Pierre Bayle  

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"I am in far better circumstances than all the authors I have mentioned ; for though Catullus, Lucretius, Juvenal, and Suetonius be never so much condemned, a writer who cites them cannot be blamed for it."--"Explanation Concerning Obscenities" (1702) by Pierre Bayle

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Pierre Bayle (18 November 1647 – 28 December 1706) was a French philosopher and writer best known for his seminal work the Historical and Critical Dictionary, published beginning in 1695.

Bayle was a self-pronounced Protestant, and as a fideist he advocated a separation between the spheres of faith and reason, on the grounds of God being incomprehensible to man. As a forerunner of the Encyclopedists and an advocate of the principle of the toleration of divergent beliefs, his works subsequently influenced the development of the Enlightenment.



Bayle was born at Carla-le-Comte (later renamed Carla-Bayle in his honour), near Pamiers (Ariège), France, and was educated by his father, a Calvinist minister, and at an academy at Puylaurens. He afterwards entered a Jesuit college at Toulouse, and became a Roman Catholic a month later (1669). After seventeen months, he returned to Calvinism and fled to Geneva. There he became acquainted with the teachings of René Descartes. For some years he worked under the name of Bèle as a tutor for various Parisian families, but in 1675 he was appointed to the chair of philosophy at the Protestant Academy of Sedan.

In 1681 the university at Sedan was suppressed. Just before that event, Bayle had fled to the Dutch Republic, where he almost immediately was appointed professor of philosophy and history at the Ecole Illustre in Rotterdam. There he published his famous Pensées diverses sur la comète de 1680 in 1682, as well as his critique of Louis Maimbourg's work on the history of Calvinism. The great reputation achieved by this critique stirred the envy of Bayle's Calvinist colleague of both Sedan and Rotterdam, Pierre Jurieu, who had written a book on the same subject.

Between 1684 and 1687, Bayle published his Nouvelles de la république des lettres, a journal of literary criticism. In 1686, Bayle published the first two volumes of Philosophical Commentary, an early plea for toleration in religious matters. This was followed by volumes three and four in 1687 and 1688.

In 1690 there appeared a work entitled Avis important aux refugies, which Jurieu attributed to Bayle, whom he attacked with great animosity. After a long quarrel, Bayle was deprived of his chair in 1693. However, he was not depressed by this misfortune, especially as he was at the time engaged in the preparation of his massive magnum opus, the Dictionnaire Historique et Critique (Historical and Critical Dictionary), which actually constituted one of the first encyclopaedias (before the term had come into wide circulation) of ideas and their originators. The Dictionary, attempted to put forth Bayle's view that much that was considered to be truth was actually just opinion, and that gullibility and stubbornness were prevalent. The Dictionary would remain a highly important scholarly work for several generations after its publication.

The remaining years of Bayle's life were devoted to miscellaneous writings, arising in many instances out of criticisms made of his Dictionary. He remained in Rotterdam until his death on 28 December 1706 and was buried there in the Waalse Kerk where Jurieu would be buried as well, seven years later. In 1706 a statue in his honour was erected at Pamiers, la reparation d'un long oubli ("the reparation of a long neglect"). In 1959 a street was named after him in Rotterdam.

Voltaire, in the prelude to his Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne calls Bayle "le plus grand dialecticien qui ait jamais écrit".

The Nouvelles de la république des lettres was the first thorough-going attempt to popularise literature, and it was eminently successful. His multi-volume Historical and Critical Dictionary, however, constitutes Bayle's masterpiece. The English translation of "The Dictionary", by Bayle's fellow Huguenot exile Pierre des Maizeaux, was named by U.S. President Thomas Jefferson as one of the one hundred foundational texts that formed the first collection of the Library of Congress.


In his "Dictionnaire historique and critique" and "Commentaire Philosophique" he advanced arguments for religious toleration (though, like some others of his time, he was not anxious to extend the same protection to Catholics he would to differing Protestant sects). Among his arguments were that every church believes it is the right one so "a heretical church would be in a position to persecute the true church". Bayle wrote that “the erroneous conscience procures for error the same rights and privileges that the orthodox conscience procures for truth.”

Bayle was repelled by the use of scripture to justify coercion and violence: "One must transcribe almost the whole New Testament to collect all the Proofs it affords us of that Gentleness and Long-suffering, which constitute the distinguishing and essential Character of the Gospel." He did not regard toleration as a danger to the state, but to the contrary: "If the Multiplicity of Religions prejudices the State, it proceeds from their not bearing with one another but on the contrary endeavouring each to crush and destroy the other by methods of Persecution. In a word, all the Mischief arises not from Toleration, but from the want of it."


  • Historical and Critical Dictionary (1695-1697; 1702, enlarged; best that of P. des Maizeaux, 4 vols., 1740)
  • Selections in English: Pierre Bayle (Richard H. Popkin transl.), Historical and Critical Dictionary - Selections, Hackett Publishing Company Inc, 1991. ISBN 0-87220-103-1.
  • Les Œuvres de Bayle (3 vols., The Hague)
  • Pierre des Maizeaux, Vie de Bayle
  • LA Feuerbach, Pierre Bayle (1838)
  • Damiron, La Philosophie en France au XVIII' siècle (1858-1864)
  • Sainte-Beuve, “Du genie critique et de Bayle" (Revue des deux mondes, 1 December 1855)
  • A. Deschamps, La Génèse du scepticisme erudit chez Bayle (Liege, 1878)
  • J. Denis, Bayle et furleu (Paris, 1886)
  • Ferdinand Brunetière, La Critique littéraire au XVIII' siècle (vol. 1, 1890), and La Critique de Bayle (1893)
  • Émile Gigas, Template:Lang (Paris, 1890, reviewed in Revue critique, 22 December 1890)
  • de Budé, Lettres inédites addressées a J. A. Turretini (Paris, 1887)
  • J. F. Stephen, Horae Sabbaticae (London, 1892, 3rd ser. pp. 174192)
  • A. Cazes, P. Bayle, sa vie, ses œuvres, etc. (1905).

See also

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