Renaissance and Reformation Pierre Bayle
by
Michael W. Hickson
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0482

Introduction

Pierre Bayle (b. 1647–d. 1706) was a philosopher, professor, Huguenot refugee, historian, literary critic, journalist, encyclopedist avant la lettre, and polemicist. According to some scholars, Bayle was also a profound Protestant theologian, while according to others, he was an atheist. Most readers have found Bayle at least skeptical, and many consider him an outright skeptic. In short, it is difficult, if not impossible to classify Bayle’s thought simply, to ascertain his motives clearly, or even to find the intended conclusions of his dozens of works with any certainty. Much of the Bayle scholarship of the past three centuries has been devoted to this problem that is referred to in the literature as the “Bayle enigma.” At least we can say that his most well-known philosophical works treat the topics of superstition, freedom of conscience, religious toleration, rationalist metaphysics, and the problem of evil. In only a few short years, Bayle wrote one of the longest and most complex books ever composed by a single author: the six-million-word Dictionaire historique et critique. The Dictionaire is arranged like an encyclopedia, with discussions of hundreds of topics—mostly people—arranged alphabetically. But unlike an encyclopedia, the Dictionaire is full of critical, philosophical—sometimes obscene—footnotes that make up over 80 percent of the total volume of the work. These footnotes made Bayle notorious in his day, famous and beloved in the centuries after, and guaranteed his place in the histories of literature, philosophy, politics, and religion. Philosophers of the 18th century mined these footnotes for arguments against every traditional authority and dogma, to the point that historian Ernst Cassirer referred to the Dictionaire as the arsenal of the Enlightenment.

General Overviews

Bayle did not write intentionally for the ages, though he has found readers in every decade since his death. All of his works are embedded in often narrow debates with particular authors: he wrote for his time and his contemporaries. Therefore it is more important with Bayle than it is with most philosophers to approach his works with some knowledge of his life, his circumstances, the religious and political contexts of his works, and the details of his relationships. The best place to start is with one of the three biographies of Bayle that have been written: Des Maizeaux 1984, Labrousse 1985, and Bost 2006. The last of these also serves as an overview of the contents of Bayle’s works, but Labrousse 1996 is the best and most complete such work. If one lacks time for these more substantial overviews, then Labrousse 1983 and Hickson and Lennon 2017 give very brief synopses of Bayle’s life and works. Much of the recent Bayle literature has been motivated by two opposing interpretations of Bayle that have been around for centuries, but that both found their best expressions in works first published in 1999: Lennon 1999 is an excellent introduction to the skeptical interpretation of Bayle’s corpus, while Mori 2020 presents an atheistic interpretation of the “Philosopher of Rotterdam.” The most recent trend in the Bayle literature has been a rationalist reading of Bayle’s philosophy; McKenna 2015 includes a number of important essays that develop this interpretation.

  • Bost, Hubert. Pierre Bayle. Paris: Fayard, 2006.

    An award-winning intellectual biography of Bayle that treats simultaneously and chronologically the author and his work. Readers interested in the historical, religious, and personal contexts of Bayle’s writings should begin here.

  • Des Maizeaux, Pierre. “The Life of Mr. Bayle.” In The Dictionary Historical and Critical of Mr. Peter Bayle, Vol. 1. Edited by Pierre Bayle, iii–cxviii. New York & London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1984

    The first biography of Bayle, written by his friend in 1729 and inserted as a preface to Bayle’s Dictionnaire for the first time in 1730 (London: J.J. and P. Knapton, 1734-1738). While still useful, this biography is an unapologetic hagiography. Since Des Maizeaux lacked much of Bayle’s correspondence, his understanding of some aspects of Bayle’s life and works is incomplete.

  • Hickson, Michael W., and Thomas M. Lennon. “Pierre Bayle.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Winter 2017 Edition

    A brief overview of Bayle’s life and his philosophical positions in epistemology, metaphysics, morality, politics, and religion.

  • Labrousse, Elisabeth. Bayle. Translated by Denys Potts. Past Masters. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.

    A model edition in the Past Masters series and a good compromise between the shorter encyclopedia entries and full-length biographies in this section. Labrousse briefly recounts Bayle’s life and context, before offering summaries of what Bayle argued for, and what he argued against. The best starting point for Anglophone readers interested in learning more about Bayle.

  • Labrousse, Elisabeth. Pierre Bayle, tome I: Du pay de foix à la cite d’Erasme. 2d ed. International Archives of the History of Ideas 1. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer, 1985.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-94-009-5087-0

    A classic biography of Bayle, written by the most influential Bayle scholar of all time, and published for the first time in 1963 (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff). Labrousse’s biography surpasses Des Maizeaux’s by its inclusion of more of Bayle’s correspondence and more information about Bayle’s religious and political contexts. Unlike Bost 2006, Labrousse’s biography separates treatment of the author’s life from treatments of his works, which she discusses in Labrousse 1996.

  • Labrousse, Elisabeth. Pierre Bayle, tome II: Hétédoxie et rigorisme. 2d ed. Bibliothèque de l’Evolution de l’Humanité. Paris: Albin Michel, 1996.

    An exposition of Bayle’s views on a range of topics, organized thematically rather than chronologically. Some of the nineteen themes explored include historical methodology, the causes of error, dualism, occasionalism, mechanism, freedom, absolutism, and toleration. Labrousse exhibits an acquaintance with Bayle’s oeuvre and his context that remains second-to-none to this day. An indispensable work.

  • Lennon, Thomas M. Reading Bayle. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999.

    DOI: 10.3138/9781442679016

    The only book-length treatment of the “Bayle enigma,” the curious fact that Bayle has been interpreted in every century since his death in numerous inconsistent ways. Lennon accounts for the enigma by interpreting Bayle as an Academic skeptic, whose main goal is to present opposing views equally strongly to promote intellectual integrity. Bayle’s personal views are consequently confused by his readers with the many views Bayle discusses.

  • McKenna, Antony. Études sur Pierre Bayle. Paris: Honoré Champion, 2015.

    A collection of essays—some original, some modifications of previously published articles—treating aspects of Bayle’s life, works, and circumstances. The Bayle who emerges from these essays is rationalist rather than skeptical.

  • Mori, Gianluca. Bayle philosophe. Nouvelle édition. Paris: Honoré Champion, 2020.

    Originally published in 1999, this is the starting point of 21st-century Bayle scholarship. With its bold claim that all the roads of Bayle’s reflection lead to atheism, this book challenges the dominant 20th-century interpretation of Bayle as a skeptical fideist, and returns to prominence the Enlightenment interpretation of Bayle as a covert enemy of religion. Includes a useful bibliography of Bayle’s works and all secondary literature from 1990–2020.

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