Modern Literature–Bayle’s Critical Dictionary by Isaac Disraeli

Story type: Essay

A new edition of Bayle in France is an event in literary history which could not have been easily predicted. Every work which creates an epoch in literature is one of the great monuments of the human mind; and Bayle may be considered as the father of literary curiosity, and of modern literature. Much has been alleged against our author: yet let us be careful to preserve what is precious. Bayle is the inventor of a work which dignified a collection of facts constituting his text, by the argumentative powers and the copious illustrations which charm us in his diversified commentary. Conducting the humble pursuits of an Aulus Gellius and an Athenaeus with a high spirit, he showed us the philosophy of Books, and communicated to such limited researches a value which they had otherwise not possessed.

This was introducing a study perfectly distinct from what is pre-eminently distinguished as “classical learning,” and the subjects which had usually entered into philological pursuits. Ancient literature, from century to century, had constituted the sole labours of the learned; and “variae lectiones” were long their pride and their reward. Latin was the literary language of Europe. The vernacular idiom in Italy was held in such contempt that their youths were not suffered to read Italian books, their native productions. Varchi tells a curious anecdote of his father sending him to prison, where he was kept on bread and water, as a penance for his inveterate passion for reading Italian books! Dante was reproached by the Italians for composing in his mother-tongue, still expressed by the degrading designation of il volgare, which the “resolute” John Florio renders “to make common;” and to translate was contemptuously called volgarizzare. Petrarch rested his fame on his Latin poetry, and called his Italian nugellas vulgares! With us Roger Ascham was the first who boldly avowed “To speak as the common people, to think as wise men;” yet, so late as the time of Bacon, this great man did not consider his “Moral Essays” as likely to last in the moveable sands of a modern language, for he has anxiously had them sculptured in the marble of ancient Rome. Yet what had the great ancients themselves done, but trusted to their own volgare? The Greeks, the finest and most original writers of the ancients, observes Adam Ferguson, “were unacquainted with every language but their own; and if they became learned, it was only by studying what they themselves had produced.”

During fourteen centuries, whatever lay out of the pale of classical learning was condemned as barbarism; in the meanwhile, however, amidst this barbarism, another literature was insensibly creating itself in Europe. Every people, in the gradual accessions of their vernacular genius, discovered a new sort of knowledge, one which more deeply interested their feelings and the times, reflecting the image, not of the Greeks and the Latins, but of themselves! A spirit of inquiry, originating in events which had never reached the ancient world, and the same refined taste in the arts of composition caught from the models of antiquity, at length raised up rivals, who competed with the great ancients themselves; and modern literature now occupies a space which appears as immensity, compared with the narrow and the imperfect limits of the ancient. A complete collection of classical works, all the bees of antiquity, may be hived in a glass-case; but those we should find only the milk and honey of our youth; to obtain the substantial nourishment of European knowledge, a library of ten thousand volumes will not avail nor satisfy our inquiries, nor supply our researches even on a single topic!

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Let not, however, the votaries of ancient literature dread its neglect, nor be over-jealous of their younger and Gothic sister. The existence of their favourite study is secured, as well by its own imperishable claims, as by the stationary institutions of Europe. But one of those silent revolutions in the intellectual history of mankind, which are not so obvious as those in their political state, seems now fully accomplished. The very term “classical,” so long limited to the ancient authors, is now equally applicable to the most elegant writers of every literary people; and although Latin and Greek were long characterised as “the learned languages,” yet we cannot in truth any longer concede that those are the most learned who are “inter Graecos Graecissimi, inter Latinos Latinissimi,” any more than we can reject from the class of “the learned,” those great writers, whose scholarship in the ancient classics may he very indifferent. The modern languages now have also become learned ones, when he who writes in them is imbued with their respective learning. He is a “learned” writer who has embraced most knowledge on the particular subject of his investigation, as he is a “classical” one who composes with the greatest elegance. Sir David Dalrymple dedicates his “Memorials relating to the History of Britain” to the Earl of Hardwicke, whom he styles, with equal happiness and propriety, “Learned in British History.” “Scholarship” has hitherto been a term reserved for the adept in ancient literature, whatever may be the mediocrity of his intellect; but the honourable distinction must be extended to all great writers in modern literature, if we would not confound the natural sense and propriety of things.

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Modern literature may, perhaps, still be discriminated from the ancient, by a term it began to be called by at the Reformation, that of “the New Learning.” Without supplanting the ancient, the modern must grow up with it; the farther we advance in society, it will more deeply occupy our interests; and it has already proved what Bacon, casting his philosophical views retrospectively and prospectively, has observed, “that Time is the greatest of innovators.”

When Bayle projected his “Critical Dictionary,” he probably had no idea that he was about effecting a revolution in our libraries, and founding a new province in the dominion of human knowledge; creative genius often is itself the creature of its own age: it is but that reaction of public opinion, which is generally the forerunner of some critical change, or which calls forth some want which sooner or later will be supplied. The predisposition for the various but neglected literature, and the curious but the scattered knowledge of the moderns, which had long been increasing, with the speculative turn of inquiry, prevailed in Europe when Bayle took his pen to give the thing itself a name and an existence. But the great authors of modern Europe were not consecrated beings, like the ancients, and their volumes were not read from the chairs of universities; yet the new interests which had arisen in society, the new modes of human life, the new spread of knowledge, the curiosity after even the little things which concern us, the revelations of secret history, and the state-papers which have sometimes escaped from national archives, the philosophical spirit which was hastening its steps and raising up new systems of thinking; all alike required research and criticism, inquiry and discussion. Bayle had first studied his own age before he gave the public his great work.

“If Bayle,” says Gibbon, “wrote his Dictionary to empty the various collections he had made, without any particular design, he could not have chosen a better plan. It permitted him everything, and obliged him to nothing. By the double freedom of a dictionary and of notes, he could pitch on what articles he pleased, and say what he pleased in those articles.”

Jacta est alea!” exclaimed Bayle, on the publication of his Dictionary, as yet dubious of the extraordinary enterprise; perhaps, while going on with the work, he knew not at times whither he was directing his course; but we must think that in his own mind he counted on something which might have been difficult even for Bayle himself to have developed. The author of the “Critical Dictionary” had produced a voluminous labour, which, to all appearance, could only rank him among compilers and reviewers, for his work is formed of such materials as they might use. He had never studied any science; he confessed that he could never demonstrate the first problem in Euclid, and to his last day ridiculed that sort of evidence called mathematical demonstration. He had but little taste for classical learning, for he quotes the Latin writers curiously, not elegantly; and there is reason to suspect that he had entirely neglected the Greek. Even the erudition of antiquity usually reached him by the ready medium of some German commentator. His multifarious reading was chiefly confined to the writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. With such deficiencies in his literary character, Bayle could not reasonably expect to obtain pre-eminence in any single pursuit. Hitherto his writings had not extricated him from the secondary ranks of literature, where he found a rival at every step; and without his great work, the name of Bayle at this moment had been buried among his controversialists, the rabid Jurieu, the cloudy Jacquelot, and the envious Le Clerc; to these, indeed, he sacrificed too many of his valuable days, and was still answering them at the hour of his death. Such was the cloudy horizon of that bright fame which was to rise over Europe! Bayle, intent on escaping from all beaten tracks, while the very materials he used promised no novelty, for all his knowledge was drawn from old books, opened an eccentric route, where at least he could encounter no parallel; Bayle felt that if he could not stand alone, he would only have been an equal by the side of another. Experience had more than once taught this mortifying lesson; but he was blest with the genius which could stamp an inimitable originality on a folio.

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This originality seems to have been obtained in this manner. The exhausted topics of classical literature he resigned as a province not adapted to an ambitious genius; sciences he rarely touched on, and hardly ever without betraying superficial knowledge, and involving himself in absurdity: but in the history of men, in penetrating the motives of their conduct, in clearing up obscure circumstances, in detecting the strong and the weak parts of him whom he was trying, and in the cross-examination of the numerous witnesses he summoned, he assumed at once the judge and the advocate! Books are for him pictures of men’s inventions, and the histories of their thoughts; any book, whatever be its quality, must be considered as an experiment of the human mind.

In controversies, in which he was so ambidextrous–in the progress of the human mind, in which he was so philosophical–furnished, too, by his hoarding curiosity with an immense accumulation, of details,–skilful in the art of detecting falsehoods amidst truths, and weighing probability against uncertainty–holding together the chain of argument from its first principles to its remotest consequence–Bayle stands among those masters of the human intellect who taught us to think, and also to unthink! All, indeed, is a collection of researches and of reasonings: he had the art of melting down his curious quotations with his own subtile ideas. He collects everything; if truths, they enter into his history; if fictions, into discussions; he places the secret by the side of the public story; opinion is balanced against opinion: if his arguments grow tedious, a lucky anecdote or an enlivening tale relieves the folio page; and knowing the infirmity of our nature, he picks up trivial things to amuse us, while he is grasping the most abstract and ponderous. Human nature in her shifting scenery, and the human mind in its eccentric directions, open on his view; so that an unknown person, or a worthless book, are equally objects for his speculation with the most eminent–they alike curiously instruct. Such were the materials, and such the genius of the man, whose folios, which seem destined for the retired few, lie open on our parlour tables. The men of genius of his age studied them for instruction, the men of the world for their amusement. Amidst the mass of facts which he has collected, and the enlarged views of human nature which his philosophical spirit has combined with his researches, Bayle may be called the Shakspeare of dictionary makers; a sort of chimerical being, whose existence was not imagined to be possible before the time of Bayle.

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But his errors are voluminous as his genius! and what do apologies avail? Apologies only account for the evil which they cannot alter!

Bayle is reproached for carrying his speculations too far into the wilds of scepticism–he wrote in distempered times; he was witnessing the dragonades and the revocations of the Romish church; and he lived amidst the Reformed, or the French prophets, as we called them when they came over to us, and in whom Sir Isaac Newton more than half believed. These testify that they had heard angels singing in the air, while our philosopher was convinced that he was living among men for whom no angel would sing! Bayle had left persecutors to fly to fanatics, both equally appealing to the Gospel, but alike untouched by its blessedness! His impurities were a taste inherited from his favourite old writers, whose naivete seemed to sport with the grossness which it touched, and neither in France nor at home had the age then attained to our moral delicacy: Bayle himself was a man without passions! His trivial matters were an author’s compliance with his bookseller’s taste, which is always that of the public. His scepticism is said to have thrown everything into disorder. Is it a more positive evil to doubt than to dogmatise? Even Aristotle often pauses with a qualified perhaps, and the egotist Cicero with a modest it seems to me. Bayle’s scepticism has been useful in history, and has often shown how facts universally believed are doubtful, and sometimes must be false. Bayle, it is said, is perpetually contradicting himself; but a sceptic must doubt his doubts; he places the antidote close to the poison, and lays the sheath by the sword. Bayle has himself described one of those self-tormenting and many-headed sceptics by a very noble figure, “He was a hydra who was perpetually tearing himself.”

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The time has now come when Bayle may instruct without danger. We have passed the ordeals he had to go through; we must now consider him as the historian of our thoughts as well as of our actions; he dispenses the literary stores of the moderns, in that vast repository of their wisdom and their follies, which, by its originality of design, has made him an author common to all Europe. Nowhere shall we find a rival for Bayle! and hardly even an imitator! He compared himself, for his power of raising up, or dispelling objections and doubts, to “the cloud-compelling Jove.” The great Leibnitz, who was himself a lover of his varia eruditio, applied a line of Virgil to Bayle, characterising his luminous and elevated genius:–

Sub pedibusque videt nubes et sidera Daphnis.
Beneath his feet he views the clouds and stars!

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