Historic Humanists- Bayle, Pierre

It has been asserted, that a moral Atheist would be a monster beyond the power of nature to create: I reply, that it is not more strange for an Atheist to live virtuously, than for a Christian to abandon himself to crime!

If we believe the last kind of monster, why dispute the existence of the first?

In matters of religion it is very easy to deceive a man, and very hard to undeceive him.
— Pierre Bayle

He was born at Carla-le-Comte, near Pamiers (Ariège),  in 1647 and was educated by his father, a Calvinist minister, and at an academy at Puylaurens. He afterwards entered a Jesuit college at Toulouse, and became a Roman Catholic a month later (1669). After seventeen months he returned to Calvinism, and, to avoid persecution, fled to Geneva, where he became acquainted with the teachings of René Descartes. For some years he acted under the name of Bèle as tutor in various Parisian families, but in 1675 he was appointed to the chair of philosophy at the Protestant University of Sedan.

In 1681 the university at Sedan was suppressed, but almost immediately afterwards Bayle was appointed professor of philosophy and history at the Ecole Illustre in Rotterdam. Here in 1682 he published his famous Pensées diverses sur la comète de 1680 and his critique of Louis Maimbourg’s work on the history of Calvinism. The great reputation achieved by this critique stirred the envy of Bayle’s colleague, Pierre Jurieu, who had written a book on the same subject.

In 1684 Bayle began the publication of his Nouvelles de la république des lettres, a kind of journal of literary criticism. In 1690 there appeared a work entitled Avis important aux refugies, which Jurieu attributed to Bayle, whom he attacked with animosity. After a long quarrel Bayle was deprived of his chair in 1693. He was not depressed by this misfortune, especially as he was at the time engaged in the preparation of the Historical and Critical Dictionary (Dictionnaire historique et critique). The remaining years of Bayle’s life were devoted to miscellaneous writings, arising in many instances out of criticisms made upon his Dictionary. He died in exile at Rotterdam. In 1906 a statue in his honour was erected at Pamiers, “la reparation d’un long oubli.”

Bayle’s erudition was considerable. As an original thinker, he was not outstanding, but as a critic he was second to none in his own time, and even now the delicacy and the skill with which he handled his subject is notable. The Nouvelles de la république des lettres (see Louis P. Betz, P. Bayle und die Nouvelles de la république des lettres, Zürich, 1896) was the first thorough-going attempt to popularize literature, and it was eminently successful. The Dictionary, however, is Bayle’s masterpiece.

“In matters of religion it is very easy to deceive a man, and very hard to undeceive him.”

“[The movement of comets is part of] the ordinary works of nature which, without regard to the happiness or misery of mankind, are transported from one part of the heavens to another by virtue of the general laws of motion.”

“Consider, I pray, whether you are not renouncing all shame and sincerity to advance such principles. Because a comet appears in a group of stars which the ancients thought fit to call the Virgin, therefore, shall our women be barren, or have frequent miscarriages, or die old maids. I know of nothing which hangs so ill together! To offer such things in seriousness, shows the greatest contempt of mankind, and the most scandalous lying impunity.”

“So that, were it the purpose of God to produce comets as signs of his wrath it would be true to say that he is quickening a false devotion almost all over the world, increasing the number of pilgrims to Mecca, multiplying the offerings to the most famous impostors, inducing men to build mosques for Mohammedan worship, causing the invention of new superstitions among the dervishes — in a word, stimulating many abominable things which otherwise might not have been.”

“Do you doubt that the least effects of nature were not used as marks of the wrath of heaven? It was to the interest of pontiffs, priests, and augurs, as much as it is to the interest of lawyers and doctors that there should be lawsuits and sickness. No wonder they took care that the people should not grow slack in their religion.”

“It is only common prejudice that induces us to believe that atheism is a fearful state.”

“There was no other God, religion, or lawful magistracy, than conscience, which teaches all men the precepts of Justice, to do no injury, to live honestly, and give everyone his due.”

“One must be stark mad, to believe that mankind can subsist without magistrates.”

“I get up and retire when I wish. I go out if I wish and I do not go out if I do not desire to do so, except for the two days on which I give lectures.”

“I shall add one Remark more. That if a Religion, persecuted in a Country where it was weakest, shou’d ask her Persecutors, why they employ such violent Methods; and these answer, because God enjoins the true Religion to extirpate Heresy quocunque modo [i.e., in whatever way]; if, I say, by making this Answer, they shou’d happen to persuade the Persecuted that there really was such a command, what wou’d follow? Why this same persecuted Church, finding it self the strongest in another place, might very well say to the Communion which had tormented it in the Country where ’twas uppermost, you have taught me one Lesson that I did not know before, I am oblig’d to you for it; you have shewn me from the Scriptures, that God enjoins the faithful to distress false Communions; I shall therefore fall to persecuting you, seeing I am the true Church, and you Idolaters and false Christians, etc. It’s very plain, that the stronger the Arguments be which Persecutors bring to prove that God enjoins Constraint, the smarter Rods they furnish their Adversarys to scourge themselves in another place. Each Party will engross the Proofs, the Command, the Rights of Truth; and authorize its Proceedings by every thing which the really true Religion can offer in its own behalf.”

” Compulsion in the literal Sense is maliciously misrepresented, by supposing it authorizes Violences committed against the Truth. The Answer to this; by which it is prov’d, that the literal Sense does in reality authorize the stirring up Persecutions against the Cause of Truth, and that an erroneous Conscience has the same Rights as an enlighten’d Conscience.”

“I lay down the Position, That whatever a Conscience well directed allows us to do for the Advancement of Truth, an erroneous Conscience will warrant for advancing a suppos’d Truth.”

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