Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1947

Illustration of PDF document

Download Pierre Bayle Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Article abstract: Bayle was a great skeptical arguer, criticizing philosophical theories both old and new, and exposing the weaknesses of Catholic and Protestant theologies. His criticisms helped pave the way for modern toleration and provided the principal arguments for the Enlightenment.

Early Life

Pierre Bayle was born in the small town of Carla-le-Comte, near the Spanish border south of Toulouse, where his father was a Calvinist minister. He grew up during the increasing persecution of Protestants in France. He was first sent to a Calvinist academy at Puylaurens. Next, he attended the Jesuit college in Toulouse, because there was no advanced Protestant school left in his area. His studies with the Jesuits led him to consider the controversial arguments used by Catholics to convert the Protestants. On the basis of intellectual considerations, he soon became a Catholic, the worst thing a son of an embattled Calvinist minister could do. He soon redeemed himself by converting from Catholicism back to Protestantism, again on the basis of intellectual arguments. This second conversion made Bayle a relaps, someone who has returned to heresy after having abjured it. As such, he was subject to banishment or imprisonment. For his protection, he was sent to the University of Geneva to complete his studies in philosophy and theology.

To earn his living, Bayle returned to France in disguise and was a tutor in Paris and Rouen. In 1675, he became professor of philosophy at the Calvinist academy at Sedan, where he was the protégé of the fanatically orthodox Protestant theologian Pierre Jurieu, who was to become his most bitter enemy. Bayle and Jurieu taught at Sedan until it was closed by the French government in 1681. They then went to the Netherlands as refugees and were reunited as faculty members of the new academy in Rotterdam, the École Illustre, and as leading figures in the French Reformed church in that city.

Life’s Work

Bayle’s career as an author began shortly after his arrival in Rotterdam. He published a work he had drafted in France, Lettre sur la comète (1682; Miscellaneous Reflections Occasion’d by the Comet Which Appear’d in December, 1680, 1708), in which he began his critique of supersitition, intolerance, bad philosophy, and bad history. This was followed by Critique générale de l’histoire du calvinisme de M. Maimbourg (1682; general criticism of Father Maimbourg’s history of Calvinism), an examination of a very polemical history of Calvinism by a leading Jesuit. In 1684, Bayle edited Recueil de quelques pièces curieuses concernant la philosophie de M. Descartes, a collection of articles about Cartesianism, which was then under attack by the Jesuits. The collection contained articles by Nicolas de Malebranche, Bayle, and others. From 1684 to 1687, Bayle published a learned journal, Nouvelles de la République des Lettres, in which he commented on the theories then appearing of Gottfried Leibniz, Malebranche, Antoine Arnauld, Robert Boyle, and John Locke, among others.

Because of his acute judgment, which appeared in his early writings, Bayle became one of the central figures in the Republic of Letters and was in direct contact with many of its leading personalities. From 1684 to 1685, Bayle devoted himself exclusively to scholarly writing. His brothers and his father died in France as a result of the religious persecution against Protestants. He declined when the Jurieu family offered the opportunity of an advantageous marriage. He rejected a position as professor at the University of Franeker, preferring to remain in Rotterdam, contending against various kinds of opponents.

In 1686, Bayle published Commentaire philosophique sur ces paroles de Jésus-Christ “Contrain-les d’entrer” (A Philosophical Commentary on These Words in the Gospel, Luke XIV, 23: “Compel Them to Come In, That My House May Be Full,” 1708). This essay was directed against the Catholic persecution of the Protestants in France. In it, Bayle developed the most extensive argument of the time for complete toleration, going further than John Locke did in A Third Letter for Toleration (1692). Bayle advocated tolerating Muslims, Jews, Unitarians, and atheists, as well as Catholics (who were then persecuted in the Netherlands). Bayle’s views used skeptical arguments as a basis for complete toleration of all views, claiming that an “erring conscience” had as many rights as a nonerring one, since it was impossible to tell who was right or wrong. Bayle’s tolerance brought him into conflict with his erstwhile mentor, Jurieu, who became the theorist of intolerance and a dominant figure in the French Reformed church while in exile. Their differences became so great that Jurieu denounced his colleague as a menace to true religion and a secret atheist. During the late 1680’s, Bayle began a furious pamphlet war against Jurieu and criticized the liberals who sought to develop a rational, scientifically acceptable version of Christianity. Bayle’s many controversies led to his dismissal from the Rotterdam professorship in 1693. The rest of his life was devoted to skeptical, polemical scholarship.

Bayle’s greatest work, Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697; An Historical and Critical Dictionary, 1710), began as an effort to correct all the errors he had found in previous dictionaries and encyclopedias and was a way of skeptically criticizing philosophical, scientific, and theological theories. The dictionary consists almost exclusively of articles about deceased people and defunct movements, with a few articles about places. Bayle decided to omit persons who had been adequately dealt with in the previous biographical dictionary of Louis Moreri from 1674. Thus, many famous people, such as Plato and William Shakespeare and René Descartes, are missing, while many obscure people are given articles of substantial length. The format of Bayle’s dictionary, in folio volumes, was to set forth a biography of a personage on the top of the page, with long footnotes below, and with notes to the notes on the side. This gives the book a look somewhat like that of an edition of the Talmud. The core of the dictionary is in the notes and the notes to the notes, in which Bayle digressed to discuss and dissect old and new theories on a variety of subjects. He skeptically challenged Scholastic philosophy, Cartesianism, and the new philosophies of Leibniz, Malebranche, Ralph Cudworth, Baruch Spinoza, Locke, and Isaac Newton. He challenged Catholic and Protestant theologies and sought to show that they were unable to give a consistent or credible explanation of the problem of evil. Throughout An Historical and Critical Dictionary, Bayle claimed that his skepticism was a means of undermining or destroying reason in order to make room for faith. He cited Blaise Pascal to show this. Also throughout the work, however, Bayle questioned the moral or religious sincerity of the leading figures of the Old Testament, the Church Fathers, and the religious leaders of the Reformation. He reported all varieties of immoral sexual conduct, unethical practices, and hypocritical behavior of everyone from Noah and his children, to the heroes of Greek mythology, to kings and queens, to saints and church leaders.

An Historical and Critical Dictionary shocked the learned and religious worlds. The French Reformed church tried to ban it; it was attacked by many, with the result that it quickly became a best-seller. In the second edition (1702), Bayle had promised his church that he would explain what they found most outrageous: his article on King David, his defense of atheists, his Pyrrhonian skepticism, and his inclusion of so much obscene material. He wrote four lengthy clarifications of these matters, which only infuriated his opponents more. The clarification on skepticism became one of his most important statements on the relationship of skepticism and religion. The material in the second edition became basic to discussions of philosophy and theology in the eighteenth century. It was used extensively by George Berkeley, David Hume, Voltaire, and many others.

In the four years after the appearance of the second edition of the dictionary, Bayle wrote several works continuing his attacks on his many opponents, particularly his orthodox, liberal, and rational opponents. Critics insisted that he was trying to undermine all philosophy, science, and religion. He insisted that he was a true believer, trying to destroy reason to buttress faith.


Pierre Bayle was one of the most important skeptical arguers of the seventeenth century, who provided what was called “the arsenal of the Enlightenment.” His many critical works, especially An Historical and Critical Dictionary, raised the central problems and questions of the time, challenging all the philosophical and theological solutions that had been offered previously. From the time that Bayle was alive and continuing after his death, there has been debate about his real intentions. Some see him as a chronic outsider, criticizing all views while apparently maintaining just a modicum of religious faith.

Regardless of his intent, Bayle influenced thinkers for the next hundred years. Leibniz wrote 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) to try and answer Bayle’s skeptical attacks on religious solutions to the problem of evil. Berkeley and Hume took some of their basic argumentation from Bayle, and French Enlightenment figures from Voltaire onward built upon his criticisms. Immanuel Kant used him as a source for the antinomies of pure reason. Thomas Jefferson recommended Bayle’s works as one of the initial purchases for the Library of Congress. Bayle continued to be influential until An Historical and Critical Dictionary was replaced by modern encyclopedias, and his skepticism was replaced by modern scientific positivistic views. In the late twentieth century, a strong revival of interest in his writing and impact among scholars occurred. He has since been recognized as one of the seminal figures in eighteenth century thought.


Bayle, Pierre. Historical and Critical Dictionary, Selections. Translated by Richard H. Popkin and Craig Brush. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965. A collection of forty articles, exhibiting the range of Bayle’s views.

Bracken, Harry M. “Bayle Not a Sceptic?” Journal of the History of Ideas 25 (1964): 169-180. An attempt to clarify the sense in which Bayle was a skeptic and a fideist, in answer to E. D. James’s “Scepticism and Fideism in Bayle’s Dictionnaire,” French Studies 16 (1962): 307-324. This article challenges the views of Popkin and others regarding Bayle’s religious views.

Brush, Craig. Montaigne and Bayle: Variations on the Theme of Skepticism. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1966. A comparison of the two thinkers, showing some profound differences as well as general points of agreement.

Kenshur, Oscar. “Pierre Bayle and the Structures of Doubt.” Eighteenth Century Studies 21, no. 3 (1988): 297-315. An attempt to define and describe Bayle’s skepticism, challenging Popkin’s fideist reading.

Labrousse, Elisabeth. Bayle. Translated by Denys Potts. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. An overall view of Bayle’s place in intellectual history, and an interpretation of what he argued against and what he upheld, by a leading Bayle scholar.

Mason, H. T. Pierre Bayle and Voltaire. London: Oxford University Press, 1963. A comparison of the two, with an effort to assess what Voltaire borrowed from Bayle.

Popkin, Richard H. The High Road to Pyrrhonism. San Diego: Austin Hill Press, 1980. Contains several articles dealing with Bayle’s skepticism and his influence. See also the author’s article on Bayle in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1967), edited by Paul Edwards.

Rex, Walter. Essays on Pierre Bayle and Religious Controversy. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1965. A study of Bayle’s views in the context of seventeenth century French Protestant theology.

Robinson, Howard. Bayle the Skeptic. New York: Columbia University Press, 1931. Presents Bayle as an irreligious skeptic, the 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. An interpretation of Bayle as a sincere Calvinist.