The Reading Room

Bayle’s Dictionary: #1 Bestseller in the 18th Century

In matters of religion, it is very easy to deceive a man and very hard to undeceive him.” --Pierre Bayle
Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) is another thinker hugely influential in the Enlightenment but historically and ideologically not part of it. He was a fideist, like Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), who came before him. He argued that pure faith in God is our most certain and important knowledge; reason, by contrast, is weak, fallible, and overrated. Of course, this went against the philosophical rising tide of reason, science, empiricism, and secularism in the mid-17th century that became a tidal wave in the 18th century.  
Explaining why a history of the Enlightenment must deal with Bayle begins with the insight that he is little known, today, but was the most widely read author of the Enlightenment. Historians had not paid much attention to Bayle, remembered as the advocate of faith as opposed to reason in the Age of Reason. But in the mid-20th century, social scientists became “quantitative,” looking for things to count. One treasure trove of numbers was in France. In Bayle’s time, every estate passed through the courts, where every book (relatively far more expensive, then), was listed. These comprehensive lists revealed that Bayle’s master work, the four-volume An Historical and Critical Dictionary, throughout the 18th century was the single most common book in every library and private collection in France.  Although not pinned down by specific numbers, indications were that no self-respecting library in Britain, Holland, and other European countries would be without Bayle.
What Bayle argued won him few supporters and many enemies, both Catholic and Protestant. He attacked every rational, historical argument for Christianity. Yet, he insistently, passionately upheld belief in God, His goodness, and His dominion over human affairs. But, in doing so, he relentlessly attacked the whole, centuries-old structure of arguments, “proofs,” and demonstrations of God’s existence. None could be relied upon because reason could not be relied upon.
What made Bayle so threatening and annoying to Catholics and Protestants alike (but enormously useful to the later Enlightenment philosophers in their anti-Christian crusade) was that Bayle argued brilliantly, was a meticulous historian, and so excelled in textual criticism and interpretation that many French philosophes learned those skills from him.  He made enemies but could not be deterred. The problem had shaped his whole life. Born in France into a Calvinist family, his father a Calvinist preacher, Bayle was a Huguenot in Louis XIV’s Catholic France. He attended a Jesuit college in Toulouse, then fairly open-minded for a Catholic institution, where he joined the Catholic Church. Upon graduation with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1670, Bayle abjured Catholicism and thus put himself in the most dangerous position possible in France. He was a heretic, one who had known the Truth Faith and cast it aside. He was forced to flee for his life to Geneva, where he studied theology. He described his return to Calvinism (writing in the third person):
“He was very mistrusting of the exorbitant worship of  “Creatures” because his study of philosophy enabled him to understand that the credibility of the theory of transubstantiation was non-existent… When he analyzed the two religions anew, he found the true light…and decided to follow…caring nothing for the…material advantages…nor for the thousand troubles he knew he would incur…” 
He traveled in Europe and for a time was tutor to several reformed families, then he became a professor at the Huguenot Reformed Academy of Sedan in northeastern France. The Academy was suppressed in 1681, however, and he was forced to flee to Rotterdam in the United Provinces. Then in 1685 came revocation of tolerance of the Protestant Huguenots in France by Louis XIV. Bayle was in Rotterdam, where a large group of French refugees, Calvinists, have gathered, but Bayle’s own brother died in Louis XIV’s dungeons.
Dutch printers were thriving amidst the literary activity in Holland. Their newspapers and gazettes circulated throughout Europe. Bayle from 1684 to 1687 was lead editor of the famous literary periodical, News from the Republic of Letters, which connected him with scholars across Europe. Soon, he began long years teaching Calvinism to refugee children and writing polemics on religion. Catholics viewed him as a heretic and outraged theologians opposed him for his attacks on all Catholic philosophical positions. Calvinists were of many factions, and all those but Bayle’s own faction opposed him. In all, he was increasingly read as irreligious because his fideism directly confronted the new naturalistic, reasoned approaches to religion.
Fideism required Bayle to humble reason to show our absolute dependence upon faith and thus the incompatibility of reason and faith. For Bayle, it is clear that the arrogance of reason and the avoidance of simple, peaceful faith—a pattern almost since Christianity began—merely leads to superstition, intolerance, and cruelty. He argues masterfully against superstition with scrupulous use of facts and references to history such as the Great Comet of 1577 which had terrified the religious of Europe, creating widespread panic. Bayle's writings wittily and devastatingly punctured beliefs and claims and showed how religious doctrine simply confused and misled people.
He insists at the same time that religion must never fear critical reason nor erudition. Both are necessary to prepare one for faith. For there to be faith, there must be natural judgment; we must know the difference between natural judgment and faith. And what we see, when our eyes truly are opened, is that natural judgment often contradicts faith in God’s existence, wisdom, and goodness. Some of these paradoxes are simply unresolvable with our current understanding; we must turn to faith.
Bayle's great Dictionary has entries on philosophy, history, social issues, literature—almost anything. And often it is in footnotes, some extraordinarily long, that he makes points and arguments that scandalize the religious. Now, some of these scandals become European in their scope because of the popularity of the Dictionary. For many decades, later historians marveled—puzzled, actually—at his habit of enraging theologians and his own Calvinist community. It required scholarship that filled in the social background against which Bayle worked for some of his battles to make sense.
Among his most explosive polemics, a cause of European scandal, was a comment on David, king of Israel, as portrayed in the Old Testament. In brief, Bayle easily established from Scripture that David was beloved of God. And was saved and taken to God. The Bible leaves no doubt of that. But Scripture and well-known history also tells us that David was a thief, a liar, and a libertine who in one instance sent off to war and death a man after whose wife he above all lusted. David ripped off his own people. And he betrayed them. And when he was old, he kept warm in bed by covering himself with naked young girls. And so on and on.
But the Bible is clear. God loved David and saved him. Now, Calvinism is much-criticized for the doctrine of predestination: We do not know whom God will save or why. We cannot know. But we do know he saved David, king of Israel. Does that clarify for you whom God will save? No. Do you want to argue that what David did were not crimes?  Scandalous. Preposterous. And so, we know by natural judgment that David was beloved of God, saved, and a  lifelong sinner. Does your reason help you to understand that? No, natural judgment totally fails, here. We need faith in God’s wisdom and goodness, that is all we have. 
Bayle’s most explosive controversy with his own Rotterdam Calvinist community arose over the proposal of the community’s leader, Pierre Jurieu, to organize a crusade against Louis XIV by the Protestant countries. Jurieu’s diplomacy seemed likely to bring both Holland and England into the scheme. Bayle utterly opposed it. Christianity preached peace and Bayle was a pacifist. Christianity also preached obedience to the rulers that God put over us. Bayle maintained that loyalty to the crown held the key to achieving tolerance in France. So he advocated patience and faith. Jurieu was proposing what would be a terrible war in the name of God and religion; he was making reasoned arguments with pretended arrogant certainty that it was God’s will to overthrow this French persecutor of Protestants, this Catholic autocrat. And an argument that Jurieu used most effectively against those who disagreed with the crusade was the wicked, sinful, indulgent, and immoral reign of Louis XIV and the character of the king personally. How could you permit this sinner to rule a great country in the heart of Europe and to persecute true servants of God?
And so we begin to understand Bayle’s dramatic, arresting paradox of the sinner King David and the mysterious ways of God, who for reasons we cannot understand made David king of Israel, loved David, and saved him. Man’s reason simply cannot understand God’s wisdom, his judgments, and his will—and it is folly and arrogance to launch a religious war on the basis of our natural judgment. Few readers missed the equation of David with Louis XIV. 
The scandal over David was but one explosion set off by Bayle in his polemics and, especially, his Dictionary. For example, he also argued that a society of atheists might be more virtuous than one of believers and virtuous atheists might go to heaven instead of sinful believers. Bayle even staged a debate (in print) between a Christian and a Manichean (a believer that the universe is dominated by two competing forces, good and evil) and drew the scandalous conclusion that natural judgment could not decide between them. One must turn to faith.
Rousseau in 1737 spent his scarce funds to buy the Dictionary. David Hume had a virtually lifelong fondness for Bayle, but especially when he was a young Scottish Presbyterian seeking alternatives and in Bayle’s Dictionary discovered ancient atheists, skeptics, and rationalists. Toward the end of his life, in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Hume appropriated Bayle’s arguments and often his conclusions, too, but seldom with acknowledgment of Bayle. Edward Gibbon said, at typical length, that Bayle had taught him how subversive of false beliefs and conceptions historical accuracy could be. Frederick II of Prussia, the ardent disciple of Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire, adored the Dictionary. Voltaire called it the first such work that had taught men to think and paid Bayle the ultimate compliment of comparing him with Cicero. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin read Bayle and enthusiastically recommended the Dictionary.
In short, for the philosophes and British philosophers, Bayle’s Dictionary was a foremost source of information, a constant inspiration to read, and a veritable arsenal of stratagems. It did no harm that they could contemplate the example of Bayle’s blameless life of frugal scholarship, his courageous endurance of persecution, and his inexhaustible energy in fighting the good fight. Prof. Gay writes: “For them, he was the first citizen in the republic of letters; in Diderot’s words “…a doughty athlete of skepticism.” 
For us, Bayle is an object lesson in the relationship between the thinkers of the 16th and 17th centuries, on the one hand, and the Enlightenment philosophers, on the other. The enlighteners tended to give Christian thinkers of those centuries minimal credit. They were after all the minions of the Christian monopoly on education and scholarship, wedded to faith scientific method. In fact, however, many Christian scholars were the first critics of Christianity, some reconciling study of the natural world and science with their theology, others taking rationalist, skeptical, Socinian, and other eclectic philosophical stances that collectively, over time, loosened the grip of Christianity on science, scholarship, and education. And by the 18th century, this groundwork bequeathed to the enlighteners a world more permissive of philosophy, questioning, elevation of classical thinkers, and much more. But, writes Prof. Kors, the historical reality was that “…a tidal change was occurring in the culture… that affects perceptions of Bayle.”
In the case of Bayle’s Dictionary, as in many others, the enlighteners tended to seize the secular, philosophical treasure for their own work and toss aside the faith as dross, then use what they needed without reference to the author. 
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has this to say about Bayle’s death:
“Bayle died in December, 1706, pen-in-hand, putting the final touches to his Dialogues of Maximus and Themistius…an apology of Bayle’s life and works…but in particular a defence of his most notorious thesis, that there is no solution to the problem of evil. Bayle allegedly declared shortly before dying that he was “a Christian philosopher.” …one thing that is beyond doubt…Bayle’s philosophical reflections challenged the rational foundations of Christian thought more strongly than the reflection of any philosopher before him.”