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.
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 bitterest 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.
Bayle’s career as an author began shortly after his arrival in Rotterdam. He published a work he had drafted in France, Miscellaneous Reflections Occasion’d by the Comet Which Appear’d in December, 1680, 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 (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 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 Wilhelm 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 the opportunity of an advantageous marriage offered by the Jurieu family. 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 A Philosophical Commentary on These Words in the Gospel, Luke XIV, 23: “Compel Them to Come In, That My House May Be Full.” 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 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 because 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...
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