Subversive Activities

Pierre Bayle: Vol 1. Du pays de Foix à la cité d' Erasme

by Elisabeth Labrousse
Nijhoff (The Hague), Vol. 1, 280 pp., 31.50 guilders

Pierre Bayle: Vol. 2. Hétérodoxie et rigorisme

by Elisabeth Labrousse
Nijhoff (The Hague), Vol. 2, 639 pp., 65 guilders

Inventaire critique de la correspondance de Pierre Bayle

by Elisabeth Labrousse
Editions Vrin (Paris), 416 pp., 42 Frs.

Pierre Bayle et l'instrument critique

by Elisabeth Labrousse
Editions Seghers (Paris), 192 pp., 7 Frs. 10

Pierre Bayle le philosophe de Rotterdam, Etudes et Documents

edited by Paul Dibon
Elsevier, 255 pp., 25 florins

Historical and Critical Dictionary, Selections

by Pierre Bayle, edited and translated by Richard H. Popkin
Bobbs-Merrill, 456 pp., $6.50

Pierre Bayle
Pierre Bayle; drawing by David Levine

In the last few years a large number of books on Pierre Bayle have appeared. Most of them are of a high quality, and deserve far more space than I can give them here. All of them are based on an interpretation of Bayle’s intentions opposite to that which has, except for Sainte-Beuve, prevailed from the seventeenth to the twentieth century. The traditional view of Bayle sees him as a very destructive thinker, a skeptic in nearly all fields of thought, who attacked all contemporary brands of Christianity with great vehemence and effectiveness under the rather casually worn disguise of a fideistic, ultra-orthodox Calvinist. The new interpretation takes Bayle’s Calvinism to be sincere and the undeniable effects of his writings on his readers to be therefore unintentional. I believe that this interpretation is untenable, and that it has caused these excellent modern scholars to waste a considerable amount of time and space.

Let us first briefly outline the facts that we can all agree on. As regards Bayle’s life, Elisabeth Labrousse has given us what will long remain the best biography (Volume I, Du pays de Foix à la cité d’Erasme), a fine work of scholarship, which is also fascinating to read. Bayle, born in 1647, was the son of a Calvinist pastor in a small town in the southwest of France. After studying at a Protestant college, he went to the Jesuit college at Toulouse, where in 1669 he was converted to Catholicism. In 1670 he was reconverted to Calvinism, and continued his studies at Geneva. By this time the gradual erosion of the Edict of Nantes was well under way, and the position of a relapsed Catholic in France was extremely perilous; Bayle’s return to Calvinism shows therefore that at this date he had strong religious convictions. In 1675, largely owing to the support of Pierre Jurieu, a savagely orthodox Calvinist and later his principal enemy, he became Professor of philosophy at the Protestant University of Sedan. When in 1681 this university was suppressed, Bayle went to Rotterdam, where he had a chair at the Ecole Illustre until 1693, when Jurieu succeeded in getting him turned out of it. In 1685 the persecution of the Huguenots culminated in the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, and Bayle’s elder brother Jacob, a Calvinist pastor to whom he was devoted, died in prison in that year, a martyr to his faith. From his arrival in Rotterdam until his death there in 1706, Bayle spent all his time reading and writing. Except for the famous Dictionnaire historique et critique (first edition 1697), most of his works were published anonymously, and it is still not certain that he did write all the works attributed to him—a problem to which I will return.

Although Bayle was a remarkably erudite and accurate scholar, he was also an excellent journalist and was deeply involved in the religious…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.