Pierre Bayle – Forerunner of the Age of Enlightenment

Pierre Bayle

Pierre Bayle

On November 18, 1647, French philosopher and writer Pierre Bayle was born. 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. He is probably best known for his seminal work the Historical and Critical Dictionary.

Pierre Bayle was born at Carla-le-Comte near Pamiers, Ariège, France and was mainly educated by his father who was a Calvinist minister. It is further believed that Bayle attended classes at an academy at Puylaurens. Later on, Bayle entered a Jesuit college at Toulouse and became a Roman Catholic. After about a year and a half later, Bayle returned to Calvinism and fled to Geneva.

In Geneva, it is believed that Bayle became acquaited with the works of René Descartes. When Bayle returned to Paris, he worked for several years under the name of Bèle as a tutor for various families and was appointed to the chair of philosophy at the Protestant Academy of Sedan in 1675. Unfortunately, in 1681, the university at Sedan was suppressed by the government in action against Protestants. At that time, Bayle had already fled to the Dutch Republic. He was immediately appointed professor of philosophy and history at the École Illustre in Rotterdam and taught there for several years. Pierre Bayle stayed in Rotterdam until his death in 1706.

While at Rotterdam, Pierre Bayle published his famous Pensées diverses sur la comète de 1680 in 1682 and his critique of Louis Maimbourg’s work on the history of Calvinism. In the 1680s, Bayle also published his Nouvelleublique des lettres, a successful journal of literary criticism and the first two volumes of Philosophical Commentary, an early plea for toleration in religious matters.

In 1690, Bayle’s work entitled Avis important aux refugies which Pierre Jurieu attributed to Bayle, whom he attacked with great animosity. After losing his chair, Bayle engaged in the preparation of his massive Dictionnaire Historique et Critique which effectively constituted one of the first encyclopaedias of ideas and their originators. In the dictionary, Bayle expressed his view that much that was considered to be “truth” was actually just opinion, and that gullibility and stubbornness were prevalent. Indeed, the Dictionary would remain an important scholarly work for several generations after its publication. 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 constitutes Bayle’s masterpiece. The English translation of The Dictionary, by Bayle’s fellow Huguenot exile Pierre des Maizeaux, was identified by U.S. President Thomas Jefferson to be among the one hundred foundational texts to form the first collection of the Library of Congress.

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