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Characteristics Of Bayle
by [?]

The taste for literary history we owe to Bayle; and the great interest he communicated to these researches spread in the national tastes of Europe. France has been always the richest in these stores, but our acquisitions have been rapid; and Johnson, who delighted in them, elevated their means and their end, by the ethical philosophy and the spirit of criticism which he awoke. With Bayle, indeed, his minor works were the seed-plots; but his great Dictionary opened the forest.

It is curious, however, to detect the difficulties of early attempts, and the indifferent success which sometimes attends them in their first state. Bayle, to lighten the fatigue of correcting the second edition of his Dictionary, wrote the first volume of “Reponses aux Questions d’un Provincial,” a supposititious correspondence with a country gentleman. It was a work of mere literary curiosity, and of a better description of miscellaneous writing than that of the prevalent fashion of giving thoughts and maxims, and fanciful characters, and idle stories, which had satiated the public taste: however, the book was not well received. He attributes the public caprice to his prodigality of literary anecdotes, and other minutiae literariae, and his frequent quotations! but he defends himself with skill: “It is against the nature of things to pretend that in a work to prove and clear up facts, an author should only make use of his own thoughts, or that he ought to quote very seldom. Those who say that the work does not sufficiently interest the public, are doubtless in the right; but an author cannot interest the public except he discusses moral or political subjects. All others with which men of letters fill their books are useless to the public; and we ought to consider them as only a kind of frothy nourishment in themselves; but which, however, gratify the curiosity of many readers, according to the diversity of their tastes. What is there, for example, less interesting to the public than the Bibliotheque Choisie of Colomies (a small bibliographical work); yet is that work looked on as excellent in its kind. I could mention other works which are read, though containing nothing which interests the public.” Two years after, when he resumed these letters, he changed his plan; he became more argumentative, and more sparing of literary and historical articles. We have now certainly obtained more decided notions of the nature of this species of composition, and treat such investigations with more skill; still they are “caviare to the general.” An accumulation of dry facts, without any exertion of taste or discussion, forms but the barren and obscure diligence of title-hunters. All things which come to the reader without having first passed through the mind, as well as the pen of the writer, will be still open to the fatal objection of insane industry raging with a depraved appetite for trash and cinders; and this is the line of demarcation which will for ever separate a Bayle from a Prosper Marchand, and a Warton from a Ritson; the one must be satisfied to be useful, but the other will not fail to delight. Yet something must be alleged in favour of those who may sometimes indulge researches too minutely; perhaps there is a point beyond which nothing remains but useless curiosity; yet this too may be relative. The pleasure of these pursuits is only tasted by those who are accustomed to them, and whose employments are thus converted into amusements. A man of fine genius, Addison relates, trained up in all the polite studies of antiquity, upon being obliged to search into several rolls and records, at first found this a very dry and irksome employment; yet he assured me, that at last he took an incredible pleasure in it, and preferred it even to the reading of Virgil and Cicero.

As for our Bayle, he exhibits a perfect model of the real literary character. He, with the secret alchymy of human happiness, extracted his tranquillity out of the baser metals, at the cost of his ambition and his fortune. Throughout a voluminous work, he experienced the enjoyment of perpetual acquisition and delight; he obtained glory, and he endured persecution. He died as he had lived, in the same uninterrupted habits of composition; for with his dying hand, and nearly speechless, he sent a fresh proof to the printer!