The “Father of the Enlightenment” was the son of a Huguenot minister serving the town of Carla in the countship of Foix, under the Pyrenees. Pierre lived there his first twenty-two years, imbibing Greek, Latin, and Calvinism. He was a sensitive, impressionable youth. Sent to the Jesuit college at Toulouse (1669) to get the best classical education within his family’s reach and means, he fell in love with his teachers, and was soon converted to Catholicism—so fervently that he tried to convert his father and brother. They bore with him patiently, and seventeen months later he returned to the parental faith. But now, as a relapsed heretic, he was subject to prosecution by the Roman Church. To protect him the father sent him to the Calvinist University of Geneva (1670), hoping that Pierre would enter the Protestant ministry. There, however, Bayle discovered the works of Descartes, and began to doubt all forms of Christianity.
His schooling completed, he lived as a tutor in Geneva, Rouen, and Paris, and rose to a professorship in philosophy at a Huguenot seminary in Sedan (1675). In 1681 the seminary was closed by order of Louis XIV, as part of his war of attrition against the Edict of Nantes. Bayle found refuge in Rotterdam, and a berth as professor of history and philosophy in the École Illustre, the municipal academy. He was among the first of many intellectual emigres who in this age made the Dutch Republic a citadel of independent thought.
His salary was small, but he was content to live simply so long as he had access to books. He never married, preferring a library to a wife. He was not unmindful of feminine graces and charms, and would have been grateful for the tender solicitude of a good woman, but he suffered all his life from headaches and an associated “megrim,” or melancholia, and doubtless he hesitated to bind another spirit to his ills. He had his cynical moments, however, for when a French Jesuit, Father Maimbourg, in a History of Calvinism, argued that Catholic priests had accepted conversion to Protestantism in order to marry, Bayle asked how could this be, “for what greater cross is there than marriage?” 12
He reviewed Maimbourg’s book in a volume of letters that appeared in 1682. He wondered whether any man strongly attached to a special faith could write impartial or truthful history. How could one trust a historian who, like Maimbourg, called Louis XIV’s treatment of the Huguenots [before 1682] “just, gentle, and charitable?” Turning to Louis himself, Bayle, writing from a Holland so recently and flagrantly assailed by France, asked, What right had any king to force his own religion upon his subjects? If he had such a right, then the Roman emperors were justified in persecuting Christianity. Conscience, Bayle thought, should be the only ruler over a man’s beliefs. Maimbourg answered conclusively by procuring from Louis XIV an order that any copy of Bayle’s book found in France should be publicly burned by the common hangman.
In that same year 1682 Bayle issued his first major work, Pensées diverses sur la comète—miscellaneous thoughts on the comet that had crossed the sky in December, 1680. All Europe had been frightened by that star, whose tail of fire seemed to herald the conflagration of the world. Only if we put ourselves back into the fears of that age—when Catholic and Protestant alike interpreted such phenomena as divine warnings, and believed that any moment would bring upon a sinful earth the thunderbolts of God—can we understand the terror with which that flaming apparition had been viewed, or appreciate the courage and wisdom of Bayle’s comments. Even the learned Milton had recently told how “the comet from its horrid hair shakes pestilence and war.” 13 Basing his discussion upon the recent studies of astronomers (but Halley’s comet of 1682 had not yet appeared), Bayle assured his readers that comets move through the heavens according to fixed laws, and have nothing to do with the misery or happiness of mankind. He mourned the pertinacity of superstition. “He who would find all the causes of popular errors will never be finished.” 14 He rejected all miracles except those of the New Testament (without this exception his book could not have been printed in Holland). “In sound philosophy Nature is nothing else than God Himself acting by certain laws which He has established of his own free will. So that the works of Nature are not less the effect of the power of God than miracles, and suppose as great a power as miracles, it being altogether as difficult to form a man by natural laws of generation as to raise him from the dead.” 15
Bayle passed boldly to one of the most difficult problems of history: Is a natural ethic possible—can a moral code be maintained without the aid of supernatural belief? Did atheism lead to corrupt morals? If that were so, said Bayle, one would have to conclude, from the crime, corruption, and immorality prevalent in Europe, that most Christians are secret atheists. Jews, Mohammedans, Christians, and infidels differ in creeds, but not in deeds. Apparently religious belief—and ideas in general—have little influence upon conduct; this flows from desires and passions usually stronger than beliefs. What influence had the precepts of Christ upon the European conception of courage and honor?—which praised most the man who promptly and violently avenged insults and injuries, who excelled in war, inventing an infinity of machines to make sieges more murderous and frightful; “it is from us that infidels learn to use better arms.” 16 Bayle concluded that a society of atheists would have no worse morals than a society of Christians. What keeps most of us in order is not the distant and uncertain terror of hell so much as the fear of the policeman and the law, of social condemnation and disgrace, of the hangman; take away these secular deterrents, and you would have chaos; keep them, and a society of atheists would be possible; indeed, it might contain many men of high honor, and women of chastity. 17 We hear of such exemplary atheists in antiquity, like Epicurus and both Plinys; and in modern times, like Michel de l’Hôpital and Spinoza. (Whether the morals of the average man would be worse than they are if religion did not supplement law is a question that Bayle leaves untouched.)
This tract on the comet was published anonymously. Bayle took the same precaution when he inaugurated one of the major periodicals of the time, Nouvelles de la République des Lettres. Its first number, running to 104 pages, appeared in Amsterdam in March, 1684. The magazine proposed to keep its readers informed on all significant developments in literature, science, philosophy, scholarship, exploration, and historiography. So far as we know, Bayle himself wrote all the contents, month after month for three years; we may imagine the industry this entailed. His reviews of books soon became a power in the literary world. In 1685 he took courage, and acknowledged his authorship. Two years later his health broke down, and he surrendered the editorship to other hands.
Meanwhile the persecution of Huguenots in France found four victims in Bayle’s family. As a direct or indirect result of the dragonnades his mother died in 1681, his father in 1685; in that year his brother was imprisoned, and died of the cruelties inflicted upon him. Six days later (October 18) the Edict of Nantes was revoked. Bayle was shocked by these developments. Like Voltaire, he had no weapon but his pen. In 1686 he challenged the persecutors with one of the classics in the literature of toleration.
He called it Commentaire philosophique sur ces paroles de Jésus-Christ: Contrains-les d’entrer (Philosophical Commentary on These Words of Jesus Christ: “Compel Them to Come In”). The persecutors had claimed to find a divine warrant for their procedure in the parable told by Christ of the man who, when the guests whom he had invited to a feast failed to come, said to his servant, “Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in hither the poor, and the maimed, and the halt, and the blind.... Compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.” 18 Bayle had no trouble in showing that these words had nothing to do with compelling unity of religious faith. On the contrary, the attempts to enforce unity of belief had bloodied half of Europe, and the diversity of religions in a state prevented any one creed from being strong enough to persecute. Besides, which of us can be so sure that he has the truth as to warrant injuring another for differing from him? Bayle condemned persecution by Protestants as well as by Catholics, and of non-Christians by Christians in general. Unlike Locke, he proposed to extend freedom of worship or non-worship to Jews, Mohammedans, and freethinkers. Forgetting his claim that atheists were as likely as Christians to be good citizens, he advised against tolerating sects that had no belief in Providence and a punishing deity; these, undeterred from perjury by fear of God, would make difficult the enforcement of the law. 19 For the rest, only intolerance should be exempt from toleration. Should a Protestant state tolerate the rise of a Catholicism that defended intolerance on the ground that it alone had the true faith? Bayle thought that in such cases Catholics “should be deprived of the power of doing mischief. . . . Yet I should never be for leaving them exposed to personal insult, or for disturbing their enjoyment of property or the exercise of their religion, or allow any injustice in their appeals to law.” 20
The Protestants were no better pleased than the Catholics by this program of toleration. Pierre Jurieu, who had been Bayle’s friend and professorial associate in Sedan, and was now pastor of a Calvinist congregation in Rotterdam, attacked Bayle in a tract on The Rights of the Two Sovereigns in the Matter of Religion—the Conscience and the Prince (1687). Jurieu proposed “to destroy the dogma of the indifference of religions, and of universal tolerance, against a book entitled A Philosophical Commentary.” He agreed with the popes that rulers had full right to destroy a false religion; and he was especially shocked by the idea of tolerating Jews, Mohammedans, Socinians, and pagans. In 1691 Jurieu appealed to the burgomasters of Rotterdam to dismiss Bayle from his professorship. They refused; but in 1693 an election changed the official personnel; Jurieu renewed his campaign, charging Bayle with atheism, and Bayle was dismissed. “God preserve us from the Protestant Inquisition,” said the philosopher; “another five or six years, and it will have become so terrible that people will be longing to have the Roman back again.” 21
Soon recovering his perspective and good humor, Bayle adjusted himself to the situation. It was sufficient consolation that now he could devote all his working hours to the epochal Dictionnaire that he had already begun. He accustomed himself to live on his savings, and a few honorariums from his publishers. He received offers of patronage from the French ambassador in Holland, and from three English earls; he courteously declined, and even refused the Earl of Shrewsbury’s proffered gift of two hundred guineas for the dedication of the Dictionary. He had friends, but few distractions. “Public amusements, games, country jaunts . . . and other recreations. . . were none of my business. I waste no time on them, nor in any domestic cares, never soliciting for any preferment. . . . I find sweetness and repose in the studies in which I have engaged myself, and which are my delight. . . . Canem mihi et Musis—I will sing to myself and the Muses.” 22
So he remained quietly in his room, working fourteen hours a day, adding page after page to the strange volumes that were to become a fountainhead of the Enlightenment. The two massive folios, totaling 2,600 pages, appeared at Rotterdam in 1697. He called them Dictionnaire historique et critique; not a vocabulary of words, but a critical consideration of persons, places, and ideas in history, geography, mythology, theology, morals, literature, and philosophy. “lacta est alea!” he cried as he dispatched the final proof sheets to the printer—“The die is cast! “It was a heavy gamble with life and liberty, for it contained more heresies than any other book of its century, perhaps more than its grandchild, the Encyclopédie (1751) of Diderot and d’Alembert.
Bayle had begun with the limited aim of correcting the errors and supplying the omissions in the Grand Dictionnaire historique that Louis Moréri had published in 1674 from the viewpoint of Catholic orthodoxy; but his aim widened as he progressed. He never pretended to encyclopedic coverage; where he had nothing to say he said nothing; so there were no articles on Cicero, Bacon, Montaigne, Galileo, Horace, Nero, Thomas More. Science and art were largely ignored; on the other hand, there were articles on such recondite notables as Akiba, Uriel Acosta, and Isaac Abrabanel. Space was allotted not according to historical importance but according to Bayle’s interest; so Erasmus, who had been allotted one page in Moreri, received fifteen in Bayle, and Abélard eighteen. The arrangement was alphabetical but semi-Talmudic: the main facts were stated in the text, but in many cases Bayle appended in smaller type a note in which he let himself go into “a miscellany of proofs and discussions . . . , even sometimes a train of philosophical reflections.” It was in this fine print that he draped his heresies from the common view. In the margins he indicated his sources; altogether these display a range of reading and learning hardly possible in one lifetime. Some notes contained risqué anecdotes; Bayle hoped these would help his sales, but doubtless, in his baccalaureal solitude, he enjoyed them for their own sake. Readers took gratefully to his racy, rambling, saucy style, his sly exposure of weaknesses in current creeds, and his tonguein-cheek professions of Calvinist orthodoxy. The original issue of one thousand copies was sold out in four months.
Bayle’s method was to collate authorities, ferret out the facts, expound rival and contradictory opinions, follow reason to its conclusions, and then, if these wounded orthodoxy, reject them piously in favor of Scripture and faith. Jurieu angrily asked, “Can a word in passing in favor of faith over reason oblige men to renounce the objections that Bayle has called invincible?” 23 Otherwise there is little order in his Dictionnaire. Some of its major discussions emerge under trivial topics or misleading heads. “I cannot meditate with much regularity on one subject; I am too fond of change. I often wander from the subject, and jump into places of which it night be difficult to guess the way out.” 24 Usually the argument was courteous, modest, undogmatic, and good-humored; now and then, howevery, Bayle sharpened his tongue, and the article on St. Augustine did not spare the great Calvinist for his long deferment of chastity, his gloomy theology, and his religious intolerance. Bayle professed to accept the Bible as the Word of God, but he slyly pointed out that we would never believe some of its miracle stories had they not had so distinguished an author. He put pagan legends—e.g., Hercules swallowed by a whale—beside similar tales in the Bible, and let the reader puzzle why one story should be rejected and the other received. In the most famous of his articles he recounted the massacres, treacheries, and adulteries of King David, and left the reader to wonder why such a crowned scoundrel should be honored by Christians as the ancestor of Christ.
He found it easier to swallow both Jonah and the whale than the fall of Eve and Adam. How could an omnipotent deity create them, foreseeing that they would taint the whole human race with “original sin” and curse it with a million miseries?
If man is the creature of one principle perfectly good, most holy and omnipotent, can he be exposed to diseases, to heat and cold, hunger and thirst, pain and grief? Can he have so many bad inclinations? Can he commit so many crimes? Can perfect holiness produce a criminal creature? Can perfect goodness produce an unhappy creature? Would not omnipotence, joined with infinite goodness, furnish his own work plentifully with good things, and secure it from everything that might be offensive or vexatious? 25
The God of Genesis was either a cruel deity or one of limited power. So Bayle expounded with much sympathy and force the Manichean conception of two gods, one good, the other evil, fighting to control the world and man. As “the Papists and the Protestants agree that very few people escape damnation,” it would seem that the Devil is winning the battle against Christ; moreover, his victories are everlasting, for, the theologians assure us, there is no escape from hell. Since there is, or will be, more souls in hell than in heaven, and those in hell “eternally curse the name of God, there will be more creatures who will hate God than those who will love him.” Bayle maliciously concluded that “we must not engage with the Manicheans until we have first laid down the doctrine of the exaltation of faith and the abasing of reason.” 26
The article on Pyrrho expressed doubts about the Trinity, for “things which do not differ from a third do not differ from each other.” 27 And as to transubstantiation, “the modes of a substance”—and therefore the appearances of bread and wine—“cannot subsist without the substance which they modify.” 28 As to all men inheriting the guilt of Adam and Eve: “A creature which does not exist cannot be an accomplice of an ill action.” 29 But all these doubts were placed by him in other mouths than his own, and were repudiated by him in the name of faith. Bayle quoted as “most falsely said by impious men” that “religion is a mere human invention, set up by sovereigns to keep their subjects within the bounds of obedience.” 30 In the article on Spinoza he went out of his way to condemn the Jewish pantheist as an atheist; yet he must have found something fascinating in him, for this is the longest article in the Dictionary. Bayle pretended to reassure the theologians by telling them that the doubts expressed in his book would never destroy religion—because these matters were beyond the understanding of the people. 31
Faguet thought Bayle “unquestionably an atheist,” 32 but it would be fairer to call him a skeptic, and to remember that he was skeptical of skepticism too. Since secondary sense qualities are largely subjective, the objective world is quite different from what it appears to us. “The absolute nature of things is unknown to us; we know only some relations they have one to another.” 33 Amid 2,600 pages of reasoning he confessed the weakness of reason; it too, like the senses upon which it depends, may deceive us, for it is often clouded by passion, and it is desire and passion, rather than reason, that determine our conduct. Reason can teach us to doubt, but it rarely moves us to act.
The reasons for doubting are doubtful themselves; one must therefore doubt whether he ought to doubt. What chaos! What torment for the mind! . . . Our reason is the way to wander, since, when it displays itself with the greatest subtlety, it throws us into such an abyss. . . . Human reason is a principle of destruction and not of edification; it is only fit to start doubts, and to turn itself all manner of ways to perpetuate a dispute. 34
Consequently Bayle counseled philosophers not to set a high value on philesophy, and he advised reformers not to expect much of reforms. Since human nature is apparently the same in all centuries, it will continue, through greed, pugnacity, and erotic appetite, to produce the problems that disorder societies and cause the infantile mortality of utopias. Men do not learn from history; every generation shows the same passions, delusions, and crimes. Therefore democracy is all the more a mistake in proportion as it is real: to allow the busy, ill-informed, and impulsive multitude to choose rulers and policies would be the suicide of a state. Some kind of monarchy is necessary, even under democratic forms. 35 Progress too is a delusion; we mistake movement for advance, but probably it is merely oscillation. 36 The best we can hope for is a government that, though manned by corrupt and imperfect men, will provide enough law and order to enable us to cultivate our gardens in security, and pursue our studies or hobbies in peace.
No such peace was left to Bayle in the nine years that remained to him. As his readers passed from his large to his fine print, a wave of resentment rose. The consistory of the Walloon church in Rotterdam summoned Bayle—a member of the congregation—to appear before it and answer charges that his Dictionary contained “indecent expressions and questions, a great many obscene quotations,” offensive remarks on atheism and Epicurus, and especially objectionable articles on David, Pyrrho, and the Manichees. Bayle promised that he “would meditate further on the doctrine of the Manichees,” and if he “found any replies, or if the ministers of the consistory would furnish him with some,” he “would be glad to put them in the best form possible.” 37 For the second edition of theDictionary (1702) he rewrote and softened the article on David. Jurieu, unmollified, renewed the assault, and published in 1706 a blast entitled The Philosopher of Rotterdam Accused, Attacked, and Convicted.
After that second edition Bayle’s health failed. Like Spinoza, he suffered from tuberculosis. In these later years he coughed almost constantly, fell into repeated fevers, and grew despondent with headaches. Convinced that his disease was incurable, he resigned himself to death, retired more and more to the confinement of his room, and worked day and night on the reply that he was making to his critics. On December 27, 1706, he sent his final sheets to the printer. The next morning his friends found him dead in his bed.
His influence pervaded the eighteenth century. His Dictionary, repeatedly reissued, became a secret delight to thousands of rebel minds. By 1750 nine editions had appeared in French, three in English, one in German. In Rotterdam his admirers wished to raise a statue to him alongside that of Erasmus, 38 and they induced the publishers to reprint the original article on David. Within a decade of his death students stood in line at the Mazarin Library in Paris, waiting their turn to read the Dictionnaire. 39 A survey of private libraries in France found it in more of them than any other work. 40 Almost every thinker of consequence felt his influence. Most of Leibniz’ Theodicy was explicitly an attempt to answer Bayle. Lessing’s mental emancipation, and his defense of tolerance, stemmed from Bayle. Frederick the Great probably derived his skepticism originally from Bayle rather than from Voltaire; he called the Dictionary “the breviary of good sense,” 41 had four sets of it in his library, and supervised the publication of a cheaper and abbreviated two-volume edition to attract a wider range of readers. 42 Shaftesbury and Locke were touched by Bayle more lightly; both of them knew him in Holland, and Locke’s Epistola de Tolerantia (1689) walked in the footsteps of Bayle’s Commentaire(1686).
But of course the greatest influence of Bayle was on the philosophes of the Enlightenment; they were weaned on the Dictionnaire. It was probably from Bayle that Montesquieu and Voltaire took the device of invoking Asiatic comparisons and criticisms of European institutions. The Encyclopédie of 1751 was not, as Faguet judged, “merely a revised, corrected, and slightly augmented edition of Bayle’s Dictionary,” 43 but much of its standpoint and many of its guiding ideas came from those two volumes; and its article on toleration perhaps too generously referred the reader to Bayle’s Commentaire as “exhausting the subject.” Diderot acknowledged his indebtedness with his usual candor, and hailed Bayle as “the most redoubtable exponent of skepticism in either ancient or modern times.” 44 Voltaire was Bayle reborn with better lungs, more energy, years, wealth, and wit. The Dictionnaire philosophique has been rightly called an echo of Bayle’s. 45 The delicious monkey of Ferney often differed from Bayle; for example, Voltaire thought that religion had helped to foster morality, and that if Bayle had had five or six hundred peasants to govern, he would not have hesitated to announce to them a god who punishes and rewards; 46 but he reckoned Bayle as “the greatest dialectician who has ever written.” 47 Altogether, the philosophy of France in the eighteenth century was Bayle in an explosive proliferation. With Hobbes, Spinoza, Bayle, and Fontenelle the seventeenth century opened, between Christianity and philosophy, the long and bitter war that would culminate in the fall of the Bastille and the feast of the Goddess of Reason.