An Historical and Critical Dictionary

by Pierre Bayle

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 114

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

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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 France for its anti-Catholic, antireligious, skeptical views, as well as for its obscene content. It was similarly criticized in Holland by Bayle’s own church, the French Reformed Church of Rotterdam, which demanded an explanation for the material contained in An Historical and Critical Dictionary. The author insisted that he had been misunderstood. The obscenities, he said, represented reports of actual historical facts, and he could not be held responsible for the actions of historical personages, many of them long dead. As to the other charges, he insisted that they were entirely without foundation. His intention was to support the faith of his church by exposing the weaknesses of all rational theories, so that people, seeing this, would turn away from philosophy and science, to faith. His opponents contended that Bayle had made such a mockery of the faith that he could not possibly be seriously advocating it.

To answer the charges, Bayle wrote some appendices to the dictionary, plus additional footnotes, and incorporated them into the next edition, that of 1702. These additions were considered so much more dangerous and heretical than his original work that they produced another storm of attacks, as well as a series of answers on Bayle’s part. For the rest of his life, Bayle fought to vindicate his contention that his general, overall view was the same as that of John Calvin and of all of the most orthodox theologians. The liberal and the orthodox Calvinists fought against this claim and tried to unmask their opponent as a true heretic. Bayle kept pointing out that his most extreme orthodox opponents really said the same things as he did. However, as one of them observed, “When I say it, it is serious. When he [Bayle] says it, it turns out comical.”

Controversy and Debate

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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 been a villainous person to have advocated the philosophy that he did. However, while defending Spinoza’s character, Bayle also engaged in his favorite sport, that of decimating other people’s theories. The article on “Rorarius” presents the first serious discussion that had appeared in print of Leibniz’s novel metaphysical theory. (When Leibniz wrote a lengthy response, Bayle enlarged the footnotes in “Rorarius,” in the second edition, to discuss Leibniz’s defense as well as some new criticisms of his own.) The philosophies of Malebranche, John Locke, and Sir Isaac Newton are all subjected to devastating criticisms in the article on Zeno of Elea.

Two of the articles on early religious groups, one on the Manichaeans and the other on the Paulicians, deal with the problem of evil, arguing that it is not possible to disprove the Manichaean theory that there is an evil as well as a good God or the theory that God is author of evil. These two articles unleashed a storm of controversy and led to the writing of two famous answers, that of Leibniz, in his Essais de théodicée sur la bonté de Dieu, la liberté de l’homme, et l’origine du mal (1710; Theodicy: Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man, and the Origin of Evil, 1952) and that of William King, Archbishop of Dublin, in his Origins of Evil (1739). Both Hume and Voltaire used Bayle’s arguments on the subject of evil in their attacks on traditional theology.

Questioning Reality

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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 there is no genuine evidence that real objects even exist. It cannot be demonstrated that they do. All of the information that is offered as evidence could be due to the actions of God on us, without requiring the actual existence of objects corresponding to our ideas and feelings or causing them. If it is answered that God would be deceiving us if he made us believe in the existence of real objects when there really were none, Bayle answers, in the article on Pyrrho of Elis, that God makes peasants think that snow is white, and the philosophers claim this is a delusion, so why cannot God also delude the philosophers into thinking objects exist? To conclude this subject, Bayle endorses Malebranche’s view that it is faith only, and not reason, that can justify our beliefs about the real existence of things. Hence, we ought to be content with the light of faith and give up the hopeless pursuit of truth by means of reason.

The Skeptic’s Argument

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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 century philosophers, we can no longer be sure whether objects possess any qualities, including those of extension and motion, and we cannot even be sure that there are any objects.

Further, Bayle insists, we cannot even be sure of the dogmatic philosophers’ contention that something is true, because we cannot be certain of the criterion of truth. Philosophers have said that self-evidence is the sure mark of truth. However, the skeptical abbot declares, if Christianity is true, then there are self-evident propositions that must be false, and so, self-evidence cannot be taken as the standard for measuring what is true. Bayle then argues that the Christian doctrines of the Trinity, Transubstantiation, the Fall, and Original Sin contradict various self-evident propositions of philosophy such as that two things not different from a third are not different from each other, that a body cannot be in several places at the same time, that one ought to prevent evil if one can, and so on. In passing from the shadows of paganism to the light of Scripture, the abbot points out, we have learned the falsity of a great many self-evident notions.

Then the skeptical abbot answers the possible objection that all of the evidence against the criterion of truth depends on evaluating God and his actions by human standards, and these may not be the correct criteria for some judgments. If this objection is taken seriously, then we are again led to complete skepticism because we are then unable to know what is true in God’s world if we cannot employ our own judgmental standards.

The arguments of the skeptics, Bayle contends, cannot be answered by human reason, and they expose the weakness of our rational faculties. Thus we are made to feel the need for a guide different from reason—namely, faith. In footnote C, this point is explored further, first by pointing out that complete skepticism is the greatest achievement of human rationality, but that even so, it is completely self-defeating. One cannot even believe that skepticism is true without ceasing to be a skeptic. The attempt to become completely dubious about everything by means of reason finally leads one to give up reasoning entirely and to turn to a more secure guide, faith. Skepticism is portrayed as the best preparation for religion because it reveals the total and hopeless inadequacy of reason as a means for finding truth. One is then ready to accept Revelation without question. In a later defense of this theory, Bayle asserts that there is no faith better established on reason than that which is built on the ruins of reason.

Faith and Reason

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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 whatsoever (otherwise, there might be some reason for them). The true and complete person of faith, then, according to Bayle’s rendition of the case, is the person who accepts a belief for which he or she can give no justification and no reason of any kind. Bayle, in keeping with the other French skeptics from Michel Eyquem de Montaigne onward, cites as his Scriptural authority for this interpretation of religion Saint Paul’s antirational pronouncements in the first chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians.

Opponents immediately pointed out that this irrationalism would destroy religion rather than defend it. There would be no reason left for accepting a religion, no standards by which to tell what is true or false, and no way of distinguishing the true religion from all the others. In fact, the critics claimed, Bayle’s religion without reason would actually be a form of madness, or superstition, which neither Bayle nor any other “reasonable” man could possibly accept. Bayle fought back during the last years of his life, attacking the reasons his opponents offered for their religious views and for their criticisms and insisting that all of the most orthodox theologians had said exactly the same thing as he was saying.

Whether Bayle was sincere or not, the arguments he presented to show that religion could not be based on reason became basic ingredients in the deistic, agnostic, and atheistic views developed in the course of the Enlightenment. His arguments against modern philosophy became crucial themes in the theories of Berkeley, Hume, and Voltaire. An Historical and Critical Dictionary was all important in transforming the intellectual world from its metaphysical and theological phase to the skeptical and empirical phase of the Age of Reason.


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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 York: Garland, 1992. Contains a wealth of articles from the past thirty years on early modern philosophy. There are four articles on Bayle. Each article is accompanied by a helpful introduction, biography, and introduction. Other philosophers covered in this volume are Antoine Arnauld, Blaise Pascal, and Samuel Pufendorf.

Critical Spirit, Wisdom and Erudition on the Eve of the Enlightenment. Amsterdam: APA-Holland University Press, 1998. A look at Bayle’s philosophy.

Kearns, Edward John. Ideas in Seventeenth-Century France. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979. This book considers the political and religious climate in which the scientific revolution took place in France. Kearns takes a detailed look at Bayle, René Descartes, Pascal, Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, and others.

Kilcullen, John. Sincerity and Truth: Essays on Arnauld, Bayle, and Toleration. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. The author discusses issues of morality, toleration, and conscious in Bayle’s philosophy and considers it in relation to Arnauld’s views on philosophic sin. Includes an introduction, bibliography, and index.

Labrousse, Elisabeth. Bayle. Translated by Deny Potts. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. Discusses Bayle’s place in intellectual history and offers an important interpretation of his philosophy.

Mason, H. T. Pierre Bayle and Voltaire. London: Oxford University Press, 1963. An investigation into the relationship between the philosophies of Bayle and Voltaire. Mason particularly examines the extent to which Voltaire borrowed from Bayle.

Nadler, Steven. Causation in Early Modern Philosophy. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993. This work consists of essays examining seventeenth century philosophers and their approaches to the problem of causation. Philosophers covered include Bayle, Descartes, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Nicolas Malebranche, and Anne Conway.

Popkin, Richard H. The High Road to Pyrrhonism. San Diego, Calif.: Austin Hill Press, 1980. Several of the articles in this work concern Bayle’s influence and skepticism.

Robinson, Howard. Bayle the Skeptic. New York: Columbia University Press, 1931. This work portrays Bayle as a precursor of Enlightenment atheism.

Sandberg, Karl C. At the Crossroads of Faith and Reason: An Essay on Pierre Bayle. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1966. This work looks at Bayle in the context of Protestant theology. Sandberg portrays Bayle as a sincere Calvinist.

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