BY JON NELSON
Pierre Bayle is a name that is not too well-known in the atheist community; indeed he is not even as well-known in philosophy as he should be, given that this was his field of expertise. Bayle, (1647-1706), was a contemporary of Spinoza and echoed the French philosopher’s skepticism of theistic claims to truth. Actually, Bayle went far beyond anything Spinoza dared to utter in his condemnation of religion. It is therefore rather surprising that Bayle was never silenced by the church and its strong-arm political allies, although he did have to flee to Holland from his native France to avoid persecution.
Bayle was educated by his father and brought up as a Calvinist. After entering a Jesuit college, he switched allegiances and became a Catholic. This proved to be a temporary conversion, and after seventeen months returned to the Calvinist fold and moved to Geneva. It was here that his interest in philosophy bloomed, and he ardently studied Rene Descartes’ works. He then moved to Paris and served as a private tutor for several years before being appointed philosophy chair at a Protestant university, the Academy of Sedan. Not long after this, the university was closed by the fearful Catholic government as part of its war against Protestantism, and Bayle began to see for himself the results of church/state intermingling and of religiously based bigotry. This soured him forever on the Catholic church and he became a Protestant. He moved to the Dutch Republic and was soon appointed professor of philosophy and history at the École Illustre in Rotterdam. It was not a happy tenure, no doubt fueled by his increasingly outspoken free thought views, and he was dismissed from his position in 1693.
Although he professed Protestantism, his version of Protestantism was one that few others of his time would have shared. His critiques of religion in general, and Christianity in particular, were certainly dangerous in seventeenth century Europe. While it is an unwarranted stretch of the truth to call him an atheist, he definitely came to be an advocate of many of the things atheists hold dear: religious toleration for dissenters of all faiths and, even more daringly, of those professing no faith. Elaborating on the point, Bayle stated that traditional religious superstition was a far greater threat to morality than was atheism. It was this that made him the darling of the philosophes and a forefather of the Enlightenment.
He went further: he was one of the very first Western philosophers to openly critique the Bible. He did so from the standpoint of ethics, subtly trying to influence and change his reader’s biblical presuppositions. He asked them if they would consider a specific act to be immoral. The reader would obviously respond in the affirmative. At that point, Bayle would introduce a biblical text that told of one of the patriarchs doing exactly the same thing. He would then suggest that if the act were immoral for, say, Cesare Borgia, it should also be immoral for King David, or of any of the other biblical patriarchs (2). Thus he was able to introduce doubt about the veracity of biblical morality in the mind of his readers.
This was a truly revolutionary first step. Bayle’s faith was Protestantism, and he was careful to state that he wasn’t an atheist (which would no doubt have caused his arrest and probable execution), but he was probably the first philosopher to have a major impact in making the general public aware of the fact that, just maybe, the Bible isn’t the great moral exemplar people have always assumed it to be. Higher criticism of the Bible owes its origin to Pierre Bayle.
Bayle insisted that all positions on any given issue be examined without bias or preconceived notions. This sometimes has led to violent disagreement as to what his true views actually were. One point that could be argued either way was whether he viewed faith superior to reason, or vice versa. Bayle’s great paradox is that, while he utilized reason to disprove much of traditional theistic beliefs, he also devoted much time in laying out his suspicions of reason itself, given its non absolutist nature and inability to provide irrefutable positions on any given issue. On the other hand, he insisted that there is nothing higher than reason; if a given proposition is compatible with reason, it is true. But if a proposition runs contrary to human reason, it must be false. Thus, by implication, Bayle refutes the common theistic rationalization (still heard today) that god’s reasons are “above” human understanding and therefore superior to it. The problem is that most of his thoughts were presented as dialogues among autonomous speakers, making a single interpretation difficult if not impossible. What emerges from all this confusion, however, is the indisputable fact that Bayle was offering a radically new interpretation of religion and philosophy, wherein belief is not as important as action, and correct action presupposes the idea of religious toleration. Bayle was a tireless advocate of freedom of thought and speech.
Despite his seemingly contradictory views, Bayle was a “Renaissance man” in the best sense of the word. Not merely concerned with philosophy, history and religion, he also wrote his Nouvelles de la republique des lettres which was a journal of literary criticism. This work served to make reading literature much more popular than it had been previously. In addition, it has recently been determined that a work entitled Important Advice to Refugees, published in 1690 and whose authorship was previously unknown, has now been officially attributed to him. All this serves to illustrate how varied Bayle’s interests actually were.
While at Rotterdam, Bayle published a four volume work entitled Philosophical Commentary which was revolutionary in its pleading for religious tolerance. This work put his name at the forefront of contemporary philosophical thought, but it also aroused the ire of the civil authorities. However, a much more “dangerous” work was shortly to follow.
Bayle’s magnum opus was his Dictionary, which appeared in 1697. He added to it and revised it constantly from that time until his deathnine years later. However, despite its title, this was not a dictionary in the sense that we understand the word today, but rather more closely resembled an encyclopedia since the majority of entries were biographies of noted people, some of whom were mythological. The work enjoyed immediate and lasting success, becoming almost a “holy” text among the French philosophes of the following century. Bayle’s Dictionary was controversial on any number of levels inasmuch as many of the entries concerned religion and philosophy. Bayle expressed his view that much of what had been presented as truth was in fact only opinion and could therefore be examined and, if necessary, rejected. He also attacked dogma and spoke of his disdain for human gullibility. Bayle also rejected the near-universal belief that force and violence could be utilized in order to preserve religious conformity. Much of the work was dedicated in illustrating the incompatibility of religious belief with human reason. His Dictionary was a landmark literary revolution that became a standard reference work for later generations. It was so popular among the philosophes that Denis Diderot (1713-1784) “borrowed” large segments of the work for his own Encyclopedia. One writer, noting the fact that the Dictionary set the tone for the eighteenth centuries discussion of the Cartesian worldview, concluded that it was “…undoubtedly the most important contribution to scepticism since Sextus Empiricus” (3).
Bayle’s Dictionary was a massive undertaking, and he was able to escape persecution largely because most of the more inflammatory articles and opinions were quietly slipped into the copious footnotes, or else inserted into articles that seemed to be non-controversial. Despite this, the work was often criticized, and Bayle fueled the fires with subsequent publications such as Response To The Questions Of A Provincial (1704) and Continuation Of Diverse Thoughts (1705). In both of these, his polemics took on a much more atheistic tone.
Yet another accomplishment of this remarkable man was his “saving” the discipline of history. Historical writing had been under attack since the time of Rene Descartes (1596-1650) who contended that, since we cannot know the facts of history for certain, the entire field was to be eliminated; nobody should make any effort to record the past, or to interpret it in any way. Bayle came to the rescue, pointing out that, just as there are mathematical certainties, there are also historical certainties, such as the fact that the Roman Empire actually existed. He insisted that there were no historical facts to be accepted on faith; history must be objective in its character, freed from preconceived bias emanating from religious faith, nationalism, provincialism, or any other subjective wishes and desires. Thus, his accomplishment was in freeing the study of history from religion (4).
Moreover, Bayle was able to utilize his conclusions about history to his philosophical advantage by pointing out that the study of the progression of history showed that human morals were capable of being changed and improved over time. In this way, he was able to defend historical writing and biblical criticism at the same time and for the same reasons.
Bayle is in no sense arguing that morality is in a continual state of improvement. The Nazi regime, for example, was hardly a moral improvement over the Weimar Republic which preceded it. However, Bayle is speaking of potentialities rather than universal evolutionary precepts. The point he was making was a most definite freethought point: that the absolutist religious/political systems of the past should not be universally binding on all peoples in all places for all time.
Pierre Bayle was a man far in advance of his time. He was certainly an inspiration for the freethought pioneers of the following century who read and admired his work. Voltaire read him, as did Thomas Jefferson, who built on his legacy with the founding documents of the new United States. Thus, we may conclude that Pierre Bayle was a crucially important figure in bringing the light of reason to humankind.
- The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism by Peter Gay. Reissued 1995 by W.W. Norton, New York, London.
- The Western Intellectual Tradition by J. Bronowski and Bruce Mazlish. Copyright 1993 by Barnes and Noble Books. (pg. 242)
- The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy by Simon Blackburn. Published 1994 by Oxford University Press. (pg. 37)
- The Western Intellectual Tradition, pg. 244-5