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Pierre Bayle (1647-1706)

The Philosopher of Rotterdam

An outsider. A protestant among catholics. A Frenchman in Holland. A free spirit among fundamentalists. Any single one of these, at one time or another, was Pierre Bayle. He stood up for atheists as well as muslims at a time when they were widely considered threats to society. He popularized expert learning for a wider audience. As from 1681 he taught classes in the Illustrious School at Rotterdam. His colleague Pierre Jurieu instigated his dismissal in 1693 on the grounds of Bayle misleading and imperiling his pupils (according to ecclesiastical authorities). Valuing his intellectual independence Bayle refused being thrust into the straight jacket of any academic institution. The departimentalization and egocentrism in universities were his abhorrence. Bayle taught his classes in Latin. He never learned Dutch. The French language was no obstacle to his audience.

Rotterdam in the Dutch Golden Age

The 17th century saw profound changes in science and religion. The Dutch Republic was a relatively tolerant place. It fostered the revolutionary ideas of Descartes and Spinoza at an early stage and these became quite influential. Rotterdam was a European center of enlightenment, a city of culture competing with traditional bolwarks of learning such as Paris. Partly, this was caused by its erasmian climate of tolerance. The local intellectuals combined learning with religious multiformity. They valued morality over dogma. Commerce went hand in glove with culture — thinkers and merchants encouraged both science and sales. Symbolic of this was the cooperation between Bayle and Reinier Leers, a prolific printer and bookseller in Rotterdam.

The Mind of Bayle

Bayle is considered a controversial and influential figure of the Early Enlightenment. He made a case for religious tolerance. For, he argued, in matters of faith certainty is an illusion. Only the application of thought can determine what is true and what is not. Therefore, church and state should be separated, with the church taking on the subordinate role. Only thus can order be maintained. Bayle was unique in believing that faith and decent behavior are unrelated, that an atheist can be as good a citizen as a Christian. According to Bayle doctrines should be judged solely on their potential threat to society and order, not on their veracity. Societies can easily function even if they consist of groups with opposing views.

To Bayle man equals passion. People act on impuls, led by their urge of self-preservation. Society is the result of civilized passions. Every human being should try to empathize with convictions alien to his own. Look at yourself through other people’s eyes! This will be educating as well as fun. Bayle was a sceptic and a cosmopolitan, a spectator who found that all people have something in common, something that transcends nationality. To him it was the duty of intellectuals to comprehend before judging. This he put into practice like no other. As an outsider he compelled the insiders to turn their world inside out. Bayle was no systematic philosopher. His philosophy might be characterized as a conglomerate of critical, sceptical, and polemic ideas with which he reacted to what he read elsewhere.