Pierre Bayle

Pierre Bayle.

Pierre Bayle (November 18, 1647 – December 28, 1706) was a French Calvinist philosopher and theologian. His life was marked by a series of difficulties with the Catholic French government, eventually resulting in his moving to the Netherlands. While many early modern philosophers (such as Descartes, Mersenne, and Berkeley) believed that skepticism could be to some degree overcome by argumentation, Bayle held that it was in fact the nature of reason to reach skeptical conclusions.


Bayle's most significant work is probably his Dictionnaire historique et critique, consisting of articles concerning a wide range of thinkers. In addition to reporting others' views, Bayle attached footnotes to a number of the articles in which he presented his own position. The Dictionnaire was widely read, and was to influence later philosophers as diverse as Berkeley, Leibniz, and Voltaire.


Pierre Bayle was born at La Carla (near Brive-la-Gaillarde) in southwestern France on November 18, 1647. His family was one of modest means, and strictly Calvinist; Bayle's father was a Calvinist minister. After studying at the local school and spending some time educating himself, Bayle took up studies at the Protestant academy in Puylaurens in 1668. Shortly thereafter, Bayle secretly transferred to a Jesuit college in Toulouse. While there, Bayle briefly converted to Catholicism, only to convert back to Calvinism after receiving his master's degree. At the time, however, French law forbade conversions from Catholicism, and Bayle had fled to Geneva by 1670. He continued to study philosophy and theology in Geneva, until accepting a position as professor of philosophy at the Protestant Academy in Sedan (near the present-day border of France and Belgium). Bayle taught at the academy for five years, leaving only when it was closed by French officials in 1681. He moved to Rotterdam, where he taught at the École Illustre for the remainder of his life.

Bayle's first publications date from soon after his arrival in Rotterdam. These began with his anonymous Lettre sur la Comète (Letter concerning the comet) in 1682. Though the work superficially concerned the nature of comets, Bayle's real purpose was to argue that humans could behave morally even without any religious beliefs—so that, in principle, even atheists could maintain a moral society. The implication was that mere considerations of the stability of morality and society were not sufficient to justify persecution based on religious beliefs. This basic theme appeared consistently elsewhere in Bayle's work, and has clear roots in his firsthand experience of Huguenot persecution by French authorities under Louis XIV.

Through the mid-1680s, Bayle edited a journal entitled Nouvelles de la République des letters, which published reviews of recent work in nearly all areas of learning. The creation of such journals was a significant factor in the development of the Enlightenment, and the success of the Nouvelles journal did much to advance the trend.

Bayle published a number of other philosophical, political, and theological works in the years that followed, yet his most significant publication is the Dictionnaire historique et critique, first published in 1696. While the majority of its material is devoted to non-evaluative information concerning what was then nearly every known philosopher and theologian, the most striking feature of the work is found in footnotes to the main articles. In those passages, Bayle presented his own views as responses to (or elaborations of) the doctrines of earlier thinkers. These footnotes were to be tremendously influential with respect to the philosophies of such figures as Berkeley, Leibniz, Hume, and Voltaire.

Bayle died peacefully on December 28, 1706.


Bayle appeared near the end of a long tradition of attempts to reconcile fundamental points of Christian doctrine with fundamental principles of reason. In its strongest form, this tradition extended from the early Christians, through the medievals, and into the beginning of the eighteenth century. Among the classic problems were the doctrine of transubstantiation in the Eucharist, the doctrine of the trinity, and the existence of evil in a world created by a benevolent God.

In contrast to his contemporaries (such as Malebranche and Leibniz), Bayle insisted that no reconciliation was possible. Advocating a form of fideism, Bayle held that the tenets of faith could neither be reached nor understood through reason. This general view appears amid a wide range of criticisms of other thinkers, primarily in his Dictionnaire, and so is best illustrated with examples.

Criticism of Malebranche

A particularly clear instance of this line of thought appears in Bayle's critique of Nicolas Malebranche's theodicy (Malebranche's purported solution to the problem of evil). In sum, Malebranche held that evil was the result of God's compromise of two aims: producing the best possible world, and using the best possible means to do so. Malebranche conceded that our world is not the best possible one, but held that the combination of the goodness of the world and the simplicity of the means was the best possible such combination. Given this, the evil in the world was merely a foreseen but unintended consequence of God's creation.

Bayle's response to this solution centered on an analogy. He asks his readers to consider a mother who sends her daughters into a situation where she knows they will succumb to temptation, while nevertheless encouraging them to be virtuous. In such a case, Bayle argued, it is clear that the inevitable failing of the daughters was not something the mother intended, even though she foresaw it. Yet clearly the mother is at fault in this case, since it was within her power to prevent the failing. Likewise, according to Malebranche's own view, God has it within his power to prevent evil, yet does not do so out of considerations of simplicity in means. Such considerations hardly appear to exonerate God, and so, Bayle's argument concludes that Malebranche offers no true solution to the difficulty.

Skepticism about Reason

Unsurprisingly, Bayle offered no alternative to Malebranche's theodicy. Yet this was not merely because the issue was a theological problem. Bayle held that reason was better equipped to criticize and undermine than to build, so that skeptical arguments were unavoidable.

One instance of this view appears in an argument (found in the footnote to the article on Zeno of Elea in the Dictionnare), which later greatly influenced the Irish Bishop George Berkeley. Bayle focuses on John Locke's distinction between primary and secondary qualities. According to Locke, primary qualities, such as extension, produce ideas in our minds that resemble the objects themselves, whereas secondary qualities, such as color, produce ideas which do not resemble the objects. Locke argues this by noting that the ideas we have of colors often vary without any changes in the objects themselves. For instance, the color of an apple appears more yellow than normal if one is affected by jaundice, yet this variation does not require any variation in the apple itself. Given this, it would appear that either the apple is simultaneously two different colors, or that it is itself neither color. Since the former option is absurd, the latter option must be the case.

Bayle noted that arguments of the exact same form can be used for any quality, not merely those designated by Locke as 'secondary.' For, depending on one's distance and perspective, the ideas one has of any aspect of an object's extension (shape, dimension, etc.) will vary without the object itself varying. For instance, a plate sitting on a table appears round if viewed from overhead, yet appears to be an extended line if viewed from the side. Likewise, though an acorn appears small to us, it must appear very large to a flea. It would appear, then, that none of our ideas are capable of resembling anything in the objects themselves.

The overall suggestion on Bayle's part seems to be that the self-defeat of reason makes the acceptance of religious doctrine easier, despite the fact that such doctrine cannot be understood through reason.


Primary Sources

  • 1964–1982. Oeuvres diverses, edited by E. Labrousse. Hildesheim: Georg Olms (reprint of 1727 edition).
  • 1991. Historical and Critical Dictionary: Selections, translated and edited by R. Popkin and C. Brush. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.
  • 1999. Correspondance de Pierre Bayle. Oxford: Voltaire Foundation.
  • 2000. Various Thoughts on the Occasion of a Comet, translated by R. Bartlett. Albany: SUNY Press.

Secondary Sources

  • Brush, C. B. 1966. Montaigne and Bayle. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.
  • Dibon, P. (ed.). 1959. Pierre Bayle, le philosophe de Rotterdam. Amsterdam and Paris: Elsevier and Vrin.
  • Labrousse, (ed.). 1963–1964. Pierre Bayle. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.
  • Lennon, T. 1999. Reading Bayle. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
  • Mori, G. 1999. Bayle Philosophe. Paris: Honoré Champion.
  • Rex, W. 1965. Essays on Pierre Bayle and Religious Controversy. La Haye: Martinus Nijhoff.
  • Ryan, T. 2002. “Pierre Bayle.” In A Companion to Early Modern Philosophy, edited by S. Nadler. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 247-259.
  • Sandberg, K. C. 1966. At the Crossroads of Reason and Faith: An Essay on Pierre Bayle. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
  • Whelan, R. 1989. The Anatomy of Superstition: A study of the Historical Theory and Practice of Pierre Bayle. Oxford: Voltaire Foundation.

External links

All links retrieved March 27, 2019.

General Philosophy Sources


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