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Bayle’s Sincerity

In response to:

Subversive Activities from the March 23, 1967 issue

To the Editors:

In your issue of March 23, 1967, D. P. Walker rejects the revisionist interpretation of Bayle’s intent, and insists that by the time Bayle wrote the Dictionnaire he “was militantly anti-Christian—but not necessarily an atheist” (p.22, col. 2). Walker’s main argument is that “If Bayle, as he so often stated, was truly wishing to defend the cause of strictly orthodox Calvinism, he was not merely naif, but downright halfwitted.” At this point, I am not sure where I stand in this argument, but I do think that the problem of ascertaining Bayle’s intentions is much more complex than Walker indicates.

Throughout Bayle’s writings and especially in the Dictionnaire, he insisted that the point in his skeptical attacks was to show people that they should abandon reason and follow another guide—that of faith and revelation. This combination of skepticism and an appeal to faith was common to the movement of the “nouveaux pyrrhoniennes” or “Sceptiques chrétiens” from Montaigne and his cousin Francisco Sanches down to Pascal and Bishop Huet in the late seventeenth century. Though some of the members of this tradition (Montaigne, Charron, La Mothe le Vayer) were accused of insincerity, their position was considered orthodox by many of the leaders of French Catholicism. Bayle’s Protestant version of this position is strikingly like the anti-rational defense of the faith offered by that orthodox Calvinistic fanatic, Pierre Jurieu, and often is stated in much the way that Pascal presented his fideism or as Kierkegaard was to do later on.

The problem of assessing the intentions of the Christian skeptics depends, I believe, in determining their actual beliefs. Their argument is compatible both with genuine belief or genuine disbelief, since from the skeptical arguments about the limits of human knowledge it neither follows that one should believe or disbelieve. The skeptical-fideist position has been offered by sincere believers like Pascal, Hamann, Kierkegaard, Lamennais, Chestov and others, and by blatantly insincere ones like Hume and Voltaire. Bayle stated over and over again that he was a true, orthodox Calvinist, and his position, as he showed ad nauseum, is consistent with this claim. Dr. Walker points out that Bayle’s formulation of this connection had the effect of attacking and undermining the tenets of Calvinism and of Christianity in general, not just for eighteenth century enlightened readers, but also for Bayle’s contemporaries. Certainly Bayle’s opponents of the right (Jurieu and cohorts) and of the left (Sauria, Jacquelot and others) accused him of insincerity and irreligion. But he had defenders at the time among the Calvinists like Basnage de Beauval, and was defended at a sincere Christian fideist during the eighteenth century (e.g., in The Apologie de Monsieur Bayle published in 1739 by De Monier).

Bayle’s formulations of fideism make a good deal of sense, I believe, in a seventeenth-century context. The information gathered by the various revisionists discussed in Dr. Walker’s review indicates that many of Bayle’s radical views and apparently anti-Christian arguments are in keeping with what was then being discussed in Calvinist and Christian skeptical writings. In the eighteenth century, with its anti-religious bias, Bayle’s text read quite differently, since the context had been lost or forgotten. Bayle himself was probably in large measure responsible for the change in outlook, whether intentional or not. In his own day, he seemed to be attacking with equal vigor the rationalists, the philosophical atheists (the article on Spinoza is the longest, mostly an attack on his system), and the orthodox Christian theologians. Religious liberals, Unitarians, and Spinozists are rebutted about as forcefully as religious fanatics like Jurieu.

In the light of this, we can well ask, what did he really believe? All positions seem to be equally fair game for him whether they be orthodox, heterodox, or downright irreligious. Shaftesbury, who knew him well, called Bayle “one of the best of Christians.” (It can be pointed out that Jurieu, who knew him better, considered him a complete atheist, but Jurieu was pretty irresponsible in his charges.) In Bayle’s writings, one looks in vain for a testimonial of faith. He kept recommending turning to Faith and Revelation, but he didn’t tell us what he found there. It is curious that in the Dictionnaire, he constantly criticized and belabored the heroes of the Old Testament, and post-Biblical Christians, but left the New Testament almost entirely alone. Among Bayle’s heroes in the Dictionnaire are “the subtle Arriaga,” Maimonides and one Pierre Bunel. Arriaga, the last of the Spanish scholastics, tore everything down, but Bayle tells us, he was not good at defending what he was supposed to uphold. When Bayle was asked if he himself were a Protestant, he said, “Yes…in the full sense of the term, for, from the bottom of my soul, I protest against everything that is said, and everything that is done.’ Besides being a Protestant Arriaga, Bayle also seems to have seen himself as a new Maimonides offering a new Guide for the Perplexed, for those who have been led astray by reason in any area whatsoever. His one religious hero, Bunel, a minor sixteenth-century pedant, Bayle portrayed as a true Christian. But Bunel was simply a patient scholar who avoided the various sins of man. The quiet innocuous scholar who sought neither fame nor fortune embodied Christian virtue for Bayle. His own tepid statements of fideism may indicate that religion had no more content than this for Bayle himself. In article Spinoza, Remark M, he described people who had religion in their hearts, but not in their minds. “[They] lose sight of it [religion] as soon as they seek it by the methods of human reasoning. They do not know where they are while they compare the pro and con. But as soon as they listen only to the proofs of feelings, the instincts of conscience, the weight of education, and the like, they are convinced of a religion; and they make their lives conform to it as much as human weakness permits.” This may well have been Bayle’s condition. When he thought about it he could only find difficulties, but when he gave up reasoning, he was a sincere, if unexcited, believer…

Dr. Walker claims Bayle was militantly anti-Christian, but he may have actually been militantly opposed to certain versions of Christian theory and practice. And there is the unexplained fact, on Walker’s account, that Bayle remained a faithful member of the French Reformed Church all his life, attending services regularly, though he was constantly being challenged there by Pierre Jurieu. If Bayle were so anti-Christian, he could have easily withdrawn either joined a more liberal church, or remained with no church, as Spinoza did.

On the other hand, as I have argued elsewhere, it is possible that Bayle was actually a genuine Manichean, or a Judaizer, or a non-Christian. Some aspects of his case suggest that these are genuine possibilities.

At the present stage of our information about Bayle, I don’t think it is yet possible to determine his position. Further work by the revisionists and their opponents in studying Bayle in his seventeenth-century context may unravel the mysteries involved. That Bayle’s views became subversive of established religion is indubitable. That the effect on eighteenth-century thinkers was the same as the position of Bayle himself I think is far from certain.

Richard H. Popkin

Department of Philosophy

University of California

La Jolla, California

D. P Walker replies:

I am very glad that my intentionally provocative review of recent books on Bayle has at last provoked a reply; I was beginning to fear that it was considered beneath contempt. And the reply, as one would expect from Professor Popkin, is erudite, moderate, and full of interesting suggestions for further research. I would, however, like to point out that he has not given an answer to what he rightly calls my main argument. I also think that Bayle’s regular attendance at services of the French Reformed Church is in accordance with my interpretation of his intentions; if he was wearing the mask of a strict Calvinist, of course he had to go to a Calvinist church—and he would certainly have enjoyed the opportunities of infuriating Jurieu face to face. Finally, I would suggest that Shaftesbury is not a good witness to the sincerity of anyone’s Christian faith, and particularly of Bayle’s. It is doubtful whether Shaftesbury himself was a believer (Berkeley certainly had no doubts that he was not), and he published an eloquent and vehement attack on the God of strict predestinationists. If Bayle’s Christianity was genuine, we must accept his statements that he was a loyal follower of the Synod of Dordrecht; the God, therefore, attacked by Shaftesbury as crassly immoral was Bayle’s God.

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