BAYLE Pierre—philosopher, critic of religion, polemicist, once of the main precursors of the ideas of the French Enlightenment, b. November 18, 1647 in Carlat, France, d. December 28, 1706 in Rotterdam.
He begain his studies in a Protestant school in Puylaurens. These studies were interrupted because he lacked financial means and so he was taught by his father, a Protestant pastor, and learned Greek and Latin at home. In 1668 he began studies in the Protestant academy in Soverdun where, among other things, he studied in depth the writings of the sceptics Montaigne and Le Vayer, citing Catholic polemical writings directed against the Reformation.
In 1668, Bayle began studies in scholastic philosophy in the Jesuit college in Toulouse. As a result of these studies he recognized that the authority of the Church is the best means for resolving all the religious doubts he was experiencing at the time. This intellectual decision was the reason for the entry of the “young doubter”, as Bayle described himself, into the Catholic Church in 1669. Almost two years after this fact, Bayle came to the conclusion that Catholicism did not satisfy his intellectual aspirations, that is, it did not provide him with complete rational certitude concerning the principles of Christian faith. In 1670, as a result of this conclusion, he returned to Protestantism without weighing the consequences that faced one who deserted the Catholic faith. He left France and was protected for 4 years in Geneva where he earned his living as a home teacher.
In 1674 he returned in secret to France and settled in Rouen in Normandy. In 1675 he was appointed to the chair of philosophy in the Protestant academy in Sedan, remaining in this post until 1681, i.e., until the school was closed. In 1681 he became a professor in Rotterdam, but lost this position in 1693 for stating freethinking views. In 1694 he began to publish a monthly periodical “Nouvelles de la république des lettres” in which, as was the custom at the time, he printed reviews of new philosophical, historical, and theological books, especially those concerning Protestant theology. Although he did not raise any political questions in the periodical, the publication of controversial religious views led to a ban on publication of the periodical in 1687.
Besides his didactic and editorial work, Bayle also did strictly philosophical work that resulted in published works. In France, in connection with the appearance of a comet in 1680 and the terror that many people felt at this event, wrote a work called Pensées diverses sur la comet which was published anonymously in Holland in 1688. The astronomical phenomenon was only a pretext for Bayle to present his crystallizing philosophical views. He began from philosophical and theological premises and in the work presented moralistic and political thoughts. The work included the notable words that would become the canvas for his entire philosophy: “Disbelief and the denial of God’s existence are better than the superstitions and prejudices associated with intolerance and the condemnation of other confessions”.
During the same period he published the work Critique générale de l’histoire du Calvinisme, also anonymously, in which Bayle’s polemical talent was revealed, which would later be widely exploited and generally admired.
In 1687 he began preparations for his major work—Dictionnaire historique et critique (v. 1–1695, v. 2–1697). In this work he took up questions of religion, morality, education, science, and art, and presented them on the plane of the freedom of faith. The aim of the Dictionnaire as intended by the author was to provide a reflection on the history of mankind, its philosophical, theological, and religious problems. The work took the form of a dictionary or encyclopedia. The questions are arranged in alphabetical order. The brief biographies and philosophical views of ancient philosophers (Aristotle, Pyrrho, Zeno of Elea), Renaissance philosophers, and seventeenth-century philosophers (including Hobbes and Spinoza), make the work one of the first modern histories of philosophy. In the work, Bayle devotes much attention to the Socinian doctrine (the Polish Brothers) which was the most radical version of rationalism. The objections to Christianity it contains were not formulated explicitly, but involved the skillful use of references from one heading to another. Voltaire later adapted this method in his Encyclopedia.
The Dictionnaire was well received by learned men and became the most widely read scientific book in the early eighteenth cenury. It has an important influence on intellectual life in France, England, and Germany. A measure of Bayle’s popularity could be how often the work was published: 10 French editions (up to 1830), 4 English editions (up to 1826), and 2 German editions (in 1741 and 1780). Bayle’s Dictionnaire was the most frequently present book in French private libraries of the eighteenth century.
In 1704 and 1705 Bayle published a work called Réponse aux questions d’un Provincial, in which he continued to discuss historical, literary, and philosophical questions.
Philosophical lectures delivered in Sedan and Rotterdam were published in 1737, together with his entire literary inheritance, in 1737 in Système de la philosophie. The lectures contain, among other things, a clear presentation of the essential ideas of Cartesianism, to which Bayle had always been inclined, although in his works he also presents a critique of certain points of Cartesianism (e.g., the idea that God’s veracity should be sufficient to convince us of the existence of external things; the idea that animals are only machines; and the foundations for Descartes’ argument for freedom of the will). The consequences of Bayle’s works in the world of ideas was similar to the consequences of Descartes’ works.
FAITH AND REASON. In Bayle’s views, an exposition of contradiction between knowledge and faith, reason and Revelation, which appears in dogmatics, ethics, the theory of knowledge, and anthroplogy, was dominant. The ways of faith and unbelief constantly cross there. Bayle also rejected radical religious rationalism, as well the idea that reason had no right to say anything in matters of faith. He searched for answers to the question of how to protect the reason’s right to enter into the sphere of faith without at the same time falling into rationalism. He presented an answer to this seemingly antinomic question in various article of the Dictionnaire. In it his starting point is to abandon the possibility of a real reconciliation of reason with faith: “[…] philosophy does an injury to theology, but, on the other hand, it is certain that theology injures philosophy. These two fields would have be reconciled with regard to establishing their boundaries if the power of an authority were to bring order there, always in the interest of the former.” (Dictionnaire, article “Aristotle”).
In his views Bayle appeared as a zealous defender of the autonomy and independence of the reason. He thought that the reason is independent of man’s will and the Church’s presentation of the truths of faith. He presented certain unchanging laws (or principles) for the operation of the reason and will. The most general of these laws is that man should accept those contents that are in agreement with common sense. No law exists that is contrary to reason. Yet many of the statements in the Holy Bible, Bayle noted, are dubious from the point of view of common sense.
Bayle’s arguments for common sense (reason) often contradicted other statements where he said that the reason without the collaboration of Revelation is only a “misleading” road-sign pointing the wrong way. Without the light of Revelation philosophy is impossible and it will not lift itself out of doubt. Reason can only defend us from errors and help us recognize the need for Revelation.
In the history of philosophy Bayle is regarded as a skeptic, although he fought pure systematic skepticism. He treated it as an disease of philosophy and he indicated the inherent dangers and contradictions in skepticism. One could say that Bayle was a supporter of normative skepticism, namely, that he thought that in certain matters we should abstain from making judgments, but that in general it was possible to know the truth.
TOLERANCE. Bayle is regarded as one of the best Protestant polemicists who were faithful to the spirit of the Reformation. In Commentaire philosophique sur ces paroles Jésus-Christ he fought for freedom of conscience. He said that there must be tolerance for all views. He defended the rights of the man who seeks the truth but errs. He held that Christian truths are not evident even for those who believe in them. He emphasized the necessity of recognizing freedom in human beliefs, granting men a right to doubt or disbelief. The state’s duty is to defend tolerance by law to ovoid strife because of confessed views. He would grant the state the rank of an arbiter in resolving religious questions, but not by establishing which of the participants were right, rather by forbidding disputes on topics that basically could not be resolved. He transformed the question of tolerance from a theological question into a legal one. As a supporter of Grotius’ philosophy of law, he regarded law and a system of sanctions as necessary conditions for the regulation of social life.
ETHICS. According to Bayle, the reason possesses in itself an innate wisdom whereby man should perform the good in life out of love for the good itself. The virtues are the reward for the good that is performed, while fear of punishment restrains a man from evil. There are unchanging laws of the reason and will, laws that flow from nature and impose obligations on the reason and will. Despite his rationalistic declarations, Bayle saw, under the influence of Augustinianism, the major motors of man’s action in the passions and affections.
MAN. Bayle’s idea of man’s nature is opposed to the optimistic vision. Man is evil and unhappy not by accident, but by virtue of his nature. His nature is internally torn. In his nature there is a constant battle between the soul and the body, between the senses and reason. In this battle, the reason is both judge and an interested party. “Human life is almost nothing other than the battle of the conscience with the passions, in which the conscience is almost always defeated” (Dictionnaire, article “Helene”). Man, as a rule, is a slave of the passions, and his behavior is not free. One of the essential consequences of the conception of man as a being whose passions usually inevitably triumph over his conscience and reason is the idea that faith has no more influence on social ties and on man’s daily conduct. According to Bayle, there are further consequences of this idea, e.g., the possible that a “society of atheists” could function well, because an atheist is guided by the same motives in his conduct as a man who believes. The law and the force that stands behind the law performs the function of the regulator of conduct. Man usually observe only those orders whose violation entails the inevitability of punishment.
EVIL. Bayle asked why God called to life a being condemned to suffering and unhappiness. How could we reconcile the idea that the absolutely good God exists with the fact that evil rules? Evil occurs primarily in social life, in the formation of mutual relations among men. The exist of evil in the world is a basic phenomenon that must be explained. If evil did not exist, a full agreement of reason and faith would be possible. Bayle’s idea that the world is radically evil led him to reject naive providentialism that would transform the world into a safe sheepfold where God is the benevolent overseer, and it led him to present the basic problem of evil in various formulations: experience informs us of the existence of good, and the reason indicates that it must have a cause. How then is the good possible, since the world is radically evil? Bayle formulates an answer to this question as follows: this cause is the Absolute Good, whose nature, however, is complete inaccessible to the reason.
REASON. The antinomies in Bayle’s ideas on the relation of theology and philosophy may be explained in terms of conception of rationality: everything which is not faith, and at the same time, only that which is supported by experience, is rational. In connection with this Bayle’s antitheological and antiphilosophical statements can be understood. This conception of rationality allows us to see and understood those features of Bayle’s thought that have entered into the philosophy of history as being most typical of him. This is apparent in his skepticism, which is presented as a the simultaneous destruction of faith and reason, or as a questioning only of the reason in order to leave faith complete independence. In Bayle’s philosophy this skepticism does not extend to two domains of certain knowledge: experience and faith; of course in each case there is a different type of certainty, but certainty exists only in these domains—outside of them is the field of hypothetical judgments that experience neither confirms or refutes. For Bayle, doubt was not the result of thinking, but a means to purify the thought of layers of errors in order to build a system of certain, precise, and ultimate knowledge.
THE INFLUENCE OF BAYLE’S PHILOSOPHY ON THE HISTORY OF THOUGHT. Bayle had an important influence not only on French philosophy, but also on British philosophy—Shaftesbury, Berkeley, and Hume. One indication of the great popularity of his thought in the nineteenth century was that 20 years after Bayle’s death his biography and correspondence was completed and published.
Bayle was a philosopher, journalist, pamphleteer, scholar, and man of battle. Depending under which character he appeared, his position would take different accents. Marx called him “the last metaphysician in the seventeenth-century sense, and the first philosopher in the eighteenth-century sense”. Leibniz in his introduction to Theodicy wrote that Bayle calmed the reason after overconfidence in the reason. Bayle’s contemporaries—Leibniz, Malebranche, Locke, and Voltaire—read his works and regarded him as their somewhat eccentric father. Diderot gave Bayle a position on a list of the most widely read writers. Frederick II compared Bayle with Descartes, Malebranche, and Leibniz.
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