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

This originality seems to have been obtained in this manner. The exhausted topics of classical literature he resigned as a province not adapted to an ambitious genius; sciences he rarely touched on, and hardly ever without betraying superficial knowledge, and involving himself in absurdity: but in the history of men, in penetrating the motives of their conduct, in clearing up obscure circumstances, in detecting the strong and the weak parts of him whom he was trying, and in the cross-examination of the numerous witnesses he summoned, he assumed at once the judge and the advocate! Books are for him pictures of men’s inventions, and the histories of their thoughts; any book, whatever be its quality, must be considered as an experiment of the human mind.

In controversies, in which he was so ambidextrous–in the progress of the human mind, in which he was so philosophical–furnished, too, by his hoarding curiosity with an immense accumulation, of details,–skilful in the art of detecting falsehoods amidst truths, and weighing probability against uncertainty–holding together the chain of argument from its first principles to its remotest consequence–Bayle stands among those masters of the human intellect who taught us to think, and also to unthink! All, indeed, is a collection of researches and of reasonings: he had the art of melting down his curious quotations with his own subtile ideas. He collects everything; if truths, they enter into his history; if fictions, into discussions; he places the secret by the side of the public story; opinion is balanced against opinion: if his arguments grow tedious, a lucky anecdote or an enlivening tale relieves the folio page; and knowing the infirmity of our nature, he picks up trivial things to amuse us, while he is grasping the most abstract and ponderous. Human nature in her shifting scenery, and the human mind in its eccentric directions, open on his view; so that an unknown person, or a worthless book, are equally objects for his speculation with the most eminent–they alike curiously instruct. Such were the materials, and such the genius of the man, whose folios, which seem destined for the retired few, lie open on our parlour tables. The men of genius of his age studied them for instruction, the men of the world for their amusement. Amidst the mass of facts which he has collected, and the enlarged views of human nature which his philosophical spirit has combined with his researches, Bayle may be called the Shakspeare of dictionary makers; a sort of chimerical being, whose existence was not imagined to be possible before the time of Bayle.

But his errors are voluminous as his genius! and what do apologies avail? Apologies only account for the evil which they cannot alter!

Bayle is reproached for carrying his speculations too far into the wilds of scepticism–he wrote in distempered times; he was witnessing the dragonades and the revocations of the Romish church; and he lived amidst the Reformed, or the French prophets, as we called them when they came over to us, and in whom Sir Isaac Newton more than half believed. These testify that they had heard angels singing in the air, while our philosopher was convinced that he was living among men for whom no angel would sing! Bayle had left persecutors to fly to fanatics, both equally appealing to the Gospel, but alike untouched by its blessedness! His impurities were a taste inherited from his favourite old writers, whose naivete seemed to sport with the grossness which it touched, and neither in France nor at home had the age then attained to our moral delicacy: Bayle himself was a man without passions! His trivial matters were an author’s compliance with his bookseller’s taste, which is always that of the public. His scepticism is said to have thrown everything into disorder. Is it a more positive evil to doubt than to dogmatise? Even Aristotle often pauses with a qualified perhaps, and the egotist Cicero with a modest it seems to me. Bayle’s scepticism has been useful in history, and has often shown how facts universally believed are doubtful, and sometimes must be false. Bayle, it is said, is perpetually contradicting himself; but a sceptic must doubt his doubts; he places the antidote close to the poison, and lays the sheath by the sword. Bayle has himself described one of those self-tormenting and many-headed sceptics by a very noble figure, “He was a hydra who was perpetually tearing himself.”

The time has now come when Bayle may instruct without danger. We have passed the ordeals he had to go through; we must now consider him as the historian of our thoughts as well as of our actions; he dispenses the literary stores of the moderns, in that vast repository of their wisdom and their follies, which, by its originality of design, has made him an author common to all Europe. Nowhere shall we find a rival for Bayle! and hardly even an imitator! He compared himself, for his power of raising up, or dispelling objections and doubts, to “the cloud-compelling Jove.” The great Leibnitz, who was himself a lover of his varia eruditio, applied a line of Virgil to Bayle, characterising his luminous and elevated genius:–

Sub pedibusque videt nubes et sidera Daphnis.
Beneath his feet he views the clouds and stars!