Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670-1752

By Jonathan I. Israel | Go to book overview

11

Bayle, Boulainvilliers, Montesquieu:
Secular Monarchy versus the
Aristocratic Republic

1. BAYLE'S POLITICS

The pre-1750 Enlightenment fundamentally transformed political thought as it did every other aspect of western civilization and, here, Montesquieu has always rightly been identified as a—perhaps even the—key innovative thinker. Certainly no one had a greater impact than he on the discussion of political theory in mid eighteenthcentury Europe. But while granting Montesquieu's originality and incomparable impact which remain undeniable, in the context of a general reassessment of the western Enlightenment such as this, it is requisite not to 'isolate' him, or leave the impression that he springs from nowhere, but rather adequately 'situate'him,1 which means we must view his oeuvre as a response partly to his own experiences but even more to his reading and to prior developments in French and French exile thought. This involves looking especially at the relationship between Montesquieu and Bayle's monarchism, on the one hand, and, on the other, the aristocratic republicanism of Boulainvilliers.

Bayle's politics emerged against a background of local conflict, theological and political, in the Netherlands, in which he remained entangled throughout his most creative years as philosopher and writer. From the moment the 34-year-old philosopher left France never to return, settling in Rotterdam in October 1681, he found himself enmeshed in political controversy affecting not only his own political ideas but his philosophy more generally and not least his paradoxical, convoluted method of writing.2 On Bayle's career as philosopher, editor, and historian impinged in direct and sometimes surprising ways many of the great political events of the age—the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, Glorious Revolution, Nine Years War, prolonged toleration debates, and the consolidation of the Dutch stadtholderate.

On taking up his professorship in history and philosophy at the newly created civic 'Illustre School' at Rotterdam, Bayle's chief patron was the Remonstrant-minded

1 Pocock, Barbarism, ii. 341–2.

2 Labrousse, Pierre Bayle, i. 166, 215–34; Knetsch, Pierre Jurieu, 274–324.

-264-

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