Pierre Bayle

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'Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) was a French philosopher and an influential leader of the Enlightenment. His great Dictionnaire Historique et Critique ("Historical and Critical Dictionary") (1695-97, 2nd ed. 1702, English translation 1709), in French, was actually an encyclopedia of ideas. He systematically brought skepticism and tolerance to the fore in the world of ideas, and was a leading promoter of individual freedom as opposed to orthodoxy imposed by the Church. For Bayle a rigorous and unending search for truth required an initial skepticism. His Dictionnaire stressed the historical origins of ideas, and set the tone for all subsequent reference works that aspired to be neutral and nonpartisan.

Bayle studied theology and philosophy at the Geneva Academy with Louis Tronchin (1629-1705). He was a a Huguenot (Protestant) who spent most of his career in Holland.

Bayle is best known for his promoting tolerance of different religions. As late as 1680 the notion of "tolerance" still had negative connotations of allowing error to flourish and was not always sharply distinguished from indulgence. It was not directly equated with freedom of conscience or belief. Only after ca. 1680 did the term begin to emerge as a more positive and desirable concept, due principally to the philosophical works of John Locke and Bayle, although their ideas had been anticipated by John Milton in the 1640s. Bayle influenced David Hume, who in turn had a considerable influence on conservative thought.

Further reading

  • Pierre Bayle, Selections from Bayle's Dictionary ed by E. A. Beller, M. Dup Lee. (1952) online edition
  • Labrousse, Elisabeth. Bayle (1983). 97 pp.
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