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Modern Literature–Bayle’s Critical Dictionary
by [?]

Modern literature may, perhaps, still be discriminated from the ancient, by a term it began to be called by at the Reformation, that of “the New Learning.” Without supplanting the ancient, the modern must grow up with it; the farther we advance in society, it will more deeply occupy our interests; and it has already proved what Bacon, casting his philosophical views retrospectively and prospectively, has observed, “that Time is the greatest of innovators.”

When Bayle projected his “Critical Dictionary,” he probably had no idea that he was about effecting a revolution in our libraries, and founding a new province in the dominion of human knowledge; creative genius often is itself the creature of its own age: it is but that reaction of public opinion, which is generally the forerunner of some critical change, or which calls forth some want which sooner or later will be supplied. The predisposition for the various but neglected literature, and the curious but the scattered knowledge of the moderns, which had long been increasing, with the speculative turn of inquiry, prevailed in Europe when Bayle took his pen to give the thing itself a name and an existence. But the great authors of modern Europe were not consecrated beings, like the ancients, and their volumes were not read from the chairs of universities; yet the new interests which had arisen in society, the new modes of human life, the new spread of knowledge, the curiosity after even the little things which concern us, the revelations of secret history, and the state-papers which have sometimes escaped from national archives, the philosophical spirit which was hastening its steps and raising up new systems of thinking; all alike required research and criticism, inquiry and discussion. Bayle had first studied his own age before he gave the public his great work.

“If Bayle,” says Gibbon, “wrote his Dictionary to empty the various collections he had made, without any particular design, he could not have chosen a better plan. It permitted him everything, and obliged him to nothing. By the double freedom of a dictionary and of notes, he could pitch on what articles he pleased, and say what he pleased in those articles.”

Jacta est alea!” exclaimed Bayle, on the publication of his Dictionary, as yet dubious of the extraordinary enterprise; perhaps, while going on with the work, he knew not at times whither he was directing his course; but we must think that in his own mind he counted on something which might have been difficult even for Bayle himself to have developed. The author of the “Critical Dictionary” had produced a voluminous labour, which, to all appearance, could only rank him among compilers and reviewers, for his work is formed of such materials as they might use. He had never studied any science; he confessed that he could never demonstrate the first problem in Euclid, and to his last day ridiculed that sort of evidence called mathematical demonstration. He had but little taste for classical learning, for he quotes the Latin writers curiously, not elegantly; and there is reason to suspect that he had entirely neglected the Greek. Even the erudition of antiquity usually reached him by the ready medium of some German commentator. His multifarious reading was chiefly confined to the writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. With such deficiencies in his literary character, Bayle could not reasonably expect to obtain pre-eminence in any single pursuit. Hitherto his writings had not extricated him from the secondary ranks of literature, where he found a rival at every step; and without his great work, the name of Bayle at this moment had been buried among his controversialists, the rabid Jurieu, the cloudy Jacquelot, and the envious Le Clerc; to these, indeed, he sacrificed too many of his valuable days, and was still answering them at the hour of his death. Such was the cloudy horizon of that bright fame which was to rise over Europe! Bayle, intent on escaping from all beaten tracks, while the very materials he used promised no novelty, for all his knowledge was drawn from old books, opened an eccentric route, where at least he could encounter no parallel; Bayle felt that if he could not stand alone, he would only have been an equal by the side of another. Experience had more than once taught this mortifying lesson; but he was blest with the genius which could stamp an inimitable originality on a folio.