Who was Pierre Bayle, the Huguenot philosopher whose Dictionnaire historique et critique influenced Leibniz, Hume, Kierkegaard, and Melville? Was he, as some of his critics called him, “un dangereux ennemi de la Religion” [“a dangerous enemy of religion”] (177), or was he, as others suspect, an absolute fideist? And if this enigma cannot exactly be unraveled, can it at least be illuminated? These are the questions at the heart of Jean-Pierre Jossua’s Pierre Bayle ou l’obsession du mal, questions he approaches through the lens of Bayle’s writings on the theological problem of evil.
After introducing the problem of evil, Jossua traces the intersection of this question with Bayle’s own life. Bayle’s early correspondence contains several references to the tender care of divine providence, a confidence that seemed to disintegrate after his father and two brothers died within a two-year span. In a letter to his brother Jacob about royal opposition to Protestantism, Bayle wrote: “Dieu est assez puissant pour nous sauver si nous nous mettons bien avec lui par une sainte vie” [“God is powerful enough to save us if we side with him through a holy life”] (45). But Jacob, a Protestant pastor and Bayle’s favorite brother, was later imprisoned on account of Bayle’s Critique générale, and he died before Bayle’s friends at court could secure his release. Bayle never invoked Providence in quite the same way after Jacob’s death, and Jossua posits that while perhaps no radical evolution in Bayle’s beliefs had occurred, “le coeur n’y est plus” [“the heart was gone”] (48).
Jossua turns then to Bayle’s more scholarly writings, and while he admits that this exploration cannot solve the Bayle enigma, his study does bring to light several strains of “Baylian” argumentation. Jossua explores Bayle’s insistence that the objections reason raises against faith are in fact insoluble and his equal insistence that the tenets of faith must be accepted nonetheless. Several chapters are devoted to Bayle’s zeal for problematizing theodicies that attempt to explain but inevitably oversimplify or evade the perpetual mystery of evil. His apparent sympathy for dualist philosophies that attribute all evil to another being or force would seem to subvert Christian theology if not for his repeated claims that revelation definitively dispels those philosophies. Again and again, Jossua shows that Bayle’s most impassioned salvos run contrary to the orthodox beliefs he claims to hold. The fideism that allows Bayle to claim Christian theology while exposing its many inconsistencies is a defining trait of Bayle’s writing for Jossua: “C’est donc par un recours au caractère ineffable des desseins divins que s’achève la démarche baylienne. Notons-le bien, cette conclusion apophatique – qui n’a pas ici un caractère mystique, selon toute apparence, mais représente le corrélat d’un fidéisme absolu . . . ” [“It is thus by recourse to the ineffable character of divine purpose that Bayle’s approach draws to a close. Note it well, this apophatic conclusion—which does not have here a mystical character, apparently, but is the correlate of an absolute fideism . . .”] (157).
In the end, Jossua resolves to leave open the question of Bayle’s personal convictions and the sincerity of his beliefs, and so the Bayle enigma remains with us today—not unlike the questions he spent his life raising about the nature of God and the nature of evil.