Encyclopedia of Early Modern Philosophy and the Sciences

Living Edition
| Editors: Dana Jalobeanu, Charles T. Wolfe

Bayle and Early Modern Free Thought

  • Antony McKennaEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-20791-9_559-1


Academies and Scientific Societies Censorship and dissimulation Determinism Enthusiasm Epicureanism Laws of Nature Metaphysics Monism Novatores Religious controversies Skepticism Toleration 



Pierre Bayle (Le Carla [Ariège], 1647-Rotterdam, 1706) was born far from the hub of cultural life into the poor family of a Protestant minister, but this marginal situation nourished in him a passion for erudition such that he became a scholar of extraordinary breadth, a critical reader without equal, who carefully recorded his readings in alphabetical notebooks, which enabled him to compare historical narratives and confront philosophical systems with each other. Through his activity as a journalist in the Nouvelles de la république des lettres (1684–87) – which put him in contact with the Royal Society (Boyle) and the Académie française (Benserade) – he established his reputation throughout Europe as a subtle commentator and logician, able to keep religious polemics at a distance and to dissect mercilessly the philosophical systems of the novatores: all the great philosophers of the period (Malebranche, Leibniz, Locke) sought – in vain – his approbation. Although our cultural heritage presents him as a skeptic (Popkin 1959, 1960; Brush 1966) – in both philosophy and religion – his philosophical position is far from Pyrrhonian and Academic skepticism. On the contrary, he embraces rationalism – be it that of Malebranche or of Spinoza – and maintains the existence of an eternal order of things independent of the will of a “Creator” (Mori 1999, 2016; Pécharman 2014); he draws close to Spinoza in his philosophy of toleration, extended to atheists, which is founded on moral rationalism (McKenna 2015); he defends an Epicurean analysis of the “pleasure principle” and points to it at the heart of Augustinian theology (Argaud 2019); he attacks the irrational superstition of astrology and demonstrates the irrationality of Christian doctrine (McKenna 2015); he develops the objection of Strato of Lampsacus to apologetic arguments drawn from the order of nature in favor of the existence of an intelligent Creator (Mori 1999, 2016) and fights to his last breath against rationalist theology, thus making himself vulnerable to accusations of atheism.


Born to a Reformed Protestant family in a remote village in the Ariège, Bayle was to suffer directly the full effects of the revocation of the edict of Nantes. After schooling at the Reformed Academy of Puylaurens, he attended the Jesuit college in Toulouse, where he converted to Catholicism, then returned to Calvinism at the end of his studies there and, in 1670, went into exile as a relaps (reconversion being forbidden) to Geneva in order to pursue his studies in theology. Being without financial support from his family, he was forced to abandon his studies and found employment in Coppet, near Geneva, as tutor to the children of the count of Dohna, a cousin of William of Orange. In 1674, he left Coppet to return clandestinely to France as a tutor – first near Rouen, then in Paris – before being elected in 1675 to a post as professor in philosophy at the Reformed Academy in the principality of Sedan. However, the Academy was suppressed in 1681 – a preparatory measure shortly before the Revocation – and Bayle took refuge in Rotterdam, where he was elected, thanks to the protection of the Arminian and Collegiant town-counselor Adriaan Paets, professor in philosophy and history. He was never to leave this town, which, being a prosperous port in the Golden Age of the United Provinces, was at the heart of the Republic of Letters (Labrousse 1963).

Moral Rationalism and Tolerance

One of his first works, the Pensées diverses sur la comète (1682–83), although anonymous, established his reputation. It is an implacable demonstration of the inanity of the popular superstition of astrology, and its structure is determined by the enumeration of logical arguments: in Bayle’s eyes, it suffices to demonstrate the absurdity of superstitious belief for it to be definitively refuted, ridiculed, and abandoned. No concession is made here to skeptical uncertainty. The Commentaire philosophique (1686) then constitutes a new expression of rationalism in the field of morals: “without exception, all moral laws must be submitted to that natural idea of equity which, like metaphysical light, illumines everyone born in this world” (Commentaire philosophique, I, §1). In this work Bayle maintains harmony between rational philosophy and Christian moral doctrine: “it is important that natural reason should find nothing absurd in what is presented as revelation; for what would otherwise be regarded as authentic revealed truth, would no longer be accepted as such if it contradicted the fundamental, elementary and universal rule by which we judge and discern what is true or false, good or bad” (ibid.). Thus it is a “natural” and “rational” moral judgment that founds our approbation of the moral doctrine of the New Testament: it is because – and only because – the New Testament conforms to common notions in the field of morals, i.e., to natural and rational principles that we can regard it as revealed truth: “one is led inevitably to conclude that any particular article of faith, be it presented as being contained in gospel or otherwise, is false if it is refuted by the clear and distinct notions of natural light, particularly in so far as morals are concerned” (ibid.). This natural and rational ethic is deduced from the self-evident concept of equity, which expresses “that general charity which we owe to all mankind by the indispensable duties of humanity” (La France toute catholique, 1685). This “charity” (or philosophy of sociability) and social order require tolerance in the field of religious beliefs. Bayle then establishes a crucial distinction between the rational self-evidence of first principles and the uncertainty of “speculative” or “particular” truths which are “matters of [religious] controversy” (McKenna 2015). In the latter domain, reason does not allow us to define an orthodox interpretation of Christian doctrine preferable to any other. Men are confirmed in their opinions by education and habit; they cling to their beliefs by personal preference (“taste”) and “zeal,” driven by passion and self-interest. This potentially conflictual uncertainty requires tolerance and a philosophy of tolerance founded in reason.

It is a self-evident principle, to Bayle’s mind, that each man should follow the light of his own reason – i.e., the dictates of his own conscience – and it is from this obligation that Bayle deduces the “rights of the erring conscience.” But these rights do not extend to any kind of error: they apply only to “speculative” truths. To misconstrue self-evident ethical principles is a moral fault; error with regard to “speculative” truths remains innocent. “It suffices that each man consult sincerely and in good faith the light which God has given him, and that accordingly he adhere to the idea that seems to him the most reasonable and in accordance with God’s will. He is then orthodox with regard to God” (Commentaire philosophique, II, x). Bayle is here close to Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise, in which the Bible is regarded as the source of obedience to a moral law and not as a scientific or philosophical manual. Bayle’s definition of faith – or of conviction – excludes violence as a means of persuasion, since in this domain violence is both unjust and inefficient. Any kind of persecution in the name of one interpretation rather than another of the articles of faith is thus excluded – and branded by Bayle as fanaticism which obscures the natural light of reason and destroys social community.

Reason and Faith

Then occurred the “Glorious Revolution” (1688–89): the British nation expelled a legitimate sovereign from the throne on account of his religious beliefs. Bayle published two anonymous pamphlets which sparked fierce controversy (Bayle, éd. Mori 2007). Whereas the destitution of the English king was applauded by Jurieu, who welcomed the accession of William of Orange to the throne as that of a “new David,” Bayle expresses his critical stance towards Huguenot hagiography: the conversion of James II to Catholicism is depicted as the pretext by means of which the Stathouder is able to realize his political ambitions. In all his early works, Bayle had denounced the fallacious character – both violent and hypocritical – of Catholic morals, illustrated by the persecution of the Huguenots. Now proof is given – to his mind – that Reformed morals are no better and define simply the posture of a minority community and that they are founded on calculation of political power and thus have no prerogative over the politics of the Vatican. Convinced that Bayle was the author of these polemical and iconoclastic pamphlets, Jurieu accused him of treason and got the Dutch Church council to condemn the Pensées diverses. In October 1693, Bayle was expelled from his chair at the Illustrious School and forbidden to teach youth. He survived thanks to his printer Reinier Leers, who paid him a provisional salary during preparation of the Dictionnaire Historique et Critique (1697, 1702).

This work, composed with astonishing speed, is both an immense historical reference book and a potent weapon in the battle against rationalist theology. Both aspects are worthy of attention. As far as historiography is concerned, Bayle’s correspondence over the years 1693–1696 (and beyond) enables us to witness the constitution of an “intellectual locus” in the seventeenth century, a locus consisting of a combination of networks which develops as an intellectual configuration or constellation (according to terminology proposed by Mülsow and Stamm 2005; Mülsow 2009), characterized here by a group of scholars who shared the same erudite culture and a common scientific ambition and who contributed to the elaboration of an emblematic work of historical “knowledge”: the Dictionnaire. The spirit that reigned in this cultural exchange was that of a permanent critical debate: a war of minds, so to speak, in which each member could express his own doubts and objections and could bring his own counter-evidence in the form of new bibliographical references. They were dealing in critical erudition and not compilation: references had to be “weighed” and estimated at their true value. In other words, the Dictionnaire constituted a model of intellectual debate according to the norms of the Republic of Letters and the social construction of historical knowledge (Labrousse 1963; McKenna 2015; Van der Lugt 2016).

Philosophically, the Dictionnaire is not a historical record of speculative systems, but a means of confrontation between, on the one hand, ancient and modern philosophical systems and, on the other, Christian doctrine. While declaring himself to adhere to a blind and irrational faith, Bayle points out the paradoxes raised by each article of faith, absolutely incompatible with reason (McKenna 2016); the divine attributes, when considered to be infinite, contradict each other; the mysteries of Christian doctrine (incarnation, redemption, resurrection…) are incompatible with logical axioms; the Christian moral system (Fall, election of the chosen few, condemnation to eternal punishment…) is incompatible with the principles of natural and rational morals; the existence of Evil is an insoluble objection to the existence of an infinitely perfect Creator: “One must necessarily choose between Philosophy and the Bible: if you wish to believe nothing that is not self-evident and conform to common notions, take Philosophy and abandon Christian religion; if you wish to believe in the incomprehensible mysteries of religious doctrine, take Christian religion and abandon Philosophy; because it is impossible to have both self-evidence and incomprehensibility […] You have to make a choice…” (Éclaircissement sur les pyrrhoniens). We thus witness two crucial moments in Bayle’s expression of the relations between reason and faith: faith is compatible with reason in the field of morals according to Bayle’s early works written while under the protection of the Arminian and Collegiant Adriaan Paets; after the death of the Rotterdam regent, after Bayle’s expulsion from the Illustrious School, after his disillusion with the “Glorious Revolution,” Bayle points to the contradiction between reason and faith; they are absolutely incompatible. His reader must thus grasp the essential argument and not be distracted by emphatic circumstantial protestations: in the Pensées diverses Bayle demonstrates that astrology is a ridiculous superstition because it contradicts elementary logic; in the Dictionnaire he demonstrates that Christian doctrine also contradicts elementary logic (McKenna 2015, 2016).

Faith requires the submission of reason. One must therefore establish, by examination of Holy Scripture, the precise doctrine to which reason must submit. However, in Bayle’s eyes, an impartial examination of this kind is impossible: he deconstructs the notion of “examination” by pointing out the “insuperable difficulties” entailed. The object of faith is reduced to a personal feeling based on no rational argument whatsoever; zeal prevents us from broaching such questions without bias; the difficulties inherent in a historical and critical enquiry render authentification of the biblical text impossible and the same goes for the establishment of an authority to approve an authentic text and interpretation: examination is impossible (Pitassi 2010).


Early modern Christian apologists refused to admit that free thinkers might genuinely reject Christian doctrine – so well demonstrated to their minds – and they refused to believe that a man without faith could adhere to moral and social values. Lucien Febvre (1942, 2003) underlines all the obligations which weighed on private (birth, death, mealtime prayers, marriage, illness, will), professional (school, university, corporations, practical working conditions), and public life (royal authority, court of justice) in the Renaissance and concludes that people simply could not be unbelievers. However, atheism certainly existed in the early modern period. Recent research has designated the sources of unbelief in classical Greek and Latin authors (McKenna 2005), in the controversies between theologians on the nature of religious truth (Kors 1990, 2016), and in the very ambition to demonstrate the truth of Christian doctrine by means of a rationalist theology founded on the concept of causality (Mori 1999, 2016). After Spinoza (Israel 2001), Bayle played a vital role in the emergence of philosophical atheism.

In his last works Bayle sharpens his attack on rationalist theology (defended by Le Clerc, Jaquelot, and Bernard) and develops the fundamental arguments of philosophical atheism. Since, for Bayle, toleration is founded on a moral principle independent of any religious belief and since there is no coherent demonstration of the existence of the Christian God, it follows that the belief in that God – a providential God distributing reward and punishment and intervening in the course of worldly events – is one of those “speculative” or “particular” truths to which men adhere by an “inner feeling” and not according to rational self-evidence. The toleration of atheists can thus be deduced from the “rights of conscience” (be it erring or not). But in Bayle’s times, a declared atheist risked capital punishment and, since he was deemed incapable of swearing a sincere oath in court of justice, he was excluded from toleration as conceived by Locke (Epistola de tolerantia, Gouda, 1689).

Raising definitive objections to the arguments of Cudworth put forward by Le Clerc, Bayle elaborates a battery of philosophical arguments in defense of atheism drawn from Strato of Lampsacus (Mori 1999, 2016). He thus rejects the apologetic arguments drawn from the order of nature and founds his system on the metaphysical conception of the eternal essences of things and the eternal existence of a first (material) cause on which all worldly beings depend. Rejecting the Cartesian doctrine of the “creation of eternal truths,” Bayle embraces the rationalism of Malebranche (or Spinoza) and maintains the existence of an eternal order independent of divine will and void of any anthropomorphic attributes. This metaphysical rationalism is the direct source of his moral rationalism and also explains his position on the possibility of an atheist society (Mori 1999, 2016; Pécharman 2014).

Bayle approaches this last question in three stages. Firstly, since an atheist is deemed to be without any moral principles, he is supposed to behave according to the full force of his passions. On this point, Bayle replies “That man does not act according to his principles” (Pensées diverses, §136) and he shows how lightly Christian moral principles weigh on believers’ everyday behavior. Atheists thus resemble all other men: they behave according to the passions of sociability (ambition, self-interest, affections) and out of fear of punishment (the force of law which governs social order). They can therefore be tolerated in civil society: their behavior will resemble that of all other citizens. This demonstration is accompanied by a reflection on the functioning of a prosperous civil society: a perfectly Christian and therefore pacifist society would soon succumb to the greed of its neighbors, who would not hesitate to wage war against it; moreover, such a society, practicing the abstinence recommended by the Church, would soon be ruined economically since money circulates in society in proportion to the passions and appetites of the citizens – a reflection adopted and developed by Mandeville in his The Fable of the Bees (1714, 1724). In this sense, unbelief promotes social prosperity. In any case – and this is Bayle’s third point – perfectly moral behavior cannot be excluded a priori, but it is obviously impossible within the framework of positive religion, which admits both self-contradictory articles of faith and self-interested motivations. Rational and disinterested behavior can be founded on atheism alone, which posits absolute values and rejects the existence of reward or punishment after death. The “virtuous atheist” – in the double sense of a man led by his passions to conform to conventional sociability and of a man capable of accomplishing virtuous acts without any self-interested motive – becomes an emblematic figure in Bayle’s works.

We thus observe that Bayle returns to the moral rationalism of his early works – to that rationalism of which he declared in the Dictionnaire that it was incompatible with religious faith. Once again, the obligation of moral law is rational: it does not derive from divine will:

Let us set that article of faith [the existence of God] aside, let us even reject it, we must nevertheless judge that a circle is not a triangle, that a sophism is a faulty argument, that the conclusion of a syllogism is true if the two premises are true, that it is worthy of man to act according to reason, etc. [...] that to betray a friend is a bad moral quality and that loyalty to a friend is good moral quality. (RQP, III, §29)

Ethical values are thus not founded on the authority of Holy Scripture but on the light of reason:

If there are certain and unchanging rules for the operations of intellectual judgement, there are also others for the acts of the will. The rules for such acts are not arbitrary: there are rules that stem from the necessity of nature and which impose an indispensable duty; and in the same way that it is a fault to reason against the rules of syllogism, it is also a fault to want something that does not conform to the rules governing the will. (CPD, §151)

There does therefore exist a rational and natural moral code independent of Christian doctrine: Bayle returns to the position defined in his first works. But now the “feeling” that the believer has for his convictions concerning “speculative truths” is designated as an arbitrary prejudice, irrational and incomprehensible, a simple effect of education and habit; the “zeal” it engenders is denounced as fanaticism. Faith is now declared to be blind, an effect of enthusiasm and zeal: “superstition puts everything out of rank, and dominates the minds of men like an absolute monarchy” (RQP, III.10).


The chronological approach to Bayle’s successive positions on the relation between reason and faith enables us to better define those positions and to suggest an interpretation of his successive declarations. In particular, it avoids projecting on all Bayle’s works a skepticism which obscures his real philosophy. This approach gives special emphasis to the battle against rational theology and helps us to understand what is at stake in the general framework of his arguments. The existence of a divine providential Creator implies logical contradictions: it follows that when Bayle evokes His existence within the framework of a philosophical argument, that evocation is governed by a dato non concesso, a provisional hypothetical concession which allows him to demonstrate its absurdity. His conclusion can thus be summed up: one would have to be a Pyrrhonist in order to believe Christian doctrine (McKenna 2018). The existence of God not being rationally self-evident, it is necessarily one of those “speculative” or “particular” truths to which men adhere by education and habit, by passion and self-interest, in a word by “zeal.” Naturally, according to Bayle’s doctrine of toleration of belief in “particular” truths, belief and unbelief in God’s existence should be tolerated in civil society; moreover, they will have no particular influence on the moral behavior of the citizens. It is this philosophy of toleration and the implacable analysis of the logical contradictions of religious faith which were to determine the success of Bayle’s works in the following century (Rétat 1971).


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institut Claude Longeon, IHRIM (CNRS UMR 5317)Université Jean MonnetSaint-EtienneFrance

Section editors and affiliations

  • Dana Jalobeanu
    • 1
  • Charles T. Wolfe
    • 2
  1. 1.Faculty of PhilosophyUniversity of BucharestBucharestRomania
  2. 2.Department of Philosophy and Moral Sciences, Sarton Centre for History of ScienceGhent UniversityGhentBelgium