Pierre Bayle expressed his views on Protestantism and religious tolerance in brief prose forms (letters, thoughts, dictionary entries) which convey the style and methods of an essayist. He is often considered a forerunner to the Enlightenment because of his rigorous examination of religious dogma based on erudition and reason coupled with a perspective that respected a variety of belief systems. He relied upon Cartesian methods and tenets, as filtered through the writings of Malebranche, in the many domains covered in his writings.
Bayle grew up poor, provincial, and Protestant, which marked him an outsider in 17thcentury Catholic France and had a profound effect upon his writing. He left his country, in fact, and spent most of his life in Holland to avoid religious persecution and enjoy the freedom of uncensored writing. In the Lettre sur la comète (1682,; Letter on the comet), enlarged a year later to Pensées diverses sur la comète (Miscellaneous Reflections Occasioned by the Comet), the letter form proved an effective means for his arguments disproving any supernatural significance attributed to comets, which Bayle showed to be natural phenomena explained by Cartesian physics. Even in this early text we find the lively, entertaining digressions which characterize Bayle’s later style of composition.
He applied his scientific inquiry conveyed with a derisive tone to a review of history in the Critique générale de l’Histoire du calvinisme du P.Maimbourg (1682., 1683; General critique of the History of Calvinism by P.Maimbourg). In this work he adapted his Cartesian principles to the study of history, and stressed the need for historical objectivity and impartiality, based on a careful examination of sources. It signaled a new style of controversy, and one of its most contested concepts was the idea that superstition is the worst of our evils, even worse than atheism. The work was burned by the hangman in Paris, and was a huge success in clandestine circulation.
Bayle’s most important and influential work, the two-volume Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697; An Historical and Critical Dictionary), was the only work to bear his name. Its enormous success can be seen in the fact that it was the work most often found in private libraries in the 18th century. It consists of a series of concise biographies marked by a witty, impersonal style. His skepticism often touched on pessimism, and his critique of superstitious, dogmatic elements in all religions earned him enemies among Catholics and Protestants alike. Irony and satire were often used to strip away hypocritical notions and practices, as Bayle displayed the naked truth of human error. His ambiguous treatment of the Bible as an historical document appealing to faith but requiring scrupulous rational examination was one of the most controversial elements of the Dictionary. He believed the practice of supporting governments and justifying political and institutional systems by a biased interpretation of the designs of Providence to be a morally corrupt practice and subversion of the truth.
In Bayle’s writing in general, as well as in the Dictionary in particular, the existing order of things is considered better than the chaos that change would entail. To this extent Bayle represents well the transitional period between the 17th and 18th centuries, between an acceptance, albeit critical, of contemporary political and ideological systems, and the more radical rejection of the status quo by writers of the Enlightenment. Bayle’s thought reveals the fluid orthodox Calvinism prevalent during the reign of Louis XIV, which encompassed a variety of apparent contradictions (skepticism and faith, monarchy and dissent). But if he refused the role of a revolutionary, Bayle was an ardent and relentless reformer. He destroyed commonplaces, facile logic, and totems in his work, which tends toward an individualistic perspective on society, due perhaps in part to his Protestant background.
A second edition of the Dictionary, which was greatly augmented, appeared in 1702, and conveyed some of Bayle’s more recent debates and philosophical arguments. Even in this work there is the journalistic aspect which characterizes so much of his writings, so that we can trace the evolution of his thought and of his polemical contests. His primary opponent was Pierre Jurieu, a fellow Protestant and former friend, who refused the spirit of compromise and tolerance toward the Catholics of France that can be found in Bayle’s works. Since he fought dogmatism wherever he found it, all the dogmatists of the period were naturally allied against him. His last texts focused on these ideological conflicts: a five-volume Réponse aux questions d’un provincial (1703–07; Response to questions of a provincial) and the Continuation des Pensées diverses (1705; Continuation of the Miscellaneous reflections).
Bayle was not interested in the earthly rewards of money or honor, but was driven by a tireless pursuit of discovering and expressing the truth, a philosophical goal which he sought with a religious zeal. He can be considered a moralist to the extent that his theological views often emphasize the social consequences of beliefs, and the relationships among peoples as affected by their religious attitudes. He had a great impact upon Voltaire, who found encouragement in his work to criticize Christian doctrine. It was as much the strength of his arguments as his style of writing, humanly imperfect in its rambling digressions yet lively in its witty understatement and sarcasm, that distinguished him as a writer. In many ways he resembled more the humanists of the 16th century than the philosophers of the 18th.
Born 18 November 1647 in Carla (now Carla-Bayle), southeast of Toulouse. Studied at home; Calvinist academy, Puylaurens, sporadically from 1666; Jesuit college, Toulouse, 1669, where he converted to Catholicism; reverted to Calvinism 17 months later and fled to Geneva to avoid exile as a lapsed Catholic; studied philosophy at the University of Geneva, 1670; tutor in Geneva and Coppet, 1672–74, and Rouen and Paris, 1674; taught philosophy at a Huguenot academy, Sedan, 1675–81, where he became friends with the Calvinist minister Pierre Jurieu; taught philosophy and history at the École Illustre, Rotterdam, 1681–93. Critique générale banned on first publication, 1682, and Bayle’s brother Jacob was arrested in France as a result, dying in prison, 1685. Founder and coeditor, with Henry Desbordes, Nouvelles de la République des Lettres (News from the Republic of Letters), 1684–89. Deterioration of his friendship with Jurieu, from 1686.
Died (of tuberculosis) in Rotterdam, 28 December 1706.
Essays and Related Prose
Lettre sur la comète, 1681; enlarged edition, as Pensées diverses sur la comète, 1683; edited by A.Prat, 2 vols., 1911–12,; revised edition edited by P.Rétat, 1981; as Miscellaneous Reflections Occasioned by the Comet, translated anonymously, 1708
Critique générale de l’Histoire du calvinisme du P.Maimbourg, 1682.; revised edition, 1683
Commentaire philosophique sur ces paroles de Jésus-Christ, “Contrain-les d’entrer”, 1686; as Commentary on These Words of the Gospel Luke XIV 23…, translated anonymously, 2 vols., 1708; as Philosophical Commentary, translated by Amie Godman Tannenbaum, 1987
Dictionnaire historique et critique, 2 vols., 1697; revised and enlarged edition, 3 vols., 1702; edited by A.J.Q.Beuchot, 16 vols., 1820–24, and Alain Niderst, 1974; as An Historical and Critical Dictionary, translated anonymously, 4 vols., 1710; as The Dictionary, Historical and Critical, various translators, 5 vols., 1734–38, reprinted 1984; as A General Dictionary, Historical and Critical, various translators, 10 vols.,
1734–41; selections edited and translated by Elmer A.Beller and Marguerite du Pont Lee, 1952, and Richard H.Popkin and Craig Brush, 1965
Réponse aux questions d’un provincial, 5 vols., 1703–07
Continuation des Pensées diverses, 2 vols., 1705
The Great Contest of Faith and Reason: Selections, edited and translated by Karl C.Sandberg, 1963
Other writings: works on religion and moral philosophy, and correspondence.
Collected works editions: OEuvres diverses, 5 vols., 1964–82; OEuvres diverses, edited by Alain Niderst, 1971.
Brush, Craig B., Montaigne and Bayle: Variations on the Theme of Skepticism, The Hague: Nijhoff, 1966
Delvolvé, Jean, Religion, critique, et philosophie positive chez Pierre Bayle, Paris: Alcan, 1906
Dibon, Paul, editor, Pierre Bayle, le philosophe de Rotterdam (essays in French and English), Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1959
Kenshur, O., “Pierre Bayle and the Structures of Doubt,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 21, no. 3 (Spring 1988): 297–315
Labrousse, Elisabeth, Pierre Bayle, The Hague: Nijhoff, 2 vols., 1963–64
Labrousse, Elisabeth, “The Political Ideas of the Huguenot Diaspora: Bayle and Jurieu,” in Church, State, and Society Under the Bourbon Kings of France, edited by Richard M.Golden, Lawrence, Kansas: Coronado Press, 1982
Labrousse, Elisabeth, Bayle, London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1983
O’Cathasaigh, S., “Skepticism and Belief in Pierre Bayle’s Nouvelles Lettres critiques” Journal of the History of Ideas 45, no. 3 (July-September 1984): 421–33
Rétat, Pierre, Le Dictionnaire de Bayle et la lutte philosophique au XVIIIe siècle, Paris: Les Belles-Lettres, 1971
Rex, Walter E., Essays on Pierre Bayle and Religious Controversy, The Hague: Nijhoff, 1965
Robinson, Howard, Bayle, the Skeptic, New York: Columbia University Press, 1931
Sandberg, Karl C., At the Crossroads of Faith and Reason: An Essay on Pierre Bayle, Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1966
Smith, Horatio E., The Literary Criticism of Pierre Bayle (dissertation), Albany, New York: Brandow, 1912.
Tannenbaum, Amie Godman, and D.Tannenbaum, “John Locke and Pierre Bayle on Religious Toleration,” Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 303 (1992): 418–21
Whelan, R., “The Anatomy of Superstition: A Study of the Historical Theory and Practice of Pierre Bayle,” Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 259 (1989): 1–269
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