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Pierre Bayle

Pierre Bayle (November 18, 1647 - December 28, 1706) was a French philosopher and writer.

He was born at le Carlale-Comte, near Pamiers (Ariège), and was educated by his father, a Calvinist minister, and at an academy at Puylaurens. He afterwards entered a Jesuit college at Toulouse, and became a Roman Catholic a month later (1669). After seventeen months he returned to Calvinism, and, to avoid persecution, fled to Geneva, where he became acquainted with the teachings of René Descartes. For some years he acted under the name of Bèle as tutor in various Parisian families, but in 1675 he was appointed to the chair of philosophy at the Protestant University of Sedan.

In 1681 the university at Sedan was suppressed, but almost immediately afterwards Bayle was appointed professor of philosophy and history at Rotterdam. Here in 1682 he published his famous Pensées diverses sur la comète de 1680 and his critique of Louis Maimbourg's work on the history of Calvinism. The great reputation achieved by this critique stirred the envy of Bayle's colleague, Pierre Jurieu, who had written a book on the same subject.

In 1684 Bayle began the publication of his Nouvelles de la république des lettres, a kind of journal of literary criticism. In 1690 there appeared a work entitled Avis important aux refugies, which Jurieu attributed to Bayle, whom he attacked with animosity. After a long quarrel Bayle was deprived of his chair in 1693. He was not depressed by this misfortune, especially as he was at the time engaged in the preparation of the Historical and Critical Dictionary (Dictionnaire historique et critique). The remaining years of Bayle's life were devoted to miscellaneous writings, arising in many instances out of criticisms made upon his Dictionary. He died in exile at Rotterdam. In 1906 a statue in his honour was erected at Pamiers, "la reparation d'un long oubli."

Bayle's erudition was considerable. As an original thinker, he is not outstanding, but as a critic he was second to none in his own time, and even now the delicacy and the skill with which he handles his subject are notable. The Nouvelles de la république des lettres (see Louis P Betz, P. Bayle und die Nouvelles de Ia république des lettres, Zürich, 1896) was the first thorough-going attempt to popularize literature, and it was eminently successful. The Dictionary, however, is Bayle's masterpiece.