Bayle against the Brexit Blues

Feeling hemmed in by narrow frontiers? Harassed by the ‘natives’ for being interested in the world outside? Feeling cut off from Europe, not to speak of bleak political circumstances and ominous financial predictions?

You are in urgent need of a slice of intellectual life from the 17th and 18th centuries – and Pierre Bayle can bring you a big slice of the Republic of Letters. You will find all you can comfortably handle in the 15 volumes of the Correspondance de Pierre Bayle published by the Voltaire Foundation.

Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury.

In the 22,500 unusually erudite notes of this edition, discover Bayle’s international network of some 16,500 contacts (ideal for crowd-funding and name-dropping), his reference library of some 40,000 books (excellent for scholarly articles and cocktail conversation), his close relations with influential British politicians such as William Trumbull, the third earl of Shaftesbury, the duke of Sunderland, James Vernon – and even with the notorious Antoine de Guiscard, shortly before his attempt to assassinate Robert Harley. Discover with horror Shaftesbury’s feeble arguments against the “infestation” [sic] of our fair Isles by hordes of Huguenot refugees Letter 1751]! Accompany Fatio de Duillier on his travels between London and Cambridge to visit Newton [Letter 1300,
n.5]. Follow the two fellows named Alexander Cunningham [Letter 1359, n.1], who both wander around Europe and visit Leibniz, and see if you can tell them apart.

Was Bayle a sceptical historian of philosophy who kept out of mischief by never adopting a definitive position himself ? Was he a covert Epicurean atheist, denouncing religious fanaticism and bigotry ? Or was he a sincere believer with a very modern form of fragile faith? You must read between the lines and make up your own mind! Immerse yourself in the 15 volumes of his correspondence and gain an insight into the real goings-on at the heart of the Republic of Letters, precursor of a much-maligned modern Europe.

Antony McKenna

Pierre Bayle est mort. Vive la République des Lettres!

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Enfant du Carla (aujourd’hui Carla-Bayle) dans le Midi-Pyrénées, fils et frère de pasteurs réformés, exilé peu avant la révocation de l’édit de Nantes, Pierre Bayle passa une grande partie de sa vie à Rotterdam, d’où il communiquait avec les philosophes et savants de toute l’Europe. Créateur d’un des premiers périodiques de critique littéraire, historique, philosophique et théologique, les Nouvelles de la république des lettres, il a défini une nouvelle conception de la liberté de conscience fondée sur le rationalisme moral. Dans son œuvre majeure, le Dictionnaire historique et critique, il recueille mille détails sur les événements historiques et cherche à démontrer, dans les articles philosophiques, que la religion chrétienne est incompatible avec une argumentation rationnelle. Dans ses toutes dernières œuvres, la Continuation des pensées diverses et la Réponse aux questions d’un Provincial, il diffuse une version du spinozisme qui marquera tous les philosophes des Lumières. Bayle se représentait comme un simple citoyen de la République des Lettres et en est arrivé à incarner cet ‘Etat extrêmement libre’ où l’on ne reconnaît ‘que l’empire de la vérité et de la raison’. Il mourut, à l’âge de 59 ans, le 28 décembre 1706 vers 9 heures du matin, quasiment la plume à la main.

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Lettre de Pierre Bayle à Hervé-Simon de Valhébert, écrite à Rotterdam le 22 octobre 1705.

Ce qui le marque au départ comme un marginal – l’éloignement du Carla des centres de la vie culturelle et la pauvreté de sa famille – nourrit une passion qui fait de lui un érudit aux lectures infinies, un lecteur critique hors pair, qui enregistre soigneusement, dans des recueils alphabétiques, toutes ses lectures et qui se plaît à affronter les récits, les interprétations et les systèmes philosophiques. Avec l’intelligence comme seule arme, il prend du recul par rapport aux controverses religieuses et aux débats philosophiques de son temps; il excelle à disséquer les systèmes philosophiques pour démontrer leurs conséquences absurdes: c’est un recul critique et souvent ironique qui fait de lui non pas un pyrrhonien mais un témoin privilégié de la crise qui marque son époque. Jacques Basnage décrit parfaitement sa passion philosophique:

‘Comme il s’était accoutumé à combattre les erreurs du vulgaire, il avait porté plus loin ce même esprit et un des plaisirs les plus doux qu’il goûtait était de faire sentir à une infinité de gens que les opinions qu’ils regardaient comme évidentes ne laissaient pas d’être environnées de difficultés insurmontables’ (Jacques Basnage au duc de Noailles, le 3 janvier 1707: Lettre 1743, Volume XIV).

Notre édition critique de sa vaste correspondance, qui comporte quinze volumes et près de de 1800 lettres échangées avec un très large cercle d’interlocuteurs, est désormais achevée. Le Volume XIV paraîtra en février 2017 et le Volume XV, comportant la bibliographie générale et l’index général des noms de personnes, paraîtra en été 2017.

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Pierre Bayle is dead. Long live the Republic of Letters!

Born in Le Carla, a tiny village near Foix in the South of France, Pierre Bayle came from a family of Protestant ministers, and was exiled shortly before the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Consequently, he spent most of his life in Rotterdam, from where he corresponded with philosophers and scholars throughout Europe. He launched one of the first literary and philosophical periodicals, the Nouvelles de la république des lettres and defined a new conception of religious tolerance based on moral rationalism.

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His most famous work, the monumental Dictionnaire historique et critique, contains detailed historical articles and others concerning philosophers, in which he sought to demonstrate that Christian doctrine is incompatible with rational argument. In his last works, the Continuation des pensées diverses and the Réponse aux questions d’un Provincial, he defined a version of Spinozism which greatly influenced Enlightenment philosophers. In his unassuming way, Bayle thought of himself as a simple citizen of the Republic of Letters and came to incarnate that ‘extremely free State’ in which no other law is recognised but ‘the rule of truth and right reason’. Bayle died at the age of 59 on the 28th December 1706 at about 9 a.m., virtually pen in hand.

The critical edition of his extensive correspondence, containing fifteen volumes and nearly 1800 letters exchanged with his vast network of friends and associates, is now complete. Volume XIV has just published (February 2017), and volume XV, containing the general index and bibliography, will publish in the summer of 2017.

– Antony McKenna

 

Pierre Bayle: a pre-Enlightenment luminary

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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.