Pierre Bayle

On this date in 1647, 17th century skeptic and father of the Enlightenment, Pierre Bayle, was born in southern France. He was the son of a Protestant minister at a time when Huguenots endured severe persecution, and Protestant schools had been closed. He was therefore educated at a Jesuit college in Toulouse. Under pressure Bayle dallied with a conversion to Roman Catholicism, but ultimately rejected it, thereby becoming a "relaps" under French law--a person who becomes a heretic after abjuring heresy, and was subject to punishment. Bayle decided it was safer to study philosophy in Calvinist Geneva. He became professor of philosophy in 1675 at a Protestant academy in Sedan, until it was closed down by Catholic authorities in 1681. Bayle joined the community of French Protestant refugees in Rotterdam, where he taught at the Ecole Illustre. Bayle published a paper on a comet (working in the comment: "No nations are more warlike than those which profess Christianity," Thoughts on the Comet, 1682), then a critical account of a Jesuit history and a defense of Cartesianism. He edited one of the first academic journals, Nouvelles de la republique des lettres (1684-1687), and corresponded with intelligentsia such as Leibniz and Locke, making rejection of superstition and intolerance a centerpiece of his writings. His masterpiece was a philosophical analysis of the words of Jesus: "Constrain them to come in." Bayle protested conversion by force, and was the first to argue for complete religious toleration and freedom of conscience, including for Jews, Muslims and atheists. He quipped that he was a literal Protestant, protesting against everything. His writings, including biblical criticism and his denial that religiosity necessarily inspires moral behavior, were collected in The Historical and Critical Dictionary, published in Rotterdam in 1692 and translated into English in 1736. While successful, his dictionary was banned in France and even condemned by the Huguenots. Bayle continually updated it to answer attacks, writing that no religious beliefs were supported by reason. Voltaire later called it "the Arsenal of the Enlightenment." As freethought historian Joseph McCabe noted: "There are no articles on 'God,' 'Christ,' or 'Immortality,' and Bayle's opinions are not fully known, but may be inferred. The caustic and elaborately polite thrusts at both Catholic and Protestant doctrines, the vindication of Greek and Roman thought, and the firm advocacy of toleration and of the independence of ethics, gave the Dictionary, of which very numerous editions and translations appeared, a very large share in the spread of Rationalism" (A Biographical Dictionary of Rationalists, 1920). Bayle never left his Calvinist church, though many friends, future freethinkers and nearly all his critics regarded him as a "secret atheist." D. 1706.

“It is pure illusion to think that an opinion which passes down from century to century to century, from generation to generation, may not be entirely false.”

—Pierre Bayle, Thoughts on the Comet, 1682

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

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