Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750

By Jonathan I. Israel | Go to book overview

18

BAYLE AND THE
'VIRTUOUS ATHEIST'

The great series of public 'philosophical' controversies in the Netherlands included several, such as the ones over Meyer's Philosophia (1666–8) and the furore over Bekker (1691–4), which were short, sharp outbursts, over in a few years. Others, such as the controversy over Bayle's religious convictions and true philosophical intentions, had a more sporadic character and dragged on for decades. All, however, reverberated in significant ways beyond the immediate Dutch cultural world and had major implications for the wider European scene. Indeed, collectively, these controversies, stretching from the 1660s to the 1720s, contributed in a decisive fashion to the conceptualization and formulation of the European Radical Enlightenment as a whole and, scarcely less, to the moderate mainstream counter-offensive.

Assuredly, the most enigmatic and controversial, as well as probably the single most widely read and influential thinker of the Early Enlightenment, was the 'philosopher of Rotterdam'—Pierre Bayle (1647–1706). His pivotal role in the onset of the European Enlightenment has never been doubted. Though banned in France and the rest of Catholic Europe, his works were read everywhere and by everyone who claimed any sort of acquaintance with contemporary European intellectual life. But what precisely was his philosophical and confessional stance, what was the aim of his writing, and how were contemporaries to construe his fascinating and impressive but often profoundly bewildering oeuvre?

The son of a Reformed pastor, born in southern France, near the Spanish border, south of Toulouse, Bayle abandoned the faith of his upbringing at the age of 21, much to the distress of his family, in 1669, and, for a time, professed Catholicism.1 During this period he studied with the Jesuits at Toulouse, imbibing their Aristotelian scholasticism. After a short time he became disillusioned with Catholicism and the Jesuits, however, and since relapse from Catholicism to Protestantism was strictly forbidden in France, fled to Geneva, where he reverted to the Reformed faith and spent the period 1670–4. There he was also converted to Cartesianism and when, after returning to France, he was appointed to a professorship at the Huguenot academy of Sedan, he had to expound Aristotelianism to his students while adhering inwardly to

1 Labrousse, Pierre Bayle, ii, 627; Popkin, 'Introduction', p. xi.

-331-

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