The Cartoon History of Humanism, Episode 25 We’re All Mad Here: The Seventeenth Century Tolerance of Pierre Bayle

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We’re All Mad Here: The Seventeenth Century Tolerance of Pierre Bayle

“Behold the truth,” is a sentence of omen, perched at the tense verge of bloodshed.  It demands conformity, throws up resistance to intellectual exchange, and, when frustrated, often leads to sword-wielding burly men sent to enforce its claims.  And yet, for a millennium and a half, philosophers, Christians, Platonists, and skeptics agreed on nothing save that the truth was the goal of all inquiry.  Even Descartes, whose program was to be one of universal doubt, ended with a laundry list of established and undeniable metaphysical truths.  Amidst all of that strident, continent-wide self-assuredness, it took moxy unto foolhardiness to stand up and say, “Eh. People think a lot of things. Best to just let them live and prosper as best they can, be they atheist or Jew or Christian.”  But that’s precisely what a sickly book nerd named Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) did from in the depths of unspeakable religious oppression.

Bayle’s list of philosophic firsts runs almost as long as the list of first-rank philosophers he influenced.  Both the French Enlightenment and English deism rest on the shoulders of his broad-minded and encyclopedic work.  He was the first European thinker to eschew system-building as the stuff of philosophy.  Having watched Descartes and Spinoza begin so promisingly, only to lose themselves in the building of top-heavy and totally unprovable assertions about the nature of divinity, Bayle argued persuasively that all such projects are intellectually doomed.

pierrebayleHe was also the first to argue that a society of atheists would, morally, operate pretty much the same as any other society since morality comes from our shared humanity, not our particular religious beliefs.  He also diffused the continental dread of atheists by pointing out that they are, essentially, geeky bookworms too busy with hunting down obscure theological references to engage in the bloodshed and debauchery that they were generally believed to revel in.  During a time when slightly different shades of Christianity were falling over themselves to slaughter each other, he argued passionately for a tolerance that extended to all, including the Muslim, the Jew, and the nonbeliever.

As you might imagine, his life was never easy.  Born just one year shy of the end of the Thirty Years’ War, in which a third of the population died trying to enforce various religious orthodoxies, he grew up the chronically ill son of a Protestant minister.  His refuge was books, to the detriment of his fragile health.  When he was first sent to the Protestant Academy of Puylaurens to study, he worked so hard, ignoring vacations and meals and all amusements, that he wrecked his body and had to return home to recover.  Having learned everything Puylaurens could teach him, his father sent him to the Jesuit college in Toulouse, which featured the most rigorous logic courses in the country.

The Protestant father expected a bit of argumentative gloss for his son, nothing more. You can well imagine his surprise, then, when in 1669 that son converted to Catholicism, persuaded by the deceptively solid arguments of his professors.  He needn’t have worried, though.  That rush of initial enthusiasm was dashed quickly on the accumulated absurdities of Catholic dogma.  The host of miracles and saints, the details of transubstantiation—this was not the stuff of long-term belief for a mind as honed and deeply read as Bayle’s.  A year later, he abjured his conversion and fled to Geneva.

Why did he have to flee?  Well, whereas French law was at the time somewhat tolerant of Protestants, it was vigorously antagonistic to people who converted to Catholicism and then fell back out of it.  Intellectual recidivists were dangerous examples of the tenuousness of Catholic belief, standing embarrassments to the nation’s “one true” religion, and had to be ruthlessly oppressed lest they touch off a surge of deconversion.  Geneva was a sanctuary for exiled Calvinists, stuffed with dour but brilliant academics who sharpened Bayle’s critical sense.

But Bayle was a Frenchman who needed to be in France.  So, he changed his name (to Bèle in an act of subterfuge that represented the true bare minimum of effort) and took up a position at the Protestant Academy of Sedan in 1675.  He stayed there for six years, until Louis XIV decided he’d had enough of the whole idea of Protestant academies, and suppressed the lot in 1681.  Bayle had to flee again, this time to Rotterdam. He remained there until his death, watching from the sidelines as France plunged into a self-crippling wave of religious fervor on the heels of Louis’s 1685 revocation of the Edict of Nantes, undoing at a stroke Henry IV’s hard-won toleration for France’s Protestants.

From the bracing intellectual liberty of Rotterdam, Bayle composed the works that made his name and inaugurated the anti-metaphysical skepticism that inspired an intellectual epoch and whose program we largely still follow today.  His first salvo was the Various Thoughts on the Comet of 1680, a tour de force in which he railed not only against the various superstitious imbecilities that had accompanied the appearance of a startling comet in the European sky, but made a host of arguments totally unheard of in Western philosophy.  It was in this pamphlet that he painted atheists as moral and philosophically engaged, and hazarded the hypothesis that an atheist society would be ethically and morally just as good as a God-fearing one, if not better.  He surveyed the diversity of religious opinions and placed them against the relative uniformity of human passions to move towards a humans-first account of morality, going so far as to say that a society which relied solely on religion for its sense of morality would fall apart in unchecked licentiousness and bloodshed within weeks.

He portrayed religion as the lagging edge of human development, a body of ideas always huffing to catch up with the positive inclusivity of humanity’s evolution.  Society finds ways to advance and improve itself, the individuals within that society take those principles eventually as their personal core values, and then, after much resistance and growling, religion takes up those same principles, rewrites its dogmas, and attempts to pretend that it’s always had those views.  It’s an amusing portrayal of Christianity’s Orwellian relation to its past that rings just as true now as it did in 1682.

That same year saw the publication of the General Critique of Father Maimbourg’s History of Calvinism, a resounding call for universal toleration that was, of course, burned in Paris for daring to suggest that uniformity of belief wasn’t worth the constant and bloody civil war it would take to create it.   Two years later, on the eve of the revocation of Nantes, he had a go at Descartes, and at all philosophy which claimed to have found universal truths.  Using the two pronged attack of his Jesuit training in logic and his massive acquaintance with world philosophy, he showed the gradations by which personal opinion shaded into absolute dogma, and how the manifold nature of the former manifested in the tendentiousness of the latter.  Lots of people think lots of things and come up with lots of systems to justify those lots of thoughts, and the very diversity of those accounts should give a reasonable person pause when considering any single claim to universal truth.  Philosophy is religion is superstition is opinion sanctified by the passage of time.  All this some three centuries before Derrida, mind you.

At this point, the Catholics hated him for taking to account their carnage-soaked mania for conversion and expansion, but Bayle could still have made for himself a nice home as a Calvinist hero, if he were interested in wealth and comfort.  He was not.  The intolerance of the Catholics, he felt, was matched by that of the Protestants, who were just as zealous in their execration of nonbelievers (even those of just slightly different belief) as the Catholics.  He lashed out on all sides at those who would use the arm of government to force all men to believe the same.  He lost his governmental pension, which made little difference to a man who lived as simply as Bayle. His personal frugality and modest living impressed even his fiercest enemies, and there would be plenty of those in the years to come.

In 1684, he launched a book review periodical that presented to a European-wide audience the variety of the free-thinking literature being produced by the exciting open presses of the Dutch Republic.  It was a runaway success, the essential reading for anybody who wanted to keep up with the latest intellectual developments, as filtered through Bayle’s encyclopedic grasp of history, philosophy, and literature.  From that triumph, Bayle launched the Historical and Critical Dictionary in 1695, the work we know him for today.  It was a massive catalogue of humanity’s myths, thoughts, and foibles, recounted by a master of deep criticism.  From Mahomet to the Virgin Mary to the multiplication of saints to John Calvin to the brutal heroes of the Bible, Bayle let the full content of his amassed wisdom flow in the pages of the Dictionary, directed by his overriding principles of toleration and universal skepticism.  It was the intellectual ancestor of the Encyclopedia of Diderot and the Devil’s Dictionary of Ambrose Bierce, and is a simultaneously profound, amusing, and ever fresh.

Between the critical and popular successes of his book review and the Dictionary, Bayle had made himself a name as the equitable and trustworthy arbiter of European thought.  Foreign courts vied to make him their resident philosopher, but the man who flourished in the intellectual freedom of Rotterdam couldn’t be budged by promise of money or fame.  He continued to write, facing down the wrath of Catholic and Calvinist alike as his body, never very reliable, slowly betrayed him.  He died in 1706 after a long illness and was buried in the free Dutch soil of Rotterdam.


Further Reading

Much of Bayle’s work has been translated into English, and his work on the comet of 1680 makes for a good introduction to the breadth and originality of his thought.  But if you read French, there’s a book that combines a passionately told overview of his life with a nice selection of excerpts from Comet, the Dictionary, his book reviews, and letters: Pierre Bayle: Sa Vie, Ses Idees, Son Influence, Son Oeuvre by Albert Cazes, published in 1905 and available as a Univeristy of Michigan reprint.