Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Bayle, Saint-Evremond, and Fideism: A Reply to Thomas M. Lennon

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Bayle, Saint-Evremond, and Fideism: A Reply to Thomas M. Lennon

Article excerpt

In a recent article published in this journal Thomas M. Lennon returns to the controversial question of BayIe's attitude towards religion. The point he debates is the particular use that, in expounding his conception of the relationship between faith and reason, Bayle makes of a passage from Saint-Evremond. In Lennon's view the correct interpretation of this point would show that Bayle's fideism is to be "taken at face value" without any hint of irony and with no suspicion of dissimulation or insincerity.1 This would cast doubt on and greatly weaken the interpretation I proposed in my Bayle philosophe.2 My aim here is to respond briefly to Lennon's arguments and to clarify even more briefly what in my opinion is the right perspective in which to consider Bayle's position on this topic.

The context in which Bayle quotes Saint-Evremond is to be found in the Eclaircissements he added to the second edition of his Dictionnaire historique et critique (1702) to counter the Dutch religious authorities' harsh criticism of the first edition. In particular the Walloon Consistory accused Bayle of taking a skeptical position that undermined the most important dogmas of Christian faith. In response Bayle wrote the Eclaircissement sur les Pyrrhoniens, a clumsy mosaic of quotations from the Scriptures and from patristic and profane texts, with which he sought to show that his skeptical fideism was not in the least heterodox but indeed the position that most closely reflected true Christianity. The quotation from Saint-Evremond, almost at the end of this text, is taken from the Conversation du Maréchal d'Hocquincourt et du Père Canaye (written in about 1654).3 The final passage gives a clear idea of the general tone: after having disputed with a churchman the need to subject one's intellect to the yoke of faith, the marshal concludes by saying that he is ready to be crucified "without knowing why." Father Canaye replies: "No reason! That is the true religion. No reason! God has granted you a fine grace, mylord." So, and here Lennon obviously agrees (229), Saint-Evremond's is a text with no shadow of mystical inspiration, indeed strongly tending in the libertine direction, as is clear from the blatant way it pours scorn on the fideist approach.

In my interpretation Bayle's use of this quotation does not at all demonstrate his atheism or unbelief, for in my view that question is undecidable. However, the quotation from Saint-Evremond is sufficient-and this is the only reason I mentioned it4-to show that Bayle's approach to fideism is in no way innocent and naive as is sometimes claimed. On the contrary, his texts on this subject contain what amounts to provocations aimed at orthodox readers (to which they immediately reacted). This, together with other more important reasons, leads me to believe that Bayle's professions of Christian faith, though frequent, are generally far from being above suspicion: indeed, almost every line of them raises questions about their actual significance.

The provocation contained in the quotation from Saint-Evremond appears in all its rhetorical weight if we associate this text with three other passages from Bayle's works. The first is from the Nouvelles de la république des lettres of December 1686, in which Bayle stresses the unedifying nature of the religious maxims contained in Saint-Evrcmond's Conversation (which, incidentally, he himself had just had printed in the collection Le Retour des pièces choisies)? The second is taken from a letter by Jean d'Ouïes to Bayle, written in 1696, in which the author deals with exactly the same passage from the Conversation that was later to be reproduced in the Eclaircissement. In this letter d'Ouïes quotes the full passage which he considers to be a "naughty text" deliberately written to throw ridicule on the fanatical fideism of Pierre Jurieu.6 The third passage is from Bayle's Continuation des pensées diverses of 1704 in which, shortly after the death of Saint-Evremond, he publicly reveals the poet's lack of religiosity, citing him as a typical example of a virtuous atheist. …

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