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 and political events of his time. With regard to the former, he was consistently in favor of the broadest tolerance. With regard to the latter, he advocated, against the views of most of his fellow refugees, complete submission to authority, that is, for a Frenchman, to Louis XIV. He therefore disapproved of the English revolution of 1688 and of the refugees’ hopes that they would soon return triumphantly to a France conquered by William of Orange. This unpopular, and in Holland even dangerous, point of view shows great firmness of political conviction. It led to the violent war of words between Bayle and Jurieu, who had not only published apocalyptic prophecies of the downfall of Louis XIV and his “France toute catholique” but was also doing his best to fulfill them by becoming a spy in the pay of the English. In pamphlets, in the notes of the Dictionnaire, and in his last work, Réponse aux questions d’un Provincial (1703-07), Bayle lost no opportunity of attacking Jurieu’s intolerance and his theological imprudences and inconsistencies. Jurieu’s replies culminated in his Le Philosophe de Rotterdam accusé, atteint et convaincu (1706), convicted, namely, of trying to destroy the Christian religion. By this time Bayle was also engaged in acrimonious polemics with Protestant theologians of all kinds, including rationalists, such as Saurin and Jaquelot, and Arminians, suspected of Socinianism, such as Jean Le Clerc. A few months before his death, he wrote to Shaftesbury that he was finding these polemics a pleasant distraction in his illness: “Je m’amuse à réfuter Mr. Le Clerc & Mr. Jaquelot, que je trouve perpétuellement coupables de mauvaise foi.”1

OF THE GREAT HISTORICAL IMPORTANCE of Bayle’s publications there can be no doubt. The Dictionnaire, in its long, discursive notes, provided a highly critical summary and discussion of all the main philosophical, religious, and moral preoccupations of the age of Louis XIV; it was a major source for the philosophes of the Enlightenment. The articles on Manichaeanism were a crucially dangerous moment in the great debate on theodicy, which had begun with Henry More’s Divine Dialogues (1668) and Malebranche’s Traité de la Nature et de la Grâce (1680), and led through William King’s De Origine Mali (1702) to Leibniz’s Théodicée (1710). Leibniz’s work was an attempt to refute Bayle’s contention that there were irrefutable objections to any system postulating a God both good and omnipotent. He saw, rightly, that this claim threatened every kind of Christianity at the most fundamental level and, moreover, any kind of optimistic deism.


As we all know, Leibniz’s answer to Bayle, the theory of the best of all possible worlds, led ultimately to Voltaire’s Candide and his anguished admission, after the Lisbon earthquake, “Il le faut avouer, le mal est sur la terre.” Bayle’s Manichaean articles and his later defenses of them would begin by patiently and exhaustively demonstrating that even the most liberal theological systems, which allowed complete free will to man and denied omniscience to God, could not clear God of the guilt of having created a world in which suffering and sin predominated over happiness and goodness. Then it was his usual practice to state, shortly and drily, that his purpose in making such demonstrations was to show the impotence of human reason, which we should bid be silent before the mysteries of revelation, and to defend the doctrine of strict Calvinism, which frankly admitted that God had, from all eternity, arbitrarily condemned the great majority of mankind to misery and wickedness in this world and to eternal torment in the next. The new interpretation of Bayle consists in taking such statements as genuine.

In the introductory essay, entitled La redécouverte de Bayle, of an interesting collection of studies on Bayle published in 1959, the editor, Paul Dibon, argued that the traditional view of Bayle’s religious intentions was an anachronistic distortion, that scholars, such as the admittedly learned and intelligent Devolvé (Religion, Critique, et Philosophie positive chez Pierre Bayle, 1906), saw him through the eyes of the eighteenth-century philosophes: from now on “the golden rule” of all studies on Bayle must be to accept him as a sincere Calvinist. This peremptory decree seems to have been accepted with surprising docility by other Bayle scholars, or perhaps it expressed what they already believed. In any case, the acceptance of this new interpretation has had some happy results. It has led scholars to investigate more closely the Calvinist background to Bayle’s thought, as, for example, Walter Rex does in his Essays. This excellent study certainly illuminates Bayle’s specific theological and political intentions in the Pensées diverses sur la Comète (1682), the Commentaire Philosophique sur ces paroles de Jésus-Christ: “Contrains-les d’entrer” (1686-87), and the notorious article on David, which Rex, most convincingly, interprets as being to a great extent a covert attack on Jurieu’s political views, with David standing for William of Orange. But it seems to me that Rex somewhat over-emphasizes the rationalism of seventeenth-century French Calvinism through failing to give due weight to the brutal immorality of its central doctrine, absolute predestination and reprobation. Erich Haase, in his very well-informed Einführung in die Literatur des Refuge (1959), gave a juster picture of what was in general a very rigid and sterile theological tradition. Although Rex adopts the new interpretation, he is constrained to admit that “one may well wonder” whether the ghastly portrait Bayle gives of David (“l’homme selon le coeur de Dieu“) “could possibly have been written by a believing Calvinist.” One may indeed.

BY FAR THE MOST IMPORTANT and the best of the studies based on the new interpretation is Elisabeth Labrousse’s Pierre Bayle, Hétérodoxie et Rigorisme. This is such a monument of erudition and intelligence, and the author by her other works, particularly the Inventaire of Bayle’s correspondence, has done so much for Bayle studies, that I feel reluctant to disagree with her. Indeed, I am not quite sure that I do; for, although she does adopt the new interpretation, she is too honest and intelligent a scholar not to modify it drastically, and often comes very near to contradicting it. The reason why I do dare to disagree with such an authority is that the following argument in favor of the traditional interpretation seems to me irrefutable.

If Bayle, as he so often stated, was truly wishing to defend the cause of strictly orthodox Calvinism, he was not merely naïf, but downright half-witted. The view of Bayle as a destructive anti-Christian does not begin with the philosophes of the eighteenth century, but at the latest with the appearance of the Dictionnaire; Bayle therefore was fully aware of the upsetting effects of his “defenses” of Calvinism, but continued to publish elaborations of them up to his death. The advocates of the new interpretation are evidently dimly aware of the threat of this argument, though they never state it, and in consequence try to present Bayle as “naïf.” The only serious evidence in support of this strange description of one of the sharpest critical minds there has ever been is that Bayle failed to notice that a letter Fontenelle sent him in 1686, which purported to recount a war in Borneo between a queen, Mreo, and a rival claimant to the throne, Eenegu, was an allegory about the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Bayle published this in his journal, La Nouvelle République des Lettres, giving Fontenelle’s name, an indiscretion that gave the latter some trouble. The only evidence that Bayle did not see through the fairly obvious anagrams is his own word in a later letter. Even if we allow that in this case Bayle was not very perspicacious, this would not account for his failing to notice that his fellow refugees, both Calvinist and Arminian, thought he was attacking Christianity, and were saying so in print. Of course he did notice and produced more “defenses.” Nor does his failure to understand Fontenelle’s allegory imply, as Sandberg asserts, that Bayle was himself incapable of using sustained irony, since, as Rex shows in great detail, Bayle, in the Pensées sur la Comète, uses with great ingenuity the disguise of a Catholic to attack what he regarded as Catholic idolatry and superstition. Moreover, Bayle himself clearly showed that he was fully aware of what he was really doing when overtly defending the Synod of Dordrecht (which in 1619 had established, against the Arminians, the strict doctrine of predestination). Madame Labrousse, after expounding the arguments in the article Pauliciens and elsewhere, by which Bayle proved that even the most liberal systems of theology could not exculpate God from being the ultimate cause of the sins He punishes, admits that “incontestablement” this might be “une savante stratégie antichrétienne.” But then she claims that it might also be read as a “plaidoyer foudroyant” in favor of Calvinism, since Bayle has shown that the main objection to Calvinism—that God punishes sins for which, by His reprobation, He is directly responsible—applies equally, though less obviously, to all more lax theologies. I submit that it cannot be so read; for in the same article (rem. I) Bayle criticizes a similar defense of Calvinism by Jurieu on the grounds that it leads directly to atheism because it makes God “the author of sin.” A Calvinist may sincerely deny that he believes this, but (rem.F):


s’il prend la peine de définir exactement ce qu’il faudroit que Dieu eût fait, afin d’être l’auteur du péché d’Adam, il trouvera que selon son Dogme Dieu a fait tout ce qu’il faloit faire pour cela.2

And Bayle explains why this leads to atheism; since, by making God the author of sin, you ascribe to Him the qualities

d’un Législateur qui défend le crime à l’homme, & qui néanmoins pousse l’homme dans le crime, & puis l’en punit éternellement, vous en faites une nature en, qui l’on ne sauroit prendre nulle confiance, une nature trompeuse, maligne, injuste, cruelle: ce n’est plus un object de Religion; de quoi serviroit de l’invoquer, & tâcher d’être sage? C’est donc la voie de L’Athéïsme.3

My contention, then, is that Bayle, at least by the time of the Dictionnaire, was militantly anti-Christian—but not necessarily an atheist. To use a Baylian kind of analogy, one may hate one’s father passionately and yet believe in his power and the impossibility of ever getting away from home. It is often forgotten that, before Darwinism, the argument from design for the existence of God was extremely strong, if not irrefragable, and Bayle was fond of this argument. If this is so, then Bayle’s God was very like the evil principle of the Manichaeans; and Madame Labrousse does concede that Bayle’s tomb may perhaps contain the body “d’un des derniers manichéens de l’histoire.” However that may be, one may reasonably ask: how could Bayle, an exile because of his religion, have arrived at an aggressively anti-Christian position? The answer lies, I think, precisely in his exile. Both Madame Labrousse and Haase have given sensitive descriptions of the stresses and anxieties of the Huguenot refugees—hoping against hope somehow to return home, worrying about friends and relatives left in France, and soon neurotically and bitterly quarreling among themselves—and in Bayle’s case the despair and anger must have been heightened by the martyrdom of his brother. However near to radical skepticism Bayle sometimes came, his belief in objectively valid moral values seems always to have remained firm; and in any case he knew with certainty, because he had lived through it, a moral zero: religious persecution. One needs only to glance at Ce que c’est que la France toute Catholique (1686) to realize how deep was the anger and disgust he felt at the injustice, cruelty, and above all hypocrisy of Catholic persecution in France. The conduct of Jurieu, who still defended the execution of Michel Servet, made it clear that orthodox Protestants would be equally intolerant, if they had the power. What is the source of this hideous evil? A religion that demands the worship of an unjust God; and Bayle could demonstrate most convincingly that all Christian Gods, Catholic, Calvinist, Arminian, or Socinian, are unjust, first, because a good and omnipotent God is incompatible with the sin and misery of this world, let alone the next, and secondly, because the Christian God is also the God of Abraham and Isaac, the God of the Old Testament who personally ordered the most bloody religious persecutions. Bayle was certainly not a cynical, uninvolved libertin, like Saint-Evremond or Fontenelle: he was passionately, tragically angry, both at the cruel old father, and at his stupid, obsequiously adoring children, who were tearing each other to pieces because of him.

DOES SUCH A VIEW of Bayle fit in with what we know of his life, with the retired, meticulously accurate, almost pedantic scholar? I think so. No one is entirely without emotions, and some outlet must be found for them. Apart from his affection for his family, from whom he was early cut off, there is no sign of any positive, loving side to Bayle’s emotional life. His sexual drive had evidently been diverted into pornographic lines; which is one of the reasons why the Dictionnaire is such a delightful bedside book, except for its physical size. Here I am very much on Richard Popkin’s side, who, in the Introduction to his selections from the Dictionnaire, frankly delights in Bayle’s protracted obscenities and regrets he has not been able to include more (personally, I miss my favorite Julius III, so addicted to sodomy “ut neque à cardinalibus abstineat“), whereas other modern scholars think it necessary to offer feeble excuses for this aspect of Bayle’s work. It is therefore not unlikely that all his emotions should be channeled into anger and hatred against the religion that had caused the monstrous evil he had lived through. Nor is it unlikely that he should wish to communicate this anger and hatred, and should do so in the only way compatible with getting his books published, distributed, and read, namely, by the use of some disguise. For it certainly is not true, as Sandberg and others claim, that Bayle could have published anything he liked. He could not have found in seventeenth-century Holland publishers, distributors, and readers for overtly, virulently anti-Christian tracts.

Madame Labrousse comes at times very near to this view of Bayle. She admits that he was “objectively” destructive of religion, was possibly a Manichaean, that he may have been only “intermittently” a believer. The reason why she won’t go the whole hog seems to be a reluctance to believe that Bayle could deliberately lie; she writes of him: “il ne dit pas toute sa pensée, certes, et il emploie volontiers l’ironie, mais nous doutons fort qu’il écrive, par prudence, le contre-pied de ce qu’il pense.”4 Now this is not consistent, since Madame Labrousse, like all other modern scholars, accepts the Commentaire Philosophique as a genuine work of Bayle, although right up to the end of his life he emphatically denied he had written it. This brings me to the question of the Baylian canon. Before any more books on Bayle are written, it is highly desirable that someone should present all the evidence for and against Bayle’s authorship of the numerous anonymous or pseudonymous works attributed to him. With regard to the Commentaire Philosophique, I would tentatively suggest that it is, as Jurieu first thought, a collective work. The beginning of it, with its optimistic confidence in natural reason, is extremely unlike Bayle, whereas the later parts are typical of him stylistically (especially the use of analogies in the form of odd little stories) and come very near to demolishing the positions established earlier on—an inconsistency which puzzles Rex and Craig Brush, but which would be explained if Bayle were extending someone else’s treatise.

Although the great historical importance of Bayle’s works has long been recognized, they have until recently been very inaccessible. Now, thanks to Madame Labrousse, we have a photocopy edition of Bayle’s Oeuvres Diverses (Hildesheim, 1964-66), and the promise of a complete edition of his correspondence. But, even with the texts available, Bayle is a difficult thinker to get to know, since he is an unsystematic and very prolix writer. We should therefore be grateful for Richard Popkin’s selections, in English, from the Dictionnaire, which make some of the most important articles (e.g., Manichaeans, Paulicians, Pyrrho, Rorarius) accessible to every student, and for Madame Labrousse’s collection of excerpts from all Bayle’s works, accompanied by a very informative general introduction to Bayle. Another recent work which provides a useful introduction to Bayle’s religious thought is Karl C. Sandberg’s essay. Although I do not agree with his interpretation of Bayle, this book has the merit of giving a concise and clear account of the development of his thought, whereas Madame Labrousse’s much fuller study is a synthesis in which chronological differences tend to get blurred. It is a pity that, for some reason, Sandberg does not cover Bayle’s works later than the Dictionnaire. I must regretfully forbear saying anything about another interesting study of Bayle, since it would involve the discussion of another major writer: Craig B. Brush’s Montaigne and Bayle (The Hague, 1960).

This Issue

March 23, 1967