Reginald James White
The Anti-Philosophers

His favourite technique was to begin with a grave and formal statement of a perfectly rthodox kind, generally brief, and then to proceed to several columns of small print, like the reverse of an insurance policy. These columns are sometimes scandalous or indecent, always argumentative, fulfilling both the 'critical' and the 'historical' pretensions of the work.

Sometimes, however, he will go in for straightfaced absurdity from the beginning, delivering himself of statements that can be read with equal relish by both the sceptical and the devout. ADAM, for instance, is discussed in biographical terms as the first historical man. We are told his physical dimensions, his extensive knowledge, even his place of burial. There are, too, learned disputes about procreation to follow. DAVID, again, is given full historical treatment like any other king, ancient or modern. He comes out of it badly, so that 'the man after God's own heart' serves as a scathing commentary upon the Divine good taste. The irreverence of dealing with the figures of sacred history on precisely the same footing as all others got Bayle into serious trouble, but by it he earned the title of the founder of the Biblical criticism which was to flourish with Voltaire. The Saints came off even worse than the Old Testament rulers. Serious consideration is given to the theory that St Bernard was a dog ('the watch-dog of the Faith') and St Augustine a wine-bibber. Whenever he has the chance to discuss rival faiths he manages to satirise the Christians. The article on 'MANICHEE' is perhaps the most important here. He calls Manicheanism 'an abominable heresy,' though he gives it the victory in important points in its contest with Catholic Christianity. The Roman Church, he contends, should be profoundly grateful that St Augustine changed sides, for with the strength of the Manichean argument and the genius ofSt Augustine to defend it, it must have won an everlasting victory. His ingenious propositions on the intellectual impressiveness of the Manichean argument were held abominable by the Walloon Church, so that he was obliged to take evasive physical action, though he never formally withdrew his opinions. Nothing is so important in the Philosophes' debt to Bayle as his lighthearted irreverence, and his liberation of history from dogmatic control. He achieved for historical writing what Galileo achieved for natural science. History was never again to be respected if it was based on dogmatically 'given' authority of Church, or Bible, or anything else. There was to be no more special treatment for 'sacred' subject matter. He provided a sharp instrument for isolating the kernel of historical truth from the accumulated husk and rind of fable and legend. He set modern standards of historical enquiry.

This is where Bayle's achievement ends; a philosophy of history was quite outside his province, perhaps beyond his powers. But by forging the weapons for the emancipation of historical thinking, and by the ethical standards of his historical science, he made possible the constructive work of the future. What interests him is the process of acquiring fact. Fact with Bayle is not the starting-point but the goal. And his genius lies not in the discovering of the truth but in the discovery of the false. His dictionary was, by his own profession, a dictionary of corrections: to correct the Grand Dictionnaire historiaue of Moreri (1674), a work of Catholic bias and of many errors. Most of all, he had what Oakeshott calls the 'hydroptic thirst' of the Philosophe for knowledge, all knowledge, without discrimination. The Dictionnaire historiaue et critique is an aggregate of details, a heap of ruins, a flood of knowledge, without either inner order or philosophical method. In other words, a quarry, an armoury, a magnificent subject for looting: looting which went on for the hundred years called the Enlightenment.

Another and more disparate source of the material of the Philosophes is the 'clandestine literature' which circulated in France during the first half of the eighteenth century, the period of strict literary censorship. The notion that the despotism of the French monarchy of the ancien regime ever effectively suppressed 'dangerous thoughts' requires a great deal of modification. The celebrated remark of La Bruyere, which he made in 1688, that 'A man born Christian and French finds that he is restricted in satire; the great subjects are forbidden him', is more of a reproach than a statement of fact. Only by paying attention to the amount of clandestine literature of the early eighteenth century is it possible to attain a proper perspective with regard to the great efflux of unorthodox (often materialist) writings which went into print when the censorship was relaxed in the time of Malesherbes at the mid-century mark. To make sense of the later situation it must be understood that the clandestine works which have been traced1 represented only a ninth part of an iceberg. The submerged bulk is hardly likely to be discovered by the very nature of things. Indeed, it is more than possible that the clandestinity of the literature was some measure of its popularity. After all there was no likelihood of the man in the street (or the fields) reading such works even had they been openly obtainable.

Printing could be prevented. Writing could not, nor the circulation of manuscript among friends. What actually happened was a return to the conditions that prevailed before the invention of printing. For a time, the most cultivated society in Europe returned to the Middle Ages. There were circles and syndicates of producers which engaged private copyists, like that of the Comte de Boulainvilliers (1658-1722) or the Duc de Noailles. The 'con-men' for such wares were pedlars, cafe-keepers, colporteurs like Voltaire's little hunchback who carried copies of Jean Meslier's Testament in his mantle in the 1740s. The recipients were noblemen, bishops, abbes, the Philosophes themselves. If a copyist or a distributor were caught he frequently professed only to have translated the material discovered among the effects of a deceased writer. In any case, the accused generally recanted freely before the ecclesiastical authorities with promises to sin no more, promises which were immediately broken. If the Bastille were prescribed, detention was generally brief and conditions were scarcely rigorous. The traffic afforded a number of sporting features calculated to relieve the monotony of life under despotism. Provincial centres of the contraband trade were Rouen, Chalons-sur-Marne, Aix and Fecamp. Single copies have been discovered at Bordeaux and Morlaix, several at Rheims and Auxerre, Rochefort and Vire. Even today. Professor Wade has discovered, there are nearly 400 extant copies of 102 works. Clergy and members of the Parlements provided a good market, and it is difficult to imagine anyone having to go short of any work he was intent on reading. The France of the ancien regime died principally of inefficiency.

And ridicule. As early as 1721 a great roar of laughter went up on the publication ofLettres persanes, a satire on church and state by a nobleman of Gascony, the Baron de la Brede et de Montesquieu. In 160 letters purporting to pass between Persian visitors travelling in Europe, and especially in France, ridicule was openly levelled at just those features of the establishment which Voltaire was concerned to subject to the criticism of contrast in his Lettres anglaises. Between them, these two loosened the crumbling mortar of the old order with the points of a couple of extremely sharp pens.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Through Eden took their solitary way.