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Born: 1647, Carla (now Carla-Bayle), southwestern France

Died: 1706, Rotterdam, the Netherlands

Major Works: Thoughts on the Comet (1682), Philosophical Commentary on the Words of Jesus, "Constrain them to come in" (1686), The Historical and Critical Dictionary (1697 and 1702), Response to the Questions of a Country Gentleman (1703)

Major Ideas

All theories--philosophical, theological, and even scientific--can be challenged by arguments that show they are contradictory and/or unbelievable.

Since no beliefs can be proved to be true or false, all should be tolerated.

Morality is completely separate from religious belief; a society of atheists could be more moral than a society of Christians.

Careful unprejudiced erudition and exact reasoning are needed to eliminate the errors of the past and present.

Within a Christian frame of reference there is no way of explaining the existence of evil.

Pierre Bayle is best known for his vast erudition and for his presentation of an inordinate number of paradoxical arguments against all sorts of theories, ancient and modern. He sought to show that the philosophies of the past and the new philosophies of Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Malebranche, and others were fraught with contradiction and absurdity. He also sought to show that any attempt to develop a foundation for rational knowledge in philosophy or theology breaks down when scrutinized in the light of skeptical arguments.

According to Bayle, the various contenders for intellectual power, the various churches and dogmatic philosophical movements, each challenged and persecuted the others without being able to justify their own views. The recognition of the unfounded basis of any philosophical or theological position should lead to complete toleration, since there is no way of telling who is right and who is wrong. All we can do, Bayle asserted, is abandon reason, and accept faith (though he never made clear what faith).

Bayle insisted that there is no rational relationship between religious belief and moral action. By carefully examining the historical record, one can see how immoral so many religious people have been from biblical times up to the present. Hence, a society of atheists might very well be more moral than a Christian one.

All Christian attempts to explain why there is evil in the world, Bayle claimed, either end up making God the cause of evil or justifying the terrible heresy of Manicheanism, the view that there are two gods, one good and one evil. If we cease trying to explain experience in religious terms, we might see that the history of mankind is nothing but the story of the lies, misfortunes, and catastrophes of the human race. The consideration of this skeptical argument against all attempts to understand the world rationally and to justify a religious outlook should lead to a toleration of all views, an acceptance of the human condition as it is, and the living of an undogmatic life.

Pierre Bayle was the son of a Protestant pastor and was raised during the persecution of the Huguenots by the Catholics in France. Because the Protestant colleges had been closed in southern France, he was sent to the Jesuit one in Toulouse. There he was presented with arguments showing there was no rational basis for his Protestant faith. He converted to Catholicism on the basis of intellectual considerations, but he soon convinced himself by arguments that there is no rational basis for Catholicism either, and he reverted to his original Faith. Because of his decision he had to flee France, and he then commenced study at the Calvinist University of Geneva. He taught philosophy at Sedan, but he fled to Holland when Louis XIV withdrew the Edict of Nantes, which had tolerated Protestants. He taught in the Huguenot academy in Rotterdam. There he began publishing a series of works criticizing all kinds of beliefs, religious, theological, philosophical and scientific.

His first book, Lettre sur la comete, of 1682 (translated as Thoughts on the Comet) was an attack on superstitious beliefs intolerance, bad philosophizing, and inaccurate history. In this work Bayle advanced his startling thesis that a society of atheists could be more moral than a society of Christians, thereby on how immoral commenting Christians can be. This work was followed by a challenge to a history of Calvinism written by a leading Jesuit, a criticism of the fanciful pipedreams of the Huguenot refugees in Holland, and a critical appraisal of a collection of several writings by Bayle s contemporaries about Cartesianism. This latter publication brought him in contact with Malebranche and other important philosophers of the day.

From 1684 to 1687, Bayle edited and published a very important learned journal, Nouvelles de la Republique des Lettres. He therein discussed the philosophical and scientific work that was appearing by Leibniz, Malebranche, Arnauld, Boyle, and Locke, among others, and established contact with many of these authors. As the result of his acute judgment in his early writings and his journal, Bayle quickly became a central figure in the learned world. Bayle decided in the mid-1680s to devote himself primarily to scholarly writing. He refused a professorship at the University of Franeker, and spent the remainder of his life in Rotterdam carrying on his learned researches and fighting against all sorts of opponents.

In 1686, Bayle published his Commentaire philosophique sur les paroles de Jesus-Christ, "Contrain-les d'entrer" (Philosophical Commentary on the Words of Jesus, "Constrain them to come in"). The French Catholics had used this text from the New Testament to justify coercive activities to make the Protestants convert. Bayle examined the logic of religious intolerance, and developed the most far-ranging argument for complete toleration of all views. He extended toleration to Muslims, Jews, Unitarians, atheists, and Catholics (who were being persecuted in the Netherlands), a view more advanced than that put forth in 1692 by John Locke in his Essay on Toleration.

Bayle presented his view as the outcome of skeptical examination of the claims of various groups to know the truth. All one can claim, he argued, is what appears to be true according to one's conscience. Unfortunately, there is no way of discerning who has a true conscience and who has an erring" one. Hence, one should grant all persons the right to believe what they will, because the erring conscience cannot be distinguished from a right conscience.

The leader of the French Reformed Church in the Netherlands, Pierre Jurieu, who had been Bayle's original sponsor, was horrified by Bayle's views and saw them leading to irreligion and atheism. As Bayle and Jurieu attacked each other in a pamphlet war, Jurieu denounced Bayle as a secret atheist. For the rest of his life Bayle ridiculed Jurieu's views and tried to show the absurd consequences of Jurieu's claims. Bayle also began developing attacks against the more liberal Protestant theologians in Holland, who were developing a rational version of Christianity compatible with the views of modern science. Up to the very last minute of his life, Bayle was undermining liberal as well as conservative theologies, as well as the philosophies they contained. By the 1690s he was engaged in controversies on many fronts, theological, philosophical, and historical. He had antagonized so many of the French Protestant refugees in the Netherlands that he was forced to give up his teaching post and be an independent, skepti cal, polemical scholar.

Bayle's Historical and Critical Dictionary

Bayle's most important work, which grew out of his independent researches, was a biographical dictionary. It became an all important reference work of the time, and Voltaire called it "the arsenal of the Enlightenment." The work, first published in 1697 in two volumes and enlarged to four volumes in 1702, started out as an attempt to correct all of the errors in earlier dictionaries and encyclopedias, as well as a means of skeptically examining theological, philosophical, and scientific views. The Dictionary consists almost entirely of articles about dead persons and movements. The choice of topics was made on the basis of who or what had not been adequately dealt with in the earlier dictionary of Louis Moreri of 1674. Many famous personages, such as Plato, Shakespeare, and Descartes, are omitted, while all sorts of obscure people appear, sometimes at great length. Bayle set forth his articles in the form of biographies running on top of the pages, with lengthy footnotes below, and notes to the notes in the m argins. The pages look something like an edition of the Talmud, with text immersed in notes, and notes to notes. The heart of the Dictionary is in the annotations, where Bayle digressed, discussing and challenging ancient and modern theories on a wide variety of subjects.

Bayle developed skeptical challenges to Scholastism, to Cartesianism, and to the contemporary theories of Leibniz, Malebranche, Cudworth, Locke, Newton, and Spinoza (who got the longest article in the Dictionary), as well as many long-since-forgotten thinkers. Bayle criticized various Catholic and Protestant theologies. In two famous articles on Manicheanism, Bayle offered evidence that no Christian theologians of any persuasion were able to set forth a consistent or credible explanation of the problem of evil.

In articles from "Aaron" to "Zueris" Bayle kept up a skeptical attack on theories, ancient and modern, about human nature, history, and religion. He contended that he was just showing the inadequacy of human reason in answering questions about these matters. Especially in the articles on the ancient skeptic "Pyrrho" and the father of paradoxes, "Zeno of Elea," Bayle showed how the skeptical arguments of ancient times could wreak havoc with the new philosophies, especially that of Descartes. In the course of questioning the modern notion of substance and also the distinction between the primary qualities of extension and motion and the secondary qualities of sound, taste, smell and color, Bayle put forth critical arguments that Berkeley and Hume then used in undermining the new metaphysical theories of Descartes and Locke.

Bayle claimed that his skepticism would undermine human rational activity, including philosophical skepticism, and that in destroying reason he made room for faith. He cited Pascal in support of his claim. But Bayle never gave any indication of what a faith that survives skeptical attacks involves. Throughout the Dictionary he raised questions about the moral or religious sincerity of the major characters in the Old Testament, of many of the church fathers, and of many of the major figures in the Reformation. Bayle presented news about the immoral sexual conduct, unethical practices, and hypocritical behavior of all sorts of people in the Bible, in the ancient pagan world, and in the political and religious history of Europe. For Bayle, human history was nothing but the story of the lies, misfortunes, and disasters of the human race.

From the moment of its appearance, the Dictionary shocked the learned world and the religious establishments. Attacks and bannings made it a bestseller. Bayle promised the French Reformed Church of Rotterdam that he would explain what bothered them most in the next edition. In 1702, he added a great deal more material, including four clarifications in which he strengthened his skeptical criticisms and emphasized the irrationality of religious belief. He also greatly enlarged his criticism of Leibniz's philosophy. Four years later, Bayle answered a host of critics in his Response to the Questions of a Country Gentleman. He continued fighting back against his theological and philosophical critics, of all persuasions, up to the very moment of his death. He finished Conversations of Maxime and Themiste, an answer to several liberal Protestants, an hour before he passed away. He contended that he was a Protestant in the full sense of the term: He was against everything that had been said and done.

His many opponents accused him of attempting to undermine all philosophy, theology, and science. Bayle said repeatedly that he was a true believer, seeking to destroy reason in order to buttress faith.

He never explained his faith, and many of his opponents from Jurieu on saw him as a secret atheist, or a radical deist, trying to undermine religion while pretending to save it.

Bayle put together 'all kinds of skeptical arguments into a massive critique of philosophical, scientific, and religious knowledge. He examined and attacked ancient and modern theories and showed the weaknesses in almost any dogmatic view. His criticisms became central for Enlightenment discussions. Leibniz wrote his Theodicy as an answer to Bayle on the problem of evil. Berkeley, Shaftesbury, David Hume Voltaire, Diderot, and many others borrowed 'heavily from him. Kant developed his antinomies from some of Bayle's arguments. Thomas Jefferson recommended the purchase of a set of Bayle's Dictionary as one of the first acquisitions by the Library of Congress. Bayle was influential throughout the eighteenth century, and he was a seminal thinker in the development of the modern tolerant outlook. But finally his Dictionary was replaced by newer encyclopedias, done as team efforts instead of as one man's view of the intellectual universe. Bayle's skepticism was brushed aside by modern positivistic scientific views. However, in the last fifty years, Bayle has been recognized more and more as one of the central figures in the making of the modern mind. To understand Enlightenment thought, one has to go back to one of its richest sources.

Further Reading

Bracken, Harry M. "Bayle not a Sceptic?" Journal of the History of Ideas, XXV, 1964. This rewarding article seeks to show the sense in which Bayle was both a skeptic and a fideist.

Brush, Craig. Bayle and Montaigne: Variations on the Theme of Skepticism. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1966. A comparison of these two skeptics, showing their similarities and differences.

Labrousse, Elisabeth, Bayle. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983 Presents Bayle's place in intellectual history, and offers an important interpretation of what he was for and against.

Popkin, Richard H. The High Road to Pyrrhonism. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1989. Several of the articles deal with Bayle's skepticism and the influence it had.

Rex, W. E. Essays on Pierre Bayle and Religious Controversy. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1966. Bayle's views put in the context of the religious controversies of the time.
COPYRIGHT 1999 COPYRIGHT 1992 Ian P. McGreal
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Publication:Great Thinkers of the Western World
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jan 1, 1999

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