when they seek it by rational means and are lost in the wilderness of the pros and cons; but when they listen only to their feelings, conscience, or education, they find that they are convinced of religion and regulate their lives accordingly, within the limits of human frailties. If Bayle had religion in the heart in this sense (rather than Pascal's), it was an emotionless religion, which became confused and perplexing whenever he tried to explain or comprehend it. When he abandoned the attempt to be rational about it, then it became a calm guide for a life of pious study.

In the article "Bunel, Pierre" Bayle presented this fervorless religion as almost a testimonial of faith. Bunel, an obscure Renaissance pedant from Toulouse (who accidentally had an enormous influence on the development of modern skepticism by giving Raimond Sebond's Natural Theology to Montaigne's father) is one of the few genuine heroes of Bayle's Dictionary. He was pictured as a perfect Christian, in contrast to myriad imperfect ones (including Jurieu), because he rejected all worldly goals and devoted himself solely to the life of the pure scholar, harming no one and seeking truth. Bayle's own life was much like Bunel's. Beyond this, Bayle's religion seems to have had little or no content, though he always claimed to be a Calvinist Christian.

The lack of content in Bayle's religion may account for his important doctrine of toleration of the rights of the erring conscience. In many works Bayle insisted that man's ultimate appeal for justification of his beliefs and actions was his own conscience and that man had no further ultimate standard to employ to determine if his conscience was correct. Therefore, each man could act only as he saw fit, and no one was justified in trying to compel another to act contrary to the dictates of his conscience, erring or otherwise.

Though Bayle continually presented his appeal to faith, and his own faith, in tranquil and colorless terms, a fundamental problem remains of determining what Bayle did in fact believe and what his arsenal of doubts was intended to achieve. Shaftesbury, who knew Bayle well, called him "one of the best of Christians." Jurieu was sure he was an atheist. The Enlightenment leaders saw him as one of them, perhaps a deist, but definitely a scoffer at all historical religions. The biographical data would suggest that, barring some strange private joke, Bayle was committed to some aspects of the French Reformed church. He persisted in belonging to it, attending it, and proclaiming his sincere adherence to it, no matter how much he was abused by Jurieu and others. He could have lived and prospered in Holland either in a more liberal church or as a complete independent. In tolerant Holland it was extremely unlikely that he would have been punished or have had his works censored, no matter what he said or believed.

Coming from a family that suffered inordinately from persecution for its Calvinism, Bayle may have felt a need and desire to maintain his original tradition. His last message to a friend as he knew his life was ending was, "I am dying as a Christian philosopher, convinced of and pierced by the bounties and mercy of God, and I wish you a perfect happiness." Elisabeth Labrousse (1963) points out that this is a most minimal Christian testament, since Jesus is not mentioned, nor any Christian doctrine, nor anything about Bayle's church. In his writings Bayle rarely discussed religion without making Manichaeanism or Judaism seem either more plausible or more significant than Christianity; and he occasionally (as in the article "Takiddim") even called Judaism the true religion. Bayle may have been either a Christian in his own sense or actually a Manichaean or Judaizer or both, working out an enormous defense of his cause by undermining the rational and moral foundations of other possibilities.

Until it is possible to ascertain Bayle's actual beliefs, it will remain extremely difficult to determine his aims and whether the impact he had was the intended one. Bayle undermined all the philosophical positions of the great seventeenth-century metaphysicians and posed basic problems that Berkeley, Hume, Voltaire, and others were to use to establish other approaches and alternatives. He provided an enormous amount of argument and ridicule for the Enlightenment to use in destroying the intellectual ancien régime and in launching the Age of Reason. But even Voltaire and Hume were aware that Bayle was much more given to doubt and destructive criticism than they considered themselves to be. At times, they believed they had found new ways of overcoming Bayle's doubts. Perhaps they were both too far removed from Bayle's calm religious haven to be able to entertain his complete doubt about everything without utter dismay and horror.

Bayle seems to have lived in a different world from that of the Enlightenment that he helped produce. Though he may not have been "the greatest master of the art of reasoning," as Voltaire called him, he was one of the best. He was a genius at seeing how to attack and destroy theories about almost anything and a master at determining what the facts in the case were. Bayle would turn his attacks against everyone and everything, modern, ancient, scientific, rationalistic, or religious. He did not, apparently, see a new and better world emerging from his critique, nor see the need for one. The havoc he was wreaking seemed to leave him completely tranquil. It was for subsequent generations to discover the problem of living in a world in which all is in doubt and in which the solution proffered by Bayle seems meaningless or unattainable.

Some scholarship focuses on Bayle's last writings after the Dictionary. Gianluca Mori (1999) and others believe that they have found that Bayle was evolving more positive views in his last few years.

See also Aristotelianism; Aristotle; Arnauld, Antoine; Berkeley, George; Boyle, Robert; Calvin, John; Cartesianism; Descartes, René; Diderot, Denis; Enlightenment; Feuerbach, Ludwig Andreas; Fideism; Gibbon, Edward; Hobbes, Thomas; Hume, David; Jefferson, Thomas; Kierkegaard, Søren Aabye; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Locke, John; Maimonides; Malebranche, Nicolas; Mandeville, Bernard; Mani and Manichaeism; Montaigne, Michel Eyquem de; Newton, Isaac; Pascal, Blaise; Plato; Pope, Alexander; Religion and Morality; Renaissance; Sextus Empiricus; Shaftesbury, Third Earl of (Anthony Ashley Cooper); Skepticism, History of; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de; Tertullian, Quintus Septimius Florens; Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de; Zeno of Elea.


works by bayle

Oeuvres diverses. 4 vols. The Hague: n.p., 1727. A collection of Bayle's writings other than the Dictionary.

A General Dictionary, Historical and Critical. 10 vol. Translated by John Peter Bernard, Thomas Birch, and John Lockman. London: J. Bettenham, 17341741. This was published in French under the title Dictionnaire historique et critique in 1740.

Historical and Critical Dictionary, Selections. Translated by Richard H. Popkin, with Craig Brush. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965. Contains selections from forty articles, plus Bayle's clarifications.

Correspondance de Pierre Bayle, edited and annotated by Elisabeth Labrousse et al. Oxford, U.K.: Voltaire Foundation, 19992004.

Bayle: Political Writings, edited by Sally L. Jenkinson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

works on bayle

Barber, W. H. "Bayle: Faith and Reason." In The French Mind: Studies in Honour of Gustav Rudler, edited by Will Moore, Rhoda Sutherland, and Enid Starkie, 109125. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1952. Suggests that Bayle was sincerely religious.

Bracken, Harry M. "Bayle Not a Sceptic?" Journal of the History of Ideas 25 (1964): 169180. Attempts to clarify the sense in which Bayle was a skeptic and a fideist.

Bracken, Harry M. "Pierre Jurieu: The Politics of Prophecy." In Millenarianism and Messianism in Early Modern European Culture. Vol. 4: Continental Millenarians: Protestants, Catholics, Heretics, edited by John Christian Laursen and Richard H. Popkin, 8594. Boston: Kluwer Academic, 2001.

Courtines, Léo. Bayle's Relation with England and the English. New York: Columbia University Press, 1938. Deals with Bayle's contacts with and influence on English philosophers, theologians, and writers, including Berkeley and Hume.

Dibon, Paul, ed. Pierre Bayle, le philosophe de Rotterdam. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1959. An important collection of articles in French and English reevaluating Bayle's views.

Feuerbach, Ludwig. Pierre Bayle: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Philosophie und Menschheit. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1967. Bayle seen as caught between rationalism and the irrationality of Christianity.

Hasse, Erich. Einführung in die Literature des Refuge. Berlin: 1959. A monumental study of the French Protestant refugees. Places Bayle in the context of this group.

Hazard, Paul. The European Mind, 16801715. Translated by J. Lewis May. London: Hollis and Carter, 1953. Originally published in French under the title La Crise de la conscience européenne, 16801715 in 1935. The intellectual climate of Bayle's time.

James, E. D. "Scepticism and Fideism in Bayle's Dictionnaire." French Studies 16 (1962): 307324. Challenges the views of Popkin and others regarding Bayle's religious views.

Kemp Smith, Norman. The Philosophy of David Hume: A Critical Study of Its Origins and Central Doctrines. London: Macmillan, 1941. Contains analyses of sections in Bayle that influenced Hume, especially in his Treatise of Human Nature.

Labrousse, Elisabeth. Pierre Bayle. Vol. 1: Du pays de foix à la cité d'Erasme. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1963. First biography of Bayle in recent times, based on monumental researches.

Labrousse, Elisabeth. Pierre Bayle. Vol. 2: Hétérodoxie et rigorisme. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1964. A study of Bayle's theology by the leading authority today. Contains a massive bibliography.

Laursen, John Christian. "Bayle's Anti-millenarianism: The Dangers of Those Who Claim to Know the Future." In Millenarianism and Messianism in Early Modern European Culture. Vol. 4: Continental Millenarians: Protestants, Catholics, Heretics, edited by John Christian Laursen and Richard H. Popkin, 95106. Boston: Kluwer Academic, 2001.

Mason, H. T. Pierre Bayle and Voltaire. London: Oxford University Press, 1963. A comparison, with an attempt to assess what Voltaire borrowed from Bayle.

Mason, H. T. "Pierre Bayle's Religious Views." French Studies 17 (1963): 205217. Defends interpretation of Bayle as an irreligious thinker.

Mori, Gianluca. Bayle philosophe. Paris: Champion, 1999.

Norton, David. "Leibniz and Bayle: Manicheism and Dialectic." Journal of the History of Philosophy 2 (1964): 2336. An attempt to see how Bayle might have dealt with Leibniz's Theodicy and a new analysis of Bayle's dialectic.

Paganini, Gianni, ed. The Return of Scepticism from Hobbes and Descartes to Bayle. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic, 2003. Includes several articles on Bayle and eighteenth-century skepticism.

Popkin, Richard H. The High Road to Pyrrhonism edited by Richard A. Watson and James E. Force. San Diego, CA: Austin Hill Press, 1980. Contains articles on Bayle in the context of the late seventeenth century and on his legacy for the eighteenth century.

Rétat, Pierre. Le "Dictionnaire" de Bayle et la lutte philosophique au XVIIIe siècle. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1971.

Rex, Walter. Essays on Pierre Bayle and Religious Controversy. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1965.

Sandberg, K. C. "Pierre Bayle's Sincerity in His Views on Faith and Reason." Studies in Philology 61 (1) (1964): 7484. Interprets Bayle as a sincere Calvinist. Shows Bayle had no need to fear censorship.

Whalen, Ruth. The Anatomy of Superstition: A Study of the Historical Theory and Practice of Pierre Bayle. Oxford, U.K.: Voltaire Foundation, 1989.

Richard Popkin (1967, 2005)

Bayle, Pierre (1647–1706)

views updated Jun 08 2018

BAYLE, PIERRE (16471706)

BAYLE, PIERRE (16471706), French philosopher and critic. Pierre Bayle counts among the most influential and yet most enigmatic thinkers in history. Richard Popkin has described him as the key intellectual figure at the turn of the eighteenth century, and he has come to be known as the "Arsenal of the Enlightenment," the source of its ideas on toleration, secularism, and a host of other issues. Despite the relative clarity of Bayle's effect on his immediate successors, there is very little agreement on what Bayle himself might actually have believed. He is thus in the curious position of having an influence that he himself might not have fully recognized or intended.

Although he was to become one of the brightest luminaries of French culture, Bayle was born and raised far from its Parisian epicenter, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, and spent almost the whole of his adult life outside France, as a refugee. Conversion to Catholicism under his Jesuit schoolmasters shocked his staunchly Protestant family, but he reconverted upon completion of his studies. Thus regarded by the overwhelming Catholic majority as not just a heretic but a relapsed heretic, Bayle faced a nearly impossible life, and he fled France for Switzerland. Then, after a brief period spent clandestinely in Paris and at the Protestant Academy at Sedan, he fled again, not long before the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, settling permanently in Rotterdam amid the relative freedom of the Netherlands. Through this early period he eked out an existence from menial teaching jobs, which, however necessary, kept him from the scholarly life that was his only interest (he was later to reject otherwise attractive offers of marriage and a university appointment as inconsistent with that life). The commercial success of his publications finally made total devotion to scholarship possible.

Bayle's influence should not be surprising since he was both enormously prolific and widely read. Indeed, his Historical and Critical Dictionary was the most popular work of the eighteenth century. Shelf-counts of private libraries from the period show this work appearing far more frequently than anything from distant competitors such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Newton, or Locke. Accounting for its undeniable popularity, or even describing the nature of this work, is not easy. Its only principle of organization is the alphabetical order of its entries. Bayle wrote of people of every sortphilosophers, kings, clowns, some famous, many obscure, often real, of course, but sometimes from mythand not just people, but rivers, islands, towns, everything under the sun, it would seem. And he did so in a way that furthers the uniqueness of the work. Almost all of his interesting writing occurs not in the actual text of the entries but in the double columns of smaller-print footnotes that occupy most, and sometimes all, of the pages. These notes often contain the utterly unrelated digressions into philosophy, church history, religious polemic, literary criticism, pornography, curious trivia, and other areas that so obviously delighted Bayle. Clearly, this was not a work to be read from cover to cover over its several in-folio volumes but to be dipped into for unconnected episodes of fascinating yet instructive entertainment. No wonder that it had a broad readership from Leibniz, Hume, Voltaire, and Jefferson to many lesser lights.

The Dictionary is a very long work that Bayle seemed prepared to expand indefinitely in further editions. But it represents less than half of his total output. The rest of his works are devoted almost entirely to religious polemic in defense of Protestantism's attempted reform of Christianity against Catholicism's Counter-Reformation and in defense of his version of Calvinist Protestantism against his more conservative and more liberal coreligionists. A key to this work is Bayle's advocacy of toleration based on the inviolability of conscience even when objectively it is in error. Bayle discusses an actual case that had taken place in the next town from his birthplace; the wife of Martin Guerre is beyond blame and punishment in yielding to an impostor husband so long as she genuinely believes him to be her husband. What is true of her, moreover, is true mutatis mutandis of the religious heretic whose belief, though mistaken, is sincere. In neither case should conscience be forced.

In the history of philosophy, Bayle is typically regarded as a skeptic. But if he was a skeptic, he was not of the Pyrrhonian sort that advocates suspension of belief, for Bayle in his work expressed more beliefs than perhaps anyone in history. In addition, the texts in which he sets out skeptical arguments are very few in number (most notably in the Dictionary article on Pyrrho) and his attitude toward them is at best ambiguous. Nor does he seem to have been even a religious skeptic, however much his arguments on a number of topics might point in the direction of atheism. If anything, he practiced academic skepticism, whose defining feature is the virtue of intellectual integrityof respecting perceived truth not only in one's own voice but also in reporting the views of others. Such a virtue might partially explain why it is that so many different and competing views come across on Bayle's work, which is otherwise so enigmatic.

See also Philosophes ; Skepticism: Academic and Pyrrhonian .


Primary Sources

Bayle, Pierre. The Dictionary Historical and Critical. New York, 1984. Translated by Pierre Desmaizeaux. London, 17341747. 5 vols. A photo-offset edition of a colorful, but complete and accurate, translation of Dictionnaire historique et critique (Rotterdam, 2nd ed., 1702; 1st ed, 1697).

. Œuvres diverses. Hildesheim, 19641968. A photo-offset edition of the same title (The Hague, 1st ed., 17271731; 2nd ed., 1737). Almost the whole of Bayle's work beyond the Dictionary, to which several volumes are being added.

Secondary Sources

Labrousse, Elizabeth. Bayle. Oxford, 1983. An impeccable, accessible introduction and summary.

. Pierre Bayle. Vol.1, Du pays de Foix á la cité d'Erasme. Vol.2, Hétéroxie et rigorisme. The Hague, 19631964. The standard reference work, by the acknowledged doyenne of Bayle scholarship. The first volume is a biography; the second, an analysis of Bayle's thought.

Thomas M. Lennon

Bayle, Pierre

views updated Jun 27 2018


French skeptic who had an enormous influence on 18th-century thought; b. Carla, southern France, Nov. 18, 1647; d. Rotterdam, Dec. 28, 1706. Bayle, son of a Calvinist minister, attended the Protestant school at Puylaurens, and then the Jesuit college at Toulouse, where he converted to Catholicism and shortly thereafter back to Calvinism. His second conversion made him a relaps, subject to severe penalties during the persecutions of the Huguenots. Bayle fled to Geneva and studied philosophy and theology at the university. He then secretly returned to France and lived in disguise, earning his living as a tutor in Paris and Rouen and later as professor of philosophy at the Calvinist academy at Sedan, as the protegé of the fanatic Calvinist leader, Pierre Jurieu. In 1682, when the academy was closed by Louis XIV, Bayle and Jurieu became professors at the École illustre of Rotterdam. Here Bayle published his first work, his Thoughts on the Comets of 1680, a critical attack on superstition, intolerance, various philosophical and theological systems, historical inaccuracies, etc., followed by an answer to Father L. Maimbourg's History of Calvinism and a collection of defenses of cartesianism answering the attacks of the French Jesuits. From 1684 to 1687 he edited the Nouvelles de la République des Lettres, reviewing all of the important writings then appearing. His famous work on toleration, the Philosophical Commentary on the words of Jesus, "Constrain them to come in," appeared in 1686. Here Bayle offered a defense of toleration of all groups from Catholics to Muslims, Jews, Unitarians, and even atheists. His erstwhile supporter, Jurieu, then turned upon him and denounced Bayle as a secret atheist. Thereafter Bayle and Jurieu fought each other in a constant pamphlet warfare whose fruits included the termination of Bayle's academic career, which thus gave him time to write his most important and influential work, the Historical and Critical Dictionary, first published in 1697. Bayle's Dictionary, which grew to be between seven and eight million words long, consists of biographical articles on all sorts of people from the most obscure theologians to the most famous figures in the Old Testament, and the most notorious political figures. The "meat" of the Dictionary consists in the lengthy, digressive, erudite footnotes, and notes to the notes, attacking and dissecting every possible theory in philosophy, theology, and science, and retailing salacious tales about famous and infamous personages. Some of the articles (on David, the Manichaeans, Pyrrho, Rorarius, Spinoza, and Zeno) became major battlegrounds of the intellectual world for the next 50 years, eliciting replies from philosophers and theologians of every persuasion. Bayle spent his remaining years writing defenses and explanations of his views against attacks from conservative and liberal Protestants, from Catholics, and from such philosophers as G. W. Leibniz. Bayle died with pen in hand finishing off another rebuttal.

Throughout the Dictionary and his later works, Bayle argued that various theories in philosophy, theology, and science involve contradictions and absurdities that appear incapable of resolution. Over and over, Bayle contended that his massive skeptical barrage showed that rational endeavor in all areas is hopeless, and that man should abandon reason and turn to faith as the only source of true knowledge. He reinforced his fideism by arguing that revealed truth was unintelligible, in conflict with reason, evidence, and morality. Heretical views such as Manichaeanism, he claimed, could be better defended rationally than could Christianity.

Many of Bayle's contemporaries assumed that his point was not the defense of religion, but its destruction. The philosophes saw the Dictionary as "the Arsenal of the Enlightenment," and used it to undermine traditional religion, theology, and philosophy. Leibniz, G. Berkeley, and D. Hume wrestled with Bayle's arguments and sought new solutions. But the 18th century ultimately found its resolution in replacing Bayle's skeptical treasury with scientific studies. As his learned biographies became outdated, his endless doubts came to be ignored and forgotten, and his fideism seen as a covert rationalistic critique of religion and philosophy, preparing the way for the Age of Reason. Recent studies, aimed at placing Bayle in the context of his time, have led to a reconsideration of his fideism, and suggest that he was, perhaps, a serious, though puzzled and puzzling believer, struggling with the various religious and scientific tensions of his day. His doubts and religious concern may have more lasting value than the scientific optimism that emerged from taking his texts as the death knell of the pre-Newtonian age.

See Also: skepticism; enlightenment, philosophy of.

Bibliography: Oeuvres diverses, comp. p. des maizeaux, 4v. (The Hague 172731; repr. 1964); A General Dictionary, Historical and Critical, 10 v. (London 173441); Selections from Bayle's Dictionary, ed. r. h. popkin (New York 1965). p. dibon et al., eds., Pierre Bayle, le philosophe de Rotterdam (Amsterdam 1959). e. labrousse, Pierre Bayle (The Hague 196364).

[r. h. popkin]

Pierre Bayle

views updated May 23 2018

Pierre Bayle

The French philosopher and skeptic Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) was the author of the Historical and Critical Dictionary. This unique philosophy source book was one of the most influential works during the 18th-century Enlightenment.

Pierre Bayle was born in the village of Carlat near the Spanish border. His father was a Calvinist minister. As a young man, Pierre was educated by the Jesuits at Toulouse, and under their influence he converted to Catholicism for a brief period. When Bayle returned to Calvinism, he traveled to Geneva to escape persecution as a heretic. There be became acquainted with the philosophy of René Descartes. In 1674 Bayle returned to France incognito and tutored in Paris and Rouen. The following year he became professor of philosophy at the Protestant University of Sedan, and when this school was suppressed in 1681, Bayle settled in Rotterdam, Holland, where he taught philosophy until his death.

With a certain irony Bayle insisted that he was a genuine Protestant in that he protested everything that was said and done. This skeptical attitude was a major motif of contemporary philosophy. Rationalism, as a new system of thought, consistently undermined the notion of authority both in ecclesiastical matters and in the philosophic opinions of the ancients. Positively, skepticism presented itself as the guardian of faith by showing the futility of all human reason. Derivatively, skepticism became aligned with humanism as a proponent of toleration in matters intellectual, political, and religious.

Famous Dictionary

Scholarship then was not what it is today. More than a few of the great minds of the 18th century owed all or much of their knowledge of the history of philosophy to Bayle's Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697; Historical andCritical Dictionary). Very early in his career Bayle conceived the notion of correcting errors in previous encyclopedias and of supplying information missing in standard reference works. The two volumes of the Dictionary contained more than 2, 500 pages of primarily biographical information arranged in alphabetical order, together with occasional articles on general subjects. By modern standards the Dictionary is a capricious, polemical, debunking work filled with long quotations and literary allusions in which there is little relation between the topic under discussion and the content. The texts are generally brief and accurate, with numerous citations of authorities in the margins.

The heart of the work is the critical notes that Bayle appended in small print at the bottom of the pages. These footnotes and notes on the notes often were 10 times as long as the original article. They include philosophical and theological digressions, attacks against personal enemies, and thorough skepticism. Bayle justified his attitudes by an appeal to the professional impunity of the scholar: "Let an historian relate faithfully all the crimes, weaknesses, and disorders of mankind, his work will be looked on as a satire rather than history. "For example, Bayle wrote a factual account of the life of the biblical king David. In the notes he pointed out that although David's life was divinely inspired his behavior by ordinary standards was completely immoral. The reader was left with a dilemma concerning the infallibility of Scripture, since "Either those actions are not good or actions like them are not evil."

The reaction to the Dictionary was instantaneous; Bayle was both famous and infamous. The work was placed on the Index by the Roman Catholic Church and condemned by the Dutch Reformed Church. Promising revision, Bayle amended the work, and a second edition appeared in three volumes in 1702. Printers incorporated the original articles with the amended versions, and by 1720 the work had grown to four volumes. It became, in the words of one critic, "the Bible of the eighteenth century."

Further Reading

A full-length study of Bayle in English is Howard Robinson, Bayle, the Skeptic (1931). Additional studies which relate him to his milieu or to other figures include Leo Pierre Courtines, Bayle's Relation with England and the English (1938); Paul Hazard, The European Mind, 1680-1715 (trans. 1953); H. T. Mason, Pierre Bayle and Voltaire (1963); Walter Rex, Essays on Pierre Bayle and Religious Controversy (1965); and Karl C. Sandberg, At the Crossroads of Faith and Reason: An Essay on Pierre Bayle (1966). For the intellectual background of the period see Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (1951), and Lester G. Crocker, An Age in Crisis: Man and World in Eighteenth Century Thought (1959).

Additional Sources

Labrousse, Elisabeth, Pierre Bayle, Dordrecht; Boston: M. Nijhoff: Distributors for the U.S. and Canada, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1985. □

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