Autumn is a good time to sit quietly for a while on the bench at Grotekerkplein, diagonally opposite the statue of Erasmus, preferably on 30 October, the date on which Pierre Bayle arrived as a refugee to settle in Rotterdam. The bench is a tribute to this ‘forgotten hero’ of the Enlightenment.
Bayle, a Protestant, fled France in 1681 to escape the regime of Louis XIV, the Sun King. In the strictly Catholic France of the time, the government was extremely hostile to dissidents. In addition, the king had stated that L’etat c’est moi and therefore took any kind of criticism personally.
Challenges and opportunities
At the invitation of Rotterdam’s municipal authorities, Bayle took up residence at Geldersekade, where he had a fine view of the hustle and bustle in what is now known as the Oude Haven area. It was difficult for Bayle to become accustomed to life in the city. He found Rotterdam to be excessively expensive and was therefore forced to lead a frugal life. He also found it very difficult to become accustomed to Dutch cuisine, the damp and rain and the language. Nevertheless, he courteously continued to state that Rotterdam est une ville belle et florissante. During his entire time in Rotterdam, he never learned to speak Dutch.
It was an era of great material prosperity, at least for a limited group, and Rotterdam also had a rich and vibrant intellectual life. The city, tolerant and governed without dogma, provided an excellent environment for the critical ideas of philosophers. The presence of a large number of foreign thinkers, of whom John Locke was the most famous, gave Rotterdam international fame.
Pierre Bayle became a lecturer at the Illustre School, which provided a new kind of university-level education. He lectured in history (three hours) and philosophy (one hour). He also gave tutorials in philosophy (four hours), all in Latin, the international language of the day. While the work amounted to only eight hours a week, Bayle found it exhausting. The students constantly interrupted his lectures with inappropriate questions. Bayle did not enjoy teaching young people. The students found it difficult that the lessons were given in Latin. Moreover, the lecturer was boring because he always did everything exactly by the book. Nevertheless, the Illustre School owes its fame to this lecturer’s tremendous reputation as a radical thinker.
Pierre Bayle was the prototype of an armchair scholar, quite literally so, since he hardly left his home. He also rarely went to Lantaarn, the place at Scheepmakershaven where freethinkers, publishers and booksellers gathered. John Locke was chairman of this club from 1680 to 1689.
Bayle’s ideal life was one of reading, studying, thinking and writing down his thoughts in the form of letters and articles. He enjoyed doing his work in a manner that we would now refer to as zapping. He described his working method as being the same as that of bees collecting nectar from flowers. He published his thoughts in Nouvelles de la republique de lettres. These ‘novelties’ were circulated throughout Europe and passionately read by people who felt oppressed by the religious and political authorities in their country.
In 1688, Bayle published the first version of Dictionaire Historique et Critique, his masterpiece. The dictionary contained over 2,500 entries, each of which was accompanied by Bayle’s thoughts on the specific subject. Only one article was about a city, and that city was Rotterdam. He was full of praise for the city that showed such appreciation for Erasmus, in honour of whom the city had even erected a statue.
Bayle’s Dictionaire was the foundation for the Encyclopédie, a work edited by Diderot and published in France in the eighteenth century that became internationally famous and gained a substantial following. In addition, the French Encyclopaedia played an important part in the intellectual ferment that led to the French Revolution. Bayle’s dictionary therefore set a great deal in motion.
Reign of terror
In addition to gathering a vast amount of information, Bayle consistently considered that information from many perspectives – on the one hand…, on the other hand – and, step by step, built up a strictly rational approach to the subject being studied. The recurring conclusion was that one should not think dogmatically about any subject whatsoever. One should even accept someone who does not believe in God, since believing is a matter of the heart, not the mind.
Bayle’s criticism of the Bible was strongly condemned by the minister of the Walloon Church in Rotterdam, who Bayle nicknamed the philosopher of Rotterdam. Accused of not being a good Protestant, Bayle countered by asserting that “I protest against everything that is said and done.” It was not possible to be more Protestant than that.
What displeased not only the Rotterdam minister the most was Bayle’s opinion that religion and morality must be completely separated. He answered the question as to whether it was possible to be a good and civilised person without a religion with an unequivocal “Yes”. He argued in favour of a complete separation of church and state and was therefore far ahead of his time. Religion is always totalitarian in nature and people are the victims of this totalitarian nature. Bayle spoke from experience. In addition to having had to flee his country of birth, he had lost a brother to the Catholic reign of terror in France.
Bayle’s writings were initially well received by the administrators and merchants in Rotterdam. They valued their open-minded tolerance as inspired by Erasmus. The situation changed rapidly, however, and in 1693 Bayle was dismissed as a lecturer for introducing young people to “dangerous sentiments”. It was the start of a beautiful time for Bayle. He was able to fully dedicate himself to completing his Dictionaire, a work that is now seen as the first major document to embody Enlightenment values: intellectual tolerance, critical with respect to authority, separation of religion and morality and, above all, modesty in one’s opinions. Western societies are still proud of these values.
Bayle gradually disappears from view. He probably would not have used the bench in the square, though, seated with the back to the church and a view of Erasmus, but he would have appreciated the location.
Sitting on the bench, one thing occupies my mind, namely the comment I once heard that Rotterdam’s Pietje Bell, the main character in a series of children’s books written by Chris van Abkoude, got his name from Pierre Bayle, undoubtedly pronounced by natives of Rotterdam as Pierre (Pēr‑ruh rather than Pē‑air) Beil.
Although I have not found any evidence regarding the truth or otherwise of the comment, I can imagine that when creating his Pietje, Van Abkoude may not have been thinking only about his mischievous father. He may also have been thinking about the radical freethinker Pierre Bayle, described by Voltaire as a “genius in undermining conventional ideas”.
A co-operation between Erasmus Magazine and Vers Beton
In 2016 Rotterdam celebrates the 550th birth date of the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus. In this series, Vers Beton explores the meaning of Erasmus’ thinking for the city of Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Vers Beton is a journal for people in Rotterdam who like to reflect on their city.
This series has been made possible by a financial contribution by the city of Rotterdam.