Bayle, Pierre

Lorenzo Bianchi

1The son of a pastor, Pierre Bayle (Carla, near Foix [now Carla-Bayle, in the Ariège], 1647–Rotterdam 1707) converted to Catholocism in 1669 only to return to Calvinism in 1670 and take refuge in Geneva; he took up residence in Rotterdam in 1681. From March 1684 to February 1687 he edited the Nouvelles de la République des Lettres, a learned periodical that made his name known throughout Europe. In 1683 he published Pensées diverses sur la comète (which had appeared the year before under the title Lettre sur la comète), to which he would append an Addition in 1694 and a Continuation in 1704; in the Pensées diverses he exposed his paradoxes on a society of atheists, which would be the target of refutations throughout the 18th century. After the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (October 1685) he published (in 1686) a pamphlet against religious intolerance (Ce que c’est que la France toute catholique sous le règne de Louis le Grand [‘The meaning of an all-Catholic France under the reign of Louis XIV’], 1686) and a long treatise on the same subject (Commentaire philosophique sur ces paroles de Jésus-Christ : contrains-les d’entrer [‘Philosophical commentary on these words of Jesus Christ: compel them to come in’], 1686). His Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697; second, augmented edition with “Éclaircissements”, 1702), an enormous repertory of erudition and critique, enjoyed great success in the 18th century. In this Dictionnaire he exposed his skeptical conception with regard to the grand metaphysical systems and theological debates and proposed on the theological level a solution of faith, while suggesting radical objections on the problem of evil. His historical Pyrrhonism achieves in the Dictionnaire a methodological circumspection that aims at transposing the Cartesian method into the domain of history, where historical facts possess a certainty that is proper to them. In the domain of religion, Bayle extends toleration to include the right of wayward conscience, in other words the right of every individual to be mistaken on theological questions.

2Montesquieu, who had in his library numerous of Bayle’s books – not only the fourth edition (1705) of his Pensées diverses (Catalogue, no. [‣]) and the first edition of the Dictionnaire historique et critique (Catalogue, no. [‣]) but also the Nouvelles de la République des Lettres (Catalogue, no. [‣]) and the Réponse aux questions d’un provincial (Catalogue, no. [‣]) – maintained from his youth a complex and problematic attitude with respect to the Rotterdam philosopher. According to his son, he had in his youth a work “intended to prove the the idolatry of most pagans did not seem to merit eternal damnation” (“dont le but était de prouver que l’idolâtrie de la plupart des païens ne paraissait pas mériter une damnation éternelle”, “Mémoire pour servir à l’éloge de M. de Montesquieu », Mémoire de la critique, p. 250).

3As Shackleton affirms (“Bayle and Montesquieu”), we find the traces of the Pensées diverses in the Dissertation sur la politique des Romains dans la religion, read at the Bordeaux academy on 18 June 1716 (OC, t. VIII, p. 83-98), which posits at the heart of Montesquieu’s thought two themes that would be constant until L’Esprit des lois: the necessity of religion and religious toleration. And if in the Dissertation one can also detect the influence of Machiavelli’s Discourses, the theme of toleration is assuredly taken from Bayle.

4About the same time, he annotated the works of Cicero, revealing how imbued he was then with the work of Bayle, in particular with the Continuation des Pensées diverses; it is true that Bayle begins, like him, with De natura deorum; Montesquieu easily adopts, among others, his criticisms of natural religion (Notes sur Cicéron, Pierre Rétat ed., OC, t. XVII, p. 2014).

5But the relations between Montesquieu and Bayle are not simple, and if the President judges Bayle an unbeliever with respect to theological debates over evil or grace (“you see how he pushes unbelief” [“vous voyez comme il pousse l’impiété”, Spicilège, no. 488]) – and if he considers his idea of atheism indefensible (“As for M. Bayle’s atheists, the slightest reflection suffices to cure a man of atheism” [Pensées, no. 1946]) – he does not fail to take an interest also in the composition of the Dictionnaire, where the the author’s “original design” was to list “all the false facts” (Spicilège, no. 460).

6Montesquieu critiques Bayle’s paradoxical ideas on religion in two chapters (2 and 6) of Book XXIV of L’Esprit des lois, the first of two books devoted to religion. According to him, “M. Bayle pretended to prove that it was better to be an atheist than an idolater; which is to say, in other words, that it is less dangerous to have no religion at all than to have a bad one”, but this idea is “nothing more than a sophism” (“M. Bayle a prétendu prouver qu’il valait mieux être athée qu’idolâtre ; c’est-à-dire, en d’autres termes, qu’il est moins dangereux de n’avoir point du tout de religion, que d’en avoir une mauvaise […] n’est qu’un sophisme”, EL, XXIV, 2). For Montesquieu, who is at the heart of a current of reaction against Bayle in which come together, in the course of the 18th century, philosophers as disparate as Vico and Voltaire, religion is useful for society (it is a “repressive motive”), and “it is poor reasoning against religion, to assemble in a great work a long enumeration of the evils it has produced, if one does not do the same for the good it has done” (“c’est mal raisonner contre la religion, de rassembler dans un grand ouvrage une longue énumération des maux qu’elle a produits, si l’on ne fait de même celle des biens qu’elle a faits”). Thus, “were it needless for subjects to have a religion, it would not be needless for rulers to have one” (“quand il serait inutile que les sujets eussent une religion, il ne le serait pas que les princes en eussent”); indeed a ruler “who has no religion” is “that terrifying creature that feels his freedom only when he is slashing and devouring” (“cet animal terrible qui ne sent sa liberté que lorsqu’il déchire et qu’il dévore”). The question then is “what is the lesser evil, that religion be sometimes abused, or that there be none at all among men”. Moreover, Montesquieu is convinced that “to diminish the horror of atheism, they place too much onus on idolatry” (“pour diminuer l’horreur de l’athéisme, on charge trop l’idolâtrie”), which, like all religion, had a social function in Antiquity.

7Bayle’s second paradox, which derives directly from the first, is more properly linked to the Christian religion: “Monsieur Bayle, after insulting all religions, affronts the Christian religion: he dares to suggest that true Christians would not create a state capable of standing” (“Monsieur Bayle, après avoir insulté toutes les religions, flétrit la religion chrétienne : il ose avancer que de véritables chrétiens ne formeraient pas un État qui pût subsister”, EL, XXIV, 6). Thus Bayle has not understood that “the principles of Christianity” can be beneficial to society, and “it is astonishing that one can accuse this great man of not having known the spirit of his own religion” (“il est étonnant qu’on puisse imputer à ce grand homme d’avoir méconnu l’esprit de sa propre religion”). This same criticism returns in the Pensées (no. 1230): “It is foolish for Bayle to say that a republic of good Christians could not last” (“C’est une sottise de Bayle de dire qu’une république de bons chrétiens ne pourrait pas subsister”).

8Against these two paradoxical hypotheses of Bayle – that it is better to be an atheist than an idolater and that a truly Christian society could not last – Montesquieu maintains that religion is necessary in all societies and that Christianity can become an element of moderation. From this critique of Bayle emerges Montesquieu’s own idea of religion: it is a constitutive element of society, one of the seven factors that produce “the general spirit” (esprit général), and which occupies a central place in L’Esprit des lois. On the basis of the social necessity of religion, a “repressive motive” for men, Montesquieu is able to measure the political consequences of various beliefs.

9As for Bayle, for Montesquieu toleration holds a central place. Montesquieu returns to it in L’Esprit des lois; as extended as it is – and it suffices here to think of chapter 13 of Book XXV, “Most humble remonstrances to the inquisitors of Spain and Portugal” (“Très humble remontrance aux inquisiteurs d’Espagne et de Portugal”) – it also knows limits, but different from the ones found in Bayle. Indeed for Montesquieu, “when one is master in a state to allow a new religion, or not to allow it, it must not become established; once it is established, it must be tolerated” (“quand on est maître de recevoir dans un État une nouvelle religion, ou de ne pas la recevoir, il ne faut pas l’y établir ; quand elle y est établie, il faut la tolérer”, XXV, 10). Toleration is placed here in the center of a political discourse, which shows that Montesquieu is above all attentive to the problems of relations between the state and the citizen, whereas Bayle – who takes toleration, as we have seen, to the point of a right to error – is more interested in the citizens’ freedom of conscience.

10In the Défense de l’Esprit des lois (1750), Montesquieu again returns to Bayle and defends himself against the accusations aimed at him on this head: “it is true that the author called Bayle a great man; but he censured his opinions […]. And since he refuted his opinions, he is not calling him a great man for his opinions” (“il est vrai que l’auteur a appelé Bayle un grand homme ; mais il a censuré ses opinions […] Et puisqu’il a combattu ses opinions, il ne l’appelle pas un grand homme à cause de ses opinions”, Défense, I ; OC, t. VII, p. 78-79). Indeed, “it would not have taken much wit for the author to say that Bayle was an abominable man; but there are reasons to believe he does not like to insult people” (“il n’aurait pas fallu beaucoup d’esprit à l’auteur pour dire que Bayle était un homme abominable ; mais il y a apparence qu’il n’aime point à dire des injures”); Montesquieu critiques Bayle, but he rejects invective and appeals to reason and moderation. Although Bayle had abused his erudition and intelligence, he always showed a great philosophical mind.

11The long and complex intellectual relation which Montesquieu maintained with Bayle follows an itinerary that is anything but linear, often going in opposite directions. Whereas the critique made in L’Esprit des lois of Bayle’s paradoxes on atheism is clear and radical, his knowledge of Bayle’s works must have left deep traces, not immediately evident, in the President’s writings from his early years. Thus the legacy transmitted by Bayle is not only evident in the idea of toleration, which Montesquieu defends beginning with the Dissertation and the Lettres persanes and going on to the Défense de l’Esprit des lois, but also in a selfsame attitude of intellectual freedom and recourse to historical criticism.


Robert Shackleton, “La religion de Montesquieu”, Actes du congrès Montesquieu, Bordeaux: Delmas, 1956, p. 287-294, reprinted in R. Shackleton, Essays on Montesquieu and on the Enlightenment, David Gilson and Martin Smith ed., Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1988, p. 109-116; “Bayle et Montesquieu”, Pierre Bayle, le philosophe de Rotterdam, ed. Paul Dibon, Amsterdam-Paris : Elsevier-Vrin, 1959, p. 142-149.

Elisabeth Labrousse, Pierre Bayle, La Haye: Martinus Nijhoff, 1963-1964, 2 vol.

Pierre Rétat, Le “Dictionnaire” de Bayle et la lutte philosophique au XVIIIe siècle, Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1971, p. 280-293.

Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, Montesquieu, Paris : Presses de l’université de Paris-Sorbonne, “Mémoire de la critique”, 2003.

Lorenzo Bianchi, “‘L’auteur a loué Bayle, en l’appelant un grand homme’: Bayle dans la Défense de L'Esprit des lois”, in Montesquieu œuvre ouverte ? 9 (2005), p. 103-114.

—, “Montesquieu critique et héritier de Pierre Bayle”, in Pierre Bayle et la pensée politique de son temps, Antony McKenna dir., Paris : Champion, 2013.