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Journal of the History of Ideas 63.2 (2002) 225-237
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Did Bayle Read Saint-Evremond?
Thomas M. Lennon
Of course Bayle read Saint-Evremond—he quotes him. Moreover, he published one of Saint-Evremond's texts. But there is reading, and then there is reading. There is selective, inattentive perusal of excerpts or even secondary sources, with no attempt to penetrate beyond a superficial understanding; and then there is comprehensive, close scrutiny of the best primary sources, with sensitivity to nuance, and attention to context. In short, there is a difference between skimming and studying. Did Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) skim or study the work of Saint-Evremond (ca.1614-1703)?
This article argues that Bayle's first-hand knowledge of Saint-Evremond's work was superficial and dependent on a secondary source that gives that work a less than obvious, and hitherto unappreciated meaning for Bayle. This shift matters because it bears on the question of the status of Bayle's religious faith. With her classic Pierre Bayle (1963-64), Elizabeth Labrousse set aside the traditional view of Bayle as a religious skeptic whose professions of faith cannot be taken at face value. Such had been the view held by many in Bayle's own time, most notably by Pierre Jurieu, and near-universally from the Enlightenment into the twentieth century. Very recently, in a work that is no less impressive than hers on this and other topics in Bayle, Gianluca Mori has defended the traditional view, basing a part of his argument on Bayle's use of Saint-Evremond. 1 Thus the question above. Moreover, the matter of Bayle's religious belief is not a merely biographical one. First, there is the fact of his [End Page 225] influence, especially given his huge readership, although Bayle's influence may well be other than anything he intended. Secondly, in any case, the interpretation of Bayle's work as a whole depends on it, for virtually everything he wrote besides the Dictionnaire has a religious dimension.
To appreciate the importance of the question, something must first be said about Charles de Marguetel de St. Denis, sieur de Saint-Evremond. He was known in his time, and still is, as a libertine. It is difficult, however, to define libertinage beyond a combination of hedonistic mores and dubious religious beliefs—Epicureanism in some loose and popular sense. 2 What is more important, in any case, is how Bayle might have thought the term applied to Saint-Evremond; and here it is clear that outright atheism may have been at issue. Bayle reports that it was publicly known that Saint-Evremond "ended his long life, just as he had lived it, en esprit fort." He seems certainly to have died without benefit of religion. When asked on his deathbed whether he wished to be reconciled, says Bayle, he answered yes, "with all my heart. I would like to be reconciled with my appetite. For my stomach is no longer functioning in its usual way." Bayle was often at pains to insist upon the ultimate inaccessibility of others' real beliefs (and of the inappropriateness of attempting to reach them). In this case, however, he was prepared to hold up Saint-Evremond as a counter-example to the widely-held belief that there were no speculative atheists, i.e., people who would sincerely deny the existence of God, but only practical atheists, i.e., people who live as if they did not believe in the existence of God, but who, try as they may, are at least occasionally aware of it. 3
This view of Saint-Evremond is important because, when accused of irreligion himself, Bayle cited the libertine's work as indicative of his own beliefs. To understand how Bayle came to be accused, and the significance of this response to it, some of the historical background is first necessary. Bayle's Dictionnaire historique et critique sold better than any text in the eighteenth century, philosophical or otherwise; and it was a best-seller right from the publication of its first edition, in...