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Reviewed by:
  • Reading Bayle
  • John Christian Laursen
Thomas M. Lennon . Reading Bayle. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999. Pp. xi + 202. Cloth, $60.00. Paper, $19.95.

One of the more philosophically interesting things about Pierre Bayle is the difficulty of interpreting his work. A myriad of interpretations have been advanced, but "the whole is [still] a riddle, an enigma, an inexplicable mystery"—to apply David Hume's famous judgment about religion to Bayle's work. This book proposes a Bakhtinian reading of Bayle's philosophical activity, which means that Bayle is understood as letting his interlocutors speak for themselves in an ongoing dialogue over which he does not have full control and in which no one "wins." Bakhtin thought that Dostoevsky was the first major author to do this, but Lennon shows that he was anticipated by Bayle.

The discussion is broken up into sections on Bayle's views of integrity, authority, toleration, idolatry, and providence. Integrity turns out to be largely a matter of honesty and fairness in dialogue, and at times it sounds like Bayle is prefiguring Habermas and discourse ethics or recent Anglo-American theories of deliberative democracy.

Bayle's view of authority emerges from his analysis of the fact/law (fait/droit) distinction. [End Page 278] This was part of larger debates among Jansenists, Jesuits, and other philosophers such as Arnauld and Malebranche. Here, Lennon's intimate knowledge of seventeenth-century philosophy is put to good use. He shows that in Bayle's hands the distinction cannot hold up, as questions of fact and law are always mutually dependent and each can undermine the other. The upshot is that in the absence of truths of fact or law, dialogue is all that we have. That is good, because history cannot be used as a tool of oppression or homogenization if dialogue must go on forever.

Some of the claims about Bayle that are advanced here are debatable. That Bayle "treated everyone with dignity" (44) is simply not true of his treatment of millenarians and others that he thought were fanatics. Rather than extending "toleration almost without limit" (74), he was downright intolerant of such folks. Lennon suggests that Bayle may not have fully thought through the question of the conscientious persecutor (85n.). It would have been appropriate to mention Bayle's reflections on this matter in his last work, the Réponse aux questions d'un provincial.

The book contains valuable accounts of aspects of Bayle's debates with Pierre Jurieu, in which it often emerges that there was no great gulf of principle between the two arch-enemies. Disagreements with Ruth Whelan and Elisabeth Labrousse add to the interest of Lennon's discussion.

Idolatry is one of Bayle's chief targets, and he finds it above all in the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. Lennon nicely shows how this amounts to Spinozism, which in turn explains Bayle's hostility to both Spinoza and Rome. Both stifle Bakhtinian dialogue.

One very interesting section of the book is on lotteries, which have important theological and philosophical significance. Often-forgotten authors like Barbeyrac, Ricotier, and Leti are discussed on this issue. Insights here include the observation that "it is hard to imagine Bayle praying" (146). Indeed it is. Mention of work by I. Hont, T. Hochstrasser, and others on Barbeyrac would have made Lennon's case stronger.

One major conclusion is that Bayle's notion of providence and the problem of evil comes down to dialogue as well: evil emerges because God prefers to engage in open-ended dialogue with his creatures, which allows evil even if that is not God's intention (167). On this reading, we have a Kantian Bayle: autonomy is Bayle's most cherished value (182).

Lennon's final evaluation of Bayle's fideism is that it is philosophically unsatisfactory. Blind and nonrational reliance on Scripture is, to say the least, undermined by Bayle's inability to establish that God is its author or to found his own beliefs in any way other than education. But if anybody still thinks that Pierre Bayle was merely a compiler and not a philosopher in his own right, this book and a lot of the other recent...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-4586
Print ISSN
0022-5053
Pages
pp. 278-279
Launched on MUSE
2005-02-24
Open Access
No
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