The tolerant philosopher: why Pierre Bayle is the forgotten figure of the Enlightenment

Anthony Gottlieb in New Statesman:

BaylePierre Bayle, a French thinker who died in Rotterdam in 1706, is the ­forgotten hero of the Enlightenment. His name sometimes rings a bell for historians of philosophy, but apart from them I cannot remember when I last met anyone who had heard of him. In the 18th century, however, Bayle’s admirers included Frederick the Great, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and Voltaire. They revered him for his defence of religious liberty and his genius for undermining conventional ideas. Voltaire said that the “immortal” Bayle was the greatest reasoner who ever set pen to paper.

Immortality, it seems, does not always last. One reason for Bayle’s eclipse is that his ideas no longer seem novel or shocking; moreover, his writings digress uncontrollably. This is not a winning combination. His Historical and Critical Dictionary – once among the commonest books in northern European homes – is a jumble of more than six million words, most of which come in rambling footnotes. Published between 1697 and 1702, it was a unique source of ­information and argument at that time. Now we have Wikipedia. Bayle’s pioneering tract on religious freedom is titled A Philosophical Commentary on These Words of the Gospel, Luke 14:23, “Compel Them to Come In, That My House May Be Full”. If you think the title is unwieldy, you should see the book.

More here.