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Protestantisme et modernité > Bayle


The paradox of conscience in Pierre Bayle

(idem en français)

Freedom of conscience is an oscillating concept for Pierre Bayle. On the one hand, we have the minimal notion that ‘the rights proper to conscience are directly attributable to God Himself’, that the dictates of conscience no more belong to us than the choice of what colour our eyes might be. Conscience, here, is shielded from all possible intervention by a veil of ignorance and powerlessness, stemming as it does from a heterodox reading of Predestination. On the other hand, we have the idea that everything is open to discussion, within the vision of those marine utopias of the time which imagine an ‘indocile’ society, free and tolerant, governed neither by laws nor Statehood. The Republic of Letters ‘is an extremely free state. Only the empire of truth and reason is to be recognised and under their auspices, we make war innocently on no matter who’. How is it possible to think these two aspects through together?


Before we formulate the paradox which shall engage our attention, we should like begin with three opening remarks. In what is advanced in the following paragraphs, (taking up with some of our previous studies focussing on this great text), we shall concentrate again on the Commentaire philosophique*, in which, it needs to be said, the place of conscience is especially central and decisive; but to be fair, we need to take other works into account, where the perspective is different, according to the profound pluralism, both methodological and axiological, which characterises the thought of Bayle. And right from the outset, we’d like to point out that in this work, as indeed in the others, we should keep alive the pragmatic nature of argumentation, framed by those pragmatic indicators which Bayle most certainly inherited from Calvin. If one wishes to put forward a biblical ‘commentary’, a scriptural hermeneutics, (and that is, in fact, the case here), one needs to postulate the text in its simplicity, and, since the literal sense is absurd, one shouldn’t go looking for a complicated allegory somewhere behind the text, but look, rather, at what the text shows up by virtue of that same absurdity, what it is trying to instrument — or, better, what would be entailed by each interpretation, were it to become a dogma. If, by that, we come upon pragmatic contradictions, upon atrocities or absurdities, then we are on the wrong road.

We have, then, to take as our point of departure, the very powerful notion that the natural light of reason should serve as a rule in the interpretation of Scripture, (under the heading - ‘has God allowed this to be?’). Two options are open to us: the first consists in rationalising, in editing out of the Scriptures everything that goes beyond the bounds of moral reasoning, an option which is at the very heart of what would become liberal theology, as well as a deism which, itself, paved the way to an atheism of rationalisation — just as that same is found in Spinoza. Bayle happens to take this path, which is, besides, the royal road of the Protestantism of his day, which Pietism and then the various ‘Revival’ movements would later contest. Then again, it is also true that he proceeds along quite a different path, at once more archaic and contemporary, when he gives serious thought to the deep contradictions in the Scriptures (‘Yes, God clearly did allow and, at times, even order, atrocious acts’) — and that is something which prepares the ground for an atheism of rebellion. The method adopted here is that of the deconstruction of secondary pseudo-rationalisations, furnished by theology to mask these contradictions: it is what Bultmann termed demythologisation.

Second opening remark: to see the problem of freedom of conscience, as posed by Bayle, in all its intricacies, one might, for an instant, take the defence of the persecutors of Bayle’s day, those public authorities who had in mind, quite rightly, the interests of society as a whole and for whom the claim for freedom of conscience must have seemed a supreme form of arrogance, even madness, apart from being an overt threat of anarchy, sedition and the subversion of public order. It wasn’t just for the Roman Catholic Church but also in the eyes of Calvin in the first place, and then equally for Hobbes and Spinoza, that the claim to be your own ‘prophet’ was tantamount to singling yourself out as a ‘false prophet’. All things being equal, the ‘terrorists’ of today have something of God’s ‘fools’ about them, threatening both subjective sanity, (what else is a conscience for except to be submitted to the will of God?) and public order, be it ecclesiastical or civil. If one fails to understand this, one can no more understand the immense discursive work achieved by Bayle, who came to adopt, albeit on different Calvinist premises, certain of the more individualist and persecuted positions maintained by the radical part of the Reformation, such as the Anabaptists or the Quakers.

Today, when individualist liberalism has gained ascendancy over the societal perspective, (this latter, the ‘persecutor’ or holist of yesteryear), we take no more account of the obstacles, either political or, (more especially), psychological which he had to overcome. Bayle, whilst being profoundly concerned with public order, is one of those who found a way through, and by a wholly plausible passage at that, marked though   by prudence and delicacy of approach. This will be one of the two aspects to the problem of freedom of conscience by which we shall endeavour to retrace his path, the aspect of secularisation, of the relationship between Church and State, and of that freedom of expression and assembly which is compatible with public order.

Third and final opening remark: we need to make clear what Bayle meant exactly when he wrote in the Commentaire philosophique that ‘conscience is the touchstone of truth’ (437-b). With Elisabeth Labrousse, we should speak of his ethical rigour in the face of falsehood. God is, above all, for him, truthful and the conveyor of truth (as is clear from his lesson of Sedan). Once more, we are in the wake, here, of Calvinist thought, and it is a question of displacing, deviating and radicalising a central theme of Calvin: conscience is  defined as that which one already and again discovers, every time, ‘before God’, and it is that truthfulness which imposes on us*. In a famous text addressed to the ‘Nicodemians’, that is, to those who have been won over to the ideas of the Evangels but who continue to practise Roman rites, Calvin never ceased to urge them: say what you think, live as you think  , have the courage of your own thoughts. Bayle, besides, praises the sincerity of Calvin. Here, we find ourselves faced with the other aspect of the problem we are going on to explore, that of the formation of the modern subject.

He himself practised this same freedom of expression all his life, something which distanced him considerably from the psychology emblematic of the Marranos with which Leo Strauss mistakenly ties him : where he is accused of atheism, of Manichaeism, of obscenity, he provides ‘clarifications’, in which he persists and puts his name to it, as if he   loathed, above all, to be accused of ideas which were not his own. He is refractory with orthodoxies and conformities, deeply independent. Even when he plays at taking on a false identity, he does so behind a ‘mask’ which is even more dangerous, such as the name J. Fox, very close to that of the founder of the Quakers, (radical, non-violent puritans who do not believe in the inspiration of the Bible nor in the resurrection), which he borrows for the Commentaire philosophique. It is almost as if he was trying to formulate his ideas as close as possible to the place he is speaking from — a little like the pseudonyms of Kierkegaard. If Bayle tacks, then, in different directions, it is to go further in his quest for sincerity, to the point where, in fact, sincerity becomes perplexed: even there, where I believe I know, I know that I believe. Prudence is not a tactic; it is a profound step along the way of self-questioning. In the two aspects which we have evoked, that of a ‘psychic’ notion of freedom of conscience and that of a ‘political’ notion, we shall point to their character at once archaic, in view of the ideas current in Bayle’s time, and ultra-modern, even utopian.

I. Freedom of conscience: how do we define freedom of thought?

In his work Détresse du politique, force du religieux, (‘Political distress, religious force’) the Jesuit philosopher Paul Valadier examines three solutions to the theologico-political problem: that of Hobbes, of Spinoza and of Bayle. And he adds that it is, generally speaking, the way of Bayle that has been followed and which has triumphed, the one he calls the individualist way of rights of subjective conscience. Valadier describes the deployment of absolute rights of conscience and resumes: the dogmatic and moral message of the Church ‘must be subjected to the jurisdiction and the evidence of conscience, which become central and, in the terms we would put it today, unavoidable’ (,14). And he goes so far as to opine that, for Bayle, if my conscience justifies me in killing, raping or looting  , I should follow its ‘dictates’. Whereas Bayle, in fact, overtly writes the contrary, and does not fail to dismantle justifications made for ‘dragonnades’ and forced conversions, be it with an aim to the just, the good or the true: ‘by constraining fathers, we win the children’, said the convertors, but what would happen if everyone did the same (383‑a)? If the literal sense of compelle intrare is just, then all Christians can lay claim to it, the duty becomes universal (392‑a), and unhappiness, too, would be universal; consequently, as Bayle repeats throughout his work, ‘on should only allow the same actions as are allowed the whole world over’ (444‑b). Never, in the thought of Bayle, may ‘conscience’ be a way to justify the least crime.

This incapacity in Paul Valadier’s reading to take into account the entirety of Bayle’s text is, at the same time, very instructive with regard to our own anachronisms. It stems, of course, first and foremost, from what he understands by the term ‘conscience’: this does not have the depth and complexity in Bayle which it takes on in the Jesuit tradition. We shall see that it designates quite simply that which in us is placed ‘before God’, without the power to escape from this condition, and it does not, then, enter into the labyrinth of whatever justification there may be. More generally, Valadier proposes, (undoubtedly in common with many of our contemporaries), a reading of Bayle which is all too marked by its reception into French Enlightenment: whereas our philosopher is ‘darker’ than that, more baroque, more archaic. To re-read Bayle today is to go through a sort of anamnesis, of critical remembering of the Enlightenment tradition, up to the point where it finds its source in a feeling of darkness. For he does not believe, in contrast to his successors of the 18th century, that humanity is one great family, temporarily divided by a set of absurd prejudices and by ignorance, and that education is enough to put it to  settle  . The reciprocal obligation of tolerance which he proposes has nothing of the ironical and Voltarian condescendence of one who is above absurd conflicts: it is precisely because we are all in the darkness of this interminable dispute that we need to find a modus vivendi for the dispute itself.

Freedom of conscience is, rather, to his mind, a theme of humility. The erring conscience is not, then, the autonomous individual, but the search for sustainable rules in the all-too-likely case that everyone is mistaken, in one way or another. Bayle is not a liberal, at least not in the present and customary sense of the term. He affirms, for example, that ‘Man prefers to do harm to himself as long as it does harm to his enemy, rather than do any good to himself which might turn to his enemy’s advantage’*: we are a long way, here, from the more optimistic adage of Adam Smith which, a little later, affirmed that by searching egotistically for your own good, one serves the common good. In Bayle’s observation, describing so profoundly our ‘spitefulness’, by virtue of which we prefer to destroy what we love rather than afford it to another, there is the seed of a reflection on the possibility of sacrificing oneself, and thus a reflection on human irrationality.

The problem of conscience arises less from the affirmation, somewhat immediate in kind, of a freedom of conscience, than from the fact that one needs to arrive at the formulation of a subject capable of sustaining a double allegiance, to the King and to God, without there being any confusion there. It is precisely this double allegiance which obliges the subject, at one and the same time, to maintain its own relative autonomy, vis-à-vis one and the other. This is the real problem that Bayle encounters.

And it is here that one is aware of how freedom of conscience in Pierre Bayle is a variable. On the one hand, we have the minimal idea, in some shape and form, which states that ‘the rights proper to conscience are directly attributable to God Himself’, (Commentaire philosophique on “Forcing them to enter”, 379-b), that the dictates of conscience no more belong to us than the colour of our eyes or our liking for the taste of fish. Conscience, here, is protected from all intervention by the magistrate (but also by the priest), by virtue of a veil of ignorance and powerlessness, itself stemming from a heterodox reading of Predestination, and its form of freedom is a kind of docility towards those who govern us and which is not at all proper to us. On the other hand, we have the idea that everything is open to discussion, just as it were in one of those marine utopias of the time which imagine an ‘indocile’ society, free and tolerant, without laws or statehood. And the Republic of Letters ‘is an extremely free state. Only the empire of truth and reason is to be recognised and under their auspices, we make war innocently on no matter who. Friends must be on their guard against friends, fathers against their children’. (Dictionnaire historique et critique, Article ‘Catius’ Remark D).

I.1. Humility and the docility of conscience

How is it possible to think these two aspects through together? How can we think of conscience as being at one and the same time uncertain, moving, restless, and yet docile? We need, first of all, to see why Bayle made it his incessant task to establish the rights of an erring conscience. He himself, it must be remembered, was converted at the age of 21 by the Jesuits of Toulouse, and it was with the same sincerity that he came back to Protestantism 18 months later. Obliged to flee, taking refuge in Geneva then Rotterdam, there was a lingering doubt for him or, rather, the idea that he might possess a certain sincerity in the midst of error and that it is on this very sincerity that one ought to found the right to debate. Pierre Bayle laid the foundations, then, for the ideal type of the Refugee, the exile, at once doubting and confident: the erring conscience is also that conscience which lapses into error. In the Commentaire philosophique (published in 1686, after the death of his brother Jacob in the prisons of Louis XIV), he develops this reflection as one that needs to be continually tested, namely, that all truth is putative qua ‘truth’, a truth in the framework of belief: ‘a man can well believe that he is unmistaken: he cannot know that this is so by exact science’. And again – ‘all that an enlightened conscience allows us to do for the advancement of the truth, an erroneous conscience also affords us by virtue of what we believe to be the truth’, (522-a and 422-b). One sees this, again, in the extraordinary grammar of points of view, of which his Dictionary is the veritable installation – in the museographic sense of the term, for the labyrinthine form of the Dictionary makes of it a vehicular installation, a virtual museum, a Noah’s ark of memories, of past truths and falsehoods. I say ‘grammar of points of view’, because each ‘sect’, (as he puts it), is orthodox in its own eyes and points the finger of heterodoxy at its neighbour, with Bayle espousing, one after the other, and in equal measure, all the points of view*.

We said earlier that conscience in Bayle is not a theme of proud emancipation, of the vindication of rights reviewed by conscience itself. Bayle most likely prefers those who do not vindicate anything they have a right to, for these are the ones who are truly deserving of love; their docility is, in them, sovereign*. His most vehement protestation is against those who deny them this right, and who thus mean to deprive their docility, their renouncing of discussion, of its just value. It is, besides, from the fact that we cannot consider all matters prior to making a choice in full conscience (441-b), and that education and infancy weigh so heavily that, at fifteen years old, we have already been shaped by a thousand habits, those ‘folds of the flesh’ which also become our ways of thinking, of speaking, of believing or of doubting*. Hubert Bost quotes this magnificent passage where Bayle remarks that ‘if the Christians and the Turks living in the same town were to exchange their suckling babes, those belonging to the Christians would all become Muslims and those of the Muslims would be Christian’*. It is not due to biographical egocentrism that Bayle speaks of his childhood in Carla, but in order to evoke those doctrines he drank in with his mother’s milk, as it were, and are of such force that were we to force the conversion of the fathers, we would have the children, too, by the mere sway of education. Intelligence is, then, a question of modesty, of recognising its attachments, and that there is a no entirely replaceable finitude: we are never wholly emancipated, and a completely free examination is impossible, because ‘we do not believe as we would’.

This shrewd observation is allied to a theological decision called ‘Predestination’. For Calvin, there is that in us which does not depend on us — and so, no clergy or magistrates, priests or kings. Something which is not of our own working, which we cannot claim credit for, of which we are ignorant, and with regard to which we can do nothing. Predestination leaves a ‘reserve’ in each of us which nobody is able to seize upon. In his Commentaire philosophique, the consequence of a heterodox but effective reading of Predestination, in terms of political and ecclesiastical liberation, this same plays the role of a veil of ignorance, which imposes a general condition of tolerance. Bayle, effectively, takes up the idea: the obligation to believe is absurd, for to order the hand to sign is not to order the conscience to affirm: the  subjects ‘will sooner sweat in the midst of snows, they would sooner draw wine and oil from their flesh and bone, than such and such an affirmation from their souls’ (385-b). For it does not depend on us that such and such an affirmation should appear to us as true. The obligation to acquiesce in a belief is more absurd still than punishing subjects because they do not have blue eyes or who do not like a particular sauce (375-a, cf. Gros, 113, 144); it is even more ridiculous still, he writes, than if Pope Adrian VI had wanted to oblige his States to have a taste for whiting (384-a, cf. Gros, 153). If conscience is that point in me that is before God, depending on no priest or king, and which does not even depend on itself, but on God alone, and which is proper to Him, to rebel against conscience, as implicit in the obligation to adopt a belief imposed by some politico-religious power, is tantamount to rebelling against God*. Conscience is ‘what is good in our nature and all that is left after the sin of Adam, that is, a, invincible and unshakeable determination towards truth’ (507-b). ‘The rights of conscience are directly those of God Himself’ (379-b*).

I.2. Conscience      resistant to conformism

But, on the other hand, if God is the sole guarantor of the veracity of conscience, He ‘has not printed a brand or sign on the truths He reveals to us whereby we can surely discern them’ (437-a). From which fact, the subjectivisation which engenders the play of conscience in its uncertain certitude, in its intimate and modest acquiescence. ‘Since the rights of truth may not be exercised except on individuals, so truth can only act when it becomes particular and, in a word, individual. What truth is it, then, which compels Man? It is the truth which applies equally to Tom, Dick or Harry...’*.  There is to this a dizzy feeling of alienation, since what is it that ensures me that my conscience is, in fact, my own?

In this manner, it seems to me that Bayle submits the theme of ‘conscience’ to a spiritual and ethical asceticism. In Remark B of the article Pyrrhon, one of the two abbots whom he places in discussion goes so far as to question the identity of the interlocutors in the very name of the conservation of creatures by continual creation: ‘who says that this very morning God hasn’t cast into nothingness the soul that he continued to create till now, from the first moment of your existence? Who says that He hasn’t created another soul like your own? This new soul is the one you have at the moment’. In writing this, he shows himself to be Pyrrhonian in his use of the eristic, but what animates him is this doubt of compassion, by virtue of which we find less difference between oneself and another, between oneself now and oneself at another moment of one’s life. The theme of erring conscience is that of consciousness of oneself as another, for another. It is a variant on the maxim of ‘cogitas ergo es’ — something which Elisabeth Labrousse remarked as being in the marginalia of a class given by Bayle in Sedan.

Absolute emancipation does not exist, and yet, one should trust to one’s own voice, to this intimate feeling of sincere conviction which Bayle calls conscience, and which is affected by a confidence so vertiginous that one doubts of it, with a profound certitude at the very heart of incertitude. It is this same confidence that we need to look for in others, without fear of criticising each other, leaving aside all vanity, all recourse to flattery. And so it is that we should be in a position to discuss, dispute, attack and defend, seek to understand, to render our convictions explicit in an intelligible manner, in all freedom of conscience, by virtue of an adult free-membership, by a free election, a free-alliance. It is even an exigency to seek incessantly to free yourself from the prejudices of one’s community, one’s religion or one’s nation.

The Republic of Letters ‘is an extremely free state. Only the empire of truth and reason is to be recognised and under their auspices, we make war innocently on no matter who. Friends must be on their guard against friends, fathers against their children, fathers-in-law against their sons-in-law (…) the laws of society have not adversely affected the independence of the state of nature regarding error and ignorance: all individuals have the rights of justice and can exercise them without  asking permission of those who govern’. (Article « Catius » Remark D*). This social utopia of free tolerance, without laws or State, is decidedly marine, but this same freedom of pirates is not without a certain ethical rigour: it presupposes recognition of religious and historical subjectivism, and of the practice of a sort of geometrisation of points of view, equidistant from a truth sought after in equal measure by all. On has to attempt to espouse another’ point of view as if it were one’s own, and to treat one’s own point of view as if it belonged to no one in particular.

Between these two limits of a conscience absolutely docile to truth and an indocile conscience, refractory with regard to conformism, one can well divine the lively oscillating of freedom of conscience between the two modes of thought. Undoubtedly, there are limits to docility, just as there are limits to indocility. There are things which we cannot be obliged to do, constraints - simply because it doesn’t depend on us, or, inversely, because we are always in a position to protest, to rebel. Assuredly, and all the same, there is a correlation: one should be able to disobey, in order to be able to obey  ; and to disobey is, at times, to obey quite another law. But it seems to me that what is unique to Bayle’s way of advancing here is to show that one can always go further, more radically, go yet further in terms of indocility, and further still in terms of docility.

II. Freedom of expression and assembly: the Churches and the State

We have tried to follow the path of thought laid by Bayle regarding the problem of freedom of conscience along the oscillating course which accompanies the formation of the modern subject, in both its indocility and docility. It remains for us to explore the other aspect, that of political secularisation and the relations between Church and State.

Why should freedom of conscience be a political problem? Why does it presuppose a reflection on what political regime might be compatible with it? One can imagine, (and it is something that has existed for a long time), a sort of freedom which is purely interior, so private that there would be absolutely nothing to say to the one who has so successfully hidden his intent that one is never at any point able to perceive free opinions  assumed by the subject. And Bayle might well have settled for this, just as did those Protestants who stayed in France after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes*. At times, he raises the possibility, when confronted with those who are, in a manner of speaking, intoxicated with the freedom of expression they enjoy in their ‘Refuge’ and who underestimate the demanding culture of inner freedom needed in order to resist, in a context in which expression is denied.

But such a freedom, withdrawn from the world is, to his mind, at one a trap and a form of abdication. There is not, as Kant* noted, freedom of thought without the freedom to share one’s thoughts, to communicate them to those who desire to share them with you — who desire, if not to approve your opinions, to approve at least the idea of thinking them. The line of defence that Bayle adopts, in chapter 6 of the first part of his Commentaire philosophique on the la refutation of the literal sense of ‘forcing them to enter’, consists in signalling the contradiction in those who advocate immunities of conscience and yet who esteem that one can still forbid the public profession of certain opinions (383-b). This problem of the freedom of opinion meets with a practical or pragmatic question: what right is it that does not materialise in any shape or form or depend on any power? The power to take up your pen and to communicate your thoughts is essential to the rights of conscience, and without this effective possibility, we cannot talk about a ‘Republic of letters’, to borrow the term which Bayle gave to the review he launched in 1684. It is so that a civil society is shaped, presupposing a very minimum of freedom of worship, freedom of assembly, freedom of opinion.

Now, this question is pregnant with a terrible crisis, one that may topple the frail and all-too narrow historical compromise of the ‘cujus regio ejus religio’ (‘whose realm, his religion’), on the basis of which the wars of religion were brought to an end*. For within its skirts is the divorce between Church and State, who will have to give up their mutual monopoly in order to effect their mutual separation, their pluralist conversion. But this same divorce alone is what makes it possible for us to avoid an ever more terrible crisis of legitimacy, because if the constraint is justified in terms of religious conversion, why not then apply it equally to Kings (378-a), and what then prevents a generalised civil war?

II.1. Public order, protector of modest opinions

To put an end to this crisis, that is to say, to accord it its place and limits, Bayle is led to distinguish between opinions and actions, the inner movements of conscience and outward behaviour, in a very categorical manner, in order to afford himself only the self-same actions as allowed to others. Only those actions which may be prejudicial to public safety and peace might be penalised by the political and judicial powers that be, but a lot is needed before opinions as such can endanger public order. The political powers have a mandate over this latter and thus over civility in behaviour, but not over beliefs or opinions, and, here, external rules would be enough. Bayle is all the time insisting on this throughout the Commentaire: the public Powers that be do not have the same rights over opinions as over actions (451‑a): opinion is a private matter; as long as one doesn’t manifest them in pompous and noisy processions, something which is non-essential to the freedom of thought, the Authorities have no say in the matter (414-a). In order for opinions to be aired publically in all tranquility, it is enough to have won permission to assemble and to reason or to contest ‘modestly’: such is the ethic of public discussion as sustained by Bayle*. He would seem, by that, to clearly admit that a confession has the right to be vehement and banish from it all those who do not partake of the points of view which it holds to be beyond discussion. But this religious intolerance regarding opinions must not become a civil intolerance, as long as its acts do not threaten public order, or as long as the pomp surrounding the opinions does not become a form of pressure, a way of impressing consciences (414-a).

One can see the very subtle character of his pragmatics of the rights of opinion, and one understand, too, the central character in Bayle of the distinction between civil tolerance and ecclesiastical tolerance. In order to establish the former, he renounces the latter, which, due to its angelism and desire for reconciliation, would lack the essential distinction of plans: when one wants to go too far in the way of tolerance and the general permutation, the final state is far worse. The Authorities have a mandate to establish public peace and to prevent violence (416-b and 431-b).

Here it is that the monarchical argument enters: because of possible disorder owing to the fact that a religious majority detests a minority, one needs a strong government, capable of resisting public opinion and flattery (419-a), capable of resisting the weight of numbers in a suffrage, or the vehemence of religious authorities. Faced with intolerant orthodoxies, which might threaten each other reciprocally, one needs, then a strong State which guarantees order and the protection of minorities. Numerous texts of Bayle are along this line. In the prolongation of the article on ‘Hobbes’, one also finds the Avis aux Réfugiez, probably the most Hobbesian of all Bayle’s texts, and which is placed entirely at the service of loyalism against prophetic and millenarian anarchy. The political philosophy of the Avis aux Réfugiez is quasi-absolutist, and its anthropology is pessimist: Man is not above all driven by the desire for association, a desire to escape from solitude, as in Milton, but driven by the fear of choosing between the lesser of two evils, and to prefer whatever best ensures order: ‘to my mind, I would not be of the opinion that societies are formed because men have seen so far as to confer with each other about the ideas dictated by reason that a solitary life is neither honourable to the species nor to their Creator, nor yet to the universe as a whole. The present pleasure and the imminent hope of living in safety, or even force, are what produced the first Republic’*. Safety, here, is the first of human goods. In this text, as important as the Avis aux Réfugiez is, one can also see that Bayle takes a strong position against the plurality of suffrages and maintains that power is something more than a pact — as if this latter lacked intrinsic authority. It is, besides, we add, a text which is very close to the classic doctrine of Calvin, and it has to do with the imperative of remaining under the submission of the authorities.

II.2. Mutual tolerance of opinions, the generator of public peace

But there is another configuration of the Church-State bond in Bayle, less monarchical, at once more archaic with reference to the old Empires that try to resist the rise of Nation States, and also republican, more democratic, more liberal and pluralist, more  oceanic in certain way of speaking. For a law to be just, above all, ‘the person who enacted it needs to have the authority to do so and that he does not go beyond his powers’ (384); now, God is the sole sovereign of consciences, and there is then an essential fault in the powers invested in Sovereigns to enact laws regarding religion*. This does not mean that all constraint is illegitimate: one has just remarked that there is a necessary public order (431‑b) and that the Authorities have a mandate to prevent violence (416‑b). But the prerogatives of the State are only restrictive, against crimes, and do not extend positively to the possibility of the Prince of fixing the mandatory confession for his subjects or yet the legitimate forms of worship. Speaking of religious unification, he writes: ‘as something more to be wished for than hoped for or, indeed, expected, and since the diversity of opinions seems to be an inalienable privilege of Man (...) one must restrict this evil to the smallest degree of disorder possible; and that is, without doubt, by tolerating each other’ (418-b).

Since tolerance exists, it is enough to consider the Ottoman Empire (420)*; and it is not just the lesser of evils for Bayle but, he esteems, a pluri-national, pluri‑linguistic, (etc.) empire, which demonstrates that this same multiplicity ‘shows an even greater grandeur’ (418‑b). The argument, here, is a political one: it is because of intolerance that the different parties clash; if there were tolerance, there would be an honest emulation in terms of good manners and science, and this would be the cause of an infinite number of benefits. Bayle compares tolerance to a concert of many instruments, and to the agreement of opposing feelings (415‑b). And let us not forget that Bayle came from a province where, far from the capital, a more-or-less bi-partite regime was often in place for better or for worse, and one that seemed to maintain itself even under the aegis of a King who kept a close eye on all the parties, just as Henri IV had done. But this measure of praise corresponds well to the pluralism introduced by that secularisation which began, then, to take root in Dutch society.

At all events, numerous texts go in this this same direction. In the prolongation of the article on ‘Milton’ in the Dictionnaire historique et critique, one will find something quite along the lines of the Commentaire philosophique, in which Bayle favours liberty and a pluralist tolerance. The political philosophy of the Commentaire philosophique insists much more on the touchstone that is religious freedom, the rights of an erring conscience, or, at the very least, the right to leave and begin one’s life elsewhere. Nothing is sweeter than freedom, and we know that this concerns a period in which Bayle, who always loved being lodged near to the port, frequented the ‘Lantern Club’ (De Lantaarn) at the house of the Quaker, Benjamin Furly, where all the free spirits of Rotterdam society, heterodox and original*, met. Besides, and as we said earlier, the Commentaire is written under a pseudonym, that of a certain J. Fox, all-too-close to the name of George Fox, the founder of the Quakers for that to be a mere coincidence: it seems to me that we should view this pseudonym in all seriousness, because he was not looking to hoodwink anyone but, rather, to put together a very daring political message for the time — the Quakers, absolutely non-violent and tolerant, are the strong characters in the marine or filibuster utopia, (‘filibuster’, a Dutch word at that, designates literally a ‘freebooter’) we mentioned earlier.

More to the fore, we have here, too, juxtaposed with this idea of a State which is tolerant of plurality in society, the possible utopia of a Church which is truly free, the Church which Bayle, according to Elisabeth Labrousse, disappointed by the dogmatism of the real, historical Churches, looked for in this ideal community, representing as it did for him the Republic of Letters, a Republic open to those who seek, without exclusion. There again, one should note that, just as Bayle himself practiced, the heterodoxies, what Bossuet called, contemptuously, the ‘variations’, are as much the inheritors and as much authorised, (by the initial text), as the orthodoxies. In order to understand a tradition, one should not, then, consider merely the tradition as it is fixed in its orthodoxy, but the entirety of variations it has given rise to.

We are thus faced with a real dilemma, to complete the oscillation in conscience observed above. In his Remark C on the article on ‘Hobbes’, Bayle writes: ‘if you see on the one hand the grand maxims of Liberty, and those beautiful examples of courage by which one has upheld or reconquered it, on the other hand, there are the factions, the acts of sedition, the strange upheavals that troubled and, in the end, ruined this infinite number of little States who showed themselves to be such enemies of tyranny in Ancient Greece. Is it not apparent that this picture should serve as a lesson so able to disabuse all those are frightened by the very idea of Monarchy that they would embrace it? Hobbes believes so, since he published a version of the historian Athens that took this view. But the other side of the coin gives quite another lesson  and one which only goes to strengthen the horror one might have for Monarchy: for, why is it, one asks, that Greeks and the Romans more readily embraced this state of confusion than live under a monarch? Does this not, in fact, stem from the hard life tyrants had subjected them to? And wouldn’t it have to be a very grievous evil, unbearable in kind, entirely deplorable in nature, for one to seek deliverance from it at such a high price?’. There again, more succinctly, Elisabeth Labrousse cites this passage from Nouvelles de la République des Lettres: ‘if you submit the orders of the Prince to the examination of the subjects, you cast the State into the continual danger of civil war. If you give the Prince unlimited powers, you cast before the people the unhappy necessity of never being able to save their goods or lives without becoming criminals’ (Hétérodoxie et rigorisme, 306).

Conclusions: remarks on laicity and secularisation

At the end of this double path, we find ourselves with a variation in the different forms of Churches and States to be placed in correlation with the variation in forms of conscience we have discussed previously. The interest in this double typology lies, first and foremost, in separating, in every respect, the register of Church from that of the State, and that by deploying different methods. The second point of interest is to put into perspective the impossible equation we seem to be faced with: after all, this old question concerning the articulation of the theological and the political, so pregnant with meaning, from Ancient Rome to Mao Tsé Tung, is less open to a definitive solution than to an analysis of the possible perverse effects of each solution.

And, after all, isn’t it what Rousseau proposed in his chapter on civil religion at the end of his Social Contract? And is it not, moreover, the same as was put forward by the adversary of Carl Schmitt, the theologian, Karl Barth, in the complete revolt of the confessional church against the Church of the Reich, in his article ‘The Church and the State: yesterday, today, tomorrow’? Somewhat like the passage in the book by Michaël Walzer Traité sur la tolérance (Paris: Gallimard, 1998), where its various forms and regimes are laid out, as well as the various political manners of organising it, we have, then, in Bayle, a gradient of conscience, shifting from docility to resolute disobedience, to be played off against a gradient of the Church, going from that Church that enunciates unquestionable dogma to the free Republic of letters and ideas, a Church that should position itself before a State which is equally liberal and benevolent, anxious to safeguard order and public safety. On each occasion, it is a question of momentum, of rhythm, and neither one of these figures has the upper hand always.

One must, at one and the same time, strengthen from within the reasonable character of a political institution that organises pluralism without encroaching on other spheres that have their own raisons d’être, and retain the possibility of resisting all claims made in good conscience by such an order (be it Statist or religious) to redeem, make happy or show the way of truth to its subjects, despite themselves. This resistance presupposes the freedom to protest your feelings publicly, and the freedom to leave, to exit, to go and begin again elsewhere.

Might I recall here an image which has often served me, one that came from a reading of Bayle, even if it does not appear in his text? For him, the principle of political unity should no more be founded on the pillars of an official religion. What makes tolerance of solid foundation is precisely the force of different religious convictions: it is the very fact that they are opposed one against the other that makes for the solid and unique vault which is the obligation of civil tolerance. The religious confessions, (in the broadest sense of the term), together and simultaneously renounce the hegemonist claim to being the sole pillar of Truth or of the Just. And that is what constitutes the solidity of pluralism, at once as a psychical and political constitution; it is as if what contributes to the solidity of a vault, the weight, the force, the combined pressure exerted by the plurality of witnesses, of confessions, over a central empty space in which everything has been given up, organising the circle of a community of equidistance.

This  ambiguity in the reading come back with force in the way one conceives, what in the France of today, is called ‘laicity’, for the historical manifestations of this same have been complex and delicate compromises between a republican principle, which prefers to place the word ‘laicity’ to the fore and requires that religion be left behind in the cloakroom, on entering the public arena, something which, all the same, is a somewhat characteristic of French-style laicity, and, on the other side, a democratic principle, which prefers to place the word ‘secularisation’ to the fore and requires that the free play of the socio-cultural processes of privatisation, subjectivisation and the pluralisation of beliefs be given full rein, something which is characteristically Anglo-Saxon. One cannot not go very far in the direction of a veritable institutional laicity, equitably protecting civil rights, and especially those of minorities against the majority, without accepting the liberalism of a minimum degree of democratic secularisation, and without ceasing to make the confession of the majority a sort of ideological apparatus of the State. In default of this, this apparatus may run free of State control, for one can never completely make an instrument of religion with impunity. In the case of the USA, one can observe something inverse to this: the right of conversion is well established, so much so that one has the feeling that it is a society of great religious permissiveness. But tolerance is not all, and one cannot go very far in the direction of a veritable secularisation if one does not establish first the framework for a laical separation that will forestall religious excess from weighing too heavily on the spirit of the laws.

But through all these more or less ill-placed actualities, one should not forget the old question posed by Bayle, which is also that of Calvin, of Hobbes, of Milton and of Rousseau. When the Will of God prevails over the Intelligence of God, and the Biblical God over the God of Reason, the dismantling of a certain Logos leaves place for a form of subject, yes, but also for a State and for a God who appear capricious, uncertain in their way of reigning sovereign. And by virtue of the same movement, everything risks returning to an unformed state, to perpetual war, to darkness. How, then are we to reconstruct a morality, a politics, an ecclesiology, in a situation such as Europe of the time? One has to give up trying to arbitrate over the content, or believing that the end justifies the means, and find a modus vivendi in disorder itself. That was their question. And that remains still a path to be beaten.

Olivier Abel

Notes :

* Pierre Bayle, Commentaire Philosophique sur ces paroles de Jésus-Christ, Contrains-les d’entrer, in Œuvres Diverses, Volume 2 (La Haye-Trévoux: second edition 1737). The page references given without precise mention refer to this edition and the letter indicates the column, ‘a’ or ‘b’. Occasionally, reference shall be made to the edition of J.M.Gros entitled De la tolérance (Paris: Presses Pocket, 1992).

* Nietzsche: ‘what is it, then, that gained victory over the Christian God? The answer is found in my Gay Science: it is Christian morality itself, the notion of truthfulness with an ever-increasing rigour’ - cf. F.Nietzsche, The Genealogy of morals (Paris: Nathan, 1981), p.201, penultimate paragraph of the 3rd dissertation ‘on the ascetic ideal’.

* Dictionnaire Historique et Critique (Hildesheim-New York: Georg Olms Verlag, 1982, volume 2), 1211 (in the ‘Dissertation sur le Projet d’un Dictionnaire Critique’).

* See E.Labrousse, Pierre Bayle, Hétérodoxie et rigorisme (The Hague: M.Nihoff, 1964), 569.

* I borrow this praise of docility from Emerson (‘whoever is more docile than me, governs me, without even raising the little finger’, in Self-confidence (Paris: Rivages-poche, 2000), 109, and from Pasolini: ‘The most loveable people are those who don’t know they have rights. People who , perfectly aware they have rights, are also loveable in that they do not vindicate them or who, quite, simply, renounce them’ Lettres luthériennes, Petit traité pédagogique (Paris: Seuil-Points, 2000), 222.

* Pierre Bayle, Commentaire philosophique, 563. It is, too, the idea that orthodoxy never was the guarantee of  an honest, easy life, and that we need to separate the registers of theoretical conscience from those of practical conscience a theme to be found later in Rousseau and Kant.

* Hubert Bost, Pierre Bayle (Paris: Fayard, 2006), 306.

* ‘Everything done against the dictates of conscience is a sin’ (Commentaire philosophique, 422-b).

*  Cf. 129 of the Presses pocket edition (On tolerance) and see, also, 144 and 151-154.

* This masterful remark comes from the Critique générale de l’histoire au Calvinisme du Maimbourg, and was noticed first by Elisabeth Labrousse, Pierre Bayle, Hétérodoxie et rigorisme, 571.

*  One might ask oneself whether it is not an allusion to the words of Jesus (Luke 14:26, Math. 10:34-37). Or perhaps to the Johannine idea that the truth renders us free (John 8:32).

* It is rewarding to note this here, in a time when one wants to enclose religion within a private space from which even the family can withdraw, for it is precisely the freedom that Louis XIV left the Protestants with, after the Act of Revocation: they could keep their faith within their own bosoms, or hide it in their homes, but they would be obliged all the same to send their children and at their own expense to Catholic colleges and convents.

* Cf Kant, What does it mean to orientate yourself in thought? (Paris: Vrin, 1959), 86.

* One sometimes wonders whether or not the French Jacobin laicism is not itself a fragile compromise, aimed at smother question of the same kind, something useful in a period of transition. At the same time, it is often good that the transitory phase lasts very long because by that it, at times, throws up more stable formulae.

* Elisabeth Labrousse, Pierre Bayle, Hétérodoxie et rigorisme, 545 et seq.

* Suite de la Critique générale, quoted in Elisabeth Labrousse, Pierre Bayle, Hétérodoxie et rigorisme, 478. See also this entire chapter given over to the absolutist theory of royal power.

* The unanimity of subjects itself would not be sufficient to legitimise this claim, for ‘never did men who resigned their freedom into the hands of a Sovereign claim to accord him the rights over their conscience: it would be a contradiction in terms’ (Commentaire philosophique 184 b).

* ‘One can be assured that if the Westerns Christians had dominated Asia instead of the Saracens and the Turks, there would be no trace today of the Greek Church’The Dictionary, article on Mahomet, rem. AA.

* Hubert Bost informs us that it was at the house of Furly that Bayle met Locke, taking refuge at his friend’s in 1687-1688, and Shafetesbury (Pierre Bayle, 176). One imagines that this was a milieu particular distrustful of the Orangist movement and probably of a more republican leaning, like Paets, the friend and protector of Bayle.


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