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.

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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 and Critical 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 on Pierre Bayle

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).

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Additional Biography Sources

Labrousse, Elisabeth, Pierre Bayle, Dordrecht; Boston: M. Nijhoff: Distributors for the U.S. and Canada, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1985.