Characteristics Of Bayle by Isaac Disraeli

Story type: Essay

To know Bayle as a man, we must not study him in the folio Life of Des Maizeaux, whose laborious pencil, without colour and without expression, loses, in its indistinctness, the individualising strokes of the portrait. Look for Bayle in his “Letters,” those true chronicles of a literary man, when they record his own pursuits.

The personal character of Bayle was unblemished even by calumny; his executor, Basnage, never could mention him without tears! With simplicity which approached to an infantine nature, but with the fortitude of a stoic, our literary philosopher, from his earliest days, dedicated himself to literature; the great sacrifice consisted of those two main objects of human pursuits, fortune and a family. Many an ascetic, who has headed an order, has not so religiously abstained from all worldly interests; yet let us not imagine that there was a sullenness in his stoicism,–an icy misanthropy, which shuts up the heart from its ebb and flow. His domestic affections through life were fervid. When his mother desired to receive his portrait, he opened for her a picture of his heart! Early in life the mind of Bayle was strengthening itself by a philosophical resignation to all human events!

“I am indeed of a disposition neither to fear bad fortune nor to have very ardent desires for good. Yet I lose this steadiness and indifference when I reflect that your love to me makes you feel for everything that happens to me. It is therefore from the consideration that my misfortunes would be a torment to you, that I wish to be happy; and when I think that my happiness would be all your joy, I should lament that my bad fortune should continue to persecute me; though, as to my own particular interest, I dare promise to myself that I shall never be very much affected by it.”

An instance occurred of those social affections in which a stoic is sometimes supposed to be deficient, which might have afforded a beautiful illustration to one of our most elegant poets. The remembrance of the happy moments which Bayle spent when young on the borders of the river Auriege, a short distance from his native town of Carlat, where he had been sent to recover from a fever occasioned by an excessive indulgence in reading, induced him many years afterwards to devote an article to it in his “Critical Dictionary,” for the sake of quoting the poet who had celebrated this obscure river. It was a “Pleasure of Memory!” a tender association of domestic feeling!

The first step which Bayle took in life is remarkable. He changed his religion and became a catholic. A year afterwards he returned to the creed of his fathers. Posterity might not have known the story, had it not been recorded in his Diary. The circumstance is thus curiously stated:–


Years of the Years
Christian of my
Era age.

1669. Tues., Mar. 19. 22. I changed my religion–next
day I resumed the study of

1670. Aug. 20. 23. I returned to the reformed
religion, and made a private
abjuration of the Romish
religion, in the hands
of four ministers.

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His brother was one of these ministers; while a catholic, Bayle had attempted to convert him, by a letter long enough to evince his sincerity; but without his subscription we should not have ascribed it to Bayle.

For this vacillation in his religion has Bayle endured bitter censure. Gibbon, who himself changed his about the same “year of his age,” and for as short a period, sarcastically observes of the first entry, that “Bayle should have finished his logic before he changed his religion.” It may be retorted, that when he had learnt to reason, he renounced Catholicism. The true fact is, that when Bayle had only studied a few months at college, some books of controversial divinity by the catholics offered many a specious argument against the reformed doctrines. A young student was easily entangled in the nets of the Jesuits. But their passive obedience, and their transubstantiation, and other stuff woven in their looms, soon enabled such a man as Bayle to recover his senses. The promises and the caresses of the wily Jesuits were rejected; and the gush of tears of the brothers, on his return to the religion of his fathers, is one of the most pathetic incidents of domestic life.

Bayle was willing to become an expatriated man; to study, from the love of study, in poverty and honour! It happens sometimes that great men are criminated for their noblest deeds by both parties.

When his great work appeared, the adversaries of Bayle reproached him with haste, while the author expressed his astonishment at his slowness. At first, “The Critical Dictionary,” consisting only of two folios, was finished in little more than four years; but in the life of Bayle this was equivalent to a treble amount with men of ordinary application. Bayle even calculated the time of his headaches: “My megrims would have left me had it been in my power to have lived without study; by them I lose many days in every month.” The fact is, that Bayle had entirely given up every sort of recreation except that delicious inebriation of his faculties, as we may term it for those who know what it is, which he drew from his books. We have his avowal: “Public amusements, games, country jaunts, morning visits, and other recreations necessary to many students, as they tell us, were none of my business. I wasted no time on them, nor in any domestic cares,–never soliciting for preferment, nor busied in any other way. I have been happily delivered from many occupations which were not suitable to my humour; and I have enjoyed the greatest and the most charming leisure that a man of letters could desire. By such means an author makes a great progress in a few years.”

Bayle, at Rotterdam, was appointed to a professorship of philosophy and history; the salary was a competence to his frugal life, and enabled him to publish his celebrated Review, which he dedicates “to the glory of the city,” for illa nobis haec otia fecit.

After this grateful acknowledgment, he was unexpectedly deprived of the professorship. The secret history is curious. After a tedious war, some one amused the world by a chimerical “Project of Peace,” which was much against the wishes and the designs of our William the Third. Jurieu, the head of the Reformed party in Holland, a man of heated fancies, persuaded William’s party that this book was a part of a secret cabal in Europe, raised by Louis the Fourteenth against William the Third; and accused Bayle as the author and promoter of this political confederacy. The magistrates, who were the creatures of William, dismissed Bayle without alleging any reason. To an ordinary philosopher it would have seemed hard to lose his salary because his antagonist was one

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Whose sword is sharper than his pen.

Bayle only rejoiced at this emancipation, and quietly returned to his Dictionary. His feelings on this occasion he has himself perpetuated.

“The sweetness and repose I find in the studies in which I have engaged myself, and which are my delight, will induce me to remain in this city, if I am allowed to continue in it, at least till the printing of my Dictionary is finished; for my presence is absolutely necessary in the place where it is printed. I am no lover of money, nor of honours, and would not accept of any invitation should it be made to me; nor am I fond of the disputes, and cabals, and professorial snarlings which reign in all our academies: Canam mihi et Musis.” He was indeed so charmed by quiet and independence, that he was continually refusing the most magnificent offers of patronage, from Count Guiscard, the French ambassador; but particularly from our English nobility. The Earls of Shaftesbury, of Albemarle, and of Huntingdon tried every solicitation to win him over to reside with them as their friend; and too nice a sense of honour induced Bayle to refuse the Duke of Shrewsbury’s gift of two hundred guineas for the dedication of his Dictionary. “I have so often ridiculed dedications that I must not risk any,” was the reply of our philosopher.

The only complaint which escaped from Bayle was the want of books; an evil particularly felt during his writing the “Critical Dictionary;” a work which should have been composed not distant from the shelves of a public library. Men of classical attainments, who are studying about twenty authors, and chiefly for their style, can form no conception of the state of famine to which an “helluo librorum” is too often reduced in the new sort of study which Bayle founded. Taste when once obtained may be said to be no acquiring faculty, and must remain stationary; but knowledge is of perpetual growth, and has infinite demands. Taste, like an artificial canal, winds through a beautiful country; but its borders are confined, and its term is limited. Knowledge navigates the ocean, and is perpetually on voyages of discovery. Bayle often grieves over the scarcity, or the want of books, by which he was compelled to leave many things uncertain, or to take them at second-hand; but he lived to discover that trusting to the reports of others was too often suffering the blind to lead the blind. It was this circumstance which induced Bayle to declare, that some works cannot be written in the country, and that the metropolis only can supply the wants of the literary man. Plutarch has made a similar confession; and the elder Pliny, who had not so many volumes to turn over as a modern, was sensible to the want of books, for he acknowledges that there was no book so bad by which we might not profit.

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Bayle’s peculiar vein of research and skill in discussion first appeared in his “Pensees sur la Comete.” In December, 1680, a comet had appeared, and the public yet trembled at a portentous meteor, which they still imagined was connected with some forthcoming and terrible event! Persons as curious as they were terrified teased Bayle by their inquiries, but resisted all his arguments. They found many things more than arguments in his amusing volumes: “I am not one of the authors by profession,” says Bayle, in giving an account of the method he meant to pursue, “who follow a series of views; who first project their subject, then divide it into books and chapters, and who only choose to work on the ideas they have planned. I for my part give up all claims to authorship, and shall chain myself to no such servitude. I cannot meditate with much regularity on one subject; I am too fond of change. I often wander from the subject, and jump into places of which it might be difficult to guess the way out; so that I shall make a learned doctor who looks for method quite impatient with me.” The work is indeed full of curiosities and anecdotes, with many critical ones concerning history. At first it found an easy entrance into France, as a simple account of comets; but when it was discovered that Bayle’s comet had a number of fiery tales concerning the French and the Austrians, it soon became as terrific as the comet itself, and was prohibited!

Bayle’s “Critique generale de l’Histoire du Calvinisme par le Pere Maimbourg,” had more pleasantry than bitterness, except to the palate of the vindictive Father, who was of too hot a constitution to relish the delicacy of our author’s wit. Maimbourg stirred up all the intrigues he could rouse to get the Critique burnt by the hangman at Paris. The lieutenant of the police, De la Reynie, who was among the many who did not dislike to see the Father corrected by Bayle, delayed this execution from time to time, till there came a final order. This lieutenant of the police was a shrewd fellow, and wishing to put an odium on the bigoted Maimbourg, allowed the irascible Father to write the proclamation himself with all the violence of an enraged author. It is a curious specimen of one who evidently wished to burn his brother with his book. In this curious proclamation, which has been preserved as a literary curiosity, Bayle’s “Critique” is declared to be defamatory and calumnious, abounding with seditious forgeries, pernicious to all good subjects, and therefore is condemned to be torn to pieces, and burnt at the Place de Greve. All printers and booksellers are forbidden to print, or to sell, or disperse the said abominable book, under pain of death; and all other persons, of what quality or condition soever, are to undergo the penalty of exemplary punishment. De la Reynie must have smiled on submissively receiving this effusion from our enraged author; and to punish Maimbourg in the only way he could contrive, and to do at the same time the greatest kindness to Bayle, whom he admired, he dispersed three thousand copies of this proclamation to be posted up through Paris; the alarm and the curiosity were simultaneous; but the latter prevailed. Every book collector hastened to procure a copy so terrifically denounced, and at the same time so amusing. The author of the “Livres condamnes au Feu” might have inserted this anecdote in his collection. It may be worth adding, that Maimbourg always affected to say that he had never read Bayle’s work, but he afterwards confessed to Menage, that he could not help valuing a book of such curiosity. Jurieu was so jealous of its success, that Beauval attributes his personal hatred of Bayle to our young philosopher overshadowing that veteran.

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The taste for literary history we owe to Bayle; and the great interest he communicated to these researches spread in the national tastes of Europe. France has been always the richest in these stores, but our acquisitions have been rapid; and Johnson, who delighted in them, elevated their means and their end, by the ethical philosophy and the spirit of criticism which he awoke. With Bayle, indeed, his minor works were the seed-plots; but his great Dictionary opened the forest.

It is curious, however, to detect the difficulties of early attempts, and the indifferent success which sometimes attends them in their first state. Bayle, to lighten the fatigue of correcting the second edition of his Dictionary, wrote the first volume of “Reponses aux Questions d’un Provincial,” a supposititious correspondence with a country gentleman. It was a work of mere literary curiosity, and of a better description of miscellaneous writing than that of the prevalent fashion of giving thoughts and maxims, and fanciful characters, and idle stories, which had satiated the public taste: however, the book was not well received. He attributes the public caprice to his prodigality of literary anecdotes, and other minutiae literariae, and his frequent quotations! but he defends himself with skill: “It is against the nature of things to pretend that in a work to prove and clear up facts, an author should only make use of his own thoughts, or that he ought to quote very seldom. Those who say that the work does not sufficiently interest the public, are doubtless in the right; but an author cannot interest the public except he discusses moral or political subjects. All others with which men of letters fill their books are useless to the public; and we ought to consider them as only a kind of frothy nourishment in themselves; but which, however, gratify the curiosity of many readers, according to the diversity of their tastes. What is there, for example, less interesting to the public than the Bibliotheque Choisie of Colomies (a small bibliographical work); yet is that work looked on as excellent in its kind. I could mention other works which are read, though containing nothing which interests the public.” Two years after, when he resumed these letters, he changed his plan; he became more argumentative, and more sparing of literary and historical articles. We have now certainly obtained more decided notions of the nature of this species of composition, and treat such investigations with more skill; still they are “caviare to the general.” An accumulation of dry facts, without any exertion of taste or discussion, forms but the barren and obscure diligence of title-hunters. All things which come to the reader without having first passed through the mind, as well as the pen of the writer, will be still open to the fatal objection of insane industry raging with a depraved appetite for trash and cinders; and this is the line of demarcation which will for ever separate a Bayle from a Prosper Marchand, and a Warton from a Ritson; the one must be satisfied to be useful, but the other will not fail to delight. Yet something must be alleged in favour of those who may sometimes indulge researches too minutely; perhaps there is a point beyond which nothing remains but useless curiosity; yet this too may be relative. The pleasure of these pursuits is only tasted by those who are accustomed to them, and whose employments are thus converted into amusements. A man of fine genius, Addison relates, trained up in all the polite studies of antiquity, upon being obliged to search into several rolls and records, at first found this a very dry and irksome employment; yet he assured me, that at last he took an incredible pleasure in it, and preferred it even to the reading of Virgil and Cicero.

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As for our Bayle, he exhibits a perfect model of the real literary character. He, with the secret alchymy of human happiness, extracted his tranquillity out of the baser metals, at the cost of his ambition and his fortune. Throughout a voluminous work, he experienced the enjoyment of perpetual acquisition and delight; he obtained glory, and he endured persecution. He died as he had lived, in the same uninterrupted habits of composition; for with his dying hand, and nearly speechless, he sent a fresh proof to the printer!

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