chapter  13
Historical and Critical Dictionary (Pierre Bayle, 1647–1706)
Pages 5

Bayle’s Dictionary was composed in a climate of opinion influenced by Sextus Empiricus, whose writings were based on teachings of Pyrrho, the first notable Greek skeptic. For a century since the skeptical Essays of Michel de Montaigne (d. 1592), Pyrrhonism rolled across Europe in the hands of Catholic and Protestant apologists who used its ten principles of doubt to demolish other’s claims to religious primacy and authority. Bayle was a leading Pyrrhonist who took seriously the original meaning of skeptikos, the word for “inquiry,” which he pursued doggedly in the Dictionary. Pyrrhonism among theologians and philosophers was abstract. Bayle’s skeptical historical method was concrete and focused on particulars. Before his work appeared, historical writing was dominated by a tradition of rhetoric, whose method was to transmit uncritically what others had said in fine language rather than convince by an appeal to believable evidence. Bayle understood the difference and chose the latter course while training his skepticism on errors in documents. The fire in Bayle’s mind was ignited by the fate of French

Calvinists, known as Huguenots. In 1598 the French king Henry IV issued the Edict of Nantes, which extended limited toleration and protections, including self-defense, to Frenchmen converted to the Calvinist version of Protestantism. Although France was officially a Catholic state, toleration was intended to strengthen the monarchy by promoting harmony between Catholic and Protestant. In the seventeenth century the tables were turned. Increasingly the Huguenots were regarded by the crown as a seditious influence, a state within the state. Gradually their privileges were undermined until the Edict of Nantes was fully revoked in 1685 and toleration ceased. The upshot for Huguenots was exclusion and persecution. Bayle’s

brothers and father died as a result of maltreatment He ended up in Holland, one place in Europe where thought was not controlled or repressed. There he launched a ferocious assault on Catholic absolutism in France, but the subtext was skepticism about all systems of thought that claimed certain truths. Everywhere he saw dubious science, contradictory philosophies, dogmatic theologies, and bad history. He says in the article Pyrrho: “ … the inconstancy of human opinions and passions is so great it might be said that man is a small republic that often changes its magistrates” (209). Bayle’s Dictionnaire historique et critique, appeared in 1697 and went

through several editions. The last one in 16 volumes was published in

1820-24. While this massive work no longer has a wide audience other than scholars and students, every historian, philosopher, and literary person of note in the eighteenth century consulted it. For philosophes of the Enlightenment like Voltaire and Diderot, Bayle was the philosophe of Rotterdam who provided an arsenal of arguments and knowledge useful in battles against oppressions and rigidities of the Old Regime in Europe, especially in France. Other admirers were David Hume, Scottish skeptic and historian, and the German philosophermathematician Leibniz. When Thomas Jefferson donated his library to inaugurate the Library of Congress, Bayle’s dictionary was among the first 100 key books. The word “Dictionary” barely suggests what Bayle was doing, even

though the organization of 2000 articles is biographical and alphabetic, from “Aaron” to “Zuylichem.” Famous persons are left out and obscure ones are put in. Many of the entries are brief and the real substance is found in extended footnotes, often in footnotes to the footnotes. The key words are “historical” and “critical.” In a letter to a cousin in 1692 he explained that his purpose was to compile an inventory of errors committed by theologians, philosophers, and historians. Popular belief was a major target as well. Not content with errors, he added delusions, crimes, superstitions, and deceptions, a full indictment of humanity at its worst. His war on superstition included a treatise on comets in which he assailed the common belief that such phenomena were supernatural portents sent by God. Bayle was obsessed with error, whether deliberate or inadvertent,

and undertook to doubt and dissect virtually every idea, claim, and doctrine afloat in his time. Nothing or no one was spared, including himself. Whether the subject was metaphysical, theological, or scientific, his vast learning, logical intelligence, appeal to history, and forceful style left no apparently secure monuments to human belief unscathed. He identified unerringly the weaknesses in ideas of the seventeenth century’s leading minds. He was a systematic enemy of all fanciful thinking, which he believed was indissolubly and unhappily associated with religious belief. He concluded that truths could not be established with certainty by

reason, the “natural light,” which rebuffed arguments to the contrary by the French mathematician and philosopher Renée Descartes. It follows, he argued, that “religious truth and belief are confined to revelation.” With reason unable to establish unshakable truth, the only refuge is faith, the “supernatural light.” There is, however, no consensus in theology, reason, or experience about content or imperatives of revelation or precise objects of faith: “God, deity, eternity, omnipotence,

infinity, these are only words thrown into the air, and nothing more to us. These are not things subject to human understanding … If all that we say and profess about God were judged rigorously, it would be nothing but vanity and ignorance” (285). A consequence of reasoning that denied revelation common standards of belief and conduct was a defense of broad religious toleration that even included atheists, a view clearly directed at persecutions of the French monarchy. While Bayle left reason shipwrecked as a vehicle for certainty, he

decided it has uses for managing historical knowledge with degrees of probability. While that insight was taking root in his mind, about which he was ambivalent, he collected examples of historical error from documents that fell under his watchful eye. While skepticism was deep and far reaching, despite some appearances to the contrary, it had limits. Here and there he challenged the credentials of any kind of evidence, but finally drew a line by using historical evidence to defuse and demolish errors of pretentious adversaries. His historical method has four interwoven threads. The first is

exposure at a Jesuit school in Toulouse, during a brief conversion to Catholicism, to scholastic logic and dialectic. The lesson he absorbed was one of thoroughness and clarity when advancing and defending arguments, which accounts in part for the prodigious length of footnotes in his Dictionary. Uses of scholastic method were transferred to historical method. The second is the methodology of Descartes. While rejecting his

claim to know certain truth, he adopted the strategy of “systematic doubt” and two of his rules of reasoning-that only “clear and distinct ideas” amount to knowledge, and that every step of a demonstration must be verified. For Bayle, clear and distinct ideas were to be found in history, not in theology, philosophy, or science. Facts must be verified against their sources, and the best sources are the earliest ones. An irony is that Descartes was contemptuous of history as an inquiry remote from the rigor and certainties of mathematical reasoning, yet Bayle partially transferred his geometrical method to the credibility of historical records. If ideas must be clear and distinct, they must also square with experience (145). The third thread is the Protestant doctrine of individual examina-

tion, which appealed to an “inner light” of understanding independent of scripture, dogma, and tradition. Bayle’s inner light was the bedrock of his intellectual integrity and impartiality as he fired off criticism at all and sundry. In the face of so much bad judgment, he trusted his own. In doing so, he could say he was a servant of God’s will in defense of truth.