The Reading Room

OLL’s November Birthday: Pierre Bayle (November 22, 1647-December 28, 1706)

November’s OLL Birthday essay is in honor of Pierre Bayle, a philosopher and theologian who exercised a profound influence on Enlightenment thinkers. His works regarding toleration, in particular, were at least as important as those of John Locke in his own time and for future arguments on the subject of toleration as well.
Pierre Bayle was born on November 22, 1647 in Carla-le-Comte (later renamed Carla-Bayle in his honor), the second of three boys. His father was a Calvinist pastor. The family had modest means, but young Pierre learned to read and write in the town’s only school, and his father taught him Greek and Latin. 
At age 21 Pierre went to study at a Jesuit academy, where he converted to Catholicism in 1666. This conversion did not last long, and by 1670 he had abjured his Catholicism and reconverted to Calvinism. Given the circumstances of seventeenth century France, however, this was not a simple matter. Being a Protestant heretic at the time was dangerous enough, but being a Protestant heretic who had converted to Catholicism and then relapsed into heresy put Bayle into an extremely precarious situation. He fled France for Calvinist Geneva, where he lived for a time, working as a tutor to a noble family. By 1675 he had returned to France incognito, under the name “Bèle,” where he found a position of Chair of Philosophy at the Protestant Academy in Sedan.
These were extremely dangerous times for Huguenots in France. The relative religious toleration the Huguenots had enjoyed since the Edict of Nantes (1598) was steadily eroded under the reign of Louis XIV (1638-1715). The Academy at Sedan finally was shut down by the authorities in 1681, and Bayle fled to Rotterdam where he was to spend the rest of his life. Between 1682 and 1685 all of the Calvinist churches in France were demolished, and in 1685 the Edict of Nantes was officially renounced.
These events, along with the deaths of his father and one of his brothers due in part to the rigors of anti-protestant persecutions, pushed Bayle to develop his earlier ideas about religious toleration. In 1686, he published his most important work on the subject, the (cumbersomely named) A Philosophical Commentary on These Words of the Gospel, Luke XIV:23, “Compel them to Come In, that my House May be Full.” Many Christians had used this text to argue for the permissibility of persecution of heretics and non-Christians. Bayle, drawing on some of his earlier works arguing for religious toleration, argued that every person must answer to his own conscience about his beliefs. Drawing on scripture as well as rational argument, Bayle argued that the worst possible thing to do to another human being was to compel him to act against his own conscience. Since this was against everything Jesus Christ preached, his words in the Gospel of Luke could not have condoned religious coercion, even though they seem to have. 
Predictably, the work was roundly condemned by the Catholic clergy and by the political authorities in France. Interestingly, however, it was also received coldly by Protestant divines, especially by the Calvinists. Following on the sermons and writings of Jean Calvin, they were in fact perfectly willing to persecute people they deemed to be heretical. This situation led to a serious rift between Bayle and several prominent members of the Huguenot community in Rotterdam. Bayle’s arguments that even atheists were entitled to their beliefs (or lack thereof) outraged many members of the community and convinced some that Bayle himself must be an atheist. He thus found himself attacked by both the French Catholic authorities and many of his fellow Calvinists.
These controversies led to his dismissal, in 1693, from his long-time teaching position at the École Illustre in Rotterdam (a school serving mostly Huguenot refugees). But shortly thereafter, in 1696, he published one of his most famous and enduring works, the Historical and Critical Dictionary. While tremendously popular and widely read, it was also controversial, in part, at least, it seemed to cast Manichaeism in a positive light, but even worse, it argued that a society of atheists could be viable. This not only went against the received wisdom at the time, it furthered the speculation among his enemies that he was an atheist. The work was further criticized on the grounds that it was obscene, as Bayle did not shy away from various racy topics. An immense tome of about six million words, it had a huge variety of entries, arranged alphabetically, on an enormous range of subjects. In almost all cases, importantly, Bayle spelled out the orthodox, accepted view on a particular topic, and then proceeded to introduce various skeptical objections to it. While it was thus organized as a reference work, it seems that most of its many readers simply relished the opportunity to read random entries and enjoy the merciless skewering of established orthodoxies they encountered. Despite its bulk and unconventional style, the book was widely popular, and its commercial success freed Bayle from teaching and financial concerns. Despite (or because of) its notoriety, Bayle’s other works also became more popular ,and he himself became a kind of celebrity. He never married, but in his later years enjoyed the company of many visitors who wished to visit the famous author. Never in particularly good health, he died alone, probably of a heart attack, after a long illness on December 28, 1706. He was buried in Rotterdam in the "Walloon church.” After the demolition of this church in 1922 his grave was relocated to the Crooswijk Cemetery, where the site is marked by a plaque.
Bayle’s influence on Western Philosophy and Intellectual History are hard to overestimate. His skeptical attitude toward all received orthodoxies were tremendously influential to Enlightenment figures like Voltaire and Hume. Thomas Jefferson included the Dictionary as one of the original works in the Library of Congress. The Dictionary was also the main inspiration for Diderot and the Encyclopédistes. His calls for freedom of conscience and religious toleration mark him as one of history’s great defenders of individual liberty.