The Dictionnaire Historique et Critique

  • Craig B. Brush
Part of the Archives Internationales D’Histoire des Idees / International Archives of the History of Ideas book series (ARCH, volume 14)


Appearing in four folio volumes in 1679 and five years later in a second edition enlarged by almost fifty percent, the Dictionnaire historique et critique contains approximately one half of Pierre Bayle’s total literary production. No work could have been more fitted to the peculiarities of his temperament. The accumulation of notes from his readings and his fund of heterogeneous knowledge could be utilized with the least effort since he was writing articles, not books. In the Projet et fragmens d’un dictionaire critique (1692), as yet undecided on how to compose his articles, Bayle had written uninterrupted narratives divided rather arbitrarily into Roman numeral sections in which basic information and trivia followed upon each other without any differentiation. Arid discussions of chronology and disentanglements of mistaken identities occupied a considerable portion of his material, especially in ancient history, where data were sparse and often conflicting. His original aim had been nothing less than to rid history of its inaccuracies and to correct wherever possible the errors made in other dictionaries or works of reference. Fortunately, he did not keep to his plan; and following the advice of his friends and his publisher, he expanded the scope of his remarks.


Intelligent Spirit Literal Truth Cartesian Theory Divisible Part Modem Science 
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  1. 1.
    See for example Horatio Smith, The Literary Criticism of Pierre Bayle (Albany: Brandow, 1912),p. 131.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Adam, Histoire de la litérature française au XVIIéme siècle, V, 242, n. 3; Dibon in Pierre Bayle le philosophe de Rotterdam, p. xiii; and Sandberg, Faith and Reason in the Thought of Pierre Bayle 1670–1697, p. 35.Google Scholar
  3. 1.
    For example, Péréira and Rorarius are the only articles on the animal soul; they are in the same part of the alphabet (earlier letters were already printed), and were composed in 1695–96. Nicolle and Pellisson, situated close to each other, treat the religous controversies over the criterion of faith.Google Scholar
  4. 1.
    In the DHC as elsewhere, these controversies are a major theme of Bayle’s. In volume three alone, the following articles contain significant reference to this one matter: Bains 1 C, Bardai1 E, Basine 2 F, Baudoin 1 I, Beda 1 C, Bedell1 E, Bellarmin 2 H, Bertelier1 F, Beze1 V, Blondel, David 1 1, K, and Bodin 2 N — and other less important ones could be cited.Google Scholar
  5. 3.
    Elisabeth Labrousse comes to the same conclusion in her article, “La Méthode critique de Pierre Bayle et l’histoire,” Revue Internationale de Philosophie, XI (1957), 450–465.Google Scholar
  6. 1.
    A few examples among many: Apulée 1 art., and L, Aristée le Proconnésien 2 passim, Bennon 1 B, Borée 2 G, Catalans 2 B,G, Constance 4 B, Grandier 1 passim, and Radziwil 2 E. Writing as a Protestant, Bayle was naturally free to debunk any Catholic or pagan legend.Google Scholar
  7. 3.
    A remarkable confirmation of Bayle’s interest in the possibility of occult occurrences in dreams exists in a letter to Jacob. “Apprenez-moi… en quel état étoit mon Père la nuit du 21. au 22. de Juillet dernier, car je fis un songe cette nuit-là qui me fait souhaiter d’en être éclairci. J’ai mille fois éprouvé que mes songes n’ont aucun rapport avec les choses qui en sont le sujet & je suis hors de toute superstition à cet égard là autant que qui que ce soit; cependant apprenez-moi si cette nuit-là mon Pere souffrit du mal ou non” (OD I B, 128 l, 13 September 1681).Google Scholar
  8. 1.
    Braunbom 4 C, Coménius 1 art., E, I, Déjolarus 1 I, Drabicius 1 passim, Kotterus 1 passim, Mahomet 1 art., GG, Marets 1 I, Périclès 1 A (a precise summary of the argument against natural phenomena as presages that Bayle had given in the Pensées diverses), Savonarola 4 D, and Torquato 1 A; this list is partial.Google Scholar
  9. 2.
    Bayle refers to the devil several times in his writings, Abel 1 H, Xénophanès 1 E, OD II, 144 l (Pensées diverses), OD I, 730 r, (in the journal), OD III, 416 r (Continuation des Pensées diverses), OD III, 946 r (in Réponse aux questions d’un provincial, Part III), OD IV, 669 r (letter to Minutoli, 3 December 1691), and OD IV, 673 r (letter to Constant de Rebecque, 18 February 1692). In the last two he is condemning Balthasar Bekker’s book Le Monde enchanté because it denies that there are any devils who have power over the earth. The reason he gives for his disapproval is that Bekker’s arguments include some very dangerous interpretations of Scripture.Google Scholar
  10. 1.
    See his judgment of Naudé, supra p. 203. Bayle is less distrustful of the supernatural than Montaigne, who wanted to accept only Scriptural miracles and was willing to “cut the Gordian knot” and refuse to credit as factual any reports of sorcery (see supra, pp. 144–145). Their ideas resemble each other, but Montaigne’s were founded on a Pyrrhonist temperament. Bayle is more concerned with second causes, the theology of magic and astrology, orthodoxy, and such theoretical considerations.Google Scholar
  11. 2.
    The articles on the moderns Patin 1, La Mothe le Vayer 1, and Charron 2, never mention Pyrrhonism significantly.Google Scholar
  12. 1.
    See supra pp. 204–205.Google Scholar
  13. 1.
    In Démocrite 1 P, Bayle makes his only major comment on sense perception. Like Malebranche, he considers God the one possible source of vision. “Il faut être je ne sais quoi pour se pouvoir persuader qu’un arbre produit son image dans toutes les parties de l’air à la ronde, jusques au cerveau d’une infinité de spectateurs. La cause qui produit toutes ces images est bien autre chose qu’un arbre. Cherchez-la tant qu’il vous plaira, si vous la trouvez au-deçà de l’Etre infini, c’est signe que vous n’entendez pas bien cette matière” (p. 473 r). Bayle was far from being in the scientific vanguard of his day.Google Scholar
  14. 2.
    In the second edition of the Dictionnaire Bayle repeats his argument in greater detail (Zenon d’Elée 2 H). Popkin (in his article in Pierre Bayle, le philosophe de Rotterdam, p. 16, n. 9) claims that this refutation of Descartes is not valid because Descartes founds his concept of extension entirely on abstract considerations, not on any sense evidence. A proper criticism of Cartesian extension would have to include the statement that our idea of space is not innate and in fact depends on empirical data. With a certain amount of trepidation, I must disagree with Popkin on his point. Bayle showed in 1703 (OD IV, 835 /, 20 July, to Pierre Goste) that he understood exactly the Cartesian theory of extension, and he implied that he did on many occasions in the opuscules of the 1670’s. He was too good a Cartesian to go wrong on such a basic point. He knew perfectly well that no sense evidence could be used as the basis for a proof that extension exists. As he says here, the Cartesians themselves realized it, witness Malebranche. Bayle is not discussing the Cartesian theory of the nature of extension and movement as Popkin seems to think; he is analyzing certain arguments about their existence,Google Scholar
  15. 1.
    Carnéade 2 C confirms the crucial nature of this proposition. See supra p. 208, where Bayle had taught the inconsistency of the Trinity with this axiom in his Cours de philosophie. Google Scholar
  16. 2.
    As we shall see, he does say this about certain mathematical concepts, infra pp. 269–270.Google Scholar
  17. 1.
    Zénon d’Elée 2 art., 3 l, “Je ne saurais croire qu’il ait soutenu qu’il n’y a rien dans l’univers; car comment eût-il pu dire que lui, qui soutenait un tel dogme, n’existait pas?” and Métrodore 2 A, 420 r, “Sextus Empiricus le range parmi ceux qui n’ont point admis le criterium, ou règle de la vérité. Je ne comprends point que ni Démocrite, ni Métrodore, ni aucun autre, aient jamais pu extravaguer jusques au point de soutenir qu’ils ne savaient pas s’il y avait quelque chose; car ils ne pouvaient point douter qu’ils ne doutassent, ni s’imaginer que ce qui doute n’est rien, ou n’existe pas.”..Google Scholar
  18. 1.
    Goedel’s proof that no logical system that is consistent can give a complete foundation for all mathematical sciences has shown that Bayle is wrong to say that there are no obscurities in the subject matter of mathematics. Bertrand Russell’s reduction of mathematics to formal logic led him to pronounce the epigram that pure mathematics is the subject in which we do not know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true. See Ernest Nagel and James R. Newman, “Goedel’s Proof” in The World of Mathematics, ed. James R. Newman (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1956), III, 1668–1695.Google Scholar
  19. 1.
    Note that it is an extension of his argument about the unreality of geometric points. Bayle’s mind was seldom preoccupied with scientific matters. Nonetheless, as editor of the Nouvelles de la république des lettres he devoted slightly more than one fifth of his articles to scientific matters. This astonishingly high proportion can be explained by his concern to write a diversified journal. If he tried to keep abreast of scientific developments, they never seemed as important to him as philosophical and theological matters. Had he not fallen ill in early 1687, he might have reviewed Newton’s Principia, which was published in the same year.Google Scholar
  20. 1.
    Newtonian calculus provides an answer of sorts to the antinomies of the infinitely small. Bayle’s critique of mathematics (Zénon, philosophe épicurien D) refers to the calculus, I believe, when it mentions the incomprehensible concept that an infinite quantity can equal a finite one.Google Scholar
  21. 2.
    One must make a distinction here. Zeno’s mouthpiece does argue that extension does not exist. Bayle confines himself to the conclusion that it cannot be understood. Berkeley tried to evade Bayle’s reasoning by accepting the conclusion that extension does not in fact exist. See Popkin’s “The New Realism of Bishop Berkeley,” in George Berkeley, University of California Publications in Philosophy, XXIX (1957), 1–19.Google Scholar
  22. 1.
    The same subject matter is in Leucippe 2 G. Bayle repeats his reasoning and his conclusion that “l’évidence” can deceive. “Il n’y a donc plus d’idée claire et distincte sur quoi notre esprit puisse faire fond, puis qu’il se trouve que celle de l’étendue nous a trompés misérablement” (p. 206 /).Google Scholar
  23. 2.
    An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, II: xiii, 15, 17, quoted in French by Bayle (P-55 r).Google Scholar
  24. 3.
    This is largely true. Bayle does, however, mention (1) that God’s veracity does not guarantee our idea of extension (génon d’Ele’e G 1, H 2), (2) that God’s immensity cannot be the same as physical extension (Zénon d’Elée 2 I), and (3) that these difficulties are not injurious to religion (Zénon d’Elée 1 G). Even so, he is under no compulsion to accept or reject any major position because of its theological consequences.Google Scholar
  25. 1.
    The same conclusion, based on the same reasoning, appears in Cainites 1 D. This should lay in its grave Delvolvé’s far-fetched theory that Bayle’s mentality has a basically positivist cast. Delvolvé is forced to plead that Bayle is attempting to establish a scientific theory on the basis of the available evidence, Religion, critique, et philosophie…, pp. 370–376. As a matter of fact, in every major case where Bayle chooses between two theories, one of which has since become a basic part of modern science, he chooses the other.Google Scholar
  26. 2.
    It contains 52 pages in the Beuchot edition. Only two others, Mahomet (49 pp.) and Luther (41 pp.), are more than forty pages long. Fourteen are between thirty and forty pages, among them Anaxagoras, Bèze, Calvin, Epicure, Ovid, Pauliciens, Rorarius, and Zenon d’Elée. Google Scholar
  27. 1.
    See the somewhat confusing article by Leszek Kolakowsky, “Pierre Bayle, critique de la métaphysique spinoziste de la substance” in Pierre Bayle, le philosophe de Rotterdam, pp. 66–80. Kolakowsky would tax the encyclopedist with unfairness because he did not appreciate the mystical qualities of Spinoza’s metaphysics. That is somewhat like blaming a mathematician for using numbers. Bayle’s rationalism recoiled from the philosophy of the Ethics precisely because it made a mockery of all rational distinctions.Google Scholar
  28. 2.
    On Spinozism and the Trinity, see the Nouvelles de la république des lettres, July 1685, III (OD I, 324 l).Google Scholar
  29. 1.
    He maintains this oneness by rejecting as illusory all mutability and change that experience makes so obvious. This avoids Spinoza’s inconsistencies, but it is the purest kind of Pyrrhonism according to which everything is incomprehensible. Bayle admires the integrity of the position, but finds the Christian doctrine of the creation better able to account for the variety of facts to be explained. (Xénophanès 1 L- one of the most interesting remarks in the DHC).Google Scholar
  30. 1.
    The whole question of the origin of motion is thorny. Bayle sees nothing in the concept of matter or of an atom that includes the necessity of motion. Therefore, atomists are forced to multiply their gratuitous assumptions by including the principle of eternal motion. Aristotelians are not better off, for they have recourse to the preposterous idea of a substantial form. According to their theory each soul is the unmoved mover of its body; therefore, there is no reason why the same could not be true of the souls of the stars and heavens. Cartesian physics, which Bayle finds sounder on this point, makes God the only source of all movement (Zabarella, Jacques 2 G).Google Scholar
  31. 2.
    Bayle seems to me to be mistaken here. If I read Lucretius correctly, the verses Bayle cites (Book V, 1225–34) are thoughts the Roman poet is imputing to others, but denying himself.Google Scholar
  32. 3.
    Cf. Belgic Confession, Article XII, “Et sur ceci nous detestons l’erreur des Sadduciens, qui nient qu’il y ait des Esprits et des Anges,…”Google Scholar
  33. 1.
    Note that only when criticizing Cartesian theories or mathematics is Bayle directly attacking the concept of “évidence.” To no other philosophy would he grant that its principles were self-evident. The Réponse aux questions d’un provincial Part II gives a good list of the difficulties inherent in orthodox Cartesian philosophy, OD III, 940–941.Google Scholar
  34. 1.
    In the Nouvelles de la république des lettres Bayle had found in revelation “la seule bonne preuve de notre liberté” (OD I, 437 r, December 1685, VIII). See also OD III, 782.Google Scholar
  35. 2.
    Of course, the bad conduct of Christians, who profess to believe in the immortal soul, and the good conduct of the Sadducees, who did not believe in it, indicate that like all persuasions it can have only the slightest effect on morals (Saducéens 2 E).Google Scholar
  36. 1.
    Bayle was fond of this image and used it again in almost exactly the same words in Euclide 2 E, 318 l.Google Scholar
  37. 1.
    In the Entretiens de Maxime et de Thémiste (OD IV, 102 /).Google Scholar
  38. 2.
    Supra, pp. 245–246.Google Scholar
  39. 3.
    See Blondel, David 1 O, Hoffman 1 G, Luther 1 CC, Nicolle 1 C, Socin, Fausle 1 I, and supra pp. 232, 233, 234.Google Scholar
  40. 1.
    See supra p. 232 for the same idea in the journal. Chapter XXXIII of the Continuation des Pensées diverses (1704) gives this idea its longest and fullest treatment.Google Scholar
  41. 1.
    Belgic Confession, Article XIV, “Qui parlera de sa cognoissance; voyant, que l’homme sensuel ne comprend point les choses qui sont de l’Esprit de Dieu? Bref, qui mettra en avant une seule pensée? veu qu’il entend que nous ne sommes pas suffisans de penser quelque chose de nous mesmes, mais que nostre suffisance est de Dieu.” Also from the Synod of Dort, “Jugemens sur la corruption de l’homme” IV reads “Il est vray qu’après la cheute est demeuré de reste en l’homme quelque lumiere de nature, par le benefice de laquelle il retient encore quelque cognoissance de Dieu et des choses naturelles; il discerne entre ce qui est honneste et deshonneste, et monstre avoir quelque estude et soin de vertu, et de discipline exterieure. Mais tant s’en faut que par ceste lumiere de nature il puisse parvenir à la cognoissance salutaire de Dieu et se convertir à luy, que mesmes il n’en use pas droictement es choses naturelles et civiles…”Google Scholar
  42. 1.
    See E. D. James, “Scepticism and Fideism in Bayle’s Dictionnaire,” French Studies, XVI (1962), 307–323. This is the most recent, and in some ways the best, article on Bayle’s fideism. James feels that the two articles cited above are Bayle’s proof of God’s existence. He makes them demonstrate more than Bayle himself does. They are strong presumptions, not incontrovertible proofs; and what they demonstrate is a supreme Being, not the Christian God.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. 1.
    Busson refers to the libertines’ constant repetition of this anecdote. See Le Rationalisme dans la littérature de la Renaissance française, p. 34.Google Scholar
  44. 1.
    Luther had written, “Now the highest degree of faith is to believe that He is merciful, though He saves so few and damns so many; to believe that He is just, though of His own will He makes us perforce proper subjects for damnation, and seems (in Erasmus’ words) ‘to delight in the torments of poor wretches and to be a fitter object for hate than for love.’ If I could by any means understand how this same God, who makes such a show of wrath and unrighteousness, can yet be merciful and just, there would be no need for faith. But as it is, the impossibility of understanding makes room for the exercise of faith,” On the Bondage of the Will, trans. J. I. Packer and O. R.Johnston (Westwood, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1957). p. 102.Google Scholar
  45. 2.
    Bayle refers to this in Pauliciens 1 F.Google Scholar
  46. 3.
    Adequate accounts can be found in Delvolvé and Robinson. Interestingly enough, Robinson places this subject in a chapter entitled “Scepticism,” which he seems to confuse with lack of piety. Bayle himself gives one of the best summaries in chapter CXLIV of the Réponse aux questions d’un provincial, where he lists seven theological truths and nineteen philosophical propositions that conflict with them.Google Scholar
  47. 1.
    For Bayle’s earlier mention of the Pharaoh incident, see supra, p. 219, note 3, Remember also that in Pyrrhon B he excludes God’s veracity as a guarantee of any knowledge based on the senses.Google Scholar
  48. 1.
    Bayle implies that it is the philosophical approach to Scripture that is the root of Descartes’s difficulties. “Disons aussi en passant qu’il y a certains faits et certaines phrases qui démonteront toujours les machines des plus grands métaphysiciens” (Rimini 2 B, 535 /).Google Scholar
  49. 2.
    For the same idea in the Critique générale, see OD II, 71 /.Google Scholar
  50. 3.
    Samblançai, Guillaume 1 B considers the very special case where the precepts of Scripture and its historical examples seem to lead to two different conclusions. It is a matter of the legitimate obedience owed to sovereign powers, on which Bayle had previously written that Scripture could appear unclear (OD I, 86 r, July 1684, III). “Quand on emploie l’écriture à soutenir le pour et le contre, le vrai moyen de se tirer des embarras où notre raison se confond, c’est d’implorer humblement les lumières du Saint-Esprit” (p. 71 l — italics mine). When both reason and Scripture are at a loss, prayer is the only resort; but Bayle sees the danger of this, for each man will say that he has consulted the Holy Ghost and then come to the conclusion that his interest dictates. The history of the religious wars bears out only too clearly the truth of this.Google Scholar
  51. 1.
    There are not very many other Biblical articles: among the more interesting are Cham, David, Saint Jean (the Evangelist), Job, Jonas, Judith, and Marie (Miriam the prophetess).Google Scholar
  52. 2.
    See the close of the article Abel. Abraham and its remarks conforms closely to this pattern. On the other hand, the notorious article David does not belong to this category.Google Scholar
  53. 1.
    Cf. Bayle’s comments on the brevity of Mosaic history, supra p. 235.Google Scholar
  54. 1.
    By one of those reversals in historical perspective, these passages, so shocking in their own day, do not disturb moderns. Walter E. Rex gives a provocative interpretation of this famous article in “Pierre Bayle: The Theology and Politics of the Article on David,” Bibliothèque d’Humanisme et Renaissance, XXIV (1962), 168–189, XXV (1963), 366–403. He notes that David was both a prophesier and a theocrat, two of the roles Bayle most frequently condemned in Jurieu.Google Scholar
  55. 2.
    Sara D accuses Abraham of lying. (The whole article is one of the least respectful of all the Biblical articles.)Google Scholar
  56. 1.
    Alabaster 1 A summarizes a dispute between Catholics on how to reconcile Matthew’s statement that Christ remained in Hell three days and nights with the chronology of the resurrection. Roy 2 C mentions that the apostles had been inaccurate in their expectation that the second coming was imminent. Reihing 1 D discusses a passage of Saint Paul’s in which the clear meaning of the apostle could be misread by a grammatical purist. And that is all. The articles on the evangelist John and on Joachim (the reputed father of Mary) have no bearing on matters of faith. I cannot agree with Robinson that the articles on Apollonius of Tyana and Apuleius constitute in any way an indirect disparagement of Christ’s miracles: Bayle the Sceptic, pp. 173–174.Google Scholar
  57. 2.
    Robinson quotes this passage, implying that Bayle actually means it to apply to Scriptural authors: Bayle the Sceptic, p. 161. This is a gross misreading. He goes on to say, “Bayle so carefully guarded the assumption that Scriptural authors are like other authors that his own position could only be inferred. Yet the inference was not hard to draw.” (Note the tacit admission that nothing in DHC directly challenges the divinity of Scripture.) I leave it to Robinson to draw inferences. No matter what his own personal faith may have been, I cannot conceive Bayle suggesting that the authors of canon resembled Jurieu. That is the lowest insult in his vocabulary.Google Scholar
  58. 1.
    Saducéens 2 G (p. 26 l) gives a very interesting example of the sort of truth made clear by Scripture, yet denied by some Christians. “Chose plus surprenante: beaucoup de chrétiens sans cesser de reconnaître la divinité de l’Ecriture se moquent de la magie, et soutiennent que les démons n’ont aucun pouvoir.”Google Scholar
  59. 2.
    See supra pp. 223–224, 232–234. Arnauld, Antoine 2 R argues that authority is divided on major issues; Hemmingius 2 C, that Papal bulls require interpretation so that every curate must be infallible; Launoi, Jean de 2 Q, that many ceremonies accepted on tradition are unchristian.Google Scholar
  60. 1.
    In the article itself Bayle had written, “je dirai par occasion qu’il y a des gens qui trouvent fort vraisemblable que presque personne ne se sert jamais de la voie de l’examen proprement dit, quoiqu’on en parle beaucoup. Je ne sais si l’on ne pourrait pas assurer que les obstacles d’un bon examen ne viennent pas tant de ce que l’esprit est vide de science que de ce qu’il est plein de préjugés” (p. 524 r).Google Scholar
  61. 1.
    Even more so, specific dogmas can be only probable. “Car après tout, dans les matières contestées entre les Chretiens, personne ne fait monter ses preuves jusqu’à l’évidence Métaphisique ou Géométrique; elles demeurent donc toujours dans le rang des propositions probables” (OD II, 522 r — Supplément du Commentaire philosophique). Google Scholar
  62. 2.
    Histoire de la littérature française au XVIIème siècle, V, 248. Not all of Adam’s evidence in support of his statement proves his point. Bayle places the demands of conscience above those of reason. True, but not necessarily incompatible with skepticism, depending on one’s definition of conscience. And above the rights of conscience Bayle places the rights of the state. Again true, but skeptics up until Bayle’s time had been politically conservative almost to a man.Google Scholar
  63. 3.
    La Crise de la conscience européenne (1680–1715), P. 115. Google Scholar
  64. 4.
    Montaigne rejected the “vraisemblable” because the “vrai” could not be known (II: xii, 544a).Google Scholar

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© Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, Netherlands 1966

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