Pierre Bayle: a pre-Enlightenment luminary

Pierre Bayle

Pierre Bayle at approximately 27 years of age. Portrait by Louis Elle-Ferdinand le jeune.

Hyperconnected, multidisciplinary, transnational – the buzzwords of twenty-first century digital communication could just as easily apply to the pan-European Republic of Letters in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. An empire of paper rather than Facebook posts or tweets, the Republic of Letters transcended national boundaries as writers and thinkers criticized, complemented, and commented on the controversies of the moment in a dense nexus of correspondence. These erudite intellectual exchanges between friends and foes fostered the heated debates which shaped modern thought.

The Republic’s major architect was the prolific Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) – best-selling author, journalist, and audacious thinker.

As editor of the journal Nouvelles de la République des Lettres, which published its first issue in 1684, Bayle was arguably the first to coin the term ‘Republic of Letters’. The very title of the journal testifies to Bayle’s ambition. Bringing together articles and reviews of new publications from contributors across Europe, and with a Europe-wide distribution, Pierre Bayle was a man in dialogue with his peers and his times, constantly challenging the consensus and engaging with the opinions of others in his own analysis of the quest for philosophical and historical certainty. Marked by his early experiences of religious intolerance (a recurrent theme in his work) as a Protestant living in predominantly Catholic seventeenth century France, Bayle settled in tolerant Rotterdam where he dedicated himself to a life of creative ferment and intellectual rigour.

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Dissatisfied with the conclusions of Descartes in his Discours de la méthode (1637), and closer to Gassendi in his critique of Descartes’ Méditations métaphysiques (1641), Bayle proposed a radical scepticism towards the ability of human reason to reach true knowledge about the universe, and firmly pinpointed the antagonism of reason and religious faith and the dangers of religious fanaticism. He is perhaps best-known for his monumental Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697) – a hybrid and polymathic bestseller. With articles on every conceivable topic, it appears as a forerunner of Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie and Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique, and had a considerable influence outside France, reaching Leibniz, Hume and Kant.

As seen in the recently published volume XII of the Correspondance de Pierre Bayle, edited by Antony McKenna et al, the complexity, ambiguity, and plurality of Bayle’s work still make him a fascinating subject of study today.

Volume XII of the Correspondance de Pierre Bayle dates from the period January 1699-December 1702: a time of effervescence for Bayle, who was preparing the second edition of his extremely successful Dictionnaire at a feverish pace, while fielding commentaries and criticisms from readers of the first edition. His circle of correspondents was expanding apace. At a time when numerous projects – Early Modern Letters Online, Mapping the Republic of Letters, and Electronic Enlightenment – are using modern technology and graphics to find new ways of recreating the Republic of Letters, this volume of correspondence has a vital place in our understanding of the period.

Pierre Bayle is a model for our age of networking. From the dense web of articles in his Dictionnaire to his border-transcending Nouvelles and correspondence, his networks illuminate the intellectual exchanges firing the bold new thought which sparked the Enlightenment. Perhaps, as indicated in the very first Voltaire Foundation blogpost, The Online Republic of Letters, Bayle’s legacy lives on in this blog!

Rotterdam.

Rotterdam, where Bayle spent the last 25 years of his life.

– Madeleine Chalmers

Bibliography

Correspondance de Pierre Bayle, Volume XII, edited by †Elisabeth Labrousse, Antony McKenna, Wiep van Bunge, Edward James, Bruno Roche, Fabienne Vial-Bonacci, ISBN 978-0-7294-1028-1, March 2015

Le Rayonnement de Bayle, ed. Philippe de Robert, Claudine Pailhès and Hubert Bost, SVEC 2010:06, ISBN 978-0-7294-0995-7

Click here for a list of books and articles published by the Voltaire Foundation on Pierre Bayle or his work.

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Progrès et passé: vers une fabrique de la modernité scientifique

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Il m’a toujours semblé que l’idée de progrès était l’une des plus importantes de la modernité, parce qu’elle lui avait permis de se définir. Corollaire de la conception d’un homme perfectible, elle a contribué, par le passage de l’individuel au collectif, à l’avènement des philosophies de l’histoire. Pourtant, l’idée de progrès a hésité longtemps entre une ‘valeur euphorique’ et une ‘valeur critique’– on n’a qu’à lire les Discours de Rousseau pour le constater.

Le progrès est présenté le plus souvent comme une succession sans retour d’acquis, une chaîne de dépassements de stades antérieurs et de métamorphoses qualitatives ouvrant l’histoire vers l’avenir. Une conséquence inattendue de ce discours est que le progrès produit lui-même le passé avec lequel il entend prendre ses distances. Dans sa dynamique de rupture avec le préjugé, avec le tâtonnement, avec l’erreur, le progrès apparaît comme une sorte de curseur, amoncelant derrière lui des réserves toujours plus abondantes d’inactuel, de tout ce qui n’est plus le savoir admis.

L’un des enjeux de notre ouvrage La Fabrique de la modernité scientifique: discours et récits du progrès sous l’Ancien Régime est sans doute d’explorer, dans le cadre spécifique d’une histoire du discours sur les sciences et la médecine, la transition capitale entre l’ambivalence classique face au progrès et son axiologie claire au XIXe siècle. Ainsi, Bordeu, d’abord ‘réformateur’ de la médecine, sera-t-il peu à peu déclassé, ramené à mesure que la ‘fine pointe’ du progrès se déplace, au rang de simple précurseur, puis à celui d’écrivain, expulsé des lieux du savoir. Cette destinée impitoyable et dont on pourrait croire qu’elle est en dernière instance celle de toutes les icônes du progrès, tarde longtemps parfois, et parfois se précipite, frappant même l’homme de son vivant, comme Buffon.

Paul Klee, Angelus Novus (The Israel Museum, Jerusalem)

Paul Klee, Angelus Novus, 1920 (The Israel Museum, Jerusalem)

Je ne puis m’empêcher à ce propos de penser au commentaire de Walter Benjamin sur le tableau de Klee intitulé Angelus novus: “Il représente un ange qui semble sur le point de s’éloigner de quelque chose qu’il fixe du regard. Ses yeux sont écarquillés, sa bouche ouverte, ses ailes déployées. C’est à cela que doit ressembler l’Ange de l’Histoire. Son visage est tourné vers le passé. Là où nous apparaît une chaîne d’événements, il ne voit, lui, qu’une seule et unique catastrophe, qui sans cesse amoncelle ruines sur ruines et les précipite à ses pieds. Il voudrait bien s’attarder, réveiller les morts et rassembler ce qui a été démembré. Mais du paradis souffle une tempête qui s’est prise dans ses ailes, si violemment que l’ange ne peut plus les refermer. Cette tempête le pousse irrésistiblement vers l’avenir auquel il tourne le dos, tandis que le monceau de ruines devant lui s’élève jusqu’au ciel. Cette tempête est ce que nous appelons le progrès” [1].

– Frédéric Charbonneau, Université McGill

[1] Walter Benjamin, Sur le concept d’histoire, IX, (1940; Gallimard, Folio/Essai, 2000), p.434.

From battered wife to major writer: Madame de Graffigny and her tell-all Correspondance

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For International Women’s Day on 8 March we want to celebrate Madame de Graffigny, an exceptional eighteenth-century woman who overcame many obstacles to become the most famous woman writer of her day. Over the last few decades the life story and literary brilliance of Françoise d’Happoncourt de Graffigny (1695-1758) have awakened new interest, owing to the growing appreciation of literature by women, new editions of her novel, Lettres d’une Péruvienne (1747), and the publication by the Voltaire Foundation of her remarkable Correspondance, now nearing completion and described by one reviewer as ‘the crown jewel’ of her œuvre.

Although largely forgotten for more than a century, Mme de Graffigny was famous in her day across Europe for writing not only a best-selling novel, but also a hit play, Cénie, produced by the Comédie-Française in 1750. The Péruvienne continued to be popular into the nineteenth century, but after that only her name was known because some of her early letters had been used in the intriguingly entitled collection of letters, La Vie privée de Voltaire et de Mme Du Châtelet (Paris, 1820).

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A military officer’s daughter and member of the ‘petite noblesse’, a battered wife and then a captivating widow, Mme de Graffigny was in her early years a familiar at the court of Lorraine, a much relaxed version of Versailles. She knew Voltaire from his trip to Lunéville in 1735, and it was, indeed, he and Mme Du Châtelet who launched her on the road to Paris and fame by an invitation to Cirey in 1738.

Mme de Graffigny sent back magnificent, long descriptions of her surroundings and experience to her friend Devaux – until Mme Du Châtelet, who opened the incoming mail, discovered a reference to La Pucelle, and there was an uproar. The episode reveals a great deal about the literary politics of the period, and the consequences for Mme de Graffigny make a striking case study of the social tensions in pre-Revolutionary French society.

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Serving as a ‘dame de compagnie’ to the duchesse de Richelieu after her arrival in Paris, Mme de Graffigny broadened the range of her acquaintances and friends among the nobility, the actors and the literati of the day, and even after Mme de Richelieu’s death two years later, she continued to meet a whole cast of famous characters: Buffon, the comte de Caylus, the future duc de Choiseul, the great Clairon, the prince de Clermont, Claude and Prosper Crébillon, Duclos, Fontenelle, Mme Geoffrin, Helvétius, La Popelinière, Marivaux, Maupertuis, Montesquieu, Pâris-Montmartel, Piron, Prévost, Jeanne Quinault and her family of actors, Réaumur, and eventually the abbé de Bernis, Malesherbes, Palissot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Turgot. Graffigny would rely heavily on some of them when she herself began to write – to make money, as she freely admitted, the salvage operation from her disastrous marriage and widowhood being scarcely adequate to sustain respectable appearances.

Her two literary successes provided a small improvement in her finances, but also celebrity which she continued to enjoy, using the influence she had to foster the advancement of friends and her relatively small circle of Lorraine cousins. The 15th and final volume of letters published in the Voltaire Foundation’s edition, La Correspondance de Mme de Graffigny, containing letters of 1756 to the moment of her death in December 1758, plus the correspondence relating to the settlement of her estate, will be published by the end of this year, a remarkable tribute to a phenomenal eighteenth-century woman. The story of why and how those letters survived until their rediscovery in 1965 is almost as phenomenal – but that’s the subject of another blog!

– M.F.

PS To mark International Women’s Day The Voltaire Foundation has developed a dedicated webpage, highlighting their key works on women’s studies and gender studies, and the issues facing eighteenth-century women, many of which mirror those faced by women today. Key featured books are on the themes of abused women; women growing old and cast aside; but also strong women who changed society in their own ways, including Mme de Graffigny. To find out more about Mme de Graffigny’s extraordinary life: Françoise de Graffigny, her life and works by English Showalter.