An Historical and Critical Dictionary Analysis

Pierre Bayle


Pierre Bayle’s An Historical and Critical Dictionary is a compendium of arguments, tending toward a skeptical view, for and against almost every theory in philosophy and theology. In the eighteenth century, it was called the “Arsenal of the Enlightenment,” and it played a very important role in intellectual discussions throughout the first half of that century. Significant criticisms of the major and minor philosophers and theologians of the time appear throughout An Historical and Critical Dictionary. Thinkers such as George Berkeley, David Hume, and Voltaire used the work as a source of arguments and inspiration. Remaining in vogue until it was no longer useful as a reference work, the last edition appeared in 1820.

The Dictionary

Bayle’s An Historical and Critical Dictionary was begun as a series of corrections to a previous biographical dictionary, but it grew until it became an enormous work in its own right. It consists, formally, of a series of articles in alphabetical order, giving biographical information and historical data about all sorts of people, places, and things, some historical, some mythological. Many of the people discussed are obscure theologians or philosophers with strange theories. The meat of An Historical and Critical Dictionary appears primarily in the footnotes, which occupy most of the space, appearing below the text on the huge folio pages in double columns of small print. Many of the footnotes contain digressions that allow Bayle to bring up all of his favorite disputes. An important, interesting, or exciting digression can appear almost anywhere. In the article on “Rorarius,” for example, Bayle launches into one of the first and most significant criticisms of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. The footnotes are also interspersed with spicy tales about the love lives and sexual practices of various famous people, and with profane versions of Bible stories. In the course of the thousands of footnotes, virtually every theory ever propounded is attacked, and a recurring theme appears—humanity, realizing the uselessness of rational endeavors, should turn to faith.

When the work first appeared, it was immediately attacked and banned in...

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Controversy and Debate

Bayle has been interpreted, by most critics, as being the earliest figure in the Enlightenment to use his scholarship and his critical abilities for the purpose of destroying all confidence in religion, both through undermining the reasons given by theologians for the faith and through making the faith appear ridiculous. On the other hand, some scholars have argued that Bayle was sincere, that he was actually defending religion rather than opposing it, using the same sort of irrational “defense” later employed by philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Neither the information about Bayle’s life nor an analysis of his writings results in a definitive solution of the mystery of his real intentions. However, regardless of what he may have thought he was trying to accomplish, the impact of Bayle’s thought in the eighteenth century caused many thinkers to doubt traditional philosophical and theological arguments and to doubt the philosophies and religions as well. Bayle also supplied much of the ammunition used by the skeptical philosophers of the Age of Reason.

In the wide range of articles and issues dealt with in An Historical and Critical Dictionary, some deserve special notice because of either their influence or their content. The longest article, on Spinoza, was notorious in its day because it presented the first defense of Spinoza’s character as a saintly human being, in contrast to the grim rumors of the time that Spinoza must have...

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Questioning Reality

In the article on Zeno of Elea, especially in the footnotes G and H, Bayle levels his attacks on modern metaphysical systems. He tries to show that, on the basis of the premises of a philosopher such as René Descartes, no satisfactory evidence can be offered to show that an external world exists or that it can be consistently described in mathematical terms. First, Bayle argues that the same sort of skeptical evidence that led modern philosophers to doubt that real objects possess the secondary qualities that we perceive, such as color, smell, and heat, should also lead these philosophers to doubt whether real objects possess the primary, mathematical qualities, such as extension. The reality of secondary qualities is denied by almost all seventeenth century philosophers. They all point out that because these qualities are perceived differently at different times, under different conditions, and by different people, the real object cannot possess these variable properties. Bayle then contends that if this argument is considered adequate, it should also be applied to a quality such as extension. The same object appears big to an individual at one time, small at another. One’s perception of its size differs from that of other persons. Hence, extension, like color, is no more than an idea in one’s own mind and is not a characteristic of real objects.

Further, Bayle gathers together all the arguments from philosophers such as Malebranche to show that...

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The Skeptic’s Argument

The longest and most explicit statement of this theme (and the one that was most often debated in the eighteenth century) occurs in footnotes B and C of the article on Pyrrho. The discussion begins as a comment on the observation in the text that it is fitting that Pyrrhonian skepticism is detested in the schools of theology. Bayle points out that Pyrrhonism, complete skepticism, is a danger only to theology, not to science or politics. Practically every scientist is a skeptic because scientists doubt that it is possible to discover the secret causes and springs of nature. Instead, the scientists look only for descriptive information and probable hypotheses about nature. Regarding politics, the skeptics are not dangerous because they are always willing to follow the laws and customs of society as they have no dogmatic moral or legal principles. However, skepticism can be a great danger to religion, because religious doctrines should be completely certain. If not, there will be no firm conviction. Fortunately, however, Bayle points out, skepticism has little effect on people, either because of the grace of God, their education, their stupidity, or their natural inclinations.

To show the merits or the dangers of skepticism, Bayle tells a story about a discussion between two abbots. One asserts that it is incomprehensible to him that there are still any skeptics around because God has given us the Revelation. The other replies that both the “new philosophy” and Christian theology provide excellent ammunition for any skeptic. The philosophy of thinkers such as Descartes leads, as the article on Zeno shows, to a complete skepticism about the nature and existence of the real world. By consistently employing the arguments of seventeenth...

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Faith and Reason

This total irrationalism and acceptance of religion on blind faith was bitterly attacked by theologians everywhere. In the second edition of An Historical and Critical Dictionary, Bayle added a more detailed (and more antirational) exposition of his views in the appendix explaining the article on Pyrrho. There he argued that the world of reason and the world of faith are two totally different and opposing realms. If one looks for evidence, one cannot have faith, and the search for evidence will end only in complete skepticism. If one completely abandons the quest for evidence, then faith is possible. In fact, the more irrational one’s beliefs are, the more this means that such beliefs cannot be based on any evidence...

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Additional Reading

Bayle, Pierre. Historical and Critical Dictionary, Selections. Translated by Richard H. Popkin and Craig Brush. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965. This work includes forty of Pierre Bayle’s articles on important intellectual and moral figures throughout history. It provides a glimpse into the seventeenth century mind in general and Bayle’s philosophical views in particular. In addition to these translations, an introduction to Bayle’s life and an annotated bibliography are included.

Chappell, Vere, ed. Port-Royal to Bayle. Vol. 4 in Essays on Early Modern Philosophers. New...

(The entire section is 436 words.)