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Characteristics Of Bayle
by [?]

The only complaint which escaped from Bayle was the want of books; an evil particularly felt during his writing the “Critical Dictionary;” a work which should have been composed not distant from the shelves of a public library. Men of classical attainments, who are studying about twenty authors, and chiefly for their style, can form no conception of the state of famine to which an “helluo librorum” is too often reduced in the new sort of study which Bayle founded. Taste when once obtained may be said to be no acquiring faculty, and must remain stationary; but knowledge is of perpetual growth, and has infinite demands. Taste, like an artificial canal, winds through a beautiful country; but its borders are confined, and its term is limited. Knowledge navigates the ocean, and is perpetually on voyages of discovery. Bayle often grieves over the scarcity, or the want of books, by which he was compelled to leave many things uncertain, or to take them at second-hand; but he lived to discover that trusting to the reports of others was too often suffering the blind to lead the blind. It was this circumstance which induced Bayle to declare, that some works cannot be written in the country, and that the metropolis only can supply the wants of the literary man. Plutarch has made a similar confession; and the elder Pliny, who had not so many volumes to turn over as a modern, was sensible to the want of books, for he acknowledges that there was no book so bad by which we might not profit.

Bayle’s peculiar vein of research and skill in discussion first appeared in his “Pensees sur la Comete.” In December, 1680, a comet had appeared, and the public yet trembled at a portentous meteor, which they still imagined was connected with some forthcoming and terrible event! Persons as curious as they were terrified teased Bayle by their inquiries, but resisted all his arguments. They found many things more than arguments in his amusing volumes: “I am not one of the authors by profession,” says Bayle, in giving an account of the method he meant to pursue, “who follow a series of views; who first project their subject, then divide it into books and chapters, and who only choose to work on the ideas they have planned. I for my part give up all claims to authorship, and shall chain myself to no such servitude. I cannot meditate with much regularity on one subject; I am too fond of change. I often wander from the subject, and jump into places of which it might be difficult to guess the way out; so that I shall make a learned doctor who looks for method quite impatient with me.” The work is indeed full of curiosities and anecdotes, with many critical ones concerning history. At first it found an easy entrance into France, as a simple account of comets; but when it was discovered that Bayle’s comet had a number of fiery tales concerning the French and the Austrians, it soon became as terrific as the comet itself, and was prohibited!

Bayle’s “Critique generale de l’Histoire du Calvinisme par le Pere Maimbourg,” had more pleasantry than bitterness, except to the palate of the vindictive Father, who was of too hot a constitution to relish the delicacy of our author’s wit. Maimbourg stirred up all the intrigues he could rouse to get the Critique burnt by the hangman at Paris. The lieutenant of the police, De la Reynie, who was among the many who did not dislike to see the Father corrected by Bayle, delayed this execution from time to time, till there came a final order. This lieutenant of the police was a shrewd fellow, and wishing to put an odium on the bigoted Maimbourg, allowed the irascible Father to write the proclamation himself with all the violence of an enraged author. It is a curious specimen of one who evidently wished to burn his brother with his book. In this curious proclamation, which has been preserved as a literary curiosity, Bayle’s “Critique” is declared to be defamatory and calumnious, abounding with seditious forgeries, pernicious to all good subjects, and therefore is condemned to be torn to pieces, and burnt at the Place de Greve. All printers and booksellers are forbidden to print, or to sell, or disperse the said abominable book, under pain of death; and all other persons, of what quality or condition soever, are to undergo the penalty of exemplary punishment. De la Reynie must have smiled on submissively receiving this effusion from our enraged author; and to punish Maimbourg in the only way he could contrive, and to do at the same time the greatest kindness to Bayle, whom he admired, he dispersed three thousand copies of this proclamation to be posted up through Paris; the alarm and the curiosity were simultaneous; but the latter prevailed. Every book collector hastened to procure a copy so terrifically denounced, and at the same time so amusing. The author of the “Livres condamnes au Feu” might have inserted this anecdote in his collection. It may be worth adding, that Maimbourg always affected to say that he had never read Bayle’s work, but he afterwards confessed to Menage, that he could not help valuing a book of such curiosity. Jurieu was so jealous of its success, that Beauval attributes his personal hatred of Bayle to our young philosopher overshadowing that veteran.