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Bayle, Pierre (1647–1706)

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

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Pierre Bayle

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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Bayle, Pierre

Pierre Bayle (pyĕr bāl), 1647–1706, French philosopher. Born a Huguenot, he converted to Roman Catholicism and then returned to Protestantism. To avoid French intolerance of Protestants, he moved in 1681 to Rotterdam, where he lived for most of the rest of his life. Trained as a philosopher and with a strong background in theology, Bayle supported Calvinism but was also an advocate of religious toleration, contending that morality was independent of religion. Bayle was renowned for his trenchant skeptical attacks against leading religious, metaphysical, and scientific theories of his day. He held that attempts to construct rational explanations of the world were bound to lead to absurd conclusions. His chief work was Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697), a compendium of biographies with comprehensive and detailed criticisms by Bayle. His views had a profound influence on the French and German Enlightenment, especially on the authors of the Encyclopédie and on the English deists.

See C. Brush, Montaigne and Bayle (1966) and E. Labrousse, Bayle (1983).

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